Ned Lamont and “Message Clarity”: A Winning Formula for the Democrats?

A few months ago, I complained about “Lieberman-hatred,” and my bafflement at the virulent rhetoric being aimed at a good man; but I have to admit his critics identified a personality flaw in the Connecticut senator. To paraphrase Peter Beinert: Because Bin Laden and Hussein are clearly worse than George W. Bush, Joe Lieberman believed anyone who criticized the president’s conduct of the war was helping Bin Laden and Hussein. So it was Joe Lieberman’s duty to boost Bush, despite disagreements, despite party differences, despite everything. 

To Lieberman, this was simply patriotic.  To his critics, Lieberman’s stance was craven; moreover, it implicity downgraded the patriotism of his fellow Democratic Party members.

ned-lamont.jpgIt is probably this perception, more than his position on the war itself, that cost Lieberman the support of his state’s Democrats, and swung the primary election to Ned Lamont.  After all, Lieberman was just one of many Democratic senators and House members who had voted for the war, and have so far declined to demand an immediate pull-out –which many Democrats agree would be irresponsible. 

To the left, Lieberman became a symbol of Democratic capitulation to Bush/Cheney in the years after 9/11 because he seemed so proud of his pro-war position, and even prouder, specifically, that he was supporting this president.  That was not so wise, politically. Any Democrat who fails to speak ill of George W. Bush in 2006 is suspect in the eyes of most Democratic activists. This colorful post, from Americablog.com’s John Aravosis expresses this feeling:

So, if the media and their GOP handlers are correct that bloggers are to the far-left of the Democratic party, and we all opposed Joe Lieberman because we supposedly hate conservative Democrats who support the war on terror, then why is it that we really like Harry Reid (a pro-life, white guy, who supports the flag burning amendment), but we aren’t shedding a lot of tears over last night’s defeat of Cynthia McKinney (a black woman and flaming liberal who was highly critical of George Bush)?And why is it that other Democrats who were supporters of the war in Iraq, and have significant progressive constituencies, and who are up for re-election this year, aren’t facing serious criticism from us, and aren’t facing serious primary challengers?

If we’re all flaming liberals who hate anyone who supported the war in Iraq, then why is Lieberman the only guy we’re upset with?

Or maybe: the Republicans are lying; the media, as usual, fell for their lies hook, line and sinker; and Joe Lieberman lost because he was George Bush’s love child and the American people have had it with this administration; their incompetence; and anyone who blindly enables it.

It’s not just bloggers, by the way. The “netroots” are just a new name for a species of zealous activist that has been around a long time. I’ve been a Democrat all my voting life, and I don’t recall a time when it was ever “okay” with self-identified Democrats to say they agreed with a Republican president about anything until he was safely out of office and preferably dead.

When Democrats start saying things like “We need to be pro-jobs,” or “We’re too weak on defense,” or “We need to be tougher on crime,” that’s normal Democratic angst.  But Democrats who said out loud that Nixon, Reagan or Bush 41 were better on a core issue generally were getting ready to leave the party (except Democrats trying to hold onto a Democratic seat in a very Republican district.)  It is no different in the era of Bush 43.  Democrats don’t agree on everything, but they are united in their eloquent hatred of Republicans in power.

While observing that, I still saw some of the netroot celebrants going down a disturbing and probably self-defeating path. My DD on the “many benefits of Ned Lamont’s victory” was typical of many and more articulate than most:

With Ned Lamont’s victory, we will now see far fewer Democrats in Washington and elsewhere take the easy path to media stardom that the corporate media had provided for Democrats since the mid-1980’s: talk about liberals and/or Democrats in the same way Republicans talk about liberals and/or Democrats. No one will want to be the next Joe Lieberman, and as such this victory will change Democratic behavior. This will now make it much more difficult for Republicans to close Daou’s triangle on a variety of issues, as they quickly will find a shortage of elected Democrats willing to use anti-Democratic Republican talking points. Thus, the more partisan messaging will make it far more difficult for conservatives and Republicans to dominate the conventional wisdom narratives of our national political discourse. This will also mean fewer “Democrats divided” narratives in the media, and help us slowly begin building toward greater message clarity. Today we already have seen how Lamont’s victory this defeat freed up Senator Dodd on Iraq and Emmanuel on Bush. This is just the beginning.

joe-lieberman.jpgDaou’s Triangle, by the way, refers to this diagram by Peter Daou, which is supposed to show how bloggers (by which he means activists) and the regular party establishment can work in concert to get the “corporate media” to repeat their messages and influence the public.  According to this meme, the Republican triangle works flawlessly — in part because apostates like Lieberman lend more credibility to their messages — but the Democratic triangle is “broken.” 

