If unrelenting spin was the tactic of the 2004 campaign, righteous indignation is this year’s tactic. Bill Clinton started it all with his red-faced, finger-wagging performance on Fox, so righteously indignant when Chris Wallace dared to question his administration’s record on dealing with the threat posed by Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. Here was a Democrat with righteous indignation as his modus operandi even before ABC’s Brian Ross had broken the Foley scandal.
Clinton accused Wallace of smirking during their interview, but Ross, ABC’s much touted “Chief Investigative Correspondent,” has been a world-class smirker for at least half a decade — especially when he was on those news-magazine shows such as 20/20 or Primetime, hyping some environmental threat that never turned out to be a danger at all. He would look grim, as he browbeat a corporate type who, in one way or another, was allegedly endangering us or our children, and then he would smirk, smirk, smirk when the poor guy tried to answer.
After Clinton demonstrated the news-making potential of righteous indignation, Dems took full advantage of the stance. And they have had the opportunity. In the last couple of weeks, Nancy Pelosi has talked about “draining the swamp,” while Mary Jo Kilroy, Representative Deborah Pryce’s opponent in Ohio, has been righteously indignant that Pryce acknowledged Foley as a friend. Bad luck for Deborah.
It got to be just too much for Christopher Shays, who is fighting hard to retain his Connecticut seat. He lashed out at Ted Kennedy, who had been making campaign appearances with Shays’s Democratic opponent Diane Farrell. Farrell has righteously demanded that Shays return money raised for his campaign by Speaker Hastert. In response, Shays told the Hartford Courant, “I know the Speaker didn’t go over a bridge and leave a young person in the water, and then have a press conference the next day.” He added, “Dennis Hastert didn’t kill anybody.” True? Yes. Cool? No.
Unfortunately Shays, like too many Republicans, both moderate and conservative, finds himself judged guilty by association and is getting flustered and frustrated. It is proving to be so very difficult to defend positions, express beliefs, and point out real differences when all your opponent has to do is a point a finger and shake his head.
Of course, righteous indignation was the tactic of the Republicans during the 1998 midterm election, in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. That time, it didn’t play. It backfired, in fact, because the Democratic base was less upset by the president’s outrageous behavior than by the impeachment proceedings. And Mrs. Clinton, First Victim, loyal wife, and shrewd political operative, rushed around the country implying to voters that, if she was standing by her man, after all her pain and suffering, the least they could do was stand by her party.
So what do you do when emotions rule and the media runs with a damaging story? Unfortunately, too many candidates seem to think they can’t do much — or, even worse, that whatever they do just won’t be enough. Mark Shields declared during his weekly PBS analysis that the Republicans are losing their confidence and he hasn’t seen that before.
The president keeps hammering on two issues: the need for security and the strength of the economy. I heard him speak the other day; he looked good and seemed positive, extolling the American ingenuity and entrepreneurship that dealt with the dot.com bubble, 9/11, and the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, displaying a buoyancy that has culminated in a surging stock market and low unemployment rate. He seemed clear-eyed and optimistic; at the moment, he seems to be the only one. Insiders say he is concerned that candidates, affected by the gloom-and-doom, may not be making their cases strongly enough.
Michael Getler, the ombudsman of PBS , wrote an interesting column last week. He observed that we hear so often about how issues affect Republicans or Democrats, but little about the issues themselves. And people tell him, he said, that that is not what they want to hear. He wrote, “[People] often write in frustration that every issue is presented in political terms — the Republicans seized on this or Democrats saw an opening on that — a technique that journalists seem to dwell on but that for many people undermines and diminishes the substantive concerns and frustrations that are at the heart of these issues.”
Polls continue to show that what matters most to voters is keeping the economy strong and the country safe. Maybe in the last few weeks of the campaign, Republicans will be able to shrug off the finger-pointing and get back to convincing voters that they know what they are doing on these two issues and that their way is best for America.