The Umbrage Wars

The four kinds of campaign controversies, and which ones actually matter.

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and his wife Ann Romney.

Mitt Romney and his wife Ann Romney, who was described by Hilary Rosen as not having “worked a day in her life”

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images.

Wednesday was a big day for political umbrage taking. It started with a conference call hosted by Mitt Romney’s campaign in which his advisers were unable to give an immediate answer to the candidate’s position on the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. The Obama campaign issued a statement from Ms. Ledbetter saying she was “shocked and disappointed.” (A couple of hours after the Romney campaign was struck mute, it issued a release saying President Romney wouldn’t seek to repeal the law.) Then, just before bedtime, Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen took umbrage at the fact that Ann Romney was being used by her husband as an ambassador to middle class women, saying that Ann Romney had “never worked a day in her life.” This caused @AnnDRomney to take umbrage on Twitter. “I made a choice to stay home and raise five boys. Believe me, it was hard work,” she said, in her first post ever. Then, Obama’s top aides Jim Messina and David Axelrod took to Twitter to take umbrage at Rosen’s remarks. All of that seemed like an umbrage too far but it was just a prelude to another round of public fainting and chest-clutching Thursday. 

Umbrage taking is not new in politics. Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton and Preston Brooks caned Charles Sumner on the floor of the Senate. When a critic gave Harry Truman’s daughter a bad review, he threatened to punch him in the nose. Last campaign, umbrage became a standard part of the news cycle. Now the bar for umbrage-taking has dropped and the outrage is constant. (This conclusion will no doubt offend some of you. I am both offended and apologize for that.)

We now have ongoing umbrage fests we call “wars”: the “war on women,” the “war on religion,” the “war on moms.” There is an old rule in politics that dates back to Roman times: Democracies in the middle of multiple real wars cannot continue to manufacture fake wars about things that aren’t wars and hope to survive. What makes these fake fights burn like a summer rash is they look like real debates about real issues, but they aren’t, which is ultimately deflating. It’s like getting one of those “You Have Won” sweepstakes mailings three times a day.

So for the busy voter, I propose a system that allows us to quickly categorize these flashpoint moments in campaigns: the secret conversations overheard, the admissions accidentally given or the controversies stirred up for some other reason. These categories may help you determine what’s worth paying attention to and what you can blow off.

Frivolous and unimportant: This category is for the political junkie only. It’s anything that gets a lot of coverage, but doesn’t change the campaign or have a chance to. The best historical example of this is when John McCain’s campaign took umbrage when Barack Obama used the term “lipstick on a pig.” McCain surrogates on a hastily-arranged conference call claimed it was a sexist dig at Sarah Palin.

The most recent example is when Romney’s top staffer Eric Fehrnstrom referred to an Etch-a-Sketch when talking about the general election. Romney’s opponents said the staffer was telegraphing that Romney would try to shift every position he’d taken in the primary in his race against Obama. That wasn’t what he was saying. He was talking about an entirely familiar campaign phenomenon: that voters take a new look at candidates in the general election.

Did Fehrnstrom’s comment mint a perfect metaphor for Mitt Romney’s existing problems with constancy? Yes, but those issues were already well known. That’s fun for Romney’s rivals and part of the theater of politics, but it’s not going to change the campaign fundamentally.

Frivolous and noteworthy: This category is for those that are not going to change the outcome of the race and aren’t about any actual underlying issues that affect the way people live their lives, but that participants in the race take seriously. I’ve assigned the Hilary Rosen business to this category. 

The Etch-a-Sketch controversy was entirely a confection of the press on a slow news day. In this instance though, the Obama campaign reacted before the press could even flip the switch on the phony-story Wurlitzer. Two top advisers responded immediately to the perceived slight against stay-at-home mothers. Then Michelle Obama sent a Tweet. DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz did too. By the end of the day the president had weighed in. “There’s no tougher job than being a mom,” he said. “Anybody who would argue otherwise, I think, probably needs to rethink their statement.” He also said spouses should be off limits in campaign spats.

That much activity by people at that level in such a short period of time about the comments of a person who doesn’t even work for the campaign means something is going on. This is a sign of how nervous the Obama team is about women voters. The president is 19 points ahead of Romney with women voters and he’s acting like he can’t afford to let that slip to 18.5.

Also, since one of Mitt Romney’s central claims is that President Obama is trying to manufacture fake controversies about women for political advantage (about which he is correct) it’s worth noting when Romney goes to such lengths to benefit by doing the exact same thing. (The full breadth of the gimmickry was on display on a wacky campaign conference call.)

This flap also marks two milestones in the campaign: the arrival of Ann Romney as a player on offense and not simply a supportive spouse. And it solidifies the role Twitter will play in the daily cut-and-thrust of politics. We can lament this development and we can make fun of it, but we should also take note of it.

Serious but unimportant: The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act is a serious piece of legislation whether you’re for or against it. The issue of pay equity and discrimination and how a government remedies those problems is also serious. Mitt Romney says he’s not going to touch the Ledbetter Act, so the Obama team’s effort to score points—through dozens of emails and a YouTube video—can largely be ignored. That the Romney campaign was caught off guard may be amusing to some but it’s a distraction. If people want to press Romney on public policy that affects women, there’s plenty to argue over in the Paul Ryan budget that Romney supports

Serious and noteworthy: Moments in this category may not change the outcome of the election but they touch on enduring serious issues. A recent example was president Obama’s assurance to former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev that he would have “more flexibility” after the election. On the one hand, he was telling a truth—that domestic politics constrains him as it does all presidents in an election year. On the other hand, people should be worried about exactly what he’s going to be more flexible about and why he’s being more candid with a rival than the people that elect him. For a candidate who spoke so much about transparency and whose campaign relentlessly hits Mitt Romney for hiding his true core, this was also a politically important moment.