President-elect Obama has given a number of different versions of his transition team’s dealings with Governor Rod Blagojevich. His chief of staff is reported to have been on twenty-one different taped calls with Blago.
But some Republicans don’t want the party to be making political hay over this. Directly at issue is a Republican National Committee (RNC) ad entitled “Questions Remain.” The ad is a campaign-style grainy attack spot on the president-elect’s past association with Blago and his lack of complete disclosure regarding what contacts his transition team had with Blago. Sen. John McCain, the former GOP nominee, said he didn’t care for it. Newt Gingrich is the latest and most extreme of the shushers. In a letter on Tuesday he wrote to RNC Chairman Mike Duncan:
I was saddened to learn that at a time of national trial, when a president-elect is preparing to take office in the midst of the worst financial crisis in over seventy years, that the Republican National Committee is engaged in the sort of negative, attack politics that the voters rejected in the 2006 and 2008 election cycles.
The recent web advertisement, “Questions Remain,” is a destructive distraction. Clearly, we should insist that all taped communications regarding the Senate seat should be made public. However, that should be a matter of public policy, not an excuse for political attack.
In a time when America is facing real challenges, Republicans should be working to help the incoming president succeed in meeting them, regardless of his Party.
From now until the inaugural, Republicans should be offering to help the president-elect prepare to take office.
We see, then, two extreme options for Republicans in dealing with the Blago scandal — attack mode or complete subservience and silence. But a middle ground might be in order.
The RNC overshot, in part one might deduce, because the current Chairman, Mike Duncan, is trying to prove his media bona fides while running for another term as head of the RNC. The result was a super-charged negative hit piece. While accurate, it was so heavy-handed as to make clear that (at least some) Republicans were out to wound the new administration before it ever began.
Republicans in some sense lost claim to the the high ground in fighting for transparency, a worthy cause. (Even some nonpartisans had argued: “Isn’t it better the Obama team should come clean now?”) And frankly the style of the ad was all wrong. The public is tired of the cycle of negative hit pieces. Isn’t the election over?
But the other extreme seems equally misplaced. The president-elect has changed his story on Blago contacts, hasn’t been candid, and needs to put all the information out there. He’s now promised to do that on December 22 — the Monday of Christmas week (where all stories go to die). That approach of caution and delay hasn’t gotten rave reviews from liberal columnists, so why should Republicans be silent?
In trying to formulate the right approach, the Republicans should observe four rules in Blago-gate, as well as the other knotty issues which may tangle up the Obama administration (e.g., the investigation of a potential pay-to-play scandal in New Mexico involving Governor Bill Richardson).
First, let the story speak for itself. If Rahm Emanuel is on twenty-one tapes wheeling and dealing with Blago he’s likely toast. Nothing the Republicans say will change that. And if he did nothing improper, Republicans will only have looked craven by jumping on a non-story.
Second, the watchword should be “follow the facts.” In Blago-gate, Republicans should push to get out the findings of the transition team’s internal review and insist Emanuel answer questions about his role in filling the vacant Senate seat. In Eric Holder’s confirmation hearing, Republicans should probe whether Holder violated Justice Department rules and ethical requirements in handling the Marc Rich and other Clinton-era pardons. And in the Ponzi scheme of mega-Democratic donor Bernard Mandoff, again, Republicans should demand hearings to determine why the SEC didn’t act and what influence his money might have bought him. In each case: fight to get the facts, argue for transparency, and see where it leads.
Third, no attack ads and no over-the-top email blitzes from the Republican National Committee. The RNC isn’t known for finesse and it shows. Because the RNC doesn’t rank high with the voters or the media on credibility, less is likely more from them right now.
Finally, remember the mantra of Rahm Emanuel: “Never let a serious crisis go to waste.” Well, a serious scandal should not go to waste either, both in discrediting the opposition and in making the case that bigger government and a more powerful government will increase the opportunity for corruption and mischief. But the scandal must really be a scandal. And it must be serious. So see #1.
The bottom line is that the RNC misfired, but neither should the Republicans become lapdogs for the Obama administration or apologists for secrecy and misbehavior. When there is an issue of good governance, such as insisting that the Illinois Democrats run a special election rather than appoint the next senator, Republicans shouldn’t shy away from a fight. But they do risk to their own image and political viability by conducting a ham-handed campaign-style attack.
So the lesson for Republicans is: political good fortune often comes to those who are patient. And if they can’t be patient, the Republicans should at least be measured in their rhetoric.