At some point recently, GOP strategists must have taken a breather from publicly airing their internecine disagreements with the verve of 1990s Democrats, to take a peek in their political armory . . . and found it all but empty. A few unused packs of the race card were piled on a dusty shelf to one side, and the remaining crates of Vote "No" On Everything had been dragged near the door for ready access. But other than that, not so much as a puppy biscuit in sight.
What to do? I suppose, with the benefit of hindsight, what happened next was almost inevitable: If they're taking their political philosophy from Rush Limbaugh, it was only a matter of time until they started taking their media strategy from Bill O'Reilly. (H/t to Doctor TV.)
This could be described as the "I know you are, but what am I?" schoolyard tactic raised to the level of national media politics--not really an exercise in subtlety and finesse.
The National Republican Congressional Committee is sending out video "trackers" to ask provocative questions of Democratic members of Congress. The trackers, who are congressional committee staffers, were earlier reported by Congress Daily, a specialty publication distributed largely on Capitol Hill.
NRCC spokesman Paul Lindsay told McClatchy that Democratic complaints were "whining," adding that "The modern-day world of campaign politics demands that we track our opponents' steps and missteps. We have nothing to hide when it comes to asking tough questions, but it appears that Democrats do when it comes to answering them."
The NRCC doesn't require its questioners to identify themselves as partisans on grounds that anyone has a right to approach a member of Congress and ask a question. It wouldn't say how many lawmakers have been questioned: A GOP statement said that, "Videos are posted on a case-by-case basis."
Republicans say they're simply trying to hold Democratic lawmakers accountable. Since the Internet became an important part of campaigns, it's not been unusual for candidates of any party to be tracked by their opponents.
"We've had trackers following us around before, but they were there to observe," said Andrew Stoddard, communications director for Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., who recently was ambushed by a GOP interviewer.
"What they're doing now," Stoddard said, "takes things to a whole new level." […]
"Nobody understands more clearly than Republicans how much an unscripted moment can hurt you," said Stephen Farnsworth, the author of "Spinner in Chief," a study of how presidents sell their policies to the public.
Clearly, there's a difference between trackers, who passively record a political figure's public behavior, and agents provocateurs like these, who hope to create something newsworthy--or better, viral-video worthy--out of nothing. George Allen's self-inflicted "Macaca moment" in 2006 was captured by a tracker; the only sense in which the Virginia-born videographer to whom the slur was directed could be said to have "provoked" Allen's remark was by having been born with a "provocative" skin color.
But the political lethality of that moment must make GOP strategists drool at a time when the best response they can come up with to Obama's budget is to announce they have no alternative to offer.
If you want provocation from the left, of course, you could do no better than reviewing the work of Michael Moore. In my favorite scene from "Fahrenheit 9/11," he positions himself and a camera crew on a street corner near the Capitol Building and invites members of Congress--none of whom had children serving in the then-fashionable Iraq War--to have their sons or daughters enlist. They avoided him like he was a leper.
Oddly, the right hates it when Moore does stuff like that--he makes them so self-destructively angry that they even created an unwatched and unwatchable feature film attempting unsuccessfully to satirize him. But when one of their own does it--well, that's another matter. Let's go to the tape:
Now, fortunately, we don't have to wonder what to do when O'Reilly's producers come after us in a parking lot with a camera. Keith Olbermann identified the definitive defense to that a couple of years ago: Forget about winning; forget about reasoning. Those concepts simply don't apply here. This isn't an attempt to win the battle of ideas; it's an attempt to get usable footage. Just follow a few simple steps to make sure that you don't give him a moment of tape that he can air:
I should add that, for the truly brave, there is a little-used strategy that can turn these video stalkers away:
Some experts doubt that Republicans will gain much political mileage from running these crudely-made video ambushes on YouTube; some suggested that the tactic could backfire if the party picks the wrong target.
Rep. Joseph Courtney, D-Conn., known as one of the more conscientious members of the House of Representatives, was one such GOP target, for example. When the interviewer asked Courtney if he'd read the stimulus bill, he answered quickly: "Yes I have, actually. It's good for Connecticut."
So yes, there is that possible tactic: being informed and telling the truth. But that, like nitroglycerin, is tricky stuff probably best left to madmen and terrorists.
I put it to you, readers: What are the universal interview-killing words or phrases that will guarantee that the footage from these GOP ambush videos will be unusable, no matter how cleverly it's edited down?
The guidelines are simple: Each one needs to be short, easily remembered in the heat of the moment, instantly recognizable by viewers, and--from the GOP's point of view--politically and rhetorically toxic.