Hey, Dems: Run against Bush -- and toughen up -- or lose in '08

Drew Westen, author of "The Political Brain," evaluates the Democratic presidential candidates' ads and the party's messaging in general. Short version: More Jim Webb, less John Kerry.

Published August 27, 2007 12:00PM (EDT)

Fifteen months before the 2008 election, the Democrats are odds-on favorites to put one of their own into the White House. A solid majority of the country rejects the Bush administration and the war in Iraq he initiated. But psychologist Drew Westen says Democrats could lose yet again if they don't learn how to stand up for themselves and connect with voters emotionally.

Westen is a clinical, personality and political psychologist and a professor in the departments of psychology and psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University in Atlanta. He's also a political consultant whose bestselling book, "The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation," published in June, is a clarion call to Democrats to change the way they appeal to voters. Westen thinks the Democrats need to rely less on logic and more on emotion, and they need to understand that strength is less a function of defense policy than of backbone.

The six major Democratic candidates have all aired television commercials in Iowa. Salon spoke with Westen to get his take on whether those ads connect emotionally with voters -- and his evaluation of the Democratic performance in general.

Full disclosure: Westen says he has had contact with the campaigns of Sen. Hillary Clinton, Sen. Barack Obama and former Sen. John Edwards, though he has not as yet been paid by any candidate and did not work on any of the ads he discussed with Salon.

What have you thought about the message that the candidates have been sending during the campaign so far?

If we focus on the people who are realistically most in this race, the three who have the best shot at this point, who I think are Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards ... they're all looking at how the voters who decide elections are the voters in the middle. The way Clinton and Obama are trying to do it is with centrist messages ... Obama is trying to capture the center by saying, "Why can't we all get along?"

Edwards is taking a different tack ... an alternative way of trying to reach the center. The center right now is actually pretty down on the [GOP], and independents right now don't like the Republicans and they don't like the war ... What Edwards is doing much more is saying: "These aren't people who you compromise with ... I'm not going to compromise with the people who've given you the Iraq war, and I'm not going to compromise with the people who don't want you to get healthcare because it's not in their interest, and I'm not going to compromise with the people who are ripping you off at the gas tank."

I think it's going to be interesting to see how that all plays out over the next several months, particularly in the Democratic primaries, where most Democrats are really enraged at the policies of the Bush administration, but they're also really unhappy with the performance of the Democratic Congress in not staring down the Bush administration. So I think it'll be interesting to see whether the candidates who are doing the more deliberately centrist appeals are going to have the most success in that environment.

Is there one thing Democrats need to be doing, or one message they need to be putting out about themselves, to win this time around?

Yes. I think the most important thing they could do is to make sure that they tie every Republican incumbent and whoever becomes the Republican nominee for president in with George Bush, because the reality is the Republicans are all going to run from George Bush as best they can in this next election. Elections are won and lost on associations, and right now, unless there's another terrorist attack on our soil in the next 18 months, the connection to George Bush is going to be a tremendous liability for any candidate ...

If the Democrats run against anyone other than Bush and the Republican Party, Bush and the Republican Congress, Bush and the Republican presidential nominee, I think they'll probably lose, because I think the Republicans are adept enough at getting out of those associations unless the Democrats start making them now.

On the flip side, are there any narratives about the Democrats that they need to work to defeat in this election cycle?

There's two narratives they need to tell. One is, they need to answer the narratives about them; and the other is, they need to tell a coherent narrative about themselves -- neither of which they've done. I think that the Democratic Congress thus far, despite having passed some legislation like a hike in the minimum wage, has largely supported the Republican narrative about who the Democrats are.

The brand that the Republicans have given the Democrats is that they're weak in the face of aggression, and the Democrats have repeatedly proven themselves to be weak in the face of aggression. The brand that the Republicans have given the Democrats is that they have no values, and the Democrats have repeatedly, on issues from abortion to gays to guns to, I mean, name your wedge issue, they have been hedging in the face of those values issues as opposed to saying what they believe. So in all of those cases they're supporting the conservative narrative as opposed to offering a counter-narrative.

The strategists for the Democrats in Congress seem to think that it's their words that matter, when in fact it's their deeds that matter, and the muddled messages that they convey when they back down in the face of an aggressive attack speak volumes to the American people about who the Democrats are. If they're trying to change the perception that the Democrats are weak in the face of aggression, the first way to do that is to stop being weak in the face of aggression at home and to stop being fearful every time the Republicans rattle their sabers.

