Political Jujitsu: Fixing the GOP’s Messaging Problem

Since November’s debacle, hundreds of conservative pundits and activists have wrung their hands over the GOP’s messaging problem. Luckily for Republicans my background is in branding, marketing and communications, so let’s fix this.

In today’s mainstream media, conservatives can’t catch a break. Epic Democratic catastrophes are ignored while minor Republican faux pas are branded as threats to the republic. Among the chattering classes liberalism has all the power; that won’t be reversed overnight. So conservatives must use liberals’ power against them.

The Japanese term for this technique is jujitsu — literally, “the art of yielding.” Instead of rushing to fight a stronger opponent head-on, a jujitsu fighter wins by co-opting his opponent’s strength. If the attacker throws a devastating punch at your face, you grasp his arm and redirect it to the ground behind you. Sure, the bad guy is more powerful, but that power leads to his defeat.

A major source of liberal power is the ability to set a narrative through the D.C. press corps. In November President Obama said of the fiscal cliff, “I refuse to accept any approach that isn’t balanced.” A few weeks later, the Washington Post conducted a poll and declared, “the public clearly wants a balanced approach to spending cuts and tax increases.” Google “Obama balanced approach” and you get 2.4 million hits. Boom, the narrative has been set.

How did the GOP respond? By directly attacking the now-entrenched narrative. No, no, NO. Use the strength of the liberals’ narrative to defeat them.

Obama chose the term “balanced approach” because it’s a blandly positive phrase no one can oppose on its face. He doesn’t mention the fact that his idea of “balance” is massive tax hikes and no budget cuts, but few voters delve into the details. Obama is for balance > balance is nice > yay Obama!

The GOP’s jujitsu move would be to grasp the phrase “balanced approach” and redirect it to their advantage. They could present it to the American people this way:

Much like the President, we support a balanced approach to the budget. In fact, many of us have advocated a balanced budget for decades. Sadly, politicians of both parties have spent more than they’ve taken in for a long time, but we’re glad the White House wants to put an end to these irresponsible and unbalanced budgets. We have presented our balanced budget to President Obama and look forward to seeing his balanced budget so we can find a win/win for the American people. We hope that Senator Reid will agree to this balanced approach by passing this bipartisan budget as soon as possible.

Instead of attacking the powerful narrative head-on, this above statement uses its power to defeat liberalism. In a few lines, “balanced approach” is redefined as “balanced budget” — a long-standing conservative principle. Bipartisan no longer means “Republicans caving to Democrats” but “Democrats agreeing with Republicans.” Speaker Boehner was removed from the “obstructionist” hot seat and Senate Majority Leader Reid was enthroned upon it. We have gained the rhetorical advantage without compromising any of our beliefs.

If conservatives want to win over the public on the debt ceiling debate, let’s start by conflating Obama’s “balanced approach” with “balanced budget.” A subtle and swift redefining of the term will put the Democrats on defense for a change. 

Follow me on Twitter at @ExJon.