Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Winning Matters

From time to time I have a chance to engage in passionate debate with a few of my progressive friends and, as is usually the case, I tend to be the odd man out in the discussion.  It’s not that I’m any less a progressive than they are; it’s just that I tend to see things a bit differently.

For instance, I am not an idealist.  I wish the world were a better place to live in; I wish that negative attack ads could be eliminated from politics and that we could have an intelligent debate on the issues.  Of course I’m also a Mets’ fan, so I’ve learned a thing or two about unfulfilled wishes.  My motto has always been, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”  It isn’t very lofty, but it’s imminently practical.

One of the things that irks me to no end is how most progressives tend to view the electorate.  They see voters as intelligent enough to parse through complicated issues and arrive at the only rational conclusion possible.  That very notion is arrogant and foolhardy, not to mention self-defeating.  The simple truth is that there has never been any evidence that the majority of the population is capable of even a rudimentary understanding of the issues.  If there were, The News Hour on PBS would be the most watched news program on television.  The fact is that more people watch Celebrity Apprentice than MSNBC, CNN and Fox News combined.  Even allowing for the bias of Fox, that revelation alone should scare the pants off you.

Want proof of the country’s growing intellectual atrophy?  Just mention Glass-Steagall or Citizens United to the average person out in the street and then watch the deer-in-a-headlight look you get.  The two most important issues of our time, which are almost single-handedly responsible for shaping the country we now live in, are virtually unknown to the overwhelming majority of the population.  Frightening!

The reality is that most people, sadly, could care less about the day-to-day issues, much less wrap their heads around them.  Which isn’t to say they don’t have an opinion on them.  Ask anybody you meet what he or she thinks about taxes and government spending and the likely response will be that both should be significantly lower.  But ask that same person how you cut both and balance the budget and the response will be eerily similar to Ralph Kramden apologizing to Alice.  Having an opinion is one thing, having an informed opinion is quite another.

Of course the Left, for the most part, rejects this notion.  To them it’s about educating voters on the issues.  Like leading a horse to water.  Only problem is that they never let the horse drink; they insist on explaining the value of the water until the horse loses interest in it altogether. By contrast, the Right practically pours the water down the horse’s throat before he can decide if he’s even thirsty.  The moral of the story is never leave anything to chance.

I have watched in amazement how the Right and Left frame issues and the staggering reality is that when it comes to painting a narrative, the Right is like Picasso; the Left looks like that guy who used to have his own show where he taught people how to paint.  He knew his stuff but about ten minutes in you wanted to throw something at the TV.

Casey Stengel once asked of the 1962 Mets, “Can’t anybody here play this game?”  Judging by their record that year (40 – 120) the answer was an obvious “no.”  Well, to paraphrase that lovable but beleaguered manager, “Can’t anybody on the Left successfully market a succinct and easily discernible message to voters?”

Because whether or not they want to hear it, marketing in politics, like sales, is what counts.  The truth is you have to break everything down into the simplest terms and lead your target audience where you want them to go.  To quote an old colleague of mine in sales, “People don’t buy features, they buy benefits.”

The Left, rather than look at how horrible its messaging has been over the years, has chosen to focus on things that are beyond its immediate control.  Citizens United has tilted the playing field significantly over to the Right; the main-stream media has not done a good enough job asking probative questions and unmasking the falsehoods of the Right.  Granted, both realities are deeply disturbing and portend a dire long-term fate if not corrected.

But, as they say in Manhattan, that and a subway token will get you a ride on the 7th Avenue Express.  Expecting justice from a Supreme Court that long ago stopped caring about or dispensing it or waiting for the return of Edward R. Murrow from the grave isn’t going to save the day.  The simple truth is that every single major issue is winnable for the Left, even under the current conditions it now faces. 

Think about it.  The economy, the environment, taxes, equal rights, healthcare, energy, education, it all comes down to framing the argument.  The reason that the Right has been so successful over the last few years isn’t that their positions are better, it’s because they have done a much better job at marketing their vision and reinforcing it.

