The Winston Group is a strategy and research firm dedicated to making ideas matter.

‘Truce’ Offers Chance to Explore Issues Raised by Va. Tech

by David Winston

In the weeks after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, I wrote that a new American environment
had emerged, one “characterized by a sense of unity, personal responsibility, and mutual respect for one another.” On that terrible day, people saw unforgettable pictures of individual courage and compassion from first responders and just average Americans who risked and, in many cases, gave their lives to help others, and they took pride in the actions of fellow citizens.

But for many Americans, the unprovoked terrorist attacks also had a profound impact on how they viewed this country and its role in the world. For many, the moral relativism they had substituted for the concept of good and evil suddenly seemed incompatible with horrible scenes of destruction, tragedy and grief.

Last week, as the tragic events at Virginia Tech filled America’s television screens, many of the feelings that characterized those dark days after 9/11 re-emerged in a shocked nation. We were stunned, disbelieving, angry and saddened.

Many of us found ourselves asking the same questions we asked nearly six years ago. What is our
responsibility as individuals? What is really important in life? Is there good and evil in this world? How could this happen here, and what would each of us have done if put in the same situation?

We know how this university and its community reacted — first with courage and then with hope and stubborn determination. We learned about Ryan Clark, a 22-year-old 4.0 student with a triple major, a resident adviser who lost his life when he went to the aid of his neighbor in the dorm, the first victim. We heard the story of Waleed Shaalan, an Egyptian graduate student and father of a small child, who, though wounded, distracted the gunman and saved a fellow student at the cost of his life.

And then there was Liviu Librescu, a 76-year-old Israeli and Holocaust survivor who became a highly respected professor of aeronautical engineering at Virginia Tech. This hero barricaded the door to his classroom with his own body, allowing his students time to escape through a window. He died saving others.

The students and faculty of Virginia Tech didn’t let anyone down. But, as more details of the shooter’s life came into focus, it was clear that a lack of integration between the courts, law enforcement and the health care system let them down. Add to that a university hamstrung by fears of privacy lawsuits, and it was disaster waiting to happen.

Thankfully, in the days after the tragedy, the bitter partisanship of recent years was put aside for a
moment. The expected uproar over the issue of gun control was unexpectedly muted. This partisan
“truce” gives the nation and especially our political leaders a rare opening to address the issues raised by the Virginia Tech tragedy in an atmosphere of unity.

State and federal education and law enforcement officials certainly will review campus security across the nation. Surprisingly, in the days after the shootings, the National Rifle Association and Democratic leaders in Congress appear to have found some common ground by agreeing to work together to address the holes in the system that allowed a mentally ill man to buy handguns.

Congress also must investigate the role that a number of federal laws may have played in keeping
crucial information about the killer’s mental state from both his family and the university, beginning with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996.

When Congress enacted HIPAA in 1996, it was designed, among other things, to protect patient privacy. What the Virginia Tech shootings showed in the extreme is what many families have found since it went into effect a few years ago. Fear of litigation on the part of hospitals and doctors has resulted in the most stringent privacy interpretation of the law.

Because of HIPAA, families, much less universities, can be legally kept in the dark when it comes to
what could be a serious illness of a family member. But it’s not only HIPAA that has caused universities to hesitate to take action against a student whose behavior is suspect.

On Fox News Sunday, The George Washington University President Stephen Trachtenberg said, “Between the [Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act] laws and the Buckley amendment, we can’t tell parents students’ grades, much less that they are drinking in excess or having psychiatric problems or other kinds of problems.”

The indemnification of our nation’s colleges and universities from irresponsible lawsuits is an issue that Congress ought to explore along with the role that parents should play in the lives of their college-age children.

Once again, a catastrophe has shown us that our governmental systems, the bureaucracies at every
level that are charged with delivering safety and services to the people of this country, are not up to
the task. Congress ought to take a hard look at how we can do better.

But to change the status quo, political leaders on both sides of the aisle must acknowledge that the
responsibility goes beyond one party or any one administration. The answers will be found only if the search is conducted in a spirit of bipartisanship and a genuine determination to do what is best for the American people.

Washington could learn much from the words of the Virginia Tech poet-in-residence Nikki Giovanni, who brought thousands of Hokies to their feet at the school’s convocation in memory of the fallen. “We are better than we think and not quite what we want to be … We are the Hokies. We will prevail … We are Virginia Tech.”

