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Message Indiscipline and a Missed Opportunity for Clean Energy

on • 6 min. read

Cross posted from the Great Energy Challenge blog

What wasn’t to dislike about the spectacle of this summer’s recently concluded budget battle? There was the impending economic disaster, the Full Monty on just how dysfunctional Congress has gotten, and the outsized role given by those operating on the political fringe.

But for clean energy advocates, there was another reason to throw the remote at the TV: Pro-clean energy elected officials missed the opportunity to cut government handouts to fossil energy companies.

I’m no budget expert, but when we need to cut a lot of spending, shouldn’t we cut the really big stuff that people dislike anyway? Nothing qualifies for that category like the combined welfare check we cut each year to the oil, coal and gas industries: $52 billion a year according to the most comprehensive count to date. For those in elected office trying to scale the clean economy, shouldn’t kicking these highly profitable, mature industries off the dole have been a policy and political no-brainer?

The answer given by Democratic pollster Mike Bocian is an unqualified “yes.” (See video above.) Bocian, now with GBA Strategies, spoke at our Communicating Energy lecture series before the budget standoff hit its climax. His message was the same I heard echoed roughly a week later by top Republican pollster Neil Newhouse: Cutting government handouts to big oil companies is a political winner with practically no electoral downside.

By similarly large majorities of over 70 percent, Americans want to cut the massive government welfare check fossil energy, and they want the relatively inexpensive federal policy support for clean energy left alone. Plenty of Republicans around the country want this waste ended, and we ought to have the two political parties racing to see who can cut the most from the handouts to fossil energy.

But the plans offered by Congressional Republicans – the “Ryan Plan,” named for author Rep. Paul Ryan (WI); or the “Cut, Cap and Balance” plan from Speaker Boehner –would have done exactly the opposite. For President Obama and other clean energy advocates, this gap created an opportunity to put small government advocates in the position of defending large, unpopular forms of government waste.

However, whether you’re marketing products or policies, busy Americans want things bottom-lined. You just can’t win their attention without message discipline, simplicity, repetition, and the plain language that connects to where their attitudes are.

To win the budget fight in the court of public opinion, each side –President Obama and his staff on one side, and Speaker Boehner and his caucus on the other – should have been trying to boil this messy situation down to a bottom line, anchored by key phrase.

Speaker John Boehner and his caucus did that. They focused the debate on their issue terms, speaking in a very disciplined way about “not spending money we don’t have,” the need to “cut spending” and “not raise taxes.” As they have for decades, these short phrases fit together in a coherent policy perspective that connects with the values of a significant part of the public. What Boehner and his caucus said was clear and easy to understand. And it was repeated.

By contrast, President Obama and his aides spoke relatively little about “tax breaks for oil companies.” Instead, they spent a lot of time talking in varieties of negotiation phraseology – what was “on the table,” that they wanted a “Grand Bargain,” or that they were trying to “do something big.” These are largely meaningless phrases, except to people burning gas and phone lines shuttling between the Capitol the White House. They don’t speak to Americans in their daily lives.

Good messaging is semantic discipline. And a Lexis-Nexis search for the phrases that Obama, his White House aides, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) used, shows which side had that discipline.

From the start of May to the end of the budget standoff, there were nearly 2,335 articles with Boehner’s and Cantor’s names within five words of the phrase “spending cuts.” The White House and President Obama, with a far bigger megaphone and many more people giving quotes, saw just 179 stories using any of several variants on the phrase “tax breaks for oil companies” within five words of the terms “Obama” or “White House.”

Though this is just one of many ways to measure message discipline outcome, this metric shows the White House was out-messaged by a 13:1 ratio.

At a time when Americans are stressed about the economy and furious about how their government doesn’t work, one side has been message disciplined and the other side hasn’t – even though the undisciplined side had at its disposal a compelling way to focus and win the debate.

The president has smart people working for him, he’s a brilliant man, and I think he’s the communications talent of a half century. That’s why it’s puzzling that Obama and his team let their opponents run the messaging table on them.

But there’s no puzzling about the ramifications. Part of the budget situation solution is punted to a “super committee” — one that will provide fossil fuel lobbyists an ideal setting to get committee members to slow-walk cuts to fossil energy welfare. If they succeed, it will be because the opportunity was lost to accurately define and frame the fossil fuel lobby as the overfed welfare recipient it has long been.

For the clean energy future Americans so badly want, this summer was a missed opportunity. Let’s just hope there’s another one.