Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Ultimate Politico Myopic Story

Oh, we do love Politico -- we all love a good behind-the-scenes version of politics. Sometimes, that even produces very helpful information. But sometimes...well, we get Jonathan Martin's incredibly myopic examination of how an incompetent campaign brought down Herman Cain.

Given that probably every single example of bumbling and ineptitude that Martin documents is exactly true, the problem is that it entirely misses the point. Cain wasn't destroyed because he lost the spin war on the stories of sexual harassment; he was destroyed because the story that he had agreed to settlements with two women over sexual harassment charges were true. The fact of those two settlements -- just that alone, even if it was put in the best possible light and the accusation of assault and the claim of a 13-year-long affair were totally false -- that fact was enough to ensure that the wildly improbable Cain bid had zero chance of succeeding. And of course it seems quite likely that at least some of the accusations (and others?) are in fact true.

This is perhaps related to the 40-year-old myth that "it's the cover-up, not the crime," a myth that somehow overlooks the straightforward idea that people who confess to crimes go to jail. That's why they're covered up! Now, in this case most of what Cain is accused of wouldn't put him in legal jeopardy, but all of it would put him in political jeopardy. Of course, we don't yet know for sure what is true and what is not, but I think it's hard to argue that poor spin control caused the accusations -- and it's the accusations, not the campaign's reactions, that are the real problems here.

The same is true for the other examples Martin gives of campaign blunders. Yes, of course it was silly for the candidate to be talking to a Milwaukee editorial board (and on camera!) when he had nothing to gain from doing so. But here's Martin's conclusion:
Cain’s unfamiliarity with major foreign policy events can only be partially attributed to his campaign. The underlying problem — that the candidate was even talking to the editors and reporters of a newspaper in a state that doesn’t figure prominently in the nominating process — was the decision of campaign manager Mark Block.
Um, no: the underlying problem is that a candidate for President of the United States doesn't appear to be willing and/or able to converse about basic foreign policy issues at a level that wouldn't embarrass a strong high school student. That isn't Mark Block's fault.

Campaigns do matter in presidential nomination politics -- they matter a lot, and a lot more than they matter in the general election. But they aren't everything, and as amusing as the Cain campaign gaffes are, they just aren't what dragged down this candidacy.


  1. "we all love a good behind-the-scenes version of politics"...

    I would love to get real behind-the-scenes politics, in fact, that is the only thing I want nowadays because it is so hard to know what politicians really believe, but to say we get that through reporters is ridiculous. Reporters give us what politicians give them and it is anything but behind-the-scenes.

  2. This reminds me of all the postmortems examining the flaws in Hillary Clinton's campaign that led her to lose out to Barack Obama. They tended to try very hard to ignore the fact that for most Dems, the fact that Clinton was wrong on Iraq and Obama was right had been the key difference between the two.

  3. TN, i'm not sure you are completely right. A principal critique of Obama was that his inexperience would put him in over his head. The fact that he ran a smart campaign in contrast to the poor campaign of Clinton neutralized the argument. Who was the more competent? sure looked like Obama. Think that is why a lot of superdelegates switched.

  4. Doesn't it figure that Cain was in Wisconsin for a book signing, and that's why he sat down with an editorial board there? (Free time, let's campaign!)

    As for the difference between the Obama and Clinton campaigns during the primary, I'd say the big difference was that Obama had a team that knew how to play by the proportional delegate allocation rules, and knew where the delegate-rich opportunities were (particularly on Super Tuesday).

    Meanwhile the Clinton campaign was led by Mark "What do you mean Texas has a primary *and a caucus??" Penn.

    Smart people knowing the process cold was a decent contributing factor to Obama squeaking out a narrow delegate win on Super Tuesday. Which led into Obama's string of favorable February states that went to him 11-0.

    Also, too: Organizing masses of volunteers in 2008 over raising 'inevitable nominee' gobs of money in 2007 worked out pretty well for the Obama campaign.

  5. "It's not the crime, it's the cover-up" is narrowly true if applied in the way that the people who say this are probably thinking. It's based on a weak understanding of Watergate, one in which Nixon personally was uninvolved in the Plumbers' doings (as opposed to having gotten them started) until suddenly the arrest of the burglars alerted him to what was going on, at which point he had a choice of either cleaning house or covering up. If that were a true account of events, then it probably would be the case that what brought Nixon down wasn't the crime but the cover-up.

    Of course, the more plausible account is that Nixon chose cover-up because he was already in way too deep, and even if he still had "plausible deniability" of actual crimes, he couldn't very well fire all his top aides and throw open a huge scandal in the White House in the middle of a re-election campaign. So yeah, overall it's a stupid remark.

  6. I guess there's no way of knowing, but I don't think that it's based on that much careful thought. I think it's like Martin's story: what matters is the spin, and cover-up creates bad spin because stuff gets out anyway and not in predictable or manageable ways.

    But, yes, even if Nixon had not committed felonies pre-June 1972, firing the staff *and* insisting on prosecuting them all would obviously have sunk his presidency.

    I think it's >80% likely that he was criminally liable for the California break-in (there are conflicting stories, but if Erlichman was telling the truth about Nixon prior knowledge then yup), and I think overall what he was doing with regard to Ellsberg was absolutely a felony.

    And of course a true non-cover-up would have included lots of ugly stuff by the president that wasn't quite criminal.

  7. Agreed about Nixon, and by the way, I hope you'll keep posting the Watergate retrospectives. I'm particularly looking forward to the 40th anniversary of June 23, 1972. :-)

  8. They tended to try very hard to ignore the fact that for most Dems, the fact that Clinton was wrong on Iraq and Obama was right had been the key difference between the two.


    Well, that can't be true, as the Left nominated Kerry/Edwards in 2004, who famously "reported for duty".


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