ON MESSAGE: Malcolm Smith, Still Your Leader

“This was an illegal and unlawful attempt to gain control of the Senate and reverse the will of the people who voted for a Democratic Majority. Nothing has changed, Senator Malcolm A. Smith remains the duly elected Temporary President and Majority Leader. The real Senate Majority is anxious to get back to governing, and will take immediate steps to get us back to work.” 

-Austin Shafran, spokesman for Democratic Majority Leader Malcolm Smith, after the G.O.P takeover of the New York State Senate

 

What we see here is what happens when the only remaining option is to deny reality.

The foregoing statement went out shortly after two of Malcolm Smith’s fellow Democrats defected, erasing their party’s 32-30 majority and flipping control of the chamber to Dean Skelos and the Republicans.

Mr. Smith’s written response–emailed to reporters, after the coup, from the office of the “Majority Leader”–hews most closely to the PR strategy employed by Iraq’s old minister of information, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, who in April 2003, as American tanks rolled into Baghdad, told a worldwide television audience: “The Americans are not there! They are not in Baghdad! There are no troops there. Never. They’re not at all!”

Mr. Al-Sahaf eventually had to stop denying that there were Americans in Baghdad when he was captured by the Americans in Baghdad. In that same sense, you might expect Mr. Smith to stop insisting that he’s still the majority leader when his fellow Democrats lose their committee chairmanships and their ability to push legislation through the chamber.

The other key aspect of Mr. Smith’s statement is the claim that the Republican coup represented an “illegal and unlawful” effort “to reverse the will of the people who voted for a Democratic majority.” This is a far more conventional tactic in political communication. When they are under attack, politicians need to give the public a stake in their defense; with popular opinion on their side, it then becomes much tougher for their opponents to succeed.

Recall, for instance, that both Democrats and Republicans couched their 2000 Florida recount arguments in “will of the people” rhetoric–even though they were arguing for two completely different methods of determining the will of the people. Last year, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama wrangled over various methods of tabulating the cumulative popular vote for the Democratic primaries.

But those were national elections that people actually cared about. This is Albany, where the politicians are usually a lot more exercised than “the people,” who may not have even realized that they elected a Democratic State Senate in the first place.

So maybe that’s the idea. If Malcolm Smith wants to keep calling himself majority leader, who’s going to stop him? 

ON MESSAGE: Malcolm Smith, Still Your Leader