The parable of the blue cup: What Nancy Pelosi says is the problem with Democrats

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So, I asked House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in an interview the other night, what could keep the Democrats from retaking the House of Representatives in November? She pointed to a cup on the table between us.

"When the Republican leadership tells its members, 'there is a blue cup on the table,' every Republican repeats, 'there is a blue cup on the table,'" she said. She sighed. "When I tell my fellow Democrats, 'there is a blue cup on the table,' one will say 'there is a blue cup on a round table.' Another will say, 'there is a blue cup next to Nancy Pelosi's cup.' Another: 'a blue cup on a brown table.'"

"And I say, 'why did you say that?'" she went on. "And the answer is: 'because it's true.'"

It may sound as if the former speaker, who still holds the top Democratic leadership position in the House, is conducting a linguistics seminar. But her point is simple: Democrats are incapable of the clear, simple messaging at which Republicans excel. In 2006, Pelosi says, Democrats regained the House by hammering away at one message: "Protect Social Security." This year, she says, Democrats must answer the Republicans' unwavering anti-government theme with a mantra of their own: "Medicare, Medicare, Medicare." The proposals laid out by House Budget Chair Paul Ryan, with their alterations to both the size and structure of Medicare, offer Democrats a rich target of opportunity—if only have they can muster the discipline to stay on message.

Without question, Republicans have a cohesive, unified argument this year. The quandary for them is whether their relentless insistence on protecting the wealthiest Americans is really at the heart of the voters' concerns. There is also little question that in years past, Democrats have harvested great political bounty by asserting—sometimes fairly, sometimes not—that Republicans are out to gut the entitlement programs of the New Deal and the Great Society.

But I don't believe poor messaging is the only thing the Democrats have to worry about. Their bigger concern is that any failure of government, whether it occurs under a Democratic or Republican president, strengthens the core conservative case that the government is not to be relied on to cure what ails us.

There's an old joke that goes: What are the three biggest lies ever told? The answer: 1. "Let's do lunch." 2. [expletive deleted]. 3. "I'm from the government and I'm here to help." In the era of Democratic Party dominance, which stretched from the 1930s through the 1960s, that last phrase wasn't a punch line. The government under both Democrats and Republicans put people back to work, created Social Security, won World War II, sent millions to college on the GI Bill, built the interstate highway system and went to the moon.

Then things began to go sour. The crime rate doubled in the '60s, and with it grew the sense that government was failing in its first duty, to protect the citizenry. A war turned bad. A presidency fell under the weight of scandal. Our economic dominance began to ebb, the value of our money eroded, and we waited in endless lines for gas. In the '90s, personal scandal tarred the White House. Then another war descended into quagmire while the basis for that war proved to be false. Hurricane Katrina exposed incompetence at all levels, and the prosperity we had taken for granted proved to be a fever that could not last.

The overriding lesson of these failures was that government could not competently run a two-car funeral. And, for all of Bill Clinton's "third way" philosophy or Al Gore's idea of "reinventing" government initiatives, it remains true that, as the late Sen. Pat Moynihan put it, the Democratic Party is the party of government. It is the party of the public-sector unions, big cities and domestic spending, and the core premise that this is the tool with which we solve problems.

In this sense, President Barack Obama and the Democrats misread the message of 2006 and 2008. "Social Security" may have been a strong argument for Democrats in '06, but by then the Katrina disaster, the Iraq debacle and serious ethical stumbles by House Republicans had given Democrats their best argument: "had enough?" Voters clearly wanted to remove Republicans from power and give the other guys a chance. That impulse did not mean they were eager to see big new efforts from a government whose performance—under a different party's control—strengthened a highly skeptical view about what government could or should do. It's in this regard that the launch of an ambitious health care program in the midst of a massive economic crisis may well have been a tactical error of the first order.

Maybe Pelosi—who, incidentally, all but endorsed Hillary Clinton as the 2016 presidential candidate in our conversation—is right to believe that "Medicare! Medicare Medicare!" will be a potent rallying cry this fall. Maybe the Republicans' own misreading of the 2010 elections—that the public wanted an adamantly obstructionist Congress to refuse any compromise that involved taxing the wealthy—will cost them dearly. And maybe current Speaker John Boehner's attempt to navigate between the demands of the tea party and the need to pass bills to keep the government running—a messaging problem of his own—will muddle the Republicans' message.

Such short-term political gain, however, will not solve the Democrats' fundamental problem. However clear the message is that "there is a blue cup on the table," a hefty percentage of voters still believe that if the government picks that cup up, it will drop it on the floor and break it into a hundred pieces.

Jeff Greenfield is co-host of PBS' "Need to Know" and a Yahoo! News columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @greenfield64.

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