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Tough Love For The Democrats

Listen to Rick Wilson: "I know you want to win on policy, but 'want' and 'need' are always miles apart. You need to win on making this a contest of good versus evil, freedom versus fascism, and America’s future versus Donald Trump and the darkness that follows."
Published:September 20, 2023
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By Rick Wilson

Republican political operators are raised on two rules.

Just two.

Rule 1: Just win, baby.

Rule 2: Stay on message.

If you have doubts about either of the rules, refer to the other rule.

Just Win

The “Just win” rule is precisely what it sounds like; victory is the only goal, and everything else is noise and distraction. “Just Win” is the rule that leads Democrats to wonder repeatedly why garbage-tier GOP candidates win in states and seats in which they should be competitive. It’s the reason the GOP will defend the indefensible until the last dog dies, whether policy or politician.

It’s why the shamelessness of the GOP political class, of which I was once a successful and very well-compensated member, is their superpower. It’s why they’re so quick to embrace a kind of Ohm’s Law of ugly politics: take the path of least resistance to victory, even if it’s corrosive to the nation, our institutions, and the national character. (With only a handful of exceptions, the consultant class of the GOP loathes Trump with the fire of a million suns, but the winning is so, so profitable, and the rewards of power are so rich that they’ll play along as long as he draws breath into his carcass.)

“Just win” means when it comes to lies, conspiracy, and holding a pillow over the faces of the better angels of our nature until they stop moving, they’re all-in.

Democrats just can’t get to “just win.” They want to argue and persuade on policy, not personality and character. They want voters to be enlightened and engaged about the election with the glittery promise of 600-page legislative action plans and slide decks.

It’s a sweet, if Panglossian, view of the American electorate. The Democrats are, as Bob Cesca tweeted this week, “We're in this dangerously awkward place 1) where fascism is one election away, and 2) where regular voters don't want to hear that fascism is one election away.”

The “Just Win” approach to this moment will require Democrats to universally drive the Biden record on the economy and foreign policy. Still, it will also demand amping up the loathing of Trump and Trumpism and telling the American people the horrors that await in the second Trump era.

I know you want to win on policy, but “want” and “need” are always miles apart. You need to win on making this a contest of good versus evil, freedom versus fascism, and America’s future versus Donald Trump and the darkness that follows.

This race will be hideous. Dirty. Demeaning. Grotesque. If you’re unwilling to draw political blood and to go as low and cut as deep as the other side, Trump wins. I wish I could tell you a prettier story about light and love, but this race will make 2016 and 2020 look like a quiet round of whist.

The second rule is more important by far.

Stay On Message

“Stay on message” reflects two big character traits of the GOP: a belief in hierarchy and a belief in consistency of message at every level of the political and media apparatus. (Spoiler: for the MAGA GOP, there is very little difference between the two divisions. The political and media space are wedded and interdependent.)

If the Democratic party, its assorted power centers, interest groups, allies, friends, noisemakers, and donors don’t get on a set of clear, unified messages on three significant areas, there’s trouble ahead. In that case, they’re handing this election to Donald Trump.

Make The Stakes Clear

Democratic party grandees in early 2022 told us the race would be about prescription drug prices and inflation. Still living in the issues-driven past, they took whatever vomitus the latest focus group emitted and ran with it. To his credit, Biden was clear about the stakes: he declared early that 2022 was about democracy and liberty.

Get on and stay on this message, Democrats.

This race is about the nation's future and, not to put too fine a point on it, the world. Nothing about Joe Biden’s tenure has been more salutatory than his willingness to speak the truth about the consequences of failure, the survival of the American Republic, and small-d democratic principles. Why can’t national Democrats lock in on this simple message?

The enemy of this clear message is policy. Democrats have an almost religious belief that policy wins elections, and the various constituency groups want their slice of the pie; they want the election to be about their pet issue, be it abortion, gun control, climate change, LGBTQ rights, or other matters about which they’re most passionate.

But it’s not.

It’s about democracy, individual liberty, and whether the American government is a tool for opportunity or one of oppression.

Trump represents a terrifying future, and he articulates it constantly. The MAGA GOP always tells you the horrors they intend.

Democrats must drive a message of liberty versus authoritarianism and hatred at every level. If Trump wins again, Democrats can expect historic reverses at every conceivable level. The rest is all elite self-indulgence and drawing-room political noise.

Spectacle or Success

Trump and the MAGA GOP are the masters of political spectacle in every dimension. They have both intent and a media ecosystem to spread chaos and disinformation. It’s why impeachment, Hunter Biden’s laptop, imaginary immigrant caravans, Chy-na, Antifa, the World Economic Forum, drag queen story hour, and the rest of their catalog of imaginary demons will be front and center in the election.

In the words of their movement's infamous and scabrous intellectual leader, Steve Bannon, this kind of spectacle aims to “flood the zone with shit.” And it does.

The temptation is to try to rebut all of the insanity, absurdity, and political trash piecemeal, to hit back with facts and data.

Stop. That’s the box canyon into which they’re trying to herd the pro-democracy side of the 2024 election.

Instead, get on the positive Biden record and ride it hard. This isn’t about policy; it's about tangible results. The CHIPs Act, Inflation Reduction, and the Infrastructure Bill were all tangible wins for American workers, not Trumpian vaporware.

There’s a lot to love and more than I will include in this essay, which is already overlong. On the economy, foreign policy, democracy, leadership, and humanity, Joe Biden is a better man and a better candidate than Trump.

A unified uplift on messaging on the economy’s strength and the tough-as-nails Biden foreign policy viz both Russia and China can allow the Biden record to be framed as…and for my Democratic friends, you might want to sit down before reading this next bit…Reaganesque.

Don’t swoon. Reagan’s age was an issue going into 1984. His policies were beginning an economic and foreign policy impact, but it was a mixed picture, to say the least.

Republicans declared Reagan to be the second coming and a free basket of fries. They locked arms and declared Morning in America. It worked. It blocked Walter Mondale’s message of nuanced critiques of policy impacts with a big, smiling vision of optimism.

Joe Biden needs his allies to be unified in praise of his record. It has, almost uniquely in American politics, the advantage of being true.

Biden’s Age

I’m unsure if you heard this, but Joe Biden is old. He’s old as hell. He’s a gaffer. A codger. Older than the hills. He’s so old he remembers the party after the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht.

Great. Fine. Now, stop it. Biden is arguably the most successful Democratic President since FDR, taken in total.

Every Democrat seems to want to spear Biden over his age, and in the flood of stories in the mainstream media, the concern trolling from Biden’s ostensible allies boggles the mind. Some want to be the Democratic nominee for President in 2024. Some want to get a cheap media hit. Some want to take out Harris (a longer, more complex, and ugly story) and be the Fresh Young Thing in the Vice Presidential role for 2024.

There’s the party difference: not one prominent GOP elected official or talking head spends even 15 seconds talking about Trump’s obesity, his fast-food diet, his roaring mendacity, verbal tics, constant malapropisms, hissing intakes of breath, evident paranoia and fabulism, and raging criminality.

Here’s the counter-message: Trump is just as old, much less fit, and a proven threat to the nation's future. Start playing offense on this message, Democrats.

It’s a choice of Old versus Evil.

Take Old every time.

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