But the question is:  In service of a PR objective (“fewer ‘Democrats divided’ narratives,” “greater message clarity”), should Democrats who take different positions be run out of the party?  This is what he seems to be saying. It’s a peculiar stance for a Democrat, one that seems out of step with the historical nature of the party. 

There is no specific Democratic position on a large assortment of issues, except for disdain for Bush.  How do you decide which of the many Democratic positions on Iraq and the Islamist threat–not to mention Social Security, health care, education, gay marriage, the environment, gun control, etc. etc.–should be purged for the sake of “message clarity?”  “I don’t belong to an organized party; I’m a Democrat,” Will Rogers’ famous remark, was uttered just as the party entered its period of greatest dominance.

Is it so different today?  Must the nature of what it means to be a Democrat really become so narrow in order for the party to succeed?

“Message clarity” is not a virtue unto itself.  It is a PR technique, and generally a defensive one. Straying from the “key messages” is usually seen as dangerous for a CEO or corporate spokesperson dealing with a crisis, or anticipating criticism.  It is not a confident stance, nor is it a way to foster the kind of creativity that — in my opinion — the Democratic party really needs more than anything right now. 

Obeying, I guess, the iron law of Daou’s Triangle, the left- and right-wing bloggers are now furiously, frantically spinning to claim not who “won” yesterday’s vote — clearly, that was the left — but which party gains.  Republicans say Republicans, because the election proves that left-wing wackos have taken their party down the McGovernite road. Democrats say Democrats because the election reflects dwindling support for the Iraq war that is the most prominent Republican policy.

My take is that the Lamont victory gives the Democrats an opportunity, but only an opportunity.  They’ve got the public’s attention.  They’ve done something novel, tossing out a respected party veteran — no matter what else you might think about him, Joe Lieberman is no hack — who was their VP candidate six years ago. They have, I think, captured the zeitgeist of a public that is weary of the war and wondering whether Bush has a clue what to do next. 

When you’ve got the microphone, however, you better have something to say.  “Message clarity” won’t be good enough if the message fails to persuade or enlighten the troubled American public.      

3 thoughts on “Ned Lamont and “Message Clarity”: A Winning Formula for the Democrats?

  1. Unless Lieberman decides to drop out, this race is going to get ugly for the Democrats, cf Joe’s attack today on Lamont. However, I guess Lamont is immune to such criticisms because his position on Iraq is clear, the debate in Connecticut is over and he won. So, Lieberman’s “soft on terror” punches simply won’t connect. Voters have already registered on this issue. Time to move on to cleaning up the environment or who can bring the most federal jobs to the state.

    I wonder if, on that same point though, whether the Democrats are “fighting the last war,” so to speak, in putting forth peace candidates. Hasn’t everybody pretty much made up their minds about the Iraq war? If Lamont has some crystal ball that can tell us what exactly would happen in that region if we withdrew our troops, do tell. Common sense would say the result would be total disaster and a massive bruise on the forehead of the United States government. If Lamont has such an awesome understanding of that region to know why such “conventional wisdom” is wrong, it would be welcome. Otherwise, the “peace approach” seems anachronistic at best. This ain’t Vietnam.

  2. I suppose that’s what makes “generals fighting the last war” such a familiar cliche. No matter how many times you say to someone, “you’re like a general fighting the last war,” they continue to act like a general fighting the last war.

    Perhaps it is impossible for anyone to interpret the present-day on its own terms. The present is unknown to us. The past we have the illusion of understanding.

  3. …implicity downgraded the patriotism of his fellow Democratic Party members

    See, if it had been only implicitly it would have been one thing. But every time you turned around, there was Joe on Fox or CNN or somewhere flatly saying he disagreed with his Democratic colleagues, and that he was right and they were wrong. Joe still believes in bipartisanship. He hasn’t recognized that since 1994 the old Republican party he could cross aisles to work with is gone. These days, bipartisanship means capitulation (see Gang of 14 and resultant elevation of Alito to SCOTUS).

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