Obama: Go On Offense

Democrats should rely on appeals that evoke fairness, equality and a common destiny.

By Ellis Cose
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From the magazine issue dated Oct 29, 2007

Nobody is saying American voters are crazy, just that we are not especially rational. When reason and emotion collide, we go with our gut—roughly four out of five times. That is the core message from “The Political Brain,” a recently published book by Drew Westen, a clinical psychologist at Emory University. Westen is one of a small group of liberal social scientists who believe they may hold the key to the Democratic Party’s future. Democrats, they say, must do what Republicans have excelled at: appealing to people’s prejudices and hearts instead of their brains. That insight may be particularly important this political season, when Barack Obama’s skin color makes it impossible for him to avoid talk of race and John Edwards has chosen to define himself largely by issues of class.

Race and class are among the most loaded issues in politics, as Republicans well know. Many candidates have tried to walk a delicate line where they benefit from racial fears and yet appear to be nonracist. Ronald Reagan managed to do that in 1980 by taking his crusade for “states’ rights” to Philadelphia, Miss., best known as the place where civil-rights workers were murdered in the 1960s. “Republicans talk about race, but they talk about it through code … and put the Democrats on the defensive,” says john powell, executive director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University. (powell does not capitalize his name as a nod to e. e. cummings and to the political consciousness of the 1960s.) Democrats ought to engage, says powell. Just as many Republicans have relied on negative, latent racial appeals, Democrats should rely on positive, explicit racial appeals by evoking ideals like fairness, equality and common destiny.

Donna Brazile, who ran Al Gore’s 2000 campaign, thinks the social scientists may be on to something. Democrats are “very uncomfortable with the coalition they have assembled,” she says. So rather than craft a message that resonates equally in the suburbs, the ghettos and rural America—a difficult task, to be sure—Democrats have had different conversations with different groups. “They meet with black folks and they meet with white folks, and hope they don’t come together,” says Brazile. But the only way for Democrats to consistently win elections is with a message that unifies Americans.

Barack Obama has tried to do that. Still, he did himself a disservice when he introduced his urban policy in July, says powell. Obama laid out a series of programs for jobs and community development. But the problem with it all, in powell’s view, is that it was an urban policy: “That immediately frames it as city versus everything else. And if you set up the city versus the suburbs, the city loses.” It should instead be a “metropolitan policy.” Such an approach would also have the virtue of being contemporary, says Alan Jenkins, head of the Opportunity Agenda, a think tank focused on issues of equal opportunity. “Suburbs are connected to the city … It doesn’t make sense to talk about urban policy.”

John Edwards could also benefit from rethinking his message. His talk of poverty and two Americas could not be better designed to turn people off. There is a “very powerful background assumption” that poor people are poor because they deserve to be poor, says powell. “We don’t say the working middle class, or the working rich … we do say the working poor … we understand that there is something negative about being poor.” To create empathy, he argues, the issue must be framed as one of creating opportunities for all Americans, not just the poor. Westen would go further. “Why not turn the conversation about poverty into one about the Bible?” he asks. Edwards would do well, he says, to talk about Jesus and his reaching out to the poor. “If that is not straight out of the New Testament, I don’t know what is.” powell believes Hillary Clinton, who has talked about racial disparities in imprisonment, should also address the issue in a religious context, perhaps by talking about the possibility of redemption for offenders who are willing to change.

Much as Democrats might want to soft-pedal race, it is an issue they cannot avoid—if only because Republicans will bring it up. If Obama is the nominee, some opposition groups will inevitably end up making covert appeals to racism. It was only last year, when Harold Ford Jr. ran for the Senate in Tennessee, that Republicans aired an ad featuring a white women beckoning Ford to “call me.” There was also an ad proclaiming that Ford, a black man, was “just not right.” If race is going to be out there anyway, say the social scientists, why not use it in a positive way? Democrats could take the sting out of negative radicalized messages by using them as an opportunity to challenge the character of the messenger. At the same time, they’d remind voters that we value our ability to stand together as Americans. “When Americans link up racially, they actually feel pretty good about themselves,” says powell.

Gore and John Kerry failed in their bids for the presidency in part because they lost sight of the fact that voters are emotional creatures and vote on the basis of these emotions. The task for Clinton, Obama and Edwards is to first embrace that truth. Then they need to figure out how to harness the emotions and values that elevate us as opposed to those that drag us down.