Explaining and Losing

When my father first ran for the U.S. Senate in 1992, his Democratic opponent was a congressman named Wayne Owens, who had been caught up in the House Post Office Scandal. (You’ve probably forgotten about that. It was a big brouhaha back in the day, but measured against 21st Century political sleaze, it seems almost quaint.) Owens spent the entire campaign playing defense and trying to justify why he had mishandled taxpayer money to his own benefit. His stump speech began with an apology and was followed by a lengthy explanation before he could proceed to any sort of positive message.

For his part, Dad never brought up the issue at all. “I don’t need to,” he said. “Regardless of what I say, Wayne has to explain himself. And when you’re explaining, you’re losing.”

That bit of political wisdom has stuck with me, and it proved to be all too true when Dad ran unsuccessfully for a fourth term in 2010. He had been one of the primary architects of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) that staved off a worldwide financial meltdown without costing taxpayers a dime, since all the money was repaid with interest. If you listened to Dad’s very cogent explanation, you would understand what he did and why he did it, and you may actually be convinced that he did the right thing. But the substance of his explanation ultimately didn’t matter.  When he was defeated in the state convention, chants of “TARP! TARP! TARP!” filled the hall. The fact that he spent his whole campaign explaining was clear evidence that he was losing.

I offer this as context for a better understanding of how to process the bombshell news that the FBI is looking at emails discovered on Anthony Weiner’s laptop. (Which is icky in and of itself. Who wants to even think about anything that may or may not have been on Anthony Weiner’s lap?!) When the news broke, my FB feed exploded with indignation, followed by explanation.


People were furious that my congressman, Jason Chaffetz, had tweeted that the email investigation had been “reopened.” That single word triggered a great deal of outrage, although I’m still not sure why. Yes, technically, the case hasn’t been reopened, mainly because it was never closed. So how is pursuing a new lead in an open case somehow less troubling than reopening an old one?

Regardless, there was also a bunch of people and articles insisting that this letter was being misinterpreted, and one article went so far as to claim that the scandal “has been killed by a slew of new facts,” including the so-called “fact” that the newly-discovered emails “have nothing to do with Hillary Clinton.” (If that’s true, you’d think someone would tell Hillary Clinton, who very clearly thinks these emails have something to do with her.) One FB friend insisted that Comey’s letter wasn’t referring to Hillary’s case at all, and every media organization was simply reading it wrong. Again, shouldn’t Hillary be informed of this? Because she’s reading it wrong, too, right?

And on it goes. Some of the explanations are cogent; some are silly. But the substance of the explanations is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter if what your explanation is sagacious or stupid. What matters is that you’re explaining.

And when you’re explaining, you’re losing.

So here’s how I see the race at this point.

When the Access Hollywood groping tape came out, everyone, including me, assumed Trump was done. (Although I was surprised at the intensity of the public reaction, as all this tape did was confirm that Trump is precisely the sort of misogynist pig he reveals himself to be almost every time he opens his mouth.)

Then came the legion of Trump’s accusers, and Trump went on an explanation tour, trying to debunk the women who were only confirming that Trump did all the things he was bragging about on tape. Again, if you apply my father’s axiom, it doesn’t matter whether or not Trump’s explanations were valid. He was explaining, and he was losing. The media spotlight was on Trump’s squirming, which meant that much of the truly troublesome Wikileaks info we were getting about Hillary was going unnoticed. Sure, Trump would try to get Hillary to explain herself, but nobody cared, so Hillary was winning because she wasn’t forced to explain anything.

What this letter has done is move the spotlight from Trump to Clinton, and now it’s Hillary’s turn to squirm. (And may I say that watching a Clinton squirm gives me a schadenfreude sugar rush.) This means that the person on defense in the final runup to Election Day is Clinton, not Trump. That’s not a good place to be.

Does that mean I think Hillary will lose the election? No, not necessarily. I don’t know or pretend to know the extent of the damage done here, and I don’t think anyone else does, either. I do know that detailed rebuttals, or cries of “This is unfair!” or calls for James Comey’s head won’t make the slightest bit of difference. Those are all just more losing explanations.

I will say that I think this email scandal, as well as all the Wikileaks bombshells currently being ignored, will linger well past November, regardless of who wins. I can imagine voters who despise both candidates looking at the possibility of another Clinton era, complete with old and new scandals bubbling up on an almost daily basis, and thinking a vote for Trump might be the best way to avoid four years of endless and pointless investigations. Clinton fatigue is a rational response to the tiresome antics of a couple who have devoted their lives to normalizing corruption.

You may disagree. Indeed, you may have a host of explanations for why I’m dead wrong. By all means, start explaining, and see where it gets you.

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