Concerning denials

Campaigns aren’t won by denials.

Some of my pro-Obama friends think that he gains advantage from the opportunity to deny rumors that he is a closet Muslim (as Brian Williams prompted him to do in tonight’s debate) or to denounce his pastor’s ill-considered embrace of Louis Farrakhan (as Richard Cohen demanded in a typically disgusting column in the Washington Post.

In particular, they think that having issued a statement flatly renouncing Farrakhan, he should keep talking about the issue. That seems to me like a fundamental mistake.

To refute a charge is to give the charge currency. To refute a bigoted charge is to endorse the underlying bigotry. (Obama’s response tonight in effect conceded that it is discreditable to be a Muslim. [About a quarter of the way into the transcript.] But try to construct a politically effective response that wouldn’t implicitly include that concession; it can’t be done.) And it all distracts Obama from his chance to put out any positive message, or mount an effective attack on HRC’s manifold weaknesses and untruths, while at the same time making him look weak. (His alternative would be to look angry, and since the question being raised is whether he is a Dangerous Black Man that would be even worse.)

The tale is told of Lyndon Johnson: being behind late in a race, he proposed to his campaign manager that they should spread the report that his opponent habitually enjoyed unnatural relations with swine. “But Lyndon,” his manager protested, “we can’t prove that.” “No,” said LBJ, “but we can make the sunuvabitch deny it. Just so.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: