Thursday, March 28, 2019

BTRTN: How to Break Out from the Crowded Pack of Candidates? Find "The Most Important Thing"

Robert Mueller and William Barr’s epic buzz kill is bad enough, but the implications are terrifying: Trump’s 2020 campaign just got turbo-charged. Steve delivers a wake-up call to a field of lackluster Democratic candidates.

Suck it in and accept it: Donald Trump just ascended to the apex at the top of the summit that rises to the peak right at the pinnacle of the luckiest jerks in known world history.

The investigation that appeared to have so much evidence of collusion sitting in plain sight managed to find insufficient evidence to bring charges. After two years of work, the special prosecutor allegedly still couldn’t decide whether he should accuse nor to exonerate the President on obstruction of justice. The report many thought would bring Trump to his knees didn't even stub his toes. At least, that's all we heard from the made-to-order Attorney General, who may have forever obscured whatever the report actually said by taking all of 24 hours to dash off a radically simplified version of the findings. Barr's crib notes gave an impression of total innocence that may not be borne out if and when the actual report is issued, but by then -- weeks or months from now -- the cement will be dry. Barr enabled the White House to package the Mueller Report as a “total exoneration,” and race it out to the thermonuclear launchpad so that Trump can use it to incinerate Democratic opposition. 

It was a good week to be Donald Trump. Who knows horrific fate awaits him in his next incarnation, but for now, karma just bounces off this guy like a slow-pitch nerf ball.

We’ve always viewed it as part of our mission here at BTRTN to fortify our progressive friends as tidal waves of despair borne of this Presidency crash over their psyches.
Here goes. 

Yes, there is a silver lining in the Mueller report.

It is this: Democrats finally know that the only way they can get Donald Trump out of office is at the ballot box. Now they can stop wasting time dreaming about impeachment and focus on the 2020 Presidential election.

More pointedly: Democrats who assumed that Donald Trump would be so soiled by scandal and accusation that he would be very beatable in 2020 just got a monster of a wake-up call. It’s quite the opposite: Trump now has a blunt instrument that he can use to bludgeon Democrats… that he was right all along, noooooooo ko-luuuuge-shun! Witch Hunt! Fake News! Deep State! The failing New York Times is out to get me, the greatest President ever!!

Rise and shine, Democratic candidates. Donald Trump is not going to cooperate by bumbling away the presidency. You are going to have to pry it away from him, and he was just given a brand new vise. You may think the 2020 election is far, far away. But William Barr was kind enough to point out that you are going to need every waking minute to beat this president. 

And here are my two cents: most of you candidates are off to milquetoast starts.

Right now the candidate who is scoring highest on the charisma meter is a self-effacing, earnest, well-spoken 37-year-old mayor of a minor mid-western city. Who knows? Pete Buttigieg may well prove to be a latter day Jimmy Carter, storming out of nowhere to win on the promise that he will clean up the stench from an administration even more corrupt Nixon's. 

But if Buttigieg can outshine six U.S. Senators, a current and former governor, and a few members of the House on his very first whirlwind tour of the talk shows, then the other declared Democrats are not cutting it. And that, even this early in the game, is cause for concern. 

For that matter, the single most dynamic and charismatic voice in the Democratic Party right now is too young to even run for President. Go type the letters “A-L-E-X” into Google – just those four letters – and tell me who the real star of this party is right now.
Many of the announced candidates are already on the defensive. Me Too allegations have hurt Gillibrand and Sanders. Klobuchar is reeling from allegations of cruelty to her staff. Warren has her heritage baggage. The biggest headlines Cory Booker has generated are about Rosario Dawson. Kamala Harris and Beto O’Rourke are charismatic darlings and fundraising mega-stars who are being too-gently chided for lacking a clear message and policy specifics. The rest of the announced candidates are struggling to drive their brand awareness above the one percent mark. 

Sure, it’s early, but nobody is breaking through.

Which brings us back, once again, to Donald Trump. Democratic candidates could actually learn a lesson from Trump. You can loathe him, diss him, curse him, and belittle him, but if you want to know how to break out from an over-crowded field of candidates, just take a look at his playbook. He showed sixteen reasonably impressive 2016 Republican presidential contenders what a long-shot candidate must do to seize the momentum.

