When former Washington Mayor Marion Barry mounted his political comeback after being caught smoking crack cocaine, he tried to turn his difficulties with drugs into an asset. "I'm in recovery," he said, "and so is my city."The pitch worked. * Barry was re-elected, offering hope to all politicians who face a less acute but similar problem: how to handle that one liability that could sink your campaign.
There are three options: embrace, explain, or evade. In the last several weeks, we've seen examples of each approach from Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Mike Huckabee as they all have tried to put the best gloss on what might appear to be the weaker parts of their resumes.
Though the campaign has yet to get underway, Romney has already tried two of these approaches. His problem is the health care bill he signed into law in Massachusetts. Conservatives don't like it because it's similar to President Obama's national plan, which 80 percent of Republicans oppose. Given that level of antipathy, it is a compulsory exercise in the Republican presidential competition to denounce Obamacare. Romney didn't at the Conservative Political Action Conference last month. The omission seemed like an extreme version of the evade technique: Romney was evading his own plan so thoroughly he wouldn't even talk about the Obama plan to which it had been compared. This naturally brought more unfavorable attention to Romney's plan.
Next he tried explaining. Saturday in the crucial primary state of New Hampshire, he acknowledged he would have done some things differently in passing the law, though he didn't explain exactly what. Romney went on to say that what distinguished his effort from the president's is that he was acting as the governor of a single state. Obama had overreached by imposing a solution on the whole country.
This federalist argument isn't going to win over those who say Romney's plan is "socialism," as Mike Huckabee called it. But Romney is never going to win over those doubters. He and his aides hope that it will be sufficient to satisfy those who merely have doubts but for whom the health care issue won't determine their vote. Romney's uncertain support for his own legislation does, however, raise questions about his "authenticity," a problem that Slate named as his biggest liability in 2008.
One Romney adviser pointed to John McCain's difficulty with immigration reform in 2008 as a possible analogy. Republicans were angry with McCain, but the issue didn't kill him because he had other attributes he could offer voters. (Romney should know: He's the one who tried to damage McCain on the immigration issue.) Romney's hope is that by offering himself as a successful businessman who knows what's necessary to get the economy producing jobs again, he can minimize the damage from his support for universal health care.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has been bolder with his liabilities. His successor, John Boehner, is trying desperately not to repeat the government shutdowns of the mid-'90s. Gingrich took ownership of those shutdowns in a Washington Post column and proclaimed them a success. By standing on principle, he said, he was able to get a balanced budget and reform welfare.
He took a similar route with his personal liabilities. Twice divorced, he is an admitted adulterer with the woman who is now his third wife. Rudy Giuliani, who faced the identical problem, kept his wife largely out of the campaign. Gingrich has taken the opposite approach: His wife Callista is a full partner in the enterprise. Her photograph is almost larger than Gingrich's on his exploratory Web site, and as Ben Smith points out, her name was the first word Gingrich uttered when he announced he was going to think about preparing for a presidential run.
The benefit of taking control of your liabilities is that you define them on your own terms before your opponents and the media do.
Mike Huckabee will have to once again face questions about Maurice Clemmons, who was serving time in an Arkansas state prison for burglary when Huckabee granted him clemency. Clemmons went on to murder four police officers in Washington state. At a session with reporters hosted by the Christian Science Monitor recently, Huckabee grabbed his decision with both hands:
There was a kid who was 16 years old, he committed a burglary, it was aggravated, but not armed. And for that he got 108 years. … It was clearly a disproportionate sentence. … I'd love to tell you this isn't true, but that kid was black. And if he'd been white, and upper-middle class and had a good attorney, he wouldn't have served a day. He'd have had probation, he'd have gone to see a counselor, and he'd probably gone to college, and he'd probably be on Wall Street making a couple billion bucks a year. If I had the same file in front of me today that I had then, I would make the same decision.
Some liabilities are clearly insurmountable. That's why Sen. John Ensign, R-Nevada, decided on Monday not to seek re-election. His campaign was likely to be all about his extramarital affair with the wife of a top legislative staffer whom his parents then tried to pay off. Ensign allegedly tried to help his former staffer get a lobbying job. Had Marion Barry been in the same spot, he would have pitched the whole business as proof of his talents at community outreach and job creation.
Correction, March 8, 2011: This article originally and incorrectly stated that Marion Barry did not win re-election to mayor in 1994. He did and served from 1995 to 1999. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
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