messaging filibuster reform: a strategic plan (updated 7/11/13)
EDITOR’S NOTE: As reported in the political press today, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid asked the Senate to begin debate on seven of President Obama’s executive branch nominations. This is significant for two reasons. 1) It means the conflict will escalate into high gear starting next Tuesday. 2) It shifts the terrain of the debate from judicial nominations to executive branch appointments. We have updated our original strategic messaging recommendations to reflect the shifting terrain of this legislative fight.
This is precisely why we insisted that the message should focus on Senate dysfunction — rather than the nominees themselves or the branch of government to which they will be appointed. In the original messaging plan, nearly all references to judicial nominees were used as an example of Senate dysfunction, so they could be easily replaced with alternate examples if the need were to arise. Thanks to that bit of foresight, the updates to our proposal are largely cosmetic.
This strategic memo outlines messaging recommendations for the upcoming nominations battle and filibuster rules fight in the Senate, anticipated to play out during the months of July and August 2013. These recommendations were prepared by David Rosen, Founder of First Person Politics, a consulting firm dedicated to bringing you the best of political psychology, and published on July 11th, 2013. Recommendations are based on publicly available polling, publicly available remarks made by United States Senators, and strategic insights backed by political psychology.
strategic overview: target persuadable senators
The American public has seldom showed much interest in or knowledge about Senate rules or governing processes unless the rules are explained to them in the context of a poll. Depending on question wording and context, public opinion is either ambivalent about the merits of the current system or strongly supportive or reforms to reduce gridlock and speed up efficiency. While partisan Republicans are likely to rally to the Republican side during a high stakes political debate, we believe the pro-reform message will continue to receive majority support, so long as the pro-reform message is framed within the context of fixing a broken Senate.
We foresee a fight between the Congressional leaders, political elites, and interest groups — moderated largely by the Beltway press — with the general public playing the role of passive bystanders, especially if the battle occurs during the summer months. Indeed, the primary stakeholders in this fight spend most of their professional lives inside the Beltway or within walking distance of Capitol Hill. In terms of historical precedent, we see parallels to the default crisis of 2011, the sequester budget cuts battle in late 2012 and early 2013, the various budget battles throughout the Obama administration, and even previous judicial nominations battles in which one party threatened a rules change. All of these fights played out almost entirely on Capitol Hill, with cross-party negotiations and key decisions occurring largely behind closed doors.
In light of these observations, we recommend a messaging strategy targeted primarily at Democratic fence-sitters in the Senate who find ubiquitous Republican obstruction objectionable, but have expressed reluctance to change Senate rules. We have devoted an entire section of this memo discussing their motives, since their actions and preferences will be central to the resolution of this debate. While the core messages and responses to attacks have been targeted at their motives, these messages have been refined to appeal to the broader range of audiences who may be exposed to them during the course of this debate.
the communications environment: how audiences are keeping score
To help us understand the broader strategic communications environment, we’ll examine the major relevant audiences who are likely to be exposed to the recommended messages and briefly discuss their motives and interests. We’ll also offer quick messaging takeaways based on these observations. We’ve intentionally omitted persuadable elites in order to discuss their motives at length in the following section.
How the general public keeps score. In light of public frustration with Washington gridlock and low interest in Senate rules, the low-information public will judge the outcome based on perceptions of institutional gridlock. In the initial aftermath of the nominations and rules fight, those judgments will be based almost entirely on the number of nominees confirmed — regardless of the final standing of the filibuster rule itself. Confirmed nominees will be interpreted as a sign that Washington is “getting things done,” while blocked nominees will signal continued gridlock.
Messaging takeaway: The public is looking for signs of reduced gridlock. They won’t care how the nominees get confirmed, as long as they get confirmed.
How the press keeps score. The Beltway press is likely to report this story as they have nearly every other recent high stakes controversy: biased in favor of establishment Republicans, prone to their formulaic both-sides-do-it, he-said-she-said reporting, but ultimately inclined to judge the outcome based on who gets more of what they wanted.
