Governing by Soundbites

Soundbite:  “a sentence or phrase that is easy to remember, often included in a speech made by a politician and repeated in newspapers and on television and radio.”

Have you noticed that through the 2016 election cycle those who govern us (and those running for office who want to replace those who govern us) are speaking “at” the American people rather than as was the normal election campaign process in years past to speak “to” the American people?  I guess because we now live in an almost 100% electronic news world, handling political campaigns and speeches is now being done in short snippets, or “soundbites.”  Maybe it’s because there is so much news for the media to cover; maybe it’s because it’s just so much easier to collect and report news because of the ease of doing so in the technology world we live in; maybe it’s because American designs and desires of communication have morphed into one of “un-involvement.”  No matter what the reason or reasons, we have “dumbed down” communication skills and techniques and have turned our governing into “soundbites.”  Politicians don’t talk to voters anymore — they talk “at” voters.

Take for instance the political war underway even today over the new healthcare proposal under consideration as the replacement for Obamacare:  the “American Health Care Act.”  Of course the Left summarily reject it, primarily because it is a replacement for Obamacare — which is the legacy legislation of the last President  AND the pre-cursor to a single-payer health system, which is the ultimate desire of all socialist political thinkers.  But as has become custom, the war against a GOP proposal is not under attack from just the Left, members of the Republican Party are fighting just as hard against the proposal as are the Democrats.  It is comical to watch as this part of the attack against the Obamacare replacement unfolds from within the GOP as it happens.

One would think that when a new piece of legislation — especially one that encompasses as much as 20% of the GDP of the U.S. — is to be proposed and rolled out, it would be done so with the author of the proposal with either a large video monitor or a white board along with an armful of handouts.  The author would spend time with his fellow legislators (long before going public with details) and explain all the details that surely would be called into question, then take questions from his fellow legislators, and from the beginning find ways together to reach a consensus for the repeal and replacement of Obamacare.  Not so with this proposed legislation.

House Speaker Paul Ryan hit the media trail about a week ago to give the media a sneak peak of the principles of the new bill without any of the details. And how did he handle it?  There was not video or white board, no handouts, and no Q & A with fellow legislators.  He instead used the “new” governmental communication tool that so many have chosen:  Soundbites.  The book is still out on whether or not this new political communication technique works.  I am not a legislator and can’t vote on how it’s going.  But if I DID vote, I would have to give the GOP a failing grade in the rollout.  Soundbites, while often very successful in teasing stories that will come on the show AFTER the commercials, seducing audience members to come back tomorrow morning because the show is going to have an appearance from the World’s most handsome actor, or to stay tuned to watch and listen to the Beatles who have reunited (even from the dead) to close out today’s show with their latest rendition of “Can’t Buy me Love,” are not really revealing the details of the new proposal and converting haters into likers.  Why is that?  Confusion.  Soundbites breed confusion among listeners and viewers in this case, simply  because BOTH sides speak in soundbites rather than giving full explanations for their differences.  And that really confuses folks.  Examples?  Let’s talk about and compare soundbites that come from the very issue being discussed ad nauseum in politics today:  the GOP Obamacare replacement bill, or “the American Health Care Act.”

Speaker Ryan (in soundbites) has made these claims:

“We will repeal and replace Obamacare at the same time;  the new plan will cancel Obamacare taxes;  It will terminate Obamacare subsidies;  it will terminate the so called ‘Cadillac Tax,’ which is a tax on high dollar healthcare plans;  it will cancel any individual mandate which will allow people to opt out of this plan or any plan if they desire with no penalty;  it will cancel any insurance company subsidies.”  Of course these statements were NOT typically made in one paragraph, but were part of a narrative of soundbites that were doled out by the Speaker in speech after speech, interview after interview, so on and so on.

But the soundbite war has two sides.  Contrast what Speaker Ryan had to say about the proposed bill to what Senator Rand Paul had to say about it in HIS soundbites:

“House Obamacare Lite plan keeps Obamacare taxes for another year;  It keeps Obamacare subsidies but renames them “refundable credits;”  Their plan keeps the Obamacare ‘Cadillac Tax’ forever, which is a tax on the best health insurance;  It keeps individual mandate but makes you pay the insurance companies instead of the government;  And it keeps insurance company subsidies forever.”  (Each of the previous sentences were a single tweet from Senator Rand Paul that were robo-posted on his Twitter account — “soundbites.”)

Notice any conflicts in these two interpretations of the healthcare proposal?  Both guys are GOP leaders — Speaker Ryan in the House and Senator Paul in the Senate.  They are both looking at the same proposed bill.  How can one explain the differences in interpretation of the same bill by the two lawmakers?  Because both are speaking to us in “soundbites.”

So here we are:  two House committees stayed up all night Thursday to debate their specific pieces of the healthcare proposal.  The full House of Representatives will very soon have open debate about the proposal.  Most of these lawmakers are in the same boat as you and I:  they’ve heard and read the soundbites from these two and others, but they too haven’t gotten “The Rest of the Story.”  How can Americans possibly feel we will get a fair shake in any Obamacare replacement when even two of the leaders of the Republican Party in their separate opinions about the written proposal — not verbal, actually on paper — have polar opposite interpretations?  There IS a way to take the cloud of mystery and misunderstanding out of the equation:  do away with soundbites and start “talking” to each other, asking each other questions, getting answers, and while doing so, LET THE AMERICAN PEOPLE LISTEN IN!

Imagine how simple it would be if leaders from the House and Senate this weekend would head down to Camp David in Maryland, get around a table Saturday morning, discuss intentions of those who put the bill together, intentions of the others at the table that are odds with the authors, ask and answer questions of each other, break for a really nice dinner together and then spend the night.  After Sunday morning breakfast reconvene, finish the Q & A leftover from the night before, reach a consensus in which probably no one got the exact things they wanted in the Obamacare replacement but all got some if not most, eat a nice burger and fries for lunch, then head back to D.C.  I’m just a Cajun from south Louisiana, but I think even this Cajun could in that setting find a way to get a majority of those at that table to understand and agree on a mutually acceptable plan to move forward with.

 Such an important change in law that will impact every American for years to come deserves a huge amount of diligent analysis from all the experts available to do so, non-partisan discussion of each and every positive as well as each and every negative of the proposal, some consensus on how to change all the negatives (or as many as possible) to positives for the majority of Americans, and a consensus of exactly what to present to the American people and exactly how to make that presentation.  And I’m sorry, but that will NOT happen if these guys and girls stick to speaking in soundbites.
What Robert McCloskey once said is SO appropriate to what’s happening in Congress right now:  “I know that you believe that you understood what you think I said, but I am not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”  (My wife has quoted Robert to me for 42 years without knowing she was quoting someone else!)  It’s much easier looking into someone’s eyes to understand what they mean when something is said than trying to comprehend or read “into” something someone said in a tweet or interview, both which are in soundbites.  I suggest these guys and girls figure that out and figure it out quickly.  American Healthcare depends on it.  We have a chance to fix it this one time.  If we don’t get it right, I doubt we’ll have a chance to fix it again.


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