What Do You Say?

Yesterday TPM Reader NN wrote in to ask what exactly it makes sense to say if you’re calling a Senate office about Roe and Reform. I thought others might be interested too. So here’s the gist of what I told her.

First, whenever I’m operating in this mode there’s always a balance between journalism and advocacy, one in which I’m leaning a bit out of my comfort zone. In a case like this I’m not trying to convince you to do one thing or another. It is rather one of a handful of cases over the last couple decades where I believe my experience and knowledge of American politics gives me some insight into how a lot of people’s very strongly held beliefs can be applied successfully to the mechanics and idiosyncrasies of American politics. There’s no shortage here of passion or intensity of belief. But how to work the levers of our political and electoral structure can be less clear.

You have to start with an issue that no Democratic politician can afford to be on the wrong side of. If everyone’s all over the place or just not being clear, it’s hard to work the issue. Because what are the sides exactly? What are the key “yes” or “no” questions? That’s why legislators keep things vague. It makes it hard for voters to have a clear sense of what’s happening or who the hold up might be. But once a decent chunk of legislators take a clear position things come into focus. You see who the real holdouts are. Once you whittle a list of 48 senators down to three or four potential holdouts the pressure on that handful just becomes too much to withstand. They will fold. That’s why a Cory Booker or a Martin Heinrich, even though they will almost certainly make such a vote when the moment comes, are at present the biggest problem. They could advance the ball easily. But so far they’re not.

That’s the key. None of these people — with possibly one or two exceptions — are really opposed to this. They just instinctively don’t like taking firm positions — and a big part of that is that they live in SenateWorld where politics outside the chamber seems secondary and somewhat alien, a bit beneath them.

Here’s one example. There is one senator who I would say will be one of the last of the 48 to sign on. I know that he recently told someone privately that he’ll definitely be there when the vote comes but he doesn’t want to commit to it publicly for fear of putting colleagues who might be more hesitant on the spot or in an uncomfortable position. That tells you quite a lot about how this works. Partly it’s a collective action problem. But it’s also the logic of SenateWorld. If you care about this issue you want to put those few hold-outs on the spot. You want to make it uncomfortable.

So what do you actually say?

What moves politicians is people calling their offices. That’s a real measure of what their constituents care about. If constituents are upset or energized about something they will not want to be on the wrong side of that. In the simplest sense just hearing from a lot of people, people not phone banked in but genuinely picking up the phone and calling, is what will move them. As for what you should say individually, you should really say anything you want as long as it makes that point clear: This is your position and it matters to you a lot.

But what is most effective is insisting on a straight answer. Be polite, but firm. You have every right to a clear answer from your representatives about where they stand and what they are going to do. Here’s the question. Will the senator use this specific tool (suspend the filibuster rule) to accomplish this specific end (allow the Roe law to give a simple majority vote and thus become law). That’s a yes or no question and, critically, no clear answer is itself an answer, and not a good one. If they are refusing to give an answer to such a straightforward and critical question, well … let other people know. It’s not a good look and they know it. One on one they may be comfortable stiffing you when you ask for a straight answer but if you let other people know, that’s a problem for them. Tell your friends, tell media, tell me. Spread the word. If you want to make an argument or share your thoughts, definitely do that. But the most effective thing is just to ask for a clear yes or no answer. Simple as that. Polite but firm. You’re entitled to an answer. It will make a difference.

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