Messaging takeaway: The Beltway media likes winners. So if you come out ahead, in the end they won’t remember or care how you got there.
How corporate interests keep score. Corporate interest groups are far more attuned to the political and economic consequences of the President’s nominations than to the intricacies of Senate rules.
Messaging takeaway: Connecting the dots between the nominees and their governing decisions is likely to antagonize corporate interests and their fence-sitting friends in the Senate. Avoid the impacts debate.
How Democratic Senators keep score. Most Democrats Senators appear eager for modest Senate rules changes. It is unlikely they will allow more than one nomination to be derailed without demanding significant rules changes. In the Senate, nominations come and go. That’s why Democratic Senators are more likely to judge the outcome of the fight based on their perceptions about the health of the institution and the state of Senate rules.
Messaging takeaway: Process matters, but mostly to party leaders and other political elites. So keep the messaging about Senate rules focused on the health of the institution — use the nominees to illustrate the dysfunction.
How the Democratic base keeps score. Democratic base voters are motivated primarily by the desire to support the President Obama, which means their win-loss perceptions will be shaped largely by the messaging coming out of the White House. On average, Democratic base voters are more likely to judge the outcome based on the number of nominees confirmed, but this could vary depending on their other interest group attachments.
Messaging takeaway: To rally the base, President Obama needs to be seen leading and winning — even though this fight is taking place inside the Senate.
How the professional left keeps score. Elite left wing interest groups and donors are most deeply invested in the policy ramifications resulting from confirmations. But they also perceive an inherent tradeoff between the number of nominees confirmed and the need for Senate rules reform. The fewer nominees to be confirmed, the louder the demand for major rules reform will grow.
Messaging takeaway: For those most invested in a Democratic win in this fight, the debate over the nominees can’t be separated from the debate over Senate rules. Don’t treat them as separate.
How Republican Senators keep score. With immigration reform behind them and the recent executive branch “controversies” fizzling out or fading from memory, Senate Republicans are going to be looking for red meat to feed their base. They appear to be far more concerned about the fate of the filibuster than the fate of a few nominations. They want to hang on to the tools of obstruction for future use.
Messaging takeaway: Democrats should carefully avoid issuing threats and making demands containing conditions which Senate Republicans can weasel their way into meeting without genuine compromise.
How the Republican base keeps score. The Republican base is always hungry for a high stakes confrontation with the Obama administration. Base Republicans are all but certain to demand continued relentless obstruction of the President’s nominees. Any nominees confirmed and any changes to Senate rules are likely to be perceived as bitter defeats.
Messaging takeaway: Count on the right’s rhetoric hitting 20 on a scale of 1 to 10. Use their overreaction as a way to contrast with the Democratic Party’s moderation and reasonableness.
How the professional right keeps score. The right’s interest groups and donors are motivated to defeat the as many of the President’s goals as possible. Like the professional left, they appear appear about equally attuned to Senate rules and the policy consequences of the President’s nominations. If/when Republican Senators attempt to initiate a qualifications debate about individual nominees, the professional right will be handling much of the dirt-digging and mud-slinging.
Messaging takeaway: If the qualifications debate begins, it’s a sign that Republicans are losing the debate over Senate obstruction. But if Democrats enter that debate, at least one of the nominees will not be confirmed.
With these factors in-mind, we now move to a review of the public remarks made by fence-sitting Senators about the filibuster and prospects for reforming it.
fence-sitters: what persuadable senators say about the filibuster
54 Senators currently caucus with the Democratic Party. It will take 50 votes, plus the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Joe Biden, to reform the filibuster. Filibuster reform proponents will need to persuade and motivate at least three fence-sitting senators in order to bring about a rules change.
While Senator Harry Reid has not always been an enthusiastic reform vote in the past, he is leading the current fight to end Republican obstruction of President Obama’s nominees. As a result, this analysis treats him as presumptively pro-reform. Senator Carl Levin, on the other hand, has declared his firm opposition to reform. We do not believe he will change his mind.
