The Art of Spin: Then, Now & What Lies Ahead

In Hardball, the book that bears the name of his MSNBC television program, Chris Matthews recounts a classic tale of spin from the 1984 Democratic primary.

At the time, Walter Mondale was losing momentum to Gary Hart. As Super Tuesday approached, Mondale’s candidacy was in serious jeopardy, especially because he was in danger of losing Georgia. Since Mondale had been vice president during the Carter Administration, a defeat in Carter’s home state would be viewed as a defeat nationally.

But Robert Beckel, Mondale’s campaign manager, turned that scenario around to his candidate’s advantage. Beckel argued that, since Mondale needed Georgia to keep his campaign alive, a victory in the Peach State equated to a victory nationally. First he hounded the press with this spin on the Super Tuesday elections. Then he hounded Mondale supporters to make sure they filled a small room where the former Vice-President would speak after the election results were in.

The result? Mondale’s appearance took place before a packed, enthusiastic crowd on national television. To the cheering crowd, he announced that he had just carried Georgia. Ultimately, Mondale emerged as the victor on Super Tuesday — or at least the perceived victor since he actually lost seven of the nine primaries that night.

Over a quarter of a century has passed since Beckel successfully spun the 1984 Super Tuesday results, and the practice of spinning has become more prevalent and more sophisticated. Now that President Obama has signed a controversial health care reform bill into law, we are about to be treated to healthy doses of spin from both sides of aisle since the bill is likely to become the focal point of this fall’s Congressional elections.

But before we get to that, let’s take a look at how the characterization of the bill itself evolved. The measure that the President signed into law is a far cry from what he and his supporters envisioned a year ago. Yet, it has been described – by political analysts as well as the media – as a historic piece of legislation and a victory for the President.

This is due in large part to the events that took place in the weeks preceding Sunday’s vote in Congress. After Republican Scott Brown captured a Senate seat in a special election in Massachusetts (normally a Democratic stronghold), it appeared that health care reform was dead, or at least on life support. So just by making the bill viable again (even if it required negotiation, compromise, promises and deal-making), the President could claim some success. Then, by actually gaining legislative approval and making the bill law, he was able claim victory – and rightfully so. Getting the bill passed in today’s political environment clearly was a major accomplishment.

Of course, Republicans are taking a different view of the new law. In their quest to gain seats in Congress this fall, GOP leaders will try to convince voters that the bill is a costly government takeover that is unconstitutional because it requires Americans to have health insurance. On the other hand, Democrats will continue to describe the new law in terms similar to those uttered by the President when he signed it: a historic piece of legislation that “will set in motion reforms that generations of Americans have fought for, and marched for, and hungered to see.”

Because of the complexity of the new law, it will take years to fully implement – and even longer to determine its success or failure. That’s why the party that wins the spin battle over the next few months is likely to win at the polls in November too.

In New Jersey, we have a similar scenario unfolding with the state budget. Democrats and Republicans, not surprisingly, are taking significantly different positions on Governor Christie’s proposed Fiscal 2011 budget, which calls for extensive cuts across the board. Republicans view it as a much-needed step to address the state’s fiscal problems and set New Jersey back on track. Democrats counter that the cuts will hurt New Jersey’s working middle-class families by driving up local property tax rates. This is how lawmakers are likely to spin the issue between now and the June 30 budget deadline.

On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with putting one’s spin on any given issue. Why not highlight what you believe are the positive or negative aspects of a piece of legislation – and then try to convince people you are correct? The problems develop when spin gets out of control and the arguments begin to contain more fiction than fact.

“In these hyper-partisan times, it’s rarely good enough to respond to an unfair attack with a factual argument. Fire is fought with more high heat,” Associated Press writer Ron Fournier wrote in a recent article about untruths in politics.

Citing examples of misleading and inaccurate statements from both major political parties, Fournier contends that such conduct can have devastating consequences:

“Such distortion and dishonesty cause Americans to be increasingly skeptical of – even cynical about – their political institutions and leaders. Once people lose faith in the political system, they’re less likely to vote, less willing to pay taxes to support government-run programs, less motivated to run for office themselves and – sociologists say – they’re even less likely to get involved in their own communities. These are consequences of cutting corners in the public square.”

Those are troubling words. Perhaps, they are not be troubling enough to prevent politicians from continuing to employ such tactics, but they should be troubling enough to us as citizens to make it our business to take the time to cut through the spin and learn the facts – on health care, the state budget and any other issue with the potential to impact our daily lives.

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