Controlling the debate

One of the first things you learn as litigation defense counsel is that you will lose if you let the plaintiff control the case’s message. It’s easy to let this happen, because the plaintiff comes out of the gate like gangbusters, and the defendant finds himself, logically, in a defensive, purely reactive posture. “You did this.” “I did not. And what if I did, anyway?” It’s all about responding to the plaintiff’s narrative.

What the defendant needs to do, and often doesn’t do until the eve of trial, is look at his own facts in a vacuum, without the throbbing background drumbeat of the plaintiff’s complaint. In every case in which I’ve taken the time to do this, and do it well, I’ve discovered that there is a completely different narrative theme available to the defendant — not one that is merely reactive and defensive, but one that stands on its own as coherent, believable (and often winnable) story. If I can get out from under the plaintiff’s tale, either the plaintiff loses entirely, or the plaintiff’s margin of victory shrinks substantially.

I wish the Republican party would figure out that the same rules of behavior should apply in this political race. Right now, in full gangbusters mode, the Democrats are marking out the battlefield. “Bush lied.” “Cheney is evil.” “We’ve lost in Iraq.” “Global warming and polar bears.” “Pathetic, maltreated illegal immigrants.” “Economic despair.” The Republicans are in a pure, panicked reactive mode, either desperately distancing themselves — “I never liked George Bush, either” — or trying to coopt the Democrats — “I’m more green than you are.” John McCain is no exception.

The Republicans need to take a deep breath, convene in a smoke filled back room and come up with their own story, untainted by the Democratic world view. Not surprisingly, because he is, after all, a lawyer, Hugh Hewitt completely understands this. The other day, when I had a rare moment alone in the car — meaning I could listen to grown-up radio — I caught Hewitt expounding on the pure conservative messages that the Republicans should be hammering home without fear. I’ve never figured out how to link to podcasts, so this is how you find it: Go here, and look for Hugh’s May 14 show, hour 2.

What Hugh has to say all comes out in the first ten minutes of that segment, and it’s very much worth listening to. Even if you don’t agree with everything he says, what stands out is that he’s envisioning a message that comes, first and foremost from the Republicans, without first being past through the Democratic filter. That’s how you win.

Right now, Republicans are in a losing posture, not because they have a bad message, but because they have no message at all. They look like cornered rats, trying to confuse the cat into thinking they’re something other than a tasty meal. They need to come out like gangbusters too, loud and proud, with a message that resonates with ordinary Americans. Right now, the Democratic message is resonating, but that’s primarily because there’s nothing else out there to stop those sound waves from vibrating around in the political ether.