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After Washington Senate candidate Mike McGavick’s multi-headed mea culpa, we heard from a veteran politics watcher and participant (not a Washingtonian) who compared it to a TV news “pledge to be fair, objective and accurate. The assumption has to be that others aren’t. His point must be that there are others in politics who are phony, uncivil and secretive. Hard to believe.”

McGavick’s explicit point was that he’d erred and seen the light. His implicit point was both that he’s better than that now, and that he’s on a higher moral plane than those who do not similarly throw open their pasts.

McGavick at once acknowledged four events in his history of which he said he was sorry: three relating to a failed marriage, a campaign mistake and a failure as a SafeCoCEO which already were more or less public knowledge, and a fourth relating to a DUI which hadn’t emerged. What McGavick did was more complex than the acknowledgement of a single past mistake. He seemed to be saying that these are the things I have done – and now we can close this subject of my personal failings and move on.

For this narrative of redemption to work on a political level, it has to appear clean and total. It cannot be a selective confession, but has to be absolute, witholding nothing; and it has to have marked a clean break with the past, so that the character flaws can be seen as being of the past and not of the present.

He may not have appreciated how high a bar he set for himself.

The DUI has become for him a bigger problem area than it might originally have seemed. On its face, that incident, 13 years old and absent any evidence of repeat offenses, would seem to be a “it’s out there and now it’s over” kind of thing – since the candidate is hardly the only person out there guilty of similar behavior. A DUI, acknowledged as a mistake, can be forgiven, and is no disqualifier from office. But that presumes McGavick came entirely clean about the incident when he first reported it. He mostly did, noting for example the .17 blood alcohol level. But he left out some telling details.

He could have avoided the subsequent headlines had he himself collected and released the Maryland police report on his stop. Instead, by effectively challenging reporters to track it down, he guaranteed more headlines. Which haven’t been pretty: The stories contradict a number of the details of the story McGavick originally told. Not the larger contours, to be sure. But enough details to allow for the argument that the candidate wasn’t being entirely forthcoming.

McGavick has a different type of problem, potentially more complex, as followup from his acknowledgement that, years ago as a campaign manager, he had his campaign use and go on using in advertising damaging information about an opponent he knew was false.

His opposition now would have be idiots not to shine a laser on every statement McGavick makes about his opponent, Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell. And they have. McGavick has been running spots about Cantwell suggesting that she has worked against federal legislation allowing federal income tax deducations of Washington sales tax payments: “Maria Cantwell voted with her party, against our deduction and against our families.”

He hangs his hat on a Cantwell vote against a bill which did contain those deductions. But as the Seattle Times noted in an editorial headlined “Pull the ad, Mike,” Cantwell has in fact been a persistent advocate of the sales tax deduction. It spells out: “Problem is, Democrat Cantwell might as well be known as Sen. Sales Tax Deductibility. Both she and Rep. Brian Baird, D-Vancouver, have been leaders, in their respective houses of Congress, on the issue of first restoring, then keeping, the right of residents in Washington and seven other states to deduct their state sales tax from the federal tax bill. For the 18 years previous, only state income tax could be deducted. In 2004, Congress restored the sales tax deduction, which means an average of $550 for a family — but only for two years. Cantwell was co-author of the bill. In February, Cantwell sponsored a bill to make the deduction permanent. It passed the Senate 75-25, and is before the House.”

Now holes have been shot in the two things McGavick must have been hoping to gain from his confessions: A name for candor and a sense that he’s better than that now. The standards McGavick set for himself were almost unattainably high for most of us; but if you’re going to try, better to do everything you can to meet them than to be caught falling short. That way lies trouble, as McGavick is finding out.

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