Why Democrats are losing trade story

Ford announces plan to create 700 U.S. jobs_00001015
Ford announces plan to create 700 U.S. jobs_00001015

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Story highlights

  • On Tuesday, Ford announces it will shift jobs intended for a now-canceled Mexican plant back to Michigan
  • Dustin McKissen: With this announcement, Democrats risk losing the story on outsourcing and trade
  • They must learn to repackage facts in a compelling narrative, or the 2020 election could be an uphill battle

Dustin McKissen is a writer, communications and marketing strategist, and founder of McKissen + Company, a marketing and communications firm. He was recently named one of LinkedIn's "Top Voices" for the second year in a row. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

(CNN)When Franklin Delano Roosevelt told America, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," he was telling us a story about resiliency and hope in one of America's worst economic moments.

When Ronald Reagan told Mikhail Gorbachev to "Tear down this wall," he was telling the world a story about what the future -- a future without walls -- could look like.
Dustin McKissen
And when then-candidate Barack Obama gave his "A More Perfect Union" speech in the spring of 2008, he was telling a story about America's changing demographics.
Politics has always been, and will always be, about story -- and Democrats are at risk of losing the "story" on trade, even if they're right about the data.
Data is important, but political data is always driven by the story being told, rather than the other way around (as the Clinton campaign learned).
With Ford's announcement that it will shift jobs intended for a now-canceled Mexican plant back to Michigan, it's obvious Democrats risk losing the story on outsourcing and trade in a big way.
Trump rips GM for making cars in Mexico
Trump rips GM for making cars in Mexico

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If the reaction to Carrier's November decision to keep roughly 800 jobs in Indiana is any precedent, Democrats will likely point to the details of Ford's decision, arguing that saving a relatively small number of jobs does little to address the decadeslong trend of reduced manufacturing employment.
But telling a better story, particularly in an era where that story might be told using less than 140 characters, is almost never about the details. And while Democrats have an obligation to debate a Trump administration on the basis of facts, they need to figure out a way to package those facts in a compelling narrative. Otherwise the following hypothetical commercials could become a 2020 presidential campaign reality.
Commercial 1 -- Elizabeth Warren (or Joe Biden or Corey Booker or someone we've yet to hear of) talks about macro-level trade data, how the efforts of the Trump administration amounted to little more than tokenism and how manufacturing job loss has continued despite companies making periodic announcements that they will restore a few hundred jobs.
Commercial 2 -- A factory worker (for even better effect, an African-American, female or Hispanic factory worker) stares into the camera and says, "I didn't vote for Trump. But he saved my job anyway."
You don't have to be an advertising expert or a political junkie to know which of those two commercials will be more effective. One is a potential regurgitation of factual data. The other is a story.
Democrats should have already learned this. Hillary Clinton had the data, but she lacked a story. Donald Trump may have lacked many things (staff, money, a filter and at times common decency), but he told a story that resonated with the portions of the electorate he needed it to resonate with.
Based on the reaction to the Carrier deal, and what I expect the reaction to the Ford decision will be, Democrats didn't learn the lesson.
After Carrier, there was debate about how many jobs were actually saved, and whether the tax breaks the company received were too generous. The Ford deal may generate the same sort of reaction, including discussion about what the company expects from the administration, given that the automaker cited Trump's "pro-growth" agenda as a reason for keeping the jobs in Michigan.
Is it 1,100 jobs in Indiana, as Trump claims, or 800 jobs, as Carrier (accurately) states? Did the Trump administration make a promise, either directly or indirectly, in exchange for Ford's decision? In the scope of manufacturing job loss, how much of a difference do these one-off company decisions really make?
Here's the reality: When it comes to the politics of trade, none of those things matter. In four years, no one will remember the specifics.
And any remotely competent communications team can turn an American president flexing his muscle to keep jobs in America into a pretty compelling story, regardless of the specifics, because a good story is never remembered for the specifics.
In fact, even if many Americans continue to lose their manufacturing jobs, the image of a newly re-employed man with a hard hat standing next to Trump on a stage will resonate, and those same Americans will cast their vote once again for Trump.
And if you think people vote largely because of personal circumstance, think again. In Whitley County, Kentucky, where the rate of uninsured declined by 60% thanks to Obamacare, over 80% of residents voted for Trump. The fear of an Obamacare repeal did nothing to influence Whitley County voters because Trump's overall narrative was larger than the sum of any one of his policy proposals.
Of course, Democrats should understand this better than anyone. I remember watching Obama's DNC speech in 2004 in an awful, tiny apartment my wife and I shared with our daughter. I remember weeping. I remember a story that felt like it was my story, though I share almost nothing in common with Obama's background.
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Other than something about there not being a blue America or a red America, I don't really remember specifics of that speech. But I remember a powerful story.
Democrats might be right when it comes to trade policy and the real reasons for manufacturing job loss. However, if they don't get the story right, if their hatred of Trump blinds them to the fundamental political truth that telling a compelling story is more important than having the best set of charts, they may find themselves -- as hard as it is to imagine -- campaigning against a popular president four years from now.
And that would be a story no one expected to read.