Saturday, July 24, 2010

Harry's Problem, and Ours

Harry Reid started his speech today appreciating the historic nature of the power of new media, represented by the Netroots audience.  He also gave a good account of Congress's accomplishments this session, reeling off an impressive list of landmark legislation Congress has passed, in the face of what he rightly called the least cooperative opposition party in history.  Yet Harry Reid doesn't excite even this generally-friendly audience the way more fire-breathing speakers like Van Jones or Alan Grayson or Elizabeth Warren do.

Partly this is due to his quiet manner and halting delivery.  But I attended another panel right after Reid's speech that suggested other problems with Democrats getting their message across.  A group of campaign professionals explained that a laundry list of accomplishments, no matter how substantive and impressive, will not overcome people's feelings.  So if voters this fall feel that the economy has not recovered sufficiently, and they have not seen much impact on their own lives from Congress's impressive legislative session (and may even be worried that government has made these problems worse), their feelings are not going to be overridden by hearing somebody recite a laundry list. As I discussed in an earlier post, a fair number of people find this blog by looking for a list of Obama administration accomplishments, which means that a lot of people must think that lists can be persuasive.  Like the panelists, however, I doubt whether people who are unsympathetic to whatever cause the list is supposed to support are going to be persuaded by the recitation of a list.  Congressional leaders like Reid rightly take pride in their accomplishments.  But they are not going to be able to persuade many skeptics by reeling off a list.

To persuade people, you have to appeal to their emotions, as well as the logical parts of their brains.  That means incumbent candidates like Reid have to find a different way to get out the message about the value of the legislation they passed, such as by telling stories about how these changes have affected people's lives.  One effective moment, for this audience at least, came when Senator Reid at first refused to accept Lt. Dan Choi's West Point ring, then agreed to keep it until "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" has been repealed.  (video here)  That is the kind of story that moves people.

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