This is where I think Americans have more wisdom than Democrats give them credit for. I think the American people understand when someone is showing cowardice, and I think they understand when someone is voting against his or her principles, and they reward that with electoral losses. And they should reward that with electoral losses.

So the fact that after the Iraq war vote in May, when the Democrats capitulated to a president who's at 28 percent in the polls pushing a war that's at 30 percent in the polls, the fact that the Congress' ratings in the polls dropped by 15 percent in the next two weeks should have been a signal to them that they should stop thinking about right and left and start thinking about right and wrong ...

The irony in all this is that attempts to win the center by capitulating because you're afraid that you're going to be called left are the most self-defeating thing that you can do to try to win the center.

If you look at [Virginia Sen.] Jim Webb's response to the State of the Union address this year, Democrats should watch the tape of that over and over and over until they get it in their minds that here is a guy who is as centrist as you can get, I'm not sure that he's even left of center, but what grabs people in the center about him is that he knows how to throw a punch. He can do it with conviction. When he speaks about national security he can take what is thought of as a left-wing position, which is the most stridently antiwar position anyone really is taking ... and enunciate that position with crystal-clear clarity as a values issue: that families like his are willing to sacrifice their lives for the country, but that the flip side of that contract is that their leaders have to be judicious in the ways they call for them to sacrifice. Sending them to the desert in the wrong war into the midst of somebody else's civil war is not judicious and is betraying the military and is as far from supporting the troops as you can get.

One of the things you study is the brain's response to politics. Is there something set off in a voter's brain when he sees that the Democrats capitulated on FISA again, or is it just that it feeds this strong/weak narrative?

If you were to scan the brains of, say, independents and Democrats as you watch the Democrats cave in on the FISA law, I think what you would see is a lot of -- there are neural circuits involved in production of the feeling of disgust. It's part of the brain called the insular cortex, or the insula, that tends to become active when people feel disgust. I don't have any question that you would see a great deal of disgust reactions among Democrats and independents to the actions of the Congress.

The basic thesis of my book, or one of the basic ideas of my book, is that Democrats don't understand the degree to which emotion matters and the development of emotionally compelling appeals matters. They tend instead to focus instead on either policies, or facts and figures, or calculations that tend to be miscalculations most of the time about what happens if they do X. If they would devote some of their resources to what the Republicans devote theirs to, which is essentially marketing, and to develop emotionally compelling ways to talk about the Iraq war or terrorism, they'd stop finding themselves constantly in the box of saying, "Well, we'd better not do that because they'll brand us as weak on terrorism or as weak on national defense."

It isn't hard to come up with phrases as simple as, when you look at the FISA act, "We were supposed to teach the Iraqis about democracy, not the other way around." That's not a difficult concept for people to understand. Or similarly, if you simply say to Americans who have kids who are going off for the summer or for a semester abroad, "I wouldn't do that if I were you, because our government has created a new set of rules internationally by which your child can be snatched up by any country that wants to snatch them up, hold them hostage, torture them indefinitely ... and it is our government that has set the rule on that under George W. Bush and the Republicans" ... When we talk about the suspension of habeas corpus or the creation of wiretapping laws or the creation of a secret court system, we use words like "habeas corpus" in public, which don't belong in public. Those belong in courtrooms. But "habeas corpus" essentially means that you'd better not send your college student abroad next year. That's how Democrats should talk about this stuff if they want to stop betraying their principles.

Two issues that come up a lot on the blogs and also at Salon are the relative "strength" and "masculinity" of the Democrats. I'm wondering a couple things -- how important "strength" and "masculinity" are for a candidate, and how Democrats can fight the image of being weak.

I think that's a great question. Republicans consistently attack Democrats on masculinity, and it's part of why they're so successful in branding themselves as the party of national defense and Democrats as the party of weakness, because in our minds we associate strong national defense with tall, muscular men but more broadly with an ability to put up your dukes when you need to and to take some swings when you need to.

The best examples from recent years are really from when George W. Bush attacked Al Gore on his character by calling him a liar, essentially, to his face on national television in the first presidential debate, and Gore, instead of responding the way a normal primate male would respond, responded by saying: "I'm not going to dignify that. You want to talk about character. I want to talk about outcomes and results." A classic Democratic, you know, "Let's have a debate on the issues." But if the other guy is saying you can't be trusted and attacks you on your character, it doesn't matter what your policies are, because unless you answer that attack in a way that is both convincing and brings the other guy down, you're going to appear weak and feminized in a way that renders you vulnerable on every issue, particularly national security.

