An Open Letter to the President - A Change Would Do You Good
As a conservative who supported you both in 2000 and 2004, I am most dismayed that the communication team that controlled the media in 2004, beat John Kerry and the Democrats in pretty much every exchange and seemed nothing short of pitch perfect, has lost its momentum and its ability to understand the issues. Since the election, the Democrats and the media-left are consistently winning news cycles and shaping stories, and only after the damage is done are your people able to come back and correct the record. But tardy corrections are only technical and do little to correct perceptions created by opponents with different messages. Perceptions have consequences borne out in polls. And while I know that you care little for polls, they do have their relevance. A president who asks the Congress to do something revolutionary has a much better chance of success if he has the public behind him. And a president who wants to have success in tremendously critical but difficult engagements like Iraq and the war on terror needs public support to keep the political momentum up and the effect of partisan criticism down.
But the public cannot get behind someone who cannot adequately communicate their vision and their specific progress in it. And admonitions to simply trust you don't do the trick.
Since November of 2004, your communications team has been at least two days behind the media on almost every issue, which is bad enough. But when bloggers like me with only common resources are able to catch the DPW story before you, and then it takes the Washington Post of all sources to defend the deal about two days before your Administration can find its voice, there is something fatally wrong with your communication staff's ability to articulate policy and respond to criticism in order to keep you viable.
I have heard various theories advanced as to what is going on, from exhaustion to hunkering down on Iraq, to groupthink, but whatever it is, it is destructive. And in any successful organization, if something is wrong, we either fix it or remove it. It's not worth the loss of the good whole just to preserve the bad part that isn't functioning. That's poor management.
And there's a reason that they are the White House communications team. They represent the Chief Executive, and in that position, they have to be better than everyone else and a least half a day ahead of every issue. That's not an easy job for anyone, but neither is it an impossible one and certainly not for the people whom you have had on your team. Ari Fleischer was the best you ever had, and his loss was noticed. And look at the result.
The left has done an excellent job of casting Iraq as a civil war waiting to happen, a quagmire, a waste of lives and resources, a boondoggle to avenge your father's failure to prosecute it to an end. They even have people believing that terrorists, who want to murder us all, whom the Geneva Conventions do not protect, deserve more than the white glove service we give them. They make stories out of heroic acts of our soldiers. Not laudatory stories, but rather accusing them of murder. They are also very effective in their effort to paint the Katrina disaster as your failure, generally giving the nonchalant incompetence of Ray Nagin and the turf-guarding cluelessness of Kathleen Blanco a pass. They have also done a great job of dividing you from your base on the aforementioned DPW deal. And just to be clear, good communication would have prevented, or at the very least minimized this very disingenuous spinning of the issues.
So here are a few warnings and suggestions. Nobody beside you has put the Republicans in better position nationally since Ronald Reagan in 1980. Nobody. But you stand a chance at scoring a significant loss in this year's midterm election if your popularity is still suffering. So the entire conservative movement goes with you.
Now the remedy: First, clean out the communications team. Fire, reassign, demote, whatever. While you are known to be loyal to a fault, loyalty sometimes ignores reality. Remove the people who aren't getting the job done. And whatever the heck Karen Hughes is doing at State is a waste of her talent. Bring her back to the White House. And as far as communications directors, call Ari back, or someone with his skills. Call in anyone who can stay ahead of these stories and let the White House's explanation be the first and most convincing one. And call in communications people whose opinions you will take seriously--people who are strong enough to pull you out of groupthink and out of the Iraq bunker long enough to get and keep your administration on message. Harry Reid won't be able to keep up with that, as he is a purely reactive creature (name me the last successful thing (anything) to exit the Senate that he spearheaded). Likewise, the media will have troubles getting the twist on a story that you have already explained to the public in easy to understand terms. And it only makes them look stupid if they do that.
Success and popularity are all about communication. Bill Clinton was a lousy president, but a superior communicator. It's what kept him alive--along with two runs from Ross Perot.
Don't give this up by failing to heed this advice you are hearing from all of your allies at this point. Work the problem by fixing a communications apparatus that is an unqualified failure. If you don't, the work you have done so far will be for naught. And 2008 could be a big problem, with the media demanding, as they did in 1968, a pullout from what is a winning war.