The PJ Tatler

Teaching a GOP Senator How to Talk About Poverty

(The following is the first lesson in what may become a periodic series on “Teaching Republicans How to Talk” — if I, and our readers, can stomach the exercise.)

Like the rest of the residents of the known universe, I was unaware that Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican, had made a speech this week about poverty. The next day, he appeared for an interview before the majestic interior columns of the Capitol building on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” — another event about which nearly all organic lifeforms suffer ignorance.

It’s clear that host Joe Scarborough invited the GOP Senator to “talk about” the poverty speech. This becomes even clearer in the course of the 9.5 minute segment, as Sen. Portman uses the phrase “talked about” (or something like it) some 21 times in answer to just five questions. It seems Portman did the Joe show to talk about the fact that he had talked about poverty the previous day.

Now, I’m just me, but I’ve always felt that if you’re going to “talk about” something, you should probably say something. During the interview, Portman was faced with four different questions, and one echo question, from host Joe Scarborough, Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson, former Obama Auto Industry Task Force adviser Steve Rattner, and former print pundit Mike Barnicle. They blathered on, but I boil down their actual questions thus:

1) What’s your plan regarding poverty?
2) Are you willing to spend more federal money on anti-poverty programs?
3) What have you done to sell your ideas to poor people?
4) How can you say you want to help the poor while Republicans vote against health care, against a minimum wage hike, against food stamps, against Head Start?

Now any seasoned politician understands that you have to answer only the questions you choose to answer, and you can get your message through regardless of what questions they ask.

Say what you want to say,
and let the words fall out, honestly.
I want to see you be brave.”
Sara Bareilles

Nevertheless, Sen. Portman, in the course of expelling more than 1,400 words from his blowhole…

  • admitted Republicans have failed to address poverty,
  • insisted that his approach was more than just the same old GOP song (lower taxes, less regulation),
  • agreed with Lyndon Johnson (the solution won’t come from D.C. alone),
  • quoted John F. Kennedy (“a rising tide lifts all boats,” which actually was a New England chamber of commerce slogan that JFK used to defend himself against allegations that a dam project was so much pork),
  • said that drugs and broken families contribute to poverty, then cited legislation he wrote 20 years ago as part of his new solution,
  • announced his opposition to the war on drugs,
  • suggested self-evidently that convict recidivism is a vicious cycle that should stop,
  • assured viewers that Washington has an important role in alleviating poverty (research on best practices, and funneling matching grants to the states and counties),
  • introduced a new adjective (“constructive”) to prepend to the word “conservatism” in order to soften the bite, and to inadvertently imply that conservatism is naturally destructive.

All of this Sen. Portman expounded like a metronome on Red Bull. The only things he failed to do were to plainly state his “constructive conservative” vision for addressing the problem of poverty, and to connect emotionally with the viewer. (To his credit, he did mention “jobs” several times.)

One might rebuke me by saying, “Scott Ott, it was just a 9.5 minute TV appearance. To get the meat of Portman’s proposals, you need to watch the speech.”

To which I would reply: How many others watched the speech, or are likely to do so in the coming days? The fact is, 9.5 minutes is a geologic era on TV. Joe-Co-host Mika Brzezinski could grow a pair of opposable thumbs in less time than that. Any message that can’t be communicated on TV in 1,400 words or less stands no chance with the American public, or even with members of the Senate — who after all, are busy legislators with lots of fundraising to do.

So much for the critique. Now the lesson for Sen. Portman (et. al.) on how to “talk about” poverty, or anything else for that matter.

#1 Go where the issue lives
Video is a visual medium. (I’m tempted to write “needless to say,” but that seems superfluous.) A few hundred yards from where Portman perched under the gilded rotunda, are some of the meanest streets in America. Stand in front of a trash-strewn ally, or a jacked car, or a group of kids playing in traffic among shards of Colt 45 bottles. Ditch the suit and tie, and get out among the people where the problem lives.

#2 Boil it down
Decide what you’re going to say, and then re-write it until you can clearly state it in less than 7 seconds. Say it again. Then repeat it. Then say what you mean in less than 7 seconds another time. Again.

#3 State it vividly — not statistically
Poverty affects people, especially hard-working low-income people whose tax dollars get siphoned off to ineffective programs that have transformed their neighborhood into Kandahar-on-the-Potomac, while the government elite talk to their cars’ computers as they motor back home to one of the richest zip codes in the nation. Snapping off statistics like a wet towel sounds cold because…math. If you know what works, as Portman says we do, tell a story about a person whose life is better. If something doesn’t work, tell a story about someone who got hurt by a well-intentioned government policy. Of course, to get such stories, you may have to go where the poverty is.

#4 Never accept a question as asked
When a liberal pundit says, “That sounds like the same old Republican stuff,” be ready to do two things.

a) Remind your interlocutor that Republican ideas only work when they’re tried.
b) Clearly state your core message in less than 7 seconds, and then tell a story about a real person that illustrates that your ideas work.

Sen. Portman and fellow Republican leaders, this is not the entire curriculum, but merely, as Albert Brooks says in Lost in America, “the first of many lectures that you will have to get.”