The GOP's Absolute Papal Pickle

06/19/2015 11:56 am ET | Updated Jun 19, 2016


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Being absolutist on the issues wins you easy headlines and passionate supporters. But only when those issues are based on solid foundations, and the GOP's rock-solid climate position has suffered a Papal earthquake.

Whether you agree or disagree with the Pope's encyclical on climate change, there's one political point that we can all agree on. In their knee-jerk response to that document, at least two GOP presidential candidates have completely blown it.

Politics isn't always a black and white matter. There are degrees of nuance to many issues. The Democrats not only understand this but communicate it as well, and that's what causes the frequent flip-floppy nature of their communications -- the appearance that, compared to the rock-solid Republicans, the Democrats are the less red-blooded party.

The Republicans are consistently resolute and swift in their responses to events at home and abroad. This gives the appearance of conviction that creates their passionate political base.

But let's talk about that GOP base. It's famously constructed on Ronald Reagan's three-legged stool. Originally comprised of faith, free-enterprise, and fighting forces, that political trinity metastasised under Karl Rove into the more familiar God, gays, and guns mantra that we recognise today.

Within it was contained a communications strategy that linked faith in religion with disbelief in science. Attacking science on climate change was consistent with maintaining a faith-based position on everything else. Reagan's three-legged stool was stable and potent, even though 'The Gaffer' himself might not have quite recognised the presentation. That pitch propelled George W. into the White House. Twice.

Now however, it's wrong-footed his brother before the official electoral starting-pistol has even been fired.

Faith is a powerful position to speak from. Faith is absolute. Faith is right or wrong and black or white. There's no room for grey, and that means over the years that the GOP have forgotten that sometimes grey might be the best answer. But when it comes to policy, absolute belief begets absolute positions.

The Pope's encyclical puts two of Reagan's stool-legs in conflict -- God and Mammon if you will. Jeb Bush and Rick Santorum were the first to respond, and both of them, given that choice between fossil fuels and faith unhesitatingly kicked God's representative to the curb.

First, Jeb Bush stated that he doesn't take his economic policy from Bishops or Popes. Next, Rick Santorum commented that the Vatican has been "wrong about science before". In doing so, they've both undermined a key electoral constituency.

The presidential candidates have fallen into a trap produced of their own conditioning. Used to faith-based policy positions, they have become addicted to simple 'right or wrong' answers.

Faced with the Papal encyclical on Climate Change, the best response would have been to say that the Papal position was "interesting", or to say that it deserved "further study". Go grey. Say anything except "He's wrong!" And let's not forget that when these comments were made, the encyclical itself hadn't even been published.

The GOP have plenty of proxies who could have responded. Oil companies, coal producers, all have come out with counter-arguments to the Pope's letter and that's just fine - the oil companies and coal producers aren't up for election - but the GOP are.

The GOP response has just lashed-out at one of the world's supreme moral figures and the spiritual leader of tens of millions of Catholic Americans. That's a fundamental leg of Reagan's famous three-legged coalition.

Would you buy a stool with only two legs?

Not all of the GOP field have as yet responded. If they are not to alienate a huge chunk of their electoral base, they need to give their responses to the Pope's message a little more grace. And possibly learn that there are times in political communications when the middle ground is the safer ground.

Peter Paskale is a communications coach and analyst who writes The Presenters' Blog at