Baucus is most directly responsible for killing the last attempt at filibuster reform behind closed doors. Although he has expressed concerns about gridlock, Baucus has also raised concerns that filibuster reform would leave small states at a disadvantage. A conservative Democrat with strong ties to K Street and corporate lobbyists, Baucus frequently sides with Republicans against Democratic priorities and rarely uses filibusters to block Republican Party goals. Montana’s other Senator, Democrat Jon Tester, is an enthusiastic supporter of filibuster reform, ruling out political necessity as a motive for Baucus’ actions. We do not believe Baucus is persuadable. His motives for defending the filibuster appear to be rooted in both ideological hostility to Democratic Party goals and deep institutional corruption.
Feinstein is still bristling from the defeat of her gun safety legislation earlier this year at the hands of a filibuster. She believes the rule protects the rights of the Senate minority, but is growing increasingly frustrated with Republican obstruction. In the past, she has expressed concerns about how Republicans would take advantage of a majority-rules Senate if they regained power. In recent months, the so-called “talking filibuster” has been used by Republican Senators to attack national security programs near and dear to her heart, suggesting she may be less than entirely favorable toward the talking filibuster as an option for reform. Feinstein’s office has been the target of numerous petitions urging filibuster reform (including several not linked to above), but her frequent use of the term “nuclear option” suggests she still has reservations. In her ideal world, Republicans would simply refrain from using the filibuster on bills that have strong public support — and any changes to the rules would have support from both parties. We believe she is persuadable.
Leahy believes the Senate is an institution built on a tradition of comity. He is interested in significant change in the filibuster, though respects its use on major issues. He is particularly opposed to secret holds and the silent filibuster, but appears to support the “talking filibuster” and wants to shift the burden of maintaining a filibuster on the minority. Leahy once characterized the filibustering of a motion to proceed as a “maybe” vote. As the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Leahy appears to be growing increasingly frustrated with Republican obstruction and delays when it comes to nominations that require confirmation, but he is concerned about the possibility of a contentious floor fight that would give Republicans excuse for further obstruction. He strongly supported the minor reform package Reid and McConnell agreed to in January, but may be open to additional reforms in the wake of continued Republican obstruction. We believe he is persuadable.
Though he is clearly fed up with Senate dysfunction and paralysis, in the past Manchin balked at the prospect of meaningful filibuster reform. Indeed, Manchin does not blame the filibuster for defeat of his gun safety legislation; rather, he blames a lack of party unity and his own slip-ups in the negotiating process. Convincing him to support meaningful filibuster reform is going to be a tough (though not impossible) sell, requiring significant horse-trading, compromises, and concessions.
A conservative Democrat, Pryor values bipartisanship. While he clearly cares about Senate productivity, he has expressed concerns about minority rights within the institution. In the past, Pryor has supported reform to reduce the overall number of judicial nominations subject to filibusters, as well as a compromise proposal that would guarantee each party the chance to offer two amendments to controversial legislation as an alternative to endless obstruction. However he frequently joins Republican filibusters to block Democratic bills. As with Manchin, convincing Pryor to support filibuster reform will be an uphill battle.
Having publicly stated that he is open to persuasion, Reed is a true fence sitter. Reed wants the filibuster to be used only on issues of great importance and significant consequence, though he does not want to eliminate it entirely out of concern for minority rights and the long term impacts. We believe he is persuadable.
Senators Feinstein, Leahy, and Reed are the most promising targets for persuasion. Convincing Senators Manchin and Pryor to back filibuster reform may require the tools of influence, in addition to persuasion. We now move to a discussion of what the above material reveals about the motivations the five persuadable Senators.
institutional rationalizations = self-interested motivations
Political psychology teaches us that the arguments people make in a political debate are not the same thing as their motivations. Arguments for or against a particular course of action are actually rationalizations: post-hoc justifications invented by the conscious mind to explain and defend what the invisible, unconscious mind really wants. These unconscious desires represent our true motivations. Decades of controlled psychology experiments have found that motivations are the key to persuasion. But first you must discover what those motives really are. Using the dual-process model of ideology as our guide, we can analyze the rationalizations (arguments) people use to infer their true motives, and then develop messages designed to appeal to them.
