Politics Rule #1: Stay on message.
Politics Rule #2: Limit distractions so you can follow Politics Rule #1.
Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant is probably one of the most gifted political speakers on the stump we’ve had in recent times. He’s right up there with Trent Lott and Haley Barbour. Both of those gentlemen learned on multiple occasions that it only takes one slip to overshadow a whole lot of other good work.
A snippet of Bryant’s statements at a Washington Post live event on the importance of children reading by the end of third grade caused the blogosphere and liberal groups to go ballistic, opening the Governor up to criticism on something that’s not even really on his current political agenda.
Mississippi has had a tremendous session and there are lots of great things to highlight about the changes that Mississippi (and particularly the new Republican majority) are putting in place – that’s the message.
But here’s the clip:
As we know, Mississippi is already an easy punchline. Hopefully, Jon Stewart and Seth Meyer weren’t paying attention.
Bryant was on stage with fellow Governors Jack Markell (D) of Delaware and Susana Martinez (R) of New Mexico discussing educational advances and how to combat the challenges that remain. When asked why the education system was mediocre in America, and more specifically the states represented by the Governors, to his credit Bryant didn’t redirect or skirt the question. However, the sound bite was a far too convenient of a punchline that will make it easy to obfuscate anything else he said.
The political reality for Bryant is that this simply is a distraction he didn’t need. He’s had a number of educational successes since taking office and a tremendous legislative session. He’s cutting ribbons for new and expanding businesses at such a pace around the state that it seems like Mississippi’s economy is finally starting to turn the corner. He’s fought hard not to expand Medicaid and continue the efforts to stall Obamacare. All of that is good policy and good politics.
In the coming weeks and months ahead, Bryant will need all the political capital he has for the fight brewing in the Legislature on Medicaid, and his opponents will now use this “blame poor education performance on working moms” comment to paint him as a political Neanderthal, uncaring and out of touch. Of course, that’s not the reality, but for his opponents, it won’t matter. Distractions can create perception and perception controls politics.
My sense is that Bryant would have probably reworded that thought more artfully in hindsight. There’s arguably a point about the role that families play in educational performance, but Rule #1 was lost.
In any event, this needs to get in Bryant’s rear view mirror quickly, because much more important battles are looming around the bend.