In a political climate drowning in a blizzard of spin, where facts can seem like an endangered species, something unusual happened this week.
Colorado Democrats leveled an attack on U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, the Republican who tops their target list in next year’s election. But when Colorado Politics pointed out that the broadside was based on incomplete and ultimately inaccurate information, the Democrats didn't double down or equivocate or split hairs — they quickly retracted the statement and apologized.
The mea culpa from David Pourshoushtari, the communications director for the state Democratic Party, drew equally rare cross-aisle plaudits from GOP communications pros, who told Trail Mix that it only strengthens a campaign spokesperson’s credibility when they admit a mistake, apologize and move on.
It started with a tweet.
Midday on Feb. 27, the communications director for national Democratic PAC American Bridge — “holding Republicans accountable” is the outfit’s motto — posted a shot of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee juxtaposed with an invitation to a high-dollar Gardner fundraiser, which was scheduled for the same time.
Gardner, the tweet from the American Bridge staffer noticed, was “no longer” present at the hearing. “Perhaps he's en route to his campaign kickoff?”
Gardner had been at the hearing — as the tweet indicated — but that fact got garbled as it ricocheted around social media and got sucked up into the waiting political attack machine.
Through the afternoon and into the evening, Democrats and their allies pounced. Liberal blog Colorado Pols posted the tweet, noting Gardner “apparently had to bug out to make his campaign kickoff fundraiser,” but by the time the Colorado Democrats repeated the jibe, that nuance had been lost.
“Cory Gardner likes to talk a lot about how he cares about foreign policy,” Pourshoushtari wrote in a release, “so it speaks volumes that he would miss a Senate Foreign Relations hearing to attend a high-dollar fundraiser with Mitch McConnell.”
According to video posted to the committee’s website, however, Gardner had indeed participated in the hearing, which featured Stephan J. Hadley and William Burns giving a presentation called “Assessing the Role of the United States in the World.” Then, after questioning the witnesses, like virtually every other member of the committee, he departed.
But it turns out Gardner didn’t head straight to the fundraiser. Instead, he dashed to another committee hearing — this time it was the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation — for a hearing on “Policy Principles for a Federal Data Privacy Framework in the United States,” featuring a half-dozen academic and industry experts. (Tom Ramstack, CoPo's D.C. correspondent, covered that hearing.)
Later, Gardner’s campaign staff confirms, he made it to his fundraiser, which had already been subject to ribbing from Gardner's foes.
The liberal jesters at ProgressNow Colorado joined with Indivisible Front Range Resistance to celebrate Gardner’s campaign kickoff a day earlier with a shindig on the sidewalk outside the senator’s downtown Denver office, complete with a cardboard cutout of the candidate, balloons and cake.
Shortly after the Democrats’ release went out, Colorado Politics asked whether the attack was accurate, pointing to the video showing Gardner discussing world affairs at the hearing.
Within minutes, Pourshoushtari issued a retraction.
“I checked the tape and Senator Gardner was indeed present at today's hearing, so if anything he may have left earlier if he was no longer present,” he wrote. “Apologies for the bad information — this isn't what we strive to do and will be more careful in the future.”
(Colorado Pols updated its post with Pourshoushtari’s retraction and a backhanded acknowledgement that he had been there at some point for the hearing.)
But wait! Some Gardner critics maintained it was only a good-for-the-goose dig, echoing an assault Gardner and his allies had mounted in the closing months of his 2014 campaign against Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Udall.
In that race, Udall’s opponents made hay over his absences from Senate Armed Services Committee hearings — including a brutal attack ad that accused Udall of skipping 64 percent of the committee’s public hearings and missing “all public hearings on emerging threats” held that year.
An October 2014 story in Roll Call, a Capitol Hill insider publication, took aim at what was a ubiquitous attack against incumbents, highlighting the “worst-kept secret on Capitol Hill” — that “senators miss committee hearings and meetings. All the time.”
A former Senate staffer told Roll Call it could “make for a compelling campaign ad to whack an incumbent” for missing hearings, but insisted that most legislative work is done elsewhere, not to mention that it’s physically impossible for a senator to attend every meeting because they’re often scheduled simultaneously.
But unlike Gardner this week, Udall really did miss those hearings. The attack on Udall might have lacked some context — and his defenders argued it wasn’t fair or meaningful — but it was factually accurate.
Daniel Cole, who was Pourshoushtari’s counterpart at the Colorado Republican Party until recently, applauded the Democrat’s move.
“I think that it builds a spokesman's credibility when you're willing to acknowledge a mistake,” Cole said. “If everybody else recognizes that you're wrong, then apologizing for what you've done doesn't cast a negative light on your actions more than has been cast already.”
Cole recalled retracting a Facebook post a year ago when he had meant to poke fun at a Democratic legislator but hadn’t known some key facts, so as soon as those came to light, he admitted he'd been mistaken and issued a public apology.
“If there's confusion or any sort of doubt whether a statement is accurate or not, a comms director has to make a decision about whether he believes he was wrong,” Cole said. “But when it's open and shut, you only hurt yourself by refusing to acknowledge reality.”
Tyler Sandberg, a veteran Republican operative known for his sharp attacks, likewise tipped his hat to the Democrat.
“I wouldn’t hesitate if I was wrong on the facts. My credibility with the press matters long-term,” he said, but he noted that it’s rare in his business.
“People are loath to admit fault in politics,” Sandberg said, shaking his head at what he termed a “never apologize, never explain” mentality.
“I don’t get stubbornness when you’re wrong on the basic facts,” he added. “I get not backing down from an interpretation of the situation, but when it’s pretty cut and dry, it does nothing but damage your credibility if you won’t back down.”