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Formula for a Democratic Miracle

December 14, 2004
By Ron Bilancia

I recently saw the movie Miracle, about the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team's stunning defeat of the then-Soviet national team (which I remember very well as a thirteen-year-old eighth grader). I think that this larger-than-life event in sports history provides some answers to many of the questions surrounding what the Democratic Party must do to again become the majority national party.

1. GET THE RIGHT HEAD COACH

Herb Brooks had been an outstanding amateur hockey player and a winning coach of three national collegiate titles. Most importantly, he was clear and confident in what he knew he had to do, and he was willing to think outside the box and change. The Soviets had won the gold for several Olympics running, and the Americans were being beaten into oblivion year after year. The Russians were even beating the U.S. professional all-star teams.

Something had to finally give. Brooks told his Olympic hiring committee point blank that they could win only if they were willing to dramatically change. His ideas were fresh, bold, creative, and visionary. He became a student of his opponents' methods, and he set out to beat them at their own game. It worked. He was a great leader and the right person at the right time.

Like that Russian hockey team, the Republicans are now dominating our national political "game." We have been beaten in seven of the last ten Presidential elections. They control every branch of the federal government, and they occupy a solid majority of Governor's mansions. This has been no accident. Their "coaches," led by Karl Rove, have served them brilliantly. They are creative, incredibly savvy, and unshakably focused on one thing: winning.

We saw this kind of "coaching" during Clinton's campaigns, but we have not seen anything like it in the last two Presidential cycles nor in any of the mid-term cycles since 1994. This year Mary Beth Cahill, Bob Shrum, and Terry McAuliffe were no match for Karl Rove. The DNC will soon hire a new "coach." If we are going to have a chance to win again, we need someone who is just as strategically competent, focused, creative, bold, willing to think anew, and as willing to fight as Karl Rove. I recommend someone from outside the Beltway who is hungry, has fire in his/her belly, and is much more in tune to what is happening in grassroots America.

2. FOCUS

A key reason John Kerry lost was that he waited until about the last month to focus. He won the debates, but it was too little too late. Had his message and strategy been clearer and consistent from the start he may well have been on his way to the White House today.

In 1980, Coach Brooks and his players focused like a laser on one overarching goal: to do what it took to beat the Russians. The Republicans are just as focused in both their message and strategy. In this last election, their message was concise, clear, and unwavering: "We will keep you safe, keep your taxes low, and protect traditional values." Their attack message was equally clear: "John Kerry is a liberal flip-flopper who can not be trusted with national defense, your tax dollars, nor our sacred values."

Kerry took way to long to respond to the attack message, and he didn't have a focused counter-message. Nor was the party as a whole clear in its message and strategy, hence further losses in Congress. The Republicans target specific races (i.e. Tom Daschle), and they are incredibly disciplined. As Coach Brooks said in the film, "The Russians win because they 'know' they are going to win." So it is with the Republicans.

The Democrats need to be of one mind with a clear overarching goal: to beat the Republicans and regain majority status. To do this we must have equal message and strategic clarity. In 1992 it was "It's the economy stupid!" and it worked. We need to again re-frame and re-focus the message and strategy, go on the offensive, and target specific Republican offices.

3. UNITE

The Soviet hockey team was successful for decades because unlike the Americans they did not rely on individual talent. They played together extremely well. Coach Brooks had 20 young men from various college teams. A number of players were former rivals. Coach Brooks insisted that they virtually return to the basics and re-learn the game as a new "family" of players totally committed to each other, the team as a whole, and their overarching goal.

The Republicans are extraordinarily united. Sure they have their ideological ripples, but a Republican would crawl through a blizzard to vote the party line. There are very few family feuds. Rudy Guiliani and John McCain have many differences with George Bush, yet they rallied around the common theme of national security and traveled the country supporting his campaign.

We, on the other hand, insist upon large family rifts. We seem to think that the liberals and moderates just have to keep fighting. As Coach Brooks so emphatically said, "WE MUST MUST START BECOMING A TEAM RIGHT NOW!"

The Democratic Party can not and will not become the national majority again unless the coalition unites powerfully, once and for all, around the goal of beating the Republicans on every front. We must, once and for all, rally around the ideals and principles that unite us instead of bickering over those that divide us.

