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What the Devil won't tell you

Dems' opening salvos on McSally's Senate bid explain a lot ... about Democrats

With Sinema in the wings, 'establishment' dig may not be the way to go

Remember all the times I talked about what an anchor Donald Trump was going to be around Republicans running for Congress? How I was making the argument before it was cool?

The fundamentals are there for Democrats to ride the same kind of wave that carried Bill Clinton in 1994 and Barack Obama in 2010, minus one.

I forget, sometimes, the Democrats can't make the unmissable shot. I'm not saying the Democratic messaging operation is going to miss an easy lay-up. I'm saying given the opportunity of an empty lane and a clear path to the basket, the Democrats would try a slapshot from the point and then wonder "where's the goalie?" as the puck spins nose-high toward their fans with floor seats.

They frequently forget what game they're playing.

The Democrats' opening attack on U.S. Rep. Martha McSally's Senate campaign has arrived in media inboxes, courtesy of the Arizona Democratic Party. It is just inept, in so many ways. I'm going to just walk you through it because political messaging used to be my job.

They're asking the media to run with the story that U.S. Sen. Rand Paul's endorsement of former state Rep. Kelli Ward proves McSally is the "establishment candidate." That's fine. This is true. She is the establishment pick. I mean, when Arizona's five Republican congressfolk sit down in a D.C. back room and decide she should be the one to make the move, she's pretty establishment.

On the other hand, if the Dems are trying to make the campaign a referendum on who's less "establishment," the party should remember it's running U.S. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema. Sinema couldn't be more D.C. "establishment" if she were made of marble. Sinema's eyeglasses come in just three styles: Ionic, Doric and Corinthian.

Sinema's morphing from wild-eyed socialist to hippie-punching moderate has tracked perfectly with her rising ambitions and fortunes.

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I don't like the term "bossy" for women because it comes with a negative connotation. Guys can be bossy too. Yet Sinema's strong executive tendencies absolutely translate into shimmying her way into whatever establishment may be nearest to her. The woman likes to be in charge. In guy terms, this means she "wants the ball." If you want the ball, you play the game. Sinema wants the ball. McSally wants the ball. Good for them. They should. They're both smart and savvy enough to make plays.

If you are going to attack McSally for being beholden to the special interests with operational control over the Beltway, make sure Sinema hasn't raised twice the PAC money as McSally. Make sure McSally hasn't taken in three times the small dollar donations as Sinema. And make sure Sinema's leading contributors aren't the banks. McSally's are retirees, many from out of state.

I can understand, to a degree, fighting in the post-fact world. That's what tweets are for. Press releases prompt reporters to start digging and searching for context. This information is no harder to find than typing into Google: "Open Secrets, Sinema."

McSally Sinema
Small dollar donors (<$200): $1,235,966 $434,650
PAC money: $789,530 $1,581,154
Top financial backers: Retirees Insurance and investment

I quote John Lee Hooker: "Before you accuse me, take a look at yourself." And if you didn't want the media to look into it, don't send out the press release.

(Point of order: Sinema isn't running unopposed in the Democratic primary. Social justice advocate Deedra Abboud, lawyer and Army National Guard veteran Chris Russell and Richard Sherzan are also candidates. Check them out but Sinema has $5 million in the bank, has put in the work to prepare for the race and has a history of winning elections, which is the point of this column.)

If all Sinema has to do is avoid five lightning strikes and two political earthquakes to become the Democratic Party's candidate for U.S. Senate, maybe don't make the attack on McSally quite so appropriate to your own champion.

Easy to be hard

The worst-kept secret in politics, which is no secret at all, is that Democrats struggle with messaging. Having been inside somewhat, I think the reasons why are worthy of their own book.

Democrats suck at telling their own stories, in part, because they are always trying to "build a case." Republicans excel because they know the trick is to reduce a case into a message.

I have a grand theory about this, which is that the Left sells empathy and the Right sells leadership. They are often at cross purposes. Empathy requires communicating knowledge. Leadership requires common-sense resolve. Empathy feels your pain. Leadership "tells it like it is."

I think it goes back to our tribal brain.

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When deciding to follow a leader, the pack is going to choose the person ready to make the "tough decision" the rest wouldn't want to make but know needs to be made. In cave man days, it meant the family doesn't get to eat because they are worthless and weak. Today, it means kids go homeless because we're broke. It's not that the leader is mean. It's that he or she made the tough call that makes others squeamish.

The musical "Hair" was right. Being hard is easy.

A leadership argument is simpler and more effective because it fits a shorter attention span and doesn't require explanation. Explaining, as the theory goes, is losing. In politics, explaining can be easily confused with losing without its own leadership argument tipping the hurtling spear.

So maybe McSally is more establishment than Kelli Ward. Let me save the world sometime. Black Lives Matter is more establishment than Kelli Ward. She represents the governing by id that our country seems to be having some remorse over trying. Voters may be in the mood for some grownups.

So long as we're at it, what is a state party, if not a political establishment? Can't they establish an independent expenditure committee called "Citizens for Horse Sense and Unschooled Grit" to make these claims?

