Around the turn of the century I served as director of corporate websites for a large international tech firm. The legacy software we used to manage our websites was essentially unusable. We were ready to scrap the entire platform but first we planned a teleconference “smack down” with the software company that sold us the lousy stuff to begin with.
My colleagues and I put together a massive list of shortcomings to throw at them. We entered that teleconference room ready to rumble. Our chief marketing officer took us aside and said: “Here’s my advice. I know that telling these guys off will make you feel better – but it’s not going to help your cause.” I was floored: “But, we know we’re right?” He tried to calm us down: “You may be right, but if you rub the genie’s lamp, you’ll never get him back in.”
He was right. As we started through the litany of complaints they shot back with discounts and offerings which would have made it impossible to jettison the software. We quickly backtracked and tiptoed around the other angry tidbits we had ready to hurl at them. The conference call ended quickly, without incident and within a week, we had moved on.
I use this story to illustrate the current dilemma facing the Republican candidates for President: the red meat you throw at the base is so enticing but it can quickly come back to haunt you. In short: why would you go there?
1.) Perry’s insistence that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme is probably accurate but so easy to turn against him. Third-rail burns are the stuff of legend.
2.) Cain’s rhetorical whims of electrical fences at the border are fantastic fodder for those of us who abhor illegal immigration but this too can come back to shock him badly.
3.) Newt Gingrich calling for the prosecution and incarceration of sitting Democrat Senators brought huge applause but is easily turned into a black eye.
Like capitalism, an invisible hand oversees the transaction of political language. Why would you bite the hand that feeds you?
As Frank Luntz notes in his book, Words that Matter: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear, “Language, politics, and commerce have always been intertwined for better or for worse.” He continues:
You can have the best message in the world, but the person on the receiving end will always understand it through the prism of his or her own emotions, preconceptions, prejudices, and preexisting beliefs… How that person perceives what you say is even more real, at least in a practical sense, than how you perceive yourself.