Hickey's "gaffe" sparks familiar pattern: Partisan pouncing and distancing

Pat Hickey is the very definition of an avuncular fellow, but his GOP masters are treating him like the crazy uncle who must be locked in the basement.

All because he said on the radio what they say in the back rooms. This classic Kinsley gaffe, seeming to celebrate the low turnout of minorities and young people in off years that benefits Republicans, has roiled the political world here, with Democrats using their highest octane gas not to immolate Hickey but scorch the GOP brand, and Republicans eager to show outrage at what the Assembly minority leader said as they hide their turnout projections that count on….what he said.

So the Assembly minority leader clutches onto his lofty post, his enemies froth with Schadenfreude’s saliva and Republican elected officials scurry like the proverbial scalded dogs. And this is a story that in the space of 72 hours has assumed a familiar trajectory:

Politician does interview with friendly interviewer. Too relaxed, he or she says something he or she wishes could be deleted. Instead of apologizing, pol tries to divert attention, re-interpret what was said. Opposition pounces ferociously, pushing the story beyond what it should be, exultant in what it might become. Members of politician’s party, confronted with helping colleague through crisis or throwing him overboard, choose the latter. Besieged pol digs hole deeper, finally apologizes, hopes storm will pass.

That is, it’s the traditional political story of foolishness, cowardice and spin, unleavened by any real humanity and potentially having lasting impact. I knew the story already had spun out of control when the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, 24 hours after Hickey’s comments, sent out a release headlined: Congressman Joe Heck’s 2014 Campaign Strategy: Keep Youth and Minority Voters Away From the Polls”

What? Seriously?

The Democrats overplaying their hand is de rigueur. They might as well throw what they can at the wall, see what sticks and go from there. If the media want to oblige, as we almost always do, mission accomplished.

That mission, of course, is to give this story legs until November 2014 by tying every Republican, as the DCCC tried to do, to the notion that Republicans don’t like minorities and younger voters. Hint: They should come out in droves and vote for…Democrats.

Subtle, they ain’t. Effective, they can be.

Before I get to the GOP reaction, a word about Hickey: I’ve known him for a long time. He’s a former journalist, which earns some points with me, and he’s always been straightforward. He gets that politics is a game, but he takes it seriously.

Indeed, he should have taken the frothing conservative host Dan Mason’s questions more seriously instead of getting caught up in the enthusiasm of the moment and sounding as if he wanted to give a high-five that those nettlesome Latinos, blacks, Asians and youngsters wouldn’t be so much of a problem in ’14 as they were in ’12.

But he’s hardly a racist, and his so-called support for a poll tax was a foolish suggestion during a committee hearing, although the GOP’s collective recoil from same-day registration or even extended registration periods is all too telling, n-est-ce-pas?

I found the reactions from key GOP leaders to be both tardy and excessive. They all did their Louis Renault imitations while also acting as if they had some 48-hour delayed outrage alarm on their iPads: “Show shock and dismay if media is all over the story.” Alarm set for early Thursday morning.

Gov. Brian Sandoval, Sen. Dean Heller and state Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson are sanguine about the party’s prospects in 2014 because they know the demographics – um, lower minority/youth turnout – favor them. But they also know that the surest way to engage what they hope will be a relatively somnolent Democratic machine is to provide raw meat. And that was some tasty steak tartare Hickey served up to the opposition.

In a sense, I don’t blame them. If Hickey had simply apologized right away, said he wasn’t meaning to celebrate the low turnout and hoped to find a way to deliver the GOP message to minorities and young voters, the piling on might not have occurred. And on the eve of the state chairman’s election, it’s worth noting that if the Nevada Republican Party had any ability to combat the Democratic message machine, maybe the waters could have been muddied.

After all, wasn’t it a Democrat who once talked about the president's lack of a "Negro dialect?" And aren’t the Democrats the ones who are accused, sometiems rightly, of pandering to minority voters and then taking them for granted once elected?

No matter. We are where we are.

Hickey will be lucky to hold onto his leadership post with the long knives out and his caucus already riven by regional schisms and ambitious underlings. But after the dust settles, whether he is in the basement or in leadership, the Democrats will have been handed a valuable bludgeon and GOP candidates will have to deal with mail pieces and TV spots brandishing the issue.

By next November, when we see the exit polls, we’ll know whether Hickey’s comments energized minorities and youngsters to vote or were a blip before the inexorable numbers of an off year took hold.