The GOP’s Message Problem

By Carol Brown / October 29, 2014 / American Thinker

Democrats are compassionate people who want to help others. Republicans are greedy rich people who care only about themselves.  When I was a liberal, those were my impressions.

Having transitioned from left to right over the past seven years, those long-held beliefs changed dramatically. No thanks to the GOP. The party appears unable or unwilling to articulate a compelling message, which leaves one wondering what they stand for.

Thomas Sowell has addressed this problem many times. In August, he wrote:

One of the big differences between Democrats and Republicans is that we at least know what the Democrats stand for, whether we agree with it or not. But, for Republicans, we have to guess.

Last year he wrote:

You might think that the stakes are high enough for Republicans to put in some serious time trying to clarify their message.

As the great economist Alfred Marshall once said, facts do not speak for themselves. If we are waiting for the Republicans to do the speaking, the country is in big trouble.

Democrats, by contrast, are all talk. They could sell refrigerators to Eskimos before Republicans could sell them blankets.

The prior year Sowell wrote (here and here):

…the Republicans’ greatest failure has been precisely their chronic failure to spell out their principles…. (snip)

…The net result is that articulate Democrats can get away with the biggest lies, without any serious rebuttal from most Republicans. (snip)

But so long as Republicans don’t seem to feel any urgency about refuting the Democrats’ claim that they just want to help the rich at the expense of the poor, they are courting defeat on election day. Why lose to a lie because you didn’t bother to explain the truth?

So what’s the deal?

Is the GOP devoid of principles? Do they have principles but no interest in spelling them out in plain language? Do they think they’re doing a good job and there’s no need to address their messaging problem?

My guess is it’s a combination of all of the above. As far as I can tell, the GOP has become increasingly watered down over the years, straying further and further from values that once made the party strong. I mean, my goodness, they hardly even talk about national security any more — an area where they once distinguished themselves.

I also think the power brokers in the party are suffering from a chronic case of arrogance. As a result, they’ve lost touch with how their message does or doesn’t resonate with people, or whether they even need to bother assessing if the message is getting through. Or more fundamentally, what the message is. Which circles back to: What are their principles?

So what are we left with? The predictable and rarely explained mantra of “lower taxes” and “smaller government.”

To say this message is inadequate would be inadequate.

First of all, these two talking points don’t resonate with millions of Americans, in part, because the GOP does not spell out how or why these ideas are right for America. They do not point out historical patterns that prove time and again that bigger government has never benefited the citizenry. Worse, how bigger government turns into tyranny.

Second, and more importantly, “lower taxes” and “smaller government” are not core principles. The core principle is freedom. And that is what we need to be talking about. Instead, the Republican Party rambles on incoherently while the Democrats put their values on full display — touting all the ways they want to help people. Their misguided ideas typically go unchallenged by the GOP.

Let me share an example of poor messaging vs concise and compelling messaging in action — an example that is representative of countless interviews with members of the Republican party. Earlier this month, Chris Wallace interviewed Reince Priebus and Debbie Wasserman Schulz on Fox News Sunday. Wallace began by asking both guests if they thought the GOP would take the Senate.

This was Priebus’s opening response (which was utterly lethargic):

Yeah, absolutely. I think — we feel really good about our chances of taking the Senate and it’s partly because, number one, the president’s taking the country in the wrong direction. These lieutenants out there across the country have followed the president off the plank. And I think that there’s an incompetency malaise across this country, uh, where people are not confident in the job that the Democrats have done. And so we’re going to win on the issues, but also what you’re seeing is that we’re winning on the ground. The Democrat advantage in Iowa is all but evaporating and no other Senate state on the ground are we losing. And so we’re doing what we need to do to win, but it’s more important that we get our country turned around again, Chris.

“These lieutenants?” “Off the plank?” “Incompetency malaise?”

Sure, I could figure out what Priebus was referring to about lieutenants (albeit a weird word choice) following Obama off the plank, but it shouldn’t take an effort to figure anything out. People have short attention spans. You need to make it easy for them. And you need to use every second of airtime to assert the most vital point. Lieutenants following Obama off the plank hardly fit the bill.

“Incompetency malaise” was another example where Priebus used obscure language that, if anything, sounded like an insult to Americans. And he of all people should not use the word “malaise” because his non-verbal communication dripped with malaise. He looked and sounded as if skittering along the edge of consciousness.

As for winning “on the issues,” it was a vapid, abstract expression. Priebus passed up the chance to highlight what some of those issues were and why the GOP is on the right side of them, just as he passed up the chance to say what it means to “get our country turned around.” Turned around from where? To what? It may be obvious to us, but it’s not to millions of Americans.

Wasserman Schultz didn’t make the same mistakes. This was her response to the question of whether the GOP would take the Senate:

No. We are going to hold the Senate. And we’re going to hold the Senate because over the next couple of weeks and leading up to, uh, even today, the one question that voters are going to ask themselves, Chris, is: Who has my back? And on issue after issue, Democrats have stood up for jobs, for the economy, for investing in education and health care. Those are the issues that voters are talking about. And the Republicans have engaged in trying to take their health care away, to oppose the minimum wage…

Schultz had her talking points down and she squeezed them into every nook and cranny of available airtime. She stressed all the ways the Democratic Party wants to help people and all the ways evil Republicans want to harm them.

Responding to Schultz’s claim that the Democrats have our back, Priebus said the President and the Democrats don’t have anybody’s back, but failed to give a single example of how or why his claim had merit. It was another lost opportunity to provide one or two salient facts to showcase how Americans have been left high and dry under this administration.

Once again, Wasserman Schultz was well prepared and her follow-up was on point. She referred to a Fox News poll Wallace put on the screen that looked bad for the Democrats, citing other questions in that same poll that showed Americans want the Democrats to maintain control of Congress and that Democrats have a higher approval rating than Republicans. She then segued to Mitch McConnell and his poor record, reminding viewers of McConnell’s role in the government shut-down.

Priebus then zeroed in on polls instead of using his airtime to inject critical facts that would rebut Wasserman Schultz and inform listeners. Talking about polls is not compelling. It’s not something that sways voters. In addition to which, Wallace was already talking about polls that looked bad for the Democrats. There was no need for Priebus to do the same.

And on it went…

A ten-minute interview that the GOP threw away while the Democrat went unchallenged as she pushed her party’s agenda.

And if the GOP thinks ideas like standing up for average Americans, for jobs, for education, for quality health care doesn’t sell, they’re wrong. It sells. Big time. I know, because I was sold that bill of goods for decades. I made no connection between those values and the way the Democratic Party tethered them to government policy or to the dangers of expanding government. In fact, I saw no downside to government. I saw government through a singularly positive lens: The government helped people.

Only through my own efforts (by visiting web sites like American Thinker and other conservative blogs) did I begin to put the pieces together. As I said earlier, my awakening was no thanks to the GOP.

As I have traveled this path from left to right, I have wondered if more people might wake up if the GOP spoke in an articulate way, if they repeated compelling ideas, and most important, if they understood what the central principle is:





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