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July 31, 2014

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POLITICAL MEMO:

Dems fail to aim at big target

Not attacking governor when he’s down may be major mistake

Nevada Democrats are operating with a faulty strategic premise. They’ve heard politicos and journalists on TV chuckling about an old rule in politics: When your opponent is facing scandal, say nothing, get out of the way and watch.

They believe this rule applies to Gov. Jim Gibbons. Indeed, one elected Democrat said recently that she felt no need to attack Gibbons because he stumbles on his own.

This is faulty thinking. Gibbons is not in a scandal whose momentum will lead to immediate self-destruction, as wishful Democrats assume.

Rather, Gibbons is severely weakened, providing a target for a sustained onslaught that would attack his performance and lay out an alternate vision for the future.

To wit:

After a series of gaffes and distortions — the latest being a strange story about renewing the concealed carry permit for his nine guns — Gibbons has lost credibility. His staff is unfocused and divided. Republicans who should be effective surrogates roll their eyes when given the opportunity to defend him. An FBI investigation of his relationship with defense contractor Warren Trepp remains unresolved.

And yet, aside from an occasional tough quote in a news story, nary a word from Democrats and their interest group allies, even as Gibbons — now with Democratic input — continues to slash spending on programs such as education and health care.

The Democrats are playing the political equivalent of football’s “prevent defense,” assuming that if they say nothing and do nothing, they will win the Governor’s Mansion by default and take the state in a new direction.

That’s an assumption worth testing.

Think back to 2005, when the newly reelected President Bush had a store of political capital and Sen. Harry Reid was leading the Democratic opposition.

Bush introduced a deeply unpopular idea — privatizing Social Security — and Reid and the Democrats hung together and attacked the idea at every turn.

Bush next bungled the crises of Iraq and Hurricane Katrina, and Democrats attacked him for hiring cronies and failing to competently run the government. (“Now is no time to play ‘the blame game’ ” was the Republicans’ weak nonresponse, which only emboldened Democrats to press on.)

Every week or two, it seemed, another report came along of a White House official or Republican member of Congress under investigation.

Seemingly every story began to fit a pattern — the one Democrats had established by attacking those earlier White House blunders. The party succeeded in crafting a new public image for Bush: out of touch, incompetent, friend of the wealthy at the expense of everyone else.

His public approval rating plummeted and never recovered.

All told, the Democrats had mounted an effective campaign that mirrored that of the Republicans’ 1994 victory, which gave them control of Congress.

Now think of Gibbons’ tenure. Unpopular idea: education cuts. Bungled crises: Hepatitis C, foreclosures. Bad appointments: How many have quit? (For that matter, Democrats could effectively draw parallels to Bush.)

But the Democrats are sitting back.

This lassitude is a mistake, said Dan Hart, the Democratic consultant. “It’s up to the opponents to keep the focus on the mismanagement.”

I asked Steve Wark, the longtime Republican consultant, about the strategy because I thought someone on the other side could offer insight. Republicans love nothing more than a good broadside on the “libruls,” after all.

He gave lots of reasons why Democrats might want to hold back, but this sounded the most compelling:

“Here’s the dilemma they’re in: If you jump all over him on public policy issues, then you need a well-thought-out alternative.”

Yes, there’s always that.

But as I talked to Wark, it occurred to me that he was playing a shell game, telling Democrats they were being smart but hoping through his encouragement that they would continue their silence. If the situation were reversed, I said, and the Democrats had a flailing governor, Republicans would be unloading every day.

He laughed vigorously.

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