After Tea Time, Both Parties Miss the Point

Democrats have been poking fun at Sarah Palin for writing notes on her hand before speaking at the National Tea Party Convention last weekend.

The critics may enjoy a chuckle or two at the former Alaska Governor’s expense, but unless they take a more serious look at Governor Palin and the Tea Party, they won’t be laughing at the results of upcoming elections throughout the nation.

This episode– and the reaction to it – underscores a significant flaw in today’s American politics. And it afflicts both Democrats and Republicans.

In the case of the Tea Party Convention, Democrats missed the point. It’s not about what Sarah Palin wrote on her hand. If Democrats have fundamental public policy differences with the one-time Vice Presidential candidate and the Tea Party (and I’m sure they do), they should be sounding counter arguments loudly and clearly. If they continue to focus on such trivial issues and dismiss the Tea Party as a small far right element of the Republican Party, they could be heading for disaster in this year’s mid-term elections – and beyond.

On the other side of the coin, let’s look at an argument gaining momentum among critics of the President. Ever since Barack Obama won the 2008 election, I’ve heard anecdotal comments suggesting that somehow – despite the margin by which he won – Obama’s victory did not truly reflect the sentiments of the American people. I’ve heard people attribute his election to young people who didn’t know better, to minorities who only voted only for him because was black, and to other ethnic and racial groups, usually in terms that are much less polite.

In a similar spirit, former Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo told attendees of the Tea Party Convention that Obama was elected because of “people who could not even spell the word ‘vote’ or say it in English.” Although his remarks drew cheers at the convention, he too missed the point.

The facts are Barack Obama received nearly 70 million votes, about 10 million more than John McCain. Out of 70 million voters, it’s possible there may have been a handful of people who did not know how to spell “vote” or say it in English, but it’s a stretch to suggest such a small group of voters had a major impact on the outcome of the race.

It’s also a mistake to believe it if you’re hoping to launch a successful political campaign. Obama did receive significant support from young people and minorities, but he also captured large percentages of voters from almost every American demographic, including substantial numbers of independent voters. At the moment, those independent voters, who comprise about a third of the electorate, are moving away from Obama in droves. But it’s still much too early to predict which way they will vote in 2012.

Unfortunately, what we are seeing played out on the national stage is endemic of a trend not only in politics, but in every day life. Instead of acknowledging and addressing problems, it’s become more fashionable to dismiss them or launch counter-attacks. It has become a rarity for individuals to stand up and accept responsibility.

For example, after Governor Jon Corzine failed to win re-election last year, his fellow Democrats were quick to throw him under the bus — blaming his policies, his decision-making, even his demeanor — for the defeat. Unless I missed it, no one stood up and said, “Gee, I should have campaigned harder for the Governor. If each of us could have brought out more people, it may have made a difference.”

Likewise, PolitickerNJ this week reported that New Jersey Attorney General-nominee Paula Dow attributed a controversial decision to a lower-level staffer. This was reminiscent of comments made by then-candidate Chris Christie when he explained how he could be unaware of a document that bore his signature. “There were probably 12 to 14 people at any one time who had the authority to sign my name to documents,” he told The Star-Ledger.

For successful executives, both in the public and private sectors, the ability to delegate is critical. But so is taking responsibility and acknowledging when something is wrong.

In his 1999 book Hardball: How Politics Is Played, Told By One Who Knows the Game, Chris Matthews explains the value of “hanging a lantern” on one’s problems. He uses several historic examples from the world of politics, most notably John F. Kennedy’s actions in the aftermath of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion.

“John Kennedy never stood higher in the nation’s opinion polls than in the days and weeks after he took sole responsibility for the Bay of Pigs,” Matthews writes. “Kennedy’s decision to cut his losses made him more popular than ever. ‘By taking full blame upon himself,’ writes his aide Ted Sorensen, ‘he was winning the admiration of both career servants and the public.’”

Mathews’ point is well taken. Acknowledging a problem is good politics.  But even more important, it’s good policy and it’s the right thing to do.

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