“You gotta walk and chew bubble gum at the same time. Russian intervention into an American election is of some significance.”
Three days ago, The Hill published the story Dems Push Leaders to Talk Less About Russia triggering a spate of stories in The New York Post, Breitbart, and Fox News claiming that Democrats were seriously divided. It wouldn’t be the first time the right wing seized on left wing criticism to damage the Democratic Party, but there was enough commentary to warrant some discussion. The Washington Post followed up on the Hill’s story focusing on Glenn Greenwald and writers from Jacobin, Counterpunch, and the Young Turks—who, in spite of the Right’s contention, are not exactly representative of the Democratic Party. The question is, is the Democratic Party divided?
Had I not had some spirited discussions with BMG’s James Conway on the apparent conflict between the Russia scandal and the Democrats’ domestic agenda, I might have answer this question in the affirmative. James, who is half my age, is part of the next generation, the generation that supports Congressman Tim Ryan’s insurgency against Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. The generation that enthusiastically supported Bernie Sanders. Regardless of his generation, James had little difficulty reconcile the Trump Russia Scandal with a focus on domestic issues. More importantly, he impressed on me the fact that Democrats can’t win without telling voters, who are, after all, concerned about their declining quality of life, what we are going to do to help them. In spite of The Hill’s article and the right wing distortion chamber, James and I are both walk and chew gum at the same time.
Domestic issues are important, but so is national security. Democrats must address both, not one or the other, unlike the Republicans who have neglected both. One way to tie these issues together is a clear, simple narrative: Democrats want to improve people’s lives through government; the GOP, nationally, at least, seeks to further enrich the wealthy by weakening government and lowering taxes. To accomplish this goal, the GOP diverts attention from concrete policies that improve the average person’s life.
What’s missing from the Democrats’ current talk about the GOP wealthcare bills is this narrative, without which Democrats gain no rhetorical ground. We may win the battle on Obamacare, but we gain little ground in the war of self-definition. Neither party will win every battle, but over time we can improve our fighting position. That’s what the Republicans have accomplished in the last 50 years. Present the contrasts between President Obama and the Democrats transparent and democratic work to enact the Affordable Care Act and the Republicans opaque process directed at eliminating benefits that the vast majority of Americans want to keep. That’s the difference between us and them: we improve peoples lives; they are willing to effect the deaths of thousands of people, so they can cut taxes for the rich. The GOP is now trying to figure out a way to convince the American public that their best interest is in being unable to afford health care.
Government isn’t perfect, particularly when one party is intent on making sure it doesn’t work, but when we don’t reinforce our messages as part of a larger narrative, we fail our mission and the voters that depend on us. The best part of our narrative is that we can demonstrate it by telling the truth. As an example, here’s an economic message tested by Democracy Corps:
We need to make our economy work for everyone, not just the rich and well-connected. Too many CEOs move jobs overseas and use lobbyists to win the day. Democrats have a plan to rewrite the rules of the economy that limits the role of big money in politics. The wealthy must pay their fair share of taxes. And it provides affordable childcare, equal pay for women, making college affordable, and large infrastructure investments to create jobs. But if we want to get these things done, we need a Democratic majority in Congress.
This is what we believe. It may take time, but we care about these things. We are working for them wherever the GOP doesn’t interfere.
The key to Democratic success is not switching issues. It’s creating a narrative that ties the issues together. The overall narrative is simple: Democrats try to improve people’s lives through government; Republicans try to weaken government on behalf of the wealthy. The current healthcare battle is the starkest example of this narrative.
The Trump Russia Scandal reflects this narrative. The problem with it is at least three-fold: 1) it is extremely complicated, 2) people don’t know why they should care about it, and 3) much of the evidence is classified and not accessible by the the public. People understand war because it’s easy to (over)simplify. The enemy is clear and defined. The damage, at least to our troops, is clear. Average people don’t understand why entertaining Russian diplomat/spymaster Sergey Kislyak and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in the Oval Office would be a security issue or a propaganda bonanza or why the Trump campaign’s (alleged) collusion with the Russians reduce Americans’ influence on their government. Democrats need a message on the Trump Russia Scandal (not to mention the scandal’s need for a name), but it also can and should be tied to the overarching Democratic narrative.
Developing a message on the scandal needs more than a blog post by a teacher on summer vacation, but I think the Trump Russia Scandal can be simplified by characterizing it as political corruption, bribery, and influence peddling. The public evidence is circumstantial and extremely compelling. It’s just not possible for Democrats to accuse Trump of crimes with circumstantial evidence; it’s hard enough for the courts to do so. It is easy enough for Democrats to start talking about the crimes that he and his coterie may have committed. The average person can understand the charge that the President and his political campaign bought electorally useful information and favors from the Russians in exchange for lifting sanctions on Russia. The average person can also understand the accusation that Trump sold his presidential influence on sanctions for consideration on loans from banks known for Russian money-laundering.
People can understand the Trump Russia Scandal, if Democrats start connecting events to underlying crimes. From there, it’s not hard to argue that Trump’s self-interest is not the same as the American people, or that the GOP, which has aided and abetted Trump every step of the way, care more about their agenda than governing or protecting America.
Democrats can walk and chew gum at the same time. I’m offering a strategy here, not a script. There are more ways that the Trump Russia scandal can reinforce the Democratic domestic agenda, the key is tying everything together with a simple, credible narrative that can help voters understand political events.