Thirty years, a broken record, and forks in the road

After hearing a Ronald Reagan speech in March 1983 I finally came around to realize Reagan was right — and my days as a Republican began. A year and a half later Reagan won 49 states and was reelected in a landslide. For the rest of that decade, however, I was frustrated with my party for its ineptitude when it came to messaging.

In 1989 I learned why they were so lousy at it. Late that year while working at the Lee Atwater led Republican National Committee in Washington D.C., I was given the opportunity to attend their 16-day campaign management school. As students we had the privilege of learning from some of the best in the business about all aspects of campaign politics. Most sessions were a half hour with some running a bit longer. The topic of how to deal with the issues and messaging was given short shrift — it wasn’t important to the politicos running the school. As new to politics as I was at the time, I was appalled — they only gave about 10-15 minutes to what was for me (even back then) the most important subject of all.

In the 1990s Republicans didn’t fare much better when it came to selling their platform principles. Only in 1994 after the nation was frightened by the prospect of Hillarycare did the nation give the GOP a stunning victory with the winning of the U.S. House. For most of the decade, though, I watched as a fan of a sports team does while enduring a losing season. We had the better ideas and policy solution in every area yet our side never was able to get its communications act together. Even as I worked with a few smart veteran Republicans there was never any vision presented about how to reach more people with an effective sales pitch.

In 2000 George W. Bush won the White House by 500 voters. In 2004 his margin was larger but he still only won by one state. In 2006 Republicans lost the U.S. House and 2008 the White House. Like in 1994 — Americans gave the U.S. House back to the Republicans in 2010 — this time because Obamacare had just been shoved down their throats. Despite an abysmal first term record, Obama won reelection in 2012 because the GOP still couldn’t put one foot in front of the other when it came to connecting with the public.

I suspect 2014 will be, like 2010, another good year for Republicans — but as in ’94 and ’10 — it won’t happen because of their own efforts but because of the Democrats. This time (again) it’ll be health care — the continuing disaster that is Obamacare will still be having an impact on the mind of the public.

Exactly eleven years ago this November, the state house Republicans were choosing a new leader for their caucus. The choice was stark. On the one side was liberal Tom Cross, the other was conservative Art Tenhouse. The GOP state reps made the wrong decision and went with Cross. At the time some of us weren’t surprised. In a post titled, “Cross, Tenhouse, and the Importance of Ideas,” I wrote:

Commentator George Will wrote the following almost twenty years ago:

“Statesmen who are unaware of the ideas that shaped the institutions currently in their custody, and uninterested in the ideas that shape the expectations and tolerances of the citizenry, are statesmen governed by forces they cannot comprehend.”

For many of those Illinois House members voting for a new leader, the very notion of “ideas” is a foreign concept. All is personality and “leadership” style. Like the electorate, Illinois House members want to feel good about themselves.

For the next eleven years our General Assembly house caucus was vision-less and invisible.

During this series of articles about the need to reach beyond the choir I’ve merely been echoing what I’ve been saying for many years. Eleven years ago in December 2002 I wrote “What U.S. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald Should Do.” At the time Fitzgerald was under attack from people in his own party — here was my suggestion:

As a counter to the attacks, I’d suggest that our Republican U.S. Senator spend the next two years generating an unprecedented public dialog in Illinois about a few important federal domestic policy issues. […] After all, our political discourse isn’t what it should be about. While we’re subject to the news of personality tiffs and power spats, the Tax Eater Industrial Complex rolls along and backroom deals continue to escape the radar of the voters and the media.

Senator Fitzgerald should ignore the same old vapid conventional wisdom that says the public isn’t interested in the substance. He should realize that he could be driving poll numbers and not just responding to them. The political “experts” think the mood of the electorate is like the weather — nothing can be done about it. The truth is real leadership understands the need for innovation and fosters the kind of public debates that shape voters’ attitudes.

I am well aware that this concept is foreign to most political people, not a group known for its vision. But the concept of selling an idea is not much different than selling a new product. More than enough expertise exists in this country to do it, where we’ve made an art and science out of public relations, marketing, and advertising. Executing such a media plan is putting the wheel to work, not inventing it.

I’ve been a broken record for many years — and until our side wakes up to the simple reality I’m writing about — I’ll keep at it.