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When Washington Plays Telephone

As I noted yesterday, President Obama’s request that Americans deluge Congress telling them to give in to his demand on taxes to solve the debt ceiling crisis resulted in a massive surge of phone calls to House and Senate offices. Congressional websites were also jammed up.  The calls resulted in a fair amount of inconvenience for members and their staffs, but it isn’t likely it changed anyone’s mind. Considering the day ended with sentiment shifting against a deal within the Republican caucus, let alone Obama’s tax increases, it’s clear such stunts have little use except in terms of public relations.

But it turned out the switchboards on Capitol Hill weren’t the only ones lit up on Tuesday. According to the Daily Caller, conservative groups counter-attacked with their own surge. Going into action shortly after the president’s address to the nation on Monday night, groups like the American Action Network went to work urging their members to swamp Obama with responses that were the opposite of what he had asked for. And like the effort to overwhelm congressional offices with pro-Obama messages, the conservative push also worked. Apparently, the White House comments line and the phone lines were down for the better part of the day as activists decried higher taxes and urged the president to support entitlement reform.

This phone war illustrates both the strength and the limits of activism.

When either side of the political aisle or activist groups mobilize their grass roots, they can make themselves heard. A phone surge can be a highly effective tactic when it focuses on a specific issue and where there isn’t a big pushback from the other side. It can make members of Congress pay attention to issues or legislation they might not have thought much about and impresses upon them the fact there is a constituency to be pleased or offended by how they vote.

But when both sides are going all out–such as in the debt ceiling fight–these phone calls don’t accomplish very much. Members of Congress already know both liberals and conservatives are riled up about the issue, and nothing activists say is likely to influence politicians who have, for the most part, made up their minds. When both ends of the spectrum play this card, it just reinforces that this is an issue the extremes consider a zero sum game.

It is telling however. that while congressional Republicans and Democrats were struggling with the issues, the president decided to act like an activist rather than someone genuinely concerned with solving the problem. Obama’s phone game did nothing to affect the outcome of this struggle, but it did highlight the absence of leadership in the White House.


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