Monday, January 16, 2006

Paul Hackett's Quick Recovery

Once upon a time I said that Paul Hackett's candidacy made me nervous because maverick newcomers like him are gaffe-prone. I'm on the verge of getting over it.

Over the weekend, the Columbus Dispatch published a column based on Hackett's interview with four CD reporters. In typical Hackett style, he danced along the ridge dividing refreshing candor from loose-cannon crazytalk. On one occasion he tumbled down the far side:

Hackett called DeWine a "professional politician" who "is all over the map on
issues," and who’s afraid to stand up to the "radical religious fundamentalists"
controlling the GOP. At that point, Hackett’s candor went on steroids.

"The Republican Party has been hijacked by the religious fanatics that, in my
opinion, aren’t a whole lot different than Osama bin Laden and a lot of the
other religious nuts around the world," he said. "The challenge is for the rest
of us moderate Americans and citizens of the world to put down the fork and
spoon, turn off the TV, and participate in the process and try to push back on
these radical nuts – and they are nuts."
I gave you the whole quote to be fair about context. Much of what he said is spot-on, but the comparison with Bin Laden is over the line. What I find admirable in all this is how the Hackett camp handled the gaffe, but let's get one thing straight: it was a gaffe. Notwithstanding Buckeye Senate's many many many protestations, it was a gaffe.

Comparing Americans to Bin Laden has elbowed out comparing them to Hitler as the ultimate hyperbolic, Godwin's Law affirming, argument-stopper. Comparing conservative Christians to Bin Laden is radioactive for a Democrat. Republicans can paint such a statement as soft on terrorism and anti-Christian without breaking a sweat. For a guy who claims he has the pulse of the downstate electorate, it was a reckless statement.

Gaffes happen. Few campaigns are mistake-free. When he gaffes, a candidate has a variety of options; he can spin, he can retract, he can dig in, he can deny.

Or he can deflect. Hackett chose the last, and his performance was masterful. According to the press release in today's email, here is how Hackett responded to the flack:

"The Republican Party has been hijacked by religious fanatics, who are out of
touch with mainstream America. Think of the recent comments by Pat Robertson - a
religious fanatic by any measure - that the United States should assassinate a
democratically elected leader in Venezuela, and that Ariel Sharon's stroke was
divine punishment because Sharon wished to trade land for peace."

"Since the Republican Party has been utterly unable to stand for something positive, they have created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation, and have pandered to
religious fanatics not to vote for something they believe in, but to vote against their fellow Americans with whom they disagree. Those among us who would use religion and politics to divide rather than unite Americans should be ashamed."

First, the statement is not an obvious retreat. A retreat could disasterously alienate the netroots fanbase that is fixated on his well-chronicled candor.

Now look at what the second statement doesn't say. It says nothing about Bin Laden. It says nothing about terrorism. Nothing in the statement justifies the comparison between religious right leaders and Islamic terrorists. Instead of "religious fanatics who are just like Bin Laden," the Republicans are now in the thrall of "religious fanatics who are out of the mainstream."

The message is: "Hey, you only think I gaffed. Listen to me again. Hear how reasonable and moderate I am?"

Beautiful. Time will tell if it worked.

[EDITED] Did I really write a post about a gaffe and spell "gaffe" as "gaff" throughout? What a gaffe!


Ohio 2nd said...

Yeah... it's a gaff. I've been hearing him use the American Taliban line for a long time when his hair's down. What a fool I was for being nervous of him saying that.

Anonymous said...

I agree it was a gaffe. Every politician says gaffes. Remember Santorum and Byrd with the Hitler reference. Things that shouldn't be said in a sentence are Hitler, Nazi, Osama Bin Laden, etc.

Having said that. How you deal with a gaffe is exactly how Hackett did. You strike back.

Unknown said...

I strongly disagree: how is a figure like Pat Robertson different than an Osama bin Laden? Both are religious crazies who incite violence in the name of their respective faiths.

Whether it is the curriculum of Kansas's schools or Bush calling for a crusade against terror, these actions define us as a theocratic democracy. The so-called "war on christmas" punctuates the religious intolerance and bigotry that underlies American politics today.

Ok...I'm creaping back to my hole...I'll try to stick to the topic a little better next time...

Scott Piepho said...

Thanks all for commenting. Sorry I haven't gotten back before now.

OH-2, I am a little nervous about whether he has learned his lesson. Even if this week's deflection works, he gets one of those.

Keng. I'm reminded of the DC wag who defined a gaffe as a candidate telling the truth. And while I agree that fundamentalisms carry similar infirmities, whether American Christian Fundamentalism or Islamic Fundamentalism, the fact is that American Fundamentalists have stopped short of advocating slaughter of civilians.

I have zero tolerance for comparisons of people with whom one disagree the The Worst Humans Ever. Exceptions are made only if you can say "That dictator is loading minorities into boxcars just like Hitler did," or "That bearded zealot arranged for henchmen to fly loaded passenger jets into buildings just like Bin Laden did." Until then, civilized discours demands finding better arguments.