Sometimes Carter Wrenn and I get asked to speak about the 1984 Hunt-Helms Senate race. Some people in the audience weren’t even born then. For them, it’s like going to the Dinosaur Museum — and the dinosaurs come out and talk.
Because my side lost, I’m often asked what was the biggest lesson I learned. That’s easy, and it’s not what people seem to expect, given all the attention to the negative ads and tough attacks both campaigns dished out.
My lesson was — and is: The most powerful weapon in politics is a positive message.
In 1984 our mistake was making the race about what a terrible, awful person Helms was. We forgot to make the case that Hunt could do more for North Carolina. We didn’t make the same mistake when Hunt ran again for governor in 1992 and 1996.
In 1992 Hunt’s greatest challenge was to explain why he was running for governor again after serving two terms. There was a feeling at the time that the state was slipping, and there had been some problems with the state budget. Hunt’s message was simple: “I love North Carolina too much to watch it fall behind.”
In 1996, he ran on two goals: Expand the Smart Start early childhood program to all 100 counties. And raise teacher pay to the national average. (By the way, both got done.)
Now, being positive doesn’t mean being namby-pamby. You should tell voters why they should vote against your opponent. Just remember to tell them why they should vote for you.
There are really only two messages in politics: “Stay the Course” and “Time for a Change.” Part of “Stay the Course” can be: “Don’t let those guys wreck a good thing.” Part of “Time for a Change” can be: “Throw those rotten, corrupt, power-hungry bums out.”
Democrats should keep this lesson in mind today. In the Time of Trump, it’s tempting — in fact, almost irresistible — to out-Trump Trump. To be just as mean and malicious, just as vicious and venomous, just as petty and personal.
But could you? Could you out-low and out-lie Trump? I don’t think so. And you don’t want to try.
Above all, you don’t want to inflame the hate and violence that burn in America today.
Democrats should dare to differ. Rise above it all — and above Trump. Call on America to be better and do better. Be positive and uplifting. Give people hope and optimism. Appeal to their hopes, not their fears. Talk about the great things we can do if we pull together instead of pulling apart.
People know where Washington is falling short and failing them. People know where Trump is failing, as a man and as a leader. He makes that case for us every day, with every Tweet, every insult and every unhinged rally rant.
We need only tell a simple truth: America can do better than this.