The same thing happened with Kerry with the Swift boats and the attempt to turn him into this French effete intellectual when in fact the guy had shrapnel still in his leg from Vietnam from going back and saving the lives of men who had dropped into the water.

If Democrats weren't guided by the wrong vision of how the mind works, they would have understood years ago that these are the kinds of things you develop answers for, and it doesn't matter what else is being said. When they bring this stuff up, you come back right away with a response to it that puts it to bed.

I think a good example of this is the attempts by the right to play on Barack Obama's name by calling him things like B. Hussein Obama. If you understand how the brain works, you understand that the more times people hear "B. Hussein Obama," the more they think, "He's foreign, he's Islamic, and he sounds like Osama," and the more they develop emotional associations between Obama and all of those things that they don't like.

So a way that Obama could handle that that would address any masculinity issues that are raised against him, any national security issues that are raised against him as well as the implicit or unconscious, sort of stealth racist appeals that are involved in those comments ... is to say to Ann Coulter, who calls him B. Hussein Obama all the time, "Listen, my name is Barack Obama, and I expect to be called that. I call you Ann Coulter. My name is not B. Hussein Obama, my name is not Osama, it is Barack Obama, and you will address me that way."

Now imagine if Barack Obama spoke like that. Immediately people would say, "Wow, this is one tough son of a bitch. We'd better not mess with him." If you want to talk about winning the center, that's how you win the center if you're Barack Obama. It's not by saying, "Let's get along with Ann Coulter." It's by saying, "Ann Coulter, you will not talk to me that way. You will not talk about me that way. This is my name."

That's where I think Democrats fall down all the time, because they just don't think in terms of narrative. They think in terms of laundry lists of policies ... Republicans always start with, "Let me tell you where my heart is." It's just a huge difference between the parties, and I think it's one that has shown up in electoral victories at a presidential level for Republicans for the better part of 50 years.

What was your opinion of the ads you watched?

I think by and large they were quite strong in terms of the emotional appeal to Iowa voters. They vary tremendously in the messages they're trying to get across, and some of them do a better job of telling the story than others, but we're seeing this year less of the withering appeals to facts and figures and numbers in these ads than we've seen in the past. The data suggests that this approach -- that is, going more for appealing to people's values and sentiments -- is the better way to appeal to them. So in that sense, they are stronger than some of the ads we've seen in prior years.

Salon then asked Westen to evaluate the ads aired in Iowa by the six major Democratic presidential candidates so far.

Sen. Hillary Clinton: "Invisible"

I thought the Hillary ad, the "Invisible" ad, is particularly strong in that it tells a coherent story. One of the things that you want to think about when you're creating an ad like this is, at the end of it, does the viewer come away with a story that has the story structure that our brains essentially expect? Because if you give them that kind of structure, they're much more likely to remember it and to resonate with it. So the "Invisible" ad, for example, the story it tells is a simple one: "People are invisible to [President Bush] and they won't be to me." That's a compelling message, I think. It starts with opening photos and music that draw you in immediately. It has throughout a nice juxtaposition of Hillary Clinton speaking on the stump with voters and scenes from Iowa, beginning with the Iowa landscape. The mention of soldiers being invisible to the president is particularly strong, and there's a nice shot of a young woman who's obviously inspired by Hillary Clinton as a woman.

On the other side, there are two or three things that are, if I were pulling this apart for what could be improved in this ad, one is that I think Hillary's debate performances have been very strong, particularly relative to what I think many people, myself included, would have expected in her ability to connect with voters. I think the major problem in them so far has been a way that sometimes she talks like she's speaking into a megaphone. That amplifies the story that's already out there about her, that she's cold and -- I guess "shrill" would be the closest to what the story is. So sometimes when she's in the debate, and I saw the same thing [in this ad] when she was speaking to the Iowa voters directly in a town-hall-type setting, she would do herself well to speak with a less harsh vocal tone, because it plays into a story that's being told about her that's not the story she wants to tell.

And if you compare that with the way she says at the end, "I'm Hillary Clinton and I support this ad," the look on her face has a much softer appearance to it that I think connects much better with voters and with more traditional conceptions of femininity while not undercutting her stature as a woman who could be commander in chief.

