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Timing Is (Almost) Everything: Bain Capital, Open Marriages and Why There's No Such Thing as a "January Surprise"

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No political candidate wants their past sins exposed. Who wants your financial or sexual gaffes (which is really too weak a word) to be headline news?

But, the old line "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger" applies here. A terrible incident (especially more than one) can kill you, of course. Herman Cain is the most recent example of the exposure being too strong.

It's the "stronger" part that doesn't get enough attention. There is a little recognized upside to these revelations. Once they are a matter of public record, the American public becomes inured to them. On Hardball, Chris Matthews may yell (redundant?) "Don't people have memories?" referring to today's events affecting the general election. Well, Chris, you can remember something, but just not care anymore.

While serving as President, Ronald Reagan was lazy? Had memory problems? Took daily naps when someone younger would have been working? Made no difference! The American people knew these things when they elected him.

Bill Clinton had an affair with Gennifer Flowers? He propositioned (also too weak a word) Paula Jones. Guess what? This saved him when Monica Lewinsky gave Clinton headlines. We knew he was a womanizer when we elected him.

There is a case to be made that a political candidate wants all of his weaknesses exposed as early as possible -- again, as long as those weaknesses won't defeat him. And it's pretty clear that Bain won't keep Romney from being the Republican nominee for president.

But isn't the Obama reelection team just salivating to take the Bain issue and run with it? Well, they shouldn't be. Timing is everything.

The 2004 John Kerry campaign best exemplifies this. The Swift Boat Veterans against Kerry hit the airwaves with their negative ads just after the Democratic Convention. It was perfect timing. Kerry went from leading President George W. Bush to trailing him -- and never caught up.

Would the ads have had the same impact in the general election if they had played in January of that year? Doubtful. Would they have prevented Kerry from getting the nomination. Doubtful again. (And then they would have been old news by August.)

This reflects the nature of any contest -- that there is a time limit, the "final gun." In the case of politics, campaigns end when people vote. Thus, each side always worries about an "October Surprise," fearing that there would not be the opportunity to change last minute impressions. Again... timing.

Now, how these attacks are handled is not irrelevant, of course. The best strategy for dealing with sexual affairs is for your wife to defend you. It's the major reason that Bill Clinton became president and David Vitter is still a Senator from Louisiana but neither Governor Eliot Spitzer nor Representative Anthony Weiner still represent New Yorkers. (We can't test whether a husband defending his wife would be equally effective as we have no such examples.)

Another effective defense is "conversion." Newt Gingrich hasn't made the most of this, but perhaps he will now that his 2nd wife is talking. Open marriage? Conversion can give you a "clean slate." It also reenforces your image with your new community of believers. (And this isn't limited to religious conversion. Reagan used his political conversion from liberal Democrat to conservative Republican very effectively to bond with his new party while still being able to speak to disaffected Democrats.)

President Obama still has an opportunity -- if his staff can come up with a new angle on the Bain story. Bain is alleged to have received federal government bailouts, perhaps on more than one occasion. If so, there is an opening to play up this angle -- if it doesn't get too exposed in the near future.

And then there are Romney's tax returns. Any doubt that there must be something politically "inconvenient" there? We're just finding out about his shelters in the Cayman Islands -- one of the worst tax avoidance ploys. Will it "kill" his candidacy? Or is it helpful to get it out early?

But as for his 2011 return, Romney is now saying that he'll release it in April. For Romney is well aware: There's no such thing as an "April Surprise," either.