Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) begins almost every press conference with the phrase, “The American people are still asking: Where are the jobs?”
What ensued last week, however, were questions about a range of other topics, for instance presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s tax returns and Rep. Michele Bachmann’s (R-Minn.) widely maligned warning that Islamic fundamentalists had infiltrated the government.
Indeed, House Republican leaders had some trouble staying on message amid the noise, with topics both parties called sideshows dominating the news narrative.
When Members return today, it’s also possible that the Colorado shootings and their painful aftermath will be echoing through the halls. Some aides said they could imagine a push for discussion of gun control in the days ahead.
“This is a terrible tragedy for all Americans. It is too soon to tell what effect, if any, it will have on the House schedule and agenda,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said.
Still, Members and aides said this week’s push for eased government regulations and next week’s vote on extending all of the Bush-era tax cuts should help shift the focus back to jobs and the economy, where the GOP would like it to be.
During much of last week, Boehner and other GOP communicators expressed frustration at where public debate had gone.
“Americans are asking, ‘Where are the jobs’? They’re not asking where in the hell the tax returns are,” Boehner said last week. “This is another sideshow intended to draw the American people’s attention away from the real issue, and the real issue is that the president’s economic policies have failed.”
With President Barack Obama’s campaign seemingly ready to bump the favored GOP narrative off course at every turn, Rep. Tom Cole conceded that it can be difficult to break through with a strictly “jobs and the economy” message.
“It is, but look at the presidential level, that’s clearly President Obama’s campaign trying to throw people off the message,” the Oklahoma Republican said. “Any time we’re not talking about jobs and the economy, the deficit and spending, we’re probably not talking about the right thing.”
No matter what comes out of left field, however, the narrative always sways back to the economy — the most prominent issue in voters’ minds, he said.
“Fortunately, there’s some things in the environment that work in our favor. There’s going to be a jobs report every month,” he said. “At the end of the day, most people pay attention to what’s important. So even when we’re ‘off message,’ it’s not like the American people are paying a lot of attention to us. They know what the real issues are.”
But the bully pulpit can be hard to overcome, as evidenced by the release of last month’s jobs numbers. When June’s dismal job numbers were released, Obama came out swinging on the Bush-era tax cuts, calling again for an extension of the rates for only those earning less than $250,000 annually and shifting the focus from the jobs report.
Last week, the Obama campaign focused on Romney’s reluctance to release more than two years of his tax returns, which became the topic du jour on Capitol Hill.
Aides said the nature of the presidential campaign and the rapacious news coverage of each candidate can dilute the message.
“It’s certainly safe to say the campaign cycle is heating up, but that is the nature of the calendar we’re in,” a GOP aide said. “It doesn’t mean that we aren’t focused, and we’ll be using these last weeks to focus squarely on jobs and the economy.”
Aides pointed to the vote on the Sequester Transparency Act, a measure to make Obama compile a report on the effects of the across-the-board cuts to the budget mandated when the super committee failed to achieve its deficit-reduction goal.
The floor action ensured the sequester cuts were at the forefront, and parties traded barbs about who would be to blame if they took effect.
This week, the floor will be dominated by measures to cut government red tape. GOP aides say the message polls well among voters, but the measures tend to be somewhat arcane, and the top-line message is sure to stay focused elsewhere.
“Some of these bills may not seem very sexy, but this is the real work that Congress does that makes a difference in people’s lives,” said Erica Elliott, spokeswoman for Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). “If the D.C. press corps chose to cover half the things we’re doing with any amount of seriousness, there would not be a perception amongst the press that we have a messaging problem.”
Members are sure to keep messaging on their plans to extend all or part of the Bush-era tax cuts, and next week, the House will vote on a measure to do so.
The vote to extend all the tax rates just before the August recess should be evidence enough that the GOP has kept its focus, Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp said.
“We have an agenda. We’re going to have a vote on that agenda. And the American people are going to know which direction we want to go in terms of getting the economy moving again,” the Michigan Republican said.
And despite efforts to temporarily sidetrack the message, Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio) said the long-term focus of the GOP Conference has been undeterred.
Democrats “have been trying to change the subject for two years and we’re not going to change the subject. It’s about jobs and the economy. The election’s a referendum on the president’s record. I don’t care what they say,” he said.