Political landscape calls for savvy strategists

So the Democrats lost big in the House this week, setting up a 65-member influx onto Capitol Hill in January. And even though Senate losses were remarkably light, the winds of change certainly seem to be blowing down K Street in Washington.

So the Democrats lost big in the House this week, setting up a 65-member influx onto Capitol Hill in January. And even though Senate losses were remarkably light, the winds of change certainly seem to be blowing down K Street in Washington.

Pundits are already talking about the need for businesses and interests to forge new relationships with the victorious Republicans in the House, and to navigate the choppy waters of a muddied Senate. For groups with savvy strategists, however, all this sound and fury largely remains a tempest in a teapot.

The same rules of Washington still apply, and, truthfully, not much has changed beyond a greatly heightened need for public affairs strategists who understand the evolving political landscape and can adapt to it day-by-day, sometimes hour-by-hour.

The fact is that few people actually know how this next Congress will play out, let alone the lame duck session that will shortly be underway. Both parties are making noises of conciliation, and the list of issues they profess to be ready to tackle is expansive: trade, the deficit, taxes, the environment, defense, healthcare, and financial services, among others.

That list, however, is substantially different from the list of items they might actually pass through both houses while avoiding the President's veto pen. And if you are a company or an advocacy group with an agenda on the Hill, approaching the landscape prepared and armed with savvy public affairs strategists is simply more important than ever.

This political moment cries out for a high-level, real-time informed assessment of the legislative landscape; an understanding of what is acceptable to policy elites; and the ability - borne of real political battles-to triangulate between the White House, the House of Representatives, and the Senate to advance clients' goals.

That level of political and corporate acumen is in short supply, and is particularly hard to find on the Democratic side of the aisle. Having lost a large number of Blue Dog and business-friendly Democrats in the House, outside interests need to be able to navigate a fractured and polarized caucus that lacks the pro-business Democrats that populated Congress in the past.

In addition, the ramp-up to the 2012 presidential race may make political posturing more attractive to members than actual legislative success - and that means providing political as well as policy incentive.

These complicating factors will set new challenges for outside groups wishing to press their cases. And for public affairs shops seeking to advance corporate and advocacy agendas, it will take a rare type of high-level understanding to actually get things done. For clients who wish to make any progress in the next two years, the signing of a smart, focused, and strategic public affairs shop may be the best investment they could make.

Alex Slater is MD of SKDKnickerbocker's Washington office.

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