Why Republicans should watch their language

This coming week, House Republicans will gather in Williamsburg, Va., to discuss what went wrong in 2012. I’ve attended more than a dozen such congressional retreats since 1993, and I can already imagine how the conversations will go. Someone will undoubtedly come to the microphone to declare that what the GOP needs is a better brand, missing the essential point that candidates and political parties are about reputation, trust and ideas. You can’t sell them like soap or detergent.

But what you say in defense of those ideas matters, and what people hear matters even more.

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Congressional Republicans are currently defined as nothing more than opponents of the president and friends of the powerful. This isn’t my opinion — it’s America’s opinion. My polling firm asked voters nationwide on election night to identify who or what the GOP was fighting for. Twice as many said “the wealthy” and “big business” than “hardworking taxpayers” or “small business.”

Their image is even worse today. The congressional Republicans’ message during the “fiscal cliff” debate last month was confused and chaotic. The debt-ceiling vote next month and the budget debate after that promise more of the same — unless House and Senate Republicans stop bickering and start coordinating and talking differently.

Just saying “no” to the president has its limits. House Republicans, since they have a megaphone that Senate Republicans don’t , will continue to be diminished until they start defining and stop being defined.

Talk is cheap, of course, but bad language is costly. While the new GOP House majority is the second-largest since World War II, more people cast votes for Democratic House candidates than for Republican candidates. On the Senate side, the Democratic advantage was even larger. The GOP paid a price for its out-of-touch language in November and could pay again in 2014, just as it did in 2006, unless the party changes course.

Changing course starts with a values-based approach, and that means talking to Americans about accountability, personal responsibility and freedom — and linking those values to GOP policies. For example, in 1994, congressional Republican candidates developed the Contract With America to announce “a detailed agenda for national renewal, a written commitment with no fine print . . . to make us all proud again of the way free people govern themselves.”

It was a response to voters who were fed up with politicians who said one thing in their districts and then voted differently in Washington. In 2013, House Republicans need a similar tone that starts with the value of listening, not speaking. When people feel they’re heard and understood, they’ll listen.

The next step is to be more empathetic. Voters will not give you a chance to solve their problems if they think you don’t understand them, especially at a time when Americans feel no one is fighting for them. For example, among 2012 voters who wanted their president to “care about people like me,” President Obama crushed Mitt Romney 81 percent to 18 percent. In part, that’s because the president’s rhetoric is always couched in the language of fairness and justice. He asks the “wealthiest 2 percent” to “pay their fair share” — without defining what “fair share” means. He doesn’t have to; voters ascribe their own definitions.

Republicans on Capitol Hill have great thinkers and communicators with serious ideas and specific answers, from Reps. Paul Ryan and Dave Camp to Sens. Marco Rubio and Pat Toomey. The party should unleash them — now. But they need a new language to communicate their ideas effectively; it starts with abandoning ugly phrases such as “a hostage you might take a chance at shooting” to describe budget negotiations. And Republicans need to stop expressing a willingness to shut down the government if they don’t get their way on the debt ceiling. Americans don’t want a government shutdown — for any reason.

Now consider Obama’s strategy and approach. His pollsters do exactly what I do, figuring out which words resonate with voters — but they have a more willing, disciplined client. Nearly every White House speech during the fiscal cliff debate emphasized a “balanced, responsible approach” — sometimes more than once. Every time you hear phrases like that, know that a pollster crafted them because they resonate with Americans who are angry with the incessant bickering and partisan gridlock in Washington.

Never mind that the fiscal cliff legislation Obama just signed has more than $40 in tax increases for every $1 in cuts or that Social Security and Medicare are hurtling toward insolvency. And it doesn’t matter that the president says he will not negotiate over the debt ceiling; thanks to his effective messaging, it is Republicans who are being blamed for intransigence.

Republicans have done little to combat the Democratic charge that they care more about chief executives in corner offices than struggling workers in factories. While Congress debated and delayed, Obama took his case to the American people. He used campaign-style rallies to extol the fairness of raising taxes on the rich and attacked Republicans for blocking progress. Voters liked what they heard — and that’s why Obama has an overwhelming 58 percent to 32 percent advantage over congressional Republicans in polls when it comes to “protecting the middle class.”

In response, Republicans such as John McCain took to the Senate floor to criticize the president for grandstanding when he should have been governing. McCain was right: What Obama did wasn’t presidential or constructive — but it was effective. Republicans need to stop decrying the lack of decorum and listen to voters, rather than lecturing them. And then the first sentence out of their mouths should express respect for the American people, not disdain for the president they just reelected.

Another way for congressional Republicans to gain an advantage is to reframe the questions being asked, because whoever controls the question determines the answer. Since his first election, Obama has been asking America, “Should the rich pay more?” Thanks to public disdain for lobbyists and tax loopholes available only to the wealthy, election exit polls put support for this notion at 60 percent. But change the question to “Should Washington take more?,” and the answer is a resounding no.

