By Bennet Kelley and Ian I. Mitroff
Originally published on Feb. 4, 2010, on The Huffington Post
Some years ago, angered by the fact that Italy refused to extradite a Kurdish rebel responsible for the deaths of hundreds of innocent Turks, the Turkish people threatened to boycott Italian products and even attack the stores of Italian businesses based in Turkey. Some local businesses attempted to dodge the issue by claiming they were not Italians but were merely running Italian businesses, which only angered the Turks even more because it ignored their fury.
In contrast, Italian clothing retailer Benetton won the hearts of the Turkish people, as its Turkish subsidiary quickly ran ads proclaiming that they too were Turks and were just as angry as other Turks. They went even further, adorning the mannequins of the United Colors of Benetton in only black. In short, Benetton seized the moment to spin a narrative of how they sided with the people against a big, impersonal company and an entire country.
For much of the last year, however, the Democrats have played the role of the befuddled business executives. They may soon wish they were in Turkey, however, since they are facing an election in which the unemployment rate may equal the 9.9 percent unemployment rate for Ronald Reagan’s first midterm in 1982 — the highest unemployment rate for a post-World War II midterm. In addition, as the Massachusetts special election plainly demonstrated, voters are angry and frustrated with Washington. The Massachusetts result was a wake-up call to Democrats to follow Benetton’s example and demonstrate that they stand with the people or else incur their wrath.
Democrats need to make it abundantly clear that they hear the cries of PTA parents of Main Street and not the AIG barons of Wall Street. More importantly, they must become a voice for them by taking on and fighting the Goliaths who got us into this mess.
President Reagan faced an even worse economy in 1982, but he used his State of the Union address to explain to voters that he heard their cries and positioned himself as a Washington outsider who had “an economic program in place completely different from the artificial quick-fixes of the past.” This demonstration of vision and leadership mitigated his midterm losses, since he retained voter’s confidence as a leader even while his job approval slid throughout the year as unemployment increased.
Last week, President Obama matched Reagan’s performance by owning the people’s pain. Yes,
the recession has… compounded the burdens that America’s families have been dealing with for decade… but these struggles are the reason I ran for president.
He let the people know whose side he was on through his litany of job creation, tax cuts and financial reform proposals. More importantly, with closing exclamations that “[w]e don’t’ quit” and “I don’t quit,” he gave the people hope by expressing a resolve to see this fight through to the end.
One speech, however, will not carry the Democrats through to November. The success of Obama’s speech highlighted the Democrats prior failure to communicate these same points. Instead, too often Democrats have allowed the GOP to frame the debate and develop the narrative of Obama’s first year that percolates through talk radio, blogs and the mainstream media.
The jobs bill, financial reform and health care each give the Democrats a “Benetton moment” to recast the narrative to reflect reality. The Republicans’ opposition to use of TARP money for a jobs bill and the creation of a Financial Consumer Protection Agency provide a clear opportunity to demonstrate who is fighting for Main Street.
Democrats also need to spin the Republican attacks on health care on its head. This is not about big government but big profits and our future competitiveness. For working Americans tired of working longer and harder and still falling behind, the Republican’s “do nothing” approach give us all the pain but not the relief. By the end of the decade, working Americans will pay twice what they are paying now for less coverage; one in six Americans will be uninsured and we will continue to lose jobs as American businesses suffer from the weight of health premiums.
Finally, the Benetton mannequins speak loudly on the power of symbolism in reframing the debate. For example, Obama’s Cabinet Secretaries and party leaders could spend one day each month in the field working side by side with everyday Americans, not just as a photo op but to listen and communicate the progress being made.
President Kennedy once said, “We should not let our fears hold us back from pursuing our hopes.” That is the challenge of this election. An ominous storm is looming, but if Democrats can reframe the debate they can harness this storm of frustration and discontent into a tidal wave for change.