Friday, September 12, 2003

Gaffes and Flip-Flops

Howard Kurtz addresses the recent dustups about Dean's alleged flip-flops:

Does Howard Dean have a credibility problem?

Or are his increasingly worried rivals just taking potshots at him?

One thing's for sure: The media, lacking any other excitement this side of California, are biting on the story.

The specific misstatements that Howard III has made aren't, by themselves, that big a deal -- not much different than the usual fudges and hyperbole of political life.

But there are two dangers here for Dean.

One is that his straight-talking persona -- his self-definition as the man who tells it like it is without trimming his sails -- gets shredded.

The other is that the media give Dean an image as an exaggerator, much as they did with Al Gore in 2000, so that a misstatement about the cost of his dog's medicine became a major flap.

This is a pretty amazing passage. Kurtz essentially admits that the media "gave" Al Gore an image of an exaggerator. Yet he also implies that it was Gore's fault that this happened. Thus we see how the responsibility era plays out in the establishment media.

Kurtz, in his own round about way, does manage to put his finger on what is going on: the media is still unsure about how to treat Dean. Today's establishment press is more about telling stories than relating the news. Telling a story is so much easier than the hard work of investigating the facts. Their problem with Dean is that they haven't settled on a storyline for him yet.

Dean's job is to make sure that they settle on the right storyline.

There is one other thing I would like to address in this story. It is this idea that being a "straight-shooter" is somehow incompatible with making gaffes or changing your public stance.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Today's politicians are well versed in the art of talking without saying anything. They have learned this skill specifically because they don't want to be accused of making a gaffe or of having to publicly admit that their previous statements were incorrect. Because if they do then they have to deal with the kind of crap that is coming Dean's way right now. The result of this process is a band of bland politicians that ultimately appeal to no one.

A "straight-shooter", on the other hand, is almost guaranteed to make a few mistakes along the way because part of being a "straight-shooter" is not being so self-conscious about what you are saying. People can forgive mistakes and they may even like you more for your foibles. This is why, to the surprise of many professional analysts, Dean's occasional stumbles actually seem to increase his support. As long as he continues to own up to his mistakes, his supporters will forgive him and come to appreciate his honesty even more. It's that open acknowledgement of his own faults that adds rather than detracts from his appeal.

And it's also why I expressed disappointment in his handling of the "I'm the only one" gaffe. It's the only time I can recall that Dean has, so far, not owned up to his mistake.

Dean does not need to worry about being accused of gaffes or flip-flops. It is a guarantee that he will have to face such accusations for the rest of his political life. All politicians must deal with this problem. He only has to be concerned with how he deals with it.

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