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John Armstrong's opinion: Todd Muller needs to learn that the impression he gives matters

A stunned mullet? Or just a stunned Muller? Or both? Take your pick.

Todd Muller. Source: 1 NEWS

Todd Muller’s first week in National’s hot seat was certainly memorable - but not for reasons he would have wished.

His performance veered between him one moment exuding a calm authority of someone in control of events, only the next to give every impression of a fish very much out of water.

In the latter category was what might be termed as the “MAGA Saga”. 

The last time we checked the country’s law books, it was not an offence to have a Donald Trump-souvenir “Make America Great Again” cap in your possession.

Given the furore which erupted when it was discovered Muller had just such an artefact on display in his parliamentary office, it might have been better for him were such political paraphernalia banned.

That way he might have avoided feeling obliged to offer an explanation as to why the offending item had been given such prominence.

As one former White House adviser to a previous president famously observed, “explaining is losing”. 

In endeavouring to explain why such an accessory retained a pride of place in his collection of political souvenirs, Muller was definitely on the losing side of the argument.

Sure, many, if not most, people will have given him the benefit of the doubt; that his retaining of the cap which he had picked up at the Republican Party Convention some four years ago is a fuss about nothing. 

For others of a more extreme mind, the cap is objectionable for being equivalent to Nazi memorabilia.

The accusation that the cap is somehow representative of Muller’s views and opinions is ludicrous.

Nevertheless, in this instance, female voters will especially take a dim view of Muller, if not for flaunting something which cannot help but carry such sexist and misogynistic overtones given the track record of its wearer, then having the offending article on display.

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It started with a diversity faux pas and ended with his first policy announcement. Source: 1 NEWS

If Muller is guilty of anything, it is naivety. As far as the overwhelming majority of voters are concerned, he is still a relative unknown. He is a blank canvas upon which they will draw their impression of him.

The cap is one of the ingredients that voters will feed into creating that impression.

Moreover, National’s opponents will do their level best to cement that negative impression into voters’ minds.

At a time when jobs are being sucked out of the economy at the rate of more than a thousand each day according to official figures, such fixation with a baseball cap would seem to give a whole new meaning to the word “trivial”.

It does until you place the episode in an electoral context. One of John Key’s singular achievements during his decade-long stint as National’s leader was to extend his party’s reach across the centre-ground of New Zealand’s political landscape and, in particular, attract women voters to back his party.

With Jacinda Ardern now ruling triumphant, that has all changed — and to National’s obvious disadvantage.

The lesson Muller needs to take from this experience is that it is all too easy for him to create the wrong impression of himself. 

That point was reinforced by last Tuesday’s comedy of errors in the aftermath of Muller’s reshuffle of shadow portfolios and caucus rankings. 

That fiasco - including Nikki Kaye’s clumsy attempt to play down the shambles - suggested that National’s new leader and his deputy have yet to set in place the mechanisms to forewarn them of things which might cause them trouble along with policies which might have unwanted repercussions.

And, moreover, early on in proceedings.

It all also brings to mind the old, but still pertinent, adage that asks how can you expect voters to have confidence in your competence to run the country when there are questions about your competence in running your own political party.

Above all, however, National simply cannot afford to fall victim to self-inflicted distractions which block and blot out the the messages it is trying to convey to voters.

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“It’s a little bit like having your mouth over a fire hydrant,” the new Opposition leader said. Source: 1 NEWS

With little more than three months left until advance voting opens for September’s general election, National just does not have the luxury of time that it can afford to waste.

As for the offending baseball cap, it has not been consigned to the dumper. That might have left Muller vulnerable to the accusation from the other side of the argument that he was too willing to buckle to the forces of political correctness.

Either Muller or someone on his staff came up with the ingenious solution of packing the cap in one of the cardboard boxes that are provided to MPs shifting into new offices in the parliamentary complex. And therein it will stay if not quite yet out of mind, then at least out of sight.