Sen. Barack Obama: "What If...," "Carry" and "Choices"

I thought the Obama "What If..." ad was particularly powerful. It was the best of his three ads. I didn't think the other two ads were particularly strong ... It tells, again, a clear story that is essentially, "What if we were one nation again and we weren't being divided?" That's the story that it tells, and it does it in a very hopeful way...

[Obama] starts out powerfully by talking about "It's time for hope rather than fear. It's time for unity rather than division." And what's nice about that is they are great references to the failure of the current administration without ever mentioning Bush or the Republicans or sounding negative. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were masters of this, both in their campaign rhetoric and in their ads, offering a positive message and a hopeful message while slipping in, in a way that you barely even notice, a strong but subtle attack on their opponents. I think that's one of the real strengths of this ad.

So that was the best of the Obama ads. The other two had aspects of them that I was surprised to see, because they were the kinds of things that you would want to edit out.

The one called "Carry" is, I think, the weakest of the three. The story, again, in this one is "We're one America, and I, Barack Obama, can bring people together." ... That message does get conveyed clearly ... But in this ad what you see are some visual images that are not helpful, so that you see, for example, the ad begins with him frowning or scowling or doing something negative with his face -- and immediately you're activating neural circuits that activate the same circuits in the viewer as he seems to be experiencing in the image. So you really don't want to start with a scowling or frowning face when you're about to tell a story that's supposed to be hopeful.

The other ad, which is "Choices," similarly has this mixture of some really good stuff in it, like his speech where he says, "I am my brother's keeper; I am my sister's keeper," emphasizing that we're all in this together ... [But] this is the worst of the three in terms of some of the stuff that it does ... There are some choices in it that seem to me awfully questionable, like the reference to Harvard Law School.

Maybe that's aimed at convincing Democratic primary voters that he's a person of substance, because some people have argued that he doesn't have the substance, but Americans in general are an anti-intellectual lot, and one of the stories that you notice that George W. Bush did not offer about himself was that he was an Andover, Yale, Harvard man. Bill Clinton similarly didn't talk about the fact that he was a Rhodes scholar terribly much, versus John Kerry talked about his Yale background and put people off with it.

Former Sen. John Edwards: "We the People" and "30 Years"

The two Edwards ads have, I think, the same strength and the same weakness -- the "We the People" ad and the "30 Years" ad -- and that is, they're narrated by people other than John Edwards ... The strength in that, with him coming on at the end approving the message, is that he's not talking himself up; he's letting other people do it for him. And in the case of the "We the People" ad, he's basically saying, "I'm with you on this."

But the strength of the ad is also the negative. I think both of these ads would have been much stronger if he had come on first, and identified himself and his position or made some kind of compelling statement to begin them, and then let other people talk and have him bookend it by being at the beginning and the end of the ad.

If you look at the "We the People" ad, there's a good use of everyday people to offer a direct attack on the president, to emphasize courage. There was a good subtle, or not-so-subtle, attack on the Democratic Congress for backing down on so many issues like the war in Iraq that the Democratic base is really angry with their leaders about ... He actually has a surrogate, an Iowan, say that for him, but by not having him up-front saying something, he doesn't pick up enough of the association to the ad and to what they're saying, and he doesn't get enough of the credit for what they're saying. With the "We the People" ad, you don't get until the end that this is his position, and you have to think about it for a minute to get that point.

The other thing about both of these ads: I presume there'll be something after these ads that is him speaking more directly, but because he's in both of these ads not doing the ads himself, he's not taking advantage of what his biggest strength in Iowa is, and his biggest strength in general, which is that he's a very powerful speaker who connects extremely well with voters ... That is really where he's at his very best.

It may be that his campaign team decided that Iowa voters have seen so much of him personally that it would be good for them to have them see on television someone else talking about him, but to me it probably would have been more effective in both of these ads to bookend it with him showing his strength first ...

The "30 Years" ad ... one of the things that works is when [Elizabeth Edwards] talks about what Americans need is a president who can stare the worst in the face and not blink. That's something that people want to hear from a Democrat, and the story that this ad tells is of a guy who is optimistic but also tough, and that really is the theme that I think he needs to be expressing.

