More on the messaging mess

Sometimes readers make my arguments for me.

Case in point: My Nov. 18 column, “The GOP’s biggest loss.” I pointed out that the Republican Party’s most significant challenge going forward was not appealing to Hispanics or socially liberal moderates, but countering the Democratic Party’s superior messaging machine, which obliterated the GOP in almost every battleground in 2012.

Democrats are extraordinarily, annoyingly disciplined when it comes to campaign messaging, especially at the federal level. Candidates for the Senate and House have stuck to the same script for years, hammering away at Republicans with concise talking points that have been repeated so many times most Americans now take them as truth. They absolutely, positively will not deviate from those party messages, and they’re not bashful about answering completely unrelated questions with those lame responses if it helps them avoid statements that could hurt their election chances.

That column prompted Steven Grant of Henderson to pen a letter to the editor, which the Review-Journal published Nov. 23. Grant wrote: “Glenn Cook was almost right when he announced the GOP’s big problem is its messaging. But its problem isn’t the messaging, it’s the message, which was made very clear: What’s most important for the country is that the ultra-rich be given special treatment at the expense of the rest of the country, and God help everyone else.”

Bingo. Grant is living proof of the Democrats’ messaging victory. He concisely repeated one of the Democratic Party’s most successful messages: Republicans help the rich destroy the middle class and the poor.

One reader who takes time to rip me on a regular basis, David Winchell, responded to the column by writing: “The reason the GOP lost the election is that they have no ideas.”

Bingo. Another Democratic Party messaging victory. Democrats won big in three of the past four federal elections – 2010 being the exception – by eviscerating the GOP, not by presenting their own vision for the future or offering genuine solutions to the country’s most pressing problems. Republicans have no ideas. Republicans support the failed policies of the past.

Why is such a cynical strategy so effective? Because the counter-arguments take too long, and unlike Democrats, Republican candidates largely don’t answer to a top-down power structure that tells them how to talk. So they provide all kinds of different answers, all vulnerable to attack by the aforementioned talking points. It all adds up to messaging loss after messaging loss. Really, there are too many to count.

– Big Oil “subsidies.” One of the lamest liberal talking points is one of the most effective. Democrats have succeeded in convincing Americans that the Treasury collects taxes from them, then takes those revenues and sends them to ExxonMobil and other oil giants in the form of big, fat checks. In fact, there are no such checks. Oil companies can claim deductions available to other American manufacturers, thereby reducing their tax bill in the same way individuals do. But explaining the difference between tax deductions and subsidies puts voters to sleep.

– Taxes. This issue is almost hopeless. How do you convince the masses that an already tilted tax structure isn’t progressive enough? By arguing that the wealthy can always afford to pay more. By arguing that the middle class and the poor, many of whom don’t pay any federal taxes at all, actually subsidize the rich (as Grant suggested in his letter to the editor). It’s essentially the same approach as the Big Oil lie.

– Deficit and debt reduction. This is an extension of the tax issue. President Obama’s re-election campaign claimed that not only could tax hikes on the rich pay down the budget deficit, but balance the budget and pay down the national debt (see my Sept. 16 column, “The biggest lie of Campaign 2012”). There isn’t enough wealth in this country to balance the budget, pay off the national debt and pay for all the goodies Washington has promised. But again, once you start talking about the math of unfunded liabilities, most voters stop paying attention. Which brings us to …

– Entitlement reform. This ranks as the most frustrating messaging battle. Every federal budgeting agency and every credible think tank has reported over and over that Medicare and Social Security are insolvent and on track to consume every tax dollar Washington collects. So the GOP – remember, this is the party with no ideas – urges action and actually puts forward ideas to better control those future costs without affecting current beneficiaries. And Democrats savage them. Democrats say Social Security and Medicare do not need reform. Democrats say Republicans will collapse programs that, if left unchanged, will collapse on themselves. And Americans believe them.

So how do Republicans combat these messaging woes? Especially when, as I pointed out two weeks ago, the left controls schools, colleges, the media and entertainment?

Republicans do need to be more like Democrats – but not in ideology. They need to be on the same page, communicating the same ideas. They need to make Democrats own the failures of public schools, the declining value and increasing expense of a college degree, the devastating U6 unemployment rate and the staggering joblessness and economic hopelessness of young minorities.

The GOP has been playing defense for nearly a decade.

It’s time to draw up some plays that will move the ball.

Glenn Cook (gcook@reviewjournal.com) is a Review-Journal editorial writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Glenn_CookNV. Listen to him Mondays at 4 p.m. on “Live and Local with Kevin Wall,” on KXNT News Radio, 100.5 FM, 840 AM.

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