The perils of staffing and stage-managing

The perils of staffing and stage-managing

A few months ago, the Obama campaign received some negative press for a poorly attended campaign rally. Instead of the overflow crowds expected, the president spoke to a cavernous hall filled with empty seats. I was reminded of this when I read this post over at the Weekly Standard blog, itself drawing on Politico’s ebook on the Obama campaign infighting.

That’s a lot of hyperlinking to make one further connection: when I first read the story it reminded me of another disastrous rally at Ohio State, this time in 1998,  in the St. John’s basketball arena (the Obama rally was in the Schottenstein Center, the basketball arena that replaced St. John’s).

In 1998, the Clinton administration was engaged in an escalating war of words with Saddam Hussein over Iraq’s failure to cooperate with international weapons inspectors. The Clinton administration claimed Hussein was hiding his WMD programs from the inspectors. The administration threatened to use military strikes to force compliance (people with shorter memories will think I am describing the Bush era 2002-2003 confrontation with Iraq, but in fact a very similar dynamic had unfolded some five years earlier, which helps explain why Bush got such strong bipartisan support for the 2002 congressional bill authorizing the use of force against Iraq).  Indeed, by December 1998, the Clinton administration did order Operation Desert Fox, the largest set of airstrikes in between the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 invasion. In the beginning of 1998, however, the Clinton administration was hoping to avoid those airstrikes by achieving its diplomatic goals through threats and coercive diplomacy.

The Clinton effort at coercive messaging was foundering, however, because the Beltway was consumed with the Lewinsky affair, which broke on Jan. 17, 1998 with the famous Drudge Report story based on leaks from a Newsweek investigation. Within days, the Lewinsky scandal was the only thing people would talk about, which was enormously frustrating for Clinton national security policymakers who argued, with good reason, that there were other pressing issues that deserved national attention — like Iraq.

So the administration hit upon the bright idea of going out of the Capitol and into the heartland, away from the Lewinsky-obsessed press and to a community presumably more ready to discuss big issues not involving "that woman, Miss Lewinsky."  The administration deployed the top three national security policymakers — Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Secretary of Defense Bill Cohen, and National Security Advisor Sandy Berger — to conduct a conversation on Iraqi WMD programs moderated by CNN host Judy Woodruff.  

However, the OSU-Iraq event was botched, and Clinton insiders told the New York Times it was because perhaps because the A-team for spin did not plan the OSU event, presumably because they were in damage-control mode on Lewinsky. The administration advance people picked a venue far too big (sound familiar?) and then exercised inadequate control over who attended, allowing in members of the Spartacist League, a notorious group of rabble rousers. Rather than getting the civil conversation they expected, the Clinton cabinet officials were soon drowned out by hecklers and protestors. Instead of signaling resolve to Hussein, the event signaled administration chaos. Indeed, the Clinton administration itself seemed to come away from the event shaken and doubting the public’s resolve in a confrontation with Iraq. 

Of course, the Obama event was a snafu of a different sort, and, arguably, far less important. But the two events struck similar chords for me, and I thought the echoes worth noting.  

At a minimum, they remind me, as a lowly former staffer, of the way that principals are at risk every time they trust staffers to do something for them. The May 2012 event was not the fault of Obama, nor was the February 1998 event the fault of Albright, Cohen, and Berger. Yet they, and to a certain extent their policies, paid the public price  for what was most likely low-level staffing errors.  Good staffing can make leaders look better than they deserve.  Bad staffing can make them look worse than they deserve.

And perhaps some Democrats are wondering why they have been snake-bit by OSU twice. The next time a staffer has a bright idea of an event to show-case the administration, I am guessing OSU will not get the nod.