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Is There a Spin Doctor in the House?
October 5, 2002
By Scott Donnelly

The 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 overcome.

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 as content.

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.

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