Experts say why Dems won shutdown message battle

PRWeek asked a range of agency public affairs leaders why they thought the Democrats won the messaging battle during the shutdown.

Federal government employees, including the scores of communications professionals affected by the 16-day partial government shutdown, began to get back to work on Thursday. Most political commentators called the two-week-plus shutdown a political win for President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party – if not a disaster for the Republicans.

PRWeek asked a range of agency public affairs leaders why they thought the Democrats won the messaging battle during the shutdown. A selection of their responses follows.

Bill Black, chair, global public affairs practice, FleishmanHillard
“Even though the media is portraying the final agreement as an unambiguous win by President Obama and the Democrats over the Republicans, there are some Republican winners, at least on their own terms. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) is now a household name across America, clearly a key objective for the new senator of nine months. The Tea Party Caucus in the House will likely be heroes among their own constituents, even while they are castigated by Democrats and some of their own Republican colleagues in Congress. And, most surprisingly, Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) comes out of the debate with his speakership strengthened due to the appreciation of the Tea Party of his fight to the finish. Rather than put his speakership at risk, which many predicted once he inevitably surrendered, he enjoyed effusive praise from many of the leaders of the Tea Party for his persistence.

Still, the Republican establishment knows this fight was catastrophic for the party's image. There is doubt, however, whether the party elders have the power to repair the damage in the face of forces like the conservative media and powerful ideological interest groups who believe the cause was lost because too many Republicans caved to President Obama.”

Stan Collender, partner, Qorvis
“The White House and congressional Democrats won by following the most basic rule of messaging: be consistent. From the start of the crisis, the administration and House and Senate Democrats talked about only one thing – that the government must not be held hostage — at the same time the GOP was changing its message daily. Within a very short time, the ever-changing GOP messages became the story — how Republicans didn't even know what they wanted. This may have been the most powerful example of how consistent messaging works in recent memory.”

Margaret Dunning, principal and chief strategy officer, Widmeyer
“It's not that challenging to win a messaging war when the opponent doesn't have a coherent message, never mind a strategy.  First, it was a crazy faux filibuster against Obamacare, then it was all about entitlements and deficit spending. While all of these topics are worthy of a coherent discussion, the Republicans did the opposite of what we, and that includes any of us in the PR industry, tell our clients day in and day out about a clear strategy with crisp and logical messaging.”

Lance Morgan, chief communications strategist, Powell Tate
“The Republicans couldn't compete on the message because they didn't have a unified party, policy, or endgame. Speaker Boehner said months ago that the Republicans couldn't achieve the policy objective the party's minority was pushing, so it's no surprise they couldn't coalesce around a winning message, either.”

Jim Papa, SVP and MD of Global Strategy Group's Washington office
“The Democrats won because they were united behind two commonsense principles: the full faith and credit of the government should not be up for negotiation, and shutting down the government is an irresponsible way to govern. Republicans, on the other hand, were fractured on substance (whether defaulting would be a real problem), messaging (was this over healthcare, budget deficits, or standing up to the president?), and tactics (who's in charge, Boehner or Cruz?). When public opinion turned decidedly against them, they had to give in.

Nick Ragone, director of Ketchum's Washington office
"President Obama had a big advantage in the shutdown negotiations - leverage. Poll after poll bore that out, and it allowed him to remain consistent with his message that there would be no linkage between the budget and the Affordable Care Act. Republicans, conversely, had to find different rationales for why they were forcing a government shutdown, and in the end they never made a compelling case."

Peter Segall, MD, Edelman Washington, DC
“The answer is two-fold: The White House stuck rigidly to its message, which resonated very well with the American people, “We're not going to negotiate over the full faith and credit of the US.” The president also did this other interesting thing, where he turned back the message on Republicans and said, “I always believed conservatives believed in paying their bills.”

The other point is that the Republicans kept changing their messaging about what they were standing for, and that confused the American people. First, it was to defund ObamaCare, then tinker with it, then they were trying to do other things.”

Nate Tibbits, principal, Blackwood Advisory
“The old saying is something like, ‘when your opponent is lighting themselves on fire, don't give them a hug.' If your opponent has a weak message, often the best strategy is to stay quiet. President Obama held the winning cards and wisely held the line on his position, leaving Republicans in Congress fight among themselves."

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