Democrats Hear Advice on Message

Posted May 18, 2005 at 6:05pm

In the first phase of a major effort to repackage themselves, Congressional Democrats this week pored over an outside expert’s advice about how to talk about Social Security — including the recommendation that they keep “privatization” on their lips as much as possible.

Earlier this year, Congressional Democratic leaders turned to a group of outside consultants, including marketing specialist Richard Yanowitch, to help them reshape the party’s image with voters. Yanowitch has been trying to help Democrats create a “brand” — work that is expected to be completed in the coming months.

Yanowitch’s first task was to help the party shape its message on Social Security. In his five-page document, distributed to House Democrats on Tuesday, Yanowitch laid out a plan for keeping up momentum on Social Security, emphasizing to Members that “privatization” is a magic word that resonates with the public.

It urged Members to stick with the argument that Democrats support strengthening Social Security, not “replacing it with a risky privatization scheme.”

He outlined three themes that Democrats should stress: that privatization is a “bad deal for America,” that Social Security is “an irreplaceable guaranteed benefit” and Democrats “can and will make Social Security Stronger for the future.”

Democratic sources said while Yanowitch didn’t necessarily present the party with new information, his report does put added pressure on Members to keep talking about Social Security and keep up the anti-privatization drumbeat.

He argued that Members must act as “traveling salesmen” on key issues, especially those that they believe they are scoring political points, sources said. Republicans, these sources acknowledge, have been very successful at creating such resonant messages, and Democrats must do the same to keep pace.

“It matters how we talk about the issues,” said a Democratic leadership aide. “Our words matter.”

Another aide said that Democrats have “struggled in the past” to push back on major Republican initiatives, and they recognize that they must invest in their message if they are to reap political reward.

“We’ve found some success in debating Social Security issue,” said the staffer. “Having said that, we’re definitely not resting our current status. We’re still going to consult with outside experts about on how we can continue to talk about it.”

Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), who is helping lead the House Democrats’ message on Social Security, said the Social Security debate creates a “good opportunity for Democrats to highlight the differences in philosophy between the two parties.”

He added that while he believes Democrats are winning on the Social Security battle, they cannot rest on their laurels and must remain vocal and unified in their message.

“Every weekend we go home and hear about something our constituents are very concerned or worried about” with regard to Social Security, Ryan said. “It’s very important that we stick to this.”

Beyond Social Security, Yanowitch hinted at broader goals for Democrats as they work on strengthening their image.

He tells Members that there are seven steps to “building an effective, enduring message: Talk about values, develop a plan, refer to the audience in the second person, use repetition, tell a story, tie your message to the larger theme that Democrats are different from Republicans, and speak with authority.”

Yanowitch has counseled Congressional Democrats in the past, including a project with then-Minority Leader Tom Daschle (S.D.) during the 108th Congress and another with Senate Democratic Policy Committee Chairman Byron Dorgan (N.D.).