The forge of politics creates its own steely cliches.
The well-worn “October surprise” was born in the Vietnam era, its origin tied to both Lyndon Johnson’s ultimately false claim that peace was coming in ’68 and to Richard Nixon’s more veracious — if also a bit shallow — announcement of the same four years later.
In the modern Steroids Era of breaking news, the preferred term for such events is “game changer,” a newer phrase in the parlance but still as tired a trope as its predecessor.
But some turns of phrase are hackneyed because they are appropriate and no other words will do.
And in Tennessee’s 4th Congressional District, both “October surprise” and “game changer” are appropriate for the news dropped first by Huffington Post last week.
In a transcript of a 2000 phone call, Scott DesJarlais — now the incumbent Republican representative in the 4th — seemingly encourages a woman to have an abortion.
According to the report, the woman is a former patient, who had met the doctor while having a foot problem. The two had an affair — DesJarlais, in the transcript, discusses the rocky state of his marriage — and the woman apparently became pregnant.
DesJarlais’ Democratic opponent, Eric Stewart, called the events “disgusting” in a press release, but has trod carefully with the news.
DesJarlais has confirmed the existence of the transcript and the events it describes, though on Ralph Bristol’s radio show, revealed that the unnamed woman was perhaps not actually pregnant, as if somehow that makes the whole conversation moot. He also called it old news dragged up in the last campaign.
That’s not entirely true. DesJarlais defeated longtime Democratic Rep. Lincoln Davis in 2010 in what was described as one of the nastiest campaigns of that cycle. Many details of DesJarlais’ divorce did come out then, but Davis didn’t use this particular piece of information.
Behind the scenes, Republican operatives are calling the news “unspinnable” — and no one in the Tennessee Republican Party is spending political capital defending the congressman — but there’s an interesting wrinkle.
The Tennessee 4th is a J-shaped district, covering much of the Cumberland Plateau and the southern border counties of Middle Tennessee, before looping up into parts of Rutherford County.
It is largely rural, almost totally white, poorer than average and, according to polling data, more socially than fiscally conservative.
Importantly for this issue, per capita, people in the 4th District are the least likely to get their news from online sources.
DesJarlais’ game changer started, primarily, as an Internet story. It was broken by HuffPo, then picked up by Salon, Slate and the National Journal’s website, before metastasizing throughout other sites.
Eventually, traditional print media picked it up, posting it on their respective sites, and each of the state’s major metro dailies included it in their Thursday print editions.
In the 4th, people count on traditional outlets — and in many places, small hyperlocal ones — for their news.
They get their TV news from stations in Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga, but they read papers from their own county seats.
If Stewart expects traction on this story, he has to hope those small-town papers run with it.
This is a sexy story. It’s one with a tea party congressman, a doctor, a figure from the young conservative onslaught of 2010, who encourages a woman — again, his patient — to have an out-of-state abortion. It should change the electoral dynamics.
But, to mangle another cliche, if a tree falls in a forest and it’s only covered online, does it even matter?