No one likes to admit that they made a mistake. We have an ingrained reticence to do so, a near-primal response that little kids learn probably before they can speak. Admit your mistake, get punished. Don't, and maybe you can wiggle your way out of it.
If your job involves being judged and evaluated by people, that instinct is almost certainly worse. And if your job involves being evaluated and you have a group of people committed to defending you on an ideological basis no matter what you say, admitting error becomes all but unthinkable.
Yes, I'm talking about Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democrat running for the Senate from Kentucky. And also about Wendy Davis, the Democrat running for governor of Texas. The former, as you know, refused to answer a newspaper editorial board's question about whether or not she voted for Barack Obama last week. The latter, as you also probably know, ran a questionable ad centered on her opponent's physical disability.
Both moves were dumb. That's a subjective analysis, but I suspect that I'm not alone in holding that opinion. (Editor's note: He's not.) And each candidate, instead of backing away from her decision, reinforced it.
In a debate Monday night against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R), the man she hopes to replace in Congress, Grimes seized upon one of her initial rationalizations for not saying who she voted for in 2008: it's a secret ballot and, as sitting Secretary of State in Kentucky, she wanted to reinforce the primacy of that Constitutional value. It's a nicely retrofitted excuse, pivoting her desire not to be on tape saying "Yes, I supported Barack Obama," into an act of principle derived from experience. If you're going to stand behind your mistake, it's a pretty good way to do it.
Davis stood behind her mistake, too, holding a press conference featuring supporters in wheelchairs. I'll let you click the link in that last sentence for more details, and judge Davis' performance on its own merits.
It's not clear if Grimes went into the initial editorial board meeting intending to sidestep the Obama question or if it was her in-the-moment response. Davis clearly intentionally chose to run the wheelchair ad. But each of the candidates' responses were political decisions. Each evaluated the risks of declaring the initial move to be a mistake and retreating from it against the risks of soldiering on, pretending that everything was unfolding exactly as desired. And each soldiered on.
I shared stories about each candidates' initial moves on Twitter and it took very little time for supporters of each to offer responses. It was pointed out to me (as Davis has similarly pointed out to the public) that her opponent Greg Abbott (R) has used his wheelchair in ads, too. And it was pointed out to me that McConnell, in the opinion of various people, is "worse" than Grimes. OK, fine.
A lot has been made of the bubble in which politicians often operate. The second-most natural instinct in human behavioral psychology after denying your mistakes is probably to be nice to your boss and friends. (Editor's note: Smart move.) I remember once being told by a candidate that he was confident he would win because when he was at church, everyone told him they were going to vote for him. He came in last. We live in an age when thousands of expressions of support and condemnation are 140 characters away. Grimes and Davis are each trailing by some margin -- Davis is behind by far more -- in races against more established candidates. That online base of support may not accurately reflect support from actual voters, but it's much easier to soldier on when the streets you're marching on are lined with applauding Twitter avatars.
(Now, an aside. Over the two-and-a-quarter centuries since the ratification of our nation's Constitution, the televised goofery of a candidate refusing to say if she voted for her party's president pales next to, say, the Cuban Missile Crisis or the approval of the Patriot Act. Political campaigns are about choosing who is in position to make decisions in those moments of crisis. Understood. That's important. And voters, of course, sit down and review candidate policy positions before making their decisions about who to vote for, independent of party allegiance or personal impressions of the candidates. Or, they would, if it weren't for those of us in the political media who are shallow and insist upon only talking about trivial matters. My apologies to the American democratic experiment for undermining it by not using my space on this website to focus solely on sussing out detailed policy differences between candidates and instead considering the ways in which political candidates respond to the pressures of the modern campaign.)
It very much bears mentioning that every candidate makes mistakes (slash, politically calculated maneuvers that are ill-advised). McConnell himself was forced to respond during Monday's debate to comments he made earlier this year suggesting that Kentucky's successful Obamacare exchange was not connected to Obamacare. He reiterated that distinction in his response, which the Times declared "approached Ms. Grimes’s 'ballot box secrecy'-level of absurdity." McConnell got away with this incomprehensible answer in the Spring, to the extent that he can still get away with it now. How'd he get away with it? Because he made the mistake much further away from Election Day than Grimes and because it's easier to gloss over confusion about which healthcare system is related to what than it is to argue that the Constitution mandates we not talk about who we voted for in 2008.
And because voters make their decisions based on hundreds of tangible and intangible factors in which wheelchair ads/health exchanges/Obama votes and their responses are minor players. These things are transient; revealing about the candidates and, probably more so, about modern politics. But they are not definitive, and no one would pretend that they are. It would be nice if a candidate would say, yeah, that was dumb. I apologize.
That, I suppose, is what memoirs are for.