Persuading people you care

Republicans need to take a lesson from Bill Clinton and wrap themselves in the flag of the "dispossessed."

By David Horowitz
Published August 28, 2000 6:59PM (EDT)

How is it that Democrats are able to campaign on Republican programs and ideas -- balanced budgets, welfare reform, tough attitudes towards crime and family values -- and win? While Republicans who have been promoting these same principles for decades -- not just during election cycles -- lose? How is it that a "social issue" like education is a Democrat issue? If liberals and Democrats are responsible for the education crisis (because they have controlled most major metropolitan public school systems for 70 years), how is it that they can claim education as their issue while Republicans cannot?

My answer has been that Republicans do not understand (as Democrats do) that politics is war conducted by other means; that it is a war of position; and that you can only win by linking your agendas directly to the interests of women, children, minorities, working Americans and the poor. In a democracy, the position you want to be on is the side of the underdog, which is how most Americans identify themselves (whether they are really underdogs or not).

In my book, "The Art of Political War," I have defined six principles as guides to the political battle. The bottom line is this: People will not care about what you have to say unless they believe you care about them. The art of politics is persuading people who don't know you, and who will never know you except through symbols and sound bites that you care about them. Republicans don't pay enough attention to this simple truth.

Some years ago, Ronald Reagan was at a meeting of Democrats and Republicans. During the proceedings, there was a pause in which both sides doodled on the pads in front of them while they waited for the talks to resume. Afterwards, a reporter collected the doodles and discovered that the Republicans had doodled geometric shapes while the Democrats had doodled animals and people's faces. Only one Republican had drawn a face and done a Democrat doodle. That Republican was Ronald Reagan.

In political warfare, the weapons are words and symbols because there is no time to reach the electorate with lengthy arguments or even short ones. In these circumstances a slogan, a symbol or a gesture is what you have. A good example of how effective a symbol can be is the one John F. Kennedy used to win the black vote in 1960. He did it with a single phone call to Martin Luther King in jail.

Until that moment, blacks had been suspicious of the Democratic Party because it was the party of the segregationists. But Kennedy changed that with a single phone call. He did not have to issue a policy statement or a position paper about racial issues. Few people would have read one if he had. Few people would have listened to any speech he might have given. The image was everything. He did not have to decide complex issues about lingering segregation, or about states' rights or about individual responsibilities. All he had to do was make a phone call.

Recently, a number of black intellectuals and political figures made comments on why blacks give Bill Clinton 90 percent support and why many even consider him "the first black president." Although the commentators were politically savvy people, their reasons had nothing to do with the policies he has pursued, because many of these same people have viewed the same policies (like welfare reform) as "anti-black." The reasons they gave for considering Clinton a friend and even "one of them" were that he plays the saxophone, has made a lot of black appointments, shows up in black churches, has black friends like Vernon Jordan and generally seems comfortable around black people. These are all symbols of where Bill Clinton stands. They convey a single message: He shares things with us. He sympathizes with us. He cares about us. This message trumps any policy he has pursued or any program he has enacted.

There is another reason why Clinton has such an advantage with black voters, and has the advantage almost for nothing: Blacks perceive Republicans not only as alien to them, but actively hostile. If Republicans are not actual racists, they will associate with racists, as Bob Barr and Trent Lott are alleged to have done.

Moreover, Republicans don't seem to care. A very prominent black Republican privately complained to Republican National Committee chairman Jim Nicholson that not a single Republican member of Congress had attended former Commerce Secretary Ron Brown's funeral. How could Republicans not have paid tribute to the first black Secretary of Commerce?

It's not Ron Brown's politics that caused Republicans to neglect his memorial service. After all, there were Republican legislators present at Congressman George Brown's funeral and George Brown was practically a Communist. Despite their stated intentions to include blacks, Republicans don't make the gestures necessary to recruit them, to show that they care. As a result, even though Republican policies like lower taxes and school choice are beneficial to blacks, the black community is not listening.

Some of Republicans' failure to reach out to African Americans is a defensive attitude caused by the attacks from the left. But this should not be used as an excuse for what is a serious Republican fault.