In 2016, Trump had a vastly superior marketing strategy than his opponents. He drew up an extremely short list of the issues that he calculated were the most important to the most Republicans. He decided to focus only on them, and to do so at a decibel level that could not be ignored. He chose immigration, the loss of manufacturing jobs, and “stupid” treaties and deals that he claimed took advantage of the United States. Then he went after those three issues with a boldness, focus, and gusto that no other candidate matched. As campaign wore on, Trump was able to find a singular theme that encompassed these three issues: “American First.This catchphrase was a unifying message that succinctly summarized his position on all three issues: immigration, trade, and jobs. He created simple, memorable lines that he repeated constantly (“We are going to build a wall and Mexico is going to pay for it!”). He made it easy for voters to understand and remember his positions.

Sure, it was appalling to call Mexicans “rapists,” and yes, he lied as easily and as frequently as most people breathe. He childishly pasted nicknames on his opponents. No one is advocating that the Democrats emulate any of that nonsense. But finding a singular brand message that is important, differentiating, and credible to voters? Dems, do your homework. Study the playbook.

This points to the essential challenge facing the Democrats and their candidates in 2020. There is an astonishing abundance of issues that are of concern to progressives, and most of the candidates are refusing to choose or prioritize the message that will be their singular focus. The result? Their speeches feel like endless shopping lists, and are delivered with all the passion and power that a shopping list will inspire. 

And what a shopping list it is…

Health care, Citizens United, gun control, global warming, corruption in government, decaying infrastructure, immigration reform, repairing our relationships with allies, women’s reproductive rights, income and wealth inequality, LGBTQ rights, defending first amendment rights and free press, voting rights/gerrymandering, rethinking the post-Trump U.S. role in Syria, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia, cyber-warfare, racial bias and conflict, societal polarization, prescription drug pricing, fixing public education, addressing biases and inequities in law enforcement, prosecution, and incarceration, gender equality, figuring out how to keep the Middle East from exploding, comprehensive tax reform, dealing with the opioid crisis, balancing the budget, reducing the national debt, job creation, revisiting international trade and security alliances, stopping North Korea from blowing up the world, and going after Donald Trump to the full degree of his legal liability.

Pick three

You heard me, Dems, pick three at the very most. 

Stop trying to be everything to anybody. If you try, you will only succeed in being nothing to everybody.

Pick your short list of the issues that you think are most important to the most people. Develop a clear plan for how you are going to address them. Develop an overarching theme and vision for why you want to be President. Yes, you must be deeply versed and have policy positions on all of these issues, but that’s so that you are fully prepped for the Q&A sessions, town halls, and press interviews. For your stump speech, you have to focus on a handful of critical issues, ideally weaving them together under a single unifying banner.

Let’s stop with the hypothetical theories and talk about concrete ways that some of the undefined Democrats could grab hold of a singular and powerful message. 

A simple idea for a Democratic candidate? Let’s toss this one to Beto. Hey, Beto: why not start every speech you make by praising of few of your competitors in the Democratic field? Talk about how impressed you are by Kamala. Tell your audience about what a great job Bernie has done to focus the party on income inequality. Take a minute to give Kristin Gillibrand kudos for work on the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund. Then tell your audience that every single one of the Democrats in the field is infinitely better than Donald Trump. Infinitely

Tell your audience that if you don’t win the nomination, you vow that on the day you drop out you will immediately start to work to elect the Democratic candidate. Because you believe that beating Donald Trump is the single most important thing we must do to save our country, save our democracy, save our institutions, and save our planet. There: you’ve created a singular way to unify all of the issues under a single banner that is the “most important issue.” Plus, it plays to your brand as a good guy, a unifier, and an idealist. Give it a try.

Kamala, here's an idea for you. Perhaps you make your stand on the idea that “the single most important thing we must address is the inherent, pervasive, self-perpetuating inequity in American society.” Use that to talk about everything from wealth and income inequality to healthcare to law enforcement to the opioid epidemic to immigration to Felicity Huffman. Be it grounded in racism, gender, sexual orientation, educational opportunity, tax policy, or a drug epidemic borne of hopelessness, our country is more skewed between “haves” and “have nots” than at any time in our history. Democrats believe that the nation thrives when everyone is afforded opportunity. Republicans think that it is every person for himself. We can only be great as a nation when everyone believes that they have the fair chance to be great. Kamala, pick this singular idea and it will allow you to weave together all the programs and policies that matter to you. 

