On Sunday, Democrats looked to have a handle on a busy week of Congress. They’d scrambled across talk shows, making cases against president-elect Donald Trump’s nominees. They’d prepped legislation to demand more financial disclosure from the president and his family. They’d planned a series of press conferences to “fight Republican efforts to gut Medicare and Medicaid.”
On Monday morning, they turned on their TVs to see coverage of Trump’s social media brawl with Meryl Streep.
Days before he takes office, Democrats — and some Republicans — continue to wrestle with the president-elect’s ability to command and reshape news cycles to his liking. His use of Twitter and strategic call-ins to reporters and TV shows, which bear no resemblance to past presidents’ communication strategy, have hardly changed since the election.
The traditional Washington ways of messaging have not changed either. Members of Congress speak from the floor to largely empty press galleries. They gather in TV studios, where few networks cut in to cover them. They respond to tweets with wordy press releases, columns, or open letters, each one staff-edited down to the last period after the last talking point.
And they hold press stunts that worked before Trump came to town. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Monday, for instance, that Democrats would “hold the floor late into the night” to protest the Obamacare repeal push with cameras rolling. Less clear was whether anyone would be watching.
“Donald Trump’s been extremely effective at setting a tone, from the campaign through the transition,” said Anita Dunn, a former communications director in the Obama White House who’s now managing director at the messaging firm SKDKnickerbocker. “This idea that somehow you have to sound ‘senatorial’ when you get to Washington should be laid to rest. People should sound like themselves. When they don’t, they’re feeding into how Trump is able to run against Washington.”
Since Trump’s surprise victory, Democrats have beefed up the Democratic National Committee’s “war room,” and given official roles in party messaging to higher-profile senators like Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont. The first week of the 115th contest looked to validate those changes, as Republicans stumbled over an attempt to change House ethics rules and struggled to conjure a coherent replacement for the Affordable Care Act.
But at times, both parties looked to be reacting not to their plans, but to Trump’s whims. The roll-out of Democrats’ messaging on the Affordable Care Act included the imperfect image of senators standing next to a sign that read “Make America Sick Again.” Schumer spent part of one day rebutting Trump’s description of Democrats as “Schumer clowns,” shared — naturally — on Twitter.
“I think the Republicans should stop clowning around with people’s Medicare, Medicaid, and health care,” Schumer responded.
That gibe evoked some of the Trump rebuttals that had fallen flat in 2016, from Hillary Clinton’s brief description of “Trumped-up trickle down” economics to Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) branding his running mate as “a you’re hired president, not a you’re fired president.” George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist who ten years ago advised Democrats on how to reframe political debates, said that too much of their current rhetoric fits into Trump’s ideal image, as a “strict father” who takes on all comers.
“Democrats are fixated on the wise guy response, on turning their words against them,” said Lakoff. “The problem is that it doesn’t work. What does Rachel Maddow do every night? ‘Look at this outrageous thing; now, look at this outrageous thing five more times.’ Trump knows this is going to happen if he does certain things. When you say Make America Sick Again, you don’t score a point — you activate his slogan, which is physically branded in the brain.”
The current messaging rankles on the left, where Democrats are seen as too bound to their scripts to face Trump on his own terms. Alan Grayson, a former Florida congressman whose bluntness made him one of the party’s best fundraisers, had accused Republicans of prefering Americans “die quickly” than get expanded coverage. (Opposed by national Democrats, he lost a Senate primary in 2016.)
“The fundamental problem is not just what we’re promising, but the lack of credibility in what we promise,” Grayson said. “Trump would say ‘I’ll make the Mexicans pay for the wall.’ People said, ‘oh my god,’ but they didn’t laugh at it. Let’s say Scott Walker said the same thing, with the words in the same places. Nobody would believe him. Democrats have the same problem, and it’s pervasive through elite political culture.”
Felix Biederman, the co-host of the Chapo Trap House podcast, sometimes affects a “Democrat voice” to mimic the sing-song recitation of talking points or canned lines.
“Trump remembers a key rule, which is that politics is the execution of power and an answer to the question who gets what,” Biederman said. “When Democrats say ‘Make America Sick Again’ or ‘Love Trumps Hate,’ they’re saying the best thing they can come up with is it to fight Trumpism on the linguistic grounds of Trump’s choosing.”
There are efforts underway to change that. Next Sunday, Democrats in the House and Senate are organizing rallies under the theme “Our First Stand,” gathering activists to oppose any Republican effort to cut back health care spending. It’s the earliest that an opposition party has participated in protests against an incoming president. Part of the idea, said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), is to inform activists that they can get active in ways that do not break through the media narrative, Trump tweet or no tweet.
“For Democrats and Republicans, a lot of life is raising money for TV ads and making sure that the media show up to a press conference,” said Sanders. “We’ve got to do more that. If thousands up people show up to a rally, and there’s no media there, those people still go home with the knowledge that they’re part of a struggle.”
And some Democrats have acknowledged that they need to take more risks with how they speak in public — bringing it more line with how they think, and less how politicians tend to talk. On Monday, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Ct.) tweeted a link from Talking Points Memo that quoted McConnell as promising a replacement for the Affordable Care Act “soon,” but not saying when.
“McConnell’s Dictionary (3rd ed.),” wrote Murphy. “Soon. Adverb. At no time in the past or future; not ever. Syn: never.”