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Sticking to the message

Recently, former Rep. Bobby Schilling, R-Colona, announced he was running to reclaim the 17th Congressional District seat he lost last year.

He was beaten by former East Moline Alderwoman Cheri Bustos, whose district includes Whiteside County.

After Schilling revealed his intentions for 2014, I called Bustos' office for comment. A spokesman offered a statement: "Congresswoman Bustos is focused like a laser on job creation, protecting Medicare and Social Security, and serving the people of Illinois' 17th Congressional District, not an election that is over a year away."

Sounds good – a statement full of language that would likely pass muster with any political consultant.

But let's examine it a little more closely. Is Bustos really not focusing on her re-election campaign?

Since the beginning of the year, she has raised $462,238 in donations, including $500 from CGH Medical Center's Ed Andersen, according to Federal Election Commission records. That's not unusual. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Manteno, whose 16th District includes Lee County, pulled in $486,716 during the same time.

Bustos' reaction to Schilling is typical of most incumbents: When a challenger emerges, an incumbent usually insists she cares only about the important issues at hand, without a care for her political future.

But in Congress, that is spin. With elections every 2 years, the campaign never ends.

As a former reporter, Bustos should know spin when she sees it. But she has apparently decided that such talking points – rather than candid explanations on her fundraising efforts – will help her politically.

This is a trend in Congress, writes McClatchy Washington bureau reporter James Rosen in the latest Columbia Journalism Review.

"[T]here is the increased use of talking points and other attempts at total message control, the growing employment of political consultants and congressional offices that run like campaign operations. ..."

Of course, Rosen said, journalists themselves deserve some of the blame. They praised both presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama for their message discipline, but crucified them over occasional gaffes, he said.

The resulting message to politicians: Play it safe. Stick to the message.

When I asked Bustos' spokesman, Colin Milligan, about whether Bustos has held fundraisers this year, he would say only that she is "taking the necessary steps to wage the campaign."

Now, that's message discipline.  

David Giuliani is a reporter for Sauk Valley Media. He can be reached at dgiuliani@saukvalley or at 800-798-4085, ext. 525. 

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