Thursday, November 8, 2012

Democrats: It’s not the medium, it’s the message Republicans: Forget changing what you say, change how you listen

Here it is, the morning after an epochal election -- at least it was epochal from a media perspective -- and the future looks much the same as the recent past. If you believe the story that Mitt Romney hadn’t even drafted a concession speech, then the Republican party must be a little shocked.

The throughline in most post-election punditry will be that Obama’s team won on the strength of their data- and social media-driven ‘ground game’. It would take a time consuming analysis of election results to determine just how much credit should go there.

The more-of-the-same outcome calls into question all the pre-election fretting over the ‘super PACs’, and the billions of dollars they pumped into political advertising. Of course, one way to look at that is to conclude that the two sides spent massively to cancel each other out, and that if either side had failed to put out thousands of gratingly negative ads, their party would have been obliterated.

Another way to look at it is, gee, that advertising didn’t seem to work. One wonders how billionaires like Sheldon Adelson, the Koch brothers, and George Soros will feel about it next election cycle.

Call me old school, but I’m less interested in how each side got its message out, and more interested in what the message was. In the current political climate, the next Presidential campaign has already begun. (Just ask Chris Christie.) What we know for sure is, that one will not be contested by either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney.

For the Democratic Party: “Pray for a hurricane” is not a strategy. Beginning now, it’s time reverse a decades long trend in which the Democrats have ceded the language of national conversation.

It was crazy to let ‘liberal’ become a political insult. Democrats can’t stop the rightward shift in American political life if they dare not use any of the language that describes the ideas of the left.

Obama has said he’ll protect the middle class from any tax increases, but people who are wealthy should pay a little more. That sounds fair, but the Democratic Party has let the Republicans define ‘middle class’ in a way that is statistically laughable. Less than 5% of American households earn $250,000 or more. By making the middle class sacrosanct, then defining it so broadly, Obama’s already doomed tax reform.

The Democrats also allowed their rivals to conflate taxation with the ideas of ‘income redistribution’ and then ‘class warfare’. I could go on; by pandering to voters Southeastern Ohio with his support for ‘clean coal’ -- an oxymoron if ever there was one -- Obama demoralized the pro-environment voters who heard nothing from either candidate except childish, tit-for-tat equivocation about who’d drill more wells if elected. It took New York City’s idiosyncratic mayor, Michael Bloomberg, to put climate change back in the national conversation, in Sandy’s wake.

It’s unlikely that Obama will find the next Republican-dominated Congress any less obstructionist than the last one. That means that he almost certainly will not advance a popular Democratic agenda that his party’s next candidate can inherit. But since Obama himself is not going to stand again, he can use his bully pulpit to redefine the language of the next campaign.

The Republican Party has its own communications strategy issues to address. The GOP cannot, in the short term, rein in its Tea Party wing, but it has to tone down that radical message. Mitt Romney never recovered from a Republican primary season in which the party allowed nut jobs like Donald Trump and Newt Gingrich to set the agenda.

While people like me are usually charged with shaping our clients’ outgoing message, communications works both ways. Some individual Republicans blew themselves up with message fiascos -- think of Missouri’s Todd Akin and his ‘legitimate rape’ comment. But most of the GOP’s problems can be blamed less on what it says and more on who it listens to.

The party has been far too willing to let right-wing fringe media set the tone for the Republican conversation. That’s especially risky because voices like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck are competing amongst themselves for audience share. Sure, they fire up the Republican base. But as they get more and more strident, they alarm and motivate the Democratic base, too.

I don’t think that it was false bravado; Romney campaign insiders really did anticipate a landslide victory. That proves that the echo-chamber effect of polarized media has a corollary inside campaigns, where strategists only listen to their own pollsters.

Last but by no means least, the Republicans need to listen to the American electorate. It’s true that U.S. voters just returned a government that is functionally identical to the one they’ve had since the Tea Party-dominated 2010 mid-term election. But woe to Republicans -- especially in the House of Representatives -- if they assume that means the American public wants more of the same.

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