A Lesson in Politics from Baghdad Bob (Robert Coon On Politics)

His name was Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf. You may remember him as the Iraqi Information Minister, or by the popular nickname "Baghdad Bob." During the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the United States and coalition forces, it was his job to put on a brave face and fuel the Iraqi state propaganda machine, even in the face of obvious contradictions. 

Sahaf’s outrageous claims – and there were many – ultimately made him a favorite of late night TV shows and an Internet sensation, but didn’t do much for his credibility. To this day I remember one of Sahaf’s more memorable claims, that there was "no presence of American infidels in the city of Baghdad at all," while major news networks aired footage of American tanks rolling through the Iraqi capital’s streets. 

But while his statements were outlandish and downright silly at times, the strategy of portraying unyielding confidence for the benefit of public perception while denying reality is not unique to "Baghdad Bob,"  Saddam Hussein’s former regime, or the Iraq war. In fact, it’s a commonly used tactic in American politics – and one that threatens the credibility of our political leaders over the long haul.

Take for example former Democratic Party of Arkansas Chairman Todd Turner. In 2010 he did his best Baghdad Bob impersonation in an interview with the Arkansas News Bureau, making bold predictions that Democrats would "hold at least five of the state’s six congressional seats, all statewide constitutional offices, and strong majorities in both chambers of the state legislature."  

If you took Turner’s word for it, Democrats were about to nearly run the table on Election Day. But back in reality, these spin-driven predictions were found to be far off the mark, with Democrats retaining only two of the state’s congressional seats, losing three of the seven statewide constitutional offices, and seeing their majorities shrink by 17 seats in the state House and 7 seats in the state Senate.

Make no mistake, this is a bipartisan political disease. In 2008, then-House Minority Leader John Boehner confidently predicted Republican gains in the U.S. House saying, "I think we are going to gain seats this year. Period." Yet Republicans went on to do the opposite – losing 21 more Congressional seats. Two years later, Nancy Pelosi scoffed at the idea that Democrats would lose their majority in the House. The result? Republicans gained an unprecedented 63 seats and recaptured the House majority in a landslide.

So why do political leaders continue to go down this path? Why do they insist that victory is at hand, when all indicators are that it's not? There are really only two explanations.  

In some rare cases, they truly believe what they’re saying, having done a poor job of analyzing the political landscape, examining poll numbers and reading the writing on the wall.  

But mostly they’re doing it because they think they must to keep their supporters engaged and prevent donors from giving up on them and moving on. After all, if the passengers know the ship is sinking, some of them are going to head for the lifeboats. But is misleading supporters, donors, friends and potential voters for a short-term benefit good for long-term credibility? Clearly not.

The fact of the matter is, we all want people to shoot us straight. Unfortunately in politics, that’s not always the case. And if we as political supporters, campaign donors and voters continue to allow ourselves to be led down a primrose path by people we trust because "that’s just politics," what does that really say about us? And what does it say about how those leaders really value each of us? 

Just as Baghdad Bob put on his uniform and toed the company line, party leaders, campaign operatives and candidates oftentimes have to paint a rosy picture regarding their side’s chances. But there’s a fine line between giving an optimistic outlook and knowingly peddling false hope to others for selfish reasons. Ultimately Baghdad Bob’s false bravado resulted in him becoming nothing more than a punch line.  

So next time someone with everything to lose insists that political victory is at hand, check for yourself to see if the tanks are already rolling through the streets. Those confident assurances might only be as credible as Bob's.

The Best of Baghdad Bob

(Robert Coon is a partner at Impact Management Group, a public relations, public opinion and public affairs firm in Little Rock and Baton Rouge, La. You can follow him on Twitter at RobertWCoon. His column appears every other Wednesday in the weekly Government & Politics e-newsletter. You can subscribe for free here.)