Selling v. Selling Out

I used to get called a lot for comment by the local news stations.  Almost any time they wanted a tea party opinion or reaction, my phone would ring.  ‘Can you comment on the latest budget proposal?’ ‘How does the tea party feel about Ted Cruz running for Senate?’  ‘Can you report on the Republican Convention for us?’ ‘Can you come on to discuss the IRS scandal?’  ‘Can you respond to the NAACP calling the tea party racist?’

It was a great opportunity to get our message out to folks I wouldn’t see at a meeting, or who didn’t get our e-mails.  It was also an endeavor fraught with peril every time.  Everything I said had the potential to be used against the movement; every chance I had to reach people about limited government and fiscal responsibility was also a chance that I would end up misspeaking and do damage to the cause.  I very quickly learned some habits that helped prevent that from happening – don’t jump into an interview blind, tell them you need to change phones to give yourself time to think through an issue for a few minutes, write down brief notes or buzzwords you want to hit rather than talking points, don’t be afraid to say ‘I need more time to look into that’.

I was, and still am, very sensitive to the way the right is portrayed in the media.  And I’m always looking for traps.  Consider this exchange I was drafted to participate in:

In 2011 I had been the leader of the Houston Tea Party Society for a couple of years, focused primarily on the fiscal issues.  But I got a call because they wanted comment on a Republican state Senator who publicly bristled at a committee witness – one who had been in the country seventeen years – using a translator to help him testify at a hearing.  Not only did they want a tea party comment, but they had planned to have me on air at the same time as a Latina Democrat state Representative.

Can you see the pitfalls?

I did.

The exchange was set up perfectly for me to cast myself, and thus all tea party and Republicans, with the label of racist.  So I decided to take that weapon away from them.  I’m sure they expected me to go directly to ‘English First’ and back up the Senator by stating that I too was ‘insulted’ by a man speaking Spanish after having lived here so long.

I didn’t lie, but I didn’t play along, either.

Then, they asked whether the movement had a position on the issue.  I took the opportunity to remind them that there were many views in a diverse movement, that it was a complex issue, and that our sound bite culture discouraged thoughtfulness on a lot of issues.

I could have said something knee-jerk and reactive like ‘People who come here need to learn English!’    Instead people listening heard a thoughtful tea party representative identifying with the predicament and empathizing with the man who’d been berated.  Folks all over town of all political stripes (as well as the apolitical) heard a reasonable-sounding tea party person in media, lowering the heat on an emotional hot topic.

And you know, the first thing that happened after that?  I got berated by a tea party member as being a sellout to La Raza, accused of not standing up for America and American values against the plague of illegals flooding this country.  I expressed empathy for the position and bafflement that this was considered a substantive political issue (it’s a social one in my view) and immediately I’m characterized as an enemy of conservatism.  It truly shocked me.

My goal in appearing on that segment wasn’t to make a bold political stand and go on the offense on a non-critical issue.  My goal was to make sure there was a reasonable representation of tea party out there for the tens of thousands of people listening, and avoid the media traps that I’d learned to look for.

Getting our messaging right is extremely important to me.  On The Refinery Show each week, we get together with the folks from The Conservative Union and The Party of Choice to talk about how to sell our ideas better.  And that’s really all it is – applying principles of good salesmanship and marketing to conservative politics, an arena in which they are sorely lacking.

But sometimes the reaction we get is ‘I shouldn’t have to moderate my message for anybody!’

I’m reminded of a CPAC panel I attended this spring called ‘Why Conservatism Is Right for Women’.  Kate Obenshain, author of “Divider-in-Chief” said something I’ll never forget:

“I know where a lot of folks are coming from. Ten years ago I would have said ‘I’m not talking differently to women!  I’m a conservative!  I believe in the fundamental ideas, and I’m not doing what the left does!’  I have totally changed on that, folks, because women think that we don’t represent them.”

Those words highlight the importance of tailoring our message to different people based on what they care about.  We’re finally gaining ground with young people, with some women, with Hispanics and other minorities, as reflected in the midterms, but we are going to have to do a lot better in the next two years if we intend to hold our gains AND take the White House in an election in which a lot more people are going to participate.

But I want folks on the rightward end of the spectrum to understand that using better language, minding one’s audience, searching for points of connection and exploiting them in conversation and messaging isn’t selling out; it’s SELLING.

As Leslie has said on several episodes of The Refinery, we understand how marketing sells products and services and we embrace it in our daily lives, but in one of the most important arenas – deciding who is going to run the government – we act as if marketing and messaging don’t matter, or they’re somehow code words for lying about our views.  Businesses lose millions to bad messaging and poor marketing campaigns.  But because our politics are so personal to us, we often see folks more interested in saying whatever they want to say, whatever they think needs to be said in whatever way they choose to say it, than in trying to find the best way to say it and the most effective way to get people to hear it.

So that’s why we’ve talked about speaking to single women and Walmart Moms, for instance, or how to discuss abortion or gun rights.

That’s our goal each week on The Refinery: figuring out the best way to SELL conservative ideas and values, learning how to improve our game so we can win more and thus get the kind of government we want.  And if you are in the camp that thinks of selling as selling out, I challenge you to join us for a few episodes in the coming weeks.  At minimum, you’ll get to tell us why you think we’re wrong.  But you also might find yourself agreeing with us, too.