Barcelona, Spain–It was sometime after one too many mojitos and about eight metric tons of jamon and queso at the local tapas bar that I had a moment of clarity, and suddenly so much of what was going on in faraway Washington made sense. The troubles of President Bush for much of this year stemmed from a switch to his old, leisurely, Austin-style communications approach; his recent vigorous response to his critics marks a return to campaign form.
Campaigning and governing are different tasks, but success in both fields requires a similar relentless communication strategy .
With two presidential victories and substantial GOP gains, we can conclude that President Bush is a good, talented, effective campaigner. But he hasn’t enjoyed the same level of success in governing, particularly in this second term.
What is different about Bush when he’s on the campaign trail, as opposed to when he has been focused on the more humdrum day-to-day basics of governing? When Bush is campaigning, circumstances require him to boil down his sales pitch to its most important, most basic, most easily communicated elements.
In 2002, when Bush was touting Republican Senate and House candidates around the country, his message was simple: “We have to stay on the attack against al Qaeda. We have to deal with the grave and gathering threat of Saddam Hussein. I want to establish a Department of Homeland Security, and the Democrats are playing politics by putting the interests of public-sector unions before your safety.” One, two, three, bam, bam, bam, there was your message. In 2004, it was similar: “We need to stay on the attack against al Qaeda and not waver or flip-flop. We need to finish the job in Iraq; to cut and run now would be to abandon the mission our troops are working so hard on. We need to appoint strict constructionist judges who will end the reign of judicial activism.” In both years, Republican candidates had great success.
And when Bush was on the campaign trail, he would repeat his message, over and over again, at every stop. Check his campaign speeches from 2002; it’s the essentially same speech, time and time again: “And that’s why I need you to elect INSERT CANDIDATE’S NAME HERE to help enact my agenda on Capitol Hill.”
Bush’s Groundhog Day campaigning method drives the media nuts, particularly the White House press corps who have to listen to it over and over again. There’s never any news; the speech says the same thing endlessly, in an effort to break the record for sounding like a broken record.
Message Gets Through
But the side effect of Bush’s repeating his message for 30 speeches in 20 days is that it gets through to every frazzled and busy soccer mom, every Joe Six-pack who only listens to a few moments of the news on the radio, every inattentive headline scanner, and the most casual news viewer. Those who watch even a bit more of the news notice that Bush is saying the same thing as he did the last time they paid attention. They observe that if nothing else, he’s consistent. He said Topic A was important yesterday, and he’s saying the same thing today. There’s something reassuring about this. He’s not offering ten different solutions over ten days; he has set priorities–and he’s sticking to them.
By comparison, his opponent–whether it was Gephardt, Daschle, orKerry–tends to say many different messages over any given period of time. And the vast majority of those messages never sink in, because they are rarely if ever repeated–the Democrats are always moving on to the new topic of the day. The media encourages them, since news reporters need something new every day. It’s not much of a story to report, “Both sides repeated the exact same arguments they made yesterday, only this time before different applauding audiences. Back to you, Dan.”
And that’s one reason, of many, that the “flip-flopper” label recently stuck to so many Democrats. Compared to Bush, they appear to have attentio-deficit disorder. Each day, their campaigns seemed to be on a different theme; they seemed unfocused, in conflict, unable to decide what their candidacies were about. Until recently, they could never simplify, prioritize, or get their point across consistently.
But when the 2004 campaign ended and Bush set out to govern, he brought out a completely different communications approach to the job. And it was less effective.
One of the old charges against Bush in the 2000 campaign was that, as governor of Texas, he wasn’t actually that powerful or influential a leader. The state legislature only meets briefly. Other officials have authority over the state’s legal system, state budget and finances, education, transportation, agriculture, public utilities, and land development.
There is a smidgen of truth to this charge, in that pushing through an agenda as president of the United States is exponentially harder than pushing through an agenda as governor of Texas. In the Lone Star State, legislative political debates are conducted between conservative Republicans and conservative Democrats. A Democrat like the late Bob Bullock is easier to work with than a Tom Daschle, Dick Gephardt, Harry Reid, or Nancy Pelosi. In Texas, the press is less hostile; the ideological opponents are less fervent. Enough legislators of both parties feel enough pressure to get something done at the end of the session so that their constituents feel like lawmakers are earning their pay.
