Winning in 2004

By Steve Kirsch  (650) 279-1008
Version 48 / January 10, 2002

Democrats need to set out clear goals and lay out the strategies for achieving those goals. That requires leadership in bringing Democrats together, being bold, taking risks, demanding unity and being strong in challenging the President and Republicans. Democrats also need to be optimistic about America's future, rather than simply dour about the Republicans. We need to provide hope like Clinton, Reagan, and Kennedy did. That's what Americans respond to.

As a major supporter of the Democrats in 2000 and 2002, I was very sorely disappointed in the elections and, along with other significant supporters of the Democratic party, have engaged in some serious thinking about what it takes to get us back on the winning path. This document contains information on why a dramatic shift is necessary and how it can be achieved.

Unless the Democrats start acting as a team (such as uniformly opposing Bush when he is wrong), we will have no chance of winning in 2004. The sooner Democrats make a change from the "business as usual" approach (allowing party fragmentation and supporting the President even when he's wrong) to a more team oriented approach that builds party credibility and equity, the better our chances of winning in 2004.

The core concepts are simple. To win in 2004, we must have:

  • Shared long-term goals. Democrats must align behind a core set of specific and measurable long-term common goals. Today, we have not one single shared long term goal in any key area of importance to Americans (e.g., education, national security, taxes, etc). Ten long-term goals (one in each key area) would suffice. It would be our own version of "Contract with America," but the set of 10 long-term goals should be developed in a more collaborative process than what the Republicans used. There must also be viable and realistic strategies to achieve each goals or they will not be real. See A process for winning in 2004 for details. To achieve the "echo effect"  we need, you must be consistent over time. That is why stable long-term goals (that don't change every 4 years) are critical.
  • Party discipline and commitment. We need real commitment behind the goals. Democrats must start talking and voting as a unified party on all key core Democratic goals (and issues denoted by the leadership as key). There must be party discipline and consequences if you are a member of the team and decide to vote against the team (just as the Republicans do). Today, we allow party diversity without any consequence. We have fragmentation because we permit it. They had fragmentation before Gingrich. It is like we are a bunch of independent football players each with our own game plan on each play and we are playing a football game against the New England Patriots who play as a team and are even introduced as a team. Why should we be surprised when we lose every point? Enforcing party discipline will mean some Members may choose to switch to the Republican party. We must not be afraid to let them go.
  • Stop believing we can't do it. We are our own worst enemy because we believe our own bullshit. I've heard too many Senators tell me about how the Democratic party is so diverse that shared goals are not possible. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy... it's only true because people believe it is true. But consider the ramifications "if" it were true. For example, if it were true, then what does the party stand for? The answer is nothing because we can agree on nothing. I can guarantee you that a party that promises and commits to nothing won't win any elections. There must be shared goals and the leadership needs to make decisions and get commitment. Those who want to leave the party have a choice: (a) support the leadership, (b) become an independent and get nothing done, or (c) join the Republicans where they will be forced to support their goals. We need a Democratic version of the "Contract with America." The Republican did it. We can too.
  • Effective message packaging and "echo effect" delivery. We can then "package" those core serious goals into something marketable, catchy, and something that both energizes our base and reaches out to disaffected voters. Unity and commitment allows us to create an echo effect so that our message is heard. Without that, we lose every vote and the public will continue not to hear any Democratic messages. We also need 2-3 strong leaders to stand up and constantly and consistently send a very strong message for the party. Finally, and most importantly, we will be able to deliver only one key message to the voters in 2004 that they will remember. We must define that one key message and then determine the best time to start delivering it....over and over again as well as align all our sub-messages (and critiques of Republican policies) to support it. Can you remember the single core message of Gore's campaign in 2000? I can't and I was his biggest supporter. Let's not repeat this mistake. Also, Members should find out what the official party position is on issues before they talk with the press. They don't have to agree with the position, but they should at least understand and be able to articulate it. 
