The debt ceiling vote: a study in crisis communications

Right now, in the midst of the political fight over raising the nation's debt ceiling, we are witnessing a true financial and political crisis unfold.

Right now, in the midst of the political fight over raising the nation's debt ceiling, we are witnessing a true financial and political crisis unfold.

The fact that it's a crisis that was completely manufactured, utterly avoidable, and willingly enabled by all sides is immaterial. If it weren't so serious and potentially catastrophic to the economy and to the nation, this episode of political theater would be too fantastic to be believable. High stakes and high drama.

It is, however, quite shockingly real. It's also a very instructive case study in crisis communications, demonstrating how opponents can be incredibly nimble during a very fluid and fast-breaking situation, as well as being a grim reminder about the consequences when lessons from the past are ignored or not heeded.

The verbal jousting and political maneuvering that's taken place has been staggering. At several points along the way, President Obama seemed to have the upper hand. Then it was Speaker John Boehner who appeared to have the advantage. In between acts of this political drama, the cast of characters, including Sen. Harry Reid, the Tea Party-affiliated members of Congress, the “Gang of Six,” as well as a bevy of political advocacy groups, have all complicated the storyline.

The White House, along with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, have employed a host of tactics and tools to pressure and persuade the other side to compromise. They've used print, radio, TV, Internet advocacy advertising, and, of course, social media outreach.

Most of these gambits have worked, though some have failed spectacularly. The president's speech on July 25 had the effect of inundating congressmembers' offices with thousands of phone calls urging them to take action on the debt-ceiling legislation. The president and others made subtle threats to seniors and military veterans, implying that an impasse on the debt deal would put their Social Security and benefits checks in danger of being interrupted.

That sent pressure groups into a tizzy. Tea Party acolytes have thus far stood their ground on the “Cut, Cap and Balance” approach, possibly at the expense of jeopardizing our country's Triple-A credit rating. Tragic turns in a sad tale.

But let's not kid ourselves. The posturing throughout this whole debate is not nearly as much about avoiding impending financial doom as it is about positioning the parties around the upcoming 2012 presidential and congressional elections. If GOP proposals pass, another debt-ceiling debate will take place right before the 2012 elections, a situation many incumbents want to avoid. If the president is successful in deferring another debate on the debt ceiling until 2013, he will avoid a rancorous debate until after the election.

Both sides believe they have a mandate from the public on the debt issue, but politicians sometimes forget that mandates are ephemeral and fleeting. The electorate is not monolithic. Lawmakers who display arrogance and overreach on those mandates, whether they have an “R” or a “D” after their name, do so at their own peril.

The grassroots anger that propelled this (mostly) Republican freshman class to office in the last mid-term elections (caused, ironically, by the President's belief that he had a mandate on healthcare reform) may very well fuel the same angry electoral mob that could eject them from their seats in the next election cycle because of inaction on the debt issue.

When all the dust settles a week or two from now, a more nuanced story of how the debt-ceiling crisis came about – and was resolved – will emerge. The idle threats made by both sides have had massive implications with unintended consequences. Until then, it remains unclear whether this contrived crisis will have long-lasting effects in the US and around the world. It will, most certainly, have repercussions in the make-up of Congress and the presidency in the next election.

Robert Tappan, a former senior official at the US Department of State, is president of The Tappan Group, a public affairs firm based in the Washington, DC area. His column looks at issues advocacy and related public affairs topics. He can be reached at tappan@tappan.org.

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