President Obama’s approval rating remains high despite all the bad news. Good for him. It’s not a bad thing for conservatives and Republicans that Obama is getting a pass – it focuses the discussion on government overreach, rather than trying to hang these scandals on one person. It makes for a better policy discussion in the long term.
- Department of Justice vs. the First Amendment. (Last week: 3) Eric Holder is not so lucky as his boss: 42% of Americans think he ought to pack up and leave. After word surfaced that the DOJ zeroed in on Fox News’s James Rosen, Holder flirted with perjury charges. His ham-fisted attempt at reconciling with the fourth estate and demonstrating transparency was an off the record meeting, because nothing says “I love free speech” better than “Shh!” Sidebar: It would have been hilarious if some press outlet had gone and then reported on the events verbatim. Most of the media opted for the high road (stop laughing) and opted not to go.
- Entitlements. (NEW!) Call this a dark horse. Social Security isn’t doing well, and neither is Medicare. California health insurance premiums are rising due to Obamacare. This represents a huge messaging opportunity for the GOP.
- Benghazi. (Last week: 2) The drumbeat of bad news is starting to take its toll on Hilary Clinton. She’s not a particularly scary or formidable figure in 2014 or 2016, but if you’re scoring at home that’s the second current or former member of Obama’s cabinet that the American people have soured on.
- The IRS vs. the Tea Party, et al. (Last week: 1) There are so many pieces of bad news that inevitably, one of the big scandals fades to the background in any given week. This one would have dropped off, but for another “dark horse” wrinkle – that the agency may have targeted adoptive families and small businesses unfairly. This development would move the IRS’s actions from the realm of patently unfair to heavy-handed and just plain mean.
- Campaign developments. (NEW!) left-wing SuperPACs must have been salivating to use Michele Bachmann as the poster child for the Republican candidate class of 2014; when she bowed out of her race her Democrat challenger did as well. Ed Markey in Massachusetts is sinking into a dead heat with Gabriel Gomez. In New Mexico, Susana Martinez well-positioned against potential challengers. Bad campaign news tends to snowball, and that portends a big chilling effect on the Presidential agenda.
The activists of the left won’t have Michele Bachmann to push around anymore. From Politico’s requiem:
She was a bomb thrower, a master performer, a flashy politician with an appetite for combat and perhaps the strongest TV presence of any Republican in Washington.
Maybe they were watching a different Congresswoman. A “flashy politician” usually doesn’t confuse John Wayne with a serial killer. Google “strong TV presence” and you won’t find media training classes based around looking off into space when receiving the gift of national media coverage.
Bachmann was not a model of the modern politician. She lost. Her messaging was incendiary enough for mainstream media attention but devoid of ideas – so while some folks on the right went along for a short ride based on the mainstream media’s shock and vitriol, Bachmann couldn’t carry a movement. Her staff churned throughout the years. The allegations that still hang around her campaigns reek more of absolute disorganization than intentional malfeasance; Team Bachmann doesn’t seem smart and organized enough to be corrupt.
She was a mess, but never a serious force. She fed media coverage for a short time, but had no substance. The heirs to her attention-craving throne (from the left or the right) will flame out quickly, too.
Michele Bachmann was, succinctly, the political equivalent of the girl you wish you hadn’t started a conversation with at a party:
Gallup charts a declining percentage of Americans self-identifying as conservative, which suggests bad things ahead for the GOP. Just 41% of Americans consider themselves economic conservatives, and 33% identify as social conservatives. Both of those figures are down from 2010 numbers, and the results seem to give weight to comments like those of Olympia Snowe about the Republican Party’s narrow appeal.
While this is a speed bump for the GOP, it really measures failure of the conservative movement. The constellation of groups churning out candidates and activists has not done a good enough job preparing them to appeal to non-conservatives. The most effective leaders are those who can talk to the middle from the edge – it’s what makes President Obama such a great politician. Going a step further: There’s no such thing as “too conservative to win” (or “too liberal to win”) a general election. There’s such a thing as “too crazy to win,” and there’s definitely such a thing as “too stupid to win.”
If fewer people self-identify as “conservative,” then Republican politicians will have to stop using it as a buzzword. That’s a smart thing to do, anyway. Then it’s up to the conservative movement to articulate policy positions in a way that sounds reasonable to non-conservatives.
It would be more illuminating to see the specifics. For instance, Gallup says that Americans remain suspect of government; the IRS suffering a predictable and precipitous dip. Those are both “economic conservative” positions, but that doesn’t mean the respondents would self-identify as such. And that could fuel exactly the type of issue-specific messaging that conservatives and Republicans can use to expand their influence – even if they don’t expand their brand.
In finance, there’s an art known as “Big Bath Accounting” which is used to manage earnings expectations. Here’s how it works: if you know you’re going to have a bad quarter, you look around for anything else that might go wrong in the future, and you decide to “recognize” that bad news now. Inventory looking a little stale? Write it down, man! Customers getting a little slow to pay? Now would be a good time to write off their accounts as bad debt… The theory is that there is only so much bad news people can take in all at once, so you might as well cram all the bad stuff into one action-packed earnings call.
This is a couple days old, but the more you think about it – and the more news cycles turn since ScandalFest 2013 dropped – the more sense it makes that having all this hit at once is a good thing for the White House.
None of the controversies has been what any serious commentator would call impeachable, but each serves to damage credibility. Imagine if they were spaced out a little more. If the IRS scandal broke after two weeks of talking about the Benghazi hearings, and was subsequently followed by the AP/DOJ dust-up breaking a week or two after that, it would be far worse for all the President’s men. Each scandal would be discussed in its own spotlight for a little while, but the timing would still maintain that “Groundhog Day” feeling.
In order for the current blitzkrieg to be as damaging, new information will have to come out fairly regularly over the course of several months. That’s a lot of new stuff that would have to break, like the President said, there may not be that much “there” there. Meanwhile, a public with a short attention span and a media looking for fresh news will find new stuff to talk about. Democrats who are looking for fundraising and grassroots support in the mid-term elections will be slow to criticize the President.
On top of that, scandal discussion sucks up a lot of oxygen that could be used on other issues. Higher taxes are shrinking paychecks, and Obamacare is making American health care more expensive and complex. The policy environment is ripe for Republican criticism, but the line that connects a big government that taxes too much and overreaches on programs with a big government that swipes reporters’ phone records and harasses its opponents is not starkly obvious to casual observers. And there’s always the chance for a Republican politician trying to overplay his or her party’s hand.
The last couple of weeks may have been tough to get through. There’s still plenty of time for the scandals to fade into the background and there will be opportunities for the President to go back on offense. If all this bad news was going to hit anyway, having it hit at once was the best possible outcome for the White House.
Sometimes a crummy week makes for a better year.
Before today’s Gosnell verdict, Gallup demonstrated that Americans’ views on abortion were holding steady. Incidentally, “holding steady” means that most Americans believe that abortion is, at least in some cases, wrong.
To hear the election rhetoric last November, you wouldn’t think 72% of Americans feel like abortion should be completely illegal or legal “only in some circumstances.” Remember the Republican “War on Women“? Recall the successful efforts to link Mitt Romney to Richard Mourdock and Todd Akin?
In reality, most Americans – regardless of where they would fall on the issue of abortion – probably think that Kermit Gosnell is a monster and a murderer. His conviction is no reason to crow victoriously. Gallup’s numbers suggest that there is support for the pro-life side; last November suggests that support is generally silent.
People are pro-life, but they don’t identify with the pro-life movement. For a movement that has gained enormous traction over the past four decades, conquering this hurdle is the next obvious step.
Today the Washington Post pointed out analytics that showed interest in the Benghazi hearings was largely older, whiter men. That may have a bit to do with the demographics of people working inside the Beltway who would be most likely to tune in, but it won’t be the final determination of whether this scandal has legs.
One of the reasons Watergate remains so ubiquitous in American political is that its unique moniker has kept it alive. When political scandals erupt, the suffix “-gate” is immediately added. No one references the Teapot Dome scandal that way.
Linguistically, the Benghazi scandal has that potential. Too many lavish, taxpayer-financed vacations for the President? Travelghazi. Donors receiving special access to the President in exchange for campaign cash? Sounds like a “Donorghazi” program. And you can throw in Cubaghazi for that one couple that raised a bunch of money for the President and then magically got to go to a country that normal schlubs aren’t allowed to go to.)
It won’t be testimony in a stuffy hearing room that gives the administration’s misdirection gravity beyond the halls of Congress.
The catchy headline is that more people trust a guy who talked to an empty chair than the President of the United States, but that’s the Reader’s Digest account of the Reader’s Digest poll on the celebrities we trust the most.
Consider the top five: Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep, and Maya Angelou. This poll is probably fun to report on, but did the respondents really give it that much thought?
If Hanks knocks on your door at 11:00 p.m. dressed in drag and imploring you to help him move Peter Scoleri’s lifeless corpse, that trust would likely wear off pretty quick.
Calling these people trustworthy is a version of the word association game. It’s a knee-jerk reaction, and not necessarily rational. It’s fleeting, but it helps contextualize what we read or ear about them – even the bad stuff – so long as we are distant from it.
