Green Room

Fail: Republicans’ maddening messaging mess

posted at 3:30 pm on December 4, 2012 by

They say the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over again, yet expecting different results.   Based on this standard, Republicans are in desperate need of an intervention.  Over at Townhall, I’ve described how bizarro-world Republicans might have exploited the occasion of their “fiscal cliff” counteroffer to at least improve their standing in the essential realm of public perception:

(1) On Sunday evening, Republican leadership aides leak word to key media figures that their bosses will be calling a press conference the following afternoon, at which they’d unveil a “major announcement” or “breakthrough” regarding the fiscal cliff.

(2) This news bleeds out online overnight, leading to rampant speculation — which builds anticipation.  The chattering class on Morning Joe and Fox & Friends debate what might the afternoon might have in store.  Media outlets set up shop outside the Capitol, with reporters doing live hits throughout the day.

(3) By early afternoon, designated staffers begin to offer the press a few morsels about the details of the announcement, fueling the hype.

(4) At 3pm ET (when the actual letter was made public yesterday), Speaker Boehner and his leadership team stride out onto the steps of the Capitol building and gather around a bank of microphones.  Perhaps they’re flanked by a few small business owners.  With cameras rolling — several of the cable news channels even pick up the live feed — Boehner holds up the exact same letter, and says something like:

“I hold in my hand a letter we’ve just sent to the White House.  The American people are demanding a bipartisan compromise to avoid the fiscal cliff and the threat of another painful recession, and we Republicans have decided to take the lead in heeding the will of the people.  Today, we are announcing our support for a deal originally outlined by a Democrat named Erskine Bowles — President Clinton’s chief of staff and the co-chairman of President Obama’s fiscal commission.  It includes some elements that we don’t like very much, quite frankly, including $800 Billion in new revenues.  It also makes absolutely necessary spending reductions, which the American people have said must be the biggest element of any ‘balanced’ plan.  The Bowles plan is balanced, reasonable, and fair, which is why — despite some of our misgivings — we are embracing it, and we urge the White House and our friends across the aisle to join us.”

(5) Boehner cedes the microphone to the requisite merry-go-round of leaders standing behind him (presumably the signatories of the letter, including Eric Cantor, Paul Ryan and Cathy McMorris Rodgers), each of whom makes a brief statement hammering home three or four key messaging points for Republicans.  “The Bowles plan.”  “Bipartisan compromise.”  “$800 Billion in new revenues.”  Etc.

(6) These images and key soundbytes dominate the next news cycle.  Even if Democrats instantly reject the proposal, there’s a much higher level of awareness that it exists (an improvement over the status quo) and some people might even ask a few tough questions about why Democrats were so flippant and dismissive about a major overture from Republicans.

My aim here is not to pour more opprobrium on the beleaguered House Republican leadership.  They’re facing a very difficult dilemma, with limited leverage, and bad-faith actors sitting across the table.  But surely the GOP can reconsider its messaging and public relations strategy, which has been falling short for months.  Boehner’s counteroffer isn’t a flawless document, but while conservatives are fighting internally about substance, most Democrats are happily focused on political positioning.  That might be cynical and reckless, but it’s reality.  Even if Republicans managed to craft the perfect compromise, it wouldn’t matter if the public never heard about it in a context that could help shift their superficial assumptions about which side is acting responsibly.  Democrats are absolutely fine sitting back and letting the GOP negotiate against itself, so long as Republicans remain on the hook for blame if the Howard Dean endorsed cliff-dive transpires.  Conservatives need a game changer; sending off a letter  doesn’t quite qualify, to put it mildly.

– The perfect companion piece, via the Headlines:

While 53 percent of those surveyed say the GOP would (and should) lose the fiscal cliff blame game, just 27 percent say President Obama would be deserving of more of the blame. Roughly one in 10 (12 percent) volunteer that both sides would be equally to blame. Those numbers are largely unchanged from a Post-Pew survey conducted three weeks ago and suggest that for all of the back and forth in Washington on the fiscal cliff, there has been little movement in public perception. The numbers also explain why Republicans privately fret about the political dangers of going over the cliff, while Democrats are more sanguine about such a prospect.


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