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Legacy Content / OFF TO THE RACES

What Not To Do

How Much Can An Individual's Gaffe Hurt His Party?

June 22, 2010

For months, I had been suggesting to my Republican friends that their party was facing good news and bad news. The bad news was that voters don't like Republicans these days and feel as though they have learned few, if any, lessons from 2006, when the GOP's majorities in Congress were abruptly terminated, or from 2008 when the party was unambiguously evicted from the White House.

The most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll indicates that only 30 percent of Americans have a positive view of the Republican Party, 42 percent negative, 26 percent neutral. The GOP's absence from power has not made the public's hearts grow fonder. The poll was conducted May 6-10 and has a 3-point error margin.

The good news for Republicans is that this election isn't about them. When one party holds the White House and has majorities in both the Senate and House, the midterm election is invariably a judgment on the performance of that party.

 

The vast majority of Americans have never heard of Joe Barton and probably won't appreciate the significance of his colossally stupid remark. But maybe they heard some top Republican was defending BP.

We have never had a midterm election that turned into a referendum on a party that had no power. Sure, Democrats can try to frame it as a choice between competing visions -- and I would if I were them -- but if they were successful, it would be the first time.

Similarly, I have long thought that while we have all seen countless times when political candidates and elected officials lost an election because of something stupid that they had said or done -- even seeing their careers prematurely ended by some transgression -- few of these gaffes, at least below the presidential level, infected their entire party.

One possible exception was the fall 2006 scandal involving former Florida Rep. Mark Foley's overtures with a congressional page, a turn of events that was just the final nail in the Republicans' 2006 midterm election coffin. But generally speaking, moronic statements by individual members of or candidates for Congress are not transcendent events that hurt the party as a whole and other party candidates.

Last week's gaffe by House Energy and Commerce ranking member Joe Barton of Texas, who apologized to BP for what he called President Obama's "shakedown" of the oil giant for his part in getting BP to establish a $20 billion escrow account, will test that thesis.

Putting aside that Barton's statement may well be one of the most politically tone-deaf remarks by a member of Congress in a generation or two, one that some of the most senior Republicans clearly thought was criminally stupid, the basic question is whether it will make a difference in this fight for control of the U.S. House.

The vast majority of American voters, even the smaller subset of midterm election voters, have never heard of Barton, will never hear of Joe Barton and probably won't ever know or appreciate the significance of his colossally stupid remark. But then again, what's more likely is that they heard that some top Republican was defending BP. Whether they could win a "Jeopardy" round on "this senior Republican member of Congress apologized to BP after the Gulf oil spill" is beside the point. They know one did.

The political significance of this event will test that theory, and it's a better measure than North Carolina Democratic Rep. Bob Etheridge's sidewalk skirmish with young, khaki-and-blazer-clad, conservative and/or Republican staffers, interns or activists who questioned whether he "fully supports the Obama agenda," which received somewhat less attention.

It would seem that for a Democrat representing conservative North Carolina's 2nd District, the only response worse than "yes" would have been to assault someone on camera, which is basically what Etheridge did. Having said that, it would seem that this incident might not hurt Etheridge, one of the few white Southern Democrats not facing a tough challenge. His district is one place where the GOP has not fielded a top-tier challenger.

While Barton was probably just reflecting the values and points of view of many in his oil and gas-dependent district, when you are the party's top person on a critical committee like the Energy and Commerce Committee, you take on national party leadership status, and parochial views that might play well back home but are politically tone-deaf on a national scene need to be punished.

Conversely, incidents like Etheridge's should be captured on videotape and plugged into a film, patterned after the gruesome driver's education films from years ago with horrific wrecks and dead bodies, designed to scare young drivers into becoming more careful. Party leaderships should put together the same thing, maybe titled Stupid Things That Members and Candidates Do That Prematurely End Careers.

For me, I am planning on writing a book on the 100 dumbest mistakes made by candidates and campaigns, an effort that will surely not lack for good material. This past week provided a bit more material for my book!

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