The Best of Intentions, the Worst of Explanations: Fixing the Bill Lynn Blunder

02/25/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Obama-watchers on both sides of the partisan divide are talking about the nomination of defense lobbyist Bill Lynn as Deputy Secretary of Defense. The nomination flies in the face of President Obama's day-one proclamation that no lobbyists would serve in his administration. The no-lobbyists policy obviously has merit, and Lynn may also be the best person for the job despite his lobbying, but all those good intentions have now collided head-on in the new administration's first misstep.

So imagine it's your first week working in the White House, and you're called upon to explain away the apparent contradiction/hypocrisy/lie of announcing a policy even as you violate it. What would you say?

So far at least two members of the administration have tried their hand at it, without much success. One anonymous administration official offered this: "When you set very tough rules, you need to have a mechanism for the occasional exception. We wanted to be really tough, but at the same time we didn't want to hamstring the new administration or turn the town upside down." This did not help much. As Chris Kelly remarked on HuffPo: "In other words, you can't let what you say get in the way of what you do."

The other effort didn't do much better: "Our waiver provisions are designed to allow uniquely qualified individuals like Bill Corr and Bill Lynn to serve the public interest in these critical times." Spencer Ackerman gave that a big raspberry, too, calling it: "transparently cynical."

It's worth noting that administration sources may have offered other lines as well, and these may just be what reporters seized on to poke fun at. But neither of these explanations do much good: neither offers any reason to think that the exception won't swallow the rule. And anyone who is unhappy with the situation is not going to be any less unhappy after hearing them.

But then, what else can you do? The contradiction couldn't be clearer.

It's true, you probably can't entirely square that circle, but that doesn't mean there's nothing else helpful to say. In fact, the patron saint of reconciling contrary positions, or at least calming the conflicts they create, is none other than Obama himself. Here's how Stephen Hayes explained Obama's remarkable gift for this on the Wall St. Journal's opinion page back in February of 2007:

His rhetorical gimmick is simple. When he addresses a contentious issue, Mr. Obama almost always begins his answer with a respectful nod in the direction of the view he is rejecting - a line or two that suggests he understands or perhaps even sympathizes with the concerns of [his opponent].

The article then describes Obama answering a town-hall question on the second Amendment: He starts with his scholarly opinion that individuals have a right to bear arms, and then expresses his respect for the role guns play in hunting and protecting our families. He then pivots, noting that none of that keeps us from doing common-sense things like tracking down illegal guns to prevent kids from getting killed. He then offers a resounding call to "respect the tradition of gun ownership in this country," and ends by saying "most lawful firearms owners" agree with his middle-ground position.

This is a beautiful example of something my partners and I call "Connect and Lead." If you want your audience to give you a fair hearing, you first have to connect with them emotionally where you find them. That means figuring out some level on which you can agree with them and validating their feelings, letting them know you get where they're coming from. Sometimes that can be very tough, of course, but if you don't do the work of empathizing with them, don't count on them sympathizing with you. Once you've connected with your audience and shown them that you're not unreasonable, then you can speak your piece, and you will at least be given a fair hearing.

So back to the conundrum at hand: what can you possibly say to explain the contradiction away? Step one is to forthrightly acknowledge the validity of the strong feelings behind the critics' opinions:

I understand the concern here. Clearly, if we are just handing out waivers left and right, then the exception swallows the rule, and we'd have been better off not announcing the rule in the first place.

Now you your audience knows that you understand the problem. They are no longer upset with you for being deliberately obtuse. And they can also tell that you want the same thing that they want: good rules that are consistently followed. Now they'll listen. Time to give it your best shot, to remind them what's better about doing it this way than doing it the old way, and hopefully lead them into your corner...

That's not how this works. The exception does not swallow the rule, the exception proves the rule's value. If we want someone who has done lobbying, we have to issue a waiver, and that waiver attracts attention: everyone is going to know that we're making an exception, so that appointment will get extra scrutiny to make sure that that appointee really is the best person for the job. That extra scrutiny is important, and that's how the policy is designed. If the President hadn't announced this policy, this issue might not be getting as much attention. So the fact that we're all talking about this is a good thing - it means that the President's policy is working. It brings new transparency to the process of making political appointments.

There is no magic technique here besides looking on the bright side. It is nice that you end up congratulating the press for being so tenacious, which is sweet music to their ears.

One last question: is this just spin? Is it still 'transparently cynical"? Or is it actually true that the policy is meant to work this way, that this is what the White House wanted all along? I don't know if they get full credit for foresight here. But I do think the administration issued the policy with the best of intentions, and that by issuing the policy they raised expectations for their behavior, and that's a good thing. If Bill Lynn is confirmed, he'll know that anything he does that benefits Raytheon is going to attract attention, and require a good explanation. And that is a good thing. I just hope next time the White House does a little better job of explaining themselves ahead of time.