Sunday, August 07, 2005

Timing Is Key to Success
Craig Crawford's 1600: Timing Is Key to Success
By Craig Crawford, CQ Columnist

What do Terri Schiavo’s parents think about the Central American Free Trade Agreement? After all, they helped pass it. Many thought that President Bush and Republican congressional leaders blundered last March when they rushed to intervene in the court battle over a dying woman’s feeding tube. Sure, the polls showed that most Americans thought it was out of line for Congress to pass a law ordering federal courts to review the case. But the maneuver served a hidden purpose that White House insiders only now will admit. It helped save House Majority Leader Tom DeLay from the media wolves then chomping on his ethical problems.

The risky Schiavo vote four months ago paid off big time for Bush just before Congress left town for a month, when DeLay took command of CAFTA arm-twisting and won a 217-215 photo finish in the House.

The politics of distraction strikes again. It is a tactic the Bush administration has honed into pure science. Timing is the key, and the president’s team has a sense of it that Broadway’s best actors would envy.

Just look at how they recently diverted the media from Karl Rove’s legal troubles. As the media hunt for the president’s political guru reached a fever pitch, the Bush camp rushed up the rumored timetable for a Supreme Court nomination. Presidential aides delivered a week of speculation about various people under consideration, then followed through with the announcement of John G. Roberts Jr., a relatively unknown quantity requiring exhaustive media explorations of his past that are continuing today.

As is typically the case during such distractions, the issue from which attention has been diverted has not gone away. Rove’s possible complicity in the outing of a secret agent’s identity will surely resurface as the grand jury investigation moves toward closure. But negative stories do not have to disappear for a distraction ploy to work, so long as they take a back seat, even temporarily, to something else.

Likewise, DeLay’s problems have not disappeared, and in coming months the House ethics committee is likely to take up questions about his close relations with lobbyists and his overseas travel. But there is no mistaking that, for now, DeLay remains in charge. After the CAFTA vote, The Washington Post’s Mike Allen wrote that the president’s late night cliffhanger victory was “symbolic of DeLay’s continued hold over the House.”

DeLay’s return to the limelight can be traced to the March vote in the House to intervene in the Schiavo case. The comatose Florida woman who he tried to save eventually died, but DeLay’s political career survived. A quick look at the public relations timing of Capitol Hill’s unprecedented intrusion shows how.

Coverage of DeLay’s lobbyist ties had reached critical mass in the days leading up to the surprising last-minute decision by the White House and GOP congressional leaders to get involved in the Schiavo matter. Newspaper headlines in those days tell the story: “DeLay At Heart Of Firestorm Over Handling Of Ethics Cases” (Dallas Morning News, March 16); “President Supports DeLay As Investigations Widen” ( The New York Times, March 17); and “DeLay Attacks Critics” ( The Washington Post, March 20).
‘DeLay on Life Support’

There were many similar headlines, but those three show the fast-breaking evolution of White House media management: Just as the story is deemed a “firestorm,” the president steps forward to defend his embattled friend, followed by the target — DeLay, in this case — launching a vigorous defense that makes headlines. And as the Texan took control of the ethics story for a time by offering his own take, the House took up the all-consuming Schiavo story. As the predictable media frenzy enveloped Schiavo’s dramatic case, coverage of DeLay’s ethical lapses fell into a black hole. The bubble was burst.

Within a week, as the federal courts made it clear they would not be pressured by the legislation that Bush had rushed back from vacation to sign, the White House dropped its once emotional support for Schiavo’s parents, who were battling her husband’s desire to remove her feeding tube. I’m sure the president believed in keeping Schiavo on life support, but by this time any purpose in keeping DeLay on life support had been at least temporarily achieved.

Perhaps stung by criticism that the Schiavo intervention was a mistake, White House insiders now boast — but not for attribution — about the cleverness of using the Schiavo story to help DeLay.

Even if such pride is overblown, it’s true that DeLay’s critics have not regained critical media mass since that turnabout week.

Free trade with Central America is surely not much consolation for parents trying to keep a daughter alive, but thanks to Congress they got what they wanted: one more round in court. And the president surely got what he wanted: a return to business as usual on Capitol Hill with “The Hammer” nailing votes for his agenda.

Contributing Editor Craig Crawford is a news analyst for MSNBC, CNBC and “The Early Show” on CBS. He can be reached at