Mea culpa, theya culpas

Two Democratic gubernatorial candidates are road-testing a tactic that a faltering President Obama might soon be thinking about. It’s worth watching to see whether confession does the soul good. You see, both candidates are offering mea culpas for past failures in their administrations.

We’re accustomed to seeing contrite and tearful politicians confess moral sins. You know the setup. A sex-scandaled congressman, with his wife at his flank, mournfully apologizing for embarrassing his family, friends and voters. Americans are a forgiving people. After all, we are all sinners ourselves. So if the peccadillo is not too repellent, and if the contrition seems genuine, we are often of a mind to forgive.

ADVERTISEMENT
But what’s remarkable about the recent admissions of Iowa’s Chet Culver and California’s Jerry Brown is that they admitted to mistakes in governance. Well, sorta. We must look at each case separately.

Culver’s mea culpa is the most forthcoming. It started last month in a speech at the Iowa State Fair in which he admitted — three times, it was reported — that his administration “had not been perfect.” He went on to say he had learned from his administration’s mistakes. He tried to characterize the failing more as communications breakdowns than actual misdeeds.

Later, Culver did something extraordinary. He went on TV in paid campaign advertising and uttered these words: “As governor of Iowa, I’ve made my share of mistakes. But they were honest mistakes, and I’ve listened to your concerns and I’ve grown on the job.” We’ll get back to analyzing whether this was smart in a moment, but first let’s go from the heartland to the West Coast.

Jerry Brown, a guy with lots to confess after 40 years in politics, not the least of which is an extended dalliance with Linda Ronstadt in the prior century, is running for a second chance to be a good governor. Brown has not been nearly as forthcoming as Culver. He certainly has not advertised on TV that he’s failed. But last June Governor Moonbeam — master of the Med fly — confided to some business executives in a speech, “I’ll probably make some new mistakes, but I’m not making any old ones.” Now that Brown is back to making mistakes again, like his dopey attack on Bill Clinton this week that referenced Monica Lewinsky, the liberal press is trying to help Brown do a mea culpa by reviving the “mistakes” quote. Brown even apologized to Clinton a day later.

Will apologies make a difference for either of these candidates? Should Obama emulate their contrition? If he follows their playbook, probably not.

A proper political mea culpa must first of all be sincere. Culver’s was OK, but he erred in not being more specific about where he goofed, leaving open the sense that he wasn’t apologizing for anything except low approval ratings. His TV ad was also shot from a mile away, so that his face was the size of a postage stamp on TV sets. When someone apologizes, we want to look into their eyes and see sincerity. You couldn’t see Culver’s.

The mea culpa strategy must also include follow-up messaging that portrays the candidate as moving ahead, in a new direction, with purpose and newfound wisdom. Culver’s follow-up TV ad featured his own wife confirming (and I’m not kidding) that “he’s still the big lug.” Too much confession is not good for the soul — or the approval ratings.

Jerry Brown is just too cocky to ever be a convincing confessor. His snarky statement about “different mistakes” follows a pattern like when he confesses to having lied to voters and not having had a plan as governor before. He’s not contrite.

It strikes me that the wispy Obama’s mea culpa would be more Brown than Culver.

David Hill has been a Republican pollster since 1984. This cycle he is polling for gubernatorial campaigns in four states.