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Harold Feld

Harold Feld

Posted: March 18, 2010 03:20 PM

How Democrats Undercut Themselves: Ambassador Phil Verveer Undermines His Boss and Her Boss While Schmoozing At Think Tank Lunch

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Want to know why the Obama Administration can't seem to get its "messaging" together? Consider the recent case of The Hon. Phil Verveer, who managed to echo a set of Republican attack bullets at an event at the Media Institute, a think tank funded by big media conglomerates to lobby for a Citizens United view of the First Amendment. In the question and answer session, Verveer managed stray from the original topic of his speech and drop some casual remarks that undermined not just Secretary Clinton's Internet freedom agenda, but President Obama's domestic broadband agenda generally. To make matters worse, Verveer's comments came one day after the crowning achievement of the Obama Administration on broadband to date: the release of the a National Broadband Plan spelling out how we can leverage modern technology to create jobs, make government more efficient, and improve the quality of life for all Americans.

How did a man as experienced and professional as Verveer manage to get so off message at precisely the wrong time? Apparently through carelessness. Verveer was a lunch speaker at the Media Institute and, according to the Broadcasting and Cable article, got a question from the audience on network neutrality and on an even more arcane and technical question in an already wonky proceeding -- whether the FCC should "reclassify" broadband access as a "telecommunications service" rather than an "information" service.

I will freely confess I am heavily involved in pushing for both network neutrality and reclassification, and those interested in the substance can follow those links. Suffice it to say that both industry incumbents and Republicans in Congress and the FCC have attacked both network neutrality and now reclassification with tea party tactics and the same fact-free vigor that has been the hallmark of DC policy debates in recent years. At the roll out for the National Broadband Plan, for example, Republican Commissioners McDowell and Baker wasted no time wagging their fingers at the Democrats warning against any evil-nasty-bad-bad-job-killing-death-panel regulation, like network neutrality or -- horrors!! -- reclassification. Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fl), the ranking member on the relevant subcommittee, accused the National Broadband Plan of being a "stalking horse" for network neutrality.

So now lets flash back to Ambassador Verveer at the Media Institute, just after giving a speech on cloud computing, facing a question about network neutrality. President Obama has voiced his full support for net neutrality on Youtube last month and his direct boss Secretary Clinton, pointed to network neutrality in her Internet Freedom Speech as an important example of protecting individual freedom. So one would expect Verveer to (a) be aware the subject might come up, and (b) defend the explicit position of the President and Secretary Clinton that net neutrality serves the cause of human freedom.

What you would not expect is for the Ambassador for Telecom in an Administration committed to Net Neutrality to say "gosh, all this talk of 'regulation' undermines our effort to open markets." Because you would expect someone at this level to understand that a lunch event at a conservative think tank is not an opportunity to schmooze about your personal views. At the very least, you would expect someone at this level to have enough sense not to echo and repeat Republican talking points used to undermine the broadband plan your colleagues at the FCC spent the last year creating.

I have no doubt that Ambassador Verveer did not think of himself as "echoing Republican talking points" or "undermining the National Broadband Plan." And that is the big problem. Republicans have long understood that framing is half the battle, and that every time you reinforce a frame you win another round. Democrats want to have complex and nuanced debates about healthcare. Republicans want to talk about "big government." You never hear a Republican saying "hmmm...well, I know everyone in my party views this as a critically important issue. But between us, I think it could cause problems." Because -- like it or not -- we are not living in a time when policy debates and public opinion tolerate nuance.

So when someone from the Obama administration echoes the general Republican attack points -- even on some little subsection of a bigger issue -- it undermines the whole structure. It reinforces the overall frame the Republicans use and use then relentless reuse again and again until it frames the entire debate. Worse, it also reinforces the view that Republicans are unified professionals while Democrats are amateurs who can't get their act together.

At the end of the day, Ambassador Verveer's little misstep at a big media think tank on the wonkiest piece of an already complicated and technical issue is a blip on the radar screen. Unless it keeps happening. In which case, Democrats will once again find themselves wondering why they can't frame issues.

Harold Feld is Legal Director of  

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