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Did Overeager Twittering Blow GOP Chances?

As a story of our times, the saga of the overzealous Twitter by the chief of Virginia's Republican Party was too good to pass up. The fact that it may not have been true hardly seemed to matter.

Jeff Frederick is an impulsive and energetic young legislator from Prince William County who rose to become chairman of the state's GOP with the promise that he would shake things up and drag the party into the modern era, both strategically and technologically. He's all over the web, with emails, videos of himself and his family, fundraising appeals, and, most recently, Twitterings about the latest bit of action in the Richmond legislature.

Last Tuesday, Republicans in the Virginia Senate came thisclose to persuading one Democrat, Sen. Ralph Northam of Norfolk, to leave the Democratic caucus, a shift that would force the Democrats, who hold a 21-19 majority in the Senate, to share power with their Republican nemeses.

That afternoon, Frederick put word of the possible switcheroo out on Twitter, like this:

"Apparently one dem is either switching or leaving the dem caucus. Negotiations for power sharing underway."

The politics junkies who stay glued to these 140-character updates throughout their waking hours later saw that Northam decided to stay put in the Democratic caucus, recalled Frederick's alert, and put two and three together to make four.

On National Review Online, the word was that it was Frederick's tweet that put the kibosh on the deal. Apparently, as the GOP chairman's alert spread, Gov. Tim Kaine sprang into action and made nice to Northam--mutiny averted.

This storyline was juicy enough to attract a splendid headline from a reader ("Loose Twits Sink Shifts"), an outbreak of blogorrhea, and an e-storm of criticism from fellow Republicans aimed at Frederick.

The issues raised by a tweet that blows away a political deal are delicious: Frederick, like anyone entrusted with inside information, was caught between two imperatives--the desire to be first, to play journalist, to grab the scoop and demonstrate to your friends and associates that you're on the inside, versus the need for discretion, the importance of holding your tongue so that someone sensitive can be accomplished before the wider world takes notice.

The need to tell what you know and the trust inherent in holding a secret are two sides of the same coin. In both cases, you are under the sway of the power of information. Both decisions--to divulge or to keep mum--build loyalty; both strengthen personal bonds. But in every such situation, only one decision is the right one.

The Bob Woodward dictum--Everyone has a secret--has a corollary: That secret is burning a hole in the holder's pocket. Secrets want to be told. Secrets contain power. The key to proper handling of a secret is timing, knowing when to hold it dear and when to use it strategically.

Twitter and other instant technologies play havoc with our judgment about secrets; these new toys diminish our ability to judge when it's right to share information, and with whom. Frederick couldn't stop himself from tapping out a tweet with his latest juicy bit from Richmond; this, after all, is one of the few shreds of power that a House delegate may wield.

In the end, it seems, Frederick's tweet was not the deciding factor in Northam's soap opera. As Del. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem), the House Majority Leader, wrote late that day in an email to worried supporters, word about the possible flip in loyalties by the wavering Democrat was already out before Frederick twittered:

"...this information was already known and was public.
"I suggested to Chairman Frederick that he get the word out, minus the details. Jeff did not post anything other than an unnamed D was looking at leaving their caucus and power sharing negotiations were underway.
"There is no reason to believe that Delegate Frederick's posting on Twitter, which happened several hours into the day's activities in the Senate, affected the outcome."

Frederick is acquitted, at least for now. But the less sexy truth rarely catches up with the wonderfully wild initial rumor, and Frederick, already the subject of considerable grumbling on the part of Republicans who think he's a loose cannon, is likely to be more cautious about his tweets going forward. Alas, that's human nature: There are excesses we know we ought not engage in, yet we can't quite stop ourselves until something goes awry. Deep down, sadly, we're all twits.

By Marc Fisher |  February 16, 2009; 8:46 AM ET
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One of the things that screwed the GOP for the last election was the fact they were SPAMMING emails and home phone #'s (on the do not call list!) with their robocalls. One day alone I got over 23 calls for John McCain. That and his 'choice' of a VP were what lost him the election as far as I'm concerned!

Posted by: meadmkr | February 16, 2009 11:48 AM

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