The Best Policy

The Message Trap

Voters’ little secret: We like a do-nothing Congress.

Everyone agrees: The Republicans were beaten by a lack of message.

Bill Clinton pointed it out right after the election. He told his staff, according to the New York Times, that “the election’s message was that people wanted elected officials to address pocketbook issues like Social Security, health care, education and the minimum wage.” Newt Gingrich couldn’t have agreed more. “I think we probably underestimated the need to really aggressively push a much stronger message about cutting taxes and saving Social Security, winning the war on drugs, reforming education and national defense,” said the speaker the day before he realized that that underestimate would cost him his job.

By the weekend, liberal pundits and conservative pols were joined in messageful chorus. “Republicans misread the meaning of their 1994 victory. …Voters want government to solve problems in education, the environment, child care and health care,” counseled liberal columnist E.J. Dionne. “What we need to do under my speakership,” said speaker apparent Bob Livingston, “is not only articulate the message but to provide the legislative machinery that it takes to back it up.” Aspiring House Majority Leader Steve Largent, chimed in, “I think the first thing that we have to do is develop an agenda that can unify our party. … We have to have Republican solutions in education, HMO reform, Social Security, get back to limited government, lower taxes and strong defense.”

Oh really?

Where, may I ask, is the evidence that the public is hot for a party that promises activist solutions to problems that confront it and its progeny? Surely not from Election Day exit polls. The New York Times, for example, queried voters about the one issue that “mattered most” in deciding which House candidate to vote for. “Education,” said an underwhelming 25 percent of voters. And even at that, how many of those voters really had education foremost in their frontal lobes? Remember that, in key elections, “education” was the trade name for a firm of less reputable pursuit. Democratic candidates in the South who actively supported legalized gambling measures (with the state’s share of the take earmarked for education) scored unexpected victories over anti-gambling GOP opponents. Voters who opposed the lottery and video poker interests told pollsters forthrightly that they were “against gambling.” Voters who favored legalizing gambling said they were “for education.”

Trailing behind education in the exit polls were issues such as “morals and ethics” (19 percent), “the economy and jobs” (14 percent), Social Security (11 percent), and taxes (8 percent). As for “health care,” the occasion of much bipartisan huffing and puffing about the need to save citizens from the ravages of HMOs, it commanded the top interest of a mere 7 percent of voters. That was scarcely more than the 5 percent who dared the pollsters’ scorn by admitting outright that “the Clinton-Lewinsky matter” concerned them most. In fact, if you add the coded “morals and ethics” vote to the Clinton-Lewinsky category, it virtually ties for first place among concerns.

What the GOP would do well to keep in mind is that, at least in times of peace and prosperity, most times the American public doesn’t want the federal government to bother it. People expect the government to keep the Social Security checks and highway money coming and run the courts and stuff like that. But sweeping reforms–even when they really would be prudent for the future–make the electorate uncomfortable. Take “saving Medicare,” for example, a goal that pols from both parties like to pop into the same sentence with “curbing HMOs.” There’s no way to make Medicare solvent for the long term except by raising taxes to pay for it or by letting HMOs and their ilk limit some people’s access to some kinds of care. Pick your poison or, more wisely, shut your mouth.

Of course that doesn’t mean that Republicans should go back to talking about Monica or even about that “social agenda” that makes so many voters uneasy. After all, American voters do like their politicians to flatter them by pretending that they are truly concerned about important things like making kids smarter and safer and healthier. The GOP should take a page out of Bill Clinton’s playbook and promise the public 100,000 new teachers or cops or drug enforcement agents or whatever. Never mind that the money will only pay for a fraction of that (and that by the time it’s spread by formula to every school or precinct, it might not fully support a single hire). Or call for another tax break to subsidize the cost of schools or day-care centers or hiring the disadvantaged or whatever. Sure, most of the subsidy will end up paying for things that would happen anyway, but people like the idea of tax breaks and nobody ever bothers to check on who got to pocket the lost revenue.

Next time, GOP, recruit some more attractive candidates who don’t scare the voters with their moralistic fervor. But meanwhile, don’t weigh yourself down with some heavy-breathing message that ends up forcing a debate in which a lot of painful choices will inevitably be laid bare. That was your strategy last January, when you deliberately scheduled only 89 days for voting business this year with precisely that sort of inaction in mind. And according to the polls, Congress has never been more popular than it was just a few months ago when what it was doing was nothing much.