Last November, the state of Missouri lost an auditor who won the 2009 “Excellence in Accountability Award” from the state auditors association and gained a financial dimwit in Tom Schweich. So lord knows that I am not going to claim Montee’s loss is a blessing in disguise, but I will say that she plans to make lemonade out of it.
I like lemonade. Her brand of it anyway.
Montee and her aide, Allison Bruns, drove to St. Louis from Jeff City last Thursday to confer with some members of a newly formed group, the St. Louis Progressive Democrats. Rea Kleeman, who founded the group, invited her when Kleeman realized that Montee’s aims as the new Democratic Party Chairman matched the issues the STL Progressive Dems have begun working on. As a member of the group, I attended with an eye toward informing you about changes Montee hopes to make in the party structure and messaging.
Montee considers herself exhibit A that both those aspects of the Missouri Democratic Party need reform. She was well aware of how current weaknesses in the party hurt her chances of reelection. So now that she is in charge of the party, she has plans. First, she wants to get the message out that we are more than merely not-that-corrupt-Roy-Blunt. Missourians knew Blunt was corrupt; yet they voted for him and other Republicans because the Democratic Party didn’t give them a reason to vote for Democrats. We got pummeled at the polls in November for failing to impress on voters what we had done for them. The messaging failure started at the national level and permeated our own state.
Montee and the St. Louis Progressive Democrats in the room last Thursday shared that conviction.
We agreed that there’s no excuse for the fact that many voters think their taxes have gone up under Obama. Democrats haven’t impressed upon them that they not only got a tax cut, but that it was, depending on how you figure it, either the biggest tax cut or the second biggest in U.S. history. Oh, and Republicans voted against it. But if the electorate doesn’t know about its huge tax cut, it’s because Democrats apparently thought they could murmur the news, and it would be widely disseminated. ESP might have worked as effectively.
We also found it maddening that the electorate swallowed the “government takeover of health care” nonsense and never got the memo telling them that health care reform is, among other things, going to create thousands of jobs in Missouri, not to mention making health care available to many thousands of hard working people in this state who don’t have it now.
Furthermore, lots of voters don’t know that Democrats passed a bill to regulate banks, much less that Republicans want to defund the regulatory mechanisms it sets up. Bankers are currently less popular in this country than Satan, and yet Democrats aren’t screaming bloody murder about Republican efforts to let the bankers play as freely with our cash as if it were Monopoly money.
The Democratic Party has passed some excellent legislation. But mum’s the word. Look, in politics, modesty is suicide.
Nor have Democrats pounded Republicans as the culprits in this recession. This economy should have been labeled “Bush’s Blunder” and that phrase should have been seared into American brains by daily repetition. Voters should have been told how Democrats changed the job picture.
They should have seen dozens of thirty second ads showing the chart above with a voiceover intoning something like: “President Bush led us into this recessionary swamp, but Barack Obama has been reversing the damage. We were losing almost 800,000 jobs a month under Bush. Now we’re gaining almost 300,000 a month. That’s what President Obama’s stimulus accomplished. It staved off another Great Depression.” I didn’t see anything laying into the Republicans or educating the electorate on those basic facts. Did you?
The message from the national party was Pit.I.Ful. There was so much to beat the drums about but not enough noise to flush a jackrabbit. The same too often held true at the state level. From many Democratic candidates, the message was, “Barack who? Never heard of him. Got nothing to do with him.” Many such candidates tried to distance themselves from the president and went down with a thud. Ben Franklin had advice about that kind of behavior: “We must all, indeed, hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
So we took a thumping. But Susan Montee maintains that it wasn’t because the Republicans convinced a huge chunk of voters that government can never do anything right and that social programs should be eviscerated. It’s true that when we failed to get our message out, we lost many undecided voters, but even more important we demoralized the base. Montee said:
“I think, on the whole, boy we really had a lot of accomplishments. My criticism is how badly they handled talking about them. There was a huge amount of Democrats that didn’t turn out to vote, and it’s not because they were mad at the policies that came out of the White House over the last couple of years. They were happy about those. They were mad because it was handled so badly. They felt beat up. Everybody kept saying, ‘Oh, you’re going to lose everything. You’re going to lose everything.’ So why would they turn out to vote?”
Brian Wahby, the Chairman of the St. Louis City Democratic Central Committee, who attended the meeting at Montee’s invitation, added that Missouri had a quarter a million fewer voters this year than in 2008 and most of those who stayed away were Democrats. The raw numbers of Democratic voters in St. Louis City were about the same this year and in 2006, but the city numbers should have been much higher than the 2006 figures because of all the new Democrats that were registered in the city in 2008.
Montee echoed that point:
“So when people go ‘Oh, the voters have spoken and now we’re all (inaudible) here,’ I say ‘No we’re not!’ It’s just that people stayed home. You can take the 2006 numbers and the 2010 numbers from my race as a good indicator. You can overlay all these counties where the Republican candidate in’06 and in ’10 got exactly the same numbers. So you go, okay, well, this woman in ’06 got 17,000 votes and Schweich got 17,000 votes. The difference was that in ’06, I got 20 and this time I only got 15. And that’s all over the place. I could pull 10, 20 counties and show those exact same percentages. So it wasn’t that people who in ’06 voted Democratic shifted over. They didn’t show up at all. And that’s why we know that we can do something about it. Because if it was that all these people now are voting Republican, how do we get ’em back, that’s a whole different question than I think the question that we’re dealing with, which is how do we get our people to care enough to turn out.
Montee knows that to do that, we have to communicate effectively. First, we have to decide what we need to let the voters know. Basically, this year that would have been the items in my rant above. She didn’t speak to every one of those last Thursday, so I can’t swear she’d agree 100 percent. But I do know she wishes that both the national party and our state candidates had evoked the same strong message about what we accomplished.
Once we know what we want to say, then we have to figure out how to improve party structure to get tha
t message out to our own people, to start with. They have to believe that we’re going to speak up for their ideals, and that there’s an actual working entity there instead of a black hole where the party ought to be.
Changing party structure to achieve that is a large topic. I’ll tackle that in the next posting.
Pictured above: first, Susan Montee; second, from left to right are Cindy Brown, Rea Kleeman and Marty Walsh; third, Brian Wahby