Amy, we’ll give you the role as the unifier. Your stump speech should begin with the thesis that the biggest problem facing our country is societal polarization. We are so deeply divided by extremist rhetoric that we can’t get anything done. Each new administration just tries to tear down the work, the programs, and the treaties of the prior administration. We can’t solve healthcare by starting over again every four years. We can’t appear to be two different countries to the world every four years. Global warming does not start and stop with each Presidential term. Make your stand for finding common ground, civility, horse-trading, and honest dealing. Make the government work again. 

We like the approach that is being taken by Washington Governor Jay Inslee, who is centering his entire campaign on climate change. Give him credit: he is certainly focusing completely on one issue. The concern is that he is not doing enough to show how many of the issues noted above are related to climate change. In this regard, the “Green New Deal” is better branding. 

Under the singular theme of “the Green New Deal,” AOC is able to talk about global warming, job creation, fundamentally altering our economy, and re-establishing the leadership role the United States must take on the global stage. It is hard to argue with the notion that the “single most important thing” is to save the planet. It also gives the Democrats a razor sharp contrast to the Republicans, who still deny climate science. Wonder why you can find Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez with just four letters on Google? She intuitively understands branding, marketing, and communication. More than a few of the candidates are probably happy she is too young to run for President.

Cory, here’s a big one: “The single most important thing is to fix the structural problems in our government that make it no longer work to serve the people.” The argument here? Political polarization in our society has profoundly altered the functioning of our government to the point where it is unrecognizable as the collaborative, deliberative, and representative democracy envisioned by the founding fathers. 

Gerrymandering perverts equal representation and creates a Congress full of extremists who cannot compromise. The Electoral College repeatedly thwarts the will of the majority. Presidents can take the country to war without the approval of Congress, and Presidents can declare national emergencies to circumvent Congress’s budgetary appropriations role.  Senate Majority leaders can stonewall a President from filling Supreme Court vacancies. Supreme Court appointments last for a lifetime, resulting in octogenarians clinging to their seats until a new President is elected. The vast majority of Americans favor steps toward gun control but nothing ever gets done about it. The President controls the very Justice Department that occasionally must investigate him. Presidents don’t have to reveal their taxes or adhere to the emoluments clause of the Constitution. The President of the United States can pardon anyone at any time for any crime. 

Cory, here's your summary: "Citizens, our government no longer works to serve the people. We must fix the structural issues in our government so that we can ensure that all policy decisions going forward are aligned with the will of the people."

Perhaps the candidates at the top of the early polls -- Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren – don’t have the urgent need to hone their messages at this point. But to beat Trump, they will have to beat him not simply on policy, not just on experience, and not just on credentials. They will have to win the communications war, too.  

Dems, find your organizing idea. The big idea that illuminates your campaign. .Find the "single most important thing."

The idea that can pull together a broad array of seemingly disparate messages on a big progressive shopping list, and can be hammered home, over and over again. 

Beto, leaping on the counter and passionately waving your arms won’t do it if your message is a shopping list.

Kamala, you can’t jump from one issue today to another issue tomorrow and hope that your audience is adding it all up and figuring out what you stand for.

Amy, you are squandering a period in which you have little company in the centrist lane. Once Biden declares, he’s going to inhale all the Rust Belt oxygen you are counting on. Get moving!

Cory, you are a dynamic and charismatic leader. But you have to define your candidacy, or someone else will do it for you.

Pete, you are making a big impression. The analogy to Jimmy Carter is striking. What America desperately needed in 1976 was to get as far from the ugliness and corruption in Washington as possible. South Bend, Indiana may be the Plains, Georgia of our time.

The last five days have been devastating to some, alienating to many, and discouraging to the majority of Americans.

But for you, Democratic candidates, they must be galvanizing.

I believe in my heart than this country can survive one term of Donald Trump. 

I don’t know who we become if there are two. 

Those of you that have signed up for the task of saving our democracy, saving our rule of law, saving our country, and yes, saving our planet… you have got to step up your game.

Figure out what’s the most important thing. And then run with it. Yes, it will be a long, hard run.

But for the sake of our country, it must end at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. 

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