Congressional Republicans are busy desperately touting their “tax reform package.” The priorities and process that unfolded behind locked doors in the Capitol illustrated many things. But one of the most striking is the yawning chasm between the two major parties in the art of creating and disseminating political messages. In fact, in this case, Republicans declared victory even before details of the legislation were finalized, much less approved, and well before the actual language of the $20-billion tax cut was publicly discussed.
In contrast, some Democrats have been grumbling that the Republican legislation will make tax cuts for businesses and high-income earners permanent, while cuts for middle income Americans have an expiration date. And a few have mentioned that the Senate bill also does away with the Affordable Care Act mandate requiring people who can afford it to buy health insurance, which provides the financial base to cover the cost of health insurance for people who can’t afford it.
But, has there yet been an equally effective, coordinated effort to transmit a persuasive Democratic message to the public? Nope.
A lot of people have been waiting for a long time for Democrats in Congress to launch a highly effective message campaign; a political message to rally the faithful and bring undecided citizens flocking to the Democratic banner; a political message that’s fact-based, yet highly-creative; a message the public will hear, heed and remember. A lot of people are still waiting.
It’s nothing new. Congressional Republicans have been far better at creating effective political messages and getting them out to the public for most of the last 25 years. Ever since the ‘Republican Revolution,’ the GOP has been very effective at using a marketing approach: find out what the public wants and tell them that’s what you’re doing. Aim your message at the people you’re trying to win over.
Democrats, on the other hand, have occasionally used such a marketing process during campaigns. But immediately after election day, they’ve reverted to an approach employed in the 1960s television police drama Dragnet: “Just the facts, ma’am.” Give the public the numbers, the budget figures or statistics. “They’ll know what it all means.”
Republicans have been much more creative, willing to bend and stretch the truth to make their version of the story more appealing. They’ve become highly adept at framing issues with their definitions to influence how the public sees them. For example, simply adding the word ‘reform’ or ‘relief’ lends a certain nobility to a position, even if the intention is to totally gut a program.
The current “Tax Reform” package celebrates the notion of cutting taxes for corporations, large investors and individuals in the very top tier of income. According to the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation, such cuts will cause a $1.5 trillion increase in federal budget deficits over the next decade. This would make serious funding cuts for things like Medicare and Medicaid almost inevitable. It has about as much to do with tax reform as a goldfish does with golf.
This nothing new. Look closely at some of the political messaging from the last decades. Does it really make that much difference how an issue is framed? Ask yourself:
· Is the abortion issue a matter of protecting women’s reproductive rights and freedom? Or is it a fight to protect the rights of the unborn?
· Are state laws to limit the availability of employee health insurance coverage for birth control part of a Republican War on Women, or are they intended to protect the religious freedom of the employer?
· Do we have a Federal Estate Tax assessed on the wealthiest one half of one percent of all estates in the country? Or is it a Death Tax that places an onerous burden on family farms and small businesses?
· Are moves to deport 800,000 ‘Dreamers,’ who have lived most of their lives in America even though they’re not legal U.S. citizens, a matter of making America safer or simply a form of racial discrimination?
· Do EPA regulations to cut toxic emissions by coal-fired power plants address a health threat that also contributes to global warming? Or are they another example of federal overreach that kills jobs and slows economic recovery? Are these regulations part of the Democrats’ “War on Coal?”
· Are attempts to limit campaign contributions by establishing maximums and requiring more disclosure an effort to place badly needed limits on the ability of large corporations and millionaires to buy elections? Or are they attempts to restrict the Constitutional right to free speech?
How you feel about these issues and how you receive and process messages about them depends to a large degree on which political issue frame — which definition of the “problem”— you accept. Getting people to view an issue in a certain way can sometimes be as simple as attaching a label to it, and then repeating the label over and over and over:
· Tax Cuts or Tax Reform?
· Coal Mining or Energy Exploration?
· Marriage Equality or Religious Liberty?
· Global Warming or Climate Change?
· Making America Great Again or racial discrimination?
Particularly as we enter the Christmas season, when we’re offered a package that’s beautifully wrapped, it’s probably a good idea to take a second look at the label. If it’s from a bunch of guys wearing blue suits and red ties, we’d better check to see if there’s an unpaid price tag hidden in the package somewhere.