Disappointingly, the only thing the Democrats seem to be rallying around at this point in the election campaign is: "We're not Republicans, and we're especially not President Bush." Bad as that sounds, it could actually be enough for them to win. But the concept needs to be better defined and executed if it's going to have a chance.
Many sincerely wished the 2006 campaign was going to be about bright new ideas, but there is that old "herding cats" problem when it comes time for Democrats to agree on anything. They tried to get a domestic policy agenda together and wound up with competing plans and slogans -- all of which were largely ignored. They haven't come up with an Iraq strategy that will play well in both Peoria and Connecticut. They were even mostly content to stand in the background and let Republican Senators McCain, Warner and Graham take the heat for standing up to legalized torture.
Democrats are left with "We're not Bush and we don't even like Bush!" as a rallying cry. So be it. But to make it work, they've got to effectively hammer the message home. I wrote previously about a good example of this -- an anti-Schwarzenegger ad in California which is blunt and to the point: Arnie campaigned for Bush in Ohio in 2004, therefore Arnie = Bush. Democrats everywhere need a way to tie the same Bush millstone around the neck of every Republican candidate this year.
Once again, I offer up my humble suggestion for an ad campaign to accomplish this. I am not an advertising professional (I just play one on the web), but that is indeed the point: if I can come up with decent ideas this easily, why aren't Democrats hiring some real professionals to come up with better ideas?
To win the ad wars this fall, Democrats need to work on "branding." They need to make "Democrats" into a national brand identity, as the Republicans have already so successfully done. This, as the Madison Avenue lads and lassies will tell you, is the way to make the average American identify your brand, associate your brand with the ad campaign, and remember your slogans.
Everyone remembers the "Got Milk?" television ad campaign, but nobody remembers every single ad they ran. The memory may be fuzzy, but everyone was left with the same impressions: the ads were edgy, some were really funny, and they all ended with the same tagline and image. The "Priceless" MasterCard ad campaign is another good example.
But for Democrats to successfully "nationalize" the congressional campaign this year -- even under the brand of: "We're anti-Republicans" -- it needs to be a centralized effort. The best way to do this would be for the Democratic National Committee (DNC) to provide every single Democratic congressional campaign in the country with free pre-made television ads. These would all be variations on the same theme -- with the same intro, the same voiceover actor, and the same finale. This will hopefully frame the nationwide campaign in Democratic terms. It would paint Republicans as dangerously out of touch and incompetent, and it will tie all Republican candidates as closely as possible to the Bush administration.
Here is my concept for such an ad campaign:
[IMAGE:] Black-and-white shot of Flash-Gordon-esque 1950s cheesy sci-fi hero in period spaceman costume (striking a manly and heroic pose, of course).
[VOICEOVER (Deep, slow, dramatic voice):] "More... TALES FROM..."
[CUT TO IMAGE:] Laughably out-of-date black-and-white special effects of alien planet orbited by fake model rocket ship. Title letters, in 50s-period type style, appear over this image as voiceover continues.
[VOICEOVER:] "Planet RE - PUB - LI - CAN!"
[AD MAIN BODY:]
[IMAGES:] Basic campaign ad imagery: either still photos or short video clips of candidates, or newspaper headlines and quotes that make the case. The usual thing. These alternate between the Republican past record (always shown in black-and-white), and what Democrats are fighting for (all shown in glorious color). The number of these contrasting couplets used for each ad would be determined by how long an ad it is (15 seconds, 30 seconds, etc.).
[VOICEOVER:] Reads a mix-and-match of the following couplets, over appropriate imagery. (Note: these are just a few examples of what could be used here for the main body of the ad):
"On Planet Republican, the Iraq war is in its 'last throes'... meanwhile back on Earth, the insurgency is on the brink of full-scale civil war."
"Five years ago, on Planet Republican, George Bush said he'd get Osama Bin Laden 'dead or alive'... but it took Democrats in Congress to bring him back to Earth and force him not to disband the CIA's Bin Laden unit."
"On Planet Republican, George Bush honored the fifth anniversary of 9/11...
...by stepping on an image of the American flag for a photo op...
