US campaign diary: the O-team is playing at a different level to the Romney campaign

by Nikhil Dyundi

Want to see some smart politics?

On Friday, Jim Messina, Obama’s campaign manager wrote to his Romney counterpart, Matt Rhoades, with an offer:  a pledge not to pressure Romney to release more than five years of tax returns if the Republican nominee would disclose that much information.

Romney had previously stated that one of the reasons he was not releasing further returns is that Democrats will always call on him to put out more than he has (if he releases three years, they’ll want six, etc.)

Naturally, Romney refused. In the grand scheme of things it was a minor skirmish, but the thought process behind the Obama offer shows how Chicago are playing this game at a wholly different level to Romney’s team.

Turn the clock back to Thursday morning, and run through the O-team logic.

First, the audience: it sure as hell wasn’t Matt Rhoades and the Romney campaign. The main audience wasn’t even the voters. No, the primary target was the presidential media pack.

That reliable bell-whether of the conventional press wisdom, Politico, recently ran a piece on media whining about the tone of the race. Setting aside the short memories of these delicate reporters who seem to think the swift-boating of John Kerry to be a high point in campaign history, this type of background chatter provides the prism through which all reporting is projected.

Messina’s offer was designed to demonstrate bi-partisanship: a gentlemanly proposal raising the tone and seeming to give an opportunity to draw a line under the tax return issue.

For the grumbling press pack, the act of making the offer did two things: created a new campaign event about Romney’s returns to report and re-positioned the Obama campaign on the moral high ground.

The response to the offer, whatever it was going to be, would then open up new opportunities for the Obama campaign.

In the unlikely event Romney said yes, there would have been three immediate results: reams of new material for opposition research, another example of Romney demonstrating his inconsistency as a leader by flip flopping on the big issue, and, most importantly, agency for Obama .

The media and public would have been in no doubt that it was the Obama team that ran Mitt Romney to ground on taxes. Short of shooting Bin Laden again, it’s hard to think of a scenario which would better define the president as the alpha dog in this race.

On Friday, Romneyland responded with the expected, firm “no”. Yet this was still a useful win for Obama.

In their grizzling, the media had begun to show signs of Romney tax return fatigue. The Romney refusal to engage with the offer has given the story new impetus:  both in terms of the reporting of his continued rejection of openness on his tax affairs, but more importantly, in emphasising for reporters that the Republican nominee does in fact have something to hide.

The campaign news cycle is currently working through the Ryan back story – his votes, his positions on women and, of course, Medicare – but it will return to the principals, Obama and Romney, within days.

Jim Messina’s note to Matt Rhoades means that when the cycle turns full circle, Mitt Romney’s tax returns will be back, front and centre for the media. There will be less filtering comment on whether this is a debate worthy of a presidential campaign and the reporters will have a new question: Obama offered a deal, so what is there to hide in the last five years’ returns?

Smart politics indeed.

Nikhil Dyundi is a registered Democrat and a political consultant

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