GETTING THE MESSAGE OUT….After reading a Washington Post article about Democrats who are afraid to stand up to President Bush on terror legislation, Hilzoy says:

Oh, come on. As I said above, the Republican party is not very popular these days. Moreover, it’s not as though it’s hard to craft a really inspiring message on these issues. We’re not talking about some arcane feature of patent law that it’s genuinely difficult to get people to care about; we’re talking about the freedoms we all claim to cherish. Honestly, if Democrats can’t figure out how to make a winning issue of keeping the government from being able to throw you in jail without having to explain themselves to anyone, or at least to prevent it from outweighing what looks to be their pretty serious electoral advantage in 2008, they must be brain dead. And if they can’t be bothered to support our Constitution if there’s any possibility that it might cost them politically, then their love of their country must be dead as well.

Look, I agree completely with Hilzoy on substantive grounds. But that doesn’t mean we should minimize the political side of this. The fact is that it is hard to craft an inspiring message on these issues. The vast, vast majority of Americans don’t feel affected in any way by Guantanamo or NSA eavesdropping or enemy combatant laws. And when people don’t feel personally affected, it’s hard to get them to care, especially when your opponents are screaming about how it’s going to be your fault if terrorists attack this summer and kill thousands of people because you neutered the NSA’s ability to listen in on Osama’s cell phone conversations.

By way of analogy, the census bureau announced yesterday that 47 million Americans don’t have health insurance. A lot more either have lousy insurance, are afraid of losing their insurance coverage, or are swamped with medical bills even though they’re supposedly fully covered. That’s a lot of Americans who are very personally affected by the malfunctioning of our healthcare system. And yet, Clintoncare failed in 1994 anyway and we’re no closer to healthcare reform today than we ever have been. It’s just too easy to create oppositional political campaigns that scare the hell out of people.

I’m not really arguing with Hilzoy here. Democrats do need to get a spine. I’m just saying that the right political message for our side really is fundamentally more difficult than it is for the fear merchants, especially when the fear merchants have a kernel of truth on their side. After all, there really are terrorist groups out there who’d happily kill us in vast quantities if they could just muster up the means to do it.

On the NSA wiretapping bill, Democrats got outplayed. They negotiated badly, they got suckered by Mike McConnell, they were splintered, they didn’t have the right message, and they panicked. They need to raise their game on all these fronts, and none of them are slam dunks. This is tough stuff.

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