There a Spin Doctor in the House?
October 5, 2002
By Scott Donnelly
Democrats have a serious marketing problem. The Republicans
are winning hearts and minds in the media and it doesn’t seem
to matter that we’re right and they’re wrong. On MSNBC and
CNN, the most absurd conservative nonsense is given increasing
credibility. There are stories about cutting trees for the
environment and the oxymoronic merits of abstinence-only sex
education, while almost no one is asking why Bush didn’t bother
to intervene during the California energy crisis. Could it
be because it was his oil friends who gang raped the state?
Instead the Republicans are permitted to cloud the issue,
claiming that Gray Davis is to blame for the fundamental flaws
of deregulation and the crimes of our benevolent oil industry.
The Right has commandeered the public debate and mastered
the art of diversion. By hiding behind erroneous half-truths
and lines like, “That’s just playing politics,” in the face
of incontrovertible facts they have fabricated a powerful
image despite their feeble core. And now they have the war.
But this was happening pre 9/11. Remember, almost half of
America chose the megalomaniacal dolt we call our president.
These are some of the same people who gave Bill Clinton such
high approval ratings. Part of the blame belongs with these
swing voters, whose lack of political understanding is matched
only by their ability to judge a candidate’s sincerity based
on his haircut, suit color or resemblance to their Uncle Wally.
As frustrating as this is, it is an obstacle that must be
The Democrats are right about taxes, the environment, defense,
corporate governance, social security and the Republicans
are wrong on just about everything, often in ways that go
beyond the ideological and into the nefarious. But the burden
of proof lay on the Dems. Sure, the surplus is now a deficit,
those pesky environmental laws have been rolled back and the
economy is lower than Bush’s GPA, but his ratings are still
high. Ardently point out the truth and expect to be painted
as a whiny liberal agitator out to thwart a patriotic, well
meaning Republican administration. No one seems to like a
tattle-tale, even when they are right.
The public has an aversion to vituperative attacks regardless
of whether they are justified or not. Buzz words and catch
phrases often win more hearts than logical arguments. Just
look who’s in office. When Al Gore verbally pistol whipped
G.W in the televised debates, Bush was able to regurgitate
the platitudes fed to him by his handlers just long enough
to win over the clueless while Gore scared off others by getting
hot under the collar about petty details like how to run the
country. Sure, Al was right, but proving it lost him the election.
The Democratic party needs a media makeover. People buy the
shameless lies of the right because they tell them well. The
contingent of half-informed voters who choose their candidates
for superficial reasons are not voting based on the merits
of sound policy. They’re voting on who feels better. That’s
the harsh reality that put Bush in office. Whoever is going
to take on Bush in ’04 needs to be as much a creator of optimism
as a destroyer of falsehoods. The party that paints the prettier
picture, makes people feel more secure and raises the spirit
of the country will be the winner. Of course, we need hatchet
men like James Carville to dialectically break the kneecaps
of Republican goons, but the winner isn’t going to be the
party that’s right. It will be the party that appears right.
Image will be everything. We already have the substance and
it’s not enough.
Which is why, in my humble opinion, Al and Hillary are not
the right people for the job. The residue of the Republican
scum-chucking scandal in ‘98 still sticks, jeopardizing their
own and the party’s credibility. There are other equally qualified
candidates who could provide a fresher, more invigorating
personality for the campaign. The Lewinsky scandal backfired
on the Right because of the public’s aforementioned distaste
for vindictiveness, but the key Republican figures of that
soap opera, Gingrich and Ken Starr, are gone from the public
eye. The Democrats are still leading off with Al and Hillary,
and in ’04, more than ever, form is going to be as important
The reality is that Bush chanted his “uniter not a divider”
lie enough times and people bought it, electing one of the
most divisive president's in living memory, while Al Gore
stood beside him speaking the truth. In our imperfect world
it's as much the method of delivery as the message itself.
If they want to save the country from being run into the ground,
the Democrats need to adjust to that reality in '04. It’s
going to take a newer, sharper, more powerful media identity
to take down the Republican lie machine. And that means creating
the right catch phrases, dropping those buzzwords and most
importantly, finding the right candidate – overall, creating
a new “brand” that wins people’s hearts so that the facts
can get to their minds. Not accepting that reality will mean
defeat and the continued degradation of our country, which
is not an option.