Bob McDonnell has gone silent when it comes to answering questions with respect to Thesispalooza. Usually, this strategy does not work too well, since the refusal to answer questions tends to feed speculation that there is something being covered up.
Despite that risk, given McDonnell’s tactical objectives in managing this mess, the Silent Bob routine would appear to be his best option at this point. On the surface, the rationale for this tact is that McDonnell wants to talk about “issues that really matter.”
Still, the strategy also reveals how weak of a hand McDonnell is actually holding. By defining McDonnell's tactical goals, and examining how the Silent Bob routine, plus other tactics, might help him achieve them, it becomes clear how circumstances have left McDonnell with little margin of error.
McDonnell’s Objective # 1
The Goal: Don't allow the thesis to turn into a media feeding frenzy. By simply refusing to feed the media beast, McDonnell hopes it will eventually stop asking for food and move on.
The Tactic: Refuse to answer questions about his thesis. Accuse the WaPo of liberal bias.
Why it Might Work: Reporters constantly need fresh copy, so unless they are finding fresh material elsewhere, they will be forced to move on.
Why It Probably Won’t: Two reasons. First, McDonnell is in an election against an opponent and a significant online opposition that will not allow this issue to simply fade away and who will try to keep aggressive coverage alive. Second, the media has a strong professional self-interest in preventing their subjects from setting the parameters of acceptable coverage. Ask Al Gore what happens when the press gets pissed at you, en masse.
McDonnell Objective #2
The Goal: Are there are more cultural shoes out there to drop, possibly even more writings, almost certainly individuals who will come forward to assert that McDonnell’s views have not really changed much over the years, as four GOP legislators did this past week? If so, McDonnell would want to avoid saying anything further, beyond the carefully word-smithed answers he has already provided, that would be directly contradicted by a subsequent disclosure.
The Tactic: Simply refuse to answer questions about the thesis so he doesn’t get caught off-message.
Why It Might Work: Someone who doesn’t speak is unlikely to say anything that is stupid. And while McDonnell has already created a general impression that he has evolved in his thinking generally since penning this thesis in a more moderate direction, he didn’t specifically address most of the more egregious statements in the thesis, giving him the benefit of plausible deniability should additional evidence arise.
Why It Probably Won’t: Voters and the MSM tend to focus on general impressions, so if further evidence surfaces that contradicts the impression McDonnell created, it seem like he was less than forthcoming, whether plausibly denied or not.
McDonnell Objective # 3
The Goal: Maintain the moderate image he has cultivated without ticking off his base.
The Tactic: Utilize the dog whistle for the base, but say as little as possible to the moderates, so as not to drown out the coded message. (VB Dems has a fascinating post up about an article stating that this was the precise reason McDonnell disclosed the existence of the thesis to the WaPo to begin with, i.e., to send a message to the faithful that he was still with them as a cultural warrior even as he presented himself as a moderate in order to attract votes. I’m not sure I buy it – as a plan it is too complicated – but a very interesting idea).
Why It Might Work: Well, the Family Foundation warned McDonnell on Tuesday not to disavow his thesis too much. That was a signal. McDonnell hasn’t said a word since then, a pressure from the right has disappeared.
Why It Probably Won’t: Two big reasons. First, all of these people are, frankly, scary and nuts when it comes to their belief that they have the divine right to tell everyone else how to live their lives, so who knows what the heck they will do. Second, additional disclosures or enough pressure from the media, will force his hand to choose one side or the other.
McDonnell can yet draw to an inside straight from all of this. The keys will be whether he is able to continue avoiding answering questions and whether any new evidence comes to light of his narrow and backwards views on social issues, and his belief that Government should impose Bob McDonnell’s particular brand of Christian morality on all of us.