In some ways, he and Obama are both trying to stake out that same territory. They're both candidates of hope, but they need to display their toughness, and in this one they're really taking on the toughness issue, and he's been taking it on with a lot of his campaign rhetoric ... The parts of this ad that don't work as well for me are, again, the references to "fighting for" people. That language sounds just too much like the language of Kerry and Gore ... I'm not sure that people resonate with that language terribly much right now. I could be wrong on that.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson: "Job Interview" and "Tell Me"

I think Richardson's ad, his job interview ad ... at the end of it you know exactly what the message was: "This guy's really qualified." It uses humor effectively to establish that. It mentions all kinds of good things about him, like his being nominated four times for the Nobel Peace Prize, which I certainly didn't know about, and I bet most Americans didn't know, but it does it in a way where it comes from somebody else rather than him pontificating about himself. It also associates him with humor, which is a good thing because as a candidate he's very dry and in the debates has been a real snooze. So that was a strong point of that ad. It tells a story about him as a guy who can have a sense of humor too, which is not a bad story for him to be telling. The only problem with that particular ad was that the music at the end sounds like a game show, and it seemed to me like it sort of trivialized the point. I'm sure people can differ on how they experience that, but it has kind of a "Three Stooges" kind of feel to me at the end of that.

The problem that Richardson is facing: I think the fact that they used humor is probably suggesting that his campaign knows that he's boring people and that he needs to associate himself with something positive. And the story he's trying to tell with both of these is that he's phenomenally qualified and he's a very effective administrator. The problem with that is -- and you see this much more in the second ad -- there are far too many facts and numbers. In general, from a candidate whose greatest negative is that he just seems boring, the last thing you want to do is to run an ad like the "Tell Me" ad that just bombards people with facts and figures about him, even though it's trying to do it in a humorous way.

Sen. Joe Biden: "Cathedral"

The "Cathedral" ad [in which Biden discusses returning in a military plane from a trip to Iraq] is a really interesting one. I thought that ad was, in general, extremely effective, particularly that line, "It turned that cargo bay into a cathedral." It's hard not to picture that cargo bay and a cathedral in your mind as he says those words, and he delivered the words beautifully. In fact, I thought his delivery in that entire ad was so poignant and the only questions I had about the ad -- I wondered why they cut off the top of his head the whole way through. They actually had room at the bottom, and I don't know if there was a purpose in doing such a close shot on his face, but that's the kind of thing that you don't want to distract people, and I was slightly distracted by the cut-off head, kind of looking above like, "Where's the rest of his head?" That's really not where you want a voter to go, to be distracted.

The other thing that I thought about that ad that I thought was not terribly strong was the line on the screen -- I think it was the only line on the screen that came on -- that said, "Joe Biden is the only candidate to have a plan to get us out of Iraq." As someone who's been watching the debates and listening to the debates, and I presume for Iowa voters who have been meeting these people firsthand, that seemed to me untrue. And there must be some way in which he believes that's the case or he wouldn't have said it. But for a guy who got his campaign derailed before by charges that he was making things up that weren't true, or that he was plagiarizing or something, that's not something I would have done, and I don't think he needed to go negative in that ad that way ...

Sen. Chris Dodd: "Split" and "Amazing Grace"

"Amazing Grace" and "Split" were both, I thought, in many respects strong ads, both of which really left you with the feeling that he was quite presidential. I thought "Split" in particular was -- it's hard to summarize the story, I can't tell you exactly how I would summarize it other than to say, "This guy sure is qualified" ... The way it starts out, from his Peace Corps service to his championing the Family and Medical Leave Act, he didn't just say, "I championed the Family and Medical Leave Act." It was said in a way that talked about our children and our seniors in a way that was much more emotionally evocative than the standard, "And I proposed the Family and Medical Leave Act," which doesn't mean anything to most people.

And then when he talked about meeting with world leaders and you see the leaders he's met with, including the pope -- which was quite smart on his part or the part of the people that put together the ad -- it picks up on the same thing as the "Amazing Grace" theme, where he begins by saying, "I was blessed." What that is telling us is, among other things, that Democrats have realized that this is a religious country and it's not a good idea to paint yourselves as the party of the secular when the other party is painting itself as the party of God.

But you really do see that progression, from Peace Corps to successful legislator to meeting with world leaders to -- he just does a great job in that ad of establishing piece by piece that he has what it takes to lead. And if you look at the images, they're all really strong. You really got the sense of gravitas in this guy ... I thought this was one of the best.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

MORE FROM Alex Koppelman

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2008 Elections Barack Obama Bill Richardson Christopher Dodd D-conn. Hillary Rodham Clinton Joe Biden