Friday, March 03, 2006

How History Repeats Itself

One of the most disastrous problems in politics is the failure of a politician to defend himself or herself from charges which he or she claims is baseless. And here we go again:

We have a politician who is accused of poor leadership by certain segments of the media whom he accuses of political bias and by those who once served under him whose accusations he claims are little more than personal sour grapes. But rather than coming out swinging and responding with specifics and facts, he circles the wagons, clams up, and offers little more than token conclusory statements that the accusations being leveled are wrong. His surrogates try to minimize the damage, but because they have their own liabilities, their efforts come to naught. When a demand for proof of his defense is requested, he stonewalls, telling the nation to believe him at his word, and that he will provide details in due time. His opponents won the news cycle. And the result is easy to predict. The life's work of the politician gradually tumbles apart because he cannot effectively communicate a vision and cannot communicate the means he is using to get there. So not only is it a failure for him, but also for his party who lost a significant number of Senate seats to their significant detriment.

No, not George W. Bush dealing with Katrina post-mortems and the DPW port controversy. John F. Kerry amid the Swift Boat Veterans For Truth attacks in late August 2004. Kerry's response to the Swifties was flaccid. He either had nothing with which to hit them because the allegations were generally correct, or his communications team was inept. I think it was a combination of both, but in all fairness to his campaign staff, they were a very talented bunch who had very little to work with on the issue. He failed to release his military record even when presented with the form to do so by Tim Russert on Meet the Press. And using Max Cleland to try to deliver a letter to the President's ranch directing him to stop the attacks, which he had no power to do, was perceived as nothing short of the petty and stupid stunt that it was. The lack of response from Kerry allowed the public to adopt the allegations by the Swifties and to irreparably harm the Senator's reputation in the few months before the election. He lost, and the Republicans took a largely unexpected gain of 55 seats in the Senate.

And now history repeats itself. We have a President with a "thank you sir, may I have another attitude". We know he has the facts to back up his defense. Ray Nagin and Kathleen Blanco, the two inept local leaders-in-name-only did nothing to use available local resources to get people out of New Orleans. The Feds were actually mobilizing, but because of impediments created by Blanco, were barred from entering New Orleans when they were ready to do so. Any knowledge of a breaching levee would have done no good if they could do nothing about it because of local impediments. And the DPW deal--it has its merits as many have offered, but the President's silence let it be portrayed as a major national security bungle.

Likewise, Kerry's "they're questioning my patriotism" non-response had a double effect: It allowed the Swifties to have their version of the facts stand without significant dispute. It also refocused the campaign back on national security, allowing Kerry's now somewhat tarnished military service to become his only national security credentials in an election where relevant national security experience was everything.

Bush benefited richly from his opponent's fatal mistake. Now, the Democrats appear poised to receive a reciprocal gift just in time for 2006.

The President has time to fix it all. Fire the communications team. Fix the problem, and stay ahead of the stories. Because if he fails and he loses more allies in the Senate and House, any hope for any agenda beyond January 2007 will be dead.

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