There is an old saying in political circles that “perception is reality.” Like many old saws there is a lot of truth behind that saying. Perception is driven by messaging. It is not necessarily the best policy that prevails, but the policy that benefits from the most effective messaging. And effective messaging depends on sound arguments, superior strategy and a capable messenger.
Democrats and the GOP have arrived at a split decision when it comes to effective messaging in political campaigns. Republicans have decimated Democrats at the legislative level. In congress the GOP holds solid majorities in both chambers. In the state legislature Republican majorities are at or near historic levels. The executive branch is a different story. President Obama’s oratorical skills have laid waste to hapless GOP nominees. Former Governor Tom Corbett was never able to effectively explain his policies to voters, paving the way for a Democratic victory.
Elections behind us, the task now turns to governing. This is where the outcome of the messaging battle becomes more one-sided. Congressional Republican leaders have been totally ineffective. They have squandered their numeric majority by being strategically out-maneuvered, and are losing the perception war.
Despite the fact President Obama’s executive orders relative to illegal immigrants were ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge, and polls showing public opposition to his actions, the Republican congressional majority was unsuccessful in defunding the agencies tasked with implementing that policy. Why? They allowed Democrats to spin the defunding as a shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security. In fact only a couple of small agencies within the DHS would have been affected. Thus the debate changed from illegal immigration to national security. Congressional Republicans were backed into a corner, caved in, and gave the President a victory.
Now unfolding is a fight over the confirmation of Loretta Lynch as U.S. Attorney General. Republicans have legitimate concerns relative to her interpretation of the constitution. But, they have allowed Democrats to portray their opposition as sexist, or racist by opposing the confirmation of an African-American woman. It was entirely predictable Democrats would play the race and “war on women” cards, but the GOP was unprepared to counter that message. In the end, a woman who believes the President can effectively re-write the U.S. Constitution will likely be confirmed as Attorney General.
Here in Penn’s Woods the GOP has historically been equally inept at countering executive messaging. Former Governor Ed Rendell was a master at backing legislative Republicans into a corner, picking off a couple of stragglers at the back of the herd, and winning enough votes for his budgets and policies.
Now, however, there is a new cast of characters in Harrisburg. Governor Tom Wolf has opted to follow the Obama model and tack far to the Left in his first budget proposal. New leadership is at the helm of both the House and Senate GOP and they represent caucuses far more conservative than those in office during the Rendell years.
Democrats have already begun spinning their message. Rick Bloomingdale, president of the state AFL-CIO penned an op-ed calling Governor Wolf’s new budget progressive, conjuring up images of John Fitzgerald Kennedy daring us to be great. This despite the fact working families will pay significantly higher taxes under Wolf’s budget proposals which amount to nothing either new or progressive, but are little more than a continuation of Rendell-era tax and spend policies.
The ball is now in the GOP’s court. Republican legislative leaders must shed the yoke of the Corbett Administration’s failure to communicate and become effective advocates for a more responsible approach to governing. Republicans have proposals that are time-tested, proven governing policies. The challenge now is to effectively communicate that message and to stand strong against a governor – and mainstream news media – determined to spin false perception into reality.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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