Newton’s First Law of Motion Applied to Political Strategy (With a Brief Excursus on Gaffes)
A brief, incomplete, but not inaccurate answer is our new friend, inertia. With the wind of inertia at your back, gaffes are like bugs on your windshield: tiny nuisances that can be wiped away with a little spritz of explanation and the back-and-forth motion a fresh day brings. Absent that advantage, a gaffe is like an albatross, weighing down a candidate in the windless doldrums of inactivity.
In the larger economy of political life, gaffes should be nothing more than minor nuisances. If a politician communicates a clear and compelling vision of the future, then gaffes recede into insignificance. Absent that vision, they can become damaging hand grenades, lobbed by an opposition bent on disrupting your message. When that happens, even non gaffes can be made to look life gaffes. Consider, for example, Mitt Romney’s manly response to the murder of Chris Stevens, our ambassador to Libya, on September 11:
America will not tolerate attacks against our citizens and against our embassies. We will defend also our constitutional rights of speech and assembly and religion. We have confidence in our cause in America. We respect our Constitution. We stand for the principles our Constitution protects. We encourage other nations to understand and respect the principles of our Constitution because we recognize that these principles are the ultimate source of freedom for individuals around the world.
I also believe the Administration was wrong to stand by a statement sympathizing with those who had breached our embassy in Egypt instead of condemning their actions. It’s never too early for the United States Government to condemn attacks on Americans, and to defend our values. The White House distanced itself last night from the statement, saying it wasn’t ‘cleared by Washington.’ That reflects the mixed signals they’re sending to the world.
Good stuff, no? But team Obama (aided by their press officers at The New York Times, CNN, MSNBC, etc.) jumped all over it.
“Romney camp tires to manage fallout from Libya response,” ran one CNN headline, as if, absent the furor, there was anything to manage. (Not that CNN was the most biased headline; here’s CBS: “How badly did Romney botch response to Libya attack?” Jeesh!)
If Romney's initial statement was robust and exactly the stuff to give the troops, his response to the media onslaught was poor. There was an unfortunate deer-in-the-headlights aspect to his demeanor as reporters pummeled him with questions. Did he think he went off half-cocked? Did he regret criticizing the president as events were unfolding? Romney eventually came out with the correct answer, more or less, but he seemed fixated on the word “breach,” which he repeated four or five times (can’t have those bad guys breaching our embassy walls, you know). Obama set the tone when he said that Romney had a tendency to shoot before he aims.
This was regarded as a “gotcha” comment, but I think Mitt Romney ought to have turned the tables on the president. He ought to have defended his original statement briefly, almost off-handedly. The administration began by apologizing for America. That is always the wrong response, Romney ought to have said. Our ambassador, and three other Americans, were murdered by Islamist thugs because our security was inadequate. That is the issue, and don’t muddy the waters with partisan irrelevancies.
Finally, let me observe that there is often a lot to be said for shooting before you take aim. If your principles are correct, if your vision is clear, you are already aiming in the right direction. Just pull the trigger. In fact, this is something Obama understands perfectly well. His administration has unleashed a continuous barrage since January 2009. I happen to think he is aiming in exactly the wrong direction. But his instincts about when (if not what) to shoot are correct. If your principles are clear, you don’t need focus groups and the abundance of caution they instill. You need a simple, clear, and (I’ll use the dread word again) manly policy for the country. I think that, deep down, Mitt Romney has such a vision. Hitherto, he has allowed it to be obscured by too diligent adherence to the false wisdom of focus groups. The path to victory is cleared by the candidate that has momentum. Inertia in the positive, irresistible sense is within Romney’s grasp. He needs but seize it.