George Lakoff on the radio this morning talking about how the Republicans are much better at framing their messages than the Democrats. I agree with that, but I also think that the Democrats engage in too much hand-wringing about their poor communication skills. The problem is not simply, as Lakoff said, that Democrats are too focused on substantive policy issues, while the Republicans are stealing the show with sound bites about big government or the deficit or personal freedom. I would give voters a bit more credit than that. The real reason that the Democrats lost so many seats in Congress and the state legislatures has more to do with the unpopularity of the Democrats' policies--especially the bail-outs (rightly or wrongly now owned by the Democrats), the stimulus, and the health care reform act--among moderates and independents. (And nobody understands the financial regulatory reform act.) The unpopularity of what the Democrats actually did, plus the fact that the economy still stinks, led to electoral disaster. Sure Democrats might have done better without all the lies and distortions thrown at them during the campaign. Even with clearer explanations and less distortion, however, their policies were not overwhelmingly popular.
Consider also that if the Republicans' better communication skills explained the outcome of this election, what would explain the Democrats' spectacular successes in 2006 and 2008? It wasn't as though Republicans were such bad communicators back then and suddenly learned how to get better. Instead, the Democrats captured Congress in 2006 because people were sick of how Iraq was going, and because Hurricane Katrina had exposed the corruption and incompetence of the Bush administration. And people voted Democratic in 2008 because they were ready for a change and the economy was going into the tank. So it shouldn't be that hard to accept that Republicans scored this year because people don't like what the Democrats are doing, not just because Republicans explain themselves better.
I am not saying that any of the Democrats' actions were wrong. In fact, I think Democrats should be proud of their accomplishments during the last two years, and have a right to be angry at Republicans for failing to be part of the solution. I'm just saying that Democrats have to accept the fact that a lot of people have yet to see much benefit from this latest session of Congress, despite its historic achievements. It's hard to accept the fact that what you are doing is unpopular, or that it is going to take more time for people to appreciate what you have done. That may be why we are seeing all the whining about how the Democrats just don't know how to communicate very well. But it's better to face the facts, Democrats. People understand pretty well that you passed an $800 billion stimulus bill. They understand that you bailed out GM and AIG. They get it that you want everyone to be covered by health insurance. A lot of them just don't like it. I wish they liked it better, but they don't. Eventually (hopefully by 2012) people might appreciate the facts that the bailouts saved our economy from collapse; that the stimulus cushioned the effects of the recession; and that the health care bill will help millions of people, but right now they don't.
In a democracy, just like back in high school, you are judged by how popular you are, not by how well you did on your last history test. Right now the Democrats might still be getting an A in history, but the Republicans won a few more popularity contests.
To me, what seems most admirable about President Obama's and Speaker Pelosi's response to the mid-term election results, is that they have accepted responsibility, and they have gone out of their way to salute those Democratic candidates who stood up for what they believed was right, knowing they would be punished for their stands at the polls.