As much as any nation, Israel is deeply appreciative of its friendship with the United States and of the exceptionalism – the profound sense of manifest destiny – that distinguished America for much of the 20th century. It was, perhaps, the greatest bastion of what is right and good, and was instrumental in defeating the great tyrannies that threatened the world in general, and the Jewish people – and later Israel – in particular. Yes, we have much to be grateful for.
Sadly, though, something has changed at the White House and the State Department, the main focal points of the US foreign policy that have traditionally been a beacon of light for America’s friends around the world. In recent years, it seems, the light has been dimmed –almost switched off entirely – and replaced, at times, with tongues of fire directed by the US administration to confused US allies. Today, good men and women across the globe – those who have always seen the US as a source of justice – have been left bemused as the one-time leader of the free world appears to be deliberately abandoning its exceptionalism.
In the face of the Obama administration and what I have termed its “Whirlfall foreign policy”, any scholar identifying with the realist school of international relations is wondering when good sense will again prevail in Washington. All those around the world who have faith in the United States as an exceptional force for good are hoping for the Republicans to return.
Domestically, Obama’s America is not going well either. It is more divided and poorer than ever. The November 2014 mid-term elections are therefore of prime importance for the US conservatives to counter-balance what they describe as a dictatorial-style presidency, to use columnist Charles Krauthammer’s terminology, while Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz refers to an “imperial presidency”. For the GOP, the current administration’s style is antithetical to the intrinsic values of democracy, US exceptionalism and separation of powers. It challenges the cornerstone of what America represents.
Both at home and overseas, therefore, eyes are turned expectantly towards the GOP in the hope that it will rally in the November 2014 elections and in the presidential vote that will follow only two short years later.
To succeed, though, conservatives would need to muster all their forces to boost voter turnout and their control of Congress and of state houses across the country. It’s a simple equation: the stronger the Republicans are, the less President Obama will be able to believe his comment that, as president, “I can do whatever I want”. Tongue in cheek it might have been, but many a true word is said in jest.
Unfortunately, the GOP is behind schedule, lagging behind the Democrats in terms of its image perception by the public. The vital tool of political communication, the media platform for the Republicans to offer their domestic and international alternative vision to the American people, has been neglected. And for people of goodwill wherever they are – those of us around the world who dream of an America that is strong and exceptional once more – this Republican failure is alarming. What is going on?
To better analyze this communication gap of the GOP with the public, we need to return to the Republicans’ inauspicious situation in 2008: Middle-East quagmires and tumbling political support for President Bush led to their defeat in the 2006 mid-term elections. The 2007-8 financial crisis accentuated this unpopularity, a trend that worsened with the President’s failure to explain his policies effectively and with his disdain for opinion polls. This cavalier disregard for political communication was a central factor in George Bush’s plunge from a 2001 popularity peak to one of the lowest rating level in history.
Given such an antagonistic climate for the Republicans and with the American people clamoring for change, the GOP’s 2008 presidential slate was ill-suited to the challenge. John McCain and Sarah Palin may have the finest qualities but the image they projected to the voters was of an old-fashioned, militaristic and wild tempered-team. No matter the script or the candidates’ values, the mix of an Arizona veteran and of a conservative mom from Alaska was seen as more of the same – the diametric opposite of what voters were seeking.
The Democrats, meanwhile, performed admirably with a young, sympathetic candidate, a brilliant orator – a kind of Hollywood blend between Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington. Assisted by Joe Biden, they identified themselves with iconic figures such as Martin Luther King, JFK and even the Clintons… When it came to their communications strategy, though, it seems as if they took a leaf from the GOP’s book: With their message of “we can!”, it was as if it was they who were telling voters that it was “Morning Again in America.”
Thus, the Democrat ticket projected an image of a peaceful and prosper 90’s, with a dash of Kennedy’s passionate optimism. Moreover, the Democrat team from Chicago and Delaware represented a balanced, mature and wealthy north-east, contrasting with the GOP’s conservative, nervous and inflexible TX-AZ-AK axis. Supported by psychologists and communications experts, the Democrats offered the voters exactly what they thought they wanted: future-oriented, open mindedness, enthusiasm, hope. In America and the world beyond, masses flocked to Obamamania, worshipping a smiling mask of tolerance and unity.
