Getting better about talking? Not enough for a Democratic resurgence

Former Maine Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant. BDN photo by Troy R. Bennett.

Former Maine Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant. BDN photo by Troy R. Bennett.

You’ll hear it from losing parties or candidates after a hard-fought campaign. You’ll hear it after a president or a governor loses a policy fight. You’ll even hear it when a new law is enacted, but ends up wildly unpopular.

And on Sunday, Ben Grant, outgoing Chairman of the Democratic Party of Maine said it.

“We have to get better about talking to voters about the issues.”

The core of such a message is, essentially, that there is nothing wrong with the Maine Democratic Party, its candidates, its policy proposals, or its message. No, the only thing that is wrong is that they didn’t educate the ignorant masses about how great they really were.

This is a common conceit among losing candidates, campaigns and parties. The last thing anyone wants to do after fighting and losing a big election is make themselves feel worse.

As a result, you’ll often hear this kind of self-reassuring talk among the losers because, otherwise, they would have to confront the dispiriting notion that they are simply unappealing to a majority of voters.

“If only voters knew what we really meant,” they think to themselves, “then they’d love us more.”

Unfortunately, while good for the psyche, it isn’t much good for the future prospects of the party or candidate in question. Self-delusion is among the most damaging things in politics.

And trust me, this happens just as much on the right as it does the left.

Republicans have had a self-delusion problem, particularly in Maine, for a long time. For years, it would explain away its defeats in similar terms, blaming a failure to “get the message out” to the voters.

You see, if only that message got out and people truly understood why the Republican ideas and candidates were superior, they would choose the GOP every time.

The reality, of course, was a mix of poor candidates, a lack of money, a weak and disorganized party, few (if any) third-party organizations helping, limited use of modern campaign tools, and most of all, a complete lack of understanding about what Maine voters really wanted.

It took a candidate and party who actually listened to and understood the voters and what they cared about to change that.

This has been repeated more than once nationally, including after the last two presidential elections: No discussion that there was a fundamental lack of understanding of the electorate and what motivated them or any kind of tactical, infrastructure issues.

Enter today’s Maine Democratic Party. It is a party that has been overtaken in grassroots activism and organizational strength, has a thin bench, uninspiring candidates and pursues policy solutions that do not have broad support statewide.

Yet, the belief among so many on the left is that there are no real problems in the party and that they simply need to “get better at talking to voters.”

Not so. Indeed, the biggest problem with this line of thinking is that while it feels to you like you’re blaming yourself, you’re ultimately blaming the voters for not understanding how wonderful you are.

Fixing a drubbing like this isn’t a matter of hiring a better, more clever communications staffer, writing better TV ads, or recruiting candidates who all stay on message.

The real solutions is to get better at listening to voters about the issues they care about.

And in this respect, the Democrats have failed and show no signs of understanding this, their most basic problem. This weekend, the Democrats chose a new leader of their party in Phil Bartlett, who is from Gorham. He is joined by Justin Alfond from Portland, and Mark Eves, from North Berwick.

Is it any wonder they can’t conceptualize what the rest of the state thinks about issues like welfare, taxes, energy, economic development, and education?

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with southern and coastal Maine, and you will never count me among those denigrating it as “not real Maine.” Southern Maine is real Maine, and it is critical to the economy and culture of our state.

But that single perspective cannot be the only perspective. As the party gets more liberal and more based in those Democratic strongholds, it strays further from the priorities of the rest of Maine.

No amount of “getting better at talking” is going to convince anyone in Maine to vote for you if you don’t share the same perspective. At the end of the day, that is the current problem with the Democratic Party in Maine and the one that they must fix if they want to be relevant again.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.