Even Great Communicators Need a Message

THE GREAT DUKE ELLINGTON offered sage advice to aspiring jazz musicians: “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” After their poor showing in the November elections, Republicans aspiring for office should heed a variant of that advice: “You won’t win a thing if you ain’t got an agenda.”

In 1994, Republicans triumphed with the “Contract with America,” a specific agenda of policy initiatives they promised to pass through the House within the first 100 days of the 104th Congress. It was an agenda that resonated with the American people, and the result was the first Republican-controlled House of Representatives since 1954. In 1996, the congressional majority let its presidential candidate set the agenda, with unimpressive results. You’d think they’d have learned.

Yet in the wake of the last election, voices chorused with the plaint that the GOP had “failed to communicate its message.” This analysis puts the cart before the horse. It buys into the Democrats’ analysis of—excuse for—Ronald Reagan’s success: “He was popular because he was a great communicator.”

No. Communication is not a substitute for substance—merely a vehicle for delivering it. Ronald Reagan was popular for the substance of what he communicated so well. The proof? In 1988 Vice President Bush, not regarded as a “great communicator,” won with the Reagan message; in 1992, having abandoned that message, he lost.

The GOP failed in 1998 not because it didn’t communicate its message, but because it had practically no message to communicate. Commentator after commentator, Republican and “objective” alike, observed that Republicans were neglecting the very issues with which they had mobilized the party’s base in 1994: tax cuts, a balanced budget amendment, a crime bill, welfare reform, and term limits.

Instead, the 105th Congress took a “don’t rock the boat” approach to legislating, and when it came time for the election campaign, party leaders were—well, off playing shuffleboard.

Tax cuts? In the last two years, Congress caved in, settling for a modest initiative in the House —which was killed by the Senate. Education? Bill Clinton wanted to spend more federal tax dollars to hire 100,000 new teachers, needed or not—and the Congress signed the check. Racial preferences? Congressional leaders remained silent—even though voters in Washington State approved a ban on state-sponsored racial bias, as Californians had done two years earlier.

On one issue after another, congressional leaders dropped balls and squandered opportunities. And without conservative leadership on policy, the Republican Party—America’s natural conservative party—was a rudderless ship.

The real message in the election returns couldn’t have been clearer. If conservatives, or the party they favor, expect to make a difference, we must offer a clear, principled agenda. With that, 1994 can be a blueprint for the future. Without it, 1998 is more likely to be the model.

And if conservatives are to have any hope of success in the 106th Congress, and in 2000, we must begin to set that agenda and shape that message NOW. That’s why, before the new Members of Congress even got their bags unpacked, Heritage had presented them with our newest policy guidebook: Agenda ’99: A New Vision for America.

Chapter by chapter, Agenda ’99 sets out clear, concise policies on the federal budget, tax reform, Social Security reform, welfare, the family, crime, education, health care, and so on. Each chapter ends with a section headed, “What to do in 1999”—specific legislative recommendations, each supported by a list of relevant Heritage studies. We also conducted an orientation session for new members in early December, to introduce them to the research and resources Heritage can offer.

But this is barely the beginning. Together with our Resource Bank members and allies advocating conservative principles, we must work tirelessly in the months ahead to help fashion a political agenda based on conservative principles. We cannot rely on the politicians to do it, for in a democracy, political action most often follows popular will. Our role must, therefore, be to do as Ronald Reagan did in the 1980s: to inform the popular will—and shape the conservative agenda for 2000 and beyond.

Dr. Feulner is President of The Heritage Foundation.