The political red zone
Every football fan in America knows about the “red zone” – the area on the playing field from the twenty-yard line to the goal line, beyond which lies the end zone. It’s bad enough when a team doesn’t score a touchdown or field goal from somewhere on the remaining eighty yards of the field. But if it fails to score when its offense first gets inside the red zone, its coaches and players get frustrated. When repeated trips to the red zone don’t lead to points, fans start to boo and – especially if it’s the second half of the game – leave the stands. Meanwhile, the sports announcers start making barely veiled comments suggesting the team could be a bunch of losers. On the opposing sideline, players grin and give each other high fives; while those on the short end of the score sit dazed on the bench, some hanging their towel-covered heads in shame. It ain’t pretty. Let’s face it: most people can’t have confidence in a team that has trouble scoring. But by making adjustments to its game plan, even the most unlikely team can prove fans, commentators, opponents – and anyone else who thought it couldn’t win – wrong.
In the National Football League, it can take decades to earn the respect that comes with a winning record. That’s the story of the pro football team I’ve loved since I was a kid – the longtime underdog New England Patriots. Before they became known for winning, the Patriots racked up year after year of losing seasons. They were the Rodney Dangerfield of the NFL – couldn’t get no respect. But in 1985, the team cast off its negative image and, after a respectable 11-5-0 season, overpowered three of its American Football Conference nemeses during the playoffs in an on-the-road display of guts and unity. The New York Jets, Oakland Raiders and Miami Dolphins fell to a scrappy, determined Patriots team that included quietly heroic personalities such as veteran quarterback Steve Grogan, offensive lineman John Hannah and coach Raymond Berry. They were AFC champs. Sure, in Super Bowl XX the team was convincingly mashed into the turf of the New Orleans Superdome by Mike Ditka’s Chicago Bears. But despite that humiliating loss, the Patriots had overcome an important hurdle: they had shown they could win the “away games” during the playoffs, with their backs against the wall, and actually become Super Bowl contenders. It was the beginning of hope. For a while, it looked like that 1985 season was a flash in the pan. It took the team another decade or so to become regulars in the playoffs and consistent contenders for the Super Bowl’s Lombardi Trophy (named after famed Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi). The missing links for the Patriots had been a coach with a brilliant strategic mind – and who would stick around for a while – and a QB who had what it took to help the team win big games on a regular basis. By the time the millennium rolled around, owner Bob Kraft had those missing links: Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. Belichick, who took over the reins of the team from his mentor, Bill Parcells, redefined the concept of teamwork. Despite the high profile of charismatic individuals such as Brady and defensive captain Tedy Bruschi, the coach worked to counter the idea that the Patriots had “stars” whose achievement counted more than anyone else’s. Belichick took a creative approach to employing the talent at his disposal, using key players at various positions on offense, defense and special teams. His motto has been to “play everybody.” In one memorable moment, he even gave former Boston College Eagles star Doug Flutie – who joined the team as a backup QB toward the end of his pro career – the green light to drop-kick an extra point.
Brady, who wasn’t even a top draft pick, eventually took over the QB spot from an inconsistent Drew Bledsoe. He then developed into the driven, pumped-up team leader that is every coach’s dream – the kind of guy who helps get the best out of every player on every play. Great QBs infuse their teams with that all-important sense of unity, which is crucial to carry players through losses as well as wins and inspire them to fight another day. The Patriots have had so many great players at all positions over the team’s history, it’s hard to keep track of them all. Each player along the way helped the Patriots become Super Bowl champions. In the process, the team gained fans far beyond the borders of New England. The Patriots won the Big Game in 2002, 2003 and 2005; and as the 2007 season began, many sports pundits were picking them to go all the way once more. They’d come a long way, baby.
The way I see it, the Democratic Party has faced the same uphill battle in the game of politics the Patriots did for years in the NFL. I think most of the Democrats’ problems have to do with their inability to control how the Party and its constituencies are perceived by key voting blocs. Dems have lost too many big elections by failing to score points in the political red zone – the area on the field where the thorniest social issues are in play. Related primarily to morality and race, those issues tend to generate the greatest division within the American electorate. It is in debates over social issues that voters’ perceptions of each other are most apparent, and where prejudices can be the most easily manipulated. Yet judging by which battles they choose to fight and how they choose to fight them, Democrats always seem to think more voters agree with them on social issues than actually do. What I have to say might sound radical, but I don’t think most voters cast ballots based on solid information about issues; I think most of us cast ballots based largely on how we view other people. For example, using rhetoric that appeals to voters’ racial prejudices has worked well for the Republican Party, which has a more homogenous – mostly white and mostly social conservative – base. To neutralize the Republican edge with white voters, Democrats must emphasize values that unify their party with mainstream, “traditionalist” values and stop giving the impression that they’re always signing onto quixotic quests for perfect justice, which has become a hallmark of their disparate constituencies.
