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Lessons learned from Rush and Hilary

By Ana Navarro, Special to CNN
updated 3:04 PM EDT, Thu April 19, 2012
Hilary Rosen was the second of two commentators to make remarks that touched off huge controversy.
Hilary Rosen was the second of two commentators to make remarks that touched off huge controversy.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ana Navarro: In recent weeks we've seen two commentators face firestorm of criticism
  • She says Mitt Romney's forces were slow to respond to Rush Limbaugh attack on Sandra Fluke
  • Obama's team responded with ferocity to Hilary Rosen's comments, Navarro says
  • Navarro: Responding quickly is essential, but substance is getting lost in rhetorical wars

Editor's note: Ana Navarro, a Republican strategist and commentator, served as National Hispanic Co-Chair for Jon Huntsman's 2012 campaign. Follow her on Twitter: @ananavarro

(CNN) -- Last week, the "Republican War on Women" morphed into the "Democrat War on Mommies." The shots that started both wars were fired by two commentators, Rush Limbaugh and Hilary Rosen. Whose words were worse?

Rush wins that contest, in my book. His words were offensive in and of themselves. Hilary's words were offensive because the context they were used in led people to see them as a slight to stay-at-home moms.

Later in the week, Mitt Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom and President Obama adviser David Axelrod got into a Twitter duel, or maybe we should just call it tweet-for-tat. Fehrnstrom took umbrage with recent anti-Ann Romney comments made by comedian and Obama donor Bill Maher. Axelrod, in turn, accused Fehrnstrom of "studied outrage."

If the outrage was studied, it came straight from the Democrats' playbook. What we learned in Limbaugh-gate was then applied to Rosen-gate. The lessons will be with us for other campaigns to follow. When Rush made his comments attacking Sandra Fluke, Republicans were slow to react. It wasn't until days after that more Republican voices started to publicly disagree with what he'd said. Romney finally gave a tepid answer saying it wasn't the language he would have used.

Ana Navarro
Ana Navarro

Democrats were quick and skillful in branding Rush's words with the Republican label, which they stamped on every Republican running for anything in America. The presidential candidates all disagreed with his claims but were left to pay the price. It took several days for Rush to apologize and only after a national boycott of his radio show, leaving some to perceive the apology as economically motivated.

What began as a strong Republican defense of religious liberties turned into an epic battle for women's rights. Democrats cleverly coined it the "War on Women." It was a brilliant move. Polls showed a gender gap favoring Obama of as much as 20 points.

Both camps understand the election can hinge on who women support and how many of us turn out. Obama hosted a women's forum in the White House. Romney began using multiple rows of women as backdrops at his events. He held a roundtable with women, and his campaign organized a women-themed conference call, all within hours of each other. Both candidates engaged in a blatantly political chess game to outmaneuver each other to show their feminine side.

Just then, Democrat strategist Hilary Rosen said in an interview that Ann Romney "has never worked a day in her life." Republicans gave Democrats a taste of their own medicine. It took minutes for GOP operatives to denounce the "War on Mommies" and spring into action pinning Rosen's words on Obama's.

Democrats wasted no time either. They triple dissed her -- disowned, disagreed and distanced. In less than 24 hours, President Obama, Michelle Obama, Joe Biden and every campaign staffer from David Axelrod to the lowliest intern was disavowing Rosen's statement.

Hilary herself learned from Rush what not to do. She apologized quickly, sincerely and repeatedly. She put her ego aside, not easy for any of us in the business of politics, and recognized the best course of action for her party was not to add fuel to the fire by endlessly defending herself. She canceled a scheduled appearance on Meet the Press.

Political messaging has become an art form. It matters less if outrage is genuine or exaggerated and more that it is believable and contagious. Amid all the carefully contrived women frenzy, the substance of the issues can end up lost on the battlefield. Unfortunately, we haven't spent nearly as much time clearly articulating what the candidates are specifically proposing to improve women's lives as we have hurling accusations and making declarations of war.

In the not-too-distant future, political science classes will compare these two incidents as case studies in political crisis management 101. Humans make mistakes. In today's world, any gaffe can go viral in minutes and turn into a major issue. It's crucial to react immediately, express strongly worded disagreement and regret, and then recede in hopes it will die quickly in the ever-churning news cycle.

The other side should pounce on every opportunity to turn an unfortunate choice of words into an all-out war over a noble cause or demographic group and fan the flames of outrage and rebellion.

In the meantime, all of us engaged in punditry will be reciting the Analysts' Prayer: "Dear Lord, Please keep me from saying things I will regret, words I'd rather forget. Let me give views, not make news. If I fail, let me be wise and quickly apologize."

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ana Navarro.

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