That’s the question Republicans need to ask, along with: Is Washington spending your hard-earned money efficiently and effectively? Are we in this mess because Washington takes too little of your money or because it wastes too much?

But language can’t just pose powerful questions; it must also paint commanding pictures. House Republicans talk about how Congress shouldn’t “kick the can down the road” — hardly an urgent image. Similarly, they must stop accusing their opponents of “committing fiscal child abuse,” a phrase several Republicans have used. That visual is insulting to everyone. A more powerful metaphor would be “piling debt on our children” or “mortgaging the American dream.”

House Republicans also need to humanize the issues they care about. Making a political argument about the size of the national debt connects intellectually, but invoking the personal responsibility of parents connects emotionally. The presidents who communicated in emotional terms — JFK, Reagan, Clinton and Obama — have been able to move public opinion to get what they wanted, while those who took a more intellectual approach — Carter and George H.W. Bush — were defeated by public opinion.

Instead of being the party of small businesses and job creators, House Republicans should become the party of hardworking taxpayers. After all, a small percentage of Americans think of themselves as job creators, but every American considers him or herself a hardworking taxpayer. It’s an even more powerful identity than the “middle class” the Democrats speak of so often. If the choice is between the party that fights for hardworking taxpayers and the party that fights for the middle class, Republicans win.

Conservatism thrives only when it’s infused with optimism — when it’s about what people can do when they’re in control. That was the secret of Ronald Reagan’s success. Republicans need to be more than just the party of people “who built it” — they should be the party of people who want to build it even better. Speak to voters’ aspirations, not just their pocketbooks, and emphasize how GOP solutions help the want-to-haves, not just the already-haves. That’s personal responsibility in action.

For example, when Republicans speak disdainfully about becoming a “food stamp nation,” it reinforces voters’ suspicions that they are callous. Instead, they should offer a positive message about how hard work, personal responsibility and earned success are better than government dependency. And instead of talking about “upward mobility,” Republicans should summarize the American dream concisely: “If you work hard and play by the rules, you should be able to get ahead.” Obama stole that line from them. It’s time to steal it back.

The unforced GOP language errors are many. Here’s a start:

●Instead of smaller government, they should talk about more efficient and effective government. The former is ideological language of the 1980s; the latter is practical language of today.

●Instead of tax reform, talk about making the IRS code simpler, flatter and fairer. Speak to what people really hate about the code: its complexity.

●In addition to cutting spending, they must talk about controlling — not capping — it. What angers Americans more than how much politicians spend today is how much more they know Washington will waste tomorrow. A “cap” can be lifted, but “controls” are constant.

●Instead of entitlement reform or controlling the growth of Medicare and Social Security, talk about how to save and strengthen these programs so they are there when voters need them. After all, they paid for them.

●Better than discussing economic opportunity and growth, Republicans should talk about creating a healthier and more secure economy. Everyone benefits when economic health is restored. And while economic opportunity would be nice, security is a necessity.

Beyond fiscal policy, Republicans need to revamp their messaging on other issues. For example, the tragic school shooting in Newtown, Conn., offered Republicans a chance to discuss public safety — a more personal issue than “crime” — on a human level. That hasn’t happened, but it still can. Most people agree that there is a middle ground between gun-control hard-liners, who see every crime as an excuse to enact new laws, and the National Rifle Association, which sees every crime as an excuse to sell more guns. The Second Amendment deserves defending, but do Republicans truly believe that anyone should be able to buy any gun, anywhere, at any time? If yes, they’re on the side of less than 10 percent of America. If not, they need to say so.

Immigration is a similar example. There’s a good reason Romney did worse among Hispanics than any GOP presidential candidate since 1996. You can’t tell people to “self-deport.” While he was talking about illegal immigrants, who can’t cast ballots, many Hispanic Americans — who are voting in growing numbers — were certainly turned off by that comment. The immigration debate is about rule of law, but those laws should be enforced with compassion. The consensus among Americans is for “tall fences and wide gates” — a greater effort to prevent illegal immigration while welcoming those who come here for the right reasons and in the right way.

Most Hispanics agree. They’re not asking for open borders or blanket amnesty. They just don’t want to be regarded as criminals. And because of oft-repeated phrases such as “illegal aliens,” Hispanic voters don’t think Republicans like, welcome or respect them. So how can they vote Republican? Immigration reform that brings people out of the shadows is the last, best opportunity for the party to reset its broken relationship with Hispanics.

Congressional Republicans must reintroduce themselves to the American people. It’s up to them to prove that personal responsibility is better than government dependency and that setting priorities is more compassionate than bailouts or bankruptcy. America is listening — and they want a Republican Party that listens to them, too.

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