Communicating a national political message from Congress is like the mythological Sisyphus rolling a rock up the hill — heavy lifting, tons of frustration and the strong likelihood that the whole enterprise could come crashing down. Just ask congressional Democrats; they’ve been at it with gritted teeth for years. Democrats confront two big obstacles on their way up the hillside — crafting popular policies and figuring out who is in charge of developing them. Both challenges, however, get less attention than the Democrats’ obsession with finding the right words. Some party leaders believe new rhetoric can cart them to electoral victory; others think words alone put the cart before the horse.
Ironically, supporting John Roberts for the Supreme Court and at least appearing fair and not shrill in their questioning might do more to advance their standing with voters than any new catchy slogans. Is one confirmation worth a thousand words? Some Democratic leaders believe a new narrative can salve what ails the party, and they have turned to University of California-Berkeley linguist George Lakoff to write it. According to a recent New York Times Magazine piece by Matt Bai, Mr. Lakoff serves as an informal advisor to congressional Democrats, attending retreats and helping them shape a new offensive in the war of words. Mr. Lakoff argues, “Republicans are skilled at using loaded language, along with constant repetition, to play into the frames in our unconscious minds.” Republicans’ use of “tax relief” is a favorite Lakoff example. These words, according to the linguist, fit “into a familiar frame of persecution, and when such a phrase, repeated over time enters the everyday lexicon, it biases the debate in favor of conservatives.”
Democrats want their own idiom. Last fall they rolled out the “New Partnership for America’s Future” — a weak attempt to bottle the lightning House Republicans produced in the Contract with America. The Democrats’ “partnership” didn’t get much traction then; now they are trying something new. Fiddling with new language while their electoral prospects burn is not a new endeavor for the party. “Democrats are message-obsessed,” a Republican communications consultant told me. “Last election they were supposed to have their version of the Contract with America, now they are spinning a new narrative. But it’s all just words at this point,” he said.
So far the message advice has done little but possibly win some party leaders a bit part in the sequel to the Robert DeNiro movie “Anger Management.” It is “important for us to take down their numbers … to take down their numbers on credibility,” House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said at a meeting with reporters on July 14.
Her recent statements drew a quick and unusually pointed rebuke from House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who called the Democratic leaders’ agenda “a cynical playbook of partisan politics.” And while many rank-in-file Democrats continue to vote with Republicans, the party has few identifiable positions on the major issues of the day to compete with the GOP’s agenda. Words are important in politics, but they also have limits. After talking to Mr. Lakoff, Mrs. Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and others, Mr. Bai suggests Democrats seem insecure backing their rhetoric with policies, “either because they don’t know what those convictions are or because they lack the confidence in the notion that voters can be persuaded to embrace them. The right words can frame an argument, but they will never stand in its place.” (House Democrats unveiled a retirement-savings initiative on Tuesday, a sign they understand the need for proposals of their own).
But the ultimate challenge for the party is not only defining these new policies but figuring out who’s going to champion them. Howard Dean and Mrs. Pelosi are among the contenders. But so are MoveOn.org and other leftist organizations. Yet tasking the best minds from Vermont and San Francisco — or liberal special-interest groups — to attract moderate voters is like directing the Politburo to sell state-controlled assets through an initial public offering.
That’s why the Roberts nomination provides Democrats a unique opportunity to advance the communications battle. If the nominee’s judicial temperament proves the worst fears of administration opponents unfounded, maybe Senate Democrats will not yield to their nastiest interest-group partners. By standing up to these liberal groups, Democrats could show voters a deeper character and vision rather than just angry words. Who knows? Maybe they could roll the Sisyphus communications stone a long way up the hill — and keep it there for a while.