Can a politician ever truly admit error? These days, it seems like you're more likely to win the lottery or see lightning strike the same place twice. And in the middle of a heated campaign? You might as well ask to see unicorns romping through Washington, D.C.
There are, of course, plenty of opportunities for corrections and apologies. Indeed, the looming midterm elections have given us at least three in the past couple of weeks — a strategic mistake, a poor extemporaneous answer to a debate question, and a deliberate choice in a campaign ad. Given enough time, you could probably come up with volumes of such examples of mistakes, but the acknowledgements of such would barely fill a brochure, and the apologies a postcard.
The strategic mistake came from Democratic Sen. Mark Udall's re-election campaign in Colorado, which labored under the mistaken impression that 2012's "war on women" meme from the Democratic Party was still viable. While poll after poll showed that voters in Colorado and around the country were focused on the economy, jobs, and foreign policy, Udall insisted on spending most of his time accusing Republicans of attempting to outlaw birth control — even though his GOP opponent, Rep. Cory Gardner, has come out in favor of making birth-control pills available as over-the-counter medication.
Udall has spent half of his ad budget on women's issues, despite the exhaustion of this particular line of attack. The pattern was so pronounced that Denver Post reporter Lynn Bartels noted in a debate that he had been dubbed "Mark Uterus." Only after Udall's one-track campaign convinced the Denver Post editorial board to flip its endorsement to Gardner in the race did his campaign shift gears, but the damage was done. And the change in strategy came with no explanation — and certainly no admission from Udall's team that they had erred in attempting to demagogue Gardner on the "war on women."
At least Udall could theoretically explain himself as campaigning on his personal beliefs. The mistake that Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes made in Kentucky came from attempting to run away from hers. In a televised debate, the moderator asked Grimes whether she voted for Barack Obama in the last two presidential elections. This shouldn't have been a difficult question to answer; Grimes was a delegate to both Democratic national conventions that nominated Obama, who had no opposition in 2012. Instead of answering, Grimes hemmed and hawed for an embarrassingly long time without ever answering the question.
The president is deeply unpopular in Kentucky, where Grimes is challenging Mitch McConnell for his Senate seat. The only way to win is to distance herself from Obama to the greatest extent possible. But rather than admit that she voted twice for Obama and then explain how he has disappointed her, Grimes argued that she was standing on the principle of a secret ballot. (Oddly enough, she wasn't reluctant to express her support in 2012, calling herself "a lifelong Democrat," nor too shy to skip attending the Obama inaugural ball in 2013.) She clearly erred in not owning her past support of Obama — but she has yet to publicly concede her error.
The worst, though, didn't come from a strategic miscalculation or momentary inability to answer a question, but from sheer desperation. Democrat Wendy Davis has trailed Greg Abbott all the way through the Texas gubernatorial race, which was no surprise, since the Republican attorney general was heavily favored in the deeply red Lone Star State all along. With Election Day approaching, Davis ran a television ad that accused Abbott of profiting off of the accident that left him paralyzed, and then of hypocrisy when he defended Texas' tort-reform law as part of his duties as AG.
The reaction to the ad was swift, bipartisan, and condemnatory. The use of the empty wheelchair and the barely implicit accusation of making his disability a wealth-generating scheme turned stomachs from National Review to Mother Jones. And yet, rather than walk it back, Davis chose to surround herself on stage with other disabled voters to defend the ad, which may qualify as one of the worst attack spots of all time.
These, of course, are just the recent examples. Republicans have contributed to the list too, of course, although they appear to have better message discipline in this cycle. The media began to pester George W. Bush in his second term in an attempt to get him to admit to making a mistake — any mistake at all — which he wouldn't do in any specific manner, other than to say he was aware he wasn't perfect. Bush later owned up to specific mistakes, but not until after leaving office, in his memoir Decision Points and the book tour that followed. Mitt Romney had the same experience with the media during the 2012 campaign; at one point a Washington Post reporter yelled out at an event, "WHAT ABOUT YOUR GAFFES?" President Obama has also been called out for refusing to admit error, as John Dickerson wrote in November 2013 — which came before the series of foreign-policy reverses that has sapped confidence in Obama's presidency.
What do all of these episodes have in common? All took place while the politicians were on the defensive and their opponents smelled blood in the water. Rather than give those opponents any satisfaction, or, more accurately, sound bites for ammunition, politicians prefer to brazen it out. When an admission of error might humanize a politician and an actual apology might impress, they still prefer to double down and hope that voters either believe them based on their consistency or quickly tire of the issue.
The problem with that is that the issues and errors may not be all that critical, but the evaluation of personal character is. Obama and Bush didn't have to run for re-election when these issues emerged, but the erosion in voter perception of their personal qualities made it increasingly difficult for either man to push through his agenda. Grimes, Udall, and Davis have tough races, where voter assessment of their personal honesty and ethics might have made a difference. Still, they couldn't resist circling the wagons rather than admitting error.
In the end, that's bad for all of us. Mistakes will always be made, but we need leaders who acknowledge those missteps. Perhaps one day a politician will surprise us by admitting error, but will we be ready to reward honesty when it happens? Very clearly, candidates and officeholders don't think so. But it certainly would be nice to be asked.
Editor's note: This article originally misstated who had dubbed Udall "Mark Uterus." It has since been corrected. We regret the error.