Establishment fingerprints

It would be easy to dismiss one press release if all you see is just the one announcement. I used to do this for a living so let me take you behind the scenes.

Candidates like Sinema want to run a positive campaign, so they outsource going after the other side to the party apparatus and outside groups. On the other hand, don't read "outsourcing" as if it's lone-wolf messaging.

The state party comms director is in touch with the Washington operatives who are in charge of the Senate race here. That's the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee. The price of the Senate political wing's help is largely doing what it says.

So the attack pattern is being orchestrated out of Washington. Those D.C. Democrats aren't being cowboys. They are listening to their high-money media consultants, and most importantly, their pollsters. These power brokers expect "pre-clearence" on all attacks firing into their cycle because an elitist streak animates their collective consciousness. "If you are so smart, you wouldn't be in Arizona."

The Democratic Party's messaging machine is impervious to influence from flyover country. So yeah, they intentionally choose their losing arguments and have nothing but disdain for anyone who suggests doing something different. They have the poll numbers to prove they were "right" to be so wrong.

Established voice

The establishment is all over the raison d'etre animating Sinema's campaign.

The USA Today couldn't have done the messaging better for the Democratic establishment if that Democratic establishment wrote it, itself:

"(Sinema) is the Democratic front-runner for Arizona’s open Senate seat. But she is running less as a Democrat than a problem solver willing to work with anyone, regardless of party."

Trump is “not a thing,” Sinema said when USA TODAY asked about her pitch to voters. Sinema added that the controversial president is “not a part of what I think my constituents are worried about or think about.”

She is later quoted: "It’s not about a party; it never is about party. It’s about putting people ahead of party. I don’t think party matters much to people."

The pure boilerplate of her campaign message can be boiled down to this sentence political comms directors will write in their sleep 10 years after they're dead: "I don't care if it's a liberal idea, or a conservative idea, so long as it's the right idea for (insert home state, here) and will work across the aisle to get things done, so we can move (insert home state, here) forward again"

In other words, she has no core beliefs and don't confuse anything she says with principle because that principle might offend some corners of a purple state's sensibilities.

It's the Fred DuVal/Terry Goddard/Richard Carmona campaign all over again. Good enough to raise money to pay the consultants but not quite good enough to win.

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Sinema is a talented enough tactician and the mid-term landscape may be tilted enough to make this shitty strategy work — and yes, it's terrible strategy because voters are looking for leaders. Leaders have guts. Promising voters you have none rings hollow. See 910 lost legislative seats nationally.

Sinema is running a play developed in the post-Reagan 1980s and '90s. Reagan left office a popular two-term president who won his elections averaging more than 500 electoral votes. Blue Dog Dems like Sinema figured victory in tough races meant not challenging political constructions. Victory is at the margins. Reagan had successfully rebranded the Democrats as the party of Jimmy Carter and not FDR or JFK.

Democrats are still running post-Reagan campaigns in the 2010s, which is stunning. They won't go big so they tend to go home.

Hey, I don't think the Bernie way is much smarter. European socialism goes back to European feudalism and we are a country of people who fled European feudalism. It's just not in our national DNA. Unfortunately, racism, xenophobia and jingoism all are a part of national zeitgeist giving conservatives an advantage.

On the other hand, America reached its zenith loaded up on the New Deal and the Great Society. So there's that. On the third hand, after decades of demand-side economics, some supply-side Reaganomics may have been order to tilt the needle back. After 40 years of that, perhaps another correction is warranted seeing as we're no longer facing double-digit inflation and interest rates with the stock market stuck below 1,000.

Democrats need to figure out how to move to the left without scaring the crap out of the middle and "True Progressives" don't yet understand that's trickier than they think. For my money, U.S. Sens. Sherrod Brown in Ohio and Claire McCaskill in Missouri are damn good at it.

That's what Democrats must master to get the upper hand in Purple America. Throwing wild punches at McSally aren't the the way to start.

Blake Morlock is a journalist who has spent 17 years covering government in Arizona and has worked in Democratic political communications. Now he’s telling you what the devil won’t.

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have your say   

1 comment on this story

Feb 21, 2018, 11:22 am
-0 +1

Another indication that the politics of the Democratic Party is moribund and bankrupt. 

And I believe that that this article misses the point as well. It is not “messaging” but actions, policies and advocacy for initiatives that serve the people.

You could go full ‘Bernie’ with fight for $15 an hour wages, universal healthcare, free college tuition, etc. 

You could also advocate for rolling back the tax giveaway to the rich and how it bankrupts America.  You could demand that the U.S. Military budget be dramatically reduced—we don’t need or want foreign military interventions and military presence in 149 countries.
We need a politician who has the courage, yes courage, to fight for our environment, whether fighting global warming or the reduction in regulations monitoring poisons. 

There is no mention of promoting the ERA amendment.  Nor is there discussion on fighting sexual abuse of women and children.

There are real issues to address.

Regretfully, neither the candidate nor the author want to discuss issues that affect us every day.

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