The 900,000 texts sent by Buffalo activists Monday night urging Democrats and Independents to vote next week and to reject the Trump agenda was an impressive effort a week before Election Day, especially with such efforts being replicated elsewhere.
But reaching out to potential voters is one thing.
Having a message compelling enough to overcome more than 5,000 documented lies or misleading assertions since Donald Trump took office is quite another. Democrats, unfortunately, have shown no evidence they know how to fight that rhetorical war, which Republicans had mastered even before the inauguration of the prevaricator in chief.
That didn’t stop 15 volunteers with laptops from filling a room in Citizen Action headquarters on Main Street to tap out hundreds of thousands of pre-programmed texts – the goal was 1 million – urging potential voters to make sure they are "part of the Blue Wave" on Election Day to end Republican control of Congress. Another 38 were doing the same thing at SUNY Buffalo State.
The texts were supposed to go to Democrats and Independents identified from a national voter file, though organizers were sure some Trump supporters would be mixed in. They were right. Responses ranged from the appreciative to the vulgar to good-natured "Red Wave all the way" rejoinders.
None of it deterred the texters.
"If you talk person-to-person, people listen" said Shombraya Goodman, 24, an insurance actuarial analyst who volunteered some time.
At the other end of the age spectrum was retired chemist Bernie Zysman, 69, who joined the effort because he wants change and will do anything he can to help bring it about.
Will this kind of outreach do it?
"Who knows? You’ve got to keep plugging away," he said. "You’ve got to hit them from all sides."
Duncan Kirkwood, a MoveOn member who organized the local effort, is optimistic, too.
"I hope that young people, and people who don’t normally get involved in politics, will see that there are easy ways to make change," said Kirkwood.
But that change would be a lot quicker coming if Democratic leaders had the rhetorical skills to inspire their potential voters and take advantage of this grass-roots energy the way Republicans do.
Democrats have the best of all the arguments – a tax cut skewed to a tiny minority, economic growth with very little of it showing up in average paychecks, and health care jeopardized by the folks with taxpayer-funded health insurance – but don’t know how to frame the arguments so that they resonate with everyday Americans.
Republicans have no such problem coming up with key words or phrases that translate political arguments into values-laden appeals that can even get people to vote against their own interests.
The GOP is still trying to kill Obamacare – which guaranteed coverage for pre-existing conditions – with a lawsuit in Texas while Trump’s Justice Department refuses to defend the statute. Yet the party now has its candidates hypocritically claiming to want to protect those with pre-existing conditions because they can read the polls, too. And they’ll probably get away with this blatant lie, despite health care experts eviscerating their loophole-filled substitute, because Democrats don’t know how to effectively call them on it.
After the president’s disgraceful equivocation following Charlottesville, it is now Trump and other Republicans complaining about "angry mobs" of Democrats – with little pushback from the pushover party.
And even when Democrats do come up with a catchy call to arms – as with former Attorney General Eric Holder’s colorful "when they go low, we kick them" – Republicans shamelessly gin up fake outrage while Democrats circle the firing squad to argue about whether they went too far.
You can’t play Marquis of Queensberry politics with opponents who will lie (see Washington Post Fact Checker), cheat (see voter ID laws) and steal (see 2016 Supreme Court vacancy) with no compunction.
That doesn’t mean Democrats should stoop to the level of scapegoating or victimizing vulnerable groups, a strategy Trump shows no hesitancy in continuing despite the deaths of 11 in the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. Though Republicans have long castigated rappers for inciting violence, Trump takes no responsibility for what his own words might stoke.
But Democrats don’t have to go there to be effective. They simply have to learn how to message. Instead of relying on intellectual arguments born of cerebral navel gazing, they have to hit people in the gut with simplified messages that appeal to those who don’t have time to read position papers.
Granted, it’s hard to fight people who will say anything at any time and whose true believers believe truth no longer matters. But if they are going to compete with the P.T. Barnum of politics, they had better learn – fast.
The "blue wave" the texters cited is already dissipating as Democratic gains in the House and Senate now seem far less assured than just a few weeks ago. Yet the Western New Yorkers who tapped out their messages seemed undeterred. They deserve party leaders rhetorically skilled and combative enough to ensure that this wasn’t a Sisyphean effort.