Republicans care quite a lot about the political concept of the Overton Window and, not coincidentally, Republicans have messaged the pants off of Democrats at least since the rightiwng revolution of 1994. The concept is pretty simple; read about it here if the idea is unfamiliar. From the link:
Imagine, if you will, a yardstick standing on end. On either end are the extreme policy actions for any political issue. Between the ends lie all gradations of policy from one extreme to the other. The yardstick represents the full political spectrum for a particular issue. The essence of the Overton window is that only a portion of this policy spectrum is within the realm of the politically possible at any time. Regardless of how vigorously a think tank or other group may campaign, only policy initiatives within this window of the politically possible will meet with success. Why is this?
Politicians are constrained by ideas, even if they have no interest in them personally. What they can accomplish, the legislation they can sponsor and support while still achieving political success (i.e. winning reelection or leaving the party strong for their successor), is framed by the set of ideas held by their constituents — the way people think. Politicians have the flexibility to make up their own minds, but negative consequences await the elected officeholder who strays too far. A politician’s success or failure stems from how well they understand and amplify the ideas and ideals held by those who elected them.
[…] if a think tank’s research and the principles of sound policy suggest a particular idea that lies outside the Overton window, what is to be done? Shift the window. Since commonly held ideas, attitudes and presumptions frame what is politically possible and create the “window,” a change in the opinions held by politicians and the people in general will shift it. Move the window of what is politically possible and those policies previously impractical can become the next great popular and legislative rage.
Likewise, policies that were once acceptable become politically infeasible as the window shifts away from them. Think tanks can shape public opinion and shift the Overton window by educating legislators and the public about sound policy, by creating a vision for how things could be done, by conducting research and presenting facts, and by involving people in the exchange of ideas.
The author of this piece, Nathan Russell of the Mackinac Center, is obviously overstating the role of thinktanks in pushing the Window in whatever direction. Public perception is mostly shaped by things that happen publicly – important events, history and tradition, PR spin and the institutional quirks of the various media. Think tanks matter insofar as they can link up with an effective publicity engine. When it comes to deliberately gaming the Window another great resource is the famous Gingrich memo, which has guided Republican strategy pretty much ever since it was written. The strategy uses strident rhetoric to push one’s opponent outside of the window so that their perspective itself, liberalism, becomes unacceptable. It’s a hell of a lot easier than answering the other person’s argument on its merits.
You can hardly find a better modern example of gaming the Window than the Iraq war. As a start-to-finish opponent of invasion I remember well how war boosters painted my ideas, which were utterly and totally borne out be reality, as pathologically pacifistic. I directly supported Saddam. I didn’t care about the suffering of the Iraqi people (mull that one over a bit). Of course like everybody else whom conservatives disliked I harbored a deep and abiding hatred for America. The only real effort that anybody made to answer my (and as it happened, Brent Scrowcroft’s) arguments came in the form of flippant dismissals by brainiacs by Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld, who breezily declared that what actually did happen could never possibly happen so there’s no point in worrying about it. Neocons and allies simply declared contrary ideas outside of the Window and therefore not worth considering. If you look at media treatment of Iraq contrarians like Howard Dean it is hard to come to any other conclusion than that the neocons had it absolutely right. Not that contrary ideas did not deserve to be considered, but rather that they sat outside the Window and therefore wouldn’t be.
Again, it would be a mistake to dismiss the ISG Report because it had no direct impact on Bush policy. It doesn’t really matter that they proposed a weak withdrawal with a division-sized loophole because it would never he implemented anyway. It doesn’t have to, it just has to move the Window enough to make withdrawal talk cool and course staying (especially escalation) very uncool. Read this by MissLaura at DailyKos and think about the impact that the ISG-driven Window shift will have on Congressional Republicans who still have to worry about things like polls and reelection. I bet that Republicans really, really don’t want to fight 2008 on the same political ground as ’06, and as long as the president stays his personal course the political ground will keep getting worse. The important effect of the ISG will be indirect, by making it excruciatingly painful for Bush allies to stand behind the President in the way that he needs and demands. Despite all of his deliberate Window shifting over the Iraq war George Bush is now on the outside looking in, and I doubt that he will like it very much.