On the other hand, 45% seems low for a sitting President, and it seems like a number that could get beaten down – maybe with a steady drumbeat of stories about Benghazi. Not a deluge of Republican arm-waving and histrionics, but a steady drip of stories about inconsistencies in testimony or incompetencies in strategy will keep the idea alive that the President is not 100% forthcoming. The reverberations could extend into his legislative agenda and clip his wings as he tries to foist Speaker Pelosi back onto the country.
Benghazi probably won’t drive him from office, but as long as the story has legs it will whittle away the President’s shrinking cache of trust.
One thing that came out of the poorly-named “GOP Autopsy” was the need for Republicans to reach out to minority groups. That’s a positive point, and hopefully it will be done right.
It’s a good idea to recruit in inner city neighborhoods, and help candidates who champion free market answers to the big government corruption that has plagued cities like Washington, DC and Detroit. It’s a bad idea to reach out to groups solely in the name of diversity. That would be like introducing yourself to a black dude by saying, “Hey, do you want to hang out? I need more black friends.”
A corollary to that is to avoid apologizing for policy positions, which is where Adam Corolla comes into this discussion. The GOP’s messaging mea culpa came a week after Carolla railed on the Huffington Post for accusing him of racism. The issue was Carolla’s stance that government solutions to social problems ignore the causes – such as the devaluation of family in black culture:
The family is the number one problem in the Black community. […] It’s simple. Fathers, stay at home, raise your family, do your homework with your kids, put an emphasis on education like the Jews, like the Asians, and let’s see what happens to the problem in 20 years.
But let me take this moment to now talk to all the p—–s that are out there trying to stir things up and turn me into a racist. I got news for you: Me saying parents should stick around and raise the children – me saying families and cultures should focus on education — is not radical or revolutionary. It’s the f–king truth.
Carolla isn’t going to throw his support behind the Republican party, but they can learn from his tone. When reaching out to groups – women, young voters, or minorities – the message doesn’t have to start with an apology. Support comes from trust – and trust can only come when people see you’re willing to “speak the f–king truth.”
Just be willing to speak it to their face.
The Republican Party released a report of deep introspection this week, and the reactions to the “GOP Autopsy” continue. The report championed the need for the party to re-brand. Naturally, that kicked off more of the “grassroots versus party bosses” and “Tea Party versus Establishment” arguments that have waged for months.
Those are false arguments. The real failing of the “GOP Autopsy” is that it exists at all. The report has quite a few excellent ideas, but the first rule of re-branding is not to say you are re-branding. Making a big public show about a new image suggests that image is skin deep. Memos like this are best kept internal. When the memo inevitably leaks to the media, the right answer is, “Our party always looks at new ways to help great candidates bring their message to the people.”
The real answer to a political party’s woes – whether Republicans in 2012 or Democrats in 2004 – is to have party identity take a back seat to a good candidate that people can identify with. A more welcoming candidate than John Kerry could have beaten George W. Bush in 2004; a more welcoming candidate than Mitt Romney could have beaten Barack Obama in 2012. That makes organizing, candidate recruitment down ballot, messaging, and getting out the vote a lot easier.
(Sidebar: When discussing publicly the future of any political organization, it’s probably best not to refer to that discussion as the dissection of a dead body. A corpse is a bad metaphor for “new and revolutionary.”)
So far, 2016′s most buzz-generating possible Presidential candidate in Governor Chris Christie. Every move the guy makes in recent weeks has been viewed through the lens of implications for 2016. Was he too chummy with the President? Was he too combative with the Speaker? Is he moderating himself to appeal to independents?
Back in 2011, it looked like Chris Christie could have stepped into the Republican primary and carved out an immediate niche as a forceful voice opposing government largess. At the time, some idiot even said that political memories are short, so if he wanted a shot 2012 was his time. That might prove true now, as Christie finds himself as the most prominent nationally-recognized Republican in the public consciousness.
It’s the same spot Sarah Palin found herself in following the 2008 campaign. Suddenly, the governor of Alaska was the standard bearer for a party in disarray, while still trying to play the role of maverick outsider. Palin proved ill-equipped. (After all, it’s tough to look Presidential by shutting down “lamestream media” contact to communicate through Facebook posts. Crashing the Iowa straw poll to steal headlines wasn’t particularly helpful either.)
Christie isn’t likely to step into the same pitfalls as Palin, but he has a 2013 re-election effort that will likely be colored by the shadow of 2016. Factor in that the national media already accepts Christie as the GOP front runner, and it makes for a pretty big target the governor will have to lug around with him for a while.