Tales Of Failed Spin

Everybody loves to mock and deride the practice of post-debate rapid-response campaign spin -- and most of the time it really is the most inane charade you'll ever witness. But high-profile campaigns have to do it, and do it well, because sometimes it really does make a big difference.

It seems that we've just seen an example of that -- in which the Charlie Baker team ate the Deval Patrick team's lunch.

This all stemmed from an extremely brief exchange during Tuesday night's gubernatorial debate on WBZ. Patrick said that Baker's vaunted turnaround of Harvard Pilgrim was accomplished "with the help of state aid." Baker blurted out: "What state aid?"

That was it. To my mind, as I watched it (and judging from their responses to post-debate questioning), what had happened was a semantic issue. Patrick meant "state aid" in the general sense of assistance from the state government; by that meaning, he was absolutely correct. Baker thought he meant "state aid" in the specific, government-speak sense of direct payment of state funds; by that meaning, he was absolutely correct.

The Patrick camp immediately believed that they had an opportunity to push the narrative of Baker's government-assisted turnaround -- which they have been trying to talk about since Baker announced for governor, and which, as I wrote the morning after the debate, fits a broader theme of Baker taking too much credit and not enough responsibility.

The Baker camp immediately believed that they had an opportunity to push back and make Patrick look like a liar, or at least someone who doesn't know what he's talking about.

Which of those two ways the story would go depended largely upon how the media understood the dispute. Was this A) Baker cutely hiding behind semantics to avoid acknowledging that the government helped him save HP, or B) Patrick accusing Baker of something specific that wasn't true?

The results are mostly in, and it's pretty clear that the media went with option B. That made it a True/False Truthometer Politifact fact-check question, and by yesterday afternoon the AP, NECN, and others had treated it that way, and judging for Baker. Today's Globe features the headline (at least on the version): "No public funds when state helped Baker," which deftly acknowledges the two truths, but places the heart of the dispute on the "No public funds" part.

It's a mess for Patrick, and it isn't because of what he said in the debate, it's because his team f'ed up the spin. They should have taken the "not one dime" issue off the table immediately by acknowledging it, like so: "Nobody's saying the assistance came in the form of a cash payment, but why won't Charlie acknowledge that HP would have dissolved into bankruptcy under his watch if the state government hadn't stepped in to save it?" 

But they didn't do that -- instead they immediately tried to blur the distinction between the two meanings of "state aid" to make Baker look like he was lying. That played right into the Baker camp's immediate strategy, which was to act as though there was only one possible definition of "state aid." Under that assumption, Patrick had claimed that HP took money from the state government, and this was simply untrue.

Worse (as Michael Levenson coldly reports in that Globe story), the Patrick team seemed either muddled in its own understanding of the HP turnaround story, or was deliberately trying to muddle it -- I can't say for sure, but from being there at the WBZ studio when it started, I have the impression that they were truly muddled. That's just inexcusable -- the HP receivership story should be well mapped out in their oppo-research binders. (Aside: do campaigns still use binders for that, or is it just in electronic form now?)

I'm sure the Patrick spin about the spin will be that they succeeded in getting the questions about the HP turnaround into the media --making "Harvard Pilgrim rescue at issue in campaign," as the Globe subhed put it. Don't buy it. They screwed up, they flubbed the chance they've been waiting for to put Baker on the defensive about the HP turnaround, and they made Patrick look like he's lying about Baker's record -- which, incidentally, helps provide the cover Baker's looking for to avoid criticism when he starts launching attack ads. (Note the recent Herald story in which he carps about Patrick going negative.)

In that debate-analysis post I wrote 24 hours ago, I deemed that "Baker and Patrick were pretty even -- with Patrick probably getting the edge if Baker's HP 'no state aid' claim ends up getting rapped by the media." Perhaps the Patrick team can still turn it around to their advantage, but at this point it looks like Patrick's the one getting rapped. Not so much for what he said, but for how his campaign team spun it.
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