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Up Is Down and Down Is Up in the ’08 Campaign

by David Winston

The 2008 presidential race is an election that just gets “curiouser and curiouser,” as Alice might say.
Many of the political assumptions, rules of engagement and benchmarks that drove media coverage in previous presidential contests have been all but overtaken by a series of surprising turns in recent
weeks.

Debating the pros and cons of each candidate, who’s up and who’s down, who raised
how much and who made the latest gaffe, always has been a spectator sport in
Washington, D.C. But this political season is going to be different.

Beyond the obvious fact that neither side has an incumbent president or vice president
in the running, there are several other factors that are altering the dynamics of the race
in significant ways. Perhaps most important is the emergence of Feb. 5, 2008, as the
political equivalent of high noon at the O.K. Corral.

Between Jan. 14 (the tentative date of the Iowa caucuses) and what the press has nicknamed “Super
Duper Tuesday,” we may see as many as 29 states jump into fray. For candidates on both sides, Feb. 5 forces some difficult strategic decisions in an environment of unknowns.

Will Mega-Tuesday make Iowa and New Hampshire more or less important? And what do Nevada and
South Carolina now mean in the process? Does it make strategic sense to pour millions into these first states in the hope that a win will propel a candidate to victory on Feb. 5? But what if frontrunner status coming out of Iowa and New Hampshire lacks the imprimatur of “Big Mo” this time around?

Maybe in this “Alice in Wonderland” of a campaign year, skipping these early bellwethers might be the wiser course, putting time and effort instead into the big delegate count at stake on Feb. 5? In large part, the media will answer many of those questions as it decides whether to give these early states their usual king- (or queen-) maker status or anoints Feb. 5 as the day that will make or break the top candidates.

It’s probably safe to say Iowa is a must-win for John Edwards (D), who has invested so much time in
the state, and perhaps for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) as well. Likewise, New Hampshire is probably a
must-win for Mitt Romney (R). Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) have been campaigning in both states as has McCain and, to a lesser degree in Iowa, Rudy Giuliani (R).

Philosophically, Giuliani may be in the best position and may need to do little more than survive to Mega Tuesday when larger, more moderate states like New York, California and New Jersey may offer him, and McCain as well, a friendlier environment with a bigger payoff. But there are a number of smaller, more conservative states that will be in the mix, too; and that may benefit potential late entrants. Newt Gingrich (R), Fred Thompson (R) and Al Gore (D), each with substantial name ID,have the luxury of delaying their decisions, possibly even leap-frogging Iowa and still being viable thanks to the size of the February primary.

But there is another element that needs to be factored in. Super Duper Tuesday also puts major
pressure on individual campaigns to literally buy into the perception, created by past presidential
campaigns, that winning in states with the most expensive media markets in the country will take as
much as $100 million.

That’s a lot of money for even the most fearless of fundraisers. Look at Obama, who raised an
astounding $25 million in the first quarter. To keep up with Clinton, he will have to bring in roughly
$250,000 every single day from April 1 of this year to Feb. 5 of the next.

He won’t be alone. Most of the top-tier candidates will put themselves in similar straights, bowing to
conventional wisdom, which, given the explosion of new media over the past five years, may be more a lot more perception than reality. Despite that possibility, both Republican and Democratic campaigns will spend millions on political ads during that short window between Iowa and Feb. 5.

Yet, more and more data is showing that political advertising may have become the poster child for the law of diminishing returns. A survey released last year by the Association of National Advertisers and Forrester Research Inc. found that nearly 70 percent of major national advertisers believe advertising “has become less effective.” While these were marketers of consumer products, there is no reason to think that political ads will fare any better.

This means while campaigns will continue to use political ads, successful ones also will use new
technologies. What we don’t know is what some of these new technologies may mean in terms of
organizational efforts, controlling the message and responding to attacks.

Clearly, the Internet, which McCain and Howard Dean were the first to use as a fundraising tool, will
play an even bigger role this year as fundraising and organizational efforts move at warp speed trying to keep up with the new compressed primary season.

Obama has more than 96,000 “friends” on MySpace, and one Facebook community supporting him lists 300,000 members. Can these “communities” become an organizing structure or a direct message
vehicle? Will YouTube supplant 527s when it comes to “renegade” advertising for and against candidates with no restrictions? Will new technologies supplant traditional advertising and continue to circumvent traditional news media?

In campaign 2008, like for Alice, it often seems that up is down and down is up. It is, to some degree, the nature of the beast. But this cycle may change the way the game of presidential politics is played for the foreseeable future.

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