Last Friday Nancy Pelosi unveiled "A New Direction For America," the new Democratic campaign strategy for the 2006 midterm congressional elections. This announcement has been a long time coming. The Democrats were initially going to release the plan last year, then early this year. . . then in the spring. . . then at some unmentioned date closer to election day. Even last week, it was supposed to happen on Wednesday. . . but then Bush stole the news cycle by staging a press conference after his whirlwind visit to Iraq, so they postponed it yet again.
If you haven't heard about it yet, you're not alone. Releasing news at the worst possible time of week (the dreaded Friday afternoon) pretty much guarantees most of the public will ignore or miss the announcement.
But putting aside the abysmal media coordination, let's look at the plan for success itself. It's a surprisingly concise document, one page of positive ideas to campaign on, and a second page of talking points intended to expose and discredit the Republican record on each issue.
The first page isn't really a full page, as it has a huge banner at the top - only two-thirds of the page is actually text. This is because the document only has six issues on it (four less than Newt's Contract With America), so they obviously had some room to fill. Focus group data probably told them if it had any more issues the GOP and the media would dismiss it as a "laundry list." (It's mystifying why a laundry list is a bad thing, but apparently it is.)
The document contains two amateurish problems a good editor could have fixed. The first is the shudderingly awkward syntax of the leadoff sentence: "Democrats in Congress offer a New Direction, putting the common good of all Americans first for a change, and will: ". . . (followed by a list of goals). The second problem is that the order of issues is different from the first page to the second.
But nitpicking aside, the ideas put forth do bear examination. It took a long time for Democratic leaders to hammer out this consensus plan to win back Congress, so it deserves a serious look.
The issues are titled:
• Make Health Care More Affordable
• Lower Gas Prices And Achieve Energy Independence
• Help Working Families
• Cut College Costs
• Ensure Dignified Retirement
• Require Fiscal Responsibility
[I should mention that due to limits of column space I am only addressing the document as a whole here. I will review the individual issues in detail in my next column.]
The best thing about the document is that it's short and to the point. Each issue is spelled out in plain language on the first page, as a focused and positive idea. The second page is a good blueprint for putting Republicans on the defense. Democrats should memorize and repeat the items on both lists every chance they get. They should be prepared to rebut Republican positions with short, snappy answers - with statistics to back them up - and pretty soon the media will start repeating the same points. The talking points would also translate well into ads which ask Republican incumbents why they either haven't done anything about the issue, or why they have made the problem worse.
Another good point is that the issues chosen have relevance and staying power. None of them are likely to go away (or get fixed by Republicans) by election time.
There has also been an admirable attempt to tie related issues together in voters' minds. Raise the minimum wage and take tax breaks away from companies that outsource. Repeal tax breaks for oil companies and use the money to promote clean energy. Negotiate lower prices for Medicare's drug plan and invest in stem cell research. There are some creative ideas here to get people asking: "Why can't we do both?"
But to be fair, the document has some bad points as well. The worst thing is that it doesn't have issues that will excite people enough to get them up off the couch and to the polls. There are a few which come close, but there are really no 72-point headline issues in it. This weakens its broad appeal to swing voters in closely contested districts.
Even the good issues aren't put forth forcefully enough, hence: "make college tuition deductible from taxes," and not "make all college tuition fully deductible." This leaves the impression (perhaps valid) that Democrats just want to extend Clinton's tax credits, not propose a bold new policy.
The other glaring omission is that Democrats haven't successfully stolen Newt Gingrich's technique: Promise America that you will hold votes on all of these issues the first 100 days you are in office. The lack of such a firm commitment weakens the strategy's impact.
One also has to wonder why they only picked six issues. Perhaps that was all they could agree on. But they could have added a few to dramatically increase the appeal - proposing a sweeping federal law on data privacy, for instance.
The party's left-wing base will undoubtedly point out that it doesn't say anything about Iraq, abortion, or gay rights. This is actually a good thing. Many will disagree, but the Democrats have to stop playing defense on these issues and create their own hot button issues. The problem is that most of the issues in this document are "warm button" at best, and could use a little more heat. The issues could be a lot more forcefully addressed both in presentation and in visionary scope. Tentative leadership doesn't get you on the front pages of newspapers. Or elected.
Of course, the Democrats could surprise us all and campaign with this platform effectively and use it as a nationwide strategy to take back at least one house of Congress this fall. Hope does spring eternal. But overall, I'd only give the whole document a "B" for content, and a "C-" for presentation. (Friday release? What were they thinking?)