First, I don’t love the shutdown, but for reasons that may not be immediately obvious. While I don’t buy the “a shutdown dooms the GOP in 2014” argument, the narrative fight in the coming days is going to be big, brutal and consequential…and I’d rather it be about Obamacare than about a government shutdown. Making it about Obamacare lets us continue to tear at the soft underbelly of Bonny Prince Barry’s legacy and at this heinous abomination of a bill. It keeps the fight, and focus, where it benefits the GOP and the conservative movement.
But we’re in a shutdown and that’s the fight we’ve got to win. You don’t have to be happy about it; we just have to step up our game dramatically. Sure, there will be a compromise soon enough, but until then we need a plan — and a better story.
So far, no one on our side – not the House GOP and its sundry factions, not the Senate GOP, not the Tea Party groups, not the Senate Conservatives Fund, not Heritage Action, have covered themselves in glory as communicators and advocates. Too much fire has been danger-close or targeted at our own. After seeing too many messages and themes, ad-hoc hail-Mary legislative plays, and too many rapid leadership reversals, it’s clear we need a plan.
In politics, a plan beats no plan every time, and for the post-shutdown message battle we need a communications plan that runs deeper than “Fire two broadsides and board ‘em in the smoke.”
As a young campaign guy sticking to a plan sounded awfully stuffy and less fun than just going out and having a good political bar fight. While I love a good scrap, every campaign I’ve been in that really worked had a plan. The campaigns with no plan rely on speculation, folklore, entrail-reading and managing the crisis-of-the-day. They sometimes win, but often find themselves on election day wondering how they got to Tijuana, why they can’t find their wallet, and who left that dead hooker in the trunk.
Good plans are explicable and use simple steps to execute complex operations. They’re resilient and able to deal with contact with the enemy. But if your plan of “don’t blink” relies on complex parliamentary gymnastics where Harry Reid can shoot you in the head politically at any moment, it’s not a plan: it’s a death wish. If you’re using the crisis to teach fractious Tea Partiers a lesson (looking at you, Boehner and McCain), it’s not a plan; it’s a family feud. If your Tea Party group is busy punishing your own team members rather than deeply vulnerable red-state Democrats…well, you’re doing it wrong.
It’s time for all the players on our side to get all their asses on seats in one room, swallow their respective pride, and built a strategy to break the Democrats, rather than each other. This isn’t about the optimum outcome; it’s about the best political outcome.
Now that we’re in it, we need more than a Day 1 Plan to communicate shutting down the government. Show me your Day 2, 3, 4, 7, 14 and 30 plans. Show me how it works after contact with the enemy and how you sell it to people who aren’t on your fundraising list. Show me how it works when the media culture that loves the concern-trolling narrative of “Why Are Evil Stupid Republicans Being Evil and Stupid When Barack Loves Us So?” gets the bit in their teeth. Without a plan, expect more flailing, more dissent and more bad media coverage.
A plan is necessary, but not sufficient. We also need to get a grip on the story. We haven’t been telling one story; we’ve been telling 15 disparate tales from all of the factions on the right side of this battle. Is it about Obamacare? The shutdown? Reid? Obama? Cruz? The Tea Party? Boehner’s internal factions? Pandas? The process? The story should be about Obamacare, full stop.
We’ve also been telling those stories in the worst possible language. Here are some words I never, ever want to hear in communications from the GOP: cloture, conference committee, continuing resolution, subcommittee, chairman, regular order. If your statement couldn’t be understood by a counter guy at a Waffle House in your district, fire your comms people. Fire them right now.
Listen to Obama’s language: people, pain, terror, anarchy, Republican malfeasance, taking away health care, denying birth control. It’s not steeped in the terrible, turgid language of parliamentary procedure. It’s emotional, evocative and understandable.
We forget a fundamental rule; every campaign is a story with a hero, a villain, a quest, and a battle in the last chapter between light and darkness. It can be any campaign: for a candidate, an issue, or a product, but a in big narrative sense they’re all the same.
Take on the mantle of the hero, make the villain’s evil evident, define the quest and win the decisive battle. If you don’t think those rules work, I welcome you to consider the 2012 Presidential campaign. Obama and his team applied them diligently. We rarely do.
Democrats have a story they’ve been telling since before Ted Cruz stood on the Senate floor for 21 hours or the House passed its weekend CRs. They’ve been telling it over and over again to a cooperative media; Democrats as the heroes, rescuing the Republic from those villainous Tea Party granny-killing scoundrels who want to shut off the Panda-cam and kill the government.
No, it isn’t fair. Yes, it depends on deeply ingrained media bias working assertively against the us. Yes, Obama gets a free pass for everything. Yes, our own Quislings have gleefully sided with Harry Reid in order to teach those young whippersnappers like Cruz, Lee, Paul, and Rubio a lesson. Yes, the Tea Party guys hate the old guard, and the old guard reciprocates. Way it goes.
But this is a fight we’re in now, like it or not, and, to paraphrase Ben Franklin, the GOP and the conservative movement must all hang together or assuredly they’ll shall all hang separately.
There’s a chance to make this about Obamacare, and extract political advantage from it, if we’ll take it.
Or, we can keep on with the current rudderless clown show and see where that leads us.