Opinion

Can Democrats rebuild? Yes – if they listen to Toby Keith

To win in 2012, Democrats must rebrand themselves. Country music lyrics could help.

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After the "shellacking" Dem­ocrats suffered in the midterm elections, many political consultants urged the party to revamp its communication strategy.

Better talking points are essential in modern politics, but they are only as good as the underlying convictions. That's why so many voters – including independents – favored Republicans this fall. They responded favorably to the GOP's simple, emotional pitch.

Democrats know why they lost. They know Americans do not trust their politicians very much, that they want more jobs and less government. They see that the tea party capitalized on these sentiments and, like a new red shirt in a load of whites, continues to bleed into electoral districts across the country. Ratifying the new START treaty and repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, though important, do not change these fundamental dynamics.

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The main problem Democrats face in the next two years is not Republican obstructionism, but rather their own lack of identity. They desperately need a shared purpose, one that will lend coherence to their policy platform and help communicate their vision more effectively to voters of all stripes.

The longstanding challenge for Dem­ocrats is to figure out how to convince more Americans that a vote for the GOP is usually a vote against one's own economic self-interest. Democrats met this challenge in 2008 by running on "change" from unpopular Bush policies, but times are harder now and many are tired of the blame game.

So how can Democrats make a better case for victory in 2012? Here are three less-conventional approaches:

No. 1: Listen to more country music

To communicate ideas, values, and accomplishments more effectively, President Obama and other Democrats should take a cue from Nashville.

Even if you're not a fan of the actual music, you can always understand the words in a country song. And they are catchy, be it for their wit (Toby Keith's "I ain't as good as I once was, but I'm as good once as I ever was"), patriotism (give a listen to Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA"), or relatable nature (Zac Brown Band's "you know I like my chicken fried … a pair of jeans that fit just right").

People remember country lyrics, just as they do the bumper sticker "I'll keep my guns, freedom, & money ... You can keep the 'change'!"

For all of the major initiatives the Obama administration passed, none has positive connotations in the popular media. Indeed, almost every program – from "Government Motors" to "Obamacare" – has been pointedly branded by critics.

Perhaps the most effectively packaged statement of Mr. Obama's accomplishments comes not from the White House or the Democratic National Committee but a humorous (and PG-13) website: wtfhasobamadonesofar.com. Certainly the Democrats can do better, and not just by evoking images of steaming teakettles and mad hatters, but through reconnecting with voters by finding positive ways to describe their own accomplishments.

No. 2: Diversify

Sure, the Obama administration ranks as the most diverse in history in terms of gender, race, and sexual orientation. But perceptions of an intellectual, Ivy League elitism continue to hamper the Democrats and their ability to craft a mainstream message.

While enlisting the best and the brightest into public service is a good thing, relying too much on a relatively insulated liberal elite makes it difficult to stay in touch with ordinary Americans. As the leader of the Democrats, Obama needs to find political consultants like James Carville circa 1992, whose spirited "down-home-ism" and ability to craft a unifying message helped President Clinton connect with the whole country, not just parts of it.

No. 3: Throw a different party

Many of the candidates who won on Obama's coattails in 2008 ran away from him in 2010, hardly a sign of party unity. Yet the rise of the tea party and the resulting Republican fragmentation provide an opportunity the Democrats have not had in decades: to be the more cohesive party.

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Why can't the Democrats reinvent themselves as the "American party"? They should sign a code of conduct that puts good governance first and articulates party values such as fairness, security, and opportunity that average citizens – the "high-techs, blue-collar boys, and rednecks" that Toby Keith sings of – can relate to.

Instead of parrying tea party criticism, they should go on offense, showing why the GOP is like the New York Yankees of politics while the Democrats better represent smaller-market teams.

A hip slogan might be "Party responsibly: Vote Democrat."

Whatever it is, the message should be clear, plain-spoken, and confident. If not (cue the country music), 2012 may produce more tears in Democratic beers.

Patrick Cottrell is a professor of political science at Linfield College in McMinnville, Ore.

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