It's a Change Election, Stupid

At events around the country, Democratic candidates are unveiling, buffing, and polishing the shiny new message that will drive this fall's campaigns. The message generally employs a car as its major metaphor, with direction as its logic, invoking remarks President Obama made several weeks back. Republicans, President Obama said, have driven the national car into the ditch, and "now they want the keys back." The president's message to Republicans? "You can't drive!"

If the meme rings familiar to political junkies, it should. Since the Clinton years, Democrats have frequently told voters, "D is for Drive, R is for Reverse." The message rolls both backward and forward, condemning conservative retrenchment and lauding progressive results. Recently on Meet the Press, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs put it this way: "Understand, the last six months of 2008, right, we saw an economy that shed three million jobs. The first six months of 2010, this economy has created 600,000 private sector jobs."

We should be concerned about the "D is for drive" message. Not because the facts aren't right -- they are. Democratic policies are doing more to turn the economy around than Republicans' policies -- if they have them -- ever would have done. While not perfect, the leadership of President Obama and Democrats in Congress helped save the auto industry and has generated hundreds of thousands of jobs.

But there are facts, and there's emotion. What's worrying is less the facts than the touch, feel, and underlying character of the new message. The message too easily risks the impression of complacency, an "insider" character, and even, perversely, cockiness -- at a time when Democrats need instead to identify with and channel the emotional frustrations of the electorate (and the majority of independents).

In other words, in their attempt to rebut the Republicans' specious attacks on policy, Democrats are overcompensating and becoming that which they should abhor: the establishment.

All the evidence shows that this November we're facing a change election, just as we did in 2008. A recent Washington Post poll found a stunning result: 26 percent of registered voters are inclined to support their current congressional representative, whereas 62 percent are inclined to "look for someone new." The large majority of the electorate will probably be uninterested in someone who is operating from a premise they don't buy -- in this case, touting a status quo economy because it "has started to create private sector jobs."

Across the nation, economic distress, coupled with a deep frustration with politics as usual, has generated a fascination with outsiders, reformers, and "courage politicians" in general. In the recent Washington Post poll, two figures jump out, respectively the highest and lowest figures in the over 20 years that the Post has been running this poll: The percentage of voters who trust neither party on the economy (17%) and the percentage of voters inclined to reelect their representative (25%).

This isn't only important for what it signals about the electoral abattoir that likely awaits Democrats this fall; it also signals a problem among leading progressive strategists. Time and again, you hear it from well-placed Democratic insiders: a faith that superior reason and facts will, on their own, win the argument. We have elected a supremely rational president who has surrounded himself with very bright people; excellent.

But there's precious little evidence so far that intelligence, reason, and facts are winning the day. Drew Westen's terrific book The Political Brain, proved that progressives too often rely on facts, while conservatives successfully go for the gut. But it was a bestseller years ago; you'd think Democrats would learn. But on the contrary, health care reform took twice as long as it should have and the public option was jettisoned, as the president was Swift-Boated with Sarah Palin's nihilistic, absurd, but emotionally resonant "Death to Granny" attacks -- and didn't fight back quickly or forcefully enough.

The lesson is that we need more passion, more heroes and villains, and a message that presents Democrats as impatient with (even angry about) the status quo, rather than satisfied protectors of the realm. Congressional candidates need to present a vision of the nation that impatiently challenges the establishment, on economic development, on national security, on consumer and small business issues.

Even a track record -- even facts -- won't necessarily win the day, if what the people want is someone who makes them feel like change is a'coming. As James Carville might say, "It's a change election, stupid." Even if you're driving in "D," you can still end up in the ditch.