Democrats have a messaging problem

by Jackie Calmes

Democrats have a messaging problem, as you’ve no doubt heard since their recent election losses.

The problem hardly started with President Joe Biden. Weak messaging has defined Democrats for most of the years I’ve covered them. Theirs is a diverse, fractious party that currently spans “the Squad” on the left to Manchema on the right; what’s “on message” is often up for debate. They’re wonky and wordy: A Democratic bumper sticker, the joke goes, ends with “Continued on next bumper sticker.” They resist spiking a football amid good news, for fear of seeming insensitive to anyone who’s not feeling it.

Stuart Stevens, a veteran of five Republican presidential campaigns, recently tweeted: “Dow is over 36,000, unemployment has dropped from 6.3[%] in Jan. to 4.8. Over 5 million jobs added, a record. 220m vaccines in 10 months. And only 30% of country think US is on right track. The Democratic Party has a huge messaging problem.”

Even some Democrats agree. Imagine Donald Trump with those economic indicators — the stock market gains alone would have him in celebratory fits of credit-taking. Yet Republicans counter “Inflation!” and Democrats are on the defensive and “want to give you an economic 101 lesson,” as Republican strategist Susan Del Percio put it on MSNBC.

Yet Democrats’ ineffectualness by itself doesn’t explain why Republicans are so much better at this game.

Republicans have an entire conservative media ecosystem, dominated by Fox News and extending to right-wing websites and local talk-show hosts, to amplify their message — even to set the political conversation as with critical race theory — and to shred Democrats’ arguments.

In past years, conservative media often attacked Republican leaders and promoted their harshest critics, contributing greatly to the rise of the tea party movement and Trump, and forcing other Republicans to fall in line. “Trump got everyone on the same page,” Nicole Hemmer, a historian of conservative media, told me. “There’s a real political power in that.”

The Democrats have no analog. Republicans and others who suggest CNN, MSNBC, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the rest of mainstream media are comparably in Democrats’ corner aren’t paying attention.

As Democrat-friendly as CNN and MSNBC are, they thrive on covering conflict, as journalism always has. For months, the conflict has been among the Democrats who control the White House and Congress — progressives versus moderates, battling to pass an ambitious domestic agenda despite thin House and Senate majorities. Mainstream media has been a megaphone for the “Democrats in disarray” narrative that’s been so damaging to Biden and his party.

That framing isn’t wrong; Democrats have provided plenty of self-defeating drama to fill it out. It’s not, however, the coverage of outlets in the tank for Democrats. (Recall, too, how mainstream media hammered on Hillary Clinton’s emails before the 2016 presidential election.) And after years of adversarial reporting on Trump, many outlets want “to look as tough on Biden,” as Hemmer said.

Yet the focus on Democrats’ scrapping gives short shrift to the substance of what would be transformative policies. And it lets Republicans off the hook.

Their united opposition to the larger of Democrats’ two bills, the nearly $2-trillion, multiyear package of social spending and tax cuts, is simply taken as a given. Too often Republicans are allowed to dismiss the entire package simply as “socialism” or “wasteful spending,” without being challenged to address its popular particulars.

What about paid sick leave, home healthcare, another year of monthly child tax credits that have lifted millions out of poverty, universal prekindergarten, two years of community college, a cap on families’ child-care expenses, healthcare subsidies, Medicare hearing benefits, climate change programs and, to offset the costs, tax increases on corporations and the richest individuals as well as authority for Medicare to negotiate for lower prescription drug prices?

These proposals address real problems in our society and economy, and Republicans shouldn’t be allowed to fall back on sloganeering like “socialism.” But in our bifurcated media world, they get away with it in part by declining interviews with mainstream journalists — Fox’s audience is the one they want. Similarly, many Democrats shy from engaging with conservative media. That dynamic exacerbates our political polarization.

The Pew Research Center captured the Balkanization of Americans’ media consumption in broad surveys in 2014 and 2020. “Republicans and Democrats place their trust in two nearly inverse news media environments,” the 2020 report said. Republican and Republican-leaning independents disbelieve traditional media sources and rely almost exclusively on right-wing sources — while Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents depend on a wider range of mainstream sources, and disdain media on the right.

Democrats could have the best message ever, but voters who rely on the likes of Fox News or Breitbart.com won’t see or read it, except perhaps in mockery. At the same time, the message from Republicans and their media propagandists elevates culture wars over policy discussions (what policies?), and conspiracy theories over facts, even about presidential elections and insurrectionists (Tourists? Patriots? Let’s just move on).

That’s the real messaging problem.

Jackie Calmes is an opinion columnist for the Los Angeles Times in Washington, D.C.