The Law of Unintended Consequences

Poor Kirk Watson. Last night, the Democratic state senator from Travis County, Texas (and former Austin mayor) went on MSNBC to show his support for Barack Obama in a debate with Hillary Clinton surrogate Stephanie Tubbs-Jones, a congresswoman from Ohio. 

But apparently Watson hadn't done his homework.

"You're a big Barack supporter, right, senator?" asked Chris Matthews.

"I am, yes I am," said Watson. 

"Well, name some of his legislative accomplishments," said Matthews. Watson smiled, and stalled, and tried to spout some platitudes about "what [Obama] is offering the American people," but Matthews wouldn't let go. A few moments (and awkward pauses) later, the hapless pol finally admitted, "I'm not going to be able to name you specific items of legislative accomplishment." It was the most agonizing moment of political television since last November, when Matthews repeatedly inferred that John McCain was married to his own mother. The flaxen-haired host kept snapping sadistically--probably to prove that he's no Obama sympathizer, whatever the senator's speeches do to his leg--but the damage was already done.

Or at least that's what Obama's foes would like to think. As the YouTube clip spread across the blogosphere, critics seized on it as the purest (and most painful) evidence to date that Obamaniacs support the senator for his persona rather than his record--and that Obama himself hasn't accomplished anything worth remembering. But I wonder if the effect of the video "going viral" (at least among politicos like us) isn't precisely the opposite. It's basically impossible to get journalists to actually talk about "legislative accomplishments"--and even more difficult to get readers to pay attention once they do. But the Watson flap has effectively transformed the comment sections of several influential blogs into substantive surveysof Obama's legislative record--and made comparisons of Clinton and Obama's "accomplishments" a briefly sexy subject of discussion. Go figure.

Sure, the Clintonistas were bound to pounce. Clinton herself brought up the blunder at this morning's "major address" at Hunter College in New York. But reasonable people surely hold the gaffe against Watson, not Obama--and would probably admit to themselves that, come to think of it, they don't actually know a whole lot about their chosen candidate's legislative accomplishments. (When asked the same question, for instance, Tubbs-Jones credited Clinton with "numerous" such accomplishments "all around the world"--but never named a specific example.) As long as the debate continues and the information keeps flowing, then, Watson's slip serves as an opportunity--now that people are tuning and Clinton is playing it for applause--for Obama supporters to dispel the myth that their man hasn't actually gotten anything done. In fact, the "name his/her accomplishments" question will probably become a standard part of the supporter interview--meaning that his and her lists of accomplishments will, too.

As I said, poor Kirk Watson--I suspect last night was the beginning and end of his career as an Obama surrogate. But poor Obama? Maybe not.

UPDATE, 6:43 p.m.: Watson blogs his mea culpa! "My mind went blank," he writes. "I expected to be asked about the primary that night, or the big one coming up in Texas on March 4, or just about anything else in the news. When the subject changed so emphatically, I reached for information that millions of my fellow Obama supporters could recite by heart, and I couldn’t summon it." Actually, I can kind of understand. One time I uttered the words "I've lost my train of thought" live on MSNBC. OK when you're alone with your laptop; not OK when you're on national television.