Who listens to whom

Congress is back on Capitol Hill, and we’re hearing some subtle differences in its rhetoric. As always, what members heard back home might not match up with what they hear inside the Beltway echo chamber. Here, messaging is largely driven by talking heads — those who host and appear on the Sunday shows and those who propagate the cable networks. Out there, in the real world, people don’t pay a lot of attention to TV chatter. The Nielsen numbers tell the story. The most popular of the Sunday talk shows rate a solid 3+ in D.C. But in Denver or Detroit or Dallas, they are lucky to pull a 1.5. 

Out in the real world most political and policy discussions happen at the breakfast table or in the carpool or around the water cooler. Most Americans don’t hang on the words of politicians, reporters and pundits who crowd onto studio sets every Sunday to explain what voters are thinking and what they are going to do come the next election. As an editor here in D.C. told me recently — “the people we talk about aren’t listening to us.” 

Still, those shows persist — and they are powerful. My clients, and dozens of others, scramble to get their 30-second commercials on these programs. Why? Two reasons. First, the eyeballs of those who decide the taxes my clients pay and the regulations they must follow are watching. Second, because the content of those programs sets the political agenda. 

There is a message loop in this town and it usually begins in the media. Newspapers, television, blogs and websites say something is important — politicians then hold forth on these “important” issues — opinion leaders listen and repeat the various political opinions — the media reports on what politicians are saying and people (read: opinion leaders) are thinking — thus what is important. And it goes round and round. Having your advocacy message imbedded in that loop is important. Even though everyone knows it is advertising, it makes an impact. A good message will actually be swept up in the loop and become part of the conversation. 

That’s how it works here in the nation’s capital. Out in the real America — not so much. Which is why the nuanced language and the actions of those on Capitol Hill often changes after a congressional break. We’re certainly seeing that happen this week. The same politicians who bravely faced the cameras and proclaimed their willingness to shut down the government if Democrats and the president didn’t accede to their budget-cutting demands have become quite statesmanlike. They now acknowledge that “we can’t shut down the government” and are cooperating to produce a compromise continuing resolution to keep the infrastructure operating for at least a couple of weeks. 

Could it be that they got a different message than the harsh budget-slashing that dominated the discussion inside the Beltway a few weeks ago? That’s a pretty good bet. Most Americans do want the budget deficit cut — although they don’t think that is as important to their future as growing the economy and creating new jobs. 

From the polls I’ve seen and the voters I’ve listened to, shrinking the size of government and cutting the deficit are priorities for nearly three-quarters of Americans. However, as has been the case for decades, they don’t want their taxes raised or programs like Medicare, Social Security and education cut to achieve that goal. Most believe that eliminating government waste and slashing foreign aid will do the job. Increasingly, they are also willing to cut military spending — especially the money going to keep American troops in Asia and the Middle East. 

Most Americans blame Republicans and Democrats equally for our bloated budget. They want some cooperation to fix the mess. Nearly two-thirds told the Gallup poll that Washington should come up with a compromise budget plan. Only a third want politicians to draw a line in the sand and hold out for a budget plan that fits their ideology. That might be enough to win a Republican primary, but it isn’t a mandate for governing.

So all that stand-by-my-principles posturing might make for messages that shore up a politician’s base or get a face on the Sunday talk shows — but it just doesn’t wash in the real world. Americans know our problems are too important to be settled by sound bites. They want responsible solutions and they’ll support those who have them.

Goddard is a founding partner of 
political consultants Goddard Claussen.
E-mail: ben@gcpublicaffairs.com