As The Huffington Post's Howard Fineman wrote Friday, Mitt Romney has not been playing the political media game very well, turning what might have been a "two-day mini-story" about his Bain Capital past into "a major three-week distraction."
Fineman runs down all of the myriad ways Romney has misplayed his hand. But the biggest mistake of all has been Romney's various requests for retractions. All that has done is ensure that more people will go and read the stories that Romney doesn't want read, and that those stories will, in turn, continue to get discussed and, perhaps more importantly, be investigated.
There's almost nothing dumber you can do in politics than jump up and down waving a flag while yelling, "Hey, everybody! This is the vulnerable stuff that I am really worried about! Right here!" But that's what Romney has spent a lot of time doing. So it's hardly surprising that the Boston Globe went and discovered documentation that proved Romney "remained chief executive and chairman of the firm three years beyond the date he said he ceded control" and created "five new investment partnerships during that time." Romney practically begged them to do so. Anyone remember what happened when Gary Hart invited the press to "Follow me around"? (They followed him around.)
It's clear, however, that the Romney campaign has realized they've played this the wrong way, because they have happened upon a very good solution to their problem. Last night, the Drudge Report reported that the Romney camp had Condoleezza Rice atop their shortlist for possible vice-presidential picks.
This would be a smart move. If you have a bunch of political reporters riding your ass, the worst thing you can do is try to engage them. It's always much better to pull out your laser pointer, shine it in another direction, and tell the political media, "Look at the shiny light, guys! Betcha can't catch it!" Because they will definitely run over to the bouncing light and try to paw it.
Both Politico and The Hill are going all-in on Condi Rice coverage. Unbelievable.
— Travis Waldron (@Travis_Waldron) July 13, 2012
And when it comes to riling up the cathouse, there's almost nothing better than vice-presidential speculation. It is always a very hot topic between the time a presidential nominee emerges from the primary pack and the eventual naming of the running mate, usually closer to the nominee's convention coronation. While the eventual running mate will be judged in terms of fitness for office and the benefits that he or she brings to the nominee's ticket, it is during the period before that decision is made when the presidential nominee can take the most advantage.
After all, the benefit a vice-presidential pick brings to the ticket is nothing compared to the potential benefit that many people who won't be the vice president could bring to the ticket.
Consequently, it's always good for the nominee to drag the process out. Christmas is always awesome until you open the box of socks.
And the media's obsession with the "Veepstakes" -- interesting that the suffix "-stakes" is even attached -- is pretty easy to understand. After all, it's a puzzle they can pretend to try to solve for weeks and weeks, and a puddle of high-proof speculation they can splash around in.
Additionally, there's nothing the pundit class loves to do more than play their game of round-table one-upmanship. They'll make the basic, safe predictions (Rob Portman, Tim Pawlenty), but they'll lean pretty heavily on their more "left-field" picks (like Condi Rice!) because they'll want to appear savvy and thoughtful, and because they're not going to lose any credibility for being wrong. (Speaking of which, Bill Kristol has responded to the Rice rumors by suggesting that Obama might "counter by selecting Hillary" Or ... not! That's how this game works.)
Now, there's very little chance that Rice actually becomes Romney's running mate. She has never indicated any desire to serve in that capacity. The American Conservative's Daniel Larison can explain the parade of negatives she would bring to Romney's ticket in richer detail than I can.
But suffice it to say that if the guy who wouldn't let Richard Grenell serve on Romney's team of advisors, director of issues analysis for the American Family Association Bryan Fischer, is saying "over our dead bodies" to the prospect of Rice on the ticket, then this is a non-starter.
But there's nevertheless tremendous benefit to floating the idea around. This gets the media yapping about Rice's plusses and minuses, and how Joe Biden would cope with her in a debate. It'll also maybe get them talking about how it alters the reckoning of African-American voters. These alone are topics the pundit class can dine out on through the weekend -- the Sunday morning chit-chat ratio between Romney's Bain problems and his vice presidential pick has now swung in a favorable direction, as far as Romney is concerned.
If there's any problem with Romney's game plan here, it's that he didn't think big enough. Rice is nice, but you know what would have set the media on fire? A rumor that Romney was vetting Sarah Palin.
At first blush that sounds quite stupid, given Palin's reputation among many of the more televised and chattering conservative talkers. No, Palin doesn't have a great reputation among Sunday morning conservatives. Yes, they would probably criticize Romney for floating the idea. But conservatives are already filleting Romney over his bungled response to Team Obama's "Re-Elect Bain" criticism. Given the choice, I'd rather have conservative pundits bitching about something I have no intention of actually doing -- picking Palin as V.P. -- then have them remind everyone about my actual vulnerabilities.
And the whole point of floating a juicy rumor isn't to actually fulfill it -- it's to manufacture a distraction. While the first stage of the "Palin as Veep" distraction would be "Romney must be crazy," the smart politician knows that if you just let the media breathe a little bit, they eventually come around to the "counter-intuitive take," in which they exhaust their intellectual ability trying to spin sense from something stupid.
So Romney missed the chance to rack up some extra points. Nevertheless, floating the Condi Rice rumor was a terrifically smart move on Romney's part because many in the political media are basically easily-to-manipulate twits with teensy cat-like brains and terrible control of their dumbest impulses.
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