Sure, we just need to talk a better game
Jim DeMint: You know, conservatives need better messaging
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Is that really it? Our ideas are great but we’re just not selling them very well? Fresh out of the Senate and now seated as the leader of the Heritage Foundation, that’s what Jim DeMint says in the Washington Post:
How could the president get away with hobbling two successful programs with barely a peep from the media or backlash from the millions of Americans whose lives are made better and more secure by these initiatives? That’s a question and a challenge I take very personally. After spending my professional career in research, advertising and marketing, I find it unthinkable that American voters are not demanding the ideas and policies that will improve their lives and brighten their future.
One lesson I learned in marketing is that, for consumers and voters, perception is reality.
November’s election results and exit polls suggest that a majority of Americans agree that government does too much yet still voted for more of it. The election taught conservatives that we can no longer entrust political parties to carry our message.
We must take our case to the people ourselves, and we must start where all good marketing starts: with research. Conservative policies have proved their worth time and time again. If we’re not communicating in a way that makes that clear, we are doing a disservice to our fellow citizens. We need to test the market and our message to communicate more effectively.
Hey, I’m all for effective communication, but I’m having a hard time buying the notion that we’re brilliant on policy but we just don’t explain it very well.
Here’s what I think DeMint misses: People will vote for people who achieve, who demonstrate success. Reagan won 49 states in 1984 because no one could really deny he had made things better. Oh sure, the Democrats tried, but they knew they had nothing and so did everyone else. For all the Republican nostalgia for Reagan, what they miss is that his success didn’t owe strictly to his philosophical brilliance so much as the fact that he knew how to put it in action and get results.
Compare this to the last period of Republican power in Washington. After the GOP win the House in 1994, they put an end to Hillary’s health care nonsense and forced Bill Clinton to get serious about spending restraint. Good job. But then they got greedy and started falling in love with federal spending all over again to benefit Republican constituencies. This was the impetus behind the infamous K Street project through which nominal conservatives like Tom DeLay sought to create stronger alliances with lobbyists.
I think George W. Bush gets a bad rap for the spending excesses that went on during his presidency, because the truth is that the GOP Congress was enjoying having the power of the purse and using it to their political advantage. There were a few Republicans who tried to be serious about it, but you sure as hell didn’t get any leadership from Dennis Hastert or Bill Frist. A few years back I had the chance to interview Paul Ryan for Human Events, and I asked him what role the Bush Administration played in the efforts of congressional Republicans who were serious about spending restraining. Ryan told me, “They didn’t help and they didn’t hurt.”
That confirmed a longstanding belief of mine: Bush was willing to work with Congress on spending restraint, but he didn’t want to pick a fight with Congress over it because a) he feared losing control of Congress, which of course happened anyway in 2006; and b) he needed their support on Iraq and couldn’t afford to risk it by taking them on over the budget.
So back to DeMint: The best messaging is when you can say, “Look what we’ve accomplished,” and when no one can deny that it’s true. The last time Republicans were running the show in Washington, they didn’t do much. They could have reformed health care using free-market ideas. They could have gotten serious about opening up domestic energy resources. They could have seriously reformed the tax code. They could have even reformed entitlement programs! Bush tried with Social Security and Republicans in Congress ran for the hills, terrified of the politics.
The messaging challenge for conservatives is to convince the public that, given another chance, conservatives will actually do what they say they believe. Why should they believe that even now? The House is supposed to have the power of the purse but Obama is still spending $3.7 trillion a year and John Boehner doesn’t raise a finger to stop him.
I wish Jim DeMint and the Heritage Foundation luck, but conservatives have created their own messaging challenge by talking a good game but failing to take action when they had the chance. I do not know of a messaging solution to that problem.