From Etch a Sketch to Hilary Rosen

The new Rule Book for reporting on outbreaks of feigned outrage

Unless you are voraciously waiting for the final tabulation of the write-in votes from the Delaware primary, these are the rare slow-down-you-move-too-fast days on the political calendar. With languor in the air, this is the ideal time to work out the rules for how campaign reporters should handle umbrage over troubled waters—those inevitable election year episodes of feigned outrage.

The routine is better choreographed than Dancing With the Stars: Person X says something inflammatory in front of a television camera and then Campaign Y responds with the horror once reserved for the broadcasts of Tokyo Rose. Then the cable chatterers choose teams—and the scrum is on.

Manufactured indignation has long been a staple of presidential politics from FDR’s 1944 lament over partisan attacks on his dog Fala to the recent GOP frenzy over Hilary Rosen’s cable TV crack that Ann Romney “never worked a day in her life.” Rosen—for those innocents who have spent most of April spelunking in Siberia—is a former Washington recording-industry lobbyist turned communications strategist with close ties to the Democratic Party. Despite her name appearing 35 times on White House visitor logs, she is a Washington insider and part-time pundit who is a bit removed from Barack Obama’s inner circle. Sort of like Facebook “friends.”

But for more than a week—during admittedly a slow news period—the Rosen remark and the Ann Romney reaction reverberated through the talking-head political firmament. It seemed excessive, but there was no rulebook on how and when to halt coverage of the partisan brickbats. If only there were a way to develop a calculus of closeness, an algorithm of access, an index of influence. If only there were a formula to allocate TV airtime, newspaper column inches and Internet electrons, the next time someone vaguely linked to a presidential candidate makes an impolitic remark.

Such mathematical exactitude has been impossible in adjudicating the splenetic “Do you repudiate her comments?” flame wars that have become a constant in presidential campaigns. Until now. Too late to solve Fermat’s Last Theorem, I have instead invented an empirical method for determining how much attention the media should devote to maladroit, mangled and malicious comments in the midst of a presidential campaign.

The key variable in this equation is the distance of the speaker from current or potential Oval Office power. So here are the Six Degrees of Separation from presidential candidates and what they mean in terms of coverage:

ONE DEGREE REMOVED: This is a rarefied realm where no presidential candidate can feign ignorance of a controversial statement by saying with furrowed brow, “Michelle who?” or “Which Ann Romney are you referring to?” Beyond spouses and vice-presidential running mates, adult children of candidates (such as the five Romney sons) normally fit into this close-in category. A rare exception is when there is a public history of estrangement between the political parent and a rebellious child (Ronald Reagan and Patti Davis). In fairness, presidential candidates are permanently immune from responsibility for the antics of scapegrace siblings like Sam Houston Johnson, Billy Carter and Roger Clinton.

The Maximum Permissible Duration of Media Coverage of Any One-Degree Flap: Until Election Day.

TWO DEGREES REMOVED: This is the-buck-stops-here, Haldeman-and-Ehrlichman territory reserved for the kind of advisors so close to the white hot center of power that a firing or a public chastisement is automatic front-page material. For Obama, it does not matter if the presidential confidants are in the government (David Plouffe, Valerie Jarrett) or affiliated with the campaign (David Axelrod). Campaign mouthpieces with long-standing ties to the candidate are also in this category, which is why Eric Fehrnstrom’s Etch A Sketch comments were so damaging to Romney. Anyone designated by a presidential campaign to represent the candidate on a Sunday morning talk show automatically gets a temporary battlefield commission as Two Degrees Removed regardless of job title.

Maximum Permissible Duration: Two weeks or two days after a forced resignation.

THREE DEGREES REMOVED: Welcome to the land where major campaign surrogates roam along with leading vice-presidential contenders like Rob Portman and Marco Rubio. The chairs of both parties—Reince Priebus and Debbie Wasserman Schultz—have Three Degrees Removed status. So do minor Cabinet officials (say, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis) when they speak at political events on behalf of Obama’s reelection. Top Romney issue advisers (those who have personally briefed the candidate within the last month) are in this group as well. Add to the mix press secretaries brought on solely for the 2012 campaign (example: just-hired Romney foreign policy spokesman Richard Grenell) and each candidate’s top five fund-raising bundlers.

Maximum Permissible Duration: One week or one day after the offender is stricken from media’s list of veepstakes favorites.

FOUR DEGREES REMOVED: We have reached the point when suddenly we are dealing with a major population explosion. Anyone who gets nominated for president (let alone elected) has hundreds of intimates—or, to be more precise, hundreds of politically useful connections who believe they are intimates. In the old days, these insiders were rewarded with tokens like presidential cuff links and campaign tie clasps. Now they are honored with the designation of Four Degrees Removed. Falling into this category is every campaign official whose name or face the candidate recognizes along with second-tier surrogates who are handed campaign talking points before they go on daytime cable TV. Romney issue advisers who only communicate with the campaign by sending in memos are in this camp as well. On the money front, seven-digit donors to a super PAC supporting the candidate (yes, Bill Maher, we are talking about you) are Zone Four-ers as are major campaign bundlers.

Maximum Permissible Duration: One day or one hour after the candidate feigns ignorance of the offender’s existence. Since Hilary Rosen is an exemplar of someone Four Degrees Removed from Obama, we now have scientific evidence that the Mommy Wars lasted a week longer than could be journalistically justified.

FIVE DEGREES REMOVED: Flotsam and George Jetson time. These are the political types whose seats at the 2013 Inauguration will be halfway between the Capitol and the White House—junior campaign staffers and their counterparts at the national party committees. Also considered Five Degrees Removed from real power is anyone who appears on daytime cable TV with the onscreen logo of Democratic or Republican “strategist” yet has never worked on a campaign in the 21st century. Rounding out this distant-drummer grouping are think-tank issue mavens who send unsolicited memos to the campaigns and anyone who has ever hosted a fund-raiser for the candidate, dating back to Romney’s 1994 race against Ted Kennedy and Obama’s 2004 Senate election.

Maximum Permissible Duration: Sixty minutes or six cable TV commercial breaks.

SIX DEGREES REMOVED: The deputy Idaho state directors of both the Obama and Romney campaigns.

Maximum Permissible Duration: One tweet.

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Walter Shapiro just chronicled his ninth presidential campaign. He writes the “Character Sketch” political column for Yahoo News. Follow him on Twitter @WalterShapiroPD.