Foreign Policy Blogs

The Selling of the President, Revisited

In the "gotcha" spirit of our current politics, CNN is rudely replaying the archival footage of Scott McClellan dismissing Richard Clarke's tell-all book, written after Clarke left the Bush Administration in the wake of 9/11. "Why didn't he tell the President these things when he was in the White House, rather than waiting until he left?" McClellan says from the podium of the White House Press Room back in 2004. Switch to the current White House spokesman, Dana Perino, from the same podium, speaking yesterday about McClellan's own just-published tell-all account of the Bush Administration he once served: “The President is puzzled, and he doesn't recognize this as the Scott McClellan that he hired and confided in and worked with for so many years,” Perino says, adding that Bush is “disappointed that if he had these concerns and these thoughts, he never came to him or anyone else on the staff."

What we have here, to quote the famous line from the Sixties, is a failure to communicate. It's hard and often hazardous to one's career for a staffer to tell a President he's wrong. By the same token, it's easy, and often profitable, for a staffer, once out of office, to publish his criticisms in a book. Take your pick which explanation you find more convincing.

One of McClellan's complaints is a familiar one , that he was misled by Bush White House officials. Many if not most White House spokesmen complain at some point about being misled or kept unaware of important developments, so this is hardly news. However, it appears that a good part of McClellan's book is really an attack on the Administration's motives as it tried to tell its story via the media. Here McClellan alleges that the President sold the American people on Iraq having Weapons of Mass Destruction as a pretext for conducting a militarily-led project to spread democracy in the Middle East.

If such is indeed the case, we are indeed in a sorry state. Seeing Iraq as an incubator for Middle East democracy required a lively imagination, even back in 2003. Willingly selling a war under false pretenses would be reprehensible. As nearly as one can tell from the initial reviews, McClellan makes the hypothesis without providing proof. Maybe he really wasn't in the loop.

The larger context for this discussion is our Election Year, the outgoing President's low approval ratings, and the efforts of so many Republicans to distance themselves from the White House. Much like a consumer product fallen into disrepute, the Republican Party is looking to re-brand itself. The first step is to do some brand research, which Representative Tom Davis, Republican from northern Virginia, does in one of the most remarkable documents of this election year. The 20-page document is well worth reading in its entirety. He writes: "Members [of Congress] and pundits waiting for Democrats to fumble the ball, so that soft Republicans and Independents will snap back to the GOP, fail to understand the deep seeded antipathy toward the President, the war, gas prices, the economy, foreclosures and, in some areas, the underlying cultural differences that continue to brand our party."

As Davis makes clear, Republicans overall need a new image. McCain will not help, since he is not branding himself as a Republican, but rather as a patriot (to the conservative audiences) and as an environmentalist and maverick (to independents and Democrats).

McCain is following his strategy rather well, and is immeasurably helped by the disunity among the Democrats. No matter what Hillary says, she is John McCain's greatest ally. Not only is she sowing doubts about Obama's "electability," she is undermining the image of the Democratic Party right now by fighting the Party's authority to impose discipline on party leaders in Michigan and Florida.

It may yet turn out that, in this remarkable year, Democrats as well as Republicans will find their brand out of favor with most Americans, and the selling of the next President will begin with the "selling" of a new brand for each candidate. Pity the incumbent members of Congress who haven't read Tom Davis' memo.



Mark Dillen

Mark Dillen heads Dillen Associates LLC, an international public affairs consultancy based in San Francisco and Croatia. A former Senior Foreign Service Officer with the US State Department, Mark managed political, media and cultural relations for US embassies in Rome, Berlin, Moscow, Sofia and Belgrade, then moved to the private sector. He has degrees from Columbia and Michigan and was a Diplomat-in-Residence at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins. Mark has also worked for USAID as a media and political advisor and twice served as election observer and organizer for OSCE in Eastern Europe.

Areas of Focus:
US Government; Europe; Diplomacy