The Kochs, Cato, and Miscalculation—Part III

by on April 20, 2012 · 9 comments

In previous posts about the battle for control of the Cato Institute, I’ve noted (Part I) that the “Koch side” is a variety of different actors with different motivations who collectively seem not to apprehend the Cato Institute’s value. Next (Part II), I looked at why the Koch side is fairly the object of the greater scrutiny: their precipitous filing of the original lawsuit.

My premise has been that the Koch side cares. That is, I’ve assumed that they want to preserve Cato and see its role in the libertarian movement continue. Some evidence to undercut that assumption has come around, namely, their filing of a second lawsuit—and now a third! [Update: Mea culpa—there hasn’t been a third lawsuit. Just a new report of the second one. I had assumed the second was filed in state court and thus thought this was distinct. I’m not following the legal issues, obviously, which matter very little.]

The Koch side may be “on tilt.” Lawsuit-happy, win-at-any-cost. We will just have to wait and see.

For the time being, I will continue to assume that the Koch side has the best interests of liberty in mind and explore the dispute from that perspective. I owe the world some discussion of Cato-side miscalculation—of course, there is some—but before I get to that in my next post, I think it’s worth talking about the burden of proof in the Kochs’ campaign to take control of Cato.

Only fringies will deny that the Cato Institute adds some value to the liberty movement. It does. The question—if preservation of liberty is the goal—is how well it will do so in the future. The central substantive issue in the case—there are many side issues—is how Cato will operate in the future.

Now, here’s a quick primer on public campaigns and the difference between the “yes” side and the “no” side.

A “yes” campaign is hard. The moving side—the “yes” side—has to make the case that there is a problem, and it also has to make the case that it offers the best available solution.

A “no” campaign is easy. The “no” side can choose to dispute the existence of the problem, or it can dispute that the “yes” side’s solution is the right one.

In 1994, I worked for a campaign to defeat a single-payer health care initiative, California’s Prop. 186. The most memorable work we did—and the most fun—was a weekly release we faxed out (yes, faxed!) called the “Whopper of the Week.” Our side would take any dimension of the other side’s campaign and pound on it as hard as we could with mocking disdain and a smattering of the facts as we saw them.

By the end of the campaign, the “yes” side was arguing that their losses in battles like this were becoming more narrow each time around. Pathetic. We blasted out an Alice-in-Wonderland-themed Whopper. No, health-care socializers, a loss is not a win.

In the battle for control of Cato, the Kochs are the moving party, the “yes” campaign. But it has done almost none of the work that a “yes” campaign should.

As I wrote previously, they didn’t even make the case that there is a problem:

In terms of communications and public relations, this is kind of jaw-dropping stuff. It looks as though the Koch side laid little or no groundwork for public discussion of their move to take control of Cato. They didn’t register a public complaint about the direction of Cato’s research. They didn’t enlist a single ally or proxy into raising questions about Cato’s management.

And it’s becoming conspicuous with the passage of time that the Koch side isn’t putting forward a solution.

When the Kochs filed their original lawsuit, their public messaging was that it was a narrow contract dispute. “Nothing to see here.”

Then, the Koch messaging aimed at Ed Crane’s personality and management style. A statement from David Koch cited Ed’s rudeness. A pair of unsigned stories on expanded on that theme a little breathlessly (using a picture of Ed that makes him look mean and fat!). I presume the Kochs helped with the placement of these stories, though I could certainly be wrong.

[UPDATE: (4/23/12) A third Breitbart story went up today, but is no longer available at its original source. A mirror of the story, “The Crane Chronicles, Part III: Ed Gone Wild,” is available here.]

You only have to look at that “mean and fat” picture of Ed Crane to know he was going to be out the door soon anyway. Hopefully, to a chaise lounge and a mai tai with a little umbrella in it. Ironically, the instant dispute may keep Ed at Cato longer than he would have been if someone just said “thank you” and thrown him a nice going-away party.

Attacking Ed Crane does nothing to make the Kochs’ case for taking over Cato. It is at best one-third of the first half of a “yes” campaign.

What about the other two-thirds of the “problem” statement? Has Cato’s fundraising lagged? Is the scholarship weak? Has Cato failed to strike the right balance between principle and relevance? These are important, substantive questions … that the Koch side has barely raised.

Much less has the Koch side put forward the solutions that it thinks are the right ones. PR statements won’t do for the people who dedicate their every work-day to advancing liberty. What is the Koch vision for Cato? Who do the Kochs think should be at the helm? How can we know that Cato will remain a distinct, non-partisan voice in Washington? It takes something more than words when the devil we know has a 35-year track record.

The evidence of miscalculation I bring to bear in this post is the dog that didn’t bark. By all appearances, the Kochs didn’t prepare for the campaign to take over Cato. A fair inference is that the Kochs aren’t prepared to run it.

I’m fascinated in writing this post that I feel the need to explain to whoever is running this issue for the Kochs what they should have done in the effort to get control of Cato. It’s not because I wish the Koch side success. It’s because the evidence we have indicates fairly strongly that the Koch side is not prepared to run the Cato Institute. What happens if the dog catches the car?

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