  • Leadership that pays close attention to messaging. I spoke with one of the key members of the Democratic leadership in Congress about the Democratic response to Bush's January 2003 State of the Union speech. This is a wonderful opportunity to get our message out to millions of Americans who are wondering what happened to the Democratic party. I asked what the key messages that will delivered are. I was told that there was nothing in was all informal input. He could not articulate to me what the message was going to be. If a top leader of the Democratic party in Congress doesn't know what the key messages we are delivering are, then how is the public supposed to figure it out? How will we ever echo effect if there is nothing to echo? To beat Bush in 2004, there needs to be thinking done now so that there is a specific deliberate strategy to reinforce key messages over time. Each major event like the rebuttal is an opportunity to move the ball ahead on laying the groundwork for Bush's defeat as we execute the strategic plan.
  • A unified party that is not afraid to oppose Bush when he's wrong. Democrats must start opposing the President when he is wrong as E.J. Dionne Jr pointed out in his excellent article "Democratic Catastrophe" referenced below. To do otherwise, builds up the President and reduces our credibility. Not a single Senate Democrat who voted against the Bush 2001 tax cut was defeated. Tom Harkin openly campaigned on his opposition to the unfairness of that tax cut - and, facing his toughest opponent, won by his biggest margin ever.
  • A party that offers specific goals and proven strategies for attainment of those goals, rather than rhetoric. For example, in Bush's proposed economic recovery plan, the Democratic response was "his plan helps the rich. Here's our plan: do x, y, and z." That's a really weak response because (1) we should have pointed out that he had no specific goals (such as "create X jobs by date Y")  (2) by not pointing that out, we lost an opportunity to again emphasize that he is a poor leader; that real leaders set goals and meet them and Bush just articulates problems and solutions and never is held accountable (by the Democrats or anyone else) to explain how exactly he can justify that his strategies meet any of his (non-existent) goals, (3) we attacked his plan with a correct, but totally irrelevant argument because if his goal is to stimulate the economy and if he can show that tax cuts for the rich are the most cost effective way to do it, then you can't fault Bush for not solving the problem! We should have focused on asking him to show the connection between tax cuts for the rich and job creation or specific improvement in one or more major economic indicators. You can then bolster the questioning of his logic with data that shows that his strategies do not in fact achieve the result he is trying to achieve. Then you are truly focusing on approaches that solve the issue, rather than focusing on saying that his approach benefits the rich. Who cares if the rich benefit if the problem is solved? The bottom line is we should have done these four simple things (and we didn't do any of the four): 1) point out Bush has no specific economic goals to be held accountable to, 2) point out that the dots don't connect; that his strategies don't achieve those (non-existent) goals and furthermore that that it is totally nonsensical, irresponsible, and the mark of a poor leader to lay out strategies if you don't have any specific goals that those strategies are designed to achieve , 3) articulate your goals and explain why those are the right goals to focus on (e.g., create X jobs by date Y), and 4) clearly lay out to the American people how much each of your proposed strategies will contribute to achieving each of your goals so that if all of your strategies are implemented then the goals are 100% attained. 
  • A unified infrastructure. Our support infrastructure must also be team oriented. We need a common core to the DNC, DCCC, and DSCC. That common core should include things like training politicians and staffs on running their campaigns and the mistakes of the past, donor development (so we approach a donor once rather than 3 times), technology infrastructure, etc.
