How do I get you to pay attention to this story? I could type out a balanced tale about an incremental change in White House spin and message control, relying on your discernment, patience, and kindness toward all the creatures of the Earth. Or, I could say that Barack Obama is a cynical and manipulative liar. The first approach would get a modest number of thoughtful readers, but they probably wouldn’t stay on the page very long. The second would excite the emotions. Conservatives would approve. Liberals would denounce it and point out the exaggerations. My editor would smile because the controversy would attract more readers.
This is trolling. I’ve decided against it, but the White House has not. CBS’s Major Garrett writes in National Journal about a new version of the “stray voltage” theory of communication in which the president purposefully overstates his case knowing that it will create controversy. Garrett describes it this way: “Controversy sparks attention, attention provokes conversation, and conversation embeds previously unknown or marginalized ideas in the public consciousness.”
The issue last week was the pay gap between men and women. The president issued executive orders to address the disparity, and Democrats pushed legislation in Congress. In making the case, the president and White House advisers used a figure they knew to be imprecise and controversial—a Census Bureau statistic that the median wages of working women in America are 77 percent of median wages earned by men.
Under this approach, a president wants the fact-checkers to call him out (again and again) because that hubbub keeps the issue in the news, which is good for promoting the issue to the public. It is the political equivalent of “there is no such thing as bad publicity” or the quote attributed to Mae West (and others): “I don’t care what the newspapers say about me as long as they spell my name right.” The tactic represents one more step in the embrace of cynicism that has characterized President Obama’s journey in office.
Officials in every White House crowbar the facts to make their cases. Administration officials over time have also learned how to turn lemons into lemonade, harnessing the frenzied news coverage from a perceived White House miscue to the president’s advantage. Losing the news cycles between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. doesn’t necessarily matter; if by the end of the saga you’ve got a coherent story to pitch, the frenzy has simply given you a larger audience who will listen to it. “Stray voltage,” the term Obama strategist David Plouffe used to describe this approach, is also a great buzzword that makes it look like you’ve got a theory for what might otherwise look like chaos. But this twist is a new, higher order of deception: creating the controversy for the purposes of milking it.
Facts, schmacts. As long as people are talking about an issue where my party has an advantage with voters, it’s good. So, the theory goes, if I’m a Republican candidate, I benefit from conversations about budget deficits and spending restraint because voters trust Republicans more on the issue of the budget and spending restraint, and it excites Republican voters who care about those issues. Democrats have several reasons to keep stories about equal-pay equity in the news. It excites their voters, attracts female voters, and crowds out whatever the Republicans wanted to talk about (these days, Obamacare). It also sets a trap. The more Republicans have to talk about politically unfavorable issues, the greater chance they’ll slip up and say something dumb like candidates Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock did that can be exploited more broadly.
Even if I’ve overstated the issue, more voters will hear that Democrats are fighting to pay women equally than will hear that the problem is overstated. Even if Ruth Marcus labels the effort “revolting demagoguery,” it doesn’t matter. In fact, equal-pay stories that create more controversy cycles about stories rooted in equal pay are just more opportunities for people to hear the words equal pay. See that? Equal pay.
That may or may not work with voters. It’s usually associated with the planned cynicism of campaigns, where if your attack ad isn’t getting four Pinocchios, you’re doing it wrong. In governing, there is usually a policy process that puts a brake on using bad numbers. Presidents also worry that people won’t think they are honest and trustworthy if they keep using facts that don’t pan out. But we are in a campaign year in which Democrats are struggling to find an issue they can use as a weapon against Republicans who have the upper hand.
After President Obama took office, his campaign book The Audacity of Hope receded into his past fast. Its sweet, naive, bipartisan “let’s reason together” passages fell away, too. As experience and a determined opposition forced the president to act, his former passages started to read like something a freshman senator would write, then a college graduate, and then a college freshman. With the notion of “stray voltage” in mind, the passages read like they’re from a precocious high-schooler chiding the press for treating facts so loosely that the cumulative effect is to “erode any agreed-upon standards for judging the truth.” It is a pity, writes the author, that politicians prey on press conflict by feeding misleading storylines. “It rewards not those who are right, but those—like the White House press office—who can make their arguments most loudly, most frequently, most obstinately, and with the best backdrop.”