With ‘prebuttal,’ Mitt Romney goes on the attack


Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney delivers his pre-emptive rebuttal to President Obama's State of the Union Speech Tuesday in Tampa, Fla. (EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
January 24, 2012

Ladies and gentlemen, let us discuss the prebuttal.

On Tuesday morning, Mitt Romney launched his response to the president’s State of the Union address a full 101 / 2 hours before the president delivered it. In Tampa, in front of a drywall factory and a banner reading “OBAMA ISN’T WORKING,” the Republican candidate pooh-poohed what President Obama had not yet said.

“He will give a nice speech with a lot of memorable phrases, but he won’t give you the hard numbers,” said Romney, who, according to his prepared remarks, deemed the unspoken speech “divisive” and Obama a “desperate campaigner in chief.”

Did the Romney campaign have the full text of the president’s speech so it could confirm its divisiveness and omission of hard numbers?

No. But this doesn’t matter. What’s important is that some voters will have the words “divisive” and “desperate” in their heads as they watch the State of the Union speech and that Romney is casting his rhetoric in a presidential light.

“Prebuttals to major speeches are a critical form of the common tactic of bracketing, designed not to rebut but to reinforce the larger framework of the race,” writes political commentator and Republican strategist Mary Matalin in an e-mail. Romney “needs, particularly at this juncture, to reinforce his core rationale for candidacy . . . which going mano-a-mano with the president implicitly does.”

At this point, each side knows the other’s talking points and deploys its own pre-counterpoints, reinforcing the perception of the 2012 campaign as a merry-go-round in an echo chamber.

To prebut is to lunge for the narrative before the story begins, to unspin the spin before anything’s spun. To prebut is to dampen enthusiasm, to deaden scandal, to infect the opponent’s words with doubt before they’re uttered. In the realm of political jujitsu, prebutting is offensive defense — not as aggressive as swift-boating or Borking but firmer than the non-denial denial (a move exercised by former representative Anthony Weiner to deflect attention from his underpants without lying outright).

The prebuttal is neither a new rhetorical tactic — one can imagine Cicero prebutting in the Roman Senate — nor a new word. This is the fifth presidential election cycle in which it has been used.

Who invented the term?

Al Gore, of course.

Well, maybe. According to Nexis, the first mention of “prebuttal” in the news came in May 1996, from a Gore quotation in a Washington Post article by Dan Balz about the Clinton White House’s strategic smackdowns of the Robert Dole campaign. The word would remain buzzy throughout the ’96 campaign.

“An hour before the candidates took the stage, young Clinton and Dole aides moved through the press room, dropping off propaganda,” reported the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette from an October 1996 debate in Hartford, Conn. “The Clinton sheet was labeled ‘prebuttal’ and offered responses to things that ‘Dole might say’ in the debate.”

The phrase and the tactic has grown more prominent, spiking in 1998 (when Clinton’s team tried to declaw Kenneth Starr), in 2000 (when Gore borrowed the tactic for his presidential run), in 2003 (when Romney, then governor of Massachusetts and already apparently running for president, prebutted a forum for Democratic presidential candidates) and throughout George W. Bush’s second term (especially before his announcement of a troop surge in Iraq).

“The expectation of a prebuttal often forces the speechmaker to anticipate the counterarguments likely to be made before the speech, and to send supporters to talk shows and blogs to preempt the preempters,” wrote William Safire in “Safire’s Political Dictionary,” in which he concludes that preempting prebuttals creates a “time warp.”

The Obama White House did not preempt or rebut Romney’s prebut, but it did deploy prebuttals in 2009 in an attempt to seize control of the health-care debate from the tea party. More recently, former 2012 candidate Herman Cain prebutted allegations of extramarital affairs before the allegations were aired.

Blame the proliferation of prebuttals — and all other ills and irritants, while we’re at it — on the 24-hour news cycle.

“Before there were things to read online at 3 in the afternoon, there wasn’t value in prebutting anything, because where is your prebuttal going to be covered?” says Washington lawyer Ron Klain, former chief of staff to Gore and Vice President Biden. “Now, not only do [journalists] write as they go along, but they’re posting and tweeting. If you want to impact that, waiting till it’s over is too late.”

The Twittersphere, of course, is fertile ground for getting the last word first. It lit up with references to “prebuttal” during and after Romney’s speech and provided a cascade of rebuttals to the prebuttal, which we’ll call “reprebuttals,” followed by —

[Editor’s note: The rest of this story was sucked into a time warp.]

Dan Zak is a feature writer and general assignment reporter based in the Style section. He joined the Post in 2005, after stints as an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a city-desk reporter and obituary writer at The Buffalo News.
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