Both President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney have been damaged by friendly fire within their organizations. The medical profession observes the Hippocratic Oath, which admonishes practitioners to "do no harm." It would be wise for political staffers to follow the same maxim.
One who didn't recently is Bill Burton, senior advisor with the super PAC Priorities USA Action and previously deputy press secretary in the Obama White House. The organization's recent "Understands" video seems to blame Romney for a woman dying of cancer. Burton's friendly fire resulted from the most common pitfall for political staffers: the overreach. The overreach results when staff tries to embellish a story just a little bit too much, so that what would have been a solid point of contrast turns back against the candidate as a crass, unsubstantiated, personal attack.
In the end, attacks that reach beyond what is supported by facts tend to hurt the attacker more than the attacked. My opponent in my first reelection fell prey to this temptation, allowing me to win by 22 points in a district President George W. Bush won by five points, even though she outspent me two to one on television. When the political calculus of this campaign is finally tallied, it will be clear that the "Romney Killed My Wife" advertisement will be a liability to Obama.
There is no doubt that Burton's ineptitude put Obama campaign staffers in an uncomfortable position, but the team compounded the bad situation with its attempts to deny any connection to the ad.
Campaign staffers ignored two essential rules of campaigning:
1. When in a hole, stop digging.
2. It isn't the offense that sinks you; it is the attempt to cover it up.
Multiple Obama campaign staffers (Stephanie Cutter and Robert Gibbs) and a White House staffer (Jen Psaki) made initial statements from which they have had to retreat.
They all were overreaching in their denials. By doing so, they prolonged a negative story about their campaign instead of nipping it in the bud.
Let us now turn our attention to friendly fire in the Romney campaign. Faced with such an outrageous attack, a political staffer should have seen this as a softball right up the middle and hit it out of the park by emphasizing how loose with the facts the opponent had become. This also was an ideal opportunity to emphasize that this attack was a desperate attempt by the Obama campaign to talk about anything other than the economy. When Romney's press secretary Andrea Saul stated that had the ad's victim resided in Massachusetts, she would have had health-care coverage, the
Romney campaign suffered on several fronts.
• The response lacked discipline: It strayed from an emphasis on the economic contrast, which is the most opportune path to a Romney victory.
• The response reduced the point of contrast between Obama and Romney
on health care, compounding Eric Fehrnstrom's "it's a penalty" gaffe immediately after the Supreme Court health-care law decision.
• The response infuriated Romney's conservative base, again compounding the damage from Fehrnstrom's statement.
Sports fans enjoy seeing two well-trained teams battle it out for the championship. Close contests make events even more interesting for sports enthusiasts. For those of us who are political enthusiasts, the tightness of the presidential campaign should make for a highly engaging contest. Unfortunately, third-quarter fumbles and missed interceptions are making this painful to watch for both sides. Obama and Romney need to demand better performance from their starters -- and perhaps make a substitution or two -- as the all-important fourth quarter begins with the conventions.
Mark R. Kennedy leads George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management and is Chairman of the Economic Club of Minnesota. He previously served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and was Senior Vice President and Treasurer of Federated Department Stores (now Macy's).