The Democratic Message Deficit

The usually insightful Greg Sargent praised Pete Buttigieg’s Sunday night appearance on Fox News, possibly only see by people who don’t have HBO subscriptions. But Sargent had some criticism, too.

Buttigieg has been pilloried for going on Fox News in the first place, something Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has done but that Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has refused to do. Buttigieg addressed the criticism by saying: “I get where that’s coming from,” and referencing the anti-immigrant rhetoric of some Fox News personalities. He added:

There is a reason why anybody has to think twice and swallow hard before participating in this media ecosystem. But I also believe . . . there are a lot of Americans who my party can’t blame for ignoring our message, because they will never hear it if we don’t go on.

Buttigieg insisted that this is another reason the candidates must spend more time “going into places where Democrats haven’t been seen much. We’ve got to find people where they are — not change our values, but update our vocabulary so that we’re truly connecting with Americans from coast to coast.”

No, that cannot be right, says Greg Sargent. How can it be that Democrats haven’t been reaching out to and speaking to all voters? “One can and should argue for speaking to all voters without adding the notion that other unnamed Democrats don’t actually try to do this,” Sargent says.

Let me deliver this sermon one more time.

No, people in large parts of the United States don’t hear Democratic Party messages very often, if at all. Democrats to show up and speak to these voters, but when they do they use carefully vague Republican Lite rhetoric. For decades they’ve avoided discussing hot-button issues like abortion. They also avoid discussing any new initiatives that might require raising taxes. When they run for office, most of their television ads are designed to reassure voters they really aren’t like those liberals.

I am living in a Missouri county that went more than 70 percent for Donald Trump in 2016. I grew up here; it’s a community that had a lot of union jobs 50 years ago, but no longer. The kind of boldly progressive ideas many of the current Dem presidential candidates are proposing haven’t been spoken out loud here since the 1960s. I am serious. Republican talking points are all anyone ever hears, and the few Democrats who do have a voice in the region — the recently deposed Claire McCaskill is a good example — tend to run for office on how pragmatic and centrist they are. 

The only specific issue I can remember that McCaskill emphasized in her many television ads was reducing presciption drug costs. She didn’t say how she was going to do that, except by “standing up to the pharmaceutical companies.” But  in a state where rural hospitals are shutting down faster than Sears, she did not address the wider issue of health care costs, I assume to avoid being put on the spot to defend Obamacare.

Gun control? Nope. Infrastructure? Nope. Abortion? Nope. Opioids? Nope. It’s true progressive ideas on this issues may not play well in rural areas, but in Kansas City, St. Louis, and more urban areas people are more receptive, and to win a statewide election here a Democrat has to run up a big margin in urban areas.

I know people in this area. It’s true a lot of them have been so saturated with Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, and little else, for so many years they are impervious to any other sort of message. But I also sincerely believe a lot of folks in these parts would be receptive to progressive, New Deal style ideas if they ever heard them. But they don’t. At least, they don’t hear about them from local news or from the states’ politicians of either party.

This is an example of how the Democratic Party’s hyper-cautious run-to-the-center strategy has so eroded the Democratic brand that nobody knows what the party stands for. Or if it stands for anything.

For a guy like Pete Buttigieg to win elections in right-wing Indiana is, IMO, damn impressive. It may be that South Bend is more liberal than the rest of the state; I wouldn’t know.  But when he says things like “there are a lot of Americans who my party can’t blame for ignoring our message, because they will never hear it if we don’t go on” and “We’ve got to find people where they are — not change our values, but update our vocabulary so that we’re truly connecting with Americans from coast to coast,” I know exactly what he’s saying, and I agree entirely.