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This is an open letter to a congressional candidate. I've left off his name, but sent him a briefer form of this letter. I hope that Kossacks will reflect on this and, if they feel moved to do so, will talk to the candidates they are supporting.

So far, I have seen nothing to make me believe that Democrats are treating this election as anything more than business as usual. They don't have long to wake up.

Dear Mr. ___

I am writing in response to your solicitation for campaign funds for your congressional campaign. I receive dozens of such solicitations every year, and am more than generous. Because I believe that having contested elections in all districts is vital to democracy, I devote approximately 4% of my income per year to political donations. I support even very unlikely candidacies when those candidates are serious and capable.

So, why should I support you?

Your campaign so far is largely based on airy, feel-good generalities. It shows little grasp of complex issues. Where it is specific, it often gets lost in details. Even to get an understanding of where you stand on issues takes way too much effort, requiring one to scroll through many Facebook pages. So, while I’m delighted that you promise to defend Social Security and Medicare—would that more Democrats would make the promise—the job you’re applying for is a lot more than “being progressive” or “standing for real Democratic values.” When he was a Democrat, Joe Lieberman ran on similar slogans.

I don’t expect you to agree with me on all my pet issues. If a candidate came out with an idea for controlling health care costs through faith healing—and had credible data to back it up—I’d drop my attachment to the public option. If a candidate were serious about paying for all of America’s wars, it would make me less critical of his belligerent propensities. I’m persuadable, but I’m not a fool. I know that once a candidate gets to Washington, he’ll face 434 people with other opinions. He’ll have to deal. I need to know who and what he’ll sacrifice. I need to know what he won’t sacrifice. And I need to know how far he’ll go to defend those beliefs.

Let’s get down to basics. So far, you’re not just a lousy candidate. You’re a lousy campaigner. I sent you early money so you could reach out beyond the small circle of progressive donors. Instead, you’ve spent 20% of that money just on direct mail to me! We don’t have millions of dollars to waste on electronic campaigns. For that matter, we hate sending money to you just so that you can give it to FOX and CNN. You need to be using that money a lot more wisely than you are. Think like an entrepreneur. You might get a chance to talk to an investor on an elevator going from the first to the third floor. You have 25 words or less in which to tell him about your business and give him a card. What words do you choose?  

Here are some specific ideas.

  • First, you have to know who you are. I love the warm and fuzzy family pictures, but they don’t open my wallet. I have to know exactly what in your life gives you insight into the problems of the district, and what will energize you when the going gets tough. For example, “I was a school teacher. A family came to me because they were running out of food at the end of the month. I worked with a local food pantry and a church near their home to help them. I will support Food Stamps and school lunches no matter what.” Sincerity is really, really important. An honest-seeming idiot beats a clever hypocrite any day.
  • In that regard, let me add that most voters believe that Washington is corrupt, that votes are outright bought. This perception will only change when there is no connection whatsoever between legislation and campaign funding. Just sayin': you  want to be thought of as honest, tell people what you'll do to end the corruption.
  • Second, I’d like to believe that once you go to Washington, you will listen to me rather than the big donors. You could start that process by calling people, not asking for funds, but for ideas and concerns. Don’t just call progressives or the people who show up at your $100-a-plate fundraisers. Call conservative Democrats, corporate Republicans, Tea Party people, John Birchers, anti-abortion zealots. You want to represent the district. They live in the district. Talk to them. If nothing else, you’ll learn not to panic when faced by ignorant, rude, selfish, hateful people, so maybe you won’t sell out your base when the phone starts ringing off the hook over President Obama’s birth certificate. And just by politely listening to the opposition, you’ll make it harder for the troglodyte you will inevitably face to demonize you.  
  • Third, you don’t need clever slogans. You need thematic unity. Clever slogans come from understanding issues in depth, and seeing how they intertwine. My personal clever slogan is “America needs a raise.” This plays off of a series of issues: stagnant family incomes, the Depression (with the accompanying depression) that permeates our country, and the Christian theme that serving justice requires sacrifice. But you don’t have to like my slogan. If you understand the issues you care about, and think deeply about why they’re important, slogans will occur to you. They form the 25 words of your elevator speech.
  • Finally, let’s talk about reaching voters. Here are some ideas.
  • Your website sucking—that can be fixed, and fast. Add pages on issues, bio, etc. to bring it up to standard. Supporters need a central place to go to know where you stand. Facebook is great, but is not organized enough to be that place.
  • Second, there are a lot of unemployed people. You can offer them work, even if it only pays carfare, lunch, and a chance to network. Since you’ll have lots of volunteers, consider making a video that each of them can watch (since it will inevitably leak, make sure that even short snippets won’t embarrass you). That way you minimize training time by permanent staff.
  • Third, there are public places where volunteers can talk to the public. Some supermarkets or malls will still let you put up a table. It’s not illegal to walk the streets with a sandwich sign. They can’t run you out of a park, and during some seasons those are packed.
  • Fourth, refuse to run ads or appear on hostile media—and demand that fellow Democrats do the same. Media are incredibly dependent on revenues from campaigns. And you rob them of credibility by refusing to play their game. Our goal is not just to win a congressional seat. We want to fundamentally change the game so that all voices are heard, not just those with money—and not just even our own. We want democracy.
  • Fifth, the Republicans are making a concerted effort to deny people the right to vote. You need to call them out for wanting to re-establish an aristocracy where only some people have a say. You also need practical methods to counter voter suppression. You might even have to sue the state to knock down a requirement that people buy their birth certificate just to vote, a poll tax if there ever was one. Think ahead.  

Well, this is a start. It took me an hour of stream-of-consciousness to come up with these recommendations. If you and your staff can’t do better, you should quit now before you waste money that could be going to serious candidates.

And if you can, well, my wallet is open.

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