Politics & Policy

Where Are the Great Communicators?

President Trump and House Speaker Ryan at the White House, March 1, 2017. (Reuters photo: Kevin Lamarque)
The Republican rollout of their long-awaited health-care plan has sown needless confusion.

Bring out the black lace and the pallbearers, for the Great Communicator has passed from this coil and left no heirs to his talent. Once, Republicans were masters of the launch. Grasping well the stakes and the pitfalls, they prepped their ground, learned their lines, and appealed directly to the voters. Today, they are flailing hopelessly in the wind, as might a scarecrow that has lost its wooden spine. As Oscar Wilde might have said, to lose one rollout may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness. A pattern is emerging here.

Last night, the House released the first draft of its coveted Obamacare replacement plan. Within minutes, the blueprint was universally panned. “It’s Obamacare light!” cried the Freedom Caucus. “It’s incomplete!” shouted the moderates. The general consensus: “Is this it?” By this morning, the apparatchiks were in panic mode. “No, no,” they explained. “This is just the beginning.” “Dont worry,” tweeted President Trump, “getting rid of state lines, which will promote competition, will be in phase 2 & 3 of healthcare rollout.” Brendan Buck, Paul Ryan’s erstwhile counselor, concurred in happy toto. “We’ve long talked about this in 3 parts,” he submitted: “what we can do in recon, what the admin can do on its own, and what will need 60.” A little later, CNN’s Phil Mattingly confirmed this claim: “This is, in fact, the House GOP leadership strategy,” he wrote, “(and lines up w/ what reconciliation does/doesn’t allow).”

Perhaps so. But would it not have been more sensible to have explained this devant le déluge? A competent announcement would have been spread over a month. Week one: The party adumbrates its framework. Week two: The authors outline their goals. Week three: The bill’s text is released. Week four: The charm offensive begins. To America’s overworked policy wonks, the complexity of the system is obvious. But to the busy voter who is open to change, parliamentary procedures need calm and informed explication. In the age of social media, first impressions matter. There’s no room these days for a mop-up.

It would not have been hard to explain the House’s approach. “Because of our congressional rules,” Paul Ryan could have announced, “we will have to do this in parts. There will be three steps. First will come a bill to amend the budgetary components. Second will come the executive changes, as permitted by the law. And finally, the full legislative battle to pull out the remaining roots.” Had the branches seen fit to coordinate, such a message could have been amplified by the metastasizing bully pulpit. “Obamacare is a mess!” President Trump might have tweeted. “And we have a three step plan to fix it!”

Instead, he tweeted stupidly about The Apprentice.

A similar dynamic marred January’s ill-fated immigration order, which was announced on a Friday, accompanied by no illuminating press conference, and permitted to fester over a slow-news weekend. How different that debacle might have been had it been marked by a modicum of planning. How disastrous it was in its absence. One wonders anew: Can the Republicans do anything but react?

EDITORIAL: A Disappointing Start

Critics of Trump’s tweeting are told confidently and routinely that they do not appreciate its power. “Without Twitter,” the defense goes, “the president would be filtered through the media.” Fair enough. But if this is to be our new normal, could we not expect a better wielding of the tool? If, as the claim holds, President Trump can speak “directly to the people,” shouldn’t he be laying the groundwork for his agenda, rather than playing a startled defense? To explain post hoc is, invariably, to lose, and today’s “Don’t worry” does not buck that rule. Thrilling as it might be to throw the parachute out before the jump, it remains safer to strap it on tight and add in a backup for good measure. It has been said that this president is the most famous man who has ever lived. How, one wonders, does he intend to use that notoriety?

It is obvious to all but the most pigheaded partisans that conservatives are outnumbered and outgunned within a media that does not understand them. What they should do about that fact remains the question of the age. For some, there is an addictive catharsis that flows from the perpetual lament, such that even when the Right is in power, the habit of victimhood is difficult to overcome. For others, no requital is more delicious than the well-delivered promise. Alas, it is the former group that is defining strategy at present. For the first time in a while, the Republican party has a chance to implement its agenda. A little more “here’s what we intend to do” and a little less “fake news!” would go a long, long way toward that end.

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