Politicians have the same reaction most of us do to adversity.
That instinct for flight in the face of fright often turns one-day stories into running narratives and hurts the reputations of the runners. They hide. Then they deny. Eventually, they have to show up and take their medicine.
Some — and the argument is that many of the successful ones are in this group — run right into the fire. Gov. Rick Perry has done it over and over, irritating his enemies and delighting his nervous supporters. This is the fellow who held a news conference on his way into the courthouse where he had been indicted on charges of misuse of office, and who headed for the media room to admit he “really stepped in it” when he punctuated a memory lapse with “oops” in a presidential debate.
Clay Jenkins, the Dallas County judge, did it twice this year, first by offering shelter for undocumented and unaccompanied minors crossing the border from Mexico, and later by his hands-on reaction when an international Ebola scare became a local threat in Dallas. Anybody who thought that would end in an apology is still waiting.
It is a counterintuitive response to trouble, but it seems to be a politically effective one. Running, on the other hand, just delays the trouble and sometimes compounds it.
The Republican assault on Democrats in this year’s elections was encapsulated in the question Greg Abbott asked Wendy Davis during their first debate, about whether she regretted casting a vote for President Obama. She looked like someone had just found a Ted Cruz yard sign in the trunk of her car. That kind of embarrassed reaction affirms the attack: Discomfort, it turns out, is not a good defense.
She had come up with an answer in time for a forum the next day, but she missed the opportunity in that televised appearance to look like the candidate in charge.
Reactions leave strong impressions: Is this person reacting to circumstances or changing them? The governor surprised everyone in 2007, issuing an executive order requiring vaccinations of preteen girls in Texas to avoid human papillomavirus, or HPV, a sexually transmitted virus that can lead to cervical cancer.
Social conservatives recoiled, as you might expect after reading a sentence that includes the words “preteen” and “sexually transmitted.”
Faced with a strong negative reaction — partly from those conservatives and partly from critics in both political parties who noted that only one company offered the vaccine in question and was represented by Perry’s former chief of staff — the governor dug in. He defended the order as one that would protect life. He pulled it down and, as he moved into place for a run for president, said he had made a mistake.
Not the mistake you might have thought, though: He said he should have asked legislators to pass a law instead of issuing an executive order that surprised everyone. He did not say he was wrong about the medicine.
Jenkins, the top elected official in Dallas County, last summer offered the county’s help in housing unaccompanied minors from Mexico and Central America who were pouring across the southern border. It is a Democratic county and this is an election year, but nobody with a pollster thought that was a great strategic move. And when Ebola came to Dallas County, there was Jenkins, on the evening news, visiting an apartment where Thomas Eric Duncan had stayed before the disease killed him.
Jenkins was trying to reassure skittish Dallasites, — it has not been all that long since Ebola was the only subject of conversation there — and it did not seem to affect him in November, when 54.5 percent of voters supported his re-election bid.
Davis got a smaller percentage of the vote than any Democrat in a Texas governor’s race since George W. Bush was the Republican Party’s nominee. That one debate question was not what sank the campaign, but it was an example of what went wrong. Outsiders trying to knock off the reigning party are supposed to be running an offense — not a defense.
Perry is putting together another run for president, and says he will make a decision in a few months about whether to run. For now, he is talking to hundreds of potential donors and supporters, lining things up and running without running away. He tells them “America is a place that believes in second chances.”
Maybe. It has worked for him so far.