Did Black Really Go Too Far?

Washington Matters

Did Black Really Go Too Far?

One of the things that makes Washington a particularly strange and difficult to understand place is how people communicate. Like a dysfunctional family, the political and chattering classes hold plenty of assumptions that are rarely discussed in public. When they do, there can be hell to pay -- as Charlie Black, a veteran GOP operative and top aide to John McCain, just found out.

One of the most oft repeated axioms of Washington is that the course of a race can change suddenly. A candidate makes a huge gaffe that undermines confidence in him or her. Or the nation is shaken by some enormous event, usually a cataclysmic one but sometimes a positive one. On the plus side, think along the lines of capturing Osama bin Laden. For a negative example, think of Iran announcing it has a nuclear weapon.

But in all honesty, ever since 9/11 when journalists or politicians discuss the possibility of an "unexpected event," they mostly are thinking about a terrorist attack here in the states. And when looked at through a purely political lens, many have presumed that a terrorist attack would likely benefit Republican candidates, who are generally perceived as stronger on national security issues. But, SHHHH. Don't say it out loud. It's unseemly.

In a public context, it is unseemly. When asked what impact a terrorist attack might have on the election by Fortune magazine, Black said it would be a "big advantage" to McCain. McCain, and many others, rebuked Black and Black had to apologize. If many politicians and journalists think privately along the same lines, isn't it hypocritical for so many people to jump down Black's throat -- especially since the question was about the political effect of an attack?

Not really. First, Black's choice of words was dreadful, akin to saying JFK's assassination was a "big advantage" to LBJ. Even someone as politically ambitious as Lyndon Johnson would never countenance the notion that some acceptable political gain came from from that tragedy.

Second, it's really only in Washington that every event is interpreted through a political prism. It's become so habitual with some journalists and politicians that policy proposals are often examined for their potential political effect, not measured by what they might actually mean for the good of the nation. I'm convinced that this cynical viewpoint is one of the chief reasons that so many people have been turned off by politics and political coverage. In reality, most politicians examine events from genuine policy angles as well as taking political considerations into account. But even for a public inured to cynicism, claiming gain from the possibility of tragedy simply appears jaded -- and Black should have anticipated that.

But there is a third problem with the remark, as well. It simply may not be true. Yes, a lot of people think McCain might get a boost from voters looking for strength. However, the truth is that effects of a  terrorist attack would vary depending upon the circumstances. Who's to say that the reaction would not be to blame the Bush administration and Republicans for not preventing an attack. And how might Barack Obama react? It's certainly possible that a surefooted performance and reaction in terms of potential responses could ease concerns about his lack of experience.