Bill Scher is the executive editor of the popular Liberal Oasis web-site, among whose credits include the first interview with a presidential candidate by a blog. Mr. Scher is the author of "Wait! Don't Move to Canada!: A Stay-and-Fight Strategy to Win Back America", a handbook of political strategies for liberals interested in advancing the liberal cause. Mr. Scher also appears regularly on Air America's "Majority Report". On September 19, 2006, I had the privilege of speaking to Mr. Scher by telephone; what follows are my interview notes, as corrected where appropriate by Mr. Scher.
The Talking Dog: I'll belay my usual first question to ask if you are still speaking with Michelle Malkin (who I understand was your editor at a student publication at Oberlin College)?
Bill Scher: Funny you should mention her. Michelle Malkin e-mailed me last night-- she saw me in the Clinton picture with the other bloggers! She hadn't realized it was me behind Liberal Oasis before, but suggested that we get together the next time I am in the Washington, D.C. area!
The Talking Dog: Now, I'll ask you my usual first question, "where were you on September 11, 2001?"
Bill Scher: I was living in New York at the time, but on September 11 itself, I wasn't in New York. I had gone to a wedding in Lake Tahoe, and was spending a few extra days in San Francisco. On a typical day in New York, I would have been on the 2 or 3 train under the World Trade Center at that moment. Instead, I was sleeping in San Francisco. A friend called early, and we wanted to get the t.v. on. But the t.v. wasn't installed, and so we scrambled about to get a television and antenna set up. Needless to say, it was a disturbing day, especially since I grew up, lived and worked in New York.
It was a Tuesday. We couldn't get back until Saturday. I was on one of the first two flights to JFK. The woman at the check-in desk told us that the first flight was delayed becase there was a security problem in New York! Fortunately, we got in fine. Shortly after I got back, I went to Ground Zero, and I told my then girlfriend (and now wife) that I felt my lungs start to hurt-- I sensed that we should get out of there.
The Talking Dog: Why has September 11th been used so successfully as a right wing hammer, and how can we successfully overcome it?
Bill Scher: It's been used successfully because there is a deep seated stereotype that Democrats are weak on national security, and Republicans are strong. It's a no-brainer for them to use the natural fear for one's security in such circumstances... you want the guys who you believe will protect you to be in power during a crisis situation. And when there is such a deep-seated stereotype, the facts don't matter. You're not going to be able to explain that Bill Clinton was far more focused on trying to thwart terrorism than George W. Bush.
The stereotype will overwhelm the facts. So... how do you get rid of the stereotype?
You can't talk your way out of it, no matter how tough you talk. You have to demonstrably prove that the stereotype is false. You have to either successfully prosecute a war, like FDR in World War II, or successfully avert war while keeping us strong, like JFK in the Cuban Missile Crisis. But to do that, you have to be in power. And it can be hard to get in power because of the "weak" stereotype, so you have a kind of a Catch-22 situation.
Does that mean Democrats can never return to power? No. Two things could happen: (1) the fear of terrorism will subside, and other issues, domestic issues where Democrats are stronger on, will come into play, or (2) enough disasters (such as Iraq) will accumulate so that people realize that the Republicans are not doing a very good job on national security, and it is time to give Democrats a chance. Of course, both of those scenarios are beyond our control.
So what should be done in the interim? We should articulate our own overarching foreign policy vision and principles, and lay them out consistently. Consistency builds trust. So when the moment of public perception shifts, we are ready to seize the moment, and the public is in a position to trust us, and we make it easier for voters to go with our new direction.
The Talking Dog: As one particular strategy with the last question, do you believe Democrats and liberals should make it a point of courting police, fire and other rescue workers unions, and, for example, military veterans associations, to show that liberals are every bit as tough on national security?
Bill Scher: Actually, none of those are bad things to do, and indeed, are good things to do in their own right... we should be courting these groups along with other professional and public servant groups anyway. The fact is, though, that liberals and Democrats have more than a simple image problem. John Kerry did exactly what you suggest-- he actively campaigned with groups like this, especially his old military colleagues. And it wasn't enough.
Image certainly matters-- but to a degree. The image must be backed up with substance... or it doesn't go where we need it to. If we aren't explaining how our foreign policy principles are better than theirs for keeping us safe and secure, the photo ops are meaningless.
The Talking Dog: Do you have any other strategies to overcome what I call this backstory, you call the stereotype (and Dr. George Lakoff would use the term "framing") that only Republicans can be trusted on security (btw, that's both national security and crime fighting)?
