Republicans looking to recover from Bush-era defeats are turning to an unlikely source for advice: top aides to former President George W. Bush.
Former White House press secretary Dana Perino, former Bush counselor Ed Gillespie and former White House deputy press secretary Tony Fratto are among those set to provide words of wisdom to House Republican press secretaries at their annual workshop this Friday.
GOP House Conference Communications Director Matt Lloyd said Perino, Gillespie and Fratto represented “the gold standard for Republican communications professionals” and were obvious choices to advise the party’s messengers.
But Democrats are deriding the move to bring in the Bush veterans, calling it proof that the GOP has failed to recognize that Bush’s policies are at least partly to blame for the party’s minority status.
“Reuniting the Bush operation is like making a sequel to a very bad movie. House Republicans are better off staying home, watching soaps and coming up with new ideas for their out-of-touch party,” said Doug Thornell, spokesman for Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.).
The Bush vets, for their part, couldn’t disagree more. In fact, they say their turbulent White House years make them uniquely suited to advise a House Republican Conference stuck in a nearly 80-seat minority.
“We are battle-tested,” said Perino, who was Bush’s last press secretary.
Fratto, who spent three years as Bush’s deputy press secretary, cited his experience “being in an actual duel with the slings and arrows from Congress.”
Fratto said he wanted to put the House press secretaries in a campaign-style mind-set and would encourage the staffers to do their jobs with an eye toward winning House seats in 2010.
Lloyd called the workshop — which also includes former Reagan speechwriter Terry Dolan and Mitt Romney presidential campaign strategist Mandy Finn — an integral part of the GOP’s renewed focus on communications.
“The press secretary workshop is one more tool in our belt that we are using to ensure press secretaries continue to get their members the most coverage possible, which in turn drives the Republican message across the country,” Lloyd said.
“Policies of the Bush administration aside, it’s indisputable that [the workshop participants] are outstanding at their jobs, and their wisdom will serve Republican press secretaries well.”
With little power to stop the enlarged House Democratic majority procedurally, Republicans say their best strategy is to head for the microphones.
In November, after Republicans lost 21 seats, Conference Chairman Mike Pence went so far as to urge members to cut their legislative staff to make room for communications aides.
Today, House Republicans point to growth in their communications departments. House Minority Leader John Boehner has added Antonia Ferrier, a former staffer for Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), to respond to White House issues, while House Minority Whip Eric Cantor has brought on veteran press operatives John Murray, Matt Lira and Brad Dayspring and rapid-responder Joe Pounder. Pence has doubled the size of the Conference office’s communications team.
Even nonleadership offices have been expanding their ranks, with rank-and-file lawmakers such as Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas) and freshman Rep. Chris Lee (R-N.Y.) adding several press aides.
Perino, who since departing the White House has joined the public relations firm Burson-Marsteller, said the intensified communications effort is paying off, and she offered particular praise for the conference’s repeated mantra during the spring that the White House budget “taxes too much, spends too much and borrows too much.”
“The only way to get your message out is through earned media, and Republicans have to work it,” she said.
“I think they’re improving, and they’re starting to get a sense of how to attack in the next 18 months ahead of 2010,” said Fratto.
But aides concede there’s still a long way to go — and they say they have that in mind heading into this week’s confab. In one notable failure this spring, House Republicans held a much-hyped news conference on their alternative budget before aides had finished one. The result was a slew of bad press — and aides were left pointing fingers over who was to blame.
Democratic jabs aside, former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen, who will be speaking at the workshop, said the Bush vets had something important: experience in the rough-and-tumble world of electoral politics.
“The people they are bringing in have a lot of experience on campaigns,” Thiessen told POLITICO. “There’s a lot of lessons to be learned for future campaigns.”