Political attacks are difficult to design and it's often impossible to avoid leaving finger prints – or traces of napalm - on the perpetrator himself. Case in point: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid who has stepped into napalm strength quicksand with a recent string of attacks on Republican Sue Lowden, his strongest potential challenger. Now, Reid’s clumsy attacks have him in danger of being tagged a hypocrite.
The best design for a political attack is one that gets a conversation started – not necessarily one aimed at ending a career. Many political operatives got their start with internecine political party battles. At one such recent conclave, it was alleged that a party chairman beat his wife. The questions began: Did he actually beat her? How badly and when? What kind of person does that? Details, like the actual frequency of beatings mentioned in any "hit piece" quickly become irrelevant.
And so debate breeds awareness. Negative attention creates ill will. Discontent breeds political action. Finally, adverse motivation encourages action on the part of voters and thus ends another political career. Savvy attacks, therefore, never just focus on the details. Assuming Harry Reid’s political operatives once cut their teeth on internecine battles, it’s no wonder the press releases issued from his Washington Senate Leadership post on high masquerade as hit pieces. When Harry hits Sue, the backdraft only helps Lowden edge closer to a win.
Here's where Reid went wrong: By attacking Lowden’s employment and business practices, Reid is inadvertently encouraging his opponent to define herself as someone who is comfortable with tightening her belt and familiar with the pain of down-sizing. Reid’s hit was easily reframed by placing Lowden in the role of defenseless victim of Washington’s poor policy making. Ultimately, the debate Reid started only served to remind voters of his own role in an expensive stimulus plan which failed to help Lowden’s workers keep their jobs.
Reid’s aggressiveness against small business and businesswomen is not lost on voters who know someone personally suffering among the 30,000 Nevadans who have declared bankruptcy since January 2009. And Reid’s clumsiness makes him look like Nero fiddling in Washington, D.C. while the unemployment rate for real Nevadans rose a full 33 percent statewide in just 2 years.
In a perfect world, it would be enough to merely compare and contrast candidates’ support for public policy. In reality, campaigning is persuasion. Incumbents are not successful persuading via the hit piece. If you miss the mark, as Harry Reid does frequently, an attack merely helps the challenger educate the voters that the incumbent is out of touch and worse, deserving to be out of office.
Dr. Dora Kingsley is founder of Trenton West, a national policy and opposition research firm based in California and Washington, D.C. As an adjunct professor with the University of Southern California’s School of Policy, Planning and Development, Dr. Kingsley has taught graduate coursework for fifteen years and is a lifetime fellow of the congressionally chartered National Academy of Public Administration.
Backdraft: When Harry helped Sue Lowden
Political attacks are difficult to design and it's often impossible to avoid leaving finger prints...