“A lie told often enough becomes the truth.”
According to PolitiFact, the biggest lie of the year 2010 was the Republicans’ description of the Democrats’ health insurance reform bill as “a government takeover of health care”. How many times did you hear that phrase during the Summer and Fall of 2010? If you followed the news at all, probably hundreds. That was deliberate, and, according to PolitiFact, the phrase was cooked up by the Republican Party’s language guru, Frank Luntz. However, leading Republicans made this phrase stick, by repeating it in a highly disciplined manner, whereupon it was picked up by their followers and by the mainstream media. (“Government takeover of health care” or “government-run health care” was also a short, simple, catchy slogan. As was discussed in a podcast last December, such simplicity is also key to good political messaging, and will be the subject of another upcoming Messaging Maxim.)
Repetition of political catch phrases such as “government-run health care,” even when the phrases are false, is one of the Republican Party’s strengths. As mentioned in A Messaging Manifesto For Democrats, the GOP has a huge list of such phrases, including “pro-life,” “death tax” and many more. Leading Republicans repeat these phrases in a disciplined manner every chance they get, such as on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, on every news television interview program on which they are invited, in newspaper and online articles, etc. The result is that the messages, which are framed in a manner favorable to Republicans (and often focus group-tested beforehand), are echoed in the mainstream media, and they sink into our subconscious, thereby tilting the political battlefield in the Republicans’ favor.
This crucial element of repeating political messages is sorely lacking on the Democratic side. Quick, can you think of one catch phrase to describe any Democratic Party policies (or used by Democrats to describe Republican policies)? They are very few in number. Bill Clinton used “mend it, don’t end it” to try to stave off Republican efforts to cancel federal affirmative action programs. But that was more than 15 years ago.
More recently, some in the Netroots (the Democratic Party’s grassroots network of bloggers and online writers) came up with the phrase “Catfood Commission” to describe the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, which had recommended cuts in Social Security, for example, by raising the retirement age. The Netroots created and repeated this phrase without help from the White House or Democratic Party leaders (maybe because it was President Obama‘s White House which created the commission). And guess what? Their efforts were successful. In December 2010, the Commission, facing the huge “Catfood Commission” backlash, could not garner enough votes to send its own recommendations formally to Congress. This might not have happened without the ability of progressives to see and repeat the phrase “Catfood Commission” via email, Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and other so-called “new media”.
Perhaps the “Catfood Commission” experience of grassroots messaging will serve as a model for future Democratic messaging.