  • Leadership that stops trying to please everyone: We don't need to move to the left or to the center. The entire platform must appeal to more voters than their platform to win so there is a wide latitude for a set of acceptable goals. Some of the 10 goals might be left, some right, and some middle. My favorite saying is that Democrats use polls to find out their message and Republicans use polls to find out how to get their message across. The Republicans are absolutely right on here and we are flat out wrong. Instead, our goal selection must be focused on what America really needs, not a calculus on how many votes we will get with each individual position or on whether a particular goal will be acceptable to the Blue Dogs, the CBC, and everyone in between. The former is leadership, the latter is followership.  A set of 10 good goals where there is consistency over time and commitment of the Members is much better than 10 great goals which change over time or do not have the commitment of the Members. Ten bold, specific goals that create a better future for America are much better than a set of 10 non-specific goals that make everyone happy. Leadership is all about making tough choices and not everyone is going to get everything they want. But that's better than getting none of what you want because you fail to make any choices at all. Candidates should run first as Democrats supporting all core party issues. Then the voter has a choice between their team or our team. Our focus should be on communicating how voters will benefit, and being consistent with our votes.  For example, blue collar Democrats in Minnesota told pollsters and reporters that while they didn't agree with all of Wellstone's views, they voted for him because he was a man of principle and conviction and a fighter for the common man and they valued that in their elected officials more than his specific position on any particular issue. Yet today, on a very clear issue such as the war in Iraq, the leadership in the House and Senate has not established any position at all for the party on this issue, despite the fact that more than half the members of the House signed a letter to give the inspections time to work and an overwhelming majority of the American people feel the same way. Our Democratic leaders are acting like they are reluctant followers.
  • A single leader who steps up to the plate: The Democratic response to Bush's State of the Union speech is supposed to be an opportunity to get our message out. Yet, the speech is created by a bunch of people with input from a bunch of people. There is no central decision making. So there is no message (because you'll never get consensus on a message) and there is no single decision maker so changes are nearly impossible. The result is a least common denominator speech that says nothing new and sidesteps the war. And that's what we delivered. We aren't doing anyone any favors....certainly not our constituents because we aren't even standing up for what they want (which is a party that will oppose Bush's leading us into war). We need someone in charge here who will take responsibility and ownership and make the tough decisions and go after Bush, not make nice like we've been doing. Without a Democratic President, we act like an army who lost its commander and puts in place several substitute commanders who follows what the troops want, rather than leads the troops. The spin room after the rebuttal speech is a perfect example: different messages from each person. No echo effect. No strong single message that the biggest threat to our national and economic security is from President Bush's policies.
  • Presidential candidates who share the goals: Presidential candidates should also align behind and adopt all 10 core Democratic goals. Today,  we don't set any long term measurable goals as a party. Even worse, we shift any goals we do have every 2 to 4 years. Is it any surprise that we don't get much of significance done? Imagine a jet plane that tries to fly from LA to NY and every 500 miles the passengers decide on a new destination. The plane never gets anywhere. There is plenty of opportunity for differentiation between candidates on policies, priorities, and personality. A good advertising slogan that is consistent and repeated by everyone over many years is much better than a great slogan that doesn't get adopted or repeated. We need to have an echo effect to be heard. That means all our candidates must be on the same team and articulating the same core goals. We need party unity and we need to walk the talk.
  • A plan of action for winning in 2004: Party leaders must assemble a brain trust to begin working right now on crafting a national political strategy to win in 2004. We cannot afford to wait a moment longer, the GOP certainly isn't. Our strategy should begin execution as soon as possible using tactics as forceful as those they have used on our candidates. 
  • Our own Heritage Foundation: We must create an organization dedicated to aligning the efforts of progressive groups behind our strategy and assisting in message creation and delivery in a tough and highly professional manner that facilitates media coverage. There also needs to be a highly professional PR organization that a Member can go to to be heard by the press on selected, key issues. This organization would work with the Member on positioning as well as setting up interviews, etc. with the right members of the press. For example, when one very senior lawmaker was asked "Did you call Peter Jennings about your position?" replied, "Do you think he would talk to me?" They should also hold a weekly meetings to get everyone on board with the key messages on the current top issues. It should include press, progressive groups, and members of Congress, just like Grover Norquist does.

