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The "West Wing" Scenario

"West Wing" watchers will recognize in the theme of this article(a) a mirror image of one played out on that program one or two seasons ago.

Of course, in the West Wing version, the incumbent President eventually breaks away from the cautious approach of his "handlers" and goes on to win the election.   Is it impossible to believe that the current incumbent could do the same?

I wonder if John Kerry thinks he can win by proving, again, (as in the primaries) that he is "Presidential"?  And if he and his team are prepared to stand up against a Bush campaign that suddenly, surprisingly, turns into a policy driven - a specifically and aggressively policy driven - campaign?

If the Republicans still believe they are the smartest people in the room - never mind their nominee's verbal gaffes - they may continue to pound on Kerry's war record and the Democrats' supposed weakness on Defense/Terror in the TV ads that get most of the national media attention, while focusing their local and regional campaign efforts on traditional Republican economic proposals - "a pro-growth, pro-entrepreneur, pro-small-business economic agenda that is good for America."(1)

Such language is as meaningful as "healthy forests initiative" and "clean air act" coming from these peoples mouths - lies, all lies - but the language is powerful, and the Kerry team has shown no ability to produce equally powerful language to counter it. 

The Democrats' campaign strategists appear to believe that if Kerry continues to present himself well, as "Presidential" and a strong leader against terror, then economic and domestic policy issues can be managed by references to traditional issues - such as health care and the - decidedly non traditional - budget deficit.   The language used to present these issues is program specific and descriptive, not value driven.  When the language does address values, it is to question the values represented by Republican policies.  That is unfortunately ineffective as a way to secure support from voters, however valid the questioning may be.

To win this election the Kerry campaign must be prepared to get off the dime on domestic policy, even while fighting a rear guard action against Republican sniping on the Defense/Terrorism question.   It is still the economy, stupid!  The message must go far beyond the recitation of truths about how ugly and bad the effects of Shrubby policy have been - even such telling factoids as the $9,000 per job loss in income between jobs lost and jobs made under Bush won't suffice.  

The Democrats' message must be stated in familiar terms, easily recognized, and strongly identified with voters core values.  Barak Obama seems to know how to do this.  John Kerry, and even John Edwards do not appear to have the gift.  This goes beyond the common understanding of the need to counter the "reframing" of issues by the right noted by George Lakoff, and taught by him at the Rockridge Institute

The economic health, vitality, even viability of rural and small town America, of suburbs and cities away from major financial centers and oil capitals, are at risk.  Democratic policies and language must address this fact directly, and in positive language - not leave it to the voter to infer that the specific policy proposals the Senators advocate are motivated by or even respond to it.  

As George Lakoff has put it:
". . . progressives have been hampered by a focus on specific issues, rather than the overall moral and ethical perspective that justifies specific policy choices. Consequently, progressives have been unable to communicate how each issue fits into a coherent set of values, so they have lost the fight for a language that resonates with the American public."

Susan Bales' calls for "reframing" of the terms of political discourse, and for "controlling the sound bite" through original and compelling statements.  While originality may be a necessary, it is not a sufficient virtue.  The use of familiar and very recognizable concepts and words may be more effective.  The use of new vocabularies will always be trumped by familiar words and concepts with high emotional content. 

In fact the change in political language that is needed goes well beyond the usual understanding of "reframing" as discussed in Lakoff's and Bales' work,  to the very structure of the sentences and paragraphs we use.  Good sound bites are short, concrete, sentences, made up of active images and emotionally charged words.  That emotional charge both reassures and stimulates the sympathy of the audience by hooking into their deepest, unconsciously felt attitudes.   The changes in communications style and content which this fact demands extends beyond the management of television sound bites and must go into every word and phrase of the speeches and writing we use to secure the support of our fellow citizens. 

Where there is a well founded intellectual basis for a moral position, the intellectual basis does not need to be reiterated, nor the moral position justified.  It can be simply, directly, and powerfully stated.  If it is disputed, then it can be defended, and the argument for it made with appropriate nuance and detail.  In the absence of such a clear statement of position based on core attitudes about a thing, addressing detail and nuance does worse than confuse the audience, it leaves an impression of a lack of coherence, integrity, and vision. 

Progressives, liberals, and Democrats are part of a tradition which has taught us to value objectivity, lucidity, and reason as the wellspring of individual liberty and a humane, tolerant and pluralistic social order.  We too often underestimate the power of the emotion behind protofascist neo-Platonism and neo-Medieval religiosity driving the Right's savage attacks on freedom, justice, and equality.  

Our tradition leads us to overemphasize rationality and reasoned argument in politics and the management of public affairs.  But we are foolish and ill informed if we do not recall the strong moral and intellectual basis for our political agenda, and our long history of effective political communication - consider Tom Paine and Samuel Adams, Francis Bacon and JS Mill, Condorcet and Voltaire.  These are the sources on which Lincoln, and the two Roosevelts drew.  They provided the example that drove Harry S. Truman to fight for our nation with passion and persuasion in 1948, and win.

The power of simple, value driven language to describe Senator Kerry's  reasons for wanting to be President, and the values which  motivate him and his policies cannot be overestimated.  In opposing Bush, whose handlers are masters at this game, it must not be overlooked.  We are the beneficiaries of over four centuries of a liberal tradition which provides bedrock support, at a subliminal and instinctual level, for the values driving the Democratic candidates' campaign.  Failure to call on that tradition, those values, in fighting to win against a Rightist, premillenial dispensationalist, and anti-enlightenment cabal who would void it - who have taken direct action and used covert language to attack it - is more than strategically foolish.  It is a betrayal of our common heritage of Enlightenment civilization itself.

J Pivonka, August 10-14, 2004

(1) In fact, the specific policy actions advocated by the Bush administration are a disaster for growth, for entrepeneurs, and for small business, and a terrible thing for America.   They are very good indeed for Walmart, for US oil companies, for anti-democratic oligarchies in developing countries, and for the extremely wealthy in the US.   But they are about as good for the US people as "No Child Left Behind" is for US students.  If you want the details, ask, and you will receive.  Or look <here>.


Economy, Politics Collide for Bush Team
Challenge Is to Respond Without an Air of Panic

By Jonathan Weisman and Mike Allen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, August 7, 2004; Page A01