Imagine yourself as a political consultant who’s received a call to come down to the Democratic Party headquarters ASAP. You are received in a conference room at which more than a dozen other political consultants are seated, all of them looking like they’ve just lost their pet dog. The big man at the head of the conference table wastes no words.
Big Man: “Hello X. I don’t need to tell you that Dave Weprin lost Anthony Weiner’s old seat and Kate Marshall got absolutely blown away in Nevada. The pundits are calling it an early indicator of how 2012 will turn out, which means if anything, that we’re doomed.”
X: “OK. But why ask me in here? It looks like you’ve got just about every policy adviser in the Democratic Party here already. What can I tell you that they can’t?”
Big Man: “Well, I’ve been listening to them these past weeks and look where it got me. Nowhere. I’m desperate, willing to try anything. Even to listen to someone like you.” (Laughter from the other consultants. “Basically I want to know why we lost so badly and what it all means.”
X: There are three possible reasons why the voters turned against you in Weiner’s seat — and so strongly against you in Nevada. One, they don’t like your policies. Two, your policies are decent, but your messaging is bad. The third possibility has to do with the Ancient Mariner.”
Big Man: “Don’t talk in riddles, what do you mean?”
X: “The Ancient Mariner brought a curse on the ship in which he sailed by killing an albatross, which they hung around his neck, as a symbol of misfortune. Until the albatross was dropped they were all doomed. Obviously you guys thought Anthony Weiner was your albatross, so you dropped him. Only he wasn’t because you dropped him and still lost. So if there’s an albatross around your necks it’s someone else. Now who could it be?”
Big Man: “We can can’t change the policies because that defines the party. We’re stuck with that. That takes care of point number one. All the guys around the table think our messaging is wrong. But I don’t really believe that because we’ve spent hundreds of millions on messaging. I have the best messaging that money can buy and if there’s better, it doesn’t exist. So it’s not the messaging.
But if I understand you correctly there’s an albatross we aren’t dropping that we could. Are you talking about the President.”
X: “Oh no, he’s the Ancient Mariner, absent the remorse. The albatross … now wait — hear me out, the albatrosses are all the millstones he’s hanging around your necks by raising expectations. Look, he came into office running for Messiah. He promised to make the seas fall. Employ everyone in Green Jobs. He promised people “affordable health care” and presided over the biggest ‘stimulus’ in modern history. He predicted ‘recovery summer’. And nothing happened. But that doesn’t stop him. Just a few weeks ago he presented a “jobs bill” that wasn’t written before a joint session of Congress — and he asked for the joint session in which to present that nonexistent bill. The President doesn’t do small; he doesn’t promise little improvements. The President does only big. The Big Kahuna, the Big Score. Then he gives you the Big Zero.”
Big Man: “How would you do things differently.”
X: “He could have done humility from the start, like Winston Churchill, who came to office on the day the Nazis invaded France. But he didn’t promise to kick Hitler’s butt; that they were going to be in Berlin by Christmas. Good thing too, because forty days later he was evacuating the broken British Army from France and by the winter his voters were being bombed every single night.
“Between 1940 and mid 1942 he won not a single victory. But he anticipated this. He told the British people at the outset, not that the seas would fall, not that all his enemies would fall on their knees before his moral superiority, but that they would face ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat’.
He said to the people who elected him, ‘death and sorrow will be the companions of our journey; hardship our garment; consistency and valor our only shield.’ Heck, he promised them hell. There was nothing about going to the mountain; transforming the world, leading the nations. Churchill told them only that if they were very, very lucky, then they might survive. It was a hell of a thing for a politician to do.”
Big Man: “So these millstones are really unmet expectations that the President keeps hanging around the neck of the Party.”
X: “Right. And when the voters see Weprin and Marshall going along with this crap, what do they think? That these candidates are either playing them for fools or are the snake oil salesman’s assistants. What else would they think?
What the voters are looking to see is if the President can win one victory against the odds, pull off one small triumph against the darkness that just seems to be pouring over everything. They’re not looking for him to fix every problem, just to make a start. Not head off to the golf course and come back in a week’s time with another big speech.
We can learn from Churchill again, he focused on the little victories and dwelt on them lovingly. ‘Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning’. He knew how to keep up the fires of hope, not just to talk about it. But the President thinks differently. In fact the first thing he did was get rid of old Winston’s bust. He doesn’t do little victories; he only deals in the biggest transformations on the largest scale, in worlds without nuclear weapons, grand bargains, fundamental transformations of America. He doesn’t do jobs. For most of his life he never even held one.”
Big Man: “And your recommendation is?”
X: “Stop talking about the party’s program because it sucks. Tell the President that it would be good if he had started to sound humble, only it’s too late now. To don the mantle of humility suddenly would be too obviously fake. Your best messaging strategy is to shut up and do something useful and let other people talk about it.”
Big Man: “That’s asking for a lot. Our comparative strength is messaging and you’re asking us to forgo it.”
X: “I’m asking you to start governing for a change and stop campaigning. I see there isn’t a thing I’ve told you that you didn’t know already. Like everything else, you wanted the appearance of being open minded. But in reality you’ve made your minds up. Power on your terms or no power for anyone at all. My bill will be in the mail. Now that is a thing you can understand.”