For years, my stock line when describing Republican congressional leadership was that it showed the strategic ability of WWII French generals, the tactical ability of Custer at Little Big Horn, and the communications effectiveness of poor Helen Keller before Annie Sullivan came along.
But at least the brilliant and able Helen Keller had good reason for her early struggles. Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, and those who preceded them (but post-Gingrich), have no such excuse. Again and again they stumble and fumble and bumble into ignominious withdrawals from supposedly firm positions, and often they collapse into outright surrender.
The recent pathetic retreat from the promise to defund Barack Obama’s illegal executive order on immigration was, of course, the latest in a long series of legislative and public-affairs fiascos. Indeed, it’s almost impossible to recall a clear-cut victory for Republican negotiators, with the partial exception of the “sequester” that actually has helped hold down domestic spending, though only at the expense of dangerous cuts in defense.
The problem isn’t necessarily that GOP leaders have insufficient respect for principle (although sometimes a lack of principle is indeed evident); it’s often less a failing of the what of legislating than the how. Our leaders seem to lack the ability to “game out” the process (when the Democrats do x, should we do y or should we do z?). They also seem unable to coordinate the inside game of vote gathering with the outside game of building public support.
I became intimately familiar with the latter while serving in a leadership press post in the first half of the 1990s, when I saw that the leaders, and congressional members in general, usually failed to integrate their press operations into their legislative strategies. First, they tend to hire bright young college graduates to be their press secretaries. They have good personalities or writing skills but lack any real professional experience. And even with the more experienced press people, members usually don’t think to ask whether and how a proposed bill or legislative topic might be successfully sold.
Instead, they first decide questions about a bill’s contents or its legislative calendar, based largely on internal political considerations; they are acutely sensitive in this process to the amount of professional lobbying noise coming their way. Only later, after committing to a course of action and usually quite belatedly, do they bring in their press aides, dumping on those young aides the job of selling something that’s ill designed for public sales.
It’s the political equivalent of producing a nutritious TV dinner that comes out looking like a bowl of tree slugs: No matter how good the marketing experts, a tree-slug dinner just won’t sell.
Content is of course more important than packaging, but if the two are melded together from the start, the same content can take different forms to make it more attractive. A well-cut diamond on a ring will always look better than an uncut stone.
Meanwhile, some members and some in leadership do have communications directors who are quite talented — and even more employ press aides full of potential — but rarely do they nab established PR professionals from successful outside firms to bring their vast experience to the Hill. Smart young college graduates can be superbly responsive but, unlike seasoned professionals, often haven’t yet developed the tool kits to be successfully proactive.
For the Left, this doesn’t matter as much, because the establishment media are perfectly willing to create and sell the Left’s desired narrative anyway. But for conservatives fighting just to be understood (much less treated fairly) by media whose worldview is refracted through an entirely different prism, mere native talent and a good attitude can’t substitute for real-world communications experience.
The problems get worse when so many congressmen fail to think in terms of mainstream communications, which is increasingly a problem for lawmakers in gerrymandered districts — they don’t know what it takes to appeal to a broad-based constituency. Many members of Congress also fail to appreciate that what looks good to lobbyists and donors might not appeal to a self-employed electrician or a short-order waitress. Plus, the members tend to think that they already know how to communicate well — after all, they got themselves elected, didn’t they? But the selling of self is an entirely different skill than the selling of legislative substance.
And that’s just the communications part of governing. If anything, the leadership is even less skilled at tactics and strategy. And a lot of the back-benchers are even worse, acting like the weekend football warriors who want to throw a bomb on every play. Nobody seems to combine boldness in vision with patience in execution; nobody seems able to see more than one move ahead, if not (metaphorically speaking) on a chessboard than at least on a Stratego grid.
Speaking of which, here’s a dead-serious suggestion: Nobody should be hired as a leadership legislative director if said person grew up without playing board games (or, for those younger than 40, the electronic equivalent) or was not the sort of athlete who liked calling at least some of the plays for other teammates.
Big-time legislative success really can depend on the ability to apply logic and planning, and to anticipate and respond to the moves of adversaries – all skills that are developed through competitive games. Top legislative analysts might need legal skills or other experience, but the directors of legislative shops should add to those skills a heightened ability to envision multiple pathways to each legislative objective.
Despite all the above, the problem really isn’t so much with staff as it is with the leaders themselves, and with the fractious caucuses they lead. From a distance, it seems as if nobody in the Capitol really talks to one another in any systematic way. Oh, there are short-notice phone calls galore and whispered hallway consultations about how to put out new brushfires. And there are the major confabs and retreats where all the House members or all the senators sing kumbaya and where leadership pretends to give marching orders and then pretends to listen to pre-selected responses and suggestions from their supposed followers.
But, unless I’ve missed something, there’s nothing systematic. What’s needed is nearly an entire workweek, before a session starts, when the Republican leadership teams of each chamber, a couple of top committee chairs, and some of the harder-line conservative members without portfolio but who hold sway among their peers would join with the Republican National Committee chairman and some outside conservative leaders. They would make a group of, say, 20 or at most 25 participants who would be charged with marrying legislative goals to the strategies, tactics, and means to accomplish them. Among those means should be outside advertising and other public-relations campaigns, jointly supported by the RNC and conservative groups, to define and explain the planned legislation before the establishment media have a chance to misdefine them.
We need an inside-outside game, a tag-team approach, and it should openly include the conservative movement as a crucial part of that tag team.
If the party and PACs spent even a tenth as much money and effort supporting legislation as they do on elections, they surely would bolster the eventual electoral prospects of every Republican candidate, because success breeds popularity.
One way or another, the congressional GOP must stop making promises it can’t keep and start strategizing about how to keep its promises. It also should use its communications staffers better, and in some cases it should hire better communications staffers.
In sum, it should stop lurching from crisis to crisis, all while failing to unify the two Republican caucuses. It’s time to find common ground and intelligent strategy on the right. Let those on the left worry about the crises that are in their ranks; let them sweat when they find they have no good moves remaining on the legislative chessboard.
— Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor for National Review Online. Follow him on Twitter: @QuinHillyer.