Like winning football teams, winning political entities combine solid performance with heroic personalities to keep voters excited, tuned in and invested in the outcome of an election. Democrats can learn a lot about how competition works from Belichick’s creative thinking on the sidelines and Brady’s leadership on the field. But they can also learn from the Patriots about grace under pressure and how to turn adversity into a competitive advantage. The Patriots have had plenty of experience turning challenges into opportunities. That invaluable trait has contributed to their winning attitude, which is the mark of all true competitors – what sports aficionados call “heart.” Apart from sheer talent and determination within the team structure, other factors contribute to success on the football field. First, it’s a general rule in sports that when a team has home-field advantage – hosting the game on its own turf, surrounded by its own fans – it has a psychological edge over its opponent. Home teams are also better rested at game time, because their players don’t have to spend time traveling into enemy territory. The home team might not always win, but the odds are in its favor. Then there are the fans. Over the course of the NFL season, fans fill stadiums, those stadiums fill with cheers and the noise of the crowd helps drown out the opposing QB’s play calls. Football teams are comprised of eleven players, but the fans are collectively known as “the twelfth man” because of the impact they can have on team morale, and therefore on the outcome of a game. Every team needs fans to show up at home games and root for its players. But fans become demoralized by underperforming teams, which can lead to empty seats. Advertising, ticket and merchandise sales suffer, giving the team fewer resources to work with. Some fans may even switch their loyalty, at least temporarily, to another team.
In the game of political perception, the goal is to inspire the voting majority and gain greater electoral market share. This means Democrats must inspire not only their largely liberal fan base, but millions of voters who are not so liberal. Just as many fans of other NFL teams admire the Patriots, I have no problem rooting for teams and individual players that demonstrate character and put in great performances (except, of course, when they’re playing the Pats). If you love the game, you admire great players no matter who they play for. For the Democratic Party, the lesson is to make sure they have as many candidates as possible who appeal to voters who don’t necessarily consider themselves Democrats, not to mention conservative-leaning Democrats disenchanted with the Party. After all, voters who don’t agree with the entire Republican Party platform may vote for Republican candidates they like individually. I don’t generally vote for Republicans because their party’s agenda is just too scary. But I’ve admired individual Republicans who aren’t ideologues; who know to make common sense, people who favor policies to protect the environment and preserve individuals’ right to privacy, especially in matters of health and family planning. I consider such people “traditionalists,” because they tend to hold certain basic values that include making practical decisions in the interest of the greater good and respecting the principle of individual choice as long as those choices do not harm other people. The Democratic Party is my political home team because I’ve spent most of my life rooting for Democrats. But because of my frustration over the Party’s lack of a coherent winning strategy and its candidates’ inability to present an appealing portrait of themselves to voters, I became an Independent after the 2000 election. It didn’t have to be this way.
I want Democrats to reflect on what football represents in American culture. Why? Because the values that bond football fans together offer Dems an antidote to their own tired delusions of liberal grandeur and clues on how to address social issues in a more voter-friendly way.
The goal for Democrats must be to a) make better decisions about which issues to focus on and b) devise more effective ways of promoting their views to key voting blocs.
Take the hot topic of religion, where Democrats have had such trouble gaining the confidence of the voting public: in the NFL, some players wear their faith on their sleeve, and that’s just fine with many of us. Sportswriters have informed me that it became customary for some players to pray at midfield around 1982, right after the NFL players’ strike, as an expression of solidarity. While NFL management may not have liked such fraternization between opposing teams, over time it seems to have become an accepted ritual.
So what do pro football players pray for? “They give thanks for getting through the game, they pray for continuing to be able to play the game [and] they also pray that the visiting team makes it back safely,” Boston sportswriter Karen Guregian told me. Most fans have seen players from both sides kneel together and pray when a player is seriously hurt during a game. “The players who join in are essentially saying that while they take part in a violent game, they still have their beliefs and their desire to give thanks,” Guregian explained. Friends who play football in semi-pro leagues have confirmed this. To me, the way NFL players express their personal religious faith on the public forum of the playing field is no threat to the principle of separation of church and state; rather, it’s an appropriate expression of individual liberty. Just as NFL players do, many voters pray as a matter of spiritual practice whether they are adherents of an established religion or not. That commonality offers Dems a guide on how to make peace with religion as a topic of political conversation.
