Jon Ralston:

Dean Heller’s dissociative disorder

Fri, Jul 20, 2012 (2 a.m.)

There are plenty of good campaign books out there, but this year’s Senate race in Nevada may provide a new one: “How to take a silver bullet and shoot yourself in the foot with it.”

The authors: Sen. Dean Heller and his campaign team.

I have written — and many others in the omniscient pundit class agree — that the House Ethics Committee’s decision to take the highly unusual step of forming an investigative subcommittee could be fatal to Rep. Shelley Berkley’s chances against Heller. The issue of whether she used her position to advocate for causes that benefited her nephrologist husband is a serious one and could be a political albatross that costs her the election. I thought she was a slight underdog going in; this development makes the modifier disappear.

But recent developments indicate Heller and his campaign folks, who are not exactly warm and fuzzy with the media, may turn the end into the beginning. To wit:

First, Heller, stopped on Capitol Hill by intrepid reporter Cameron Joseph of The Hill, tried to run away from ... his own campaign. in a truly bizarre and craven act: Telling a reporter you can’t talk about an ad, in which you declare you approve of the content. This ham-handed attempt to stay above the fray, neither sustainable nor believable, exposed Heller as awkward when left to his own devices.

When Joseph asked Heller about the charges being made in the ad (and it features the mandatory bite of the senator saying he sanctioned the ad), he acted as if he had no connection with his own organization.

“The campaign is (making those charges),” Heller told Joseph. “If you have any questions or comments, it’d probably be better if you directed those toward the campaign. Just talk to the campaign; they’re the ones dealing specifically with this issue. Right now, I’m just worried about jobs and the economy.”

Oh, please.

So Heller can air an ad essentially saying Berkley is corrupt but then dodge questions about it? Who does that?

Then, Thursday, less than 24 hours after a survey was published that showed the race neck-and-neck, Heller’s campaign manager, Mac Abrams, released a memo he had written to the local and national media. I’m not sure I have ever seen such a missive in all the years I have covered politics — an oblique criticism of the media for not really understanding Berkley’s ethics problems and then all but begging us to cover it more because it is so important.

“It appears that some journalists are only looking at the cover of this story and have not yet read the book,” Abrams wrote, implying reporters just don’t get it. Then he all but accuses the media of buying Berkley’s spin: “There is much more to this story than the distractions, distortions, attacks and outright lies of the State Democratic Party and Shelley Berkley that, in my view, deserve greater attention.”

I bet he does. Abrams signed the memo, “Fondly,” as if he were writing to a wife or close friend. Now that is funny.

This memo is sure to accomplish one thing, and not what Abrams intended. No one in my profession — and no other I can think of — likes being told he or she does not know how to do his or her job. I understand Team Heller’s frustration that this issue isn’t being talked about more than — let me pull an issue out of the air — Medicare. But it’s July!

I’ll be the first one to say that Berkley’s defense — including a new website — has been thoroughly disingenuous, highlighting her attempt to save a transplant center to divert attention from her sub rosa attempts (without any disclosure of her conflict) to influence regulators and Congress to ensure Medicare reimbursement rates would not be cut. That’s money that directly affects her bottom line — and that’s surely why the ethics panel proceeded — although policy arguments about access to health care surely could be made, too.

What’s interesting here is that Heller’s clumsy cowardice in Washington on this issue indicates that he believes paid media will do the job and he doesn’t want to have to talk to reporters about it. But Abrams’ memo indicates the campaign is worried that the free media aren’t doing enough to help their cause, which is to highlight this issue above all others.

Anyone know a good shrink? These folks need a campaign doctor — and badly.

Heller’s spineless attempt to distance himself from his own campaign and his campaign’s heavy-handed effort to importune the media to cover the story show a level of ineptitude that I didn’t expect. I just hope Abrams told Heller he was sending the memo — otherwise the senator just might disavow it if another reporter catches him off guard.

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