Communication seems to be a serious tripping point for the Democratic Party, and not just for Obama's administration. Martha Coakley's loss last night to Scott Brown in the Massachusetts Senate race to fill the late Ted Kennedy's seat gave me a personal experience with this lack of messaging. I think it may be the most critical and glaring problem the party faces right now.
Coakley lost for two basic reasons - first, she didn't ask for anyone's vote. Sure, Massachusetts is the most liberal state in the country and traditionally votes democratically, but the state is not unidimensional. We have always had a republican presence and the majority of the state's voters are registered as independents, not democrats (about 51% of voters in MA are independents). Coakley didn't communicate with anyone because she and her staff didn't feel they needed to, and that was a dangerous mistake to make, specifically because of the second reason she lost - healthcare.
While campaigning, Scott Brown regularly and loudly proclaimed that he would be a "41st vote" against healthcare, indicating that his election would stall national democratic efforts to pass the reform bill. Here's where the national and state-level elections and communications failures start to compound one another for the democrats, and where Coakley got completely derailed.
Internally, it sounds like DNC leadership either did not offer to assist Coakley early enough in the campaign cycle (which, for a campaign as abbreviated as this one, should essentially have been as soon as she won the primary in November), or they weren't forceful enough with her campaign staff about how to run her campaign. In either event, I would have expected the DNC to be on top of this particular election if for no other reason than it was the ONLY election taking place at this time of year, and that would have any bearing on the national healthcare debate.
Based on the claims coming out of the Coakley and White House camps, there was no consistent communication between the two. Coakley refused party assistance, or was offered it too late in the campaign to matter. That was the error of internal communication - the party failed to provide the support, strategy, and guidance that an important candidate needed, a candidate the party was counting on to carry the majority required to pass its signature legislative platform of the current administration. Bad move.
But the bigger bad move has been made for the past 9 or 10 months of discussion on health care reform: communicating to the public. Throughout the summer and fall of 2009, Republicans and the teabaggers brought up spurious claim after spurious claim about the nature of health care reform - not only items that were (supposedly) in the actual bills themselves, but about the social value of health care reform, and the costs and benefits of it. This colored the public conversation and made health care reform, a major pillar of Obama's campaign, an unsafe issue for democrats.
First mistake here: there was no advance plan created to launch or sell health care reform. Party leaders should have known that attacking the health care industry was going to result in a backlash, but from what I saw during 2009, the democrats were blindsided by the type of backlash they witnessed from the teabaggers and town-hall meeting outbursts. Had there been a pre-emptive campaign to both sell the American public on the need for and benefits of healthcare reform, we could have met some of the backlash full-on, and we would have taken control of the conversation.
Mistake number two: there was no party consensus on what healthcare should BE. I can respect that the democratic tent is a lot bigger than the republican one, but the lack of a single focus for the health care bill hurt national efforts to promote and defend it. I can also respect that the constituents in different states will need different mechanisms to understand the complexities of something like health care reform, and a dedicated and analytical democratic communication team should have been able to determine what types of messaging would help combat the lies of the teabaggers in vulnerable states, like the ones represented by Blue Dogs. In some locations, strong media buys might have helped raise the level of discourse. In other locations, a grass-roots, volunteer focused effort to offer person-to-person information might have worked better (something like the Climate Project). Without any of that effort, the democrats fought a half-year rearguard communication war that saw the support for health care reform fall from about 50% to 40% (granted, there a variety of other polls that show slightly different results, but the truth is that healthcare reform has become a noxious enough issue that a state that hasn't elected a republican in 38 years just elected one last night, at least partially because he promised to kill the current health care bill).
The longer term messaging issue is the more important one - if we had a consistent, effective, nation-wide communication strategy to sell health care reform for the past year, it wouldn't have mattered who Scott Brown was, because his major campaign goal would have been moot. However, since we didn't do that, specific attention from the party for an important race would have at least let us hold on to the hope of passing something soon. Without either, it's probably back to the drawing board for health care reform. If this doesn't pass this year, it will embarrass Obama and the party, and probably result in us losing a lot of seats in November.