Vice President Joe Biden made room in his busy schedule Wednesday to appear on “The Rachel Maddow Show” to address the much-reported enthusiasm gap between fired-up Tea-publicans and a disappointed Democratic base. How do I know that was his reason? He said so:
What I’m doing. . . one of the reasons I wanna be on your show is to tell the progressives out there, you know, get in gear, man. First of all, there’s a great deal at stake.
No duh. Really? Progressives are the ones that need to be reminded that there’s a great deal at stake?
But wait, there’s more. Biden then launches into a list of Democratic accomplishments—tobacco regulation, hate crime laws, insuring kids (SCHIP, I presume—you will excuse me if I don’t transcribe every word, Joe does go on a bit, you know)—none of them, as best I recall, ones that were first enacted during the Obama Administration [on this point, I stand corrected, but that raises other questions], and tries to contrast this out-of-date list with, well, for lack of any specific point, let’s call it the Republican alternative:
If they take over the House and the Senate, don’t kid yourself. They’ve made it really clear. Pete Sessions said [if the GOP takes over Congress], “We’d have the exact same agenda.” And look, there is a lot at stake here, and our progressive base, you have–you should not stay home. You better get energized because the consequences are serious for the outcome of the things we care most about. And I didn’t mention half the stuff we’ve gotten done.
Actually, Mr. Vice President, you didn’t mention a single thing that your administration or this Democratically controlled 111th Congress has gotten done. You are just telling progressives out there that they “better get energized,” that they “get in gear,” that they “should not stay home” come November.
Why? Because. . . because. . . Pete Sessions!
Joe Biden is not saying Democrats need an excited progressive base to win in November, and here is what the administration is going to do to excite them; Biden is saying Dems need an excited base—so the progressive base damn well better get excited. Period.
Don’t believe that the same folks that swept into the White House on a wave of popular enthusiasm could now be pitching this piss-poor woo? Biden was given a chance to clarify. He said that Obama is a gifted politician, but he didn’t “fall out of the sky.” Instead:
What he [Obama] brought out of the sky, down to earth, were really significant progressive goals that have been met.
Wait, what? He brought us goals? Obama gave us the goals? Progressives haven’t been articulating goals since. . . when now? 2006? 2002? 1932? 1916? . . . 1899? OK, maybe Biden just phrased that badly–but still, Joe, what goals have been met, exactly?
Sorry, I interrupted. Mr. Vice President, please continue. . . .
What he [Obama] brought out of the sky, down to earth, were really significant progressive goals that have been met. More to do, more to do. And so I think it’s time for our base to say, “Hey man, take a look, this opposition is for real.”
OK, again, the progressive base hasn’t been warning about the opposition? It has been the progressive blogosphere, far out in front of any Democratic Party organ, that has been telling the establishment that they had created space for the Tea Parties by aligning the White House too closely with the banksters. It was progressives that begged for a bigger stimulus, a jobs agenda, and health care reform that actually helped people and did so before the midterm elections. Jane, early on, warned folks not to take the Tea Party movement (movements?) too lightly. She, Jon, Scarecrow, David, and a host of others on FDL have all pleaded for Democrats to move more aggressively or else incur the wrath of a nervous electorate.
Why, just last night, I tweeted:
O’Donnell & Paladino’s GOP victories should remind prematurely giddy Dems that GOTV will be everything in November.
Does that sound like the twitterings of a guy that does not think “this opposition is for real?”
But that is not the narrative that Biden, his administration, or the Democratic leadership wants to tell here. Joe didn’t come out saying that progressives had the right idea, and though Dems had stumbled out of the gate, from here on it would be full speed ahead; “More to do, more to do,” doesn’t come close. Make no mistake, what Joe Biden was doing last night was blaming progressives now for Democratic losses later.
Maddow, maybe out of deference, maybe out of amnesia, took Biden’s frame as a given and asked, Why hasn’t the needed progressive awakening happened organically?
Joe invokes his grandpa, then reminds us that a lot of people are hurting, and that folks are angry and don’t want to make a choice. He recalls the words of Kevin White (Mayor of Boston, 1968-1984): “Don’t compare me to the almighty, compare me to the alternative. . . .”
Joe liked that quote, so he repeated it:
“Don’t compare me to the almighty, compare me to the alternative. . . .” People haven’t wanted to make that choice, they don’t want to focus yet. . . . . It’s like, “I don’t want to be bothered–I’m angry.” . . . but they’re gonna now, watch them. . . starting the beginning of October, they’re gonna focus. And the alternatives are stark between a Democratic-led House and Democratic-led Senate and a Republican-led House and Senate. . . . We are going to retain control of the House, we are going to retain control of the Senate because, when the American people focus on the alternative, it’s gonna be absolutely clear to them that there is no alternative.
Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, I was a consultant—of the branding and marketing variety–and Biden’s performance reminds me of some of my worst clients from those days. These guys (and gals) would sit behind the two-way mirror watching focus groups, and they would deride the respondents and curse about how their stupid target consumers were wrong—wrong!–about their product. It was the consumer who was doing a bad job of understanding the product. It was the consumer that was not paying attention to the right things. It was the consumer that had failed to understand the benefits of these clients’ brands.
Those were not successful brands. And without a change in their point of view, they didn’t become successful brands.
Let me put it this way: Joe Biden is your cable provider screaming that they are better than the phone company, and you know they are better than the phone company, and if you don’t know that, no matter what your experience, then it is your problem, you fucking idiot.
Compelling messaging, huh?
It didn’t work for my clients, and it won’t work for the Democrats.
It is not enough to say, “C’mon, you know how bad the other guys are.” It is not enough to say, ”Buy my product, or else.” It is not enough to say (as Jon Stewart pointed out to DNC Chair Tim Kaine), “They suck worse.”
If you want to bridge the enthusiasm gap, it is you, Joe Biden, President Obama, national Democrats, that have to provide the enthusiasm. And the reasons for all of us to be enthused.
Another lesson from my consulting days: it is never good to be the “not” brand. That is, it is never good to define yourself as “not the other guys.” By doing that, you are dependent on them. By doing that, they define the space. All that is left for you to do is react to your competition.
In a competitive marketplace—especially in one where you don’t have to buy, where you could just opt to stay home—you have to give people a reason to commit. You need to articulate a distinct benefit.
You need to give folks a reason to vote for you; not just against them.
Without demonstrable benefits—or at least the promise of them—there is no enthusiasm. The winners of the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries should understand that.
But benefits were not what Vice President Biden was selling to Rachel Maddow and her presumably progressive audience on Wednesday. Biden went with fear and loathing, blame and bluster. That strategy didn’t work for my clients in boom times, and it won’t work for Democrats now.
So, Joe, uh–how did you put it?—get in gear!