The NARAL post-mortem

Here's my take on the NARAL ad fracas. It's clear that contrary to the claims made by the ad, NARAL did not have the equivalent of a smoking gun on Roberts' anti-choice history. But that's not really the main problem here, so I'm not even going to get into the "facts" of the case. Let's agree that conservative groups have run ads that are far more inflammatory -- think Swift Boat Vets -- with absolutely no basis in fact.

However, that doesn't excuse NARAL from the charge of gross incompetence. The way I see it, if you're going to go out on a limb, you better be prepared to stay there even in the face of immense media pressure. Withdrawing the ad did greater political damage than putting it out there in the first place. It was as good as an admission of guilt, however Gloria Feldt wants to spin it. Now the media story is not about Roberts, but NARAL's "extreme" politics -- or worse, the "extremism" of pro-choice advocates (see here).

The conservatives are effective because they stick to their guns, and repeat their version of the facts over and over again until it becomes part of the national debate. NARAL should have planned for the media furore and had a PR strategy to deal with the fallout the moment it decided to run with the ad. If you can't take the heat etc. etc.

In the end, however, there's only so much NARAL can do when they receive little support from their own, including the Democratic Party -- a point that this Post article hammers home:

When conservatives complained about the ad -- which suggested that nominee John G. Roberts Jr. condoned violence against abortion clinics -- a number of prominent liberals joined in the criticism and elected Democrats ran for cover rather than defend the ad, which was dropped.
Amid similar criticism against another controversial ad, most Republicans brushed aside demands to repudiate Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group that had taken aim at John F. Kerry's war record. Some Democrats said the difference revealed on their side an ambivalence about modern political combat that helps explain why their party is out of power.
"Republicans don't mind running an ad that's entirely false, but Democrats have never learned, and I'm not sure many of them want to learn, how to play that kind of politics," said Robert Shrum, an adviser to several Democratic presidential campaigns. NARAL had to pull the ad, he said, because "they weren't getting support from any substantial quarter."
Democratic strategist Chris Lehane, who like Shrum favors hardball politics, protested that "we Democrats bring a well-thumbed copy of Marquess of Queensberry Rules while the other side unsheaths their bloody knives, with a predictable outcome." Lehane said the NARAL ad "was great, and exactly the type of offensive that breaks through in the modern age." ...
The NARAL case was the latest incident to provoke Democratic recriminations. In June, Democrats demanded that Bush aide Karl Rove apologize for saying that liberals wanted "therapy and understanding for our attackers." Rove refused to apologize, and Republicans leapt to his defense. Just before the Rove episode, Republicans demanded an apology from Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), the number two Democrat in the Senate, who likened U.S. treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay to techniques used by Nazis. Democrats joined in criticizing Durbin, who eventually delivered a tearful apology on the Senate floor. [LINK]
That Shrum seems to have forgotten his own role in neutering the Kerry campaign is besides the point. But here are the two lessons we can learn from the NARAL experience. One, there is a huge difference between taking the high ground and being plain scared. Two, you can't be thin-skinned and expect to play hardball in politics.

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