When you’re running for office and facing damaging political attacks, there is a widely-accepted method for fighting back: quickly rebut the criticism and move on. Don’t dawdle, don’t let it linger and don’t keep fighting the same fight and bringing the topic back to the forefront. Re-raising the issue risks highlighting the very attacks you were trying to tamp down in the first place.
“You have to rebut it but you can’t spend all your time arguing about it. You have to rebut it quickly, you have to knock it down very hard with factual backup and at the end of it say, ‘that’s it,’” former GOP press officer Carl Golden told me recently. Golden, who worked with Jersey Govs. Tom Kean and Christie Whitman, said, "To allow to dominate … is a real mistake.”
So I was surprised late Sunday night when an e-mail arrived from Democrat Kathy Boockvar’s campaign touting a Monday press conference to criticize her opponent, Republican Congressman Mike Fitzpatrick, for an issue that is about 10 days old. Democrats wanted another shot at Fitzpatrick over GOP attacks trying to link Boockvar to convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal. The initial accusations came out Sept. 27 and stirred coverage for a few days, but by now had seemed to fade into the background of the tightest race in our region. (And which I looked at in depth in today’s Inquirer). Why would Boockvar bring them back into the spotlight?
Maybe, I thought, the Dems had some new, related information that would cast Fitzpatrick in a particularly bad light. Instead, what we mostly got was former Gov. Rendell re-hashing criticism of Fitzpatrick with nearly the same lines he used in an interview with me Sept. 28 – in some cases quoting himself word-for-word.
“The links were absurd … it was almost laughable,” Rendell said Monday.
He again called on Fitzpatrick to denounce the Web post and robo-calls sponsored by the National Republican Congressional Committee. That he hasn’t, Rendell said, “is in my judgment cowardice and it is a character flaw which the voters of this congressional district ought to take very, very seriously.” Also in attendance was Philly DA Seth Williams, adding some law enforcement heft to the Democratic message. Williams argued that the photos of Boockvar and Abu-Jamal play to racial prejudice.
"It plays to people’s fears," he said in response to a question about race.
Strong stuff – but not much different than what's already been said. So what gives?
A few theories:
-- The Boockvar campaign made a mistake. Possible. But the campaign gets advice from national Democrats and Rendell is a seasoned operator. What Golden said is a pretty basic tenet in campaign circles. Boockvar has run once statewide and while even seasoned candidates make errors, it’s hard to see her campaign coughing up the ball like this.
-- Democrats think the ads hurt Fitzpatrick more than they hurt Boockvar. There’s a danger in going negative: that the attacker is seen as stretching the truth for political gain, that voters come to think that he or she will do anything to win an election. The ads are being run by the GOP’s national Congressional campaign arm, but I doubt most voters will see a distinction between them and Fitzpatrick himself. Maybe Democrats see this issue as a winner for them, and hope to drive up Fitzpatrick’s negatives.
-- Boockvar is looking for traction. Take a look at this picture, tweeted out by a state Democratic staffer after today’s press conference. Notice the network TV mics up on the podium. Most Congressional races in our area can’t buy that kind of attention, and a simple press conference highlighting Boockvar’s thoughts on Medicare or taxes or the federal budget almost certainly wouldn’t draw that level of coverage. But you invoke Mumia’s name, and suddenly the cameras come calling. He gets a reaction. That’s probably why the GOP chose to use him on their Web site and it could be that Boockvar, entering the final weeks of her campaign, knows that it’s the best way to get TV to come and listen and put her on the evening news. In fact, she said almost nothing about the ads herself – leaving that to Rendell – and instead pivoted to the issues that she said voters really want to talk about, and then delivered a series of well-rehearsed attacks on Fitzpatrick’s record.
“They want to talk about everything else but, and I’m here to bring it back around,” Boockvar said.
Even if it means giving added attention to the attacks that Democrats say they find so outrageous.
(Fitzpatrick’s campaign, for the record, did not respond today to a request for comment, same as when Rendell first leveled the attacks; I asked the Congressman about the Web ads when they were first released and he declined to take a firm stand on them, saying mainly that the research behind it is “troubling” and asking me if the attacks are true. Factually, yes, they appear to be, but Democrats argue that the facts are being wildly distorted to scare voters).