Spending on analyses of public images, voter perceptions and political marketing is a fundamental element of democratic elections everywhere and all the more so in the United States. The recent decision of the GOP to invest in social media communication is a positive step, but its implementation requires careful handling; a single ill-conceived tweet can destroy months of work by the entire party… But the issue goes beyond simply social media: The success of a movie does not depend only on MGM or 20th Century Fox technical abilities, but also on a well-prepared script and the right actors to win the public over.
With this in mind, the GOP should immediately adopt three agenda items as it charts its course back to the White House.
First, the GOP has consistently broadcast chaos instead of unity. The divisions must end, especially between the Tea-Party and the party’s other, mainstream, wings. Unity is critical. Internal debates are healthy, but the disagreements should get us somewhere – not to an implosion beneficial to the rivals. In baseball terms, the Democrats already have rising stars, such as Hilary Clinton as a potential candidate for 2016. On the Republican side, though, the picture is of assorted relief pitchers still competing for the role of closer. You can’t win the game if you don’t pull together.
Thus, second, a coherent crop of candidates must be identified with an eye to 2016. Which player can best unite the Republicans’ ranks and the American people? Mrs. Bachmann? Messrs. Gingrich, Jindal, Paul, Romney, Rubio, Santorum, or Scott? Who should be eliminated from this list? Who is missing? Which pairs would be potential winners? Who could repair the communication bridge with the Americans as the Great Communicator Ronald Reagan did in the 80s? Who is strong enough to lead the battle – not only against the opposition, but for a clearly articulated Republican alternative?
Third, therefore, the Republican message needs to be sharpened with a fresh and mature platform of domestic and foreign policy. On one hand, it should reveal the true face of the Democrats, who have misled the American people behind a seductive mask. President Obama is not Mother Theresa. Whatever good intentions he and his fellow Democrats purport to implement to unite the nation, in reality they have generated a divide of mistrust among the American people. Obama’s policy-making approach is based on threats, unilateral decrees, vetoes, political extortion, manipulations and other dubious forms of pressure: The IRS’s targeting of conservative groups or the desire to assign “commissars” in newsrooms are but worrying examples. Further, on the internationally, the Obama/Clinton/Kerry foreign policy of bowing to foes, punishing friends, and abandoning American exceptionalism broadcasts weakness, undermines America’s credibility and deterrence and, in the end, jeopardizes the United States’ security perimeters.
In addition to enlightening the American public about the bait-and-switch tactics of the current administration, a plan of action should be prepared, including the road to economic recovery. Statistical data showing an economic improvement conceal a bleaker reality of pessimism, tax increase, low investments, inflation and high unemployment. It is crucial to bring prosperity back to America – and it is politically crucial to convince voters that the Republicans have a clear and effective plan to do so.
Political communication is not an end in itself, but it is an essential tool of democratic electioneering. Along with debating which political, economic and international strategies can best put America back on its feet in the 21st century, the GOP must give priority to putting its own house in order – by unifying behind its strongest policies and its strongest candidates. Working on the image of the GOP candidates and designing political communications that reflect the rules of social psychology are not contradictory with values, truth and love of a nation.
Far away from Washington, America’s friends are despairing – and its enemies gloating. Perhaps driven to actually earn the Nobel Peace Prize the President was awarded just after taking office, Obama and his team have been burying their heads in the sand, preferring an illusory “peace” to the chaos and the hostility that is erupting all over. “Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail” said President Obama at his West Point commencement address, in reference to the psychologist Abraham Maslow, a dreamer in the world of psychology.
True enough. But that still leaves some problems that actually are nails – which need to be fixed with the instrument designed for the purpose. Regrettably, though, the President’s increasingly apparent desire to avoid using this tool, at almost any cost, brings to mind Winston Churchill’s condemnation of the 1938 Munich Agreement which he denounced as “a disaster of the first magnitude, a defeat without a war, the consequences of which will travel far with us along our road”.
A pragmatic, visionary Republican campaign that confronts difficult realities whether at home or overseas is the free world’s best hope. From out here, beyond America’s border, the great wide world is still waiting for a signal that the GOP has heard us and that it understands. It is vital for America and for freedom everywhere that it does.