Monday, February 25, 2013


Lawmakers are returning from their little needed and much less deserved rest.

If a national referendum were held today, Congress would be gone, and by a landslide.  It's approval-rating stands at 14%.  That's what makes the bizarre goings on in Washington as we approach March 1st so astounding.  Are these legislators that clueless, that delusional?  Do they really feel they have the upper hand against a president whose approval at 55% is at a three year high?  There is a long held truism that, while Congress may be unpopular in the abstract, voters approve of their own Representative.  Ah yes, Tip O'Neil's much-quoted aphorism that "all politics is local".  Perhaps, but I'd suggest that conventional wisdom in that regard, certainly the idea that "Congress is bad, but not my Representative" may be running its course.

Just consider a parallel truism.  While we may respond to a well-crafted proposition in theory, say advocating change or deficit reduction, we are far less enthusiastic when either of those touch us directly.  In today's context, it's one thing to cheer our Congressperson's rousing rhetoric about the need for spending cuts and deficit reduction.  It's quite another to experience flight delays, roads in disrepair, fewer teachers in the classroom or cops on the beat, national park closings or job furloughs that impact both the worker's family income and business that rely on her patronage.

Washington seems unable to craft bi-partisan accommodations and alliances, but  it seems clear that out in the real world Democrats, Republicans and Independents are of a mind when it comes to seeing Congress as dysfunctional.  Sure pundits and analysts may want to assign some or equal blame on the President for the sequester debacle.  But when he decries moving from one fabricated crisis to another, his words resonate.  This is not to say Americans don't blame Obama too — frustration has no bounds — but they blame him much less.  What really bothers us most about those on the Hill is that, while we are expected to do our job at work, no excuses, Congress is AWOL.  That's infuriating.  We are not paying them for gridlock but for performance.  And what we especially resent is being held hostage to the games they seem to playing.

Democrats, as has been noted in earlier posts, have been put to a distinct disadvantage in recent years by the Republicans' superior wordsmiths.  Consultants like Frank Lutz have been able to shape the public conversation by testing and then using language aimed at selling their clients' point of view.  Terms like "pro-life" were invented to put a positive spin opposing abortion.  Not only does it take ownership of "life", precious to us all, but also provides the halo, real or not, of being on high moral ground.  In contrast, while "pro-choice" may speak powerfully to both a woman's rights and the democratic way, it is vulnerable to being painted as a position with some degree of moral ambiguity, however distorted that may be. Or take branding inheritance levies as "death taxes", something that implies those who would impose them are heartless "grave robbers".  So effective message creation, the GOP specialty, has proved to be a huge winner.  But its very success may have unintended consequences, ones that may be coming back to bite those who have benefited so from its employment.  Among those is the notion that it's all about message.

Despite holding on to the House, Republicans suffered a significant defeat this past November.  Having had a flawed presidential candidate certainly contributed to their losses, a fact upon which many of them conveniently lean in explaining what went wrong.  Adding to that, George W. Bush, while having won two terms is now seen by historians as one of the worst presidents in history.  While judging a president so soon has considerable risks, the respected Siena College Research Institute study places W at 39th among the 43 chief executives.  Again, that may be premature, but we do know that rather than being the popular elder statesman Bill Clinton is for Democrats, Bush 43 has essentially been accorded non-person status.  It is one of the few things upon which all sides in his now deeply divided party seem to agree.  Of course, that blame can be assigned to Romney and Bush lets others off the hook.  It may also be misleading, sending exactly the wrong message, this time to the party that has been so good with messaging.

And it is the centrality of messaging (upon which they are relied so heavily and so successfully) that still seems to be uppermost in their minds.  Nothing illustrates that more than the decision to put forth Marc Rubio as their State of the Union evening face.  The Senator from Florida is handsome, young and Hispanic.  The latter of course is the most important since Obama captured 71% of Latino votes compared to Romney's 27%.  It was what George Bush would describe as "a drubbing".   So not only was Rubio cast as spokesman, he delivered his response in both Spanish and English.  Some people have gotten caught up in his awkward sip moment, but what struck me was the unaltered party line rhetoric, exactly the views that a majority of voters rejected just weeks earlier.  It was a tone-deaf message from an apparently tone-deaf party.

The President's victory may have been helped by the fact that Democrats seem to have been the messaging winners in 2012.  So apparently the GOP thinking goes: if only we can regain the word battle, we will recapture lost ground.  I don't think so.  The problem Republicans faced in the recent election wasn't a slogan deficit, but a policy deficit.  Without discounting their huge successes over the past decade, most especially at the state level and still being felt, public opinion is shifting in America.  Voters aren't aging, they are getting younger and historic demographics are not solidifying they are being diluted by more diversity.  Just take our views on Marriage Equality.  Today 54% of Americans favor approval of same-sex unions while 39% are opposed.  That is a complete reversal of the 37% (for) to 54% (against) poll results of 2009, just one election cycle ago. 

Republicans don't have a messaging problem. They have a content problem.   Obama didn't win in 2012 just because Democrats talked more effectively or had a vastly superior ground operation.  They had both, but in a campaign that actually did touch on underlying issues and philosophies voters chose between substantive differences.  For example, far from discounting the safety net's importance, today's younger and more diverse voters understand how critical it is to their present and future.  The children of the very voters upon whom the GOP counted are burdened with debt.  Instead of heading for surefire success, one that even equals that of their parents, they are faced with the prospect of modest and stagnant wages, of long waits to get employment.  Hispanics like other minorities still face an even harder road ahead.  I laugh in hearing that illegal immigrants will have to go to the end of the waiting line to gain citizenship.  Isn't that where they (along with their legal sisters and brothers) already are and have always been?  Slogans will not resonate with any of this newer generation of voters.  They're much to life experienced for that, they know the score.  They want substance not clever messaging.

So members of Congress may continue to play their games in the days ahead. Republican gurus will likely continue looking for the next winning catch phrase.  Along the way, we will all just get more frustrated, will likely have to bare unnecessary pain.  But, in my view at least, the games can't last and the slogans have run their course.  That's not saying all will be better with an aspirin and a good night's sleep, but I get the feeling time is beginning to be on our side. 

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