April 29, 2002

Polling and democracy…

The Cato Institute will hold a public forum tomorrow at noon (EDT) on the topic “Does Polling Hurt Democracy”? The promotional blurb for the program states:

“Polling of public opinion has come to dominate our political life. Presidents and members of Congress consult their pollsters just as ancient politicians queried the Oracle of Delphi. Defenders of polling say it improves our democracy by providing the views of the public to policymakers thereby controlling elites. Critics ask whether polling undermines constitutional government in favor of the “will of the people” as discerned by continual surveys.”

The speakers will be Matthew Robinson, author of “Mobocracy: How the Media

April 28, 2002

A slogan is about more than ownership or comedy…

Democrats and Republicans got into a snit last week over who owns a slogan. The Democrats unveiled “Securing America’s Future for All Our Families” as a description of their domestic agenda. The Republicans claimed ownership of the first part of the slogan, which they have used since 1999. The New York Times and the Washington Post carried stories outlining the spat this week. The Times article is a bit more thoughtful (the post played it for a chuckle) and preceded the Post article by two days. The Times observed:

“One problem with look-alike, sound-alike politics is that it is misleading. Voters who hear both parties talking about the need for a plan for energy security or the need for a prescription drug plan may wonder why nothing happens. Only if they listen to the details will they learn that profound ideological disagreements still exist about what such legislation should look like, making compromise difficult between the Republican-controlled House and Democratic-run Senate.”

The Democrats tacked “for all our families” onto the Republican slogan as a way to differentiate their agenda and, as I would argue, to suggest that Republicans may have a less inclusive audience in mind for their concept of security–a purely emotional appeal. That policy differences exist between the agendas is clear. That either slogan highlights those differences is dubious.

Politics is often about winning the battle of definitions. So this is not a silly snit. The Times article takes this situation seriously. That the Post article does not is troubling. Sloganeering moves hearts not minds. Once hearts are moved, the details are less likely to move minds. As long as they get the voters’ support, politicians are unlikely to care whether that support is based on emotion or logic.

April 27, 2002

Message control” versus controlling the information…

Speculation is now that White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett will become the new Karen Hughes. Here is the conclusion of an editorial in The New Republic that counters some of the speculation about what Hughes’ departure means:

The speechwriting shop is run by the widely admired Michael Gerson, the press office by the widely loathed but effective Ari Fleischer, and Communications Director Dan Bartlett long ago took on many of Hughes’s other responsibilities. Bartlett’s presence will likely mean that another expectation of the press corps–that the White House will be less controlling of information–is misplaced as well. Bartlett, like Hughes, is a longtime Bush loyalist, having worked for W. since 1993. As a friend who worked with Bartlett on the campaign puts it: “Dan doesn’t stray. He’s the ultimate soldier. He will do what he is asked and will do what he is told.” In other words, Karen Hughes may be gone, but her spirit will linger.

One of the major points of the editorial is that speculation about what Hughes’ departure means is mistaken, especially as it concerns the controlling of information. This may be. But there are two concerns here regarding information: control of what information reaches the press and “message control,” which is the crafting of consistent (policy) messages and images. I think the editorial correctly assumes that the control of information under Bartlett will likely remain tight. I would suggest, however, that without Hughes’ day-to-day participation, the crafting of consistent messages and images will become more open to internal debate.

April 26, 2002

“Homicide Bombers” revisited…

The power to define, and make it stick, is arguably the premier political power. To control the definitions of terms is to control the debate by bracketing how the audience may think about an issue. To create new terms is to create new realities. We saw an excellent example of this on 12 April 2002 when White House press secretary Ari Fleischer introduced new a term for the Palestinian men and women who are blowing themselves up in public places: homicide bombers.

The press took immediate notice of the new term, which is exactly what Fleischer and the Bush administration wanted. This is a calculated move. Press secretaries are not at liberty to make up new terms on the fly. That could cause major headaches and damaging political fallout.

As reported by Reuters:

“The president condemns this morning’s homicide bombing,” Fleischer told reporters. He called on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to “speak out and denounce today’s homicide attack. Asked why he had stopped referring to “suicide bombers,” as he has in the past, Fleischer said the new term was more accurate. “These are not suicide bombings. These are not people who just kill themselves. These are people who deliberately go to murder others, with no regard to the values of their own life,” he said. “It’s not suicide, it’s murder.”

Seems like common sense. Obviously these bombers go to public places to explode their bombs for the purpose of killing people. Isn’t this simply putting a finer point on a situation that is plainly understood as terrorism? Isn’t this simply being more “accurate.”

Not quite. While I am certainly not condoning the bombing, I wish to point out that this change in terms is not politically innocent. The Bush administration–no administration–redefines terms or creates new terms outside of political considerations. In this case, the new term helps further delegitimize the bombers. What’s wrong with that? Perhaps nothing, except that the term may also further delegitimize the larger cause of the Palestinian people, which is the establishment of an independent state. In other words, this new term might further aggravate the idea of guilt by proximity, as if all Palestinians think and act alike in regard to the violence.

Suicide bombers might be fighting for legitimate political ends (establishment of a state) by decidedly illegitimate means (the murder of civilians or non-combatants). A “homicide bomber” is simply a criminal who wishes to kill outside of political goals. While it is possible under some circumstances to condone the violence of a “freedom fighter,” this new term adds further distance between any legitimate concept or action and the abhorent actions of the homicide bombers.

April 25, 2002

“Message Discipline” is about more than content…

I found this quote from Eric Alterman’s review of Frank Bruni’s “Ambling Into History” interesting:

“The media’s all but issueless coverage of the campaign — reproduced in microcosm in Bruni’s book — could hardly have served Bush’s purposes better if it had been mapped out by senior adviser Karl Rove and dictated by White House Counselor Karen Hughes. The Bush team’s “message discipline” is, indeed, its most impressive characteristic. A close second is its ability to turn a healthy percentage of supposedly independent-minded observers, consistently accused of exhibiting unreconstructed liberal bias, into little more than ventriloquists’ dummies.”

Aside from Alterman’s consternation with Bruni’s book, this passage points out one of the dangers of covering a presidential campaign: It’s seductive. Part of the reason for this is the proximity to power or potential power. Another part of the reason is that a well-crafted campaign, or presidency, will control the message–what Karen Hughes did for Bush.

The essence of presidential power is rhetorical. It is within the message, not necessarily the content, that we find presidential power or a candidate’s appeal. Alterman’s justifiable complaint with the press is that it too often reads the message as content rather than also reading it as structure. In other words, ” message discipline” is about more than keeping the candidate straight on the issues.

April 24, 2002

Hughes’ impact…

Dana Milbank writes in the Washington Post: “[Karen Hughes] return to Texas will deprive Bush of unified control over his public image by a close and powerful confidante. Whether that leads to the unraveling of the Bush White House’s discipline can be known only after some months. But her absence will inevitably change the White House.”

Milbank’s observation that it will be some months before we know the impact of the Hughes departure is a good one. If we may take President Bush at his word, Hughes will continue to have influence over the administration’s message. Also notice how Milbank qualified the possible damage to the administration: Bush will be deprived of “unified control” by a “close and powerful confidante.” This does not mean there will no longer be control. What it means is that the nature of the control will change. It is unreasonable to assume a drastic change in message will happen any time soon.

Most of the initial response, however, has assumed that Hughes’ departure will somehow disrupt the administration’s “unified” message. Let me suggest the contrary. It is quite possible that the “message” will improve in the sense of being less controlled and open to internal debate. If we assume that debate and dialectic are routes to knowledge and truth, it may very well be that Hughes’ departure will have a positive effect on the presidential voice. As Milbank suggests, only time will tell.

April 23, 2002

Will the Environment Ever Take Center Stage?…

From a story by Dan Balz and Dana Milbank in the Washington Post: “With Bush’s overall approval rating still near 80 percent, Democrats see his handling of the environment as one area of potential weakness as they look for issues in this fall’s midterm elections. Although Democrats enjoy an advantage with the public on the environment, the issue ranks below education, the economy and health care in terms of importance to voters.”

It is difficult to imagine the environment having much impact on the mid-term elections except in local areas where there are acute problems. In a sense, the environment has always been a profoundly local issue until brought to national attention by catastrophe. I believe, however, that Al Gore has a chance to make the environment a more meaningful issue for 2004.

It is the “moral” factor that makes the environment a more interesting issue for a Gore presidential bid than in years past. Gore specifically called the environment a moral issue in his Earth Day speech. This tactic plays especially well against the administration’s Enron troubles. Plus, the Bush administration has demonstrated remarkably inept public relations in regard to environmental issues and announcements. They often appear to say one thing and do another, which can be easily spun as moral issue in itself.

Yes, the economy, education, and health care rank above the environment as important issues with voters. But Gore has always tried to sell the environment as an economic issue, too. And he did this again on Earth Day. Further, it does not take much imagination to see how one might tie education and other social issues to the environment–especially if Gore is willing to expand the notion of environment. To accomplish this, he will need to win the battle of definitions with the Republicans.