The "Political Advantage" Defense Mechanism
In the immediate aftermath of the Minnesota bridge collapse, one of the first talking points to come out from the White House and the GOP spin machine was a charge that Democrats were trying to take political advantage of the tragedy by talking about past GOP under funding at the state and national level. It suddenly became off-limits for the Democrats to point out that Governor Tim Pawlenty and George W. Bush had borne full responsibility for the sorry state of Minnesota’s highways because of their mutual and well-documented insistence that user taxes and taxes of any kind not be raised to maintain or improve infrastructure, and that such needs be met through the current inadequate levels of funding.
This tactic of preemptively deflecting politically damaging attacks by smearing your opponent for taking political advantage of a situation is a part of the Rove/Luntz playbook, and has been in use for well over a decade as a defense mechanism. Whenever you hear any Republican warn Democrats about “taking political advantage” of a tragedy it means that they know they are responsible for the tragedy. It is a tactic they used to defend themselves immediately after Katrina, and it is a warning from the same people who politicized Jessica Lynch, Pat Tillman, and every terror threat warning of the last six years.
And yet our national Democratic leaders always seem to be neutered by it.
An attack on the “no new taxes for anything” race to the bottom, as well as a serious challenge to the Bush Administration’s willingness to build bridges in Iraq but not here at home should have been a ready-made message-driven campaign for the Democrats starting yesterday, for the full month during the vacuum of the August recess. This would have allowed the Democrats to set the negatives on the GOP record so that Democrats could roll out their new product in September when Congress returns. Instead, the White House and the GOP media preemptively hit the Democrats with the “political advantage” missile, and suddenly it got quiet on the Democratic side.
Democrats on the Hill and in the presidential campaigns need to assume the worst in their GOP opponents whether it is the White House, the RNC, the congressional campaign committees, or the presidential campaigns because they all use the same preemptive attack playbook. They need to be ready to make their points, respond hard and immediately to the GOP pushback, and make factual and pointed messages about the GOP record and culpability repeatedly through the media until the GOP changes its message.
And for God's sake, stop backing down and going quiet.