The Democratic Party got along fine most of the time without a controlling message and much discipline, but it paid a dear price this week.
One lesson from its electoral failings is that the party may have to become more like the Republicans — not in its principles or policies, for heaven's sake, but in having a unifying message that may or may not convey the truth. In the Democrats' case, the truth might be an ally but, as they learned this week, it is hardly essential to electoral triumph.
Republicans made big gains across the country, nowhere more than in Arkansas, because with surrogate help they persuaded enough voters that Democrats and Republicans both were exactly the opposite of their actual records, particularly on the decisive questions of health care, deficits and taxes.
It is not what you do or stand for, but the quality of your public relations.
If Frank Luntz takes bids, the Democrats may want to make an offer for his services.
Dr. Luntz — no, he's not an Arkansas Republican-style Ph.D. but a legitimate one — is the commercial wordsmith and Fox News commentator who has coached Republican public relations, with amazing success. Fifteen years ago, he came up with the phrase "death tax" for the estate and inheritance tax, which Newt Gingrich adopted in the Contract with America. It turned around opinion on the popular tax because people thought it was a tax levied on everyone's death. Luntz suggested that the Bush administration adopt the pleasing term "climate change" for "global warming," although he personally believed global warming to be happening. Who doesn't want climate change? The media adopted the phrase and public alarm over the heating planet vanished.
The 2010 election is Luntz's greatest triumph because he crafted the message on health-insurance reform that turned one of the most popular issues in history into a disaster for Democrats. A 2007 poll showed that 80 percent of Arkansans favored government health insurance for everyone but the pale replica of old Republican health bills that Congress finally enacted last winter was hated by most Arkansans and contributed to the defeat of Democratic candidates.
Using the gleanings from focus groups when Congress began work on health care in the spring of 2009, Luntz gave the insurance industry and the Republicans a memo entitled "The Language of Health Care" on how to turn the public against whatever the Democrats drafted. Call it a "government takeover of health care," say that people will lose the ability to make their own choice of doctors and be denied the treatment they need, and raise alarms that it will raise everyone's taxes and add enormously to the deficit. None of those were true, but they became the mantra of a blizzard of TV commercials by the insurance industry, chamber of commerce and surrogate groups.
Luntz found in his focus groups that while the phrase "government health care" alarmed even old folks, everyone loved Medicare, the ultimate government health insurance program, and they did not want Medicare benefits cut. So Luntz said on Fox News that the Democrats were going to cut Medicare benefits. The new law actually expands Medicare benefits, but the lie was the message in Rick Crawford's and John Boozman's final blizzard of ads against their Democratic opponents this week.
The Democrats lost the image war over taxes even more decisively. President Obama and Congress cut taxes for 95 percent of Americans but that $116 billion tax cut vanished into the PR ether. A New York Times-CBS poll last month showed that only one in 10 voters knew that Obama had cut their taxes — up to $400 a year for single persons and $800 for couples. A reporter covering a political rally in North Carolina asked people what Obama and the Democrats had done with their taxes. All thought their taxes had been increased, which has been the subtle Republican message.
The Democratic record the past 50 years has been to reduce the income taxes of working-class Americans, but they are inept at making the case.
Giant budget deficits are largely a Republican phenomenon, but the Democrats get the blame. Here are the average annual general-revenue deficits of recent presidents: Carter (D) $58 billion, Reagan (R) $192 billion, G.H.W. Bush (R) $310 billion, Clinton (D) $92 billion, G.W. Bush $610 billion.
That $1.4 trillion for fiscal 2009 was Bush's. It was running at a $1.3 trillion level before Bush left office.
Both the Republicans and Obama will enlarge the deficit over the next decade by continuing the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts — Republicans by $366 billion a year and Obama by $299 billion. Obama would pare the deficit $67 billion a year by restoring some of the 2001-level taxes on 120,000 Americans with an average annual income of $8.4 million.
A political party and a president that can't sell that record need help. See what Dr. Luntz charges.