by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
While it made news headlines across the country, the story has already started to recede. Smollett has been removed from the final two episodes of “Empire.” The Russia investigation has returned to the chyrons of cable news. The Iowa caucuses remain nearly a year away – plenty of time for countless other controversies and scandals to emerge.
The episode should not be forgotten though. Strategists and operatives say the 2020 presidential field needs to learn their lesson now. The story was so egregious and the details so horrifying, David Axelrod tells RCP, that he understands why it engendered such a quick response: “People with a public platform felt the need to speak out.”
“Presidential candidates particularly are compelled to exercise moral leadership when stories like this arise,” added Barack Obama’s former top strategist. “But this is also a useful parable about exercising caution about reacting in the moment before all the facts are known.”
The initial story proved too tempting for candidates to adopt that wait-and-see approach. Being the first to condemn bigotry brings significant political capital in a primary field where candidates increasingly compete with each other for the title of most “woke.” …
… Being first carries some risks, however, as veteran Democratic political strategist Dane Strother points out. Get it wrong, he says, and a candidate runs the risk of earning a reputation for being “half-cocked full time.”
It is not a question of “if” but “when,” Strother added. In another seven days something else will happen — “maybe a kid falls down a well” — and candidates will face a similar temptation. The strategist advises his candidates to think before they tweet, to “understand all the facts before you make the statement,” and to recognize that “being first isn’t necessarily going to get you kudos.”