Why is this so?  Because the Right employs a very simple technique, commonly referred to as KISS: Keep It Simple Stupid.  Catch phrases and one line – sometimes one word – statements are the rule of the day.  The words are carefully chosen so as to maximize their provocativeness (see, death panels, socialist takeover, Obamacare, death tax, un-American, terrorist sympathizer, liberty, freedom, class warfare, etc…).  People like Frank Luntz have revolutionized how American politics is played out.  Whether you approve of his methods or not, he has been incredibly successful.

By comparison, the Left often turns a sentence into a novel.  It has all the pizazz of watching ice melt.  And even when it has the chance to nail an issue, it ends up fumbling the ball at the goal line.  The healthcare debate fiasco is a case study in how not to fight a political battle.  While the Right managed to demonize a plan that was once championed by the Heritage Foundation, the Left and the overwhelming majority of Democrats – including the President – ostensibly ignored the warning signs until it was too late.  The arrogance of presuming that voters would be able to figure out the truth was the real culprit here.

The sad truth is that all too often the Left is too high-minded to roll around in the same mud as its opponents.  Its reluctance to engage in “gutter” politics and its preference for “the high road” has been met with staggering defeats, both electorally and culturally.

The 2010 midterms did not have to be the blood bath that they were.  While the economy was bad and losses in the House and Senate were inevitable, the Left could’ve mitigated the damage had it understood the scope and breadth of what it was they were up against it.

Even now, in spite of all the evidence, some on the Left still don’t want to wake up and smell the caffeine.  They insist the key to victory lies in thoughtful, deliberate persuasion rather than employing a more direct and succinct closing technique, and hold firm in their belief in the inestimable ability of the electorate to piece everything together, like that has ever happened before.

Some have gone in the other direction and adopted the thinking that maybe the best thing for the country would be to let the Republicans take the Senate and White House and thoroughly destroy the economy, like they damn-near did the last time they ran the show.  Maybe then America would come to its senses, figure out just how misguided it was and elect responsible officials to run the country.   Again the presumption here is astounding given the current climate and what’s at stake.  That any supposed sane person would wish it is beyond belief.

Fortunately, President Obama has departed the good ship highbrow and decided to borrow a page or two out of his opponent’s playbook.  In a bold strategy that would make Karl Rove proud, Obama is hitting Mitt Romney with everything including the kitchen sink.  The formula is quite simple.  First attack his strength, define him before he can define himself, and then hit him where he's vulnerable.  This was the same strategy George Bush used against John Kerry and it proved rather effective.

Apparently, after futzing around for nearly three years trying to appeal to the lesser angels of the political landscape, Obama has figured out that if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.  And, like Harry Truman discovered, better late than never.  It’s been quite amusing to see a Republican have his clocked cleaned by a Democrat employing a Republican tact.  And while it’s still too early to predict success, the role reversal has been quite refreshing.

Vince Lombardi was once quoted as saying “winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”  Al Davis would implore his players to “just win baby.”  Winning matters; it always has.  Those who survive are the only ones worth surviving.  Okay so I ripped off that last sentence from the movie Fail Safe. Sue me.  The point is that history remembers the winners.  How many Super Bowl losers can you name?

There aren’t going to be any silver bullets or gifts of manna from heaven.  It is up to the Left and the Democratic Party to do the best with what they’ve been given.  To lose just because of some high-minded, holier-than-thou attitude or, worse, some misbegotten attempt to teach a country a lesson would be catastrophic and reprehensible, especially given that things might well be worse by 2016.

As they say in professional sports, the future is now.

1 comment:

Mysterious man from the Shadows said...

"How many Super Bowl losers can you name?" Lots. But I'm a Bills fan, and so have developed something of a fascination with SB losers.

More seriously, yes, I think it's great to see what the Democrats are doing. inning this election is crucial; however, it's important not to sacrifice principles to win an election. Bill Clinton did a lot of capitulation to the "laissez-faire" economics proponents to win, and I think it was a bad thing for the country.

I think Obama is better than Clinton, though, and for the most part, I like his campaign. Although actually, it's fairly easy, because he's mostly just allowing Mitt to self-destruct.