In fairness to Representative King, he was trapped. Two determined DREAMers, Erika Andiola and Cesar Vargas, had him cornered -- completely hemmed-in, half-way through a hamburger.
It was a political ambush, and in deciding to stand and fight, Steve King had lost before he'd even started. The whole idea of a political ambush is that it's lose-lose for the ambushed. You either try to justify your opinions in an unjustifiable context, or you high-tail it out of there. King's dining companion, Senator Rand Paul, astutely did just that. Spotting imminent iceberg, Paul crams his burger down his throat, and scuttles for the lifeboat.
What made this event newsworthy however, was King's apparent contempt for the two people in front of him, and here's where he compounded his troubles by going on the offensive -- offensively.
Early in the video, as Andiola makes her case as a DREAMer, King states to her "You're very good at English, you understand what I'm saying." Shortly afterwards he repeats this, as if trying to emphasize that maybe she didn't get it first time around:
"You understand the English language, correct?"
Of course she understands the English language. So the question has to be asked, why did the Congressman feel the need to state the bleeding obvious, and to state it twice?
The answer is that he was attempting to do two things at once -- both of which were ugly. The first was to belittle his opponent through false praise: "You're very good at English." All such statements come with a suppressed ending that contains the words "... for a...".
So, let's run the full statement, and it would sound something like, "You're very good at English for a..." Many endings could be dropped into that box, but maybe for the best guess, we should turn to how Andiola herself felt the need to reply on the video:
"I was raised in the United States..."
The second goal of Representative King was dog-whistle politics -- encoding a message so that, hopefully, your own side sees what's going on but nobody else does. Initially this worked -- within minutes a crowd forms around Andiola and Vargas yelling "Go home." Unfortunately, just as for Paul Ryan back in march, the trick went wrong, thanks to the wonders of the Internet and viral videos. Not only did Rep. King's side notice, but we all noticed!
For political communications, two major points leaps out of this experience:
- Rand Paul got it right. This was an ambush, and a good ambush is designed to be no-win for the victim, so the only way out is the way that is least damaging -- retreat. If however, that route is blocked to you, maybe for example by the fact that your dinner companion is already desperately scrambling for the lifeboat, then rule two comes into play -- be respectful.
- Be utterly respectful. Do not sneer, do not attempt coded dog-whistles, do not belittle. At one stage King almost achieved a comeback via a neat segue onto the topic of presidential decrees, but at the last minute he couldn't resist what at the time must have felt like the easier route: He sneered, he dog-whistled, and he belittled.
That's what put the fire into the story.
In the end though, this is also a story about the well put-together ambush. Recent election cycles have seen politicians retreat farther and father away from genuine engagement with voters. Town-hall questions are no longer genuine questions -- they are hand-selected mini-speeches designed to burnish the talking-points of the candidate.
Politicians have only themselves to blame for ambush-interviews -- if they won't give voters genuine access in more conventional settings, then the politically active will force access in less conventional, burger-based settings, and those settings are genuinely going to be no-win.
Peter Paskale is a communications coach and analyst who writes The Presenters' Blog at speak2all.wordpress.com