“Ability to defeat the enemy means taking the offensive. Standing on the defensive indicates insufficient strength.” –Sun Tzu, “The Art of War”
As we indicated in “A Messaging Manifesto For Democrats”, during the run-up to the 2010 Congressional elections, while Republicans went on offense with charges against the “Ground Zero Mosque” and that “Obama is a Muslim,” “the Democrats weakly offered up rational rebuttals, and then wondered why most Americans weren’t swayed.” Republicans know that, to win political battles, you must go on offense to frame the political debate in your terms, using language favorable to you.
If you’re fighting a political battle on the other side’s rhetorical turf, you’ve already lost. This includes defensively responding to attacks from your opponents, where the Democrats’ typical “no it isn’t”/”no I’m not” rational rebuttal gets them nowhere.
Julian E. Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and contributor to CNN.com, gets it. Check out Zelizer’s CNN.com article from last November 15, in the wake of the Democrats’ historic mid-term election losses. According to Zelizer,
you need to play offense to win elections and shape political debate. When parties only respond to criticism and participate in the discussion that their opponents want to have, eventually their team will get tired of just being in a reactive mode and the other side will score points.
Zelizer adds, “[e]ven when Democrats win elections and control of government, many in the party are reluctant to defend their own agenda, champion their own ideals, and to move forward with confidence and bravado.”
Zelizer concludes his article by stating:
The Democrats might want to take a page from the playbook of the Republican Party. Instead of backing down and running away from their platform, they might instead embrace what the party has stood for and make a case as to why their record is better than what Republicans have to offer. If Democrats can’t do this, Republicans will shape the political dialogue in the next two years, regardless of what shifts Obama makes, and Democrats will be looking at a defeat in 2012.
I agree, and contend that making “a case for why the Democrats’ record is better than what Republicans have to offer” is a relatively easy job, once Democrats decide and learn to become effective political messengers.