Dick Polman of the Philadelphia Inquirer thinks the Democrats should go for the visceral to win.
Consider this hypothetical:
A Democratic president is forced to take action after terrorists attack New York and Washington. It’s clear that the terrorists’ sponsors are based in Pakistan and Afghanistan. But within 18 months, this Democrat decides to invade a country that had nothing to do with the attack. In the next four years, he spends half a trillion dollars, sucking America deeper into a quagmire, stretching the military to the breaking point – while in Pakistan, the culprits remain free. Indeed, U.S. intelligence officials warn that the evildoer group in Pakistan has “regenerated key elements of its Homeland attack capability.”
Imagine it’s the eve of a national election. Any question how the GOP would respond?
They’d run TV ads mocking the Democrats as the party that has made America weaker. Their talking heads on Fox News would lament about how the Democrats are wrecking our proud military, can’t be trusted to run a war, can’t even choose the right war to fight. They’d crank out podcasts about how the party of George McGovern is wasting our precious blood and treasure while our true enemies plot to kill our kids in their suburban beds.
In short, the Republicans would craft a visceral message that aims for the gut and engages the emotions. Over the last 40 years, that has been the GOP’s metier.
These days, however, the Republicans are stuck in neutral, because it’s their own guy who has fought the wrong war and emboldened our enemies. Which gives the Democrats a rare opportunity to lash out at GOP national security failures, to aim for the gut and engage the emotions.
But that is not what Democrats do.
They are cerebral by nature. They dislike emotional appeals. They fear that if they get too pugnacious, some voters might get mad. But as clinical psychologist and political consultant Drew Westen argues in his new book The Political Brain, this fear of gut-level combat is a big reason the Democratic Party keeps losing national elections.
The ’08 election will hinge on whether the Democrats, long saddled with a wimp image, can convince swing voters that Democratic candidates are better-qualified to fight our lethal enemies. This is a gut-level issue. Yet, quite predictably, Democrats have failed during the last two weeks to take full rhetorical advantage of the warnings, attributed to the intelligence community, about a “regenerated” al-Qaeda.
The latest National Intelligence Estimate (the consensus document of 16 spy agencies, released last Tuesday) concludes that al-Qaeda has reestablished its headquarters in Pakistan, reconstituted its top leadership, and has endeavored “to recruit and indoctrinate operatives, including for Homeland attacks” by taking advantage of Muslim anger at the U.S. occupation in Iraq, and by linking itself to the Iraqi offshoot of al-Qaeda – which didn’t even exist before the occupation.
One of the NIE summaries was titled “Al-Qaeda better positioned to strike the West.” And 11 days ago, a counterterrorism official familiar with the NIE document told the Associated Press that al-Qaeda is “considerably operationally stronger than a year ago” and has “regrouped to an extent not seen since 2001.”
Yet, in response, Democrats have barely registered a pulse. None of the ’08 candidates, or national party leaders, or the congressional leaders, have gone for the gut GOP-style, with something like this:
Grainy slow-motion footage of Osama bin Laden and activity at his training camps. Cue ominous music.
“Six years after Sept. 11, this man still roams free – thanks to George W. Bush and his Republican allies. They promised they would be tough. They promised to protect us here at home. But instead they took their eye off the ball, spending $2 billion a week in a futile war half a world away from our real enemy, imperiling our brave servicemen and women, and emboldening those who would come here to kill us. America can no longer afford the party of weakness. Vote Democratic, as if your life depended on it.”
Hyperbolic, yes – but right in sync with what Bush said last Nov. 6, on the eve of the congressional elections: “As you go to the polls, remember, we’re at war. And if you want this country to do everything in its power to protect you and, at the same time, lay the foundation of peace for generations to come, vote Republican.”
Westen, whose book is subtitled The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, would surely approve my hypothetical message. Westen is reportedly the flavor of the month in Democratic circles, at least among activists who don’t mind being doused with cold water. This guy actually studies the brain as a scientist; he says that its emotional properties are “millions of years older” than its reasoning properties. Therefore, he argues, the Democrats should stop thinking they can win simply by appealing to the intellect. It’s not only bad politics, it’s bad neurology.
He writes: “The political brain is an emotional brain. It is not a dispassionate calculating machine…. Republicans have a keen eye for markets, and they have a near-monopoly in the marketplace of emotions. They have kept the government off our backs, tore down the wall, saved the flag, left no children behind, protected life, kept our marriages sacred, restored integrity to the Oval Office, spread democracy to the Middle East, and fought an unrelenting war on terror. The Democrats, by contrast, have continued to place their stock in the marketplace of ideas. And in so doing, they have been trading the wrong futures.”
Victory goes to those who fight, even if they sometimes fight dirty. As Westen points out, Republicans make hyperbolic arguments, with few worries about offending voters, because, on balance, “voters prefer candidates who are clear on what they believe, even if it is not what [the voters] believe.” (Witness Newt Gingrich, a notorious bomb-thrower while serving in the House minority; he wound up building a movement.)
Westen says the Democrats need not even fear alienating voters; with the political wind at their backs in 2008, he says, they are well-positioned to craft a visceral tough-on-terror message “by using Republicans’ words and idioms against them.”
Can the Democrats aim for the gut? We’ll see. They might bear in mind what Adlai Stevenson said in 1956. The Democratic candidate was leaving a rally when a woman told him, “Every thinking person will be voting for you.” He replied: “Madame, that is not enough. I need a majority.”
It’s ironic that the GOP has made a career out of sneering at the Democrats for being bleeding hearts: for crying over every sick child, hugging every tree, standing up for every spotted owl; letting our emotions guide our politics, yet when the GOP is desperate to win, they’re the ones that go for the emotions — namely the fear factor.
There’s no doubt that if the Democrats truly wanted to get hyperbolic and use the techniques the GOP has used to scare the bejesus out of the voters, they could do it. And there are certainly some elements and voices in the progressive community that would gladly lend a hand; the blogosphere comes to mind. But that’s the easy part. The thing that has brought the Republicans to wrack and to ruin hasn’t been just their arrogance in power and their incompetence in office; it’s been their failure to live up to the very message they conveyed when they darkly predicted that if the Democrats are elected, the terrorists will win.
In other words, it isn’t enough to campaign by appealing to the emotions. That may work once or twice, but when you prove that you’re all cackle and no eggs — or in Mr. Bush’s case, all hat, no cattle — the voters catch on. Unfortunately for the Democrats, the catch is that you have to win the election in the first place.
Cross-posted from Bark Bark Woof Woof.