Republicans are no more racists than Democrats are. But Republicans make almost no effort to show that they're not. With few exceptions, like Jack Kemp, J.C. Watts, and George and Jeb Bush for example, they make almost no effort to show that they care about what happens to people who live in our inner cities and are suffering from their malignant effects.

Republicans have appointed blacks to significant positions. But unlike Democrat appointments, theirs are often kept secret. Pete Wilson appointed a black former welfare mother to head his welfare department and preside over its reforms. Eloise Anderson is one of the most informed and successful public policy experts on welfare issues, a tough-minded conservative and a Republican who served on the welfare task forces of Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson and Newt Gingrich as well. Think of how powerful Eloise Anderson's voice would be on the social policy issues that are the key to Republicans winning the confidence of minorities and poor people in California.

But few people have ever heard of Eloise Anderson, including Republicans. Pete Wilson, whose political instincts are normally sharp, kept her existence a virtual secret. He did not give her a public platform to make important policy announcements, or showcase her on television at state events. If a political figure is not on television making important policy announcements, they do not exist.

A gesture towards African Americans affects more than African American constituencies. It affects everyone who considers himself persecuted, disadvantaged, "under-represented" or "oppressed." It affects just about everybody.

The principles I have outlined provide a guide for Republicans to avoid the mistakes of the past and to position the conservative cause as one that will free poor people and minorities from the oppressions of liberalism and the welfare state.

To better understand why Republicans lose when they have a winning hand, let's turn to a case that shows how politics can trump principle in local elections.

The 41st State Assembly District in California extends from the liberal Westside of Los Angeles through the more conservative municipalities of the San Fernando Valley. Currently, it has a registration that is 49 percent Democrat and 33 percent Republican, while 13 percent decline to state their affiliation. In 1996, this electorate voted 55-45 in favor of ending racial preferences, 70-30 for the three-strikes anti-crime initiative, 53-47 for ending illegal immigration and 59-41 against raising taxes on top-tier income voters. But in 1998 it voted 55-38 to elect Sheila Kuehl, a left-wing gay activist who was a vocal advocate on the opposite side of all these issues. How could this happen?

It's the politics, stupid.

Kuehl, a former child actress, played Zelda on the TV show "Dobie Gillis." She won because she ran a slick campaign, successfully presenting herself as a "sensible Democrat" who was responsible and moderate, while her Republican opponent failed to define her as the leftist she actually was. Worse, she was able to project herself as caring and tolerant to a community that also voted 55-45 to raise the minimum wage, 64-36 to legalize marijuana for medical purposes and 67-33 for a tobacco tax that would fund programs for pre-school children. Her opponent was a fairly typical Republican candidate, an honest businessman and a stand-up conservative. But the image he projected to the voters was that of a responsible accountant -- fiscally cautious, socially rigid -- a Republican without a heart. This image defeated him.

The voters in the 41st Assembly District did not share all conservatives' social values. But neither did they share all Sheila Kuehl's "liberal" values either. Indeed, on at least three divisive and defining issues -- racial preferences, illegal immigration and class-warfare taxes -- they were strongly opposed to Kuehl's views. Yet Kuehl won -- and by a landslide. The result was that Sheila Kuehl went to Sacramento, where she worked to undermine the California Civil Rights Initative and the anti-illegal immigration law and to raise taxes. That's because Sheila Kuehl knew how to conduct political warfare and her Republican opponent didn't.

There's a profound difference between "policy" and "politics" -- a distinction that is often lost on Republicans. A good policy is not automatically good politics, especially if it is easily misrepresented by the opposition and hard to explain to the ordinary voter. A good policy can even become bad politics if is identified with the wrong spokesman. Consider Steve Forbes' flat-tax proposal, which would have made all tax rates a uniform 17 percent with no loopholes. It's probably a good idea. It eliminates large bureaucracies, provides an across-the-board tax cut and allows taxpayers to know exactly what the government bite is.

