"Damage Control 101"

Blog ››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

One of the most predictable elements of any political controversy is the delayed rush by reporters and pundits to disparage the strategic and tactical response by the politician at the center of the controversy. I say "delayed rush" because these assessments so often come well after the fact -- when it is too late to be proven wrong, in other words -- but then come in a flurry.

Generally, the assessments come in one of two basic flavors: Either the politician made a mistake in failing to address the controversy, or the politician shouldn't have addressed it, which only gave the story "oxygen." Each comes in various permutations: Addressing the controversy can mean, among other things, a forceful denial accompanied by aggressive counter-attacks or a prompt and abject apology.

One great thing about waiting a week to say John Doe bungled this controversy by failing to immediately apologize or John Doe bungled this controversy by responding to the allegations, which only made them more newsworthy is that you can no longer be proven wrong, as you could if you made a prescriptive assessment on Day One. Another great thing about making such an assessment is that everyone has heard variations of each criticism often enough that it will ring true. Yet another is that there really are plenty of situations that would be best handled with an aggressive counterattack or a clear apology, and there really are plenty of situations that would best be handled by ignoring them until they go away due to lack of oxygen.

But that last part is what makes so many of the after-the-fact assessments so … well, empty and frustrating. See, sometimes "admit wrongdoing quickly and cleanly" is the right strategy, and sometimes "admit nothing, deny everything, make counter-allegations" is better. The trick is knowing which is best for a given situation.

Anyway, here's Time's Michael Scherer today, writing under the header "Blumenthal's Damage Control Bungle":

A week later, Blumenthal is keeping the story alive by issuing the inevitable apology that he refused to offer before. "I have made mistakes and I am sorry," he now tells the Hartford Courant. This is Damage Control 101. (Think Toyota.) Don't draw things out. Admit fault. Move on. Blumenthal, it seems, is finally getting the memo.

If that's really "Damage Control 101," why didn't Scherer tell us last week that Blumenthal's response wouldn't work? He did, after all, live-Tweet Blumenthal's statement without pointing out this supposedly-obvious strategic failure. He didn't point it out on Swampland, either -- not until today, long enough after the fact that it's safe to assert that Blumenthal bungled his response without fear of looking absurd a day later.

The thing is, if Blumenthal had immediately "admit[ted] fault,"* there's no guarantee the story would have gone away. And if it didn't, someone -- maybe not Scherer, but someone -- would be telling us that "Damage Control 101" dictated that he stand his ground and take the fight to his critics. And they'd probably tell us "That's what Karl Rove (or James Carville") would do." (Notice, by the way, that even while asserting that Blumenthal should have apologized last week, Scherer also says that apologizing now "is keeping the story alive." Blumenthal can't win. Or, more to the point, Scherer can't lose!)

Remember: George W. Bush managed to be elected president twice while generally refusing to admit wrongdoing. He certainly didn't "admit fault" and "move on" when it became obvious he had overstated his military record, for example: He responded defiantly and refused to admit fault. And the press moved on.

No, "Damage Control 101" isn't "Admit fault. Move on." "Figure out whether to admit fault" is closer to the mark.

To be clear: I'm not saying Scherer is wrong in saying Blumenthal bungled the response. I don't really have any interest in that question. I'm saying Scherer's explanation is wrong, and painfully simplistic, and we'd be reading the exact opposite from some prominent reporter if things had played out just a little differently. I also don't mean to single out Scherer: his post today is typical of media "analysis" of politicians' response to controversy.

* And, by the way, Blumenthal said when the story first broke "I regret that I misspoke, and I take full responsibility." Scherer quoted that response, but didn't explain the difference between saying "I misspoke, and I take full responsibility" is different from "admit[ting] fault."

Time Magazine
Michael Scherer
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