Good Night, Arnold

Weigel
Reporting on Politics and Policy.
May 18 2011 9:21 AM

Good Night, Arnold

Kevin Drum, who was still "Calpundit" when the 2003 California recall went down, shakes one fist at Arnold Schwarzenegger and one at.... well, it's not immediately clear who. He's angry about the way the 11th hour revelations about Schwarzenegger's infidelities were spun.

The Times series was widely viewed as a thinly veiled hit piece scheduled to run just days before the election in order to ruin Schwarzenegger's chances.That was never true. The reason the stories ran so late is because the special election was only six weeks long. If it had been any ordinary election, the Times would have spent far more time on its reporting and the story would likely have broken months before election day. In the event, though, the accusations were out there and the Times did heroic work putting together a hugely complex story under tight deadline pressure. As far as I know, the accuracy of their reporting hasn't been seriously challenged to this day.

And what about Arnold? He insisted that this stuff was so far in the dim past that he could barely remember it.

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This really was a head-scratcher. Chris Beam and Matthew Yglesias spent some time yesterday trying to figure out how politicians survive sex scandals, and Yglesias crafted the tightest rule: "What you need to do to survive infidelity is (a) be an incumbent and (b) don’t quit!" But Schwarzenegger wasn't an incumbent when the story broke. He used another, more difficult method of scandal-deflection: Populist anger at the source of the story. It certainly seemed, like Mickey Kaus wrote at the time, like Schwarzenegger was taking on water. But Schwarzenegger attacked the paper, and said the Times was taking part in a "puke" campaign with Gray Davis at the helm. Thousands of LAT readers cancelled their subscriptions out of loyalty to the candidate . They were angry that a story Schwarzenegger had denied was being played up. It didn't matter that he was lying and covering up a worse scandal.

This is a tricky stunt to pull. The only other politician I can think of right now who's pulled it is Nikki Haley, the governor of South Carolina, who was hit with two allegations of marital infidelity at the end of the 2010 primary. The stories were neither proven nor debunked. But Haley characterized them as anti-woman, as did Sarah Palin. Conservative voters sided with her. Former SC first lady Jenny Sanford had her back. And voters chose to believe the spin; they got angry at the media, and gave her a huge win.

I'd be interested to know why people think these candidates could pull this off.

David Weigel is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

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