The party polled on Medicare in 50 battleground districts. It vetted the plan with a dozen conservative groups. It reached out to rank-and-file lawmakers and asked them what they needed to support the sweeping conservative spending plan. Ryan briefed the Republican presidential candidates and won a quick public endorsement of the plan from Mitt Romney.
And perhaps most important, the GOP learned how to use the right poll-tested words.
Now, the part about vetting the plan with conservative groups would be promising...except that as we know, the Club for Growth immediately opposed Ryan's budget, so you have to wonder exactly what that vetting was for. Asking Members what they wanted is good, too (although, again, two defections in Ryan's own committee suggests problems with that procedure).
But the really troubling part is the "right poll-tested words."
I've talked about this before...look, this kind of Gingrich/Luntz thinking just doesn't work. Now, Sherman doesn't tell us who did their polling, but it sounds a lot like what Frank Luntz and Newt Gingrich did in the 1990s. The problem is that while you can always tweak the wording on anything to produce polling results you want, you cannot, ultimately, make an unpopular program popular by changing the words around. So, sure, if you ask people if they want to "save Medicare" it'll poll really well. But if what you're actually doing is "saving" it by cutting benefits...well, people are going to notice. And, at any rate, your opponents are not going to use the same language, and next thing you know the press might not, either, especially if your language is particularly, er, imaginative.
Now: there's nothing wrong at all with selling your programs in the best possible language. It may not do a lot of good, but it most likely can't hurt, and there's nothing wrong at all with a pollster advising politicians how to talk about the positions they are planning to take. Where you get into trouble is when your pollster tells you that your programs are actually popular, and that all you have to do is use his magic words.
And so to the Ryan budget:
On the day before the budget rollout, top Republicans gathered in Speaker John Boehner’s smoky Capitol conference room with National Republican Congressional Committee officials and went over key phrases. Call the Medicare reform “bipartisan,” they were told. Frame it as helping to “fix Medicare and keep it from going bankrupt.” Be sure to point out that Americans 55 or older would not be affected. And say it gives seniors the choice of “staying in the current Medicare system or using the new one.”Are you kidding? If my pollster comes to me and says that if I frame things just right in a poll my side wins by a 46/37 margin, I'm going to realize that the program being tested is deeply unpopular. 46/37 when you get complete control of information? That's awful.
Using this phrasing, 46 percent in an internal GOP poll — conducted in January — would support the Republican argument that Medicare is going bankrupt, Republicans were giving them a choice and the GOP is trying to preserve the program. The Democratic argument that Republicans were ending Medicare registered at 37 percent.
Now, I would never advise a party to abandon a program simply because it's unpopular; sometimes, in politics, it makes sense to do what you can when you can do it, regardless of consequences. But I would always advise politicians to have a realistic idea of what is popular and what is not, and how little can be done to change that. It sounds to me as if House Republicans are not following that advice. And mistakenly believing something is popular is one of the surer routes to electoral oblivion that I can think of.