Rhetoric: Risk and Reward

The first rule of politics for politicians and wanna be politicians is this: don’t say stupid things. A more nuanced sub rule of that is: choose your words carefully.

There is no doubt that Jon Favreau is a talented wordsmith. However, with that talent, people his (read: our) age also bring with it a naivete of the real world of governing.  Like how to balance campaign-like promises and the reality of governing.

At this point in his career, Favreau probably knows this. But way back in 2009, when his boss was about to assume the Presidency, was this on his mind? Probably not.

Now, I’m not pretending to be more knowledgeable than Favreau. There’s a reason he works in the White House and I don’t, but as somebody who worked in campaigns before working in Congress, I came to this sobering conclusion:

Governing is way different than campaigning.

When I came to Congress in 2007, I quickly realized that working in the legislature was very different than trying to get people there. Once you’re there, your rhetoric needs to change. Which is why, if I were copy-editing the 2009 Inaugural Address, I would have struck this line (among others):

I remember cringing during many parts of the President’s speech, which is natural, because I am a Republican. However, this line stood out. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the point the President was trying to make: Sometimes big government is the solution, so long as it works.

Naturally, I disagree with that view, but the worst thing you conclude a broad statement about a vision of government with is “whether it works.”

Size doesn’t matter, results do? Tell that to your female friends, guys, and let me know if that works. Seriously, though, if you’re trying to dispel the “big government doesn’t work well” talking point, the worst thing you could do is open yourself up to whether or not your style of governance works.

Regardless, people will still hold you accountable if it doesn’t, but having that soundbyte makes things far worse.

Republicans are going to jump on and focus on this line this fall. Every misstep made = evidence that this government doesn’t work.

Solyndra? This government doesn’t work.

GSA Scandal? This government doesn’t work.

The list can continue into whatever you make it, all because the President made it a focal point of the Inaugural address. Which was a mistake.

E.J. Dionne, a columnist at The Washington Post, whom I don’t agree with often, put it this way on NBC’s Meet the Press:

“But I think it’s really bad for progressives, liberals, when any of these scandals come out,” Dionne said. “Because progressives and liberals are people who say based on history, government can accomplish great things. And paradoxically, I think these scandals hurt the progressive side of politics more because they feed this doubt that the public has. And I think the task of people who are on that side of politics say no, we can fix government and make it work and do good things. So, I think this undercuts part of the progressive argument.”

I think he put it the right way. However, that’s true any day of the week. It’s just worse when you’ll be judged on some of the most important words uttered minutes into office.

In campaigning and once you’re in office, the risk (obviously) is losing and the reward is winning.

Rhetoric can be different if you’re not an incumbent. Losing, while bad, is not the same as losing a job you have. However, the second you are an incumbent, the rules change, as does the balance of campaign rhetoric and governing reality.

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