media, Politics and Grassroots

3 Ways the Democrats Won on 4/15

And that isn’t counting a penny of tax money, either.

Yesterday was a big news day. Tea partiers marched here in DC and elsewhere to define their core principle: that the federal government is too big, that high taxes siphon money out of the economy, and that government programs tend to make matters worse, not better. Overall, yesterday’s messaging seemed positive for limited government activists.

But the opposition was smart, too.  Nationally, Democrats drove three well-timed news stories – two by President Obama, one by Sen. Harry Reid – that added up to a communications masterstroke.

1.  President Obama announced we’re goin’ to Mars (eventually).

This was a good story to grab headlines on the other side of the tax day protests.  Instead of trying to directly engage, President Obama simply highlighted a use of taxpayer money that many folks from both sides of the aisle agree with: scientific research.  The space program specifically creates tons of jobs not only in research but in manufacturing the components of Major Tom’s tin can.

You can’t answer a call for lower taxes with the stance that taxes are just fine.  However, showing a positive use of tax dollars can undermine that message.  It wasn’t a happy coincidence – the Florida trip has been on the President’s schedule for weeks, if not months.

There’s another, more subtle attempt at differentiation here, too.  The announcement of an advanced science program will now be played on the same newscast with footage of grassroots protesters – citizen activists who, in their haste to participate, misspell signs and don’t have a staff of speechwriters to help them articulate their views.  Without actually saying it, Obama gets to present his side as better-educated and smarter than the knee-jerk, anti-tax tea partiers.

2.  President Obama signed an executive order permitting hospital visitation rights to same sex couples.

This is another point of differentiation – and a chance to bait his opponents.  Most of the focus of tea party activism has been on fiscal policy, and many Americans tend to agree with the most conservative segment of the electorate that the government spends too much and spends it wastefully.  For social issues, there is less common ground, and yesterday’s announcement has the potential to begin peeling off moderate voter support from the Republicans.

Making this announcement on a busy news day means that there won’t be much media discussion – unless someone at a tax day rally goes off message, and gets captured in a YouTube video proselytizing about moral codes.  Then it feeds the idea that tea parties are run by intolerant bigots.  It’s a win-win for Obama – either his announcement slips almost completely under the radar, or it’s a chance to take shots at the other side.

3.  Sen. Reid announced that financial reform package will hit the U.S. Senate floor next week.

The Democratic talking points for November are already written: Republicans are the party of Wall Street.  They will attempt to make this distinction with a bad financial services reform package scheduled to hit the floor next week.

Like the other two examples, Reid’s announcement serves to distinguish the Democrats from limited government activists by calling for a larger government for an ostensibly good cause – safeguarding consumers and investors.

There’s also a great strategy in this timing that has nothing to do with tea parties but everything to do with tax day.  The folks who would be most likely to oppose this legislation would be financial professionals, who understand that it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  If they had the time to do it, they might rally their customers and colleagues, making the case that the bill would actually hurt efforts to keep the players in the financial system honest, and mobilize a strong push against the bill.  They haven’t had time, of course, because over the last two weeks, financial professionals have been working around the clock at their day jobs – because yesterday was April 15.  So when the bill hits the floor next week, they won’t be ready to stir up opposition.

Gearing up already?

Passion is important in politics because it helps win over the uncommitted moderate voters; excited activists are the ones making phone calls, dragging people to the polls, and giving one side the image of a winner.  In 2008, then-candidate Obama’s campaign enjoyed demonstrable shows of emotion from his supporters.  In 2010 that excitement is trending toward the right – so far.

But it isn’t to early (or too late) for the President and his allies to begin letting some air out of that balloon.  The further he can create the perception of a gulf between conservative activists and the values of moderate voters, the more Republican chances in 2010 and 2012 will deflate.

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