William F. B. O'Reilly is a Republican consultant.
The Republican Party may be the only entity worse at public relations than the Israeli government.
Israel can be shelled daily for a year by its neighbors without notice or concern from the outside world, but as soon as she retaliates, it's an international outrage.
The GOP can hold a winning poker hand, only to learn after the final round of betting that the game has been changed to pinochle. Such was the case in 2011's debt-ceiling negotiations and in the recent "fiscal cliff" deal, where Republicans capitulated on tax increases without getting any meaningful spending cuts in return. The GOP thought the debate was to be about debt, when it was really about greedy millionaires.
Republicans were correct on the merits in both cases. The real problem in this country is overspending, not undertaxing, and no amount of taxing can fill the hole we've dug. But the GOP was made to look like a pack of asses by members of a party whose mascot is a donkey, a neat trick on the Democrats' part.
It's never been easy selling Republican messages. Democrats promise voters shiny objects; Republicans typically don't -- yet fail to properly explain why they don't.
Built in public relations challenges for the GOP can be daunting, but there can be no excuse for bad press year after year. A major political party must learn how to communicate its messages to voters no matter what. If it can't, it won't remain major for long.
The central message Republicans should be communicating today is the need for urgent action on the national debt. But the party's leaders are reticent to go full bore on the issue for fear of being chewed up by a Democratic PR machine, expert at portraying Republicans as heartless and greedy whenever they propose spending less money.
But the Republican Party is right about the debt. How right?
A friend and former client, Rye Town Supervisor Joe Carvin, puts it this way: "The Republican Party hasn't been so right on an issue, and the Democrats so wrong, since slavery."
That's an audacious statement, but one that's probably correct. The GOP's attempts to spare future generations from fiscal ruin is downright virtuous, right up there with its unwavering anti-communist stance, which helped free millions from totalitarianism.
So why can't the GOP get over the hump on debt? Why do Republicans always end up looking like they want to push grandma from the train?
I'm no public relations genius. I've lost more than my share of fights over the years. But one thing I've learned in politics is that you rarely win a battle from a defensive posture. A winning party is a party on offense, and I can't remember the last time the Republicans controlled the national dialogue.
If the Republican Party is to convince the American public that debt poses an existential crisis to the country, it needs to indict Democrats in a publicly engaging way for recklessly stealing from our children. It needs to convince voters of all generations -- even liberal voters who cherish the social safety net -- that the Democratic Party in America today is leading us to ruin. The social safety net will, in fact, collapse if we keep doing what we're doing.
Most importantly, the Republican Party must be willing to lose in the short term in order to survive in the long term as a party true to its convictions -- and to its duty to the American public.
William F. B. O'Reilly is a Newsday columnist and a Republican political consultant.