...while back on planet Earth Democrats fought against a Republican flag-burning constitutional amendment -- to save President Bush the embarrassment of going to jail for such blatant disrespect and desecration of our flag."
[OK, maybe that last one's over the top, but I couldn't resist the urge to sneak those pictures in.]
"On Planet Republican, we're 'safer but not safe'... back on planet Earth Democrats have been fighting do-nothing Republicans in Congress to fully implement the 9/11 commission's suggestions, like improving port security."
"On Planet Republican, nobody could have foreseen the levees breaking in New Orleans... back here on Earth, scientists were warning the White House repeatedly of the danger -- but we all know how little Bush thinks of science."
"On Planet Republican, George Bush wants to go to Mars... while down-to-earth Democrats want increased fuel economy standards to help free us from foreign oil."
End with a single couplet directly related to the candidate's local race: "On Planet Republican, Lincoln Chafee wonders why he isn't a Democrat... back on Earth, Sheldon Whitehouse knows what he proudly stands for as a Democrat."
Or perhaps; "On Planet Republican, Conrad Burns is screaming at firefighters again... back on Earth in Montana, Jon Tester knows that the difference between right and wrong means you shouldn't take money from Jack Abramoff."
(These couplets would be written by the individual campaigns themselves, so they could include any local issue necessary.)
[BIG FINISH -- TEXT AND VOICEOVER:] "It's 2006. It's time to get down to Earth. Elect Democrat Sherrod Brown to the Senate from Ohio." If naming a candidate is not allowed by campaign finance laws, then just: "It's 2006. It's time to get down to Earth. Vote Democratic."
The DNC would come up with a list of two or three dozen couplets for the middle section of the ad. They're easy enough to come up with [Note: feel free to post your own as comments!]. The individual candidates would choose which ones to use, and in what order. They would also give the DNC their text for the final (local) couplet. Then the DNC would record and edit the ad, and provide it for free to the candidate's campaign. The local candidate would then choose where and when to run the ads.
This would benefit all the campaigns on many different levels:
(1) Nationalizes the election by creating a single nationwide ad image for all Democrats. Viewers will begin to recognize them within the first few seconds of each ad, and since they're all slightly different, they'll keep watching to see: "What's this one going to say?" And the more humorous the couplets, the more memorable the ad.
(2) Paints all Republican candidates with the broad Bush brush. Many Republican candidates are already running their campaign ads without even mentioning that they're Republicans. Voters need to be reminded, and these ads will achieve that.
(3) Saves money. Recording and editing the ads centrally means minor variations on one basic ad format -- rather than 468 candidates coming up with unique ads for 468 races. Each individual candidate saves money on ad development, which they can use to buy airtime for the ads.
(4) By tying George Bush around Republican candidates' necks, you force them to either (a) defend the President's more disastrous policies (as a loyal Republican), or (b) distance themselves from their own party to show their "independence" from the White House (not exactly a good way to fire up the base). Either way, Democrats put Republicans on the ropes, forcing them to explain themselves. For once, Democrats could successfully frame the issues on their terms.
(5) The mainstream news media would love it. They would run stories about the ads, and could even be convinced to do follow-ups on the more creative and memorable ads the local candidates came up with. Ask any ad-man or ad-woman worth their salt and they'll tell you the bigger the "buzz" there is around your ad, the better and more effective the ad campaign will be.
(6) Flexible and versatile. Each candidate can come up with an ad (or ads) that they approve of, depending on exactly what they want to say to their district's voters. The ads would not be all that complicated to put together, and could be created fairly quickly.
DNC Chairman Howard Dean has staked a lot on his idea for a "50-state strategy," so he should be open to such an idea. It would allow the DNC to simultaneously help every Democratic candidate in every campaign in every state -- and for a relatively low cost.
So how about it, Chairman Dean?
There are less than seven weeks to election day. If the DNC is not interested, perhaps a 527 group like MoveOn could get behind it? Or perhaps a wealthy Democratic backer could privately foot the bill?
Anyone have George Soros' phone number?
[If you think it's a good idea, let them know. Send them a link to this article.]
Chairman Howard Dean (Democratic National Committee)
Representative Rahm Emanuel (Chairman of the House's Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee)
Senator Charles Schumer (Chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee)