The message gets lost

Through most of 2004, it seemed Republicans, led by the White House, had perfectly tuned their message and were delivering it with precision day after day. A funny thing happened on the way to single-party rule. The message machine has come off the tracks.

Through most of 2004, it seemed Republicans, led by the White House, had perfectly tuned their message and were delivering it with precision day after day.

A funny thing happened on the way to single-party rule. The message machine has come off the tracks.

President Bush and his 60-day Social Security tour has failed to resonate with any audience but the already committed. Polling on this issue for decades has shown that you must convince America that current and soon-to-be beneficiaries will not see a reduction in benefits. The president keeps saying those words, but people are not buying them.

It is the messages of Bush’s opponents that seem to be resonating with voters young and old. AARP is spending millions of dollars in advertising saying that Bush will destroy the system in his attempts to save it. While I have some serious questions about the execution of their campaign (especially the over-the-top television commercial of a wrecking crew dismantling a house with a clogged drain), it is clear that people agree with them more than with the president.

In the late 1990s, my firm did some work with a think tank exploring private accounts. We found that, especially among those under 40 years of age, there was a great deal of support for such a move as long as older workers were protected against a loss of benefits. The great bubble burst of the stock market seems to have swung the pendulum away from that idea. Bush can’t get traction on the fact that there is a crisis coming, let alone that private accounts are part of the solution. The message is not resonating, and as MoveOn, Rock the Vote and others increasingly join the AARP chorus, I think it will be even harder for the president to win this argument.

And what of the “values” message the Republican Party seemed to own the past few years? House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) is doing his best to muddy that one. It is not as though someone in his position has never had ethics issues before, but it is clear that he’s learned nothing from the stubborn refusals of powerful politicians of the past to acknowledge they were wrong, even if what they did was not.

To force a high-profile battle that freezes the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct in its tracks goes even beyond the stubbornness of former Speaker Jim Wright or former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. DeLay has succeeded in making support of his leadership a litmus test for Republican Party membership. That sends a message completely at odds with the plainspoken honesty the president managed to convey in the last election. It is only a matter of time before Democrats find their voice, Republicans find their backbone and DeLay finds himself on the outside looking in.

But, for the time being, DeLay is raising his profile and increasing attention on the messiest message coming from the Republican right just now. Last Friday, a group of conservative leaders convened a meeting in Washington to discuss “Remedies to Judicial Tyranny.” Suddenly, Phyllis Schlafly, who has been largely invisible to mainstream America for a decade, was calling for the impeachment of Justice Anthony Kennedy.

The justice, an appointee of President Ronald Reagan, has generally been considered a reasonable, accomplished jurist with mainstream values. Not any longer. One speaker accused him of upholding “Marxist, Leninist, satanic principles.” Another called him “the poster boy for impeachment.”

This recent eruption from the religious right was ignited by the Terri Schiavo case, which, as noted here last week, is dangerous territory for government to play in. DeLay threatened that the judges who declined to act in that case would “answer for their behavior.”

Americans grew up believing the balance of powers would protect us from an autocratic president, a corrupt legislature or an overly zealous judiciary. The message from those gathered in Washington was that a few religious conservatives knew better what was good for Americans than the Founding Fathers did. “The Constitution is not what the Supreme Court says it is,” proclaimed Schlafly.

The mixed and muddled messages coming from the Republican Party offer Democrats an opportunity. A party leader could strike a responsive chord charging that Republicans want to take away grandma’s Social Security, make life-or-death decisions for families and tell judges how to interpret the Constitution. Those are not the values America voted for in the last election.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants GC Strategic Advocacy. E-mail: bgoddard@thehill.com

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