The Retreat

More than thirty years ago, when America was a slightly different place – Ronald Reagan, of all people, became our president and Dynasty, with scary Joan Collins, premiered on ABC – the transition from teaching to the business world wasn’t all that hard. No one does such things these days – no one is hiring anyone if they can help it, much less an English teacher with no notions at all about product development or manufacturing resource planning or marketing or return-on-investment or any of that stuff. Still, any large organization has to find a way to run smoothly, which means dealing with all sorts of people with different issues. That means that such organizations have, or used to have, some sort of department called Training and Organizational Development, usually a subset of Human Resources, the folks who hire and fire people. Training and Organizational Development is where you try to deal with what you’ve got, which is where former teachers turn up. Someone has to teach those weekly interactive Management Development sessions, where the recently promoted learn how to deal with the crap of leading a team without being a total jerk or doing something totally illegal. A lot of that is common sense – try to be a mensch, but demand excellence, and follow the damned labor law – but that’s harder than it seems. At the giant aerospace operation down by the beach, where they made satellites and odd payload packages and secret stuff no one would talk about, the nerdy young engineers with their multiple PhDs had a hard time transitioning to supervision, where you had to get others to do what you’d rather do yourself, because you were so smart after all. They resisted, to say the least, but those classes were a fine challenge, and fun too, and really this wasn’t all that different from dragging surly late adolescents, kicking and screaming, through Hamlet each year at that fancy prep school in upstate New York. They whined a lot and then they got it, and the weather out here in Los Angeles was far better anyway.

What wasn’t fun were the off-sites. Every year or two senior management would decide things were falling apart somehow, or might fall apart, so they’d ask Training and Organizational Development to schedule a retreat, a few days at the Balboa Bay Club down in Newport Beach or at that ranch complex up in the hills above Malibu anyone can rent for such things, even if they filmed that MASH television series up there and it looked a lot like Korea. These retreats would involve scheduling motivational speakers, who are generally vile self-serving charlatans with egos the size of Kansas, and consultants to discuss economic trends in relation to government policy and geopolitics and mass psychology and all sorts of things – which had folks dozing off. Then there was agreeing to moderate panel discussions about the real nature of the business and future directions, and about what had gone so wrong and what can be done about it, and what is going right and how to keep that from fading away. Those of us in Training and Organizational Development were tasked with keeping these senior management guys on topic, and keeping them from tearing each other’s throats out. That was no fun at all, but the worst thing was leading those damned trust exercises – yeah, tell some executive vice president to close his eyes and fall backwards, trusting his colleagues will catch him. They always did, but everyone knew they didn’t really want to. This was called Team Building. The whole business was bizarre.

That was a long time ago, but businesses still do this all the time, and it seems that political parties do too:

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. – House Republicans are cloistered at a tony golf resort here for three days hoping to resurrect their battered political brand, as they prepare for what could be another damaging confrontation with President Obama over federal spending.

At their annual retreat, House members said there is general fretting about the damage done to the party’s image by the strident tone adopted by some candidates and officials.

“It’s a time for self-reflection,” said one member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share details of the private discussions. “Our identity with the American people has really, really suffered, and this is a conversation about collectively restoring a values-driven identity.”

That sounds familiar. Collectively Restoring a Values-Driven Identity – that’s the kind of thing that gets scrawled on the flip chart in the brainstorming segment of the panel discussion at the management retreat high above Malibu, and everyone thinks that’s just the ticket to save the day, until they’re back at work on Monday, look at those words, and realize they have no idea at all what those words actually mean, if anything. That was fluff. This Washington Post account of the House Republican Retreat goes on to explain that the consensus here was that the real issue was to communicate better without rethinking any policy positions at all:

“This is about tone. It’s about messaging and it’s about showing people what we’re for instead of what we’re against,” said Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), describing his message to House Republicans at a lunch-time session Thursday.

That’s good advice and it seems that a Republican pollster in one of the sessions said, guys, you really shouldn’t mention rape anymore, just don’t say the word. Remember what happened in Indiana and Missouri.

Not all consultants are useless, but there’s this:

Sessions this week included advice on turning around troubled organizations from the chief executive of Domino’s Pizza and a motivational address from the first blind man to summit Mount Everest.

That also sounds familiar, but something had to be done:

The House Republicans’ retreat follows a particularly rocky period for them politically: The November election went poorly. Besides Obama’s defeat of Mitt Romney, Democrats enlarged their Senate majority and picked up eight seats in the House.