Living dangerously – a tale of turnovers
What usually makes the difference in whether a team wins or loses, despite the number of rushing and passing yards it amasses, is turnovers. When a team hands the ball over to its opponent through either a fumble or an interception, it gives that opponent momentum. Whether or not the opposing team converts that turnover into points, the biggest impact on the team that loses the ball is usually psychological. Turnovers can deflate players’ confidence and cause them to make more mistakes, sealing the team’s fate. Teams prone to turnovers don’t win Super Bowls – unless they’re very, very lucky. And no team worth its salt relies on luck. Democrats have committed far too many perception turnovers in the political red zone over the past several decades. Those turnovers have come in the form of poor word choices, bad photo ops and even bad hair (or, in the case of John Edwards, hair that’s too good). Every presidential election season, a new slate of usual and unusual Democratic suspects emerges. Each new group commits a range of perception blunders that provide negative reinforcement of the Party’s image.
For example, it’s hard to take candidates seriously when their hair carries its own comical message. In this respect, 2004 primary contenders Al Sharpton and Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) were clearly hair challenged. The two candidates were already in popularity deficit with the voting majority thanks to their left-of-center platforms. Sharpton’s below-the-ears perm with white sideburns was an apparent style nod to soul singer James Brown, but it didn’t translate into a presidential image. Meanwhile, Kucinich’s side-parted do looked nerdy, to say the least. (Kucinich threw his hat in the ring again for the 2008 race, apparently using his long-shot status to act as the Democratic Party’s voice of conscience. But he couldn’t escape his own image. Bill Maher gave a blunt assessment of Kucinich’s situation in August 2007, when he told Larry King that the candidate “looks like an elf.”) Democrats generally commit more perception turnovers than Republicans. But in 2006, they got a rare break when Republican lawmakers and loyalists were caught flagrantly exposing their own moral hypocrisy. First, there was Florida Congressman Mark Foley, a self-appointed protector of children and member of the anti-gay marriage brigade who turned out to have a penchant for male congressional pages.
Then, one of the Republicans’ conservative lieutenants in the “culture war,” evangelical church leader Ted Haggard, was outed by his boy-toy for living a closet, methamphetamine-fueled homo-sex life. The Republicans sustained additional collateral damage in 2007, when Louisiana Congressman David Vitter’s phone number appeared in the records of a Washington madam and Idaho Senator Larry Craig was caught in a gay sex solicitation sting in an airport bathroom. (Craig initially resigned over the incident. He later reversed his decision and decided to serve out his term, despite a judge’s ruling that he could not withdraw his guilty plea in the case.) But despite that slew of morality mess-ups, Democrats can’t expect Republicans and their cultural allies to make those kinds of mistakes on any kind of regular basis. They should expect them not to, and proceed accordingly.
The Dems’ QB problem
I grew up thinking Democrats were the good guys, because they were the political descendants of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who helped rescue America from the Great Depression and the world from the Nazis during World War II; and John F. Kennedy, the handsome prince of politics who asked us to consider what we could do for our country more than what our country could do for us. But as I’ve watched Democrats in more recent years, those good guys have looked more and more like 90-lb. weaklings. The first presidential campaign I remember was in 1972, when Democratic contender George McGovern challenged Republican incumbent Richard M. Nixon. I was in the fifth grade, but even then I understood how perception influenced politics. McGovern seemed pale and timid, even physically weak. Nixon’s five o’clock shadow gave an impression of swarthy mean-spiritedness, but he also seemed more vigorous than McGovern. Nixon’s temperament also suggested an unwillingness to back down, a typical winning stance for a wartime president. In the end, McGovern won only Massachusetts and D.C. – the worst presidential election defeat in modern history.
I think Jimmy Carter’s victory in 1976 was something of a fluke, the result of a temporary backlash against the corruption of the Nixon regime. I say this because Carter’s demeanor was so gentle it verged on effeminate, and I don’t think American voters equate gentle men with the role of president. When Carter’s backbone was dramatically tested, voters were all too willing to cut him loose. Just prior to his reelection bid, in November 1979, 66 people were taken hostage in the American embassy in Iran’s capital, Tehran, by militant Islamic students. The crisis lasted 444 days, with the U.S. initiating a failed rescue effort that resulted in the deaths of five Air Force airmen and three marines. The ordeal contributed to Carter’s image – and by association the Democratic Party’s – as weak in the face of America’s enemies. When Republican challenger Ronald Reagan came strutting along with his California cowboy decisiveness, determined to free the Iranian hostages and bring the Cold War to an America-friendly conclusion, he blew Carter off the beach. In the 1980 election, Carter won just six states and D.C., a defeat mirroring the Patriots’ 46-10 demise at the hands of the Bears in the 1986 Super Bowl.