Our task is made easier because Senators Feinstein, Leahy, Manchin, Pryor, and Reed used remarkably similar rationales to explain and defend their positions on the filibuster. Common themes include:
- anger at ubiquitous and reflexive partisan obstruction
- frustration with Senate gridlock, dysfunction, and low productivity
- concern for the rights of the minority party
- desire for bipartisanship and institutional comity
- wish for overt debate, rather than silent obstruction
- fear of retaliation by the opposition party
Of these, items 2, 3, 4, and 5 are classic institutional rationalizations. Institutional rationalizations are arguments that hold the well-being of an institution (in contrast with a person, group, interest, or cause) as the highest value. Institutional rationalizations are a telltale sign of what we call “conventionalist” motivations, which are fundamentally self-serving. Indeed, the remaining two rationales — anger at obstruction and fear of retaliation — reinforce the point that we are dealing with fundamentally self-interested motives, albeit ones couched in partisan-political terms.
The key to seeing the connection between institutional rationalizations and self-serving motives lies with the recognition that nearly all political arguments are a form of psychological displacement and projection. When a politician (P) argues that action (A) would be good for institution (I), what they are really signaling is that action A is good for P (themselves). In effect, they are displacing their private motives onto a public object, and then rationalizing their motives in terms of the public interest.
So when Diane Feinstein and Joe Manchin express frustration with Senate gridlock, they’re signaling discomfort that their own private goals and ambitions are being frustrated. When the object of displacement is an institution (in this case the Senate) and the rationalizations are couched in terms of institutional interests, this is a very strong indication that conventionalist motives are at work. The preponderance institutional rationalizations coming from fence-sitting Senators indicates their attitudes and behaviors about the filibuster are being driven by conventionalist motives. So who are conventionalists and what makes them tick?
Conventionalists are people who typically register an average score on both the right wing authoritarianism scale and the social dominance orientation scale — the two psychological pillars of nearly all ideological thought and behavior. Conventionalists are motivated primarily by personal self-interest, institutional loyalty, and the desire to justify established systems. All three of these motives serve a key psychological function, which is to help conventionalists emotionally distance themselves from the political demands made by others. Doing this not only puts them at the center of every potential compromise — giving them extraordinary power — but allows them to make decisions without having to identify with the painful consequences others experience as a result of those decisions. Conventionalists value institutions and go out of their way to avoid rocking the boat in order to get ahead. After all, you can’t climb to power if the ladder is tipping over and the rungs are falling off. Conventionalists are not conservatives because they are just as likely to defend well-established liberal institutions as conservative ones. They typically make a fetish out of bipartisanship, deficits, compromise, pragmatism, and “tough decisions” in order to disguise their otherwise naked self-interest.
It should come as no surprise that Senators with conventionalist motives have conflicted feelings about the filibuster and the prospect of reforming it. They see the filibuster as a valued and long-established tradition that now endangers the well-being and credibility of the very institution it was designed to legitimize. When they look at the filibuster, they see an expression of the Senate’s tradition of comity and deference that has become the focal point for unprecedented partisan and ideological conflict. The filibuster protects the status quo — a feature that system-justifying conventionalists would see as a positive rather than a negative. Even the slightest change to the filibuster rule risks setting off a partisan war that could fundamentally alter both the nature of the Senate and end the possibility of bipartisan compromise for generations. In the mind of a conventionalist, reforming the filibuster looks like destroying an institution in order to save it. Consistent with their motivational temperament, avoiding anything that rocks seems like the wiser course of action.
Indeed, the filibuster protects the personal prerogatives of individual Senators. The fact that any member can potentially bring the legislative process to halt gives each individual Senator extraordinary power. Even the implied threat of a filibuster could be used as leverage to raise campaign dollars from well-funded special interests. By stymieing most legislation, the filibuster allows Senators to take a stand on issues while insulating them from the costs of following through. And by presenting an impossibly high hurdle to overcome, it allows Senators to defuse constituent demands simply by pointing to “political realities.” In sum, the filibuster rule is an extraordinarily powerful and versatile demand-avoidance tool — one that any conventionalist would be loathe to surrender.
