- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 7, 2003

Deflate the balloons. Put the corks back in the bottles. For Republicans, winning back control of the Senate and expanding their majority in the House in an economic climate of anxiety and world climate of uncertainty was quite a feat and worthy of celebration.
But the party's over. Now it's time to govern. And govern they must.
Since 9/11, there has been a sea change in the mindset of America. As a focus group moderator, I hear a very different voice of a very changed America. In these uncertain times, people are no longer content to subsist on the sound bites, sloganeering, and other stratagems of political gamesmanship. For a country on the brink of war and not that far away from economic meltdown, no excuses for inaction will be accepted.
In the words of the most famous product advertising campaign of the 1990s, just do it and do it now.
While Iraq and national security may dominate the news coverage, an underlying anxiety and economic insecurity is what dominates the American mindset today. No, it is not "the economy, stupid" of Clinton and Carville. When Americans express concern about the economy today, they are really talking about their own deteriorating financial situation. More than a third of the country has watched their personal savings and retirement nest eggs depreciate significantly, and they want that money back soon.
It is a political imperative for Republicans to pass legislation that restores confidence in the financial markets, and permanent tax relief is an essential component of financial security. True, only the most partisan Republican pollster would claim that a tax cut ranks as the Number One priority in America today, but only the most partisan Democrat would be so foolish as to advocate repealing the tax cuts in these days of economic uncertainty. From income tax reductions to death tax repeal, passing a permanent tax relief package will be celebrated in Republican circles and appreciated by all taxpayers. And since most Democrats are unlikely to go along, this represents an effective way to differentiate.
The other issue that keeps cropping up is the national debt. We all remember the billboard debt counters of the late 1980s and the publicity they generated, but the American public still sees deficit reduction as secondary to economic vitality and ending wasteful Washington spending.
Individually, Americans believe that their personal economic success often necessitates taking on some debt-from home mortgages to loans for a small business. At the national level, Americans are still fed up with Washington money THEIR money ill spent by some faceless faraway bureaucrat. As long as Republicans make a show of cutting waste, fraud and abuse, they will be forgiven for a little red ink. But if they become obsessed with balancing books at the expense of forward economic progress, they will pay a heavy price in 2004.
Looming above and beyond the economy is the restoration of national security. Voters warmed to the Republican argument this fall that Americans cannot achieve economic, financial or retirement security until we achieve homeland security, and they grew impatient with all the rancorous partisanship surrounding the homeland security legislation. There is a common-sense consensus across the country that we cannot re-grow our economy if there are wolves gathering at the edges of, or even in, our fields.
The final component of a politically viable agenda contains a prescription drug benefit for seniors and the restoration of health security. The significance of Republicans leading the way to passage of a prescription drug benefit and reform of Medicare cannot be overstated. It could guarantee them control of Washington for multiple election cycles.
But issues and a successful legislative agenda will not guarantee Republican success in 2004. There are two key communication lessons from 2002 that must be learned and re-learned every day.
First, overt partisanship is dead. Congressional Democrat leaders celebrated their partisanship the way a 16-year-old celebrates getting his drivers license and it contributed to their downfall. The excesses of rhetoric and the deficiencies of civility did not and do not sit well with the American people. Republicans have to be careful not to engage in similar behavior.
And second, the single most important attribute of a politician today is "to say what you mean and mean what you say." It is paramount that Republicans articulate their vision and goals for the next two years and then go out and get it done.
On Election Night, old paradigms were broken, historic assumptions shattered. But in politics, two years is a lifetime. Today the Republicans have the wind at their back and the world at their feet. But like the weather in New England, the political winds can shift without notice.
So act quickly. A majority is a terrible thing to waste.

Frank Luntz has moderated more than 100 focus groups in the past year for public affairs and corporate clients and for MSNBC.


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