Main Street lessons for K Street
The Hill | The old adage “you can’t fight City Hall” has been turned on its head.
In the past six months, Washington’s “City Hall” and its community of K Street power brokers learned that they ought not tangle with an educated, engaged and sometimes enraged Main Street.
In the blink of an eye, the administration and Congress saw their agenda stymied by a middle class uprising born in town hall meetings and tea parties across the country. Healthcare reform came under fire for its costs and reach, while cap-and-trade energy legislation drew ire for the tax increase it threatened.
Healthcare alone nearly brought the public to blows in multiple cities. The fate of the “public option” remains murky despite the strongest arm-twisting from special-interest lobbyists pro and against.
But the real story is the orchestrators of grassroots lobbying were so overwhelmed by spontaneous middle-class clamor that gave the provision a beating that left many scrambling to save it.
This eruption of public skepticism, again proving formidable to interest groups, has spilled into the cap-and-trade fight. Cable news outlets saw a demanding electorate grilling their representatives on the topic and to justify their support of it. Some representatives are now facing primary challenges due to their “yea” vote. Others have reversed their stance on cap-and-trade.
This grassroots swell on these issues was not confined to throwing verbal punches; voters utilized multiple media to convey their discontent. YouTube videos of heated exchanges spread like wildfire. A proprietor of a Missouri institution even switched out the letters on his company’s sign to ridicule Washington leaders for “closing us and other … small business.”
In short, the unwritten rules of Capitol Hill have (at least temporarily) been suspended. Members of Congress have listened, reversed positions and even apologized — all without taking a meeting from experts or lobbyists.
Granted, a good number of organized protests were manufactured AstroTurf. No one disputes that. But K Street insiders would do well not to lose sight of the majority of outrage, which was very much organic.
How did it happen?
Talking points couldn’t cut it. Talking heads couldn’t sell it. Main Street wasn’t buying what K Street was advertising, even when it was using its best Madison Avenue techniques. The town hall meeting — the simple, impassioned Q-and-A at the most elementary form of citizen politics — has outgunned even the slickest campaign by Washington insiders.
Healthcare reform threatened to bloat budgets and deprive personal choice, while cap-and-trade would increase energy costs on virtually every economic activity in the country.
Given the recent experience, it would be prudent for insiders to step back and consider the ramifications of an engaged citizenry. Lobbyists and Washington advocacy groups should recognize that every possible moment taken to compile research and talking points, educate staff and wine and dine members simply cannot overcome the impact of public perception.
K Street has to more thoroughly consider the perspective of Main Street so that it can incorporate and address those concerns as it advocates for clients’ positions.
There are examples of good actors that focus on the everyday experience of middle-class voters and citizens. UPS reportedly makes employees go through driver training to get an understanding of the on-the-road life of workers. And maybe the Service Employees International Union is onto something by requiring political candidates to “walk a day” in the shoes of a union member before obtaining an endorsement.
Perhaps we ought to extend that principle. Maybe D.C.’s public affairs firms, and for that matter all K Street advocates, ought to spend a day in the shoes of an everyday American or, at the very least, a day in the life of an employee in the industry they represent. This won’t change the core function of K Street — to actively and ethically and aggressively push clients’ missions — but it will help it do so more effectively.
So, this year, chalk one up for the middle class. In a short time, they’ve managed to turn the biggest policy debates in Washington on their heads, largely without the meddling or deep-pocketed influence of Washington’s lobbying community. Maybe all of us on K Street should trade our wingtips for some work boots and walk a day with those who have some things to teach us.