by Paul Goldman
If there is any lesson to learn from the failed strategy of Governor McDonnell on addressing his recent problems, it goes like this: If you don’t get out ahead of the news cycle, you are going to suffer unnecessary political damage. Given how strong the Washington Post and liberals have gone after conservative Republican McDonnell, I can hear the GOP right now: they will be demanding “equal treatment” of Terry’s latest issues.
Not that there is equivalency, or duality or anything of the like given the known facts. BUT: This is the nature of the political news in a GUV year, the press is very touchy about being called “in the bag” for one or the other side. They take umbrage at the charge. And my experience is they always react by doing in fact what they claim isn’t necessary.
Or put another way: The McDonnell Mess has created a situation where any relatable news about either Terry or Ken is going to put the press in a box. So far, the left has had free reign to attack Cuccinelli. So have the state’s major editorial pages. They truly despise Cuccinelli. They want him gone. They have used the McDonnell Mess to tar him. It has been relentless. He hasn’t handled it well. Cuccinelli had no comeback at the debate.
Now, the cycle may be shifting. Cuccinelli may now get to charge a double standard. This tends to work for Republicans; it almost cost Doug Wilder his election. My advice: unless there is something criminal here, or hugely bad under SEC law, the only way this really hurts in terms of costing McAuliffe votes in November is if he and his handlers make the McDonnell mistake. That is to say: They don’t put on a credible defense to the implied charges.
If McDonnell had followed the right strategy – get out front of the story, be proactive, get all the stuff the public will want out there fast – he would have suffered far less damage to his political image. He takes a hit but manageable. The lawyers always argue against going public, handling the matter behind the scenes. This is always the wrong strategy for a politician in an election year. People are prone to think the worst: so you will not be getting the benefit of the doubt in the court of public opinion.
Bottom line: This supposed SEC investigation, and the like will not hurt in November if it is properly handled in August unless there is real fire as opposed to just smoke.
McAuliffe should also learn from Cuccinelli’s mistake at their first debate. Cuccinelli had been “cleared” by a Democratic prosecutor of any problems with the failure to disclose certain gifts. But when Terry misstated the findings, Cuccinelli didn’t hit back in the way Bill Clinton would have hit back. Clinton’s defense – attacking the right-wing destruction machine – was brilliant. Instead, Cuccinelli basically let it go, didn’t make it a big issue. Bad strategy.
When it comes to this type of stuff, the politics is very time sensitive. In large measure, you set the tone and the arc of the political story by your initial actions along with reactions and/or lack of reaction to various aspects. You don’t get to reset the wheel. It is all played out in real time. No redo.. If you don’t do it right at the start, you stand a good chance of losing “the spin.” Once you’ve lost it, very difficult to get it back without an intervening event.
Again: swing voters are prone to believe bad news over good news. I repeat: The Dems should sweep this November unless they screw it up. But smoke can turn to fire in politics if you lose the press spin. We’ll see soon enough if the McAuliffe campaign is able to not make that mistake.