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    Romney’s unknown unknowns

    Romney’s unknown unknowns

    I’ve posted about “unknown unknowns” before, as it is a structure I use in class to discuss how to build a case.  At a press conference about Iraq Donald Rumsfeld famously said:

    “[T]here are known knowns; there are things we know we know.  We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.  But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

    Reacting to Nancy Pelosi’s threat to release as yet unknown information about Newt, Jennifer Rubin uses the “unknown unknown” template to argue:

    But this is one of the central dangers posed by Gingrich’s candidacy: Lots of people who worked on congressional committees, at special interest groups and for him in one capacity or another have plenty of details about what he has done over the years. It is the unknown unknowns, as Donald Rumsfeld put it, that are the most dangerous.

    Rubin is confused.  She is not complaining about Newt’s unknown unknowns, but about his known unknowns.  We know what we do not know.  In fact, Rubin rattles off a list of known unknowns about Newt, such as how much he got paid by which clients, etc.

    Precisely because we know what we do not know about Newt, he is less dangerous as a candidate.  Will the facts, if revealed, that he did “X” in 1996 which was known by Pelosi and others but never part of any public ethics charges really make a difference?  Will the facts, if revealed, that one of Newt’s think tanks made “Y” dollars from some client really create a sea change in public opinion?  Even as to the “personal baggage,” we know it will be made an issue; and if there is more to the baggage than we know, it still is a worry we know about.  Newt’s problems are not unknown unknowns, by any stretch of the imagination.

    An unknown unknown is something beyond our current comprehension, something that would hit us so out of the blue that we would be left to wondering how we could not have imagined such a thing about the candidate.  It would destroy a campaign in an instant, and if revealed after the nomination would hand Barack Obama the election on a silver platter.

    The greatest threat of a destructive unknown unknown comes not from the known-to-be imperfect candidate, but from the seemingly perfect candidate.

    And here is where the risk is with Romney.  What is it that we are not even capable of imagining about him or his past which in an instant could destroy his candidacy?

    Well, you might argue, we know everything about him, he’s been in a presidential campaign before, he has no known skeletons in the closet.  And looking at his persona, it is hard to imagine something terribly wrong aside from known past policies.

    That might be true, but if we are talking about true unknown unknowns, shouldn’t we be worrying about what was in the state records Romney and his assistants tried to destroy when he left office in Massachusetts, Romney staff spent nearly $100,000 to hide records:

    When Romney left the governorship of Massachusetts, 11 of his aides bought the hard drives of their state-issued computers to keep for themselves. Also before he left office, the governor’s staff had emails and other electronic
    communications by Romney’s administration wiped from state servers, state officials say.

    Those actions erased much of the internal documentation of Romney’s four-year tenure as governor, which ended in January 2007. Precisely what information was erased is unclear….

    Romney’s spokesmen emphasize that he followed the law and precedent in deleting the emails, installing new computers in the governor’s office and buying up hard drives.

    However, Theresa Dolan, former director of administration for the governor’s office, told Reuters that Romney’s efforts to control or wipe out records from his governorship were unprecedented.

    Dolan said that in her 23 years as an aide to successive governors “no one had ever inquired about, or expressed the desire” to purchase their computer hard drives before Romney’s tenure.

    The cleanup of records by Romney’s staff before his term ended included spending $205,000 for a three-year lease on new computers for the governor’s office, according to official documents and state officials.

    In signing the lease, Romney aides broke an earlier three-year lease that provided the same number of computers for about half the cost – $108,000. Lease documents obtained by Reuters under the state’s freedom of information law
    indicate that the broken lease still had 18 months to run.

    What was in those records that was so important to erase?  I can’t imagine.

    But we will find out, at the worst possible moment.  Gov. Deval Patrick, Obama’s best buddy, will make sure of it.


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    JEBurke | December 6, 2011 at 1:51 pm

    Actually, Professor, what might be in the emails that we know were deep sixed is a known unknown, is it not? We know there were mails and we know they were erased but we don’t know what was in them so that you can suggest ominously that they could be damaging (set aside for the moment that if they no longer exist, they cannot be trotted out in October as proof of something).

    It’s just like we know the House looked into a lot of stuff on Newt that was filed away, but we don’t know what’s in those files.

    An unknown unknown would be something like this: a candidate who appears to be a dependable family man with a loving wife and cute kids turns out to have a serious mistress on the side (Edwards in 2004), to patronize high-priced whores (Spitzer) or to have a “wide stance” in airport bathrooms (Craig).

    I doubt that either Newt or Romney has any unknown unknowns of political consequence. Both have been thoroughly vetted several times over. What you must deal with is the obvious certainty that Newt may have lots of known unknowns. Since you don’t want to deal with that, instead, you lamely try to argue that anyone might have time bombs we have no way to know about.

    What’s more, isn’t it obvious that Rumsfeld was trying to make something very simple but embarassing seem like some sort of complicated intelligence puzzle? There were no unknown unknowns about Iraq. There were plenty of people in the intelligence community and elsewhere who raised questions about every single problem that was faced. He just looked at all this and decided as a matter of judgment that X outweighed Y.

    Unfortunately, you don’t even want to examine X where it concerns Newt

    Henry Hawkins | December 6, 2011 at 2:48 pm

    If history teaches anything, it is that when it comes to politicians and candidates, there are no unknown unknowns. Only naivete would allow them.

    […] William Jacobson: The greatest threat of a destructive unknown unknown comes not from the known-to-be imperfect candidate, but from the seemingly perfect candidate. […]

    Henry Hawkins | December 6, 2011 at 4:11 pm

    If you see before you a perfect candidate, you have not seen clearly or looked deeply. The perfect candidate will have been, among all other considerations, fully vetted. So, if some scandal then emerges, is it an “unknown unknown” or simply a poor or incomplete job of vetting?

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