Tuesday, November 11, 2008

How to Handle Political Attacks (Without Freaking Out)

It really bothers me that not enough liberals have figured out how political attacks work. Back in the primary season, one big reason I was against Hillary winning the nomination was because she carried so much political baggage with her. Baggage that has proven its ability to stick to her. Suddenly, it'd be 1999 all over again and some idiotic cattle trade deal that I've never been able to comprehend would suddenly be the most important story of the day. And the best her defenders could say is that Obama would be attacked too, so we should go with Hillary, who had somehow proved her ability to survive attacks.

But of course he was going to be attacked, but with what? With something that would stick to him, like some shady business dealings the Clintons had yet to uncover? Or would it be the same tax & spend socalism crap they always toss at Democrats? And as we saw, it was the same old crap. And that wasn't going to stick because socialism has no real meaning to anyone except for conservatives. And excusing him of "palling around with terrorists" was too outrageous to be believed. These just weren't good attacks.

But political attacks are rarely about the attacks themselves. They're about the distractions. Rarely are undecided voters so scandalized by something a politician does that it brings them down. Of the thousand or so national politicians who ran for election this year, you can probably count on your fingers the ones who had real scandals tied to them, and corrupt guys like Ted Stevens and Norm Coleman did well anyway.

It's the Distraction, Stupid

No, it's not the political attack that bring you down. It's how you handle them. Are you the lucky type who can stiff-arm each attack with ease, or do you get mired down in molassas? That's the secret of fighting attacks. And the Republican's secret is to keep tossing so many attacks that you can't help but get mired down in the molassis. Their goal is to make it so that your entire campaign becomes devoted to fighting off attacks. But not because the attacks convince people that they're true, but as a way of grinding your campaign to a stop and making your organization look disorganized and inefficient. So you aren't issuing attacks any more, and you're not staying on-message, or reminding voters of why they should vote for you. That's what it's all about.

And for as much as Hillary's supporters touted her ability to "survive" the attacks in the 90's, what did that mean exactly? Sure, she didn't go psycho and shoot people on a crowded subway. But her husband got impeached. And they never really did achieve the agenda they had set out to in the beginning, due largely to all of the attacks. And worst of all, she's still carrying the attacks around with her, and her supporters will still spend more time explaining why the attacks are false than they spend explaining why we should vote for her. And that's the thing, for as effective as the Clintons were at fighting attacks, they never really were able to get past them.

And that's something I believed Obama could do, and something he effectively has done so far. It's not just that Obama was able to win in spite of the attacks against him. It's that his attackers looked worse every time they attacked him. It kept happening to Hillary whenever she attacked him, and it happened to McCain when he attacked. And the cycle was always the same: An attack would be issued, there'd be a few days of speculation of whether it'd hurt Obama or not, Obama might lose a point or two in the polls while people digested the attack, and then the attack would go away. And after the dust settled, it was Obama's attackers who looked worse, not Obama. I called it that way last spring, and it stayed that way during the general election too.

Becoming the Story

But that wasn't luck. It wasn't a media fix. It's that his people knew how to handle an attack. While the Clintons always tried to take the attack head-on and knock the attacker on his ass, Obama would roll with the attack and get back on message. It wasn't about defeating the attacker, it was about getting back on-message. And that made all the difference.

And a prime example of how NOT to handle an attack is what Sarah Palin's people are doing. After the story settles, she's still wanting to defend herself. Hell, she's still trying to fight back the $150k clothing story that nobody cares about anymore. Sorry lady, but you lost that one. And every time you open your mouth about it, you compound the loss. That's just how it works. And I'm sure it'd suck, but in politics, if you lose the attack, you just have to cut your losses and move on. But there is no unlosing a battle. Once you lose, you have to move on. That's all there is to it. And every time you mention the story, you're just doing your enemies work for them. Remember, the whole point of the attack is to get you to stop attacking and off-message. And if your defense just reminds folks of the attack, all the worse it is for you.

And again, that's just how it works. If Palin is still on the national scene in 2012, nobody is going to vote against her because she wore expensive clothes. Nobody's going to care if her handlers mishandled her. It won't matter whether people blame her or McCain for the loss. What matters is if she can convince people that she's a competent choice for president and if she's got a good reason for people to vote for her. And all these other issues are going to be what her opponents toss at her, as a way of preventing her from making her case. And so far, it doesn't look like she'll do that. I'd never give her good odds of winning the GOP nomination, which is currently Romney's to lose. But her odds just keep going down the longer she keeps reliving the last election.

Obama won because he was so damn good at being the story. It was always about avoiding controversy and telling people what he was going to do for them. And if that meant he had to toss a few people "under the bus" (Wright, Clark, and that one foreign policy advisor lady whose name I can't remember), so be it. They became the story and he shed them instantly. I'm sure cutting their losses was part of their Standard Operating Procedure and required no debate. Don't be the story. Don't defend people who become the story. Don't even allow stories about whether or not you're defending someone, as it'll look like weakness if you finally change your mind and toss them. Just toss them overboard and move on.

Many liberals were quite angry when Obama tossed out Wes Clark and the foreign policy lady, because they thought it showed weakness and would hurt him. But by election day, even they stopped caring about these people. Obama amputated the controversy before it could spread to the campaign and didn't miss a beat before getting back on message. That's how it's done, people. It's not about defending yourself against attacks, or knocking your attackers back on their heels, or proving how strong you are. It's about not letting the attacks freak you out. It's rarely the attack that gets you. It's the story about the attack. And the longer you keep fighting the attack or the attackers, the longer you'll see stories about the attack. And that's what you were supposed to avoid in the first place. Don't be the story.

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