Partisans can disagree about which side “won” the public relations contest in last week’s budget showdown. But picking a “winner” now would be like declaring victory at the end of the first round of a boxing match. There’s a long way to go before the final bell – Election Day 2012 – and momentum in this bout could shift at virtually any moment. Neither side should unfurl a “Mission Accomplished” banner just yet.
Victory in a public affairs debate cannot be measured in immediate poll results, which at the moment admittedly favor President Obama and the Democrats. Unless a poll tracks progress in the evolution of public sentiment over weeks or months, it’s just a barometer of where the public stood before the debate. Instead, a public affairs “win” should be measured in subtle shifts in the fundamentals of the dialogue. In this context, “winning” means altering the dynamic of the debate.
With that in mind, I would have to give the nod to Speaker John Boehner for winning this round. Boehner demonstrated that he could be both tough and steadfast in achieving much higher cuts than Democrats were willing to contemplate at the outset. At the same time, he proved he could bring his own (often unruly and dogmatic) side to a compromise. Further, Boehner’s use of social issues funding as a lever, then dropping them after Democrats protested, amounted to a skillful ploy - even if one finds those issues objectionable. Ultimately it strengthened the Republican message that they are serious about budget issues – and not willing to not hold budget cuts hostage to their social agenda.
Moreover, the Republicans have succeeded in convincing the public, and therefore the White House, that the President cannot just sit back and watch others flail at each other inside the ropes. The Republican flurry has forced the President to climb into the ring and hurry a speech for delivery this week. It is not clear that the President is prepared to make specific proposals that will demonstrate his resolve to tackle the politically treacherous entitlement reforms and revenue-raising measures that everyone knows must be part of the U.S.’s fiscal re-engineering plan.
Perhaps the final telltale measure of who’s winning is who’s responding. More important than the fact that the President is making a speech about reform is the fact that it wasn’t even on his radar screen a few weeks ago. It’s tough to win a fight when the other side is throwing almost all the punches. Unless, of course, the President is playing “rope-a-dope,” a la his Democratic predecessor in ’95 and ’96. We’ll find out in the months to come if Obama is as skilled a counter-puncher as Clinton.
The true measure of PR victory is the degree to which the arena has been altered. Everyone agrees that as a result of this showdown, the national conversation has shifted to how serious the President is about leading the effort to make real budget cuts and hammer out a broader long -term plan with the Republicans. Advantage Boehner, at least for now.
Mark Irion is CEO of Dutko Grayling