On the hunt for the Democratic message

Signs at the Texas State Democratic convention in San Antonio on June 17, 2016. Photo by Marjorie Kamys Cotera

Texas Democrats continue their search to find the right message.

At the recent Texas Tribune Festival, at the end of the “Democratic Playbook” panel discussion, an audience member asked what the Democrats’ message was. The chairman of the Democratic Party, Gilbert Hinojosa, said it was about the economy — and wasn’t about playing “identity politics.”

Wendy Davis, the 2014 gubernatorial candidate, took issue with that, saying she was “flummoxed” about why the party wouldn’t talk about identity — i.e., women’s rights, LGBT rights — since, after all, discrimination keeps people from achieving economic opportunity.

Intellectually, Davis is right. But elections aren’t won on who is intellectually right or wrong.

What’s really flummoxing is that identity politics was the foundation of the message strategy for both the Davis and Hillary Clinton campaigns. Neither worked out. When you segment voters into groups, you don’t speak to all of them. People tune you out.

Progressives who insist on talking about people’s rights and identity do so, I presume, because it feels good and is in line with Democrats’ DNA. That’s true. But the goal is to win at the ballot box, not to feel good.

The highest-priority issues for Texans are immigration, border security, health care, political corruption and jobs. These are the issues progressives should be talking about. And enough already about only reacting to Trump. Stop giving him all the attention. A hair-on-fire reaction may not be working as many wish it were.

As a matter of strategy, not conviction, less resistance (less, not none) and more persistence in persuading voters that Democrats are better than the alternative might be the prescription.

As a senior strategist on many marriage-equality campaigns, I can tell you our persuasion machine was always on and spanned across party lines for many years. It’s what made support for the issue jump 20 points in a decade — unheard of in politics — and ultimately become the law of the land. Minds changed. (And we didn’t play the identity game; we broadened the issue out to appeal to everyone.)

Lone Star Democrats need to change some minds, too, and build a similar communications infrastructure to hit people over the head with an affirmative narrative. That narrative, as Richard Parker pointed out recently in a column in The New York Times, could be about what anti-business Republicans have done to the Texas economy. It should be about health care — a total winner for Democrats and a loser for Republicans — and about the contribution of Texas’ 120,000 “dreamers.”

Finally, it should be about blowing up our tired, old politics. Dispense with the anachronistic red vs. blue mindset. Voters in both parties want a hero to save them from how corrupt and phony politics has become.

If Democrats can’t win statewide, our values of equality and diversity will never see the light of day in government.