HOW NOT TO HANDLE CONTROVERSY: THE MUSLIM MoU
In recent history of American politics, and in particular Democratic party politics, there have been two strategies to dealing with controversy: deal head on and counter attack; or ignore lest you give credence to attacks.
In 1992 the Clinton campaign epitomized the former, the development of the War Room, led by James Carville and George Stephanopoulos, served as a campaign rapid fire response team, dealing with scandals as they came and counter attacking. By responding quickly, they were able to capture the initiative, control the stories and minimize the effects of scandal. Moreover, they were able to change the topic back to the issues of the day rather quickly.
The 2004 Kerry campaign response to the “swift vote veterans for truth” ads is an example of the latter (ignore lest you legitimize attacks). The Kerry campaign never did effectively deal with the scandal, instead allowing the Swift Boat vets allegations to permeate the public consciousness and undermine what was one of Kerry’s strengths: his military service.
The recent ODM/Muslim MoU debacle seems to fall in the latter category. After the initial controversy bust into public consciousness (with attendant ‘fake” copies of the MoU) the ODM camp put forth a weak defense with no specifics and only promising to publicize the MoU at a later date. Raila allowed the issue to permeate the public consciousness and gave its opponents ample opportunity to use rumor and innuendo to undermine his candidacy. The recent release of the “innocuous” MoU was – as the EA Standard reported – anti-climactic, there was no bombshell clauses about majimbo, or Islam being the only true religion etc. Moreover, the ODM team pointed out that Kibaki had signed a similar MoU in the 2002 election cycle. What a downer.
What should have been at most a one-week non-controversy was allowed to metastasize into a large-scale religious conflagration, giving rise to fears of religious favoritism and distracting from the real issues of the day. The seemingly innocuous nature of the recently released MoU leads one to question ODM’s tactical judgments, and though they hope the controversy will die, many will wonder why it took so long, and what they were hiding. This is a situation that would have called upon the ODM strategists to quell the fires before they spread too far, now it’s too late. the damage has been done.