Editor’s Note: Joe Lockhart is a CNN political analyst. He was the White House press secretary from 1998 to 2000 in President Bill Clinton’s administration. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
Political messaging is generally based on one of two things: Hope or fear. Since President Joe Biden’s inauguration, Democrats have mainly relied on the Obama model of appealing to the hopes of all Americans. Now, with the President’s agenda being squeezed by Republicans – and Democrats who act like Republicans– it is time to change strategy. Hope has failed; fear can and will work.
President Biden has largely focused on the benefits of his Build Back Better program, that is, when he’s not trying to clean up the Covid mess he was left with. Republicans, who lost the last election, are driving the political debate with largely fanciful and fearsome stories designed to strike terror into every American.
Click onto Fox News and you’ll see a story about $7 gallons of gas in one Virginia station presented as a trend sweeping across America, even though the average price is less than half of that. Or right wing TV featuring year-old and out-of-context images of empty store shelves — from places like Japan, Nebraska, Australia and Berlin– misrepresented as current photos of shelves depleted by widespread supply chain failures. There are commentators warning of a looming socialist takeover, and even about Democrats trying to take away your hamburgers.
It is bogus, but it has proven critical in shaping the national political debate – on Fox News and other right wing outlets – and in my opinion it even bleeds into coverage by the rest of the mainstream media. The message: Time for panic, not hope, with this President.
So, how do Democrats pivot to a tough message while prosecuting a righteous agenda that will lift up millions of Americans? That one is easy – make it all about Donald J. Trump. The debate over whether to ignore the president who failed to win reelection is long over. Donald Trump is the leader of the Republican party, and most Americans should be afraid of his return to office.
There remains no doubt that Trump poses an existential threat to the United States and its democracy. He continues to undermine our legitimate elections by shouting fraud where no fraud exists. He is attempting to thwart Congressional investigations seeking to get to the bottom of the January 6th coup attempt. And his approach to Covid and vaccines as a political wedge issue, rather than a public health crisis, continues to threaten all of us in tangible ways.
Meanwhile, Republican leaders fight like children to demonstrate who is the closest to Trump and who carries his mantle in Congress. For painful evidence of this, look no further than some Republicans — including ones who cowered in fear from a surging mob – now trying to claim that January 6th was just a peaceful gathering and that the real victims are those who were arrested during a coup attempt.
Every Republican politician who does not publicly repudiate Trump owns the baggage he creates with American voters. Just look at the fancy footwork of GOP gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin in Virginia. He needs Trump voters but won’t go so far as to invite the ex-president to the state to campaign for him because of the vexation Trump creates with independent and Democrat voters. Democrats need to make sure no Republican can get away with that dance.
Yet governors in Florida, Texas, Mississippi and beyond have been putting Trump-style politics on vaccines and mandates ahead of the health of their own constituents. And even the most ambitious potential GOP candidate for president in 2024 knows there is no campaign for them if Trump is also running. And guess what? I think he’s running.
Democrats should alert every American to the danger of a return of Trump chaos, and they can do it without using the GOP tactic of making things up – without abandoning the issues important to them. A simple change from focusing sunnily on the social benefits of their priorities to the dark menace that succumbing to the Trump agenda will bring would offer an arguably much more powerful message to most Americans.
And it’s not just fears regarding Covid and Jan.6 that will resonate and persuade Americans to get behind Biden’s agenda and not Trumpism. There are huge and consequential health care issues that affect women.
Yes, every woman should have the right to make decisions about her own body. But the Trump Supreme Court and Trump-wannabe governors are in the process of stripping away those rights as we speak. It is important for Democrats to focus on this threat and who is responsible for it.
America also needs to change its economic model to combat climate change — whose threat to humanity has become visible to us every day around the country and indeed the world. But politicians and other policymakers’ lengthy discussions of the value of renewable energy have not done enough to move the American people.
Here too, it’s time to shift focus: to the unbearable and unthinkable costs to our lives and families of leaving climate change unaddressed. Democrats should zero in on the price the rest of us pay when Republicans protect the narrow special interests of polluting fossil fuel companies.
What’s more, when talking about the social safety net, it’s great to talk about the benefits of each of the new programs Biden and Democratic lawmakers propose for Americans, but what would be more powerful — and true – is a message that Republicans are trying to take things away from those plans.
The child tax credit that was in Biden’s American Rescue Plan and is in the budget bill — albeit in pared back form – is a great example. From a messaging perspective, Democrats need to attack GOP efforts to curtail a program that’s taken millions of Americans out of poverty since July, not just focus on how the program represented good governing.
Finally, on voting rights, it’s a good message that we all deserve the right to vote. But that’s not as powerful a message as saying that Republicans are using voting rights to ensure an authoritarian, non-democratic government led by Donald Trump and his six conservative Supreme Court justices.
It’s not like Democrats must make up a whole new playbook. This attack-Trump-and-what-he-stands-for strategy produced a Biden victory by more than seven million votes, a mandate by almost any reasonable measure. That strategy also allowed Biden to tout many of his plans for programs that are now in his budget bill.
The difference between now and the last election was that the attack on Trump was the main message during the campaign, while the social legislation now being haggled over was the benefit derived from defeating Trumpism.
Democrats need to move the attack on Trump front and center again.
Politics should be about what’s best for everyone. The reality, though, is that politics is about what can get you more than 50% of the vote. That maxim fuels the politics of fear every day.
Democrats need to get tougher on Republicans. And that means acknowledging the elephant in the room – Donald Trump is the Republican Party right now. When it comes to politics, Democrats need to abandon the reach-for-the sky aspiration as their primary pitch to Americans and replace it with the sky-is-falling reality called Trump.