There you have it. All of this can be done. The Republicans do it. There is no reason that we can't do it too but we don't even try. The alternative is getting nothing done, having less control, and becoming less relevant over time. 

The conventional thinking in Washington seems to be one of excuses...1) the Democratic party is too diverse, we are too big a tent to have common goals; 2) even if you had specific long term common goals i.e. "reduce our dependence on foreign oil by 20% by the year 2020", you can't expect Members from auto manufacturing states to vote in favor of increased CAFE standards; and 3) Democrats have to be seen to be supporting the President, especially on national security issues, or they risk defeat at the polls. But this is only true when there is weak leadership and no party unity. If Democrats continue to accept conventional wisdom, they'll lose again in 2004 because it will mean that they don't challenge Bush and if we don't challenge Bush, he'll become even stronger. Therefore, if we are to get anywhere at all, we must change the mindset in Congress. Our leaders must set goals and demand that Members stand up for the goals and principles of the Democratic party. There is no excuse for the party leaders not exercising the strong leadership the Democratic party so desperately needs and demanding that Members of Congress act as a team and making sure that there are consequences for straying from the party's goals and letting the team down. Democrats are the true party of the people so if we can achieve party unity on our goals and act as a team, we will win.

If a Member chooses not support one of the shared Democratic goals, that Member is expected be both clear and consistent with his position with both constituents and the Democratic leadership, during the campaign and after election.  That way, at least people who voted for this Member would know exactly what he stood for and exactly why he has chosen to not to support a key party goal.

The confirmation of Tom Ridge is an interesting test case of this. Should he be confirmed? If the research confirms he is mediocre and under qualified, then opposing his confirmation is an opportunity to show America that Democrats really are tougher on national security than Republicans are and make Bush look like he cares more about his friends than the welfare of the country. I wouldn't trust my money to someone without a long proven track record of success in financial management. So why should I trust my life to someone with no track record and virtually no experience whatsoever in national security? To make our opposition to Ridge more productive and not appear "obstructionist," we should suggest a candidate(s) with the necessary experience in place of Ridge.

If you thought this document was valuable, email me and let me know.

What I'm doing

Beyond asking members of Congress to set goals for the party and start working as a team, I'm asking 5 to 10 experts in each of the 11 areas for their best idea for a vision and a single key goal so that I can provide that list (which can be thought of as a Chinese menu of goal options) to the leadership in Congress as well as the people running for President. 

Overall Democratic mission/Vision
Political reform
National security
Social security
Foreign policy
Health care

If they pick anything from the list in one or more areas, the country will benefit. 

Example 1: Sample energy vision, top goal, key strategies (Note: this is an example showing the form of what I mean by vision/goal/strategy, not a specific proposal)

Vision Power the country on 100% renewable, non-polluting sources
Current top goal Reduce dependence on foreign oil by 20% by 2020
Key strategies Increase CAFE standards by X mpg by 2010. This will force our manufacturers to incorporate proven technologies and materials that will dramatically improve mileage at no increase in purchase price or reduction in vehicle safety.

Provide special incentives for plug-in hybrids, both to manufacturers and consumers.

Align government incentives for consumers, manufacturers, and fueling infrastructure exclusively behind direct H2 powered fuel cell vehicles. Note that  focusing a single path, even if it is not the perfect path, is better than defocusing your efforts; a startup company is a perfect analogy... you pick the one product you want to do, then put all the wood behind one arrow. You are more likely to be successful this way than trying to pursue every good idea. Leadership is all about picking specific paths, not catering to every path (as we do now).

A government-private partnership on a grand scale with a financial commitment at least equal to the monies currently being spent on homeland security and the preparation for war with Iraq. For example, allocate government funds for investment in startup companies with strategic or revolutionary technologies (such as Amory Lovin's Hypercar Inc), as well as strategic fuel cell R&D

Example 2: Sample education vision, top goal, key strategies 

Vision Provide the best K-12 education system in the world
Current top goal Be ranked in the top 10 internationally by 2020
Key strategies Provide financial incentives to the states and local school districts that adopt best practices, whether they be standards, curriculum, materials, teacher compensation structures, etc. This isn't rocket science at all. You simply copy what works. You look at the countries which always rank at the top in international tests and you identify best practices in key areas that are proven to make a difference (these might be teacher compensation, principal training, adoption of national standards, curricula, and assessments, etc). Provide federal incentives to states and local school districts for each best practice that is adopted; the more best practices, the higher the total incentive.

Another simple approach is to pick a state that has made the most progress (such as Connecticut) and provide incentives to other states that adopt policies consistent with the key policies adopted by the most successful state.


Related documents

Feedback on "Winning in 2004"
A collection of e-mails I've received about this document

Should Ridge be confirmed by the Senate? 
A look at the pros and cons

Democratic Catastrophe by EJ Dionne Jr
An excellent concise op-ed on why we lost in 2002 and what we need to do.

A process for winning in 2004
The original version of this document with a lot more detail including 1) listing of the 10 key areas, 2) examples of vision, goal, and strategy statements look like, and 3) a workable process for coming up with long term Democratic goals. Also contains the full unedited "rant" of a core Democratic donor.

Some specific goal ideas in the 10 key areas 
A collection of ideas for consideration when coming up with the 10 goals

Third party suggestions for 10 key goals
Here are what experts recommended

Ad ideas for winning in 2004 
A collection of ideas for PR/advertising campaigns around specific issues

Education goals- 3 guiding principles
A short email listing 3 guiding principles for use in the selection of an education goal. Linda Darling Hammond said it was "right on!"