But look who was presenting it. Steve Forbes is worth more than $400 million. That easily puts him in the bracket of those who currently pay 39.6 percent. His tax plan would cut his contribution to the "general welfare" by nearly 23 percent. But someone in the 18 percent bracket would only get a 1 percent cut. Forbes' personal cut would be millions of dollars. How is Steve Forbes going to sell a tax cut for himself that exceeds the entire income of almost all Americans? He can't.

The only reason Steve Forbes was even able to run with this proposal was because he never ran against a Democrat. Republicans were not going to indulge in class warfare rhetoric against him. Democrats would. "Mr. Forbes, would you tell Americans how you can justify a $10 million tax rebate for yourself? On your Web site, you say a family of four earning $36,000 will get 'a tax cut of more than $1,600' -- while you get millions. Now how can that be just? Or fair? Or American?"

There is no answer that Steve Forbes could give in thirty seconds to convince the great mass of voters who are earning average incomes that Steve Forbes cares about them. If Steve Forbes really wanted to change the tax system, he should have taken the $50 million or more he spent on the impossible task of electing himself and used it to elect Republicans to Congress to get the job done.

The tax issue is a real problem for Republicans. Every across-the-board tax cut is going to benefit the upper income brackets because they pay at a higher rate and bear a greater weight of the tax burden. (The top 10 percent of income earners pay 63 percent of the taxes; the bottom 50 percent pay only 5 percent.) There is no way to convincingly explain to the average voter how the economy works, and what the incentive system means. Therefore, the only way Republicans can fight this issue is by framing it as an attack on the way liberal government spends the money it takes out of your pocket.

If tax dollars were actually being used to educate children in the inner city, and lift people out of poverty there would be no politically viable argument against raising taxes or taxing the wealthy even more to do so. You couldn't convince a voter that it is wrong to take more dollars and a higher percentage in taxes out of Steve Forbes' pocket than those of working Joes and Janes. However, if you point out that the government tax dollar is used to create manipulative bureaucracies that line their own pockets at the expense of the children and deny them an education, you will get traction for your argument. If you point out that the government tax dollar is used to destroy inner-city families and undermine the work ethic of individuals sinking them deeper into the mire of poverty, people will listen. This is the way Shannon Reeves, the head of the Oakland, Calif., chapter of the NAACP, explains why he became a Republican:

"I learned that liberals like to make poor people feel comfortable in their poverty with more food stamps, more utility subsidies, housing subsidies and welfare checks -- all with the condition that you cannot work. This is when I decided a Democratic message was the message that could not save my community."

This is the bottom-line message for framing a Republican tax cut. Tax cuts restore power and initiative to the people and diminish the bureaucracies that oppress them.

Politics is about winning elections and implementing programs. Because there is no majority in America that agrees on all the important issues, politics is about forming winning coalitions and holding them together. It is about getting people who disagree with each other to form an alliance to make things happen. In short, it is about compromise. This doesn't mean that it is not also about principle. That is how you form your faction in the coalition and how you achieve anything once in office. If you are not willing to go to the mat for your core principles, you will lose your base and eventually lose the cause as well. The art of politics is to know how to get your principles implemented without compromising them too much.

Conservative Republicans often condemn compromise without making distinctions. Their hero, Ronald Reagan, however, was a famous compromiser. Throughout his Administration he allowed deficits that no conservative could justify in good conscience. He did so because his choices were limited by political realities. The Democrat spenders controlled the Congress and the government's purse strings. They opposed increases in the military budget and were inclined to appease the Communists during a dangerous Cold War. Ronald Reagan was a political visionary. He wanted to defeat the "evil empire" and free the economy from the chains of big government. But what made him the most successful president in the last forty years was that he focused on what was important to him and didn't let the purists dissuade him from his mission.

Reagan's priorities were tax cuts and winning the Cold War. He gave the Democrats their spending programs in order to get them to agree to a radical reduction in marginal tax rates and a dramatic increase in the military budget. He gave one negative (deficits) to get two positives (prosperity and peace). He compromised principle, but for a greater good.

