When politicians or other public figures get in hot water over something they said, they have a choice. Either they can walk it back or they can double down. I used to get confused about which was which. But I think I have a handle on it now.
Walking it back is a form of back pedaling in response to push back that behooves you to back down, although you really don't want to entirely take it back. Doubling down is a refusal to back down, whatever the backlash, even unto a smack down, in hopes that your critics will back off on the double.
Those are your only two options, apparently, when there's a surge of people getting their panties in a wad over your latest sound bite. At least that's the impression I get from the chatter blowing up today's punditsphere.
Presently, it's Mitt Romney's turn. After a trouncing in headlines such as the New York Daily News' "Mitt Hits the Fan," over his tacit dismissal of 47 percent of the electorate as freeloaders, he's making the damage control rounds. As we listen to what he has to say about what he said, let's remember that the visible squirming is typical when walking back or doubling down on secretly videotaped remarks.
If a comment backfires, generating public outcry, protest or ridicule, whoever made it may feel chastised enough to cede a little ground, but prefer to save as much face as possible. In which case, they can try taking the offending remark for a leisurely stroll, escorting it as discreetly as possible, sometimes on tippy toe, back in the direction from whence it came.
"Ryan Walks Back Exaggerated Marathon Time." "Obama Walks Back Claim That Economy is 'Doing Fine.'" "Mitt Romney Walks Back London Olympics Comment." "Bloomberg Walks Back Comment That Police Should Threaten Strike After Aurora." "Why Didn't Team Obama Walk Back Joe Biden's 'Back in Chains' Remark?" "Carney Starts Walking Back Claim That Anti-Islam Video Inspired Riots."
On the other hand, if the comment sparks outrage, but whoever made it isn't feeling particularly conciliatory (either out of conviction or stupidity), they can defiantly up the ante on the original statement, by issuing a full-throated: Yeah, I said it.
"Obama Doubles Down on 'You Didn't Build It.'" "Mitt Romney Doubles Down on His Decision to Politicize Diplomat Deaths." "White House Doubles Down: Obamacare Not a Tax." "Allen West Doubles Down on Obama's 'Crap Sandwhich.'" "Rush Limbaugh Doubles Down on 'Slut' Claim." "Trump Doubles Down on Birther Nonsense." "Clint Eastwood Doubles Down on Empty Chair."
Of course, no one ever actually announces, "Hey, on second thought, I am going to walk that back." Or, "You know what? I am going to double down, baby!" The media, abounding in able referees, decides whether you've walked or doubled, depending on how you deal with the commotion.
If you stand by what you said, or declare it even more emphatically, it's considered a double down. But if you downplay your remark, without making a retraction, admitting a mistake or God forbid apologizing, that's a textbook walk back. A full mea culpa, or unequivocal "my bad," could be considered an extreme walk back, but the whole idea of walking it back is to avoid walking back that far.
Yes, some will try to walk it back and double down simultaneously, admitting fault with the rhetoric but not the gist, or the details but not the plan, or the policy but not the spelling. And it's not unheard of for someone to only pretend to walk it back, when actually just doubling back to walk it forward on the down low.
Here's the really fun part. You don't only walk back comments when you get caught lying, or when private remarks about what you actually think get leaked. Nor do you only double down because you meant what you said, and or know the facts back you up.
It's perfectly common to walk back something that's absolutely true, or that you openly stated you believe and still do, if you nevertheless change your mind about having said it. "Cheney Walks Back Remark About Palin Pick Being 'A Mistake.'" And certainly you can double down on something that you know is totally bogus, if you're the type of person that doesn't let facts get in the way. "Palin Doubles Down on Paul Revere History Lesson."
Whether to double down or walk it back can be a tricky question. Obviously, you don't double down after saying that "legitimate rape" rarely causes pregnancy. But if you only walk it back to "forcible rape," you better keep on walking. In fact, if you're up for re-election, you might want to double down on walking it back.
Which, by the way, is much easier than walking it back after you've doubled down. Bill Clinton had an awful time walking it back after he doubled down on the claim that he "never had sex with that woman." So much so that he practically got walked back out of the White House.
Yet in his resurrection speech at the Democratic National Convention, he deftly exploited the current "walk it back," "double down" mania, doubling down on Obama by warning voters not to "double down on trickle down." The speech effectively walked back years of Clinton's previous Obama digs, if only to double down on Hillary's prospects in 2016.
Probably no one was more jealous of that masterful walk back than Rev. Jesse Jackson. Things have been a little testy between Jackson and Obama, ever since the reverend, not realizing his mic was live during a Fox News appearance, said that he would like to cut then Senator Obama's "nuts off."
Castration threats are nearly impossible to walk back. And for all the good his apology did, Jackson might as well have doubled down on his gonadular gaffe. That would take real balls (I know you saw that coming). But if you want to make history, sometimes you have to man up when circumstances double dog dare you to double down.
To be sure, history is rife with examples of its principle characters defending, downplaying or disavowing what they said. While my two new favorite buzz phrases are currently trending in our 24-7, news-spin-repeat cycles, they could have easily applied throughout the ages.
"Moses Doubles Down on 'Let My People Go.'" "Galileo Walks Back Claim That Earth Orbits Sun." "Marie Antoinette Doubles Down on 'Let Them Eat Cake.'" "Columbus Walks Back on Discovering 'India.'" "P.T. Barnum Doubles Down on 'Sucker Born Every Minute.'"
I like to keep that kind of historical perspective in mind. It helps me remember that it makes no difference what anybody says today. What really matters is whether they will walk it back or double down tomorrow.
Bill Santiago, resident comedian on CNN Saturday Mornings with Randi Kaye, has also appeared on Comedy Central and Showtime. He's written for The New York Times, Washington Post and Miami Herald, and his latest one man show, "My Fellow Republicans," premieres Oct, 25, and 26 at La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley, CA. Checkout his new website here.