There are competing schools of thought in political crisis management, and different methods are applied to different circumstances. Sometimes it’s better to ignore a controversy, deny it oxygen, and wait for it simply wither on the vine. Other times, it’s preferable to use overwhelming force to crush a story on day one, before it spirals and does real damage.
When David Corn reported yesterday on Mitch McConnell’s opposition-research strategy regarding Ashley Judd, the Kentucky Republican and his aides obviously chose the latter – lashing out wildly, concocting a theory about nefarious liberals bugging the senator’s office. The p.r. push was intended to create a distraction from the story itself, while positioning McConnell as a victimized martyr – whom far-right donors should reward with cash.
To a large extent, the strategy played out in a predictable way – BuzzFeed applauded Team McConnell’s ability to spin the media – but a day later, there are some lingering questions. Is there any proof at all that McConnell’s office was bugged? Isn’t it possible the recording came from within McConnell’s own team? And do the recordings point to possible ethics lapses?
Much of the news coverage focused on the McConnell team’s comments about Judd’s religious views and her mental-health history. But the tape might raise ethics questions for McConnell and his staff.
Senate ethics rules prohibit Senate employees from participating in political activities while on government time. But the tape indicates that several of McConnell’s legislative aides, whose salaries are paid by the taxpayer, were involved with producing the oppo research on Judd that was discussed at the February 2 meeting.
Mother Jones sought an explanation from McConnell’s team about this, but for some reason, the aides were reluctant to talk about it.
It’s one of the reasons I wonder whether McConnell would have been better off ignoring the story, rather than turning it into a major national controversy.
There was a real possibility that David Corn’s story would have been largely overlooked by the political world. After all, it shared details about a campaign strategy targeting a woman who isn’t even a candidate, and while the recordings point to some ugly tactics, those plans weren’t illegal and have been rendered moot.
It was, in other words, likely to be a one-day flap. It made McConnell’s team look a little desperate, and arguably a little sleazy, but the Kentucky senator and his aides looked pretty desperate and sleazy anyway.
But by turning this into a five-alarm fire, McConnell took a risk. If, for example, we learn that there was no secret bugging, this wasn’t done by liberals, and the senator misused taxpayer-paid staffers for campaign purposes, this will prove to be much more embarrassing than if he’d just ignored the story in the first place.