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'Illusioning Victory From Defeat': A Washington Story

New York Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer speaks at a news conference on gun legislation earlier this year.
Win McNamee
Getty Images
New York Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer speaks at a news conference on gun legislation earlier this year.

At the end of another demoralizing and unproductive Washington week, it struck us that the messaging of failure is a very delicate business — for members of both flailing parties.

New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer's straight-faced characterization of the House GOP's rejection of his immigration bill as "encouraging" best illustrated the problem.

For nothing was hopeful and nobody was a winner in the nation's capital this week.

Certainly not Schumer, who emerged from a White House meeting on immigration Thursday to utter this mind-boggling assessment: "If I had to choose a word for yesterday's House meeting, it would be 'encouraging.' "

It was also a bad week for Republicans, who may be reflecting the reality of their base by pushing back on an immigration overhaul that includes a path to citizenship, but who are increasingly seen by the nation's voters as responsible for Washington gridlock.

Cut 'Extraneous' Food Aid

Republicans this week also managed to write out of the farm bill the food stamp nutrition program used by 15 percent of Americans.

The move, certain to be squelched by the Senate, is largely symbolic. GOP messaging seemed a bit awkward: "What we have carefully done is exclude some extraneous pieces," said Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, about taking the food program out of the farm bill.

Voters may be forgiven, however, for finding their "who-to-blame" calculation more complicated this week, especially after a filibuster rules snit-fest Thursday morning on the Senate floor involving Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

A taste:

Reid: "Senator McConnell broke his word. The Republican leader has failed to live up to his commitments. He's failed to do what he said he would do — move nominations by regular order except in extraordinary circumstances. I refuse to unilaterally surrender my right to respond to this breach of faith."

McConnell: "No majority leader wants written on his tombstone that he presided over the end of the Senate. Well, if this majority leader caves to the fringes and lets this happen, I'm afraid that's exactly what they'll write."

Reid: "If anyone thinks since the first of the year that the norms and traditions of the Senate have been followed by the Republican leader, they're living in Gaga Land."

Look forward to more in the coming week when on Tuesday, the conservative Washington Times reports, there will be a "dramatic showdown in which Republicans either will have to accept seven of President Obama's controversial appointments or watch as Democrats change the rules and end filibusters of executive branch nominees."

(The "controversial" Obama nominees the Senate Republicans have been blocking are his picks for Labor Department secretary, the Environmental Protection Agency administrator, heads of the Export-Import Bank and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and three members of the National Labor Relations Board.)

Who's Reasonable? Radical?

So, who could really blame Schumer for taking a stab at being seen as someone "encouraged" by the dismal week, and for seeing a bridge between the rival camps, whether it exists or not.

Not those in the business of public relations.

"The Democrats don't want to be seen as divisive and controversial," says Peter Himler, founder of the New York-based PR firm Flatiron Communications.

"The goal is to get a comprehensive immigration law passed. And the question for Democrats is, 'Do we expedite that by disparaging the Republican-led House? Or do we do begin by sounding encouraging?'"

Schumer and his party have chosen the path of trying to get more with honey than vinegar, Himler says. (Well, at least when it comes to immigration. As for the GOP farm bill, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee press release blared: "House Republicans Ram Through Radical Farm Bill.")

In the wake of Schumer's optimistic take. Paul Hartunian, a New Jersey-based public relations man, half-jokingly suggested adding the phrases "fantasizing victory" or "illusioning victory from defeat" to the lexicon of Washington. But he says he doesn't blame Schumer, or any other politician, for trying to turn a losing moment into a winner.

"I'm going to put a lot of blame on the general public," he said, for intellectual laziness, and not calling out politicians when they "put lipstick on a pig, put that pig in a kissing booth, and hope nobody notices."

Think about whom and what you are kissing, he advises, especially during a week like the one that just was.

A week during which, Schumer insisted, "we're moving forward."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Liz Halloran joined NPR in December 2008 as Washington correspondent for Digital News, taking her print journalism career into the online news world.