Democrats Look For Expert Help

Message Gurus Asked for Input

Posted February 16, 2005 at 6:39pm

Democratic Congressional leaders, hoping to solve their party’s image problem, have launched a major internal effort to craft a new party “brand” that will help them better connect with the electorate.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), Senate Policy Committee Chairman Byron Dorgan (N.D.) and House Steering Committee Chairman George Miller (Calif.) are spearheading the initiative.

The leaders have turned to a group of outside advisers led by former Internet executive and marketing guru Richard Yanowitch, who will spend the coming weeks developing ideas.

“These days it is not just about where you stand but it is also the words you use to describe where you stand and the impact those words have on people,” said Dorgan, the point person in the Senate on the project. “Frankly, I think we have got some catching up to do in language.”

“We’ve got to get out there and frame the debate, and show that this is what Democrats stand for and this is what we are,” added a Democratic staffer familiar with the effort.

The aide said Democrats are hoping to find a better way to package themselves beyond being “the party of change, party of progress and the party that helps everyday Americans.” The source noted that Democrats are looking for a concise party slogan, along the lines of the “compassionate conservative” brand used effectively by President Bush in the 2000 campaign.

Yanowitch has counseled Senate Democrats in the past. In the 108th Congress he worked with then-Minority Leader Tom Daschle (S.D.) and Dorgan to help Democrats find better ways to frame and talk about issues.

Congressional Democrats have begun talking to a slew of outside experts, including George Lakoff, a University of California at Berkeley professor, David Brock, journalist turned liberal activist, and Rob Stein, former Clinton aide turned strategist, to get their advice heading into the next cycle, trying to move beyond the Beltway as they negotiate an increasingly tough political landscape.

“He is a very able person,” Reid said of Yanowitch. “I think it is good he is willing to spend time with us and he has spent a lot of time with Pelosi’s staff and my staff.”

Part of the new Senate Minority Leader’s goal is to reach out to voters in Middle America, a constituency that has largely moved to Republicans.

Reid has ramped up his internal communications shop, dubbed the “war room,” and said Democrats would block legislation and nominees they consider politically extreme. In the meantime, Pelosi has been trying to add teeth to the House Democratic message and on Wednesday began a rollout of the Caucus’ agenda for the current Congress, part of her “New Partnership for America’s Future” message platform.

The New Partnership was the result of a year’s worth of work by Pelosi and designed, in part, to help define House Democrats before the opposition was able to do so. The Minority Leader said Wednesday that Democrats are tying legislative proposals to the broadly themed message structure to continue their “constant drumbeat.”

Dorgan and other Democrats said the problem in recent years has been that the party has failed to effectively convey its legislative goals beyond the Beltway.

“We are a little more wonkish than is useful when we describe what we are for,” said Dorgan. “I think we need to sharpen our language some.”

Democrats are now taking a page from the Republican playbook by trying to perfect a message that is easier for people to understand.

“The Republicans have been working on framing and sharpening their message for a long, long time,” Dorgan added. “I can tell you what the Republicans are for in eight words: family values, strong defense, lower taxes and less government.”

Several knowledgeable sources said Democrats have no set timeline for coming up with their new brand, but that it will be sooner rather than later. Yanowitch met this week with Pelosi and Miller.

“We are optimistic,” an aide familiar with the efforts said. “We are more united than we have ever been as a party, and there is unanimity in the idea that we need to have a message that resonates.”

Sources said that once a simple message is settled on, the leaders will work with other Members to rally support for it and promote it broadly within the party. They said the leaders also will work with newly elected Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean to ensure all segments of the Democratic Party share the same theme.

“To have a brand is fine, but it’s meaningless if people don’t use it,” said a well-placed Democratic source.