For several days, Mitt Romney has claimed that campaign finance laws forbid him from saying or doing anything about anti-Gingrich ads run by the pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future. Now, in response to continuing questions over the PAC's ads, Romney says he could say something about them -- but he won't.
"I'm sure I could go out and say, 'Hey, please don't do anything negative,'" Romney said Wednesday morning on Fox News. "But you know, this is politics."
Twenty-four hours earlier, asked during an interview on MSNBC whether he would "just tell [the super PAC] to stop the attacks against Newt Gingrich," Romney said he was powerless to intervene. "It's illegal, as you probably know," Romney said. "Super PACs have to be entirely separate from a campaign and a candidate. I'm not allowed to communicate with a super PAC in any way, shape or form."
Romney added that "if we coordinate in any way whatsoever, we go to the big house."
Last night, former Federal Election Commission chairman Trevor Potter disputed Romney's position. "Nothing prevents [Romney] from simply saying he doesn't want the ads run or from criticizing the super PAC for doing it," said Trevor Potter, now a lawyer and advocate of campaign finance reform in Washington. "Romney is correct that candidates are prohibited from coordinating the content or targeting of advertising with these outside groups. But that is a very narrow prohibition. The only prohibition is the candidate cannot coordinate with the super PAC on what they put in the ads or where they run them. He can certainly call on them to stop the ads, and that would not constitute illegal coordination."
On Wednesday morning, Romney had a different position. "There are limits as to what you can tell a PAC," he told Fox. "Obviously, there are these coordination rules, you're not allowed to coordinate, but I'm sure I could go out and say, 'Hey please don't do anything negative.' But you know, this is politics, and if you can't stand the heat in this little kitchen, wait until the Obama's Hell's Kitchen turns up the heat. Look, this is a time when we have to be able to stand up, defend ourselves. I've done the hard work of raising money for ads, and the speaker came after me pretty aggressively in his attacks. We're going to respond, and we've got an ad campaign in my campaign that's positive, but this super PAC that's been organized, it has to do what it does on an un-coordinated basis."
There is nothing wrong with Romney's position. This is indeed politics, and politics is rough, and the Republican candidate is sure to face a barrage of negative advertising from Barack Obama. All that is true. But Romney has gone from claiming his hands were tied and he was forbidden by law from saying anything about the super PAC to conceding that he could call on it to end the negative ads against Gingrich, but that he has no interest in doing so. Why not just say that in the first place?
UPDATE: The Romney campaign, which Tuesday night declined comment on the coordination question, sent this regarding Gov. Romney's statement Wednesday morning:
Mitt Romney and his campaign are prohibited from issuing any requests or suggestions to a Super PAC regarding communications by the Super PAC. Coordination is crime punishable with criminal sanctions under current election law. As Gov. Romney said, asking, 'Hey, please don't do anything negative,’ in and of itself isn't 'absolutely' illegal but, given the law, our attorneys have advised that the candidate and campaign not issue any condemnations or praise of any Super PAC communications by Restore Our Future at this time. If Mitt Romney made any public comment about a Restore Our Future ad, it could be considered a request or suggestion about that particular ad. And, once a campaign comments about one Super PAC ad, silence about the next Super PAC ad could also be perceived as a request or suggestion. His comments are consistent with this position.