How overdone has The Wall Street Journal’s campaign against Sens. Mike Lee and Ted Cruz been these last few weeks? Seriously, read it. To quote a friend, “It’s a bit much.” But while they’ve been wrong about a lot of things, there actually are some lessons to learn from the defund fight.
The Wall Street Journal is a good newspaper. One of the best, if not the best. So please hold the “#war” and the “#RINO” and all the other Twitter tropes. But, for one minute, also consider just how much they’re missing the point, with exhibit A: deputy editorial director Daniel Henninger’s Thursday column, “Obama Romneyizes the Republicans: The president is doing the same thing to Ted Cruz and the tea party that he did to the 1%.”
The crux of the story is that Messrs. Cruz, Lee and the rest don’t understand social media, and though “the GOP promised that it would duplicate the incredible modern messaging machine the Obama team created across every available new-information platform,” that hasn’t happened.
The only problem is that the defund Republicans used social media masterfully.
How Sens. Cruz and Lee used Twitter to fight:
“Want a look at how a pro is spinning the Washington mess?,” Mr. Henninger challenges. “Punch into Twitter.com and type ‘Barack Obama’ into the search window. Click on ‘Barack Obama,’ next to the ‘End This Now’ logo. The Obama tweets the past week have been fairly amazing.”
Our guide then leads us through Mr. Obama’s “fairly amazing” tweets. The people love them! But come now. Did our guide not take a look at the loyal opposition’s Twitter account?
Let’s do a little Twitter experiment. On the afternoon of Oct. 16 — 16 days into the shutdown — Mr. Obama’s account wrote:
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) October 16, 2013
As of publication, that little ditty was the subject of 3,800 retweets — a way someone can spread the message — and 436 “favorites” — a way someone can say they agree.
Three hours later, Mr. Cruz sent out a message. Oh, and this one had a picture — a portrait, which the experts tell us tweeters like:
— Senator Ted Cruz (@SenTedCruz) October 16, 2013
As of publication, that little ditty was the subject of 3,587 retweets and 707 favorites.
OK, so that’s 213 — or 5.6 percent — fewer retweets than the president of the United States, but let’s take this a step further and look at engagement.
The most powerful man in the world boasts 38,446,040 Twitter followers — “that’s nearly 30 percent of the total popular vote in 2012 … unless some of these are fake,” Mr. Henninger points out. So that means .01 percent of the president’s followers retweeted, showing some kind of engagement with the president’s message. (RELATED: 55 percent of Obama’s Twitter followers are fake)
The senator from Texas, on the other hand, can only boast 196,802 Twitter followers. So that means 1.82 percent of the senator’s followers retweeted, showing some kind of engagement with the senator’s message.
And although he has a more limited — though growing — Twitter following than either of them, a similar experiment on a similar tweet finds that .88 percent* of Mr. Lee’s Twitter audience was engaged by his messaging.
And before anyone goes off and explains the differences between this and that, just shut up. The point here is clear, and it’s that Mr. Henninger has no point. And as one senior wacko bird staffer told TheDC, the paragraph quoted above would be better written if “Mr. Cruz” was substituted for “Obama”:
Want a look at how a pro is spinning the Washington mess? Punch into Twitter.com and type “Ted Cruz” into the search window. Click on “Ted Cruz,” next to the “MakeDCListen” logo. The Cruz tweets the past week have been fairly amazing.”
So if it Wasn’t Twitter, How Did Obama Win the Messaging War?
The president of the United State commands the most powerful bully pulpit in history. And as Mr. Henninger rightly points out, Mr. Obama has elected to use that platform to broadcast “virtually wall-to-wall propaganda.” OK, now what? So, Republicans are still terrible at social messaging?
“Barack Obama is Romneyizing the Republicans,” Mr. Henninger concludes. “He’s doing to Ted Cruz and the House Republicans what he did to Mitt Romney and the 1%.”
But Mr. Cruz and Mr. Lee have learned the lessons of 2012 — at least in regards to the example Mr. Henninger chose to dwell on, Twitter. (RELATED: Study: Twittersphere is a liberal, myopic, negative place)
A lot of things contributed to Mr. Romney’s loss, in particular Mr. Obama’s voter-turnout apparatus, a true marvel of modern engineering that, despite its best efforts, has not found a way to transform electoral success into legislative victories. Why? The House and Senate are made up of a much smaller group of individuals with, frankly, more complicated incentives than a citizen voter. So just hold the requiem music a minute. (OFA: How Obama and his PAC lost on gun control)
This kind of panicking from a smart and talented writer in the pages of a venerable center-right editorial section gives a glimpse into the poll-number panic engulfing other pieces in the same vein. My goodness, we’re told, The polls show “that the Cruz-led effort has largely backfired among the public.”
Again, we ask, to what end? Will these polls matter? Will people vote on them?
Some of the shutdown panic reminds us of the old Reaganite who points out that Americans overwhelmingly support missile defense and “In God we trust,” so the GOP should run on that platform. But knowing the American people think something is very different from whether it is a motivator when they vote. (Hint: Those aren’t.)
Exhibit A: On the same day the Messrs. Cruz and Obama sent the aforementioned tweets — at the peak of hand-wringing over the national hatred of the GOP and, especially, the tea party — there was a little regarded special election in New Jersey.
In the blue corner, a young, charismatic and handsome rising star in the Democratic Party who was publicly supported by the president, the Clintons, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and a host of celebrities. In the red corner, an uncharismatic, blind and unapologetic tea party candidate who had practically no help from his party or governor. Despite early landslide predictions — and a government shutdown — the Democrats pulled this one off by a mere 10 points. Christie not withstanding, this solid turnout took place in solidly blue state that Mr. Obama won by 18 points in a regular election just 11 months prior. (RELATED: How Cruz, Lee and Paul shut down Obama’s agenda)
There were obvious mistakes in the defund strategy, and with not a little help from demagogues on the left and hand-wringers on the right, Mr. Obama won a symbolic victory.
But what can we actually glean from this?
Consider this: The reason Messrs. Lee and Cruz led the charge is because there was nothing — zero, kaput — from Republican “leadership.” And while those two were able to rally enough of the conservatives to hold Speaker of the House John Boehner hostage and stage a mock battle, without official leadership they were unable to rein in Republican defectors, who took to the media to attack their colleagues’ plan.
Would a solid Republican front have carried the day and defunded Obamacare? No. But the options playing out in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s head sure would have looked a lot different if he’d seen a united front marching on him.
The real lessons of this fight are that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Mr. Boehner and their friends can’t afford not to lead — and lead against the Democrats. There are those in both chambers who are ready, willing and determined to fight, and now they are in contact across the chambers — coordination that has been depressingly difficult for conservatives to achieve.
No, it isn’t Mr. Obama who threatens to “Romneyize” the Republicans — it’s leadership.
And they hopefully know that now.
*Author’s note: This article originally overstated the percent of Mr. Lee’s follower engagement.