Let’s examine the Democrats’ actual draft choices for presidential QB over the past six election cycles:
1984: In a game that depends on personality, the Democrats nominate the plodding, bureaucratic-looking Walter Mondale, Carter’s former vice president. With his gray pallor and dark eye pouches, Mondale is perhaps the least inspiring team captain Dems could have asked for to challenge the over-popular Reagan. Even Mondale’s spunky vice presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro can’t liven up the ticket, which emulates McGovern’s 1972 tally by winning only Mondale’s home state of Minnesota and D.C.
1988: Second-stringer Michael Dukakis allows himself to be caught in a goofy photo op, sitting in a military tank sporting what looks like an oversized headset. Political cartoonists have a field day. And, of course, there’s that “Willie Horton” thing1 and some comment about endive, a vegetable too many of us haven’t heard of that also sounds foreign (not good). Dukakis loses a huge lead in the polls on his way to conceding the election to Vice President George H.W. Bush. He at least hits double digits, carrying ten states and D.C.
1992: Bill Clinton is an unknown quantity from training camp with a reputation for off-the-field sexcapades. He impresses Democratic coaches, who hold their breath hoping they aren’t taking a huge gamble. Clinton wows Democratic fans in the primaries with his ability to get right up after taking some big political hits. He carries the Dems to their first presidency in a generation with the help of a “giant sucking sound” – the candidacy of Ross Perot – that is incumbent George H.W. Bush’s game plan headed South.
1996: After winning a second presidential term, superstar QB Clinton is called for a personal foul after messing around with practice cheerleader Monica Lewinsky. Nearly yanked from the Oval Office by Republican opponents on an impeachment crusade, he limps into the sunset of his presidency with a groin injury.
2000: They say a superstar is a tough act to follow. Clinton VP Al Gore makes a valiant attempt to take the helm of the Party, but voters find it hard to get excited. Everyone later agrees Gore should have let a rookie step in because he never learned to run “out of the pocket” and avoid pressure from the Republican defense. Gore would have done better to join management and stay off the field altogether, pundits suggest. As the presidential contest runs into triple sudden-death overtime, the Dems are destined to lose on a series of official calls courtesy a Supreme Court whose 5-4 vote in favor of George W. Bush mirrors the partisan loyalties of its conservative Republican appointees.
2004: Veteran benchwarmer John Kerry is called in to try and win one for the Dems. Fans hope he’ll take back the presidential trophy from a Republican team millions of voters believe won ugly in 2000 thanks to biased Supreme Court referees. But Kerry has a tendency to freeze in the pocket and is repeatedly sacked by a Republican defense bent on diminishing his status as a war hero. Some wonder why sunny WR John Edwards isn’t put in more often to help the Dems make big plays. Kerry gets the team to the four-yard line, but blows the drive on downs.
It really annoyed me that Kerry was the only guy the Democratic Party could come up with in 2004 to challenge the underhanded politics, deception and nearly visionary stupidity of the Bush White House. Kerry’s public persona – the “flip-flopping,” the vagueness, the apparent lack of conviction and his gentleman-stuck-in-the-wrong-century aura – had all been part of his demeanor as a senator. Democrats knew what kind of image Kerry would project, so it should have come as no surprise when that image spelled failure for the Party in its bid to regain the presidency.
