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Democrats Must Stop Listing, Start Tipping

Like fourth graders hoping to be rewarded for a good report card, far too many Democrats were convinced the only way to get voters to support them was to present inventories of positive actions they had performed in office.
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Despite all the excuses and political flim-flam masquerading as "explanations" for the Great Shellacking of 2010, I want to offer a very straightforward theory for the outcome: Democrats have become a party that "lists" when they should be a party that "tips." Listing, bad -- tipping, good.

By "listing" I mean that Democrats spent way too much time compiling lists of so-called policy accomplishments that they then presented to voters. Like fourth graders hoping to be rewarded for bringing home a good report card, far too many Democrats in the midterm elections were convinced that the only way to get voters to support them at the polls was to present inventories of positive actions they had performed in office. Here's my list, gimme your vote. Sorry folks -- that don't work.

Even worse: The messaging that resulted from Democrats' listing was beyond atrocious. Their strongest "vote for us" arguments were couched in wonkish metrics about the economy being "improved" despite the fact that voters still feel terrible. These talking points often felt like going to a doctor when you feel sick, only to have the doctor say "These tests show you are fine." But I don't feel fine.

At the same time, the only real "vote against them" arguments the listing Democrats managed to produce were "Party of no" ("our list is full, their list is empty -- vote for us") and "don't give them the keys" ("our list is working/running, their list of things is broken/kaput -- so don't vote for them").

Did anyone hear one story over the course of the entire campaign of a voter seeing a Democrat's list of accomplishments or chart of economic progress and, subsequently, deciding to vote for them? Nope.

Listing is for losers.

Unfortunately, the tendency of the current Democratic Party leadership towards listing is not some random, isolated campaign decision, but the product of a much deeper understanding of what it means to do politics in the current environment.

Peter Baker's recent New York Times piece on the post-shellacking White House ("Obama Aide Adjusts Course for a Comeback") suggests that the administration has shifted from a charismatic speaker, public enthusiasm, rally the troops understanding of politics to a tweak the dials, nudge the system, monitor the metrics approach.

In big picture terms, this means that the White House has spent so much time trying to reboot the liquidity markets, that it no longer sees politics in terms of people so much as it sees elections outcomes through the prism of economic indicators.

In a CBS News interview to air this Sunday, President Obama acknowledges as much with the admission, "Leadership isn't just legislation."

And yet, whether or not President Obama gets it that he has to step away from the macro-economic tinkering shop and speak more directly to the electorate, his current team may be too deep inside that logic to change.

If that is the case, then the shift away from the politics of listing may not be possible without bringing in enough new team members to the White House -- and the DNC -- to result in a total change of the political big picture shared by the Democratic Party leadership.

The shift that needs to happen is from listing to what we might call "tipping."

If there is one book every Democrat in the White House should read this weekend, if not sooner, it is Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point.

Gladwell's book is exactly what the doctor ordered for shellacked Democrats because it makes the case that great change is most often set in motion by small, but significant events -- and this can happen in a very short amount of time.

Finding the the next tipping point in politics is precisely how Democrats need to start thinking.

Moreover, Gladwell will help Democrats understand that it was not so much the economic conditions or specific arguments behind the Republican campaign that led to their success this time out (e.g., Republicans made the same anti-taxes, anti-government, anti-"socialism" arguments the last two elections and lost), but the social conditions that turned one small event into a wave.

The key, this time, was the Republican recognition that the nascent Tea Party movement had the potential to tip the electorate their way. And so rather than tamping it down, which they had in the past, they fanned the spark into a flame, then used that flame to burn down the opposition.

One byproduct of a "listing" mentality in the current Democratic leadership (or any other party where listing has taken hold) is a deep distrust for any ideas not generated by the small group of experts lucky enough to have their hands on the dials of the economy. Any groundswell idea that bubbles up from outside the halls of official expertise -- no matter how much excitement that idea may be generating -- is treated as a potential threat to the balancing act of experts tuning the entire system.

By contrast, a mindset that focuses on finding tipping points sees every flash of enthusiasm as a potential first step that results in a transformational stampede.

For the Tea Party, Rick Santelli's now long-forgotten CNBC rant about "paying for your neighbor's mortgage" inspired thousands of people to come together via the internet and local meet ups to discuss government spending. As it happened, those discussions became somewhat free form, leading to a raucous, loosely organized initial movement coalesced around the idea that the current administration's approach to repairing the economy was somehow in violation of American principle.

Whether or not these Tea Party arguments were factual (they were not), a significant portion of the GOP leadership saw the spark that passed from Santelli to a small handful of Republican voters and recognized a potential tipping point. Ultimately, it was these GOP officials who convinced Republican big money funding to pour cash and organizing power onto these small Tea Party groups, connecting them enough to the system so that the spark could become a flame.

Once the Tea Party was burning bright enough, media opportunists on the right saw in the rising groups an opportunity for personal gain. As a result, the Tea Party clicked up to the next level of prominence: national media attention, which in turn gave their arguments enough broadcast bandwidth to enter the lives of every American with over a year to go until the presidential election. The rest, as they say, is history.

But the key point to remember, here, is not that the Tea Party was influential in this election because of their wrong-headed arguments. Rick Santelli's one speech -- his one rant -- was enough to set a wave of enthusiasm and rhetoric in motion such that it dominated the American attention span and tipped the election in favor of the GOP.

Where would the next tipping point come from? What or where should Democrats be looking once they switch their focus from listing to tipping?

Inevitably, in this day and age they should look to social media. Without question, the frustration at seeing the failed ideas of the Republican Party once again take hold of the House of Representatives and cripple the Senate -- this frustration will give rise to a multitude of sparks, any one of which could have the potential to spread if nurtured effectively.

Get your noses out of the graph paper, Democrats. Hire a new team to watch the political landscape like fire watchers searching the horizon for the faintest trail of smoke. Bring these eyes and ears into the White House and into the DNC. Stop listing, start tipping.

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