I was struck by Marc Cooper's item yesterday on HuffPo about Mike Huckabee's press conference announcing his decision to withhold a negative Romney ad from the Iowa airwaves — and then proceeding to air the ad, in full, for the assembled press corps It's a move that Cooper called "bizarre" and he's not alone — so did the NYT, the AP, MSNBC's First Read, the American Prospect</a>, TPM, Marc Ambinder at the Atlantic, AOL's Political Machine and the Boston Herald, to name a few. Joe Klein called it a "Huckabust" and wondered if it was a campaign explosion; TAP wondered if this was where Huckabee "tanked."
I can't help wondering if it was a masterstroke.
First and before anything else, let's discuss the pickup. By all accounts, the room was packed for Huckabee's presser, with "a gazillion cameras, nearly a hundred reporters, certainly more than Huckabee has ever seen in one place in his life," according to Joe Klein, all there to witness a little bit of political theater — and then go off and write about the performance. At minimum, as an exercise in monopolizing resources and getting airtime and column inches, it was pretty successful; whatever was written about Huckabee on this, other stuff — about other candidates — was not.
Substantively, though, it served as a narrative-changer, taking the focus away from the substance of Romney's negative ads and emphasizing Huckabee's reluctance to engage in mudslinging and taking of the putative high road, a stance he's already established for himself in previous ads (like this one: "If you love this country, you've got to be thinking, enough is enough"). It picks up the meme established in his infamous 'floating cross' Christmas ad: That all this politics hoo-ha is just noise to real Americans with real concerns — concerns that he, Huckabee, shares.
Of course the press is going to be cynical. So? That hasn't stopped anyone from writing about it. Let's get back to the floating cross ad — were the press not cynical about that? The consensus seemed to be that the way the bookshelf was lit, the slow pan of the camera, the coincidence of that particular symbol for this particular candidate — all seemed to indicated deliberate intentions — despite Huckabee's protestations to the contrary. Did it stop the spot from being played? Nope. If anything, it fueled it. Well, same here. Per Cooper:
When asked if it was cynical to show an ad to dozens of TV cameras while saying the campaign had banned it from the air, Huckabee pleaded innocent of ill-motive. "If people want to be cynical about it, they'll be cynical about it," Huckabee said.
As long as they spell your name right! And they are — whether or not they're cynical about this road-to-Damascus conversion a day after slamming Romney as "dishonest" on Meet The Press. But again, who cares? Huckabee has his position, and, like the floating cross, he'll stick to it. Huckabee doesn't need the press to believe him, all he needs is for them to pick up the story, and his statement. Just like the floating cross.
A side bonus: Huckabee isn't running the ad, which means he isn't paying for it. Does he need to save money that much? Who knows? It gives him a chance to play up who is spending money: Mitt Romney. He wants to be able to say, "Romney's outspending me 20 to 1." That's a huge number — do Iowans want their votes bought? All of these are Huckabee-helping memes to get out there, quietly underlying the suggestion that Romney isn't a real Conservative, just a smooth pretty boy with deep pockets and connections, unlike he, Huckabee, victim of attack ads by "opponents and Washington special interest groups."
I can't help thinking that Huckabee and his team saw the floating cross ad response and thought, great! How can re replicate this? Huge media pickup, of the ad and of Huckabee's statement about the ad. Ask Huckabee about this on cable, Chris Matthews, and he'll be only too happy to tell you about how weary real Americans are of consultants and their negative ads! How he's turning the other cheek on Romney, so desperate that he needed to rush a few millions more into ads to counter Huckabee's natural swelling popularity! The media can laugh at Huckabee all they want, and feel smug that they can see through such a transparent ploy. But after a day of blanket coverage, I can't help thinking that it just might be Huckabee who has the last laugh.
Huckabee Melting: Attacks Negative Campaigning With Negative Ad [HuffPo]
Huckabee shows Romney attack ad to press [Politico]
Video: Huckabee Ad (see still above) [TPM]
*Or, who knows what the deal is, he actually probably is paying for something, depending on if he did in fact book off the time for that spot, and when, and if they can sub something else in, etc. etc. The point is, for the purposes of claiming small-budget-big-appeal, he's seen to not be paying for it.