Even if Senators Feinstein, Leahy, Manchin, Pryor, and Reed are not consciously aware of these factors, we believe they represent a key part of their unconscious motivational matrix. Never forget that as conventionalists, their motives are ultimately system-justifying and self-serving. This is not to question the sincerity of their conscious beliefs, but to direct attention to factors outside (or at the periphery of) their awareness that are propelling their beliefs. Because their motives are self-interested, any specific rules reforms these five Senators can be convinced to support will have to be negotiated behind closed doors to accommodate their unique and particular interests.
Nevertheless, we believe a messaging strategy aimed directly at conventionalist psychology can help tip the odds in favor of filibuster reform. This does not mean drawing attention to their less-than-entirely-noble motivations. In fact, calling these fence-sitting Senators corrupt, shaming their lack of accountability, or in any way attacking them would be counter-productive and deeply alienating — especially at a such a critical juncture, when proponents of filibuster reform need their cooperation.
The key to persuading conventionalists is to validate their worldview. Tradition, compromise, and pragmatism should be held up as values — as should the health and well-being of the Senate as institution. The tone of the messaging should be conciliatory, even magnanimous — while remaining firm on the need for action to ensure the Senate can do its job. Going into the fight over the President’s judicial nominees, the aim of the core message should be draw a line in the sand, ruling out inaction as an option in the face of continued Republican obstruction. It is not by accident that the core message below also resonates with the concerns and demands of the general public, as reflected in the polling cited earlier in this memo.
Doing nothing won’t fix our do-nothing Senate.
That’s why we can’t rule out a rules change.
Connect: America needs a Senate that works, not one bound by rules and traditions that keep it from working.
Define: The 60-vote filibuster rule has brought Senate business to a halt. We’re powerless to confirm even highly qualified public servants as our Constitution requires.
Draw the Line: If Republicans won’t let the Senate do its job, we can’t rule out a rules change. Doing nothing isn’t the answer when doing nothing is the problem.
Solution: When old traditions like the filibuster do more harm than good, we build new traditions. That’s the American way.
By placing Senate inaction at the center of the message, we’re activating one of the core motives of conventionalist psychology — the reliance on and defense of established institutions. The introduction of the word “powerless” unconsciously triggers the conventionalist’s self-serving power motive. The unstated implication: what good is having power in a powerless institution? If the Senate can no longer perform even the most basic functions, then the self-serving conventionalist has little motive for being there, beyond the mere vanity of celebrity.
The message makes heavy use of word repetition (e.g. “We can’t rule out a rules change.”) to make key talking points more memorable and repeatable, and concept repetition (e.g. “Senate that works,” “Senate business,” “Senate do its job,” “build new traditions”) to reinforce positive associations around Senate productivity. The latter is intended to unconsciously counter-act the conventionalist’s strong status-quo bias.
This message is short enough and versatile enough that it can be modified or appended to include an appeal to the specific concerns of a persuadable senator if he or she is known to be within earshot. So for instance, one could add a point about the failure of the Feinstein’s wildly popular gun safety legislation at the end of the “Define” line, without disrupting the overall message.
Furthermore, this message can be easily updated if and when Democrats agree to a specific rules reform proposal. For example, if the “talking filibuster” emerges as the consensus alternative to the current rules, one could easily replace the “doing nothing” line with a message about “no blocking without talking” without needing to re-work the rest of the message. Indeed, one of the strategic advantages of this message is that it rules out inaction without committing to a specific reform.
By focusing on institutional dysfunction rather than the judicial nominations fight or its specific nominees, the core message can be updated re-used in future conflicts over the filibuster and other problematic Senate traditions without losing any relevance or resonance with conventionalist motives.
attacks and responses
In this section, we’ll list some of the common attacks we anticipate and have already seen in this fight, and explain the strategic rationale behind each response.
Attack: If Democrats change the rules, Republicans will retaliate.