In contrast to Kerry, Howard Dean initially looked like a worthy contender. The former Vermont governor came with conservative-friendly positions such as fiscal restraint and an established respect for the concerns of gun owners. He supported civil unions for gay couples, a position that could have neutralized attacks from Republicans on gay marriage. He was also capable of delivering a sentence in plain English. I thought Dean was the Democrats’ best chance to pull in Republican crossover votes. But while Dean’s campaign team raked in cash from small donors over the Internet, it didn’t prepare readymade rebuttals to critics who were sure to point out Dean’s long career trail of awkward and counterproductive comments. (He had earned a reputation for “shooting from the lip.”) Not surprisingly, by the time the Iowa caucuses rolled around, Dean had found a way to blow his chances for the nomination. Cautious Iowa Democrats decided Kerry’s record as a war hero was their best chance to counter Bush’s macho pro-war role playing; and few could have foreseen the Swift Boat Veterans for “truth” looming on the horizon (see Chapter 4). With Kerry as the primary victor in Iowa, I knew Democrats would have a tough go of it that November because U.S. senators – especially those who have been in the Senate for a while – generally don’t make good presidential candidates (see Chapter 17). The perception of public figures is also influenced by how those figures perceive themselves. Kerry seemed to take himself so seriously that he came across as aloof; he just couldn’t connect with average citizens. Candidates with more potential appeal such as General Wesley Clark might have led to Democrats to victory – if only Clark’s campaign hadn’t been torpedoed in embryo thanks to allies such as Michael Moore (see Chapter 6). Iowa caucus voters in 2004 were obviously trying to do the best they could with what they had.
Wanted: Big Picture thinkers
So how do you pick a winning QB? One role in football that doesn’t get a lot of airplay is that of general manager – the guy who works with coaches to find and sign the best players available.
Congressman Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), who was elected to chair the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2005, filled that function with some success in 2006 by ensuring the Party drafted candidates that could win in more conservative districts. One thing is clear: in the unruly, undisciplined and short-sighted exercise that is the presidential primary season, too many cooks keep spoiling the Democrats’ soup. First, Democrats need to convince more candidates not to run. Secondly, the Party’s base needs to be disciplined into accepting candidates who can actually win in a red state – or five. Much has changed since the consciousness-raising events of the 1960s from which the contemporary Democratic Party has drawn much of its presumed moral authority on social issues. You can’t win elections if you’re playing with outdated rules. If Democrats keep giving Republicans the opportunity to make them look bad, they will keep botching their chances to attain the presidency.
The Dems always seem to be playing defense and that performance has been mediocre, at best. Their offense, more often than not, has been an outright disaster. The Party needs a great head coach who will devise a master plan and put in place a focused and effective staff of coordinators to execute it. The goal must be to inspire the Party’s players – from local school board officials, to members of Congress, to governors, to presidential candidates – to carry that plan out as a team. As a result of the 2006 midterm elections, Democrats achieved majorities in the House and Senate – but those majorities, especially in the Senate, were not significant enough for them to effectively challenge President Bush on his continued campaign in Iraq, among other things. This left voters who elected Democrats based largely on antiwar sentiment frustrated, and it didn’t take long after the Dems’ victory celebration for polls to reflect a level of voter dissatisfaction with the Democratic Congress on par with Bush’s low numbers. If achieving the support of a greater number of voters is the Democrats’ biggest problem, why aren’t they doing something truly in their own best interest and that of the nation – something they should have done decades ago as the majority party, something truly democratic: pushing for the enactment of legislation that will make the day American citizens exercise their most sacred constitutional duty – voting – a national holiday?
The Democratic Party as a whole needs to submit itself to a very different strategy: button down, get in sync and – to use a term that defined congressional Republicans in the post-Gingrich era – march (more) in lockstep. They need to get their priorities straight, and in order. All of this in service to one goal: winning. My purpose is to connect the dots of perception as a way to encourage Democrats to look at the game of politics from more of a cultural than academic perspective. In the stadium of American politics, the field is comprised of cultural events. How voters perceive those events affects voter beliefs. Voter beliefs drive voting patterns. Voting patterns determine which party will prevail. Studying the game of football – its culture, its intelligence and its language – should help Democrats appeal to more voters beyond their base. That “football logic” goes beyond mere intellect. It comes in various modes, from management to coaching to playing. Each mode requires particular skills and reflexes, insights and actions, all of which are crucial to a team’s chances of success.
To become winners on the political playing field, Democrats should consider that multi-layered approach to strategy as they work to control and protect the ball of perception.
The bottom line? Who controls perception controls the game.
*We all know how that 2007 season worked out for the Pats. In a terrible example of “What goes around, comes around,” after an undefeated regular season of 16-0 (the first such regular-season record in history) they were beaten by the underdog New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII by a measly three points; a reverse mirror image (or whatever you want to call it) of the Patriots’ own upset of the St. Louis Rams in 2002. I am not recommending that the Democratic Party presidential contender, Barack Obama, emulate that spectacular fall from grace by the Pats last year, although America’s lingering cultural disease of racism may hurt his game. Let’s hope the American citizenry has more sense than to allow a rare opportunity of electing a truly viable candidate who HAPPENS TO BE BLACK to pass in November.