On the National Mall, barricades bar tourists from entering the Lincoln Memorial. On Capitol Hill, lawmakers sit down at a negotiating table across from chairs left empty to symbolize the no-show opposition.
With scenes of the partial government shutdown filling television news broadcasts and front pages, practitioners of political stagecraft — Republicans, Democrats and bureaucrats — are striving to frame the debate and what’s at stake in ways the public can see and feel. But while efforts to control the optics of the debate can be very effective, they’re largely reinforcing, not changing, the mindset of voters increasingly cynical about Washington, experts say.
“We’re in an age, really, of visual storytelling…and you know the story even if you don’t read all the words,” said Rita Kirk, a professor of communication at Southern Methodist University who studies political messaging.
In just the first few days of the shutdown, officials and lawmakers seized on such visuals — whether by letting the Panda Cam go black when they closed the National Zoo or jousting in front of TV cameras over the rights of Mississippi veterans to enter the shuttered World War II Memorial — either to cast government as a vital provider or an uncaring behemoth. Such efforts are perfectly timed to fit the needs of the media, who are scrambling to find visible, accessible and compelling evidence of the shutdown as tools to tell the story.
But Washington’s efforts to manage the optics of the shutdown is evident even in the absence of images — most notably in the decision by the White House to cancel President Obama’s planned trip to an Asian economic summit, avoiding coverage Republicans could construe as showing him ignoring a crisis back at home.
The shutdown touches so many people and the debate is so heated, that any opportunity to manage the optics in a way that put opponents in a negative light is too powerful a tool for political players to resist, said Steve Schmidt, a Republican strategist who was a chief adviser to Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign.
“Politics surrounds every aspect of this,” said Schmidt, now a vice chairman at Edelman, one of the country’s largest public relations firms. “If you look at the polling and you look at the trend on polling, it doesn’t seem that people will need much reminding to be angry.”
But the longer the shutdown stretches on, the more hard-pressed Republican leaders will be to manage the visuals of a story that already plays strongly against them, he and others said. For now, though, the shutdown and surrounding debate is spinning so fast, it offers plenty of opportunities to try to manage public perceptions.
The most widely seen example of that came this week at the perimeter of the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., in what, at first glance, appeared to be a random example of the shutdown in motion. That is, until you consider the players.
For its part, the National Park Service could have merely unstaffed the memorial, following the Obama administration’s decision that national parks and monuments are not among essential government operations that must be kept open. But instead the agency decided to put up barricades, protecting the monument even as it sent a very visual message. “It’s a way to say ‘we do good work for you. Think about it!.” Kirk said.
When veterans arrived for their long-scheduled visit, members of Congress could have issued a statement supporting their entry to the monument. Instead, a number of lawmakers — mostly House Republicans, including Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, an outspoken cheerleader of the shutdown — arrived just in time to open the barricades so the old soldiers could enter, then stuck around to do television interviews.
And reporters were there because the organizer of the veterans’ trip, Springfield, Ohio-based Honor Flight Network, emailed media outlets the night before to let them know the showdown was coming, director Diane Gresse said.
“We knew the barricades would be placed. We knew it was looming with the government shutdown, so we knew it was going to be a pretty rough week,” Gresse said.
In the end, the efforts by the Park Service to keep people out of the memorial and the arrival of lawmakers demanding they be admitted changed nothing — except to provide a very visual reminder of what is at stake.
“If (officials) didn’t go out of their way to visualize it in some cases, you wouldn’t know it was shut down,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. “To some extent, government time is being taken to demonstrate that government is valuable.”
Stagecraft has long been at the heart of politics, particularly at carefully orchestrated events like conventions and campaign appearances where backdrops, lighting and even the appearance of surrounding crowds are carefully managed to put a politician and message in the best light.
The way the public sees a politician in action can even outweigh what they hear, Kirk said. She recalled years ago when Reagan aide Michael Deaver thanked a confused TV interviewer whose grilling of the president about his proposals to shrink the Social Security program coincided with images on the screen of him engaged in warm conversation with nursing home residents.
Despite the negativity of the questioning, Deaver told the interviewer, the only thing people would remember was the positive visuals.
The optics of the shutdown are harder to control because they play out on a much larger canvas. The task is complicated by voters’ increased skepticism about what they’re hearing from politicians on both sides, particularly because earlier predictions of economic catastrophe from the automatic spending cuts known as the sequester have largely not come true, Jamieson said.
Still, the optics of the debate strongly favor Democrats and the Obama administration, whether its video of closed national parks or news reports of children denied cancer treatment at the National Institutes of Health. Again and again, those images remind Americans of all the federal government provides. And despite efforts by Republicans lawmakers to blame the shutdown on Democrats, voters — conditioned by the 1995-96 shutdown and rhetoric of some conservatives voicing pleasure with this partial closure — have little reason to believe them, Schmidt said.
As a result, some of Republican’s most visible efforts to manage the optics in their favor ring hollow.
“When you make a political argument you have to have credibility for it to be believed and, in this case, Republicans simply don’t have it,” Schmidt said. “When three of the most extreme members of the Republican party show up at the World War II Memorial using World War II veterans as props, most people find it repugnant.”
Managing the optics of the shutdown get more complicated the longer it stretches on, when news coverage will likely focus less on people being inconvenienced and more on those being seriously hurt, Kirk said.
For that reason, political consultants are probably counseling Republicans to think about the way it looks to voters and whether they can think of a single positive personal story that shows the shutdown is a good thing. If they can’t come up with that visual, she said, even the most skilled management of political optics will make it hard to win the political battle.
Adam Geller, a New York-based national writer, can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/AdGeller .