How politicians communicate with constituents: two contrasting letters.

Last week I was so miffed about the idiocy and lies coming out of the Republican caucus regarding Planned Parenthood that I shot off a terse email to my three representatives in Congress, and two State representatives. The wording varied slightly, but here’s the gist:

I am one of your constituents. I am writing to you to express my support for Planned Parenthood and the very important work that they do in providing health services to women and all Americans. I am dismayed at the dishonesty and deception on display by anti-abortion activists and politicians. I encourage you to stand up for Planned Parenthood and to oppose the efforts to slander and cripple this valuable service that improves the lives of many Americans.

It’s fairly clear from this email where I stand on the issue, I think.

So far I have received two quite different responses, both form letters. One from Senator Tom Tillis (R-NC), and a second from Representative G.K. Butterfield (D-NY). I’m posting screen shots of the letters that arrived by email.

Rep. Butterfield and I are, at least in broadest sense, simpatico on this issue. He could have sent me a letter extolling his virtue, persuading me that he’s on my side and fighting hard, and perhaps setting me up for a money solicitation down the road. Because we share some basic views on this issue, I might have been receptive to that kind of message.

Instead, I got a letter from him that simply lays out the legal and policy facts, with a slightly favorable spin towards Planned Parenthood and reproductive rights. He wrote:

Like hospitals, community health centers, and local health departments across the country, Planned Parenthood applies for and receives federal grant dollars made available through Title X of the Public Health Service Act. Federal funds are used to provide family planning and preventative health services including abstinence counseling and breast and cervical cancer screening. Longstanding federal law prohibits the use of federal funds to pay for abortions.
Title X funds provide important health care services at more than 4,400 facilities nationwide. Eliminating federal funding for Title X recipients would have a devastating impact on women’s health care across the country and would do little more than inhibit access to basic primary and preventative health care services to women and families who need it the most.

By describing the funded services as “important,” and the impact of defunding as “devastating,” he’s clearly expressing an opinion, which is fine. He concludes with, “I support the important work of Title X grantees and will oppose efforts to restrict their ability to access critical federal funding,” a simple, neutral statement of his position.

When I read this letter I don’t feel wheedled or sense a push to persuade me. I feel like I’ve been lightly educated on the issue and given a simple, concise statement of his position. I appreciate that.

Contrast that with Tom Tillis’ letter, which consists of aggressive self-promotion of his pro-Life credentials. Putting aside the spin, and some of the misrepresentations, Tillis extols three separate initiatives he has supported to combat abortion.

I recently joined my colleagues, led by Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA), in cosponsoring S. 1881, which would end taxpayer support for Planned Parenthood.
I also recently signed a letter to the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) demanding a rigorous internal investigation by HHS and their full cooperation with other investigations by Congress, and federal, state and local law enforcement agencies.
As Speaker of the House in North Carolina, I worked to pass into law several pro-life bills that protect the lives of unborn children and to stop forcing North Carolina state taxpayers to help fund Planned Parenthood.

These seem like perfectly fine things to include in a form letter to someone who agrees with you on the issue, but why are they in a letter to me, when I clearly indicated an opposing viewpoint? I get it that there’s just someone in an office stuffing form letters into envelopes, but it seems to me it would make more sense to have two different form letters, one for supporters and one for people with a different view. Here is the letter I would have liked to have received from Senator Tillis:

Mr. Buffum,
Thank you for contacting me with your concerns about federal funding of Planned Parenthood. Though we differ on this important policy position, your opinion as a constituent is important to me.
The reasons I oppose federal funding for Planned Parenthood are that I believe it is an organization that fails to respect the gravity of its responsibility to human life, and I don’t believe taxpayers should support it. The gruesome videos that came to light several weeks ago reveal a callous and unconscionable attitude among the staff of Planned Parenthood. There are other medical centers and clinics that are better situated to provide the necessary women’s health services without compromising the dignity and integrity of their patients. There are over 200 Community Health Centers in North Carolina that provide women’s health services that would not be affected by S. 1881, while there are just 9 Planned Parenthood clinics in the state.
That is why I recently joined my colleagues, led by Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA), in cosponsoring S. 1881, which would end taxpayer support for Planned Parenthood, while also safeguarding women’s health funding.
I hope that this information will help you to understand my position. Please feel free to contact my office again about this or any other matter.

This would have been a respectful, educational letter about why he holds the position he does, without crowing about political activities that I clearly indicated I opposed. Wouldn’t that have been a more sensible reply? Perhaps it would have even persuaded someone who was under the impression that Planned Parenthood was the only organization running community health centers in North Carolina.

Now I have doubts about the “information” that Senator Tillis provided, completely out of context. Which, if any, of the 200 “other” community health services offer abortion services? And how many patients are treated by the 200 versus how many are treated by the nine Planned Parenthood clinics? These doubts were heightened by the strident, self-promotion in his letter. If that information came in a letter more similar to the one I proposed, I might be less critical.

My intent here is only to contrast the two approaches political rhetoric or communication. Where Butterfield had an opportunity to rally a supporter, he chose instead a level-toned approach that would not offend, and might educate. In contrast, Tillis made a hard push to rally his supporters, but alienated me thoroughly, and probably couldn’t have persuaded anybody on-the-fence. Though his letter contained information I didn’t know, it’s clear intent at self-promotion pushed me to distrust that information.

So what am I missing? Why would Senator Tillis send me that letter? The simple answer is probably that nobody in his office thought the better of it. Maybe that’s all there is to it.

Note: this is a repost of an entry I posted on my blog last week. Screenshots of the two letters referenced can be found in the original post: