Last night, CNN teed off on the Obama SuperPAC's appalling new 'cancer' ad. Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki plastered on a smile and declined to condemn it. This morning, the panel on MSNBC's Morning Joe ganged up on Obama adviser and former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, who similarly resisted saying a single negative thing about the spot. He tried the "we didn't make it," excuse, then transitioned into diversionary tactics. To their credit, the rest of the panel wouldn't let him off the hook, even as he desperately wriggled and dissembled. Nine full minutes of glorious agony:
Clearly, no one on set was prepared to defend Romney's welfare ad, which oversteps slightly but highlights a genuine policy difference rooted in truth. Gibbs' attempt to construct an equivalency between the two ads is laughed off, and rightly so. Even if the welfare ad were entirely factually false (it's not -- read my post and this ABC News fact check), both sides are taking liberties with policy attacks. The SuperPAC ad goes hyper-personal and smears Romney by linking him to the death of a woman with cancer -- with no basis in fact. Romney was pressured to repudiate a hypothetical SuperPAC ad in May. Here, Gibbs goes the full sleaze to avoid condemning a real ad put out by a group run by his own former White House deputy. Gibbs' tone fluctuates between snarky and intentionally obtuse throughout the segment, as he's pilloried by foes and allies alike (props to Sam Stein and Mark Halperin). After the direct inquisition was over, the panel returned to the topic and uniformly denounced the ad, calling it "desperate," "nasty," "outrageous," and "way over the line." Halperin asserts that the ad is "as low as either side has gone." You think?
I want to circle back to Gibbs' clumsy tap dance, which was remarkably similar to Psaki's avoidance scheme on CNN. This is not a coincidence. It is plainly obvious that the Obama campaign has settled on a concerted strategy to give its SuperPAC unwavering cover. No matter how intense the press challenges become, and no matter how indefensible the ad may be, Obama surrogates are forbidden from undermining the SuperPAC's efforts. End of story. This is how campaigns work; surrogates are sometimes given a wide berth so long as they stick to key themes and advance campaign messaging. In other circumstances, very strict directives are issued. For instance, recall this memorable segment from the 2008 campaign when McCain surrogate Michael Goldfarb couldn't invoke Jeremiah Wright's name during a contentious interview, per orders from the very top:
Gibbs and Psaki appear to be in a parallel position today. The Obama campaign has likely decreed that there will be absolutely no daylight between themselves and their SuperPAC -- even as they repeat the "no coordination" line ad nauseam. So forced grins and unresponsive answers will continue to rule the day. I ran this theory past a senior Romney campaign adviser, who shares may view of how this is playing out. "They have determined that no matter what anyone says, they will not apologize. I'm aware of the technical legal issues, but they know what's going on here. They have the power to stop it, but they won't," he said.
UPDATE - While we're on the subject of baseless smear-jobs, the Washington Post blitzes Harry Reid's "Romney's a tax cheat" rumor mongering in a house editorial today:
If the senator has any proof, he owes it to Mr. Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, to put it on the record, now. Otherwise, Mr. Reid ought to pause and reflect on the record of another senator who once claimed to have a list of Communists and spies at the State Department — and could not substantiate it. Mr. Reid’s smear tactics are not unlike those of Joseph McCarthy and deserve equal condemnation. Even in the attenuated and superficial climate of today’s politics, Mr. Reid’s drive-by tactics repel. If he feels so strongly about disclosure, why hasn’t Mr. Reid made public his own tax returns? No need, he says, the Senate financial disclosure is sufficient.