Disruption, and the Path Back To Power

If Republicans want to reconnect with America and overcome the perception that they’re elitist and out of touch, they have to bypass the usual closed-shop messaging of D.C., and close the distance of Republican leaders from the culture. As Brad Todd pointed out in a smart piece, it’s partly about fielding candidates who don’t strike voters as arrogant, elitist and disconnected.

It’s also about the new generation being willing to defy – and in some cases, kill off – some of the structures of power and communication that lock the GOP into a weak position that leaves us playing the foil to Obama and the Democrats in media coverage.

You’ve seen it a hundred times: Obama calls Republicans racist, sexist, evil, stupid, bigoted … the usual. Republicans respond with guys in suits doing the Sunday shows or some tiresome, wordy press conference in front of a fake bookcase, speaking in Washington arcana utterly disconnected from normal Americans. Then the media reports on a substantive discussion of … “OMG! Michelle has BANGS!”

Barack Obama doesn’t win message fights simply because of media bias (yes it exists, yes there is a Golden Kneepad Prize for Most Sycophantic, but MSNBC has a lock on it so you won’t even make it to Regionals): he wins because some of our most clever and passionate voices are trapped in a D.C. communications paradigm that is mannered, formalized, predictable, and boring.

Today’s system allows no room for surprise, for passion or for much engagement beyond (to use the execrable Washington term) stakeholders … and it doesn’t scan as courtly or genteel. It doesn’t scan as respect for history and the institution. Increasingly, voters see it as arrogant, dysfunctional, and detached from the realities that confront the nation.

This is why Rand Paul’s filibuster play resonated with Republicans (and beyond) so strongly last week. Candidates who disrupt Washington’s expected narrative form are viewed with horror by the tripartite D.C. establishment of Republicans, Democrats and the media .. .but the public craves it.

70,000 people tweeting the #StandWithRand hashtag per hour wasn’t a coincidence. It was engagement. Americans riveted to C-SPAN for 13.5 hours wasn’t an aberration: it was an affirmation that real politics, raw and tough, is great television.

The old guard hated Paul taking the floor, arguing passionately for something bigger than today’s budget fight or for some tenth-decimal change in policy. They tut-tutted Rubio throwing down hip-hop knowledge. You could hear the old bulls grinding their teeth as Lee and Cruz and others had the temerity to challenge the President on the Constitutional exercise of his powers.

When Mark Kirk delivered the apple to Paul, and when Cruz started reading Tweets on the floor, the cultural linkup with Mr. Smith Goes To Washington was complete, much to the chagrin of the Quisling Caucus who were sharing dinner with the Main Enemy during the height of the filibuster.

The media worked their hardest to ignore the filibuster (to say nothing of its real topic; Obama’s License to Kill from Holder’s Justice Department), but couldn’t. John McCain and Lindsey Graham took to the floor the next day in a RINO harrumph that represented what I call the “twilight of the old order.” What offended them was that Rand Paul and the rest didn’t wait for Mitch McConnell and leadership to issue a Mother-May-I … he took the floor. His colleagues tagged in and out, not asking for leadership’s blessing. They eventually even drew Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to join for a few minutes, which was a compelling statement on the power of the moment.

As I told the Washington Post “It was one of the first examples in a long time of messaging that made the base feel like we had control of the day. Rand Paul’s stock price rose sharply today, and being the guy who set Obama on his heels — even for a day — will pay dividends.”

It doesn’t matter what the nuance of the drone policy question is, or whether you have issues with the Pauls. (He’s mostly right, and I do.) What mattered was that instead of waiting for permission, Paul took action.

He broke the tired cadence of Washington’s dance and got inside the OODA loop of the political culture. He got Barack Obama and Eric Holder to cave the next morning. A member on our side told me, “I didn’t love it, until I figured out how much Reid and Durbin hated it.”

A lot of the Senate class of 2010 gets it. A lot of new House members get it. They know that the old rules went something like this: “Stay quiet and you’ll get your appropriations.” “Play on the team and in 15 years you’ll be Chairman of the Toilet Seats Standards Committee.” “Be a good boy and you’ll go on the sweet CODELS.”

Those rules built a culture that wasn’t working against Obama, the Democrats and their Amen-chorus in the media. They built a culture that was too cautious, too timid and too hidebound … a culture that then wonders why it fails to win political battles and the support of the public. 

Breaking those rules, creating compelling, irresistible events that force media coverage and being unafraid to break the traditions of DC are milestones on the part of the path back to national power.