Thursday, February 24, 2005

GOP's Permanent Campaign

The "permanent campaign" in American politics is often misunderstood. Many believe it's simply the politician's never-ending quest for reelection. It's true that elected officials begin their next campaign the morning after the last election, but that's not new.

What is a relatively new development is the use of campaign tactics in governing. The permanent campaign, in this sense, didn't happen overnight - Teddy Roosevelt's bully pulpit is an early manifestation of the notion that you have to use public relations techniques to effectively govern; from there, it was a short step to press conferences (beginning in the Wilson administration), the use of polling (first seriously employed in by FDR), and an organized communication effort in the White House (the Office of Communications, created in the Nixon Administration). Parties and individual members of Congress, as well as interest groups, quickly followed the White House's lead.

But the permanent campaign took a huge leap forward in the Clinton years. Remember the ad blitz put on by the insurance industry that sunk the Clinton health care initiative? And then Clinton responded in kind with ads (paid for by the DNC) in the summer of 1995 that portrayed Republicans as wanting to cut Medicare.

Today, the permanent campaign is being perfected on an almost daily basis. A new story in The Hill describes the House Republicans "message machine." They've created communications teams - each with its own pollster for guidance and a "war room" in the conference office - to help move the GOP agenda in eight policy areas. The teams won't craft policy, but will focus solely on message coordination.

The new structure will allow the conference, and leadership in particular, to schedule issue outreach as legislation moves to the House floor. The Retirement Security team, for example, will get increasingly active as Social Security advances within the Ways and Means Committee. The Economic Competitiveness team will be responsible for trumpeting, or downplaying, jobs numbers as they are released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The War on Terror team will coordinate constant message strategy regarding the war in Iraq and other issues relating to homeland security.
The Republican conference (their term for their caucus) will oversee coordination with lobbyists, while the
new groups help [conference chair Deborah] Pryce’s office monitor press from individual districts and... vet that information as it comes in. But the teams’ primary function will be crafting a conferencewide message as it moves quickly from one agenda item to the next.

“Just like a full-service public-relations firm, House Republicans have streamlined and mobilized our conference so that we are accessible, articulate and ahead of the game on every issue,” [conference spokeswoman Andrea] Tantaros said.

According to The Hill, this is an "unprecedented communications strategy." The empirical and normative effects of this sort of activity are still uncertain. The partisan implication, however, is crystal clear - Democrats once again find themselves losing the permanent campaign.

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