In Washington, the party out of power wants chaos and gridlock, a sense that nothing is getting done and that the current legislators are incapable of solving problems; because that widespread frustration and dissatisfaction among voters is the formula for a sweeping “throw the bums out” sentiment. A congressional session that gets a lot done is one that is likely to have many incumbents winning elections, and the party out of power will stay out of power.
It takes a different approach to govern effectively in Washington than it does in Austin. One could argue that on a day-to-day basis, the Texas state government ran itself. Not that the governor doesn’t matter, but the leader of the state does not find himself constantly doing battle, 24/7, with his opponents-be they special interests, the media, activist groups, the opposition party, within his own party, etc. (In these circumstances, one can afford to take five-week vacations.) Bush’s instincts for governing were honed during his six years leading Texas. He still, from time to time, reverts back to those instincts. It is likely he believes that’s the way government business ought to be done–slowly, focused, in a real sense of cooperation with agreeable, clear-thinking folks across the aisle.
It has been argued that the White House is the greatest bully pulpit in the world. And periodically, we have seen the Bush administration attempt to put the public spotlight on an idea or issue that hadn’t garnered much attention previously. A few years ago, word leaked that Bush was considered proposing a manned mission to Mars–an effort to launch an inspirational era of exploration alongside our current challenging and difficult era of warfare. That idea got some headlines . . . and then faded away rather quickly. Similarly, a few weeks ago, Bush gave a major address on government preparations for an outbreak of avian flu. But it was a one-day story; Bush didn’t talk about the issue day after day after day. It seems likely that many Americans didn’t even know the president addressed the issue.
By comparison, Bush’s critics have been consistent this year, hammering the same message over and over again. Every comment by every war critic for the last six months has been essentially the same: “Iraq is a mess; it will never get better; we might as well quit.” Regarding the Plame issue, the drumbeat has been: “There is terrible corruption in the White House and Karl Rove is at the center of it.” The Democrats and the president’s foes in the mainstream media are using his own playbook: repetition, repetition, repetition.
There are many criticisms of the president that are inaccurate. But one that is partially accurate is that President Bush is a little bit lazy–or at least he was until very recently. He doesn’t like going out and giving the same speech to different crowds, day after day after day. Few people in their right minds would. But in today’s diffused mass media environment, getting a message across to the American people beyond the news junkies requires constant repetition. (The exception is during galvanizing events, like 9/11, that has the American people eager to hear what their leaders have to say.)
Often over the past several months, Bush has seen his poll ratings tumble, and it is widely believed that public support for the war in Iraq is declining. Reacting to this, the president has gone out and delivered pretty good speeches on the war in high-profile settings. And after each one, the president acted like the problem was solved, his work on the issue done.
But only a fraction of Americans watch or hear the speech in its entirety. Most only hear sound bites or read a quote or two online or in the paper. Whatever points the president made never sink in, and public opinion either doesn’t move, or barely moves. The drumbeat of “We’re doomed in Iraq, doomed in Iraq, doomed in Iraq” quickly overtakes the president’s statements.
We have heard that this president doesn’t enjoy press conferences. Nor does Vice President Cheney. Other than Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice, few members of his Cabinet are familiar faces on the news. Several times in recent days the president has had no public events scheduled. Bush continues to be, as some call him, “the occasional communicator.”
To govern effectively, the administration has to move past irritation with the media and reluctance to embrace Clintonian domination of the news cycle, and embrace the part of the job that includes communicating. A president cannot move his agenda without taking his case to the public–but finally, in the past week, we have seen the president and vice president pushing back, accusing their Democratic critics of rewriting history and ignoring inconvenient facts and their own past statements on Iraq.
The White House is a powerful bully pulpit, and the president can set the agenda. But it takes more than one speech to do it. To Michael Ledeen’s “Faster, please,” perhaps we can add, “Again, please.”