Here’s the truth. The filibuster would already be ancient history if Republicans had won the 2012 election. Throughout 2011 and 2012, they announced plans to circumvent the filibuster for all sorts of things including repealing Obamacare, passing the Romney-Ryan budget, and reforming the tax code. The real purpose of this threat is to deter fence-sitting Democrats from supporting any filibuster reform at all. Fence-sitting Democrats have expressed concerns about future Republican retaliation, and this attack is designed to validate those fears. You aren’t going to talk anyone down from those fears in a 30-second response, nor can you deny the credibility of the Republican threat. The key to getting the response right is to remember that conventionalists find radicalism on either side abhorrent. You can draw them back to your side by portraying Democrats as the party that favors incremental change and bipartisan cooperation.
We’d rather work with Republicans to find a set of rules both parties can live with. But radical threats like this just make a compromise harder to reach. Democrats believe the right approach is to reform the filibuster incrementally, not abolish it all at once. But sitting back and doing nothing won’t fix our do-nothing Senate.
Attack: This is a power grab / an abuse of power.
The best way to respond is to take the accusation and throw it back in their face.
It’s the president’s job to appoint public servants to make our government work. That’s in the Constitution. What’s NOT in the Constitution is a 60-vote requirement to confirm them. Republicans are abusing power by stopping the Senate from doing exactly what the Constitution requires.
Attack: We can’t change the rules because they protect minority rights.
The key to answering this attack — which will sometimes come straight from the mouths of fence-sitting Senators — is to re-frame the issue as a debate about constitutional duties rather than minority rights. If you’re talking about minority rights rather than constitutional duties and obligations, you’re going to lose the argument. So say this when the subject comes up for debate.
Voting on the president’s nominees is part of the Senate’s job, and the Constitution only requires a simple majority vote. If Republicans continue to abuse Senate traditions in order to blow off their constitutional obligations, we can’t rule out a rules change.
Attack: We can’t change the filibuster because it’s part of Senate tradition.
The best response here is to return to the core message. If pressed, you can always mention that that the filibuster isn’t in the Constitution.
This isn’t the first time we’ve changed the filibuster rule when it became a problem for the Senate. That’s because in America, when traditions do more harm than good, we change them and create new traditions.
Attack: Democrats are hypocrites – they’ve abused the filibuster too and opposed reforming it the last time.
There’s nothing more counter-productive in politics than re-litigating old fights and debates about which side has the bigger hypocrites. Most Americans believe all politicians are hypocrites to some extent. So if someone argues that Democrats have abused Senate rules too, simply concede the point and use that concession as a way to explain why we need to act now. If you do this right, the optics of conceding will make you look like the mature, grown-up in the room.
You’re right. Both parties have misused the rules, and now the Senate is broken. We’d rather work with Republicans to find a set of rules both parties can live with. But if they won’t let the Senate do its job, we can’t rule out a rules change.
Attack: The president is picking judges who will ram through his (environmental, regulatory, job-killing) agenda.
Avoid the impacts debate. Anyone informed enough to understand or care about the political, legal, and policy consequences of the appeals court system will have already picked a side in the larger nominations battle and filibuster debate. Besides, if you’re talking about the policy impacts of the nominations, you’re not talking about the real issue: Republican obstruction of them. The response we’ve provided below works as a pivot even if you’re just trying to redirect a dialogue among liberal friends that has steered off-course into an impacts discussion. But when it shows up in the form of an attack (e.g. Obama is trying to ram through environmental laws, protect regulations, broaden the bench for future Supreme Court nominations, etc.), its real purpose is to throw a veil of corruption over the nominations process by calling attention to the inherently self-serving nature of all nominations. It’s critical to recognize this is the thrust of the attack because getting the response right is all about cutting off the impacts debate while confronting the implication of corruption directly. The best way to do this is to make an analogy to something regular people can relate to.
It’s true that all nominees shape or implement the president’s agenda. That’s why presidents pick qualified people who share their philosophy. After all, if you wanted blue walls you wouldn’t hire someone determined to paint them green. What the President’s doing is no different, and it’s no excuse for knee-jerk obstruction.
