The Curse of the Political Surrogate: When Silence Should Be Golden

BY Gwen Ifill  April 20, 2012 at 12:05 PM EDT

It took the 2012 presidential campaign to throw Democrat Hilary Rosen and conservative Ted Nugent into the same sentence.

Rosen made more of a splash last week than she ever did in 17 years at the powerful Recording Industry Association of America, including five years as chief executive officer.

And Nugent, revered mostly among those who know how to hum “Cat Scratch Fever,” was suddenly on the lips of every politico in Washington.

Both Rosen and Nugent committed the mortal sin of the surrogate. They stepped on – no, squashed — the principal’s message.

This happens more often, and more unintentionally, than one would think. Often the candidates do it to themselves.

In Rosen’s case, she was trying to discredit Mitt Romney on women’s issues by noting his statement that he relied on his wife for advice on gender matters. Then she overstepped, suggesting that because the popular Ann Romney had never “worked a day in her life,” she wouldn’t know of the struggles of most women.

It didn’t matter what she meant. The more Rosen tried to defend herself, the deeper her hole grew. By the time the president,first lady and bulk of the campaign senior management had tossed her under the bus, the damage was done.

Nugent’s offense was of a different order of magnitude, but also damaging.

Last week, Romney managed to visit the National Rifle Association convention and mention the Second Amendment and guns only once in a lengthy speech. Reporters in the room said the attendees were more resigned than enthusiastic about his putative nomination as GOP standard bearer. But when you are the last man standing, you win.

No sooner had Romney emerged unscathed from the conservatives’ cauldron of skepticism did Nugent, whose endorsement he had welcomed, let loose with a stream of invective against the Obama administration.

“We need to ride into that battlefield and chop their heads off in November,” he said, asserting that if Mr. Obama is re-elected he would be dead or in jail afterward. The Secret Service took note.

Message stepped on. Again.

These distractions are no small problem for office seekers who spend a tremendous amount of time, money and personal energy persuading voters that casting a vote for them is a good idea. But they can’t control what some supporters say or where they say it.

John McCain and Rick Santorum have both been introduced by endorsers who said things the candidates had to distance themselves from. President Obama spent months in 2008 explaining his relationship to his pastor, who appeared to say incendiary things from the pulpit. And then there’s Joe Biden, who oversteps so often that he’s begun to make fun of himself for it.

It is far more enlightening to see how candidates respond when these things happen. Do they renounce the endorser (see: Rosen, Hilary)? Do they impose distance by suggesting this is not something they would say? (see: Nugent, Ted)

The Rosen story gathered moss as it rolled downhill because of the force with which the Obama forces stiff-armed her. A glance at this week’s polls show why. The president is suddenly neck-and-neck with Romney with nearly seven months left to go. He can’t afford to lose mothers who vote and could have been offended by what Rosen said.

Romney’s response was milder because it could afford to be. He hasn’t won his party’s nomination yet. More importantly, polls show he has not yet been warmly embraced by many Republican voters. Best not to alienate anybody yet, even Nugent lovers.

Perhaps the supporters who are doing the most low-key damage to Romney at this point are the high-profile Republicans – House leaders John Boehner and Eric Cantor and Senate leader Mitch McConnell and governors like Indiana’s Mitch Daniels – who are endorsing Romney well after the fact. We’ll take them at their word that they didn’t want to weigh in until the nominee was decided.

Maybe that’s just as well. The way things are going lately, Messrs. Romney and Obama may each just prefer to speak for himself.

Gwen’s Take is cross-posted with the website of Washington Week, which airs Friday night on many PBS stations. Check your local listings.