A Tale of a Tweet


Twitter is a perfect medium for the age of short attention spans. With a limit of 140 characters per tweet, one can’t say anything especially nuanced — though it is true that short phrases like “I love you” and “We declare war” have great power.

Despite its limitations, every now and then a tweet can cause a stir. I recently had that experience, thanks to Newt Gingrich.

It was debate number 19, a few days before the Jan. 31 Florida primary. In responding to an attack from Gingrich, Mitt Romney launched into an explanation of his controversial vote for liberal Paul Tsongas in the 1992 Massachusetts Democratic presidential primary. Said Mitt: “I’ve never voted for a Democrat when there was a Republican on the ballot… I have always voted for a Republican any time there was a Republican on the ballot.”

If there’s one thing I know, it is elections, and I immediately recognized that Romney had uttered a falsehood. My colleague Kyle Kondik of the U.Va. Center for Politics confirmed my memory in our handy CQ Press Guide to U.S. Elections, and I quickly tweeted the following:

“I don’t believe Mitt told truth about 1992. He voted Tsongas in D POTUS primary when Bush 41 was facing Pat Buchanan, same day 3/10/92.”

There is no question that Romney misspoke. On the day he voted for Tsongas, he could have voted in the Republican presidential primary between President George H.W. Bush and challenger Pat Buchanan. But he did not, and instead chose to cast a ballot for a Democrat well to the left of President-to-be Bill Clinton.

All politicians prevaricate, though some do so more than others. In this case, as the Boston Globe has pointed out, Romney has given at least three prior, different explanations for his Tsongas vote:

When first asked as a 1994 U.S. Senate candidate about records showing him voting in the 1992 Democratic primary, Romney said he couldn’t recall for whom he voted.

Romney told the Globe he voted for Tsongas because he preferred his ideas to his then-opponent for the nomination, Bill Clinton. Later, he added that it was proof he was not a partisan politician.

Yet in 2007, while making his first run for president, Romney offered a new explanation: He said he voted for Tsongas as a tactical maneuver, aiming to present the “weakest opponent” possible for Bush.

Four separate justifications for a 1992 vote would raise anyone’s eyebrows. Nonetheless, the debate moved on and so did I. This was one of 38 tweets I sent out during the two-hour event, and the political Twitterati, myself included, were largely focused on other topics — namely, cracking wise about Gingrich’s proposed moon colony. As sometimes happens, the Tsongas tweet was re-tweeted by a half-dozen or so journalists, a common practice that we all engage in to disseminate information a bit more widely.

The debate ended, and someone on Gingrich’s staff must have shown my tweet to Newt. He absorbed it; he seized upon it; and he made it a permanent part of his attack on Romney: “You cannot debate somebody who is dishonest,” he said, citing my tweet. He used it on TV that night. He was still citing it on his campaign bus the next day, and on CBS’ “Face the Nation” and “FOX News Sunday” days later. A full week had passed, Gingrich had lost Florida, and on the night of the Nevada caucuses (Feb. 4), Newt gave his “non-concession via press conference,” and in an event carried by all the news channels, he recited my tweet anew.

Instantly, I was inundated with, appropriately, tweets — congratulating me, as though it was an achievement of some kind.

Felicitations are beside the point. This tiny incident is actually a commentary on the potential impact of communications in a social media world. A transient thought, a quick catch, a clever phrase from anyone can become part of the lexicon at the speed of Internet light, and can last for a while. You can catch lightning in a bottle.

It’s almost enough to make me take Twitter seriously. But that would spoil the fun.