When does no mean “no?”
In politics, never. Because try as I might to get Ann Romney to signal whether her husband was indeed entertaining another run for President, she wouldn’t just let it end with “no.”
To be sure, she made it as clear as she could, that as things stand now, Mitt Romney wouldn’t be suiting up for a third Presidential campaign. But she included some big caveats. Among the biggest of those caveats was Jeb Bush, and whether the former Florida governor decides to make a run himself.
If he doesn’t? “Well, we will see, won’t we, Neil,” Mrs. Romney teased, before quickly adding, “I think Jeb probably will end up running, myself … he’s probably looking at it very carefully.”
Ring a bell? It’s the same “extenuating circumstance” that Mitt himself offered when my colleague Chris Wallace interviewed him on Fox News Sunday. Unequivocal as the former Republican presidential nominee tried to be about another campaign, he did note that “circumstances can change.”
Again, unlikely circumstances, and unlikely changes. But history is full of unlikely circumstances and just as unlikely changes. It’s why politicians always leave an out, or those anticipating a presidential run of their own always offer the teasing line, “we’ll look at that when the time comes.”
Politicians aren’t the only ones who hedge their bets and refuse clear black-and-white responses. No one wants to paint themselves into a corner, which is why a chief executive considering a possible takeover never tips his hand, or at least until he’s good and ready to do so.
That’s also why they keep it vague, and keep reporters guessing. Usually they answer with a non-answer; so best to say something like, “I can’t see going in that direction now,” or the ever famous, “I’m not even thinking about that right now” (which you can safely assume is a lie). Then there’s Apple CEO Tim Cook, who when asked recently about talk of a new and larger iPad in the works, would only say, “stay tuned.”
Some CEOs can be quite unequivocal, however, such as when I recently asked my boss and Fox Entertainment Chairman Rupert Murdoch whether he would ever entertain another run at media powerhouse Time Warner (NYSE:TWX). His immediate “no” seemed to answer that one flat-out, until he offered what appeared to be “this” out on another bid…. “not a hostile one” (which led some analysts to conclude if moods change at Time Warner, so could he).
It’s impossible to read in between often short and blunt lines. But they’re short for a reason – to stifle debate in the near-term but keep the kettle hot for whatever could happen in the longer-term. If Mitt Romney came out today and said, “Never under any circumstance, even a draft movement from my party, would I ever, ever, ever show interest in running for President again,” the always tantalized media might finally take him at his word, and just leave the guy alone. They might justly conclude this time Romney means what he says, and there’s no circumstance that could change what he says.
But politicians, just like savvy business leaders, always have to leave the door a little open, the possibilities a little opaque, and the scenario a little vague – just enough to give themselves an out, should they ever decide to jump in. And that could include the “me-doth-protest-too-much” politician just as much as it could the “I’ll-never-make-an-offer-for-that-company” CEO.
All this could explain why President Obama has slightly revised his ISIL attack line points with the promise of “no combat boots on the ground.” Remember when it was just “no boots on the ground,” period? He’s got some wiggle room there, especially when it comes to explaining the nearly 1,600 personnel we’ve already got in and around Iraq, who might not be wearing combat boots, but they sure as heck are wearing something. It gives him an out. It gives him time.
Just like it gives Ann and Mitt Romney time to say, nothing now…but things could change later. In a way this drama helps them. It makes some hunger at the possibility they could make the move, without risking the sure drop in support once he does. Because there’s nothing more appealing than a tease who plays hard to get. Invariably the getting’s not nearly so good as when they stop teasing, and have to start…running. Too many headaches. Too many questions. Too many hassles. Best to stand back and make ‘em think you’re poised for something big than ever demand the scrutiny once you tell the world…you’re in big.
So best to look “good from afar” than suddenly take the plunge and look “far from good.” Keep teasing. Because it always keeps a hungry media … panting.