The Rove-ian Fallacy.Posted: May 2, 2008
We Democrats like to imagine that Karl Rove was an evil genius, capable of masterfully marginalizing opponents with a unique brand of Republicentric spin that America was helpless not to believe. And in the current race, we sometimes say that whichever Democrat we’re not for is using Rove-ian tactics against whichever Democrat we are for. It’s a way to cast negative interpretations as unfair, out of bounds, invalid.
But here’s the thing. To be believed, spin has to be believable. It has to resonate with the common sense of people. To gain traction, it has to reinforce something people already intuit. Not even Karl Rove could just make any damn thing up and have it stick—evil mastermind that he was.
When Rove-ian spinmeisters “swift-boated” John Kerry in 2004, Democrats thought it an outrage that a war hero’s courage could be questioned by supporters of an opponent who avoided the war. What Democrats didn’t take into account was that there was something fishy about John Kerry. Sadly, it wasn’t that hard to doubt his war heroism. People sensed (correctly!) something phony, arrogant and self-serving about the man. The swift-boating played right into that perception—but it did not invent it. It could not have worked had there not been something fundamentally untrustworthy about Kerry. The charges of the swift-boaters may not be have been factual, but they were, in some more important sense, true.
In the ongoing Democratic primary, each side is in furious denial that the flaws being assessed to its own candidate are real. But if they were not, no spin could make them seem so.
If Hillary Clinton’s honesty were not already a question mark, no amount of negative spin about her Bosnia landing strip fabrications could make her vulnerable.
If there were not legitimate reasons for concern about Barack Obama’s judgment, then his judgment in befriending Jeremiah Wright all these last 20 years would not be subject to attack.
The way for us Democrats to fight spin is not to argue that spin is unfair or without basis. It rarely is. (Outrageous lies abound, of course, but these tend not to gain traction.) It’s to put up candidates who, for once, don’t hand opponents all the spin-ammo they need in a silver pouch. We’ve got to make attacking us at least a little more challenging than shooting fish in a barrel.
Or else, we need candidates humble enough that they can admit, rather than deny, that they are deeply flawed, and who then can make the case that they deserve to lead anyway. I can imagine that.