Bill Scher: The Democrats, at least nationally, seem to have less of a problem on the crime issue. In large part, this is because Bill Clinton was perceived as tough on crime. As to national security, this is another matter.
What we really need to do is lay out our foreign policy principles and what we want to achieve globally. One area is promoting democracy-- that is a key liberal goal and principle, to be sure. And George W. Bush SAYS the same thing-- HE wants to promote democracy. Ah, but he doesn't DO it. And we can point to example after example, from condoning a military dictatorship in Pakistan, helping to oust the democratally elected leader in Haiti, supporting dictatorships in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and other examples. While the rhetoric is there, Bush actually does the opposite of promoting democracy in practice. And our failure to support democracies only strengthens terrorists, and undermines, rather than strengthens, our security.
The Talking Dog: Following up on Lakoff, would you accept the notion that certainly people who self-identify as conservatives can nonetheless be reached, such as, for example, on issues like the environment?
Bill Scher: Certainly, there are some conservatives who are reachable; of course, there are some who are not. Look at it this way: in polling, 34% of Americans say they are conservative. But if you ask specific questions, 93% tell you that they believe that the government should be responsible for protecting the environment; 87% believe the government should do more to advance public education; 79% believe the government should guarantee health care coverage for all, and 92% believe that the government should hold irresponsible corporatinos accountable.. So the vast majority of people favor positions that most people associate with "liberal" values, and that has to include some of the folks who call themselves conservative, as well as most liberals and moderates.
The Talking Dog: How can we convince office holders that we would rather that they obstruct, fight and lose rather than "compromise" and be "bipartisan"... in other words, that voters respect principled stands?
Bill Scher: What they need to understand is consistently articulating core principles builds trust. The Republicans have done this well. If you were to take a checklist of major issues and poll them, you would find that Republicans are in the minority position on most issues. And yet, by consistently articulating core principles such as "less government" and "strong defense," the public gets a good grasp of where Republicans want to take them. By contrast, people by and large agree with Democrats on specific issues, but don't have a good sense of their overarching direction, which leads people to say things like they don't know where Democrats stand.
It might be very helpful if Jon Tester or Ned Lamont, who have been at least running very principle-heavy campaigns, rooted in core values, won their seats, and then proved successful in the Senate. This might show other office holders that their positioning tactics and shifts on every issue come across as pandering, and are a formula for long-term failure.
The Talking Dog: What particular success stories do you have as to what I'll call for lack of a better term the "guerrilla political marketing" strategies you have laid out? How can these successes be built on?
Bill Scher: Part of the problem in showing success stories is that we haven't been in power for quite a while. We certainly have had "intermediate" success stories that demonstrate the power of these principles. Two obvious examples are Howard Dean, and Ned Lamont, both of whom were originally counted out by the media because, by the traditional measures of their pre-existing name recognition, celebrity status and how much money they had on hand for their campaigns, neither would have gotten anywhere in the regular media or political process. But both showed they could win, at least at some level (Lamont actually won a primary over not merely a sitting senator, but his party's vice-presidential nominee) with a consistent message and the power of the internet to get that message out there. While Dean did a number of things wrong on his own (and he was savaged and hammered by his fellow Democrats), this does not prove that the model was wrong; that he was even in a position to be the frontrunner shows the strength of the model. And the jury is obviously still out on Lamont until the November election. But we have clearly shown that with the right combination of message and intelligent use of the internet, you can be right in the heart of the game with a strong chance to win, whereas in "traditional" politics, this was out of the question.
The Talking Dog: Anything else I should have asked you but didn't, or that the public needs to know on these subjects?
Bill Scher: We've covered a lot of ground. I think this is a good time to look at how the principles discussed came together, and that would involve the recent ABC 9-11 movie. Bloggers quickly took ABC to task for factual inaccuracies, and got the facts out there very quickly, indeed so quickly that conservatives actually found themselves flatfooted and boxed in. And as a result, the program ran with disclosures, and ABC was completely on the defensive, as most people knew that what ABC was showing was not exactly a fully true story. Things would have been quite different had ABC instead shown it the way they wanted to, and then the arguments over its accuracy took place after millions of people had already seen it.
The Talking Dog: Thank you, Bill Scher, for that most interesting interview, and I commend readers to take a look at "Wait! Don't Move to Canada!".