The problem of political purism is always with us. The reason for this is that many people confuse politics and religion. Politics is the art of the possible. Religion is the pursuit of an ideal. In religious matters, integrity of principle is not only an advantage it is the goal itself. Religion is not about getting tax cuts or building schools. It is about saving souls. Being virtuous and right, having integrity and standing on principle are the very essence of its agendas. You can't compromise with the devil and expect to get to heaven. In politics, on the other hand, pacts with the devil are made all the time, and on both sides of the political aisle.

This can even be regarded as a healthy development. The 20th century is littered with the corpses of people who got in the way of politicians -- Hitler, Lenin, Pol Pot -- who thought they were on a religious mission of social redemption. The appropriate places for making people moral and good are churches and synagogues and mosques, not state houses or congressional hearing rooms.

Many conservatives don't really want to face the real world problems that their purist attitudes create. They want to have it both ways. They think that by being morally correct conservatives can win. In fact, they think that's the only way Republicans can win. The Republican problem, they say, is not an inability to understand political tactics. The Republican problem is "loss of backbone," by which they mean the failure to stand up for conservative principles.

Political squishiness is certainly a Republican problem, and being on the defensive generally means losing the political war. But is this defensiveness the result of a lack of principle or is it a lack of confidence in facing the enemy? In my view, Republicans blink not because they lack principle, but because they are convinced the firepower of the left is superior to their own.

The blinking does not come from the kind of soft-headed politics associated with the moderates who once ran the Republican Party. Today's Republican Party is a long way from the party of Nelson Rockefeller or even Bob Michel. If the current House Republicans were mainly squishes, there would have been no "Contract With America." The House Republicans became squishy after the "train wreck" of 1995, when they were outgunned by the White House and knocked on their rear ends. Only two years later, however, they showed they could still stand up for principle when they impeached the president (even though in the end they failed to remove him).

The House Republicans disregarded Clinton's 70 percent poll ratings because they were committed to defend the constitutional process. Yet they could hardly ignore the fact that Clinton survived their assault. Clinton was able to survive a year that no other politician could have survived because of his mastery of political combat. (Being a pathological liar didn't hurt either.) Beholding Clinton's bullet-proof persona naturally made Republicans cautious.

The Republican problem is that they are psychologically beaten in advance by an opponent who knows how to fight better. This has nothing to do with Republicans being compromisers or cowards. The same men who led the Class of '94 and won the famous victories are the men who ordered the retreat. The problem (to repeat myself) is that Republicans do not know how to position themselves politically to withstand the Democrats' attacks. And that is what this essay is about: How you position yourself in politics to protect yourself from getting creamed.

Look at Clinton and ask yourself: How does he do it? How does he boff an intern in the White House, perjure himself before a grand jury, lie to the American people and prevail in political combat all at the same time?

The answer is the children. The answer is the blacks. The answer is the poor. It's the Democrat version of wrapping yourself in the American flag. Like every successful Democrat, Clinton wraps himself in the flag of the "dispossessed." He says: "However badly you think of me, I'm all that stands between women, children, minorities and the poor and those hard-hearted Republicans, who are closet racists as well."

Until the Republican Party takes this weapon out of the Democrat arsenal, Republicans are doomed to long-term frustration and defeat. In marginal districts and at the national level they can only win when Democrats screw up and expose their leftist hearts. But if they learn to fight the way Democrats do, they may well become the majority party their policies have already made their right.

This prescription can be summarized using the "triangulation" terminology invented by Clinton's Republican pollster Dick Morris. To convince American voters that Democrats could be fiscally responsible and socially tough-minded, Clinton triangulated with Republicans by appropriating Republican policies that reflected those values. Republicans need to reverse the process and triangulate with the rhetoric of Democrats that has proven mass appeal. (Needless to say, not all rhetoric is fungible. The Democrats' class-warfare and race-baiting appeals are inimical to Republican principles and to the interests of the public good, and would be counter-productive if adopted.) For Republicans it's about convincing the ordinary citizen that Republican policies originate in concern for them, and out of fear of the Democrats' agendas.

David Horowitz

David Horowitz is a conservative writer and activist.

MORE FROM David Horowitz

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Bill Clinton Democratic Party Republican Party