For Mitt, the ‘Pivot’ is Never Having to Say He’s Sorry


When he compared restarting his boss’s campaign to an Etch A Sketch, Eric Fehrnstrom, Mitt Romney’s flack, committed a gaffe in precisely the sense that journalist Michael Kinsley meant it – “when a politician tells the truth.” But the gaffe is less important than the fact it illuminates: that on the issues, Romney has more positions than the Kama Sutra (ht Garry South).

We love good gaffes because they’re like political exploding cigars, handshake buzzers or whoopee cushions. That’s why reporters, editors and politicians alike have such fun with them.

What worries us, however, is not whether Jon Stewart and David Letterman can make us laugh at Romney’s expense: it’s whether the mainstream media will routinely remind their readers and viewers of the stands on the issues that Romney has taken from when he was running for governor of Massachusetts right up through his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.

For example, no self-respecting MSM outlet ever should publish or broadcast a story about Romney’s plans for the economy that fails to mention in some way that he advocated that the United States government should let General Motors to go bankrupt.

Any piece about the immigration issue that does not note that Romney has opposed a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and has said he would repeal the Dream Act would be journalistic malpractice.

In his zeal to capture the Neanderthal Republican nomination, and to outflank Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann, Romney has taken positions so far right on so many vital concerns – the Paul Ryan budget, Medicare, funding Planned Parenthood and more – that he has degraded his standing with moderates, independents, women, Latinos and just about everyone else in the mainstream of the electorate.

The pinhead pivot: Candidates for president think they can get away with the “pivot” that they do between the primary and the general election because the national political press corps has had an unfortunate habit of letting them get away with it. Consider, for example, typical pieces looking at Romney’s upcoming maneuver by Ben Smith of Politico and Karen Tumulty of the Washington Post.

In “Republicans Brace For The Romney Pivot,” Smith quotes our old friend, USC’s Dan Schnur, a one-time presidential campaign flack for John McCain, noting: “There’s no possible way for him to be elected president without at some point distancing himself from Congress . . . He signed on to the Ryan Budget and he’s going to need to stick with it for a while, but at some point in late summer or early fall, the budget negotiations are going to take a turn that is going to force him to part ways with the House Republicans.”

And in “Will Romney move to the middle? Can he?,” Tumulty quotes former Ronald Reagan White House chief of staff Ken Duberstein, observing: “Romney’s twin challenges are to unify the Republican base, where significant elements remain unconvinced of the strength of his conservative philosophy, while at the same time not genuflecting so much that he can’t appeal to the independent vote that will ultimately decide the election.”

Get it? To political professionals, the “pivot” is an expected and acceptable political tactic. But if you believe that words have meaning and that commitment and consistence matter, then the MSM ought to make presidential candidates answer in September and October for the opportunistic positions they took in February and March.

For Romney, in particular, the notion of altering his positions is wholly unacceptable, not least because he has given his word to the conservative wing of his own party. That’s why Jonah Goldberg of the National Review found Fehrnstrom’s mention of an Etch A Sketch so humorous that he compared him to Basil Fawlty, played by the great John Cleese in “Fawlty Towers” who, when serving German patrons in his restaurant, keeps mentioning the one thing he’s not supposed to say – the war.

A matter of character: Trouble is, it’s not really funny. And as Romney’s protégé eMeg Whitman proved in the 2010 California governor’s race, taking extreme stands during the primary in order to keep from being outflanked on the right, and then trying to weasel away from them in the general doesn’t work, if the news media are vigilant.

Throughout the GOP presidential debates, Calbuzz warned that playing to a hall full of blood-thirsty knuckledraggers was a losing strategy for the Republican candidates. But, after first seeming to reject the tactic as employed by Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Romney –worried about Newt Gingrich and then Rick Santorum — made a strategic decision to suck up to the right-wing of his party.

So, to our brothers and sisters in the mainstream media, we offer this humble suggestion: the “pivot” is not just a campaign tactic — it’s a measure of character.

Update: In an NYT blog post on Monday,  Tom Edsall demonstrates precisely how Romney has begun making the pivot – without being called out by the MSM.

subscribe to comments RSS

There are 6 comments for this post

  1. avatar tonyseton says:

    Yep: the “pivot” is not just a campaign tactic — it’s a measure of character.

  2. avatar Alan from Berkeley says:

    And it’s in his very name, an anagram for which is “trim my tone.”

  3. avatar chrisfinnie says:

    What all this political posturing makes me wonder is this: How have we devised a political process that requires candidates to be such pretzels as to render themselves unelectable?

    It strikes me that, with the threat of facing a primary challenge from the more extreme wings of either party, candidates have three choices.

    They can stand for something and take their chances. Ilya Sheyman recently tried this in a Democratic congressional primary in Illinois and lost–certainly not the first example of this as a losing strategy.

    They can try as hard as they can to stand for everything and nothing, which is what Mitt Romney tried for as long as he could. His motherhood-and-apple-pie platitudes offended nobody but energized nobody. Though the stuff about the trees afforded late-night comics hours of innocent fun. Again, a seemingly dangerous strategy that can easily backfire. But with a pretty venerable history.

    Or they can lie their heads off and risk being branded as a flip-flopper, pivoter, or etch-a-sketch candidate. This is what most candidates seem to do. They tell each group what they want to hear, even if it contradicts the last thing they said. Look for Mr. Romney to have this tactic on full display when he addresses the NRA this week. The unfortunate effect of this is that most voters have no idea what candidates really stand for–except, of course, getting elected–and have lost any confidence in government and the electoral process as a consequence. The only winner in this current fracas about the many faces of MItt, is the company that makes the etch-a-sketch, which has capitalized on the whole thing with some rather brilliant marketing. They claim to be an equal opportunity device because they have both right and left knobs that turn both ways. I’m glad at least a toy I enjoyed as a child is getting something out of this mess.

    But voters are not pleased about it at all. Most I talk to are confused, disgusted, increasingly polarized, unsure who or what to trust, and more and more inclined to just ignore the whole slimy mess. So they tend to pick an authority figure to believe, whether a religious or a media figure, and swallow anything they say. This opens the door to the most outrageous lies, like the ACORN videos, achieving virtual factual status. Which undermines the voter’s ability to make an informed choice. On some level, they know it. Which could explain our low voter turnout rates. It’s certainly no way to run a democracy.

    The other thing I wonder is, if nobody can get elected without appealing to “the center,” why do the wingnuts get to set the agenda? How does that affect where the “center” is? And are these supposed centrists really as independent as they claim to be or think they are? I know in California, the DTS vote tends to fall Democratic. I suspect that most “independent” voters have a proclivity to one side or the other–I know I did when that was my registration. So, again, I have to question how we’ve given so much decision-making power to a group that doesn’t want to tell us where they stand or what they believe. Or maybe they just want to be able to change their values, depending on which way the wind blows. Tough to build long-term plans on that. And certainly our country could use some of those instead of all the waffling back and forth we do now.

  4. avatar chuckmcfadden says:

    “Pivoting” works because voters have short memories and are easily stampeded in one direction or another by whichever candidate most effectively uses fear, prejudice, ignorance, emotion and the “like to have a beer with” factor. It isn’t about issues, folks.

  5. avatar hclark says:

    “…if the news media are vigilant.” That is the question. How many of you saw Mