Richardson’s Runaround

The New Mexico governor self-destructs on Meet the Press.

Bill Richardson

During the course of Bill Richardson’s Meet the Press appearance Sunday, the New Mexico governor was on the defensive. Permanently. He tried to explain away his state’s low rankings on high-school dropout rates, poverty, and crime during his tenure, his bold statements as energy secretary that turned out not to be true, his 72-hour change of mind on the immigration bill, his stance on guns, the stock he once owned in an oil company, his brief support of Alberto Gonzales, his résumé padding on his baseball career, and the story he tells on the stump about a dead soldier whose mother has asked him to stop telling it. Richardson is a world-famous hostage negotiator, so it was poignant to watch him fail to rescue himself from his own hostage crisis. By the end of the hour, he wasn’t answering questions so much as swatting at them. “I’m not perfect,” he said.

No one television interview should weigh too heavily on anyone’s career. Talking-head TV is a highly formalized performance art in which you’re doused in itchy makeup, forced to sit awkwardly under hot lights, and desperate to produce winning, accurate, concise answers without pausing to reflect. Anyone can slip up, invert words, or confuse facts. This is true of debates, too, where Richardson had a lackluster first performance.

Still, on Sunday, Richardson was bad.

Richardson’s many parries and contradictions might have been the work of a candidate who recognizes the world’s complexity, but they weren’t. He seemed not too thoughtful, but too little prepared. When he tried to explain the contradictions, like his shift on the immigration bill from supporting it to opposing it, his responses were meandering. Sometimes, he contradicted himself within just a few breaths. After explaining why he changed positions on the assault-weapons ban, he broadly asserted, “I don’t change my positions.” And on one of his core pitch-points—his diplomatic sixth sense for the world and the Middle East in particular—he had to admit that on Iraq, the blockbuster of the day, his skill failed him. For a long-shot candidate with limited opportunities to break through as a fresh new face, he missed his chance wildly.

“I’ve been in public life 25 years,” he said to Russert. “You’re going to find a lot of these.” Yes, but there comes a point at which voters will start to see the flipping as a sign of lack of judgment or principles, or a hoodwink. Unlike Mitt Romney’s similar vacillations, Richardson’s career variations don’t seem focused at courting a specific constituency; they just seem confused.

Richardson also misplayed the candor card. Seven times in the broadcast, he used phrases like “I made a mistake” or “I shouldn’t have said that.” After six years of an error-ridden Bush administration in which it has taken eons for the president to offer even limited mumbles about any errors, we should applaud candidates who admit mistakes. We should also encourage them to tell us what they’ve learned from their wrong turns. But there is surely a limit to the number of mistakes you can admit to before it starts to hurt your authority, and Richardson seemed to zip by it.

The general impression voters get from this kind of showing is that when the candidate speaks, you’re not getting the straight story. This is easy for Richardson’s opponents to exploit. He insisted he pushed for a diplomatic solution to the Iraq crisis before the war, which immediately triggered a rival campaign to produce three instances where before the war Richardson argued for military action, saying diplomacy was dead.

But perhaps nothing was so tortured during the show as its ending, when the governor was asked how he could be both a Red Sox and Yankees fan. This has no real political import, but fans engaged in the famous rivalry are so passionate in their hatred for their opponents that it’s impossible that anyone could be true booster of both teams. Richardson’s answer (too lengthy and unwieldy to replicate here) was a triple threat: implausible, shifty, and likely to please no one.

The message of the Richardson campaign has been that while he’s not a top-tier celebrity candidate raising gobs of money, his résumé and his political credentials—as a Hispanic from a Western state who can reach across the aisle—are so strong voters should give him a second look. After Sunday’s Meet the Press, the message will have to be: OK, how about a third look?