The unforced error: originally a tennis term that found its way into baseball — and politics. Wherever it shows up, it’s painful.
Republican members of Congress kicked off 2017 with their own unforced error: an effort to change the scope and authority of the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE). While several experts have pointed out that the office is ripe for reform, the timing and manner of the move swiftly undermined GOP momentum coming off of the 2016 election.
Of course, it didn’t have to be this way. And there’s no reason to repeat the crisis. Lawmakers may have the best intentions, but an unforced error can derail even the most noble agenda.
Here’s five ways to avoid an unforced error and keep the momentum.
1. Remember your audience
In the rush of day-to-day activities, it can be challenging to remember the people not in the room. For the House GOP caucus, the audience that mattered was the public at large. The general electorate is not directly impacted by the OCE, but when the headline becomes, “House Republicans vote behind closed doors to gut ethics office,” suddenly the public has a keen interest.
By keeping all of the stakeholders in mind, including indirect stakeholders, actions gain a lot of clarity.
2. Perception is Reality
Highlighting hypocrisy is one of the easiest tools in the journalist’s toolbox. We are wired not to trust politicians, so it’s low hanging fruit for a reporter to turn in a story that “so-and-so said X, but then did Y.” After incoming President Trump’s pledge to “drain the swamp,” attacking a watchdog organization created the perception of hypocrisy.
Perceptions are often driven by expectations. This phenomenon is called “confirmation bias,” which just means that when we hear something bad about someone we trust, we are more likely to dismiss or justify it. Conversely, when we hear even slightly unflattering news about someone we don’t trust, it reinforces our negative view.
Congress operates from a position of negative trust, regardless of which party is in the majority. This creates a hill to climb just to break even on the trust factor. Therefore, managing the perception outcomes of a policy agenda are just as important as managing the legislative outcomes.
3. Be Consistent
Any athlete will tell you that the first step to not making errors is to be consistent. Likewise, elected officials can avoid situations like the House GOP found themselves in by being philosophically consistent.
According to media reports (more on that in a moment), Speaker Ryan and Majority Leader McCarthy opposed the measure, brought up by Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia. Perhaps it was the optics that concerned them, but more likely they saw the danger the measure presented to the opportunity before them — the permission of the American people to enact conservative reforms and remove the regulatory burdens imposed by the Obama administration.
4. Develop Trust
Speaking of confirmation bias, the shortest path to get on the positive side of someone’s bias is to build trust with them (going back to #1). While this can be a monstrous challenge for an institution like Congress, or a state legislature, it is less so for an individual elected official. As we’ve often seen in studies, voters are quick to condemn “Congress” as an impersonal entity, but generally approve of their own representative.
Proactive, strategic, authentic communications from individual elected officials has the dual benefit of not only building more trust between them and their districts, but also to build trust for the majority’s agenda.
As John Hart points out at Opportunity Lives, there very well may be a case for reforming the OCE, as there is (hopefully) a strong case for any serious policy agenda. But the timing and manner of this action created terrible optics that obliterate the case.
Building a case over time for the need to reform the ethics office, as well as specific solutions – and communicating that case via individual members – would have created trust, momentum and effective outcomes.
5. Play Offense
Perhaps what was most crippling about the ethics fiasco (which Hart points to as evidence that Congress is less “House of Cards” and more a House of Chaos), was that it put House Republicans in a defensive posture. With all of the momentum of 2016 at their backs and an incoming unified Republican government, the ethics fiasco was the equivalent of a hockey player knocking the puck into their own goal.
It’s a lot harder to make that kind of error when you are on your opponent’s side of the ice. Too often as conservatives we focus on stopping the Left’s unchecked, irrational thirst for more and more government. When we do that, we forget that we hold the solutions to better jobs, less poverty and more fulfilling lives. Conservative solutions are ones that truly create equality, opportunity and prosperity.
When we go on offense to present limited government not as the absence of spending, but the creation of solutions, we not only decrease the chance of making an error but also increase the chance we score points.
Run Up The Score
Poll after poll shows that the American people support conservative ideas. But too often we let liberals fool us into thinking that we’re the underdogs. Enough of that. It’s time to run up the score. To put the public interest first, be proactive, build trust, be consistent and play offense.
This is the digital era. Yes, the media can still sway public opinion. But more and more, brands and leaders can build their own media channels and reach audiences directly. Go direct, tell your side of the story and advance solutions that get government out of the way so more people can achieve the American Dream.