"I like being able to fire people." "People need to work longer hours."
What do these two sentences have in common? Both were uttered by Republican presidential contenders in New Hampshire, and then conveniently and deliberately taken out of context by political rivals.
Each incident offers a lesson in modern political communications, and reveals the risks inherent in discussing major issues, such as those related to the economy and national security.
"It's virtually impossible for even the best candidates to avoid saying something that opponents will take out of context and try to spin to their advantage," said Brian J. Walsh, a Republican public relations consultant who dealt with his share of communications challenges during four years at the Senate GOP campaign committee. "The key, then, is how you respond. You have to have a strong campaign in place to help set the record straight."
Four years ago, it was Mitt Romney, the eventual nominee, who lost a whole day of campaigning to explaining a throwaway line he delivered in a speech to a local chamber of commerce in Nashua, N.H. The words, "I like being able to fire people," ricocheted around Twitter in an instant, fueling the narrative peddled by Democrats and Romney's Republican primary opponents that he was a rich, callous plutocrat.
This week, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush suffered a similar experience. He has been on the defensive since Wednesday for words spoken during an interview with the New Hampshire Union Leader that were part of a larger discussion about his agenda for economic growth. As made plain during the interview, the last thing Bush meant was that struggling poor and middle class Americans already toiling full time must work longer hours if they want to get ahead.
But plug "People need to work longer hours" into an Internet search engine and what comes up are pages of headlines similar to this one: "Jeb Bush: People need to work longer hours." Democrats moved swiftly to undercut Bush, scion of a wealthy, politically-connected family, with attacks that weren't much different than this statement from Rick Tyler, spokesman for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican White House contender and Tea Party favorite:
"It would seem to me that Gov. Bush would want to avoid the kind of comments that led voters to believe that Gov. Romney was out of touch with the economic struggles many Americans are facing," Tyler said. "The problem is not that Americans aren't working hard enough. It is that the Washington cartel of career politicians, special interests and lobbyists have rigged the game against them."
Here's the transcript of the relevant portion of Bush's interview with the Union Leader, broadcast live on Periscope, accounting for what he actually said:
Bush: My aspiration for the country, and I believe we can achieve it, is 4 percent growth as far as the eye can see. Which means we have to be a lot more productive, workforce participation has to rise from its all-time modern lows. It means that people need to work longer hours and, through their productivity, gain more income for their families. That's the only way we're going to get out of this rut that we're in.
U-L: To keep us from taking it out of context, what you meant to say — when you say more hours you mean full-time work.
Bush: Given the opportunity to work. Yeah, absolutely.
U-L: Not that a full-time guy or somebody working two jobs needs to be working even more time.
Bush: Absolutely not. Their incomes need to grow. It's not going to grow in an environment where the costs of doing business are so extraordinarily high here. Healthcare costs are rising. In many places the cost of doing business is extraordinarily high and the net result of that is that business start-up rates are at an all-time low. Work force participation rates are low. If anyone is celebrating this anemic recovery, then they are totally out of touch. The simple fact is people are really struggling. So giving people a chance to work longer hours has got to be part of the answer. If not, you are going to see people lose hope. And that's where we are today.
The occasional verbal gaffe comes with the territory when campaigning for president. Romney, the Republican presidential nominee in 2012, was particularly prone to making statements that could be used against him by opponents or easily twisted by media intent on doing so. Yet it also is true that there is less room for rhetorical error now than there was before the rise of social media.
In early 2012, just days before the New Hampshire GOP primary, Romney's "I like being able to fire people" fit neatly into a Tweet, that with a limit of 140 characters left no room for the context of the remark, even had people been interested in including it.
This cycle, the media challenge could be compounded, as reporters and activists that want to equip themselves with Periscope, a smartphone application that enables the user to broadcast the candidates live online from venues that, as a practical matter, at least, have long been off limits to television cameras and unavailable to be incorporated into a devastating 30-second attack ad.
To survive this level of scrutiny, candidates have to be prepared. "In the environment we live in today, with Twitter, Periscope and Vine, news travels instantaneously, it's important to be cognizant of that," Walsh said.
Meanwhile, what Romney actually said was much different than portrayed. Indeed, in its proper context, his critics probably agreed with what he said:
"I want individuals to have their own insurance. That means the insurance company will have an incentive to keep you healthy. It also means if you don't like what they do, you can fire them. I like being able to fire people who provide services to me. You know, if someone doesn't give me a good service that I need, I want to say I'm going to go get someone else to provide that service to me."
Disclosure: The author's wife works as an adviser to Scott Walker.