There are a few things about the new media environment that conservatives need to understand if they want to remain competitive in the public policy arena.
Just as the onset of the 24 hour news channel reduced the length of the news cycle from days to minutes, the advent of social media platforms like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have further compressed it down to nanoseconds. The right person in the right place at the right time can change the direction of a debate or an election if they have a camera in their phone and access to the Internet.
In today's America, everything is media. The Reagan model of one staged event per day that would set the tone and drive coverage on the evening news and into the next morning is over. The White House used to set "the line of the day." With Twitter, just about anyone can create the line of the moment. Everything that several generations of politicos are used to has been replaced by a jumble of facts and figures moving unfiltered, unedited and directly to information consumers who are in a position to react before they can even think about it.
The Democrats, particularly President Barack Obama's campaign team, made the adjustment quickly and in meaningful ways. The Republicans are still playing catch up – which is part of the reason the party's 2012 presidential campaign fell so flat with voters. The GOP was unable to condense any of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's campaign themes into easily digestible pictures and phrases that had any appeal beyond the party faithful.
Slowly, with the onset of the debacle that is the healthcare.gov website, the GOP is catching on. Even though it probably caused the poor advance man who failed to intercept it to be transferred to an HHS auditing post somewhere in Alaska, the photo of Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius holding a copy of "Websites for Dummies" is now everywhere because it so nicely encapsulates what is going.
Parody and ridicule are effective weapons in political fights of this nature. The GOP has to step up its game to reach the level at which the Democrats play, but there is still plenty of time to accomplish that mission. Take the song "What Does the Fox Say?" by Ylvis. It went viral shortly after it was released on YouTube and, love it or hate it, everybody knows it. Given the sound alike nature of "What Does the Fox Say?" and "What Did Barack Say?" it seems ripe for parody – complete with President Obama repeating "You can keep – can keep your plan. You can keep – can keep your plan. … What Did Barack Say?" That's the new way to crack the new media culture, by hitching your message to a meme that everybody's heard and everybody knows.
The Democrats understand this, which is why they, for the moment, own the social media terrain. They're running "teach ins" and "training sessions" for reporters covering health care, suggesting items to be covered and having dialogues about what's important, while their philanthropic foundations are dangling dollars in front of television production teams willing to incorporate pro-Obamacare storylines into popular programming. They're coming at the argument from every direction imaginable and they're doing it because they understand that most of America tunes out politics in favor of ESPN, The Food Network and reality TV. The policy wonks pay attention but they are few and far between. The arguments for and against have to be reduced down to segments the average American can understand.
The healthcare.gov website story, while not planned, is a good example of this. People may not understand precisely why they lost their existing health coverage because of the Affordable Care Act, but they don't like it. What they like even less is how the healthcare.gov web site crashes when they try to enroll in the system and pick a new plan. The bad user interface undermines public confidence in the whole program, something the Republicans seem to understand and have been trying to hammer home.
They need to go a step farther in order to help people understand that a health care system designed by the same geniuses responsible for designing its non-functional web site cannot be fixed with a tweak here and a tug there. It needs to be scrapped – or at least delayed – and replaced with something that gives the American people what they want, what they need and that works. Social media platforms are a better place to drive that message home than "Meet the Press."