Monday, June 30, 2008

Admit Nothing

Earlier this month on this blog, Mike discussed some recent examples of political figures who were caught in sexually charged situations -- Clarence Thomas, Bill Clinton, Larry Craig, and Elliot Spitzer -- and concluded that "the worst thing a public official can do if caught in a sexually charged situation is resign or announce his intention to resign, because that tends to validate the shamefulness of the conduct." On the comment board, I added the example of Barney Frank, the Democratic Congressman from Massachusetts who now chairs the Financial Services Committee. Frank faced a sex scandal of his own back in 1990 (ironically, a scandal in which he was most aggressively attacked by Sen. Larry Craig), but he asserted his innocence in the affair and was ultimately reprimanded by the House after the Ethics Committee found no evidence of involvement in illegal activity by Frank. (Details here under "Reprimand.")

While the salacious details of these and other sex-based cases garner inordinate public attention, the inference that Mike draws is, I think, simply a specific version of a more general rule that has come to dominate American politics in the last twenty-eight years: admit nothing, and bad news will fade away. This appears to be the lesson that Ronald Reagan and his supporters learned from Jimmy Carter's presidency. Carter's "malaise speech" (which, by the way, never used the word "malaise") was an especially memorable example of Carter's tendency to publicly question his own policies, the direction of the country, etc. As a result, his opponents could say: "See, even he admits that he's blowing it." The Reagan administration thus seemed to operate under the rule that the worst thing one can do is admit that anything is wrong. If you are never on record as having admitted error, after all, you have not given your opponents crucial ammunition. They can say anything they want, but unless you give in, they can merely be accused of partisanship in a game of political mudslinging.

Whether or not I am right that this began under Reagan, the second Bush's presidency took this strategy to a new level. Even when, say, Donald Rumsfeld was under the most severe attack, the strategy was to act as if there was nothing wrong. It is true that most of the controversial Bush administration figures -- Rumsfeld, John Ashcroft, and Alberto Gonzalez, to name the most obvious three -- eventually left the administration. Nevertheless, the public posture of the administration was to hold resolutely to the claim that nothing had gone wrong and that there was nothing for which it should even consider apologizing.

Interestingly, the Obama campaign seems to have adopted (consciously or otherwise) a new strategy. They have made quick work of dealing with even relatively minor problems (like Samantha "Hillary Clinton is a monster who will do anything to win" Power) , acknowledging error and moving on. The Wright affair took a bit longer to play out, but it was still handled much more rapidly than anything we've seen under the current administration. The Obama camp thus seems to believe that it is possible to admit a problem and to quickly move past it, rather than simply digging in their heels until the next news cycle. If this works -- and thus far it seems to be a successful strategy -- it suggests that the problem under Carter was not that he admitted the existence of problems but that he all but wallowed in the public admissions and wondered out loud whether there was a bigger problem.

To this point, of course, I have only been describing strategic considerations. As a substantive matter, I genuinely hope that Obama's strategy works -- not because I support his candidacy (although I do), but because he actually deals with problems and moves on to the next issue. If he appoints anyone even remotely resembling a Democratic Rumsfeld, it has to be heartening to suspect that such a person would be gone. Quickly.

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan