Sorting Things Out

Thursday, October 17th has been officially declared the day the U.S. Government “runs out of money to pay its bills.” As the heat under the issue continues toward a rolling boil, the volume of political messages — in quantity and loudness — grows daily. But like jalapeño peppers in a pot of chili, more isn’t always better.

Students of communication during such epic political battles have the luxury of analyzing the fight while it’s still going on. We get to take a close look at who’s saying what and how the messages are evolving; consider what messages could have been sent but weren’t that might have affected the ultimate outcome or longer term strategy, and identify message opportunities completely missed. It’s like a military historian getting to observe Yorktown, or Gettysburg or the Battle of the Bulge while the bullets were still flying.

The list of combatants keeps growing. You almost need a program to identify all the players. You have House Republicans versus the White House, and House Republicans versus Senate Democrats. It’s the House Democrats versus Senate Republicans; and House Republicans versus House Democrats. It’s some House Republicans versus Senate Republicans. It’s a few Senate Republicans versus other Senate Republicans and all the Senate Democrats. And it’s the White House versus a few Senate Republicans, but pretty much leaving the rest of the Senate Republicans alone. And it’s a few Senate Democrats trying to act like they were somewhere else. Then you have corporate financial and business interests sending messages to House and Senate Republicans, and getting messages from the White House. You have conservative ideological interests sending messages to House Republicans and a few Republican Senators.

Got all that?

In a free-for-all like this, it would be tough to decide who’s winning the message battle. About the best you can do is check to see how any of the messaging might have changed since the fight broke out, and pretty clearly, it has. Some of this reflects changing ground and changing circumstances.

The White House is now a bit more open to discussions with Republicans over some elements of Obamacare. The argument is over when discussions occur.

House Republicans have backed way off their earlier demands that the White House defund, then delay, then delay parts of, then modify Obamacare.

More of the ‘Old Guard’ Senate Republicans want the whole thing over. They’re looking at public opinion, which blames Republicans in Congress more for the stalemate than Democrats. They’re afraid the fight will only hurt their chances for a majority in both Houses of Congress anytime in the foreseeable future.

The Republican’s financial and big business supporters are telling their political friends that threatening the full faith and credit of the United States is bad for business.

The ideological folks are yelling, “No Surrender!” They want House Republicans to continue the stand-off; some are unconvinced that refusing to raise the debt limit will have any effect on the country’s credit rating.

Senator Ted Cruz of Texas apparently thinks he’s winning the battle.

Missed message opportunities? Might have been nice for some authoritative, credible source to translate all the Hill babble — CRs; conferencing; Regular Order — into English and explain to the public what exactly is going on here.

And the White House could have had Health & Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius explain how in the world all the Obamacare computer screw-ups happened, what’s being done to to fix them and who will be held accountable. If they did this while the public’s attention is focused on the government shut down and debt limit fight, it wouldn’t be looming as yet another contentious issue as soon as this one’s over.

The battle continues.

By Dave Helfert



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2 responses to “Sorting Things Out

  1. Susan Allen

    Dear David: Thanks for this rundown of the political complications involved in the shutdown and now the authorization to raise the debt limit. We had a panel on Wednesday with a representative from each party. They did not see this conflict as created or sustained by communication problems between Congressional members and the President. Each side understands the messages being sent perfectly. The real problem is that the political leaders are NOT listening to the voters who have overwhelmingly stated they want this shut-down to stop. Ordinary people since irrelevant to the power struggle going on. Any ideas on how we can make our voices heard on the Hill? Best, Susan

    • Hi Susan–
      You asked an important question about the prospects of ordinary citizens’ voices being heard on Capitol Hill. I waited until after the House and Senate votes on ending the government shutdown to respond. Sadly, my conclusion is that unless you happen to live in one of the bright red congressional districts that elects people who campaign to lead a government they detest, the chances of your voice being heard by your elected representatives are minimal.

      As you state, it isn’t a problem of either side not understanding the opposition’s messages. They’re just more focused on conveying their own messages to supporters. Clearly, they aren’t listening to all the voters; only their own.

      It’s bemusing to hear accusations that anyone who voted to end the shutdown wasn’t listening to “the American people.” Earlier this year, following the Newtown, CT murder of schoolchildren, between 88 and 92% of the nation, including a majority of Republicans and NRA members, favored expanding background checks on gun purchases. Yet, that overwhelming sentiment of the American people was roundly and soundly ignored by congress.

      I don’t hold out much hope that these great “listeners” are likely to pay much more attention to the American people next time.

      Dave Helfert

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