Formula for a Democratic Miracle
December 14, 2004
By Ron Bilancia
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.
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.
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
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
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.