Soon after Obama For America opened its campaign headquarters at One Prudential Plaza in Chicago in the spring of 2011, journalists from most major news outlets were invited in to look around. What they saw was a (mostly) empty sixth floor office space; what they heard was more important — a hint at how the campaign planned to attack the man they’d eventually have as an opponent, Governor Mitt Romney.
“Last year, at tax time, we were having conversations with reporters — ‘When are you going to ask him if he’s going to release his tax returns?’” recalls a senior campaign official in Chicago. “It took a sustained amount of conversation and continuous sort of drumbeat of ‘You gotta ask him what’s in there, you gotta ask him what’s in there.’
The media — and members of the political class — finally did. Romney spent the evening of Friday, July 13th, doing hastily-scheduled interviews with all five networks, answering questions about his tax returns and the timeline of his work at Bain Capital.
Obama officials, watching TV at headquarters, claimed a temporary victory.
“What we were doing [that night] was analyzing his responses,” said an Obama staffer about Romney’s prime-time splash.”And he gave a response on CBS that would be totally incomprehensible to most Americans.” Within minutes of the interviews airing, the Obama campaign issued a gleefully-subject-lined statement: “Ah, That Clears Things Up,” quoting Romney as saying, in part: “I was the owner of an entity which was a management entity…that entity was one which I had ownership of…”
Worse for the Romney camp, the interviews did little to kill the story. His team was likely hoping the press blitz would produce some catchy, persuasive talking points that allies could use to push back against demands for more financial transparency on Romney’s part, or help him come across as a forthright man hounded unfairly by underhanded opponents and a gotcha-obsessed media. Far from it: the number of Republicans and Democrats alike calling on Romney to release his tax returns only increased throughout the next week.
The Friday night spectacle was not an accident, but the result of the deliberate effort of a campaign whose obvious goal has become to turn Mitt Romney’s entire career in business into a toxic liability. It’s the culmination of about $100 million of ad buys (the majority negative), negative Twitter hashtags, negative stories pushed to reporters, and negative attacks each week from Obama spokespeople and senior campaign leadership.