Friday, December 21, 2007

Off The Reservation

In today's Washington Post, Eugene Robinson takes on Hillary's Bill problem: specifically, that Bill doesn't stay "on message" when he's campaigning on Hillary's behalf, and can't stop talking about himself in general. The implication is that Bill is a dubious asset as a campaigner and would be a unique problem if Hillary won the White House.

Personally, I take for granted that First Gentleman Bill would be unlike any presidential spouse we've known, that he would demolish the old-fashioned role that Laura Bush inhabits (I imagine her despising it), and good riddance to it. But I'm sure Bill gives campaign staffers agita at a grocery store in Iowa.

The Matt Bai piece I blogged about yesterday touched on the issue of "message discipline."
Hillary strives for tight discipline, whereas Bill is an improviser. Once I read a quote about George W. Bush, from someone who knew Bush in his Texas days (maybe from Karl Rove), that marveled at his message discipline--Bush was an amazingly talented politician, in this person's view, because whatever the question he was posed, he could drag the discussion back to the day's approved talking point(s). At some point, this virtue becomes a shortcoming: in a White House press conference or other venue where the questions are pointed and the issues are weighty, "message discipline" looks more like clumsily, slavishly, even stupidly parroting the same few stock phrases over and over. But I give Bush a little grudging credit for his parsing skills: in the recent saga of the Iran NIE (Iran is nowhere near being the rogue nuclear state of song and story) it was pointed out that in midstream Dubya began speaking not of the mullahs getting a bomb but of "acquiring the knowledge necessary" to have a bomb. You might not have noticed the shift in wording in real time, but it looms large in retrospect. So the man is capable of subtle shifts in phrasing, when his political carcass (or a felony charge) is on the line.

On the other hand, a Bill Clinton's improvising skill can serve to salvage the day's message, not just fuzz it up. I've forgotten some of the details, but there was a major televised speech during which Bill's teleprompter malfunctioned, and he didn't miss a beat. He understood his topic on the level of themes and ideas, not stock phrases.

Message discipline is what a politician needs if s/he lacks intellectual integrity. So you see why it's so highly sought after.

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