Make no mistake. The Republicans seek to divide us even further to remain a permanent majority. We cannot let this happen. We Democrats have always been about helping ordinary Americans who work hard and play by the rules to achieve extraordinary lives. That, for one, is a message on which liberals and moderates can gel. We must come firmly together around bold goals of great national purpose on which we can again capture the national imagination.

4. GET CREATIVE

The Russian hockey team was very creative in their style of play. They worked like a well-oiled machine with a strong dose of psychological intimidation. Coach Brooks saw this and trained his players to counter with new and creative tactics.

The Republicans were willing to learn grassroots campaigning tactics from the Democrats and have built a very powerful grassroots organization backed by a conservative movement. Last summer the GOP rolled mobile field offices on 18-wheelers onto county fairgrounds to register voters and spread their message. They set up precinct captains and leaders in neighborhoods, churches, and other grassroots organizations. They have a powerful media network behind them, and they campaign in an ongoing way, not just during election seasons. These and other creative tactics power their electoral success.

We have started to build a new bottom-up movement, but we need to solidify it and expand it into permanency. This means making new inroads into radio, TV, online, and published media, working to reform our electoral process, coordinating the many Democratic-leaning organizations in united purposes and principles, building upon real grassroots organizing and fundraising, and, again, re-framing and re-focusing the message so that we can compete everywhere in this country. We have to put just as much energy into persuasion and expanding the map as we do into getting out the vote, and we need to do things that will actually surprise the heck out of the Republicans.

5. OUTWORK THE OPPONENT

For years no team was able to keep up with the Soviets because they were in such incredible physical shape. Coach Brooks saw that none of the other needed elements would matter unless his team was, first and foremost, the most conditioned team in the world. In fact, he told his players that even if they didn't beat the Russians, they would darn well be better conditioned. They worked their hearts out, and they skated with the Soviets in a way that no one had seen in years.

The Republicans are highly motivated, very well disciplined, and work very hard all year round, year in and year out, on beating Democrats. During his first term, George Bush visited battleground states like Pennsylvania, Florida, and Ohio many times. The man was campaigning.

Democrats must work just as hard all the time. We do work very hard in our campaign cycles. We put in as much or more time on the ground. But we have to do this constantly, all the year round. Nothing will ever trump good old fashioned hard work, and the next campaign must begin today.

6. MAKE IT ABOUT SOMETHING BIGGER

The 1980 Olympic Hockey tournament was, for the team and country, much more than just a sports event. It was about a renewal of national pride and unity at a time when we were lost in a kind of national doldrums. The Republicans have positioned themselves as the party of "low taxes, ownership, and national security." This is their theme.

When Democrats have a clear theme of great national purpose, we win. For me it is about how to help ordinary hard-working folks achieve the American dream and how to help the nation and the world become more secure and unified. We must clearly articulate big, bold, themes, goals, and principles again. The nation needs to know exactly what we stand for.

7. WE MUST GO ON THE OFFENSIVE AND STAY THERE

Finally, and most importantly, Democrats can not and will not win again unless we once and for all understand that we can't win a defensive game. Coach Brooks said it simply and clearly: "You don't beat the Soviets by defending them. You attack them!" They did, and the Soviets were taken by utter surprise.

The Republicans have no problem targeting and attacking us. We'd darn well better start targeting and attacking them. This doesn't mean we should be unethical, but it does mean that we must go on the offensive and stay there. We need to re-frame the debate and make them defend their record. We need to go after them with the attitude that we are going to put them back on their heels and, as Coach Brooks said, "shut them down!"

We have done this before, and we need to start doing it again. Rank-and-file grassroots Democrats must realize that the Republicans know how to get power, and they know how to keep it. We need to get fire into our bellies, get out there, and fight for the working families of this country.

When you think about it, the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey victory wasn't really a miracle at all. It happened because the team had the right coach who did the right things at the right time. He was bold, clear in his mind, highly motivated, and willing to change. Our party stands at such a crossroads, and we need to change right now. Electoral politics is by nature a very competitive "sport," and we must start winning again. Coach Brooks told his players that he was sick and tired of hearing about how great the Soviets were and that this time was their time; that this time, they were the greatest hockey team in the world.

I am sick and tired of losing, and I am sick and tired of hearing about how formidable the Republicans are. To hell with 'em! If we get the right leadership, focus clearly on message and strategy, unite our people behind common principles, expand upon new and creative tactics, outwork the opposition all the time, articulate a great national purpose, and go on the offensive and stay there, we Democrats will again have our time.

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