Attack: The nominees aren’t qualified (for any reason).
Unless Democrats snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, the best possible outcome Republicans can reasonably expect in this fight is for one nominee to be confirmed with no significant Senate rules changes. That means they’ll eventually try to shift the terms of the debate to the qualifications of the individual nominees in order to pick off one or two of them. It’s classic divide and conquer. As soon as Democrats acknowledge the legitimacy of the qualifications debate, at least one of the nominees is history. So don’t legitimize the debate! The key to getting the response right is to show that this isn’t what this fight is really about. Use the GOP’s own actions as a way to draw a line in the sand and rule out a qualifications debate.
Actually Republicans were threatening to block these nominees months before knowing who they were. They’re just pretending to care about qualifications because they’ve run out of excuses for their knee-jerk obstruction. It’s partisan politics at its worst, and it’s exactly why we can’t rule out a rules change.
Attack: Immigration reform proves the Senate still works — it doesn’t need a rules change.
Don’t let this claim catch you off guard, because someone’s going to make it. You can try to argue that the exception proves the rule, but you run the risk of coming off as weaselly. A much stronger argument holds up immigration as an example of how the Senate should work and shifts the argumentative burden back onto Republicans.
Yes, immigration reform demonstrated exactly how the Senate is supposed to work. Even though plenty of Republicans were against it, they let it have an up-or-down vote and it passed. If Republicans can allow a vote on a highly controversial bill, they can let us vote on a few well-qualified public servants.
what not to say
Here are some words and phrases to avoid.
The nuclear option.
You couldn’t possibly come up with a worse messaging device. It makes a Senate rule change sound extreme, violent, destructive, and genocidal. Avoid saying it at all costs!!! If you must use a messaging device to describe a Senate rules change, talk about…
reforming the rules OR fixing the Senate
Cloture / Senate Rule 22.
It’s almost inevitable that the these words are going to be used, but they put most people to sleep. Here are some alternative words and phrases to help you describe Senate procedure that will make your arguments much more clear and convincing, even to Senators!
the 60-vote rule, ending endless debate, partisan obstruction, knee-jerk obstruction, endless delay, blocking a vote, the Senate’s broken rules
strategic considerations and concluding remarks
With respect to the two Democratic members who are not persuadable, Senators Levin and Baucus must be seen as potential liabilities during the upcoming battle. Their motivational-goals are directly at odds with the rest of the caucus, and the institutional interests of the Democratic Party. As a result, their actions may deliberately or unintentionally sabotage Democratic goals, the least of which is message consistency. If possible, Levin and Baucus should be excluded from high level strategic discussions and kept out of cross-party negotiations during this battle. Since both members are retiring at the end of their respective terms, normal channels used to influence their behavior may not be available or as effective. Their actions need to be monitored carefully, particularly in the event that one or both attempt to lobby persuadable Senators to oppose filibuster reform.
While the talking filibuster may seem like an attractive alternative to the silent one currently in use, we urge the Democratic leadership to think carefully before embracing this version of reform. While open debate may seem preferable to silent obstruction, recent uses of the talking filibuster have demonstrated its attractiveness as a tool of obstruction and a platform for nationwide celebrity. From Wendy Davis’ recent filibuster in Texas to Rand Paul’s filibuster on drones, the optics of the talking filibuster in our modern media environment are nothing short of fantastic. Requiring talking filibusters could create a boon for ambitious freshmen, champions of special interests, and presidential hopefuls looking to capture the limelight. If the goal of filibuster reform is to reduce obstruction, requiring the talking filibuster may have the opposite effect. It would be a strategic mistake of colossal proportions to force Republicans onto a highly visible national platform guaranteed to present their leaders and causes in a flattering light.
As noted previously, specific reform filibuster proposals will have to be negotiated between Senate Democratic leadership and the five persuadable senators behind closed doors. But by appealing directly to conventionalist psychology, the strategic messaging recommendations outlined in this memo can shift the terms of the debate in favor of reform. In due time, the messaging presented here can be updated to include whichever reform proposal Democratic leaders decide to pursue.