When the late Geraldine Ferraro remarked in March of 2008 that Barack Obama’s meteoric popularity owed in part to his skin color, it immediately ignited two very different narratives.
To the outside world, it was a clear example of the diabolical Clinton machine putting a highly decorated supporter — and member of its campaign’s finance committee — up to deliver a nasty smear.
To those of us actually in the Clinton war room, it was a cringe-inducing slur authorized by no one — and uttered by a person with whom few if any of us had ever spoken, who’d been out of office for more than two decades, and whose position on the finance committee, whatever that was, was ceremonial and perfunctory at best.
This set of alternate realities was called to mind for me when Harry Reid leveled his now-famous charge, in a wide-ranging interview with The Huffington Post, that Mitt Romney did not pay taxes for ten years. Naturally, many have assumed this had to be planned and coordinated by the Obama campaign -- CNN’s Candy Crowley spent nearly the first five minutes of her interview with Obama advisor Robert Gibbs on Sunday pressing him on the question, and press secretary Jay Carney was grilled by reporters on the same topic yesterday.
Both men denied any coordination with Reid.
And while their claim may seem hard to believe, here’s why it’s not as far-fetched as you think:
1. Campaigns don’t want to cede control of their message to others. In a campaign, controlling your message is everything. If you contract your attack out to another official and their team, you are trusting them not only to level the charge, but to handle -- by themselves and without incident — the onslaught of follow-up national and local press that could last several days.
While someone like Harry Reid may have a top-notch staff full of battle-tested veterans, they have not spent the entire year living the zero-tolerance, minute-to-minute cycles of the presidential campaign, interfacing with the jaded traveling press, batting down rumors that come every minute, and sustaining a message for weeks in a blood-thirsty, Twitter-dominated media climate. Just as importantly, as skilled as they are, they are not in-house and therefore can’t confer with the candidate’s headquarters before every utterance – which leaves the campaign having to place its faith in others on a very delicate topic.
That’s not how campaigns usually like to operate.
2. High-profile supporters say what they please. Believe me when I tell you, it’s not easy to tell prominent elected officials and leaders what to say – even if you wanted to. High-profile surrogates not only have minds of their own, but most are accustomed to being the big dog in his or her respective universe, and treated as though they're always right. The result? Campaigns end up with freelancers, who think they’re being helpful, by simply saying what’s on their mind.
Ferraro wasn’t the only surrogate who caused agita for the Clinton campaign. History buffs and masochists may also recall unauthorized remarks from supporters like Senator Jeanne Shaheen’s husband, Billy and BET’s Robert Johnson that observers were convinced were sanctioned by the campaign, but were anything but.
Having dealt with the incessant calls from the New York tabloids when these beauties hit the fan, I can assure you that these “helpful” comments by supporters are often unwanted and unsolicited. Having to answer whether the comments were authorized, whether their utterers would still get to be a member of whatever perfunctory “steering group” they sat on, and whether the campaign agreed with them, were not good days for a war room already trying to control several moving parts.
If you still need convincing that elected officials are not used to taking orders and being told what to say, remember <"http://abcnews.go.com/WNT/video/cory-booker-disagrees-obama-private-equity-16399837">Cory Booker’s private equity loving remarks from a few months ago and, more topically, the recent string of Republicans pressing Romney to release his taxes. The bottom line? Many high-profile politicians simply say what’s on their mind, and ask questions…. never.
So, while you’d think it’d be common practice for prominent supporters to talk with the campaign before they speak about the race, trust me, it’s not.
3. The Obama campaign has been willing to “own” its sharpest attacks. The sole motivation in secretly asking a supporter to level an attack for you, is that the campaign can get the benefit of the hit but still appear to have its hands clean. But keep in mind, the Obama campaign has been more than willing to “own” — i.e., openly embrace — some pretty hard shots fired at its opponent.
Remember when it suggested that Romney was either a liar or a criminal based on how he characterized his tenure at Bain on SEC forms? Or the TV ads they’ve been running to the dulcet sounds of Romney singing “America the Beautiful” while regaling us with a chronicle of his off-shore accounts and outsourcing records? This campaign is not trepidacious in owning the attacks it does originate.
What’s more, the Reid critique don’t seem much rougher than the ones the campaign owned. Reid’s office told me that, unlike the SEC example, the majority leader was not accusing Romney of breaking the law. So why would the campaign feel compelled to falsely disown this particular charge, rather than embrace it? Keep in mind that were they to own it, they could maintain control of the message, rather than place their faith in the senator and his team.
All of this is not to say, of course, that Obama’s team minds one bit what the Senate Majority Leader is doing. In fact, I’m sure they’re thrilled with it.
But did they put him up to it? While only a small number of people know for sure, put it this way: When it comes to surrogate attacks, coordination is happening far less often than you’d think.
Blake Zeff, a former presidential campaign aide to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and former aide to Senator Chuck Schumer and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, is a BuzzFeed contributor. You can follow him on Twitter at @BlakeZeff.