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


  1. I think the big difference here is not between GWB and Obama, but rather between the behavior of candidates and office holders. The "admit and move past it" strategy was the strategy successfully adopted by Bill Clinton in 1992 (Gennifer Flowers in the NH primary, where he admitted without admitting) and GWB in 2000 (Drunk Driving - where the entire issue went away after being admitted). The conventional wisdom for candidates is that denying prolongs the story, whereas for office holders it is that admission shows weakness.

  2. Is firing your staffers and abandoning your life-long associates with a terse "this isn't the Jeremiah Wright I knew" really admitting anything?

    I would describe Obama's strategy as "nothing anyone says on my behalf means anything the minute it causes me grief, and I reserve the right to walk away from my own statements as 'inartfully expressed' or over-enthusiastic, or whatever."

  3. This is interesting (if true): "On average, women working in Obama's Senate office were paid at least $6,000 below the average man working for the Illinois senator."

    McCain has more women in key positions, and they average higher pay than the men on his staff.

    Assuming it's true, I wonder who he will throw under the bus for this one.

  4. Why do you think Senator McCain will throw someone under the bus for the fact that his campaign has women in key positions, and pay them more? Isn't that an advantage he can use to show that not all Republicans are bigots?

  5. The only people McCain throws under the bus is his base.

    Am I seriously choosing between McCain and Obama this cycle? I trying to work out the logistics of drinking myself into a constant stupor over the next four years (at which point I will be eminently qualified to be the senior Senator from Massachusetts).

    Honestly, if any of you ever need a stinging retort to anything negative I ever write about Obama, you can always rely on "oh yeah? Well your party nominated John McCain!"

  6. For example, if I were to say something like:

    "Obama's paper-thin resume gets worse and worse every time people examine it in any kind of depth, as in this recent story,

    in which the author shows how Obama's housing policy turned parts of Chicago into utterly unliveable slums fit for nothing but demonlition (which which policy had the incidental effect of enriching Tony Rezko)."

    You could then respond with:

    "Yes, but what are you going to do, vote for McCain?"

    See? Automatic trump card for you guys.

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