The Senate recently confirmed Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, changing Senate rules to prevent the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees in the process. Whether forcing Republicans to use the “nuclear” option was a good idea is yet to be determined. However, one thing is clear about this whole episode: Democrats in Washington lacked organization or vision to come out with a victory.
Their method for opposing Gorsuch appeared both misguided and confused. Many Democratic senators claimed that he was too conservative and cited cases where he sided with corporations over people. The week of confirmation hearings was spent fighting over this point, and in the end, Gorsuch succeeded at demonstrating he was not as hard-right as Democrats portrayed him to be. Even if Democrats had succeeded, shouldn’t the Senate only examine the qualifications of the nominee and not their partisan leaning? That was the argument many Republicans used to previously support Obama nominees’ Kagan and Sotomayor, and it was the argument Democrats made for why Merrick Garland deserved to be on the Supreme Court. Unfortunately for Democrats, Neil Gorsuch had ample qualifications. That didn’t stop DNC chair Tom Perez from trying the argument.
The strongest argument for opposing Gorsuch was that it wasn’t Trump’s seat to fill, it was Obama’s. The seat came available during the last year of Obama’s presidency, and there was little precedent for Republicans to block Obama’s nomination just because it was an election year. By claiming the seat belonged to Merrick Garland, Obama’s nominee, Democrats could have taken the high road and sought to restore the democratic process. They would have had a strong logical path to oppose Gorsuch while preserving the role of confirmation hearings as merit-based rather than partisan-based. Instead, they made the nomination process partisan, and Republicans were able to use the “nuclear” option without backlash from their base. Democrats also tried objecting to this, but that argument fell flat too; Democrats were the first ones to use a variation of the “nuclear” option back in 2013.
This saga was a microcosm of a larger issue for Democrats. When Democrats have the high ground in political struggles, it’s often due to facts: data shows climate change is real, providing access to women’s healthcare reduces abortions, the GOP health plan would have cost millions of people their health care, the list goes on. But one contest that Democrats lose time and time again is the battle of public perception. Despite the facts being against them, Republicans are better able to market their policies and use feelings to their advantage.
One of the most notable instances of when Republicans won a political battle using semantics and emotion over Democrats’ facts concerned the estate tax. This requires people who have died to forfeit a portion of their total assets as a tax on transferring property to heirs, a way of preventing a permanent aristocratic class. Importantly, this 40% tax only applies after your first $5.45 million (or $10.9 million if you’re married). Only 0.2% of people pay it, so it does not apply to your average farmer or homeowner. However, Republicans who seek to lower any tax they can have been trying to get rid of it for years. So what did Republicans in the 90’s do to sway public opinion on the issue? They started calling it the death tax.
A death tax. A tax you pay when you die. A tax meaning that, after paying taxes your whole life, the government was not done taking money from you and your now-grieving family.
The misconception grew that the estate tax applied to far more people than in reality. A 2002 study found that 49% of people thought most families had to pay the estate tax when only 0.2% of people paid it at the time. Not surprisingly, 82% of all respondents favored eliminating the estate tax altogether. Calling it the death tax in public opinion polls only changed results by a few percentage points, but because ordinary people presume they have to face it some day, the “death tax” became a rallying cry. The estate tax thus went from starting at $600,000 in 1995 to over $5 million today, all while the tax rate dropped from 55% to 40%. With the name change serving as the catalyst, conservatives won, and now the rich pay lower taxes on their inheritance than they have in generations.
This is not a condemnation of Republicans and their elected officials. Semantics aside, these policies are debatable and have at least some factual merit. Sometimes the ends justify the means, and quite clearly the tactic of focusing on spin rather than facts has worked. It worked on the estate tax; it worked with “Right to Work” laws that are banning compulsory unionization; it almost worked with “Death panels” that nearly derailed the Affordable Care Act (or “Obamacare”, the nickname that politicized a fairly moderate idea). It’s allowed conservatives to claim to be “pro-life” while also supporting capital punishment. The point is not that these policies are bad. That’s a matter of values, especially when it comes to matters such as abortion. But when people are forming opinions, “pro-life” sounds a lot more righteous than “anti-abortion”, Obamacare sounds far more contentious than the “Affordable Care Act,” and “Right to Work” laws sound far more agreeable — and less complex — than banning compulsory unionization.
Even some well-framed policies that are now championed by liberals have Republican origins. Calling undocumented minors DREAMers — after the name of the bill that would protect them — seems like a more compassionate way to view these individuals than illegal aliens. Interestingly enough though, the bill has bipartisan origins and was first introduced by Republican Orrin Hatch in 2001. Despite this framing, the bill has yet to become law.
Even if there are instances where Democrats spin an issue as well as or better than Republicans, they do not do it as well overall. As shown with the DREAM Act, marketing policies extends even to the names given to legislation. In this area, Republicans have wittingly used acronyms as appealing window dressing better than Democrats have. In 2015, The Washington Post ranked over 350 bills with acronyms for titles from the 115th Congress based on acronym quality. While there were roughly equal amounts of entries from Democrats and Republicans, 8 of the top 10 and 31 of the top 50 acronyms came from Republicans.
The GOP also created the most iconic acronym-based legislation in recent memory: The USA PATRIOT Act. Also known as the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act, the law passed in the wake of 9/11 with many senators voting for it without even reading it. Since then, the law has undergone intense scrutiny for violating the privacy of innocent Americans and giving the government too much power, and has since been watered down. However, the name and timing of the bill made it hard to vote against, which is why it might have become a law in the first place.
Perhaps nothing exemplified Republican’s upper hand in framing arguments better than Trump versus Clinton last fall. On one hand was a marketing genius, a man who had been able to convince religious conservatives he would support their values after years of being anything but an ally and convince millions of others that he would “drain the swamp” he had been a part of for so many years. He also won the support of veterans after ridiculing veteran John McCain. Meanwhile, Clinton could not avoid the many negative perceptions that her many opponents flung at her. While Trump called her crooked, she used such hard-hitting phrases like “trumped up trickle down economics” to describe her opponent’s economic plan. The only time Hillary won the battle of semantics was when Trump misfired, as he did frequently (see “nasty woman”, “bad hombres”, and the Access Hollywood tape). However, she also had her own gaffes, most notably her “basket of deplorables” line. In all, just enough voters were won over by Trump and just enough were dissuaded to vote for Clinton.
The point is not whether or not these attacks on Hillary were valid or whether or not the attacks on Trump were not taken seriously enough. And which side the facts fall on doesn’t really matter. What matters is who gets the most votes, who convinces the most people to vote for them. Sure, Democrats have their work cut out for them. In a system favoring the status quo, pushing this country further to the left is no easy task. From union workers to environmentalists, from moderates to socialists, Democrats have to maintain an extremely broad coalition. Change is not easy.
But there is a Democrat that talked about Change. He also talked about Hope. He built a coalition and overcame the many barriers facing him. He used a combination of facts and feelings to get nearly 70 million Americans to vote for him, more than anyone in history. And he won. Twice. Have Democrats forgotten the lesson this man taught them? Apparently so.
If Democrats want to see their progressive vision brought to life, they’re going to need to get smarter about how they market that vision.