My recent column, Scott Walker’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Answer, sparked some debate and controversy. I was, of course, referring to Gov. Walker’s comments about not knowing whether or not President Obama is a Christian — comments that came on the heels of his punting on the evolution question, as well as his dodging a question about whether or not the president loves America.
By virtue of the fact that Scott Walker’s spokeswoman had to contact the Washington Post to clarify his comments (and by virtue of the fact that Rudy Giuliani felt compelled to write a Wall Street Journal op-ed to clarify his) I think it’s self evident that this was not handled effectively. You don’t go back and try to explain something if you think you hit a home run.
Still, several intelligent and thoughtful conservatives, whom I respect, disagreed with my take; my friend and colleague Ed Morrissey was among them. (Note: Later today, Ed will be on my podcast — and I will be on his The Ed Morrissey Show — to continue this conversation, so tune in!) But while I have great personal and professional respect and admiration for Ed, there are a few problems with the way he characterizes my position in his recent column. (This is not to pick on Ed; I’m choosing to address this at length because I think it’s representative of the way a lot of conservative critics felt about my take.)
Here’s what Ed had to say about my piece:
… Some, like my good friend and colleague at The Week Matt Lewis, argued that Republicans had better work with the media rather than fight against their narrative building. “Why is it so damned difficult for someone to say that Obama is a Christian who loves America — and he also happens to have been a really bad president? Why not grant him this small concession? He’s never going to be on the ballot again, so why are Republicans still fighting the last war?”
This is a small thing, but the quote he chose doesn’t really represent the thrust of my argument. It was a parenthetical, by which I mean it was literally in parentheses. (It’s fair game to quote, but it was, at best, an aside.)
More to the point, I take issue with his suggestion that I think “Republicans had better work with the media.” It is true that I don’t believe the media are inherently evil or “out to get you.” But I also think — and this is important for candidates to know — that the press are not your friends. Ed’s framing, I think, implies I support what might be thought of as collaboration or appeasement. But what Walker did was (inadvertently) work with the media — in the sense that he played right into their hands. He made this an irresistible story — so irresistible that we’re still talking about it today.
Conversely, what I am suggesting is that conservative candidates should learn how to communicate their message despite media bias. In other words, to overcome them. And part of that requires depriving their adversaries of the very types of stories that Walker has now generated. To paraphrase Nixon, Walker gave them a knife, and they twisted it with glee.
What I’m suggesting is that effective candidates shouldn’t give them the knife.
What is more, since it’s unrealistic to think the political or media landscape will miraculously improve between now and 2016, is seems to me that conservatives ought to take a candidate’s ability to handle hostile questions into consideration when selecting a nominee. The conservative who is eager to defeat Hillary Clinton in 2016 should not be so eager to dismiss Walker’s failures — or blame them on the media. I’m not suggesting this is a deal-breaker for Walker, but rather, that he won’t likely improve if he is led to believe that he responded not just adequately, but heroically.
Along those lines, I take issue with Ed’s contention that I don’t think conservatives should “fight against their narrative building.” This would be a more compelling argument had Walker succeeded in doing that. But let me pose this question: Did Walker make it more or less likely the press will engage in this sort of behavior in the future? Did Walker’s answer embarrass the press and/or destroy their narrative — or did it actually confirm it?
I would argue that, if the test for Walker’s effectiveness is contingent on destroying media narratives, he failed miserably.
Luckily, in my estimation, that’s not his test, nor is it his job. Political candidates ought to be concerned about winning the election. And one of the things that entails is effectively answering, parrying, or disarming stupid “gotcha” or even “ambush” questions. The goal of a candidate is a fairly short-term and obvious one: To win. Now, that doesn’t mean that the conservative movement shouldn’t be concerned about media bias. But we each have our role to play. Center-right journalists and watchdog groups are much better equipped to call out liberal bias — to help create the world we want. Candidates should be focused on winning — and this sometimes requires excepting the world as it is, and succeeding despite those confines.
Not to suggest this is mutually exclusive, but a candidate can generally only win one war at a time. He can focus either on taking on the media, or on winning an election. Sometimes conservatives can gain points by taking on the “nattering nabobs” in the press, but more often than not, this is the last refuge of losing campaigns (“Annoy the media, re-elect [George H.W.] Bush.”). It’s very hard to fight a two front war, especially when one of the enemies buys ink by the barrel and paper by the ton.
As such, it is my suggestion that conservative political candidates take the same advice that conservatives would offer a poor person who is struggling against the odds: You can either be bitter and resentful and whine about the game being “rigged,” or you can work hard and overcome. At the macro level, yes, someone ought to be fighting to change the system. But the smart move for the individual is to put on the blinders, work hard, and succeed. If you believe you can’t succeed because “The Man” is keeping you down, well that’s a self-fulfilling prophesy. In other words, as the saying goes: Don’t get mad, don’t get even, get ahead.