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Opinion: Can Democrats Deliver Like Papa John’s?

Better ingredients needed, at least something in the box

Democrats have reportedly come up with a slogan very similar to Papa John’s Pizza, Allen writes. But can they deliver and will there be anything in the box? (CQ Roll Call/Photos by Tom Williams and Bill Clark, Photo Composition by Chris Hale)
Democrats have reportedly come up with a slogan very similar to Papa John’s Pizza, Allen writes. But can they deliver and will there be anything in the box? (CQ Roll Call/Photos by Tom Williams and Bill Clark, Photo Composition by Chris Hale)

Democrats are so lost they don’t know how lost they are.

Instead of working feverishly on the substance of a contrast with the imploding Trump administration, they decided it was most important — a year and a half out from the next election — to publicly unveil a new slogan first.

Not a new plan for boosting the economy, mind you. Not a reform platform that would address the egregious abuses of President Donald Trump and his minions. Not even a navel-gazing proposal to change the rules for picking presidential nominees or party leaders in Congress.

What Democrats thought they needed most in the midst of the Trump-losion was a slogan — and not even a good one. They should have kept their mouths shut and let voters think they were rudderless rather than announcing their mantra and removing all doubt.

Here, in their infinite political savvy, is what they’ve reportedly come up with: “A Better Deal: Better Skills, Better Jobs, Better Wages.”

The Twitterverse took about 10 seconds to compare the mantra to Papa John’s “Better Ingredients. Better Pizza.”

It borders on blasphemy to place an order for an extra-small, half-Franklin Roosevelt, half-Papa John’s pie.

But, more astoundingly, the Democrats missed the basic point of the Papa John’s slogan: Better ingredients are the predicate for a better pizza.

On the political level, that means better candidates, better policies, better strategies, better tactics, better fundraising — and then, and only then, better messaging.

Lesson learned — not

We no longer have to wonder whether the people in charge of the Democratic Party learned anything from the last election. We have our answer. Nothing. Zip. Zilch. Nada. Surely, there is some Democratic committee somewhere charged with figuring out how to say zero in every language spoken in the United States.

What appears to be missing is a plan of action for expanding the party’s footprint so that it covers both a left branch that found Hillary Clinton uninspiring and the working-class whites who turned the upper Midwest into Trump country in 2016.

“Stronger Together,” the Clinton-Kaine slogan from last year, was weak. Clinton was unable to distill her vision for the country into a concise mantra that stuck with voters. But she didn’t lose the presidency because of a bumper-sticker problem.

That was a manifestation, and a telling one, of an underlying flaw: She couldn’t convince voters that her plan was about them and their futures, rather than about her and her future.

The Democrats’ new slogan — if they keep it — suffers from a similar lack of understanding of the electorate. Fundamentally, the slogan is about the Democrats: They’re promising to be better. But it’s not clear from the slogan whether they are vowing to be better than Republicans — or just better than they have been.

Muddled message

To the extent that it’s about voters, Democrats are asking the electorate to develop better skills. What kind of a message is that? A condescending one. Oh, and the unemployed aren’t as anxious to have better jobs as they are to have jobs, period. And in the post-financial meltdown era, most working-class folks with jobs are more concerned about security than getting a better post.

And while better pay is an important goal, the overall message is so muddled as to be meaningless. What will Democrats do to deliver? What is their overall approach? They need a shorthand for their theory of the case — and, first, they need a theory of the case.

The slogan isn’t just an echo of a Papa John’s commercial. It’s reminiscent of the old Avis slogan “We try harder” — a customer service contrast with Hertz, which was the No. 1 car rental company.

Finishing second in the car rental industry isn’t so bad; in fact, the slogan — bolstered by the customer service — helped Avis thrive. A company can be very profitable as the No. 2 in a crowded market. For a major political party, second place is death. And, unfortunately for Democrats, it’s what their party has become very good at attaining in a very short period of time.

While a presidential candidate needs a positive message as well as a negative frame for his or her opponent, Republicans proved in successive midterms that they could win congressional races largely by running against President Barack Obama and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. Of course, they produced their own platform — “The Pledge” in 2010 — but it was an understated part of their campaign. And it wasn’t unveiled until about six weeks before that midterm.

I can’t fathom why Democrats are in such a rush to prove that they can offer up a better slogan. But the reason they’re so bad at it is that they haven’t solved the substance part of offering voters a winning plan for America.

Roll Call columnist Jonathan Allen is a co-author of “Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign” and has covered Congress, the White House and elections over the past 16 years. 

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