If you’ve ever gotten caught up in watching one of those 1940s spy movies on cable television, you’re familiar with the scene in which the two agents meet in a seedy hotel room in the dark of night to exchange secrets and, when one of them starts to talk, the other warns: “Sssh, even the walls have ears.”
In today’s political campaign environment, not only do the walls have ears, but they possess video ready cell phones or miniature tape recorders poised to capture a candidate who, thinking he’s mingling with a friendly crowd, unburdens himself with off the cuff insights into sensitive or emotionally-charged issues.
Mitt Romney’s observation offered this week to an audience of donors that 47 percent of Americans don’t pay Federal income taxes and believe the government owes them food, clothing and shelter is but the latest example of unguarded rhetoric that erupts into a major campaign headache.
In 2008, then candidate Sen. Obama expressed his view -- again to a group of contributors -- that people angry with government seek refuge in guns, religion and anti-immigrant beliefs, suggesting that they are intellectually incapable of dealing with complex issues.
Obama survived that blow-up and it’s likely Romney will be able to douse the fire he ignited with his comments and move on to safer ground by reminding Americans that, by nearly all measures, the economy remains dismal, the country’s future is equally dismal, it’s all the President’s fault, and he’s just the guy who can fix it.
Just as it did to Obama four years ago, though, Romney’s campaign was knocked off stride and off message, forced to spend a precious few dwindling days dealing with another distraction and fending off the President’s campaign allegations that Romney, with his privileged background and life experience, proved yet again he’s out of touch with the realities of life for many Americans.
The episode, however, should serve as additional evidence that there is no longer any place to hide, that there is no refuge or escape from high technology intrusion into what once was considered safe territory where a candidate could relax and where stream of consciousness thinking didn’t get beyond the walls.
It should remind candidates and campaign staffs alike that there is someone -- or more than one someone -- in the room who understands that there is profit to be had in capturing potentially embarrassing video or audio of a candidate and peddling the material to the highest bidder.
Whether the magazine Mother Jones which published and posted Romney’s comments on line paid for the tapes isn’t clear, but its liberal bent made it an obvious choice to receive the leak. There was certainly no journalistic enterprise involved, no dogged reportorial labor to unearth the information.
Unguarded comments are, of course, nothing particularly new in political campaigns, but the entire landscape has been forever altered by the instant and global reach of social media and internet communication.
For instance, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s confrontation with a heckler on a seaside boardwalk this summer became an immediate Internet must-see. Such episodes are not confined to politicians, either. The chief of coverage of the Republican convention in August for Yahoo! was fired after he was caught on an open microphone saying that Romney was happily partying while black people were drowning in floods produced by Hurricane Isaac. But for his words zipping around the nation and being heard by millions, he may have survived.
In the past, if a candidate stumbled, uttered smarmy comments, or misstated facts, his gaffe was reported in print and usually overtaken by other events in a day or two. Now, the blunders are up on YouTube forever, in the twitter universe for eternity, and filed within easy reach on Google.
It is increasingly difficult for a candidate or campaign to cast doubt on allegations of unbecoming conduct by claiming comments were taken out of context, distorted, or deliberately misrepresented. When the image is on screen and the words clearly audible on tape, the odds of offering a credible rebuttal are nil.
Perhaps Romney’s description of an entitlement society or Obama’s guns and religion complaint offer a glimpse into their thinking, but they are just as likely to have been the product of the frustration, fatigue and tension which settle over campaigns.
No matter, even the walls have ears.
Carl Golden is a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.