Lawmakers and staff members attending the retreat described the discussions as passionate and intense, but not angry.

They would say that, but take it from someone who has worked in Training and Organizational Development, the anger was there, and Chris Moody offers a better account:

A heavy drizzle is falling on the wooded golf course here at the Kingsmill Resort and Spa, where House Republicans are hidden away this week for a notably secretive retreat. Media are not allowed inside the building where the conference is held, so reporters wait restlessly in a clubhouse restaurant separated by a puddle-filled parking lot.

A single television inside the clubhouse room is stuck on C-SPAN 2, where retired Wyoming Sen. Kent Conrad delivers a PowerPoint presentation about the federal budget, and the bespectacled former Senate budget chairman is droning on about how his former colleagues had failed to act on debt reduction. There are graphs and long lists of bullet points. It’s 9:00 a.m., far too early for such excitement.

A bored reporter walks toward the TV and grabs the remote.

“I can’t take it anymore,” he says. “I’m sorry.”

He changes the channel to CNN, which is airing a piece about Notre Dame football star Manti T’eo and “The Mystery of the Fictitious Girlfriend.” No one in the room protests…

That rather nicely captures how dismal these events really are, including the lame gimmicks:

The nation’s Founding Fathers – impersonators brought in from nearby colonial Williamsburg – graced the members’ presence the night before. Dressed in the highest fashion of late 18th-century, actors dressed as Benjamin Franklin, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson spoke to the Republican lawmakers, perhaps as a reminder of what they’re supposed to be fighting for. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell also stopped by, as well as Erik Weihenmayer, the first blind man ever to climb Mt. Everest. According to those present, the room was captivated. He spoke about “using adversity” as an advantage, a message that resonated to the House Republicans of the 113th Congress. “We got to see someone who had all this vision, and he can’t even see,” said one attendee, awed by the presentation.

Things will seem different on Monday morning, and as for that rape business, Politico reports on that:

It’s way past time: House Republicans need to stop talking about rape.

That’s the message GOP lawmakers got here Wednesday evening from Kellyanne Conway, a top GOP pollster.

Conway dispensed the stern advice as part of a polling presentation she made alongside fellow GOP pollsters David Winston – an adviser to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) – and Dave Sackett. The comment was described by several sources in the room.

Conway said rape is a “four-letter word,” and Republicans simply need to stop talking about it in their races for office.

Ed Kilgore is amused:

This is why Kellyanne pulls down the big bucks. But she probably understands that there’s a reason for the right-wing obsession over abortion-and-rape, aside from porcine indifference to women’s sensitivities.

Once you decide that women’s bodies instantly become nothing more than incubators for Sovereign Citizens at the moment an ovum is fertilized, then the only logical position is to oppose abortion in all cases other than one where the incubator’s life is so endangered that she can plead self-defense. Pregnancies caused by rape or incest may be horrifying to a lot of people – most notably the victims of rape or incest – but that’s how the metaphysical cookie crumbles, if not a sign that God is a Dude with a rather instrumental view of women.

For many of the same people who believe regulating military weapons is the first step down the slippery slope to Auschwitz, making exceptions to the abortion-is-murder-unless-it’s-self-defense is morally and intellectually intolerable. And so they fret about the possibility that women will escape the necessity of doing their reproductive duty…

Kilgore notes that this is more than modifying your message:

This issue is, of course, only the tip of a crazy jagged iceberg. The same folk that oppose interfering with pregnancies caused by rape have a strong tendency to believe tens of millions of Sovereign Citizens of this country are murdered every year via methods of “contraception” that in theory or practice interfere with the growth and the opportunity for eternal salvation of fertilized ova. They don’t tend to talk about that a lot in public (even without Kellyanne Conway’s advice), since the number of “murderers” involved would make a Mafia summit look like an evening at Chuckie Cheese. But that’s the ideology (which so many treat as religious, frequently by way of confusing patriarchal traditions with the Will of God) we are dealing with here.

That may be a bit over the top, but as with most strategic advice offered at these retreats, what advice is offered is something no one in the organization can really follow, or really wants to follow. It’s all talk, although one guy was saying something useful:

House Republicans are still publicly pushing Democrats to accept spending cuts in exchange for increasing the country’s borrowing limit. But in private, they’re being clear with their members about the huge economic consequences of breaching the debt ceiling – hammering the point that they can’t use default as a threat in budget negotiations with the White House and Senate.

After meeting with members of the GOP conference at the party’s retreat in Williamsburg on Thursday, VA, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), the GOP’s top budget guy, told reporters, in so many words, that they’re trying to talk their members off a ledge.

“I think what matters most is that people have a very clear view of what’s coming, so that there are no surprises,” Ryan said. “And that means setting expectations accordingly, so that we can proceed in a unified basis.”

This is pretty simple:

Despite three looming deadlines – the debt limit, the sequester, and expiration of annual federal appropriations – all of which, if missed, will trigger automatic cuts to federal spending, Republicans can’t expect that Democrats will accede to all of their demands.

They’ve lost the presidency two times in a row, they failed to regain control of the Senate when everyone thought they would, they lost house seats, and all the polling is against them – thus expecting Democrats to fold on these fiscal matters is delusional. Why would they? Someone had to explain that. Paul Ryan told reporters that part of the purpose of the retreat was to help members “recognize the realities” of divided government – give up on the debt limit fight, and as Matthew Yglesias sensibly notes, failure to raise the debt ceiling would be completely catastrophic – as every economist knows – and Yglesias also adds this:

And it’s not as if abandoning a strategy of aggressive confrontation means opening the doors to Sharia Socialism run amok. Anytime Obama wants to actually advance new agenda items on guns, immigration, climate change, or whatever else, House Republicans can just say no. Fiscal surrender doesn’t mean rolling over for the Democrats’ agenda, it means giving up on specifically advancing top GOP priorities through repeated rounds of hostage taking.

It can be a sound strategy. Recall that back in 2007-08 Nancy Pelosi didn’t try to lead House Democrats into high-profile confrontations with George W. Bush. Instead they passed some low-profile Democratic priorities, collaborated on TARP and the forgotten 2008 Bush/Pelosi stimulus bill, and she tried – successfully – to rally her troops to a bigger electoral win in 2008. Then having won an election, Democrats pushed the envelope in 2009-10 and passed a bunch of big bills.

Perpetual outraged confrontation on everything is not a sound strategy. There must have been a panel discussion on Perpetual Outraged Confrontation, which might explain this:

“We’re discussing the possible virtue of a short-term debt limit extension so that we have a better chance of getting the Senate and the White House involved in discussions in March,” Ryan, R-Wis., revealed during an off-camera discussion with reporters tracking the retreat. “What we want to achieve at the end of the day is a two-way discussion between Democrats and Republicans and, out of that, hopefully, some progress being made on getting this deficit and debt under control – because we really do believe that our obligation is to help prevent a debt crisis from hitting this country.”

Half the party will heave a sigh of relief – the new winning strategy is to be reasonable and not blow up the world’s economy. The other half of the party will be outraged. The winning strategy is to roll over and play dead, to surrender? No one would want to moderate that discussion, but even Philip Klein in the hard-right Washington Examiner offers some rather sensible advice to conservatives:

It’s worth looking back at the Democrats’ strategy following their takeover of Congress in 2006. Despite their strong rhetoric, they ultimately caved to President Bush by agreeing to continue funding the Iraq War. This generated a forceful backlash among their base, but it also enabled them to continue running against Bush’s handling of Iraq, rather than allowing Bush to change the subject to “Democrats don’t care about our troops.”

During this time, Democrats also pushed legislation that furthered their agenda – including an expansion of the children’s health care program SCHIP (which Bush vetoed) and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (which Republicans blocked in the Senate). Both bills were quickly passed and enacted once Obama became president.

This raises a question: What sort of serious, substantive policy initiatives like this could Republicans push on their side?

Do something small-ball but serious and substantive, again and again, and things will be fine and we’ll win big later – at least that’s the idea – except for finding serious and substantive policy issues:

There isn’t anything. And that’s the crux of their problem.

The core of the GOP agenda remains the Ryan budget, but that had very few specific cuts and the numbers never actually added up. They certainly could continue trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act, but they’ve long since given up on offering a replacement.

Republicans, that is, don’t actually have a program with popular items that they could run on and then pass if they won. After all, they didn’t run on their Medicare program in 2010 and 2012; instead, they called anyone who accused them of cutting Medicare a liar and instead ran against Obamacare’s cuts to Medicare. What exactly is the GOP equivalent, just in terms of swing-voter popularity, of Lilly Ledbetter or SCHIP right now? Beating up on Planned Parenthood?

In short, there was much that really should have been considered at this retreat:

There are no items in any Republican legislative agenda that are workable, are substantively developed, and would have any appeal to swing voters. If there were, Mitt Romney would have run on them, and not on a combination of out of context Obama quotes and proposals that were ripped apart for failing basic arithmetic. This is the GOP’s core problem – and the real cause of the crisis-to-crisis showdowns we’re seeing with the White House and Democrats. A party that doesn’t have a well-developed policy agenda that could actually win broad appeal simply can’t function as a normal opposition party.

To slip into the vernacular, no shit, Sherlock. And by the way, don’t nod off during the consultants’ presentations:

House Republicans heard it loud and clear Wednesday: They are unpopular and need to change their ways.

Speaker John Boehner’s House Republican Conference is more disliked now than when it took the majority two years ago, lawmakers and aides here found out. After taking a bruising in the 2012 elections, the Republican Party needs an image makeover and the GOP must learn to relate better to voters.

That was the message delivered by the party’s most trusted pollsters during the first day of the House GOP’s retreat at the posh Kingsmill Resort on the edge of this colonial town, where the lobbyist-funded Congressional Institute is putting on the annual confab.

It wasn’t pretty:

David Winston, a top GOP pollster and close adviser to Boehner, unveiled the House Republicans’ most recent favorable rating based on his own analysis: It came in at a barrel-scraping 37 percent.

House Democrats’ numbers are a full 9 points higher at 46 percent. Winston’s analysis: Neither party is popular, but the GOP is less so. The lawmakers heard that the way to turn things around is for the party to pivot squarely to the economy and jobs – the chief concerns of most voters.

After an election dominated by a steady stream of gaffes by the GOP’s presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, and some of its highest-profile candidates, some of the speakers at Wednesday’s retreat counseled the GOP on how to turn things around.

The first thing is to understand there’s something there that needs to be turned around. The Hill reports this:

There’s growing angst among Republicans that the party’s House majority could be at risk in 2014 if the deep GOP divisions that emerged during the recent “fiscal cliff” negotiations persist in looming negotiations over a slew of budgetary issues.

Even as Republican officials maintain the GOP majority is safe, several lawmakers and longtime activists warn of far-reaching political ramifications if voters perceive Republicans as botching consequential talks on the debt ceiling, sequestration and a possible government shutdown.

“Majorities are elected to do things, and if they become dysfunctional, the American people will change what the majority is,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a House deputy majority whip and a former National Republican Congressional Committee chairman, told The Hill.

There seem to be two camps here. One: America seems to think we’re being jerks, so we’d better try hard to not only appear reasonable but to be actually reasonable, or we’ll lose the House too. Two: Our perpetual outraged confrontation over everything is heroic, and the American people see it as heroic, so the polls must be wrong, and anyway, folks in my district love perpetual outraged confrontation, being big fans of Limbaugh and Beck and Hannity and so on.

This calls for one of those Team Building exercises, a Trust Fall or something – but that’s probably too dangerous now. These guys won’t be catching each other.

That’s the reason those of us in Training and Organizational Development really did hate those two-day off-site retreats. The food was great – senior management cut no corners – and the setting was always impressive too, high over Malibu or whatever. It’s just that what wasn’t boring was silly. Key people talked to each other and nothing came of it. It seems this sort of thing still goes on.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to The Retreat

  1. Madman says:

    As a Liberal, the happiest words in this entry are: “… the consensus here was that the real issue was to communicate better without rethinking any policy positions at all…”

    HOORAY! This confirms that Republicans are STILL so utterly tone-deaf to their underwhelming policies, that no reform is forthcoming. They will continue to insist on policies that demonstrably don’t work (e.g., supply-side “trickle-down”) or are extremely unpopular (e.g., killing Planned Parenthood). They persist in their delusion that, ALL POLLING aside, their “solutions” are what most people really & truly want. They think that if they can somehow just gussy up the “messaging,” voters will eagerly accept what actually horrifies them.

    The Republican Parallel Universe continues unabated! How sad they have no Fool who dares speak the Truth to power, as did King Lear: “‘Twas the greater folly, to have grown older but no wiser.” The Bard was no stranger to this side of human nature.

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