In twenty years of doing this, one thing that strikes me again and again is the critical importance of naming things in politics. If the question is advocacy and persuasion few steps are more important than effectively and consistently naming the key developments, agenda items, threats and prizes and raising them in the public consciousness. There are few things – things that can be controlled by people involved in politics and campaigns, as opposed to the tides of historical change we are awash in – more important for Democrats to do a good job at in the next two yeas.
You know some examples of this. The ‘death tax’, for instance. Conservative operatives took the unglamorous and unsympathetic cause of trust fund kids and gave it a title with punch, ready understandability and even an edge of justice. In politics like everything else you simply must put your best foot forward. Just showing up or just doing a good job is never enough. You have to tell your story. You have to make sure people with a lot else on their plate know what you’re doing, why you’re doing it and why it might be important to them that you succeed. That starts with naming things. That makes the thing visible and tells a story about it embedded in the name.
These little names might be seen like gimmicks and sometimes they are. But they are little nuggets of ideation, little arguments in compacted form which embed themselves in media narratives and spread from person to person. You remember them and in that way they shape thinking.
It’s not just PR or bamboozlement. One of the things we’ve seen over recent months is rising anger at ‘Congress’ for doing nothing to pass more COVID relief. But of course for almost all of this time (with the arguable exception of the last few weeks of the campaign) it wasn’t ‘Congress’. It was congressional Republicans, specifically Senate Republicans who stood in the way. That opacity, that lack of clarity and failure of communication had and continues to have vast political consequences. Was there a name for the bill Democrats passed in the House but was refused even a vote in the Senate? Do you remember it? Did it have a name other than a number?
Indeed, much of the Obama administration was an illustration of this basic fact and pattern. Republicans hamstrung the Congress and then reaped the benefit of popular discontent over Congress being broken. How were they able to do this? There are a number of factors – Presidents get blamed more than Congress, political geography tends to make this easier for Republicans to pull off. Cynicism is generally easier to build than public trust – a key challenge with the years ahead. But a critical, critical part of it is that much of the inner workings of Congress get left in the obscure language of parliamentary procedure: motions to recommit, continuing resolutions, cloture, a whole bunch of stuff that no one not involved in legislation knows what to make of. In some ways this is the whole story of the Obama administration.
On its face, Joe Biden may not be the one to buck this pattern. He is after all in many ways a creature of Congress and all its impenetrable jargon. But there are many people in his embryonic administration who are not and who one hopes have learned the lessons of the last decade. You can’t just show up. You need a clear message and one repeated again and again. And you need to name things. Otherwise there’s nothing for people to remember, no storyline you’re creating.