Make your opponent defend himself

Photo by Danielle Zeda

Photo by Danielle Zeda

This Washington Post story by Chris Cillizza is worth reading if you're considering a run for office. 

We've all read about and have opinions on the Clinton email controversy. I'm not interested in debating the Clinton defense or what her opponents say here on the blog. But I do want to illustrate a point that might help you with your campaign. 

When a bad story breaks for your opponent, most candidates first instinct is to hope the scandal takes them out of the race immediately. Most of the time that does not happen. 

Some conservatives surely hoped the March 2015 story might be an immediate death-blow to the Clinton candidacy. They hoped Clinton might be forced to back out of the race. That didn't happen.

But as a bad story begins to unfold, candidates are held to the things they said the first few days after the story breaks. 

That is why it's so important to get your opponent on record talking about a bad story. Ask probing questions, send out press releases and force as many answers as possible. 

Here's an example: let's say you're running for sheriff, and a story breaks that your opponent had a DUI in the past five years. A DUI is relevant to a candidate for a law enforcement position. 

But voters are forgiving. Many of they may have had DUI's in the past and many of them may have deserved DUI's somewhere along the way. They understand that candidates make mistakes, and if the candidate is repentant voters are often quick to forgive. 

A DUI is probably not going to knock your opponent out of the race. So what do you do? Ask questions. Urge the press to ask questions. Is this your first DUI? What was your blood alcohol content? Did the judge require you to do anything, and did you follow through? Was anyone else in the car with you? Have you ever been arrested for any other reasons? 

Your opponent is going to give the answers voters want to hear in the interest of self-preservation, whether those answers are true or not. 

But as the story unfolds, those answers might not be true. And that's when voters become less forgiving. Mistakes followed by apologies are easily forgiven. Lies are not. 

How do you get your opponent to answer those questions? If you have a debate or forum coming up, that should be easy. Just ask them point-blank, whether the debate format allows it or not. He'll have to answer.

If you don't, send out a press release titled "Ten Questions My Opponent Needs to Answer for the Voters." And list your ten questions. Urge the local reporter covering the race to ask the questions if they're too lazy to do it on their own. Have your supporters email, call and contact your opponent on social media to ask the questions. 

It's possible you'll come across as a little cold-hearted doing this, so use your best judgement. Consider having a "Mom's Against Drunk Driving" group ask the questions instead. But do make sure you get him on record defending himself. The lie or the cover-up is always worse than the act. 

Let's go back to the Clinton email server example and see how this played out. The New York Times broke the story on March 2. If you go through the story line by line, you'll see the claims made by The New York Times:

  • Clinton exclusively used a personal email account to conduct government business.
  • Clinton may have violated federal requirements that officials’ correspondence be retained as part of the agency’s record.
  • Clinton’s aides took no actions to have her personal emails preserved on department servers at the time, as required by the Federal Records Act.

Here is the first response from Clinton spokeswoman Nick Merrill (from the NY Times story): 

  • Clinton has been complying with the “letter and spirit of the rules."
  • Mr. Merrill "declined to detail why she had chosen to conduct State Department business from her personal account."
  • [Merrill] “said that because Mrs. Clinton had been sending emails to other State Department officials at their government accounts, she had ‘every expectation they would be retained.’”
  • [Merrill] “did not address emails that Mrs. Clinton may have sent to foreign leaders, people in the private sector or government officials outside the State Department.”

Then a few days later, Clinton herself held a press conference and answered questions about the server. Here are a few of her statements:

  • “When I got to work as secretary of state, I opted for convenience to use my personal email account, which was allowed by the State Department, because I thought it would be easier to carry just one device for my work and for my personal emails instead of two.”
  • “The vast majority of my work emails went to government employees at their government addresses, which meant they were captured and preserved immediately on the system at the State Department.”
  • “I took the unprecedented step of asking that the State Department make all my work-related emails public for everyone to see.”
  • “The system we used was set up for President Clinton’s office. And it had numerous safeguards. It was on property guarded by the Secret Service. And there were no security breaches.”

Since March, we've found out that the Obama administration did have rules for how department heads were to use email. We've learned that Clinton did carry two devices with her at times. We've learned that Sidney Blumenthal turned over emails that Clinton had not turned over. And we've learned that there may have been email security breaches as well. 

By now you should to see why it's important to get your opponent on record defending their actions. As the story unfolds, it's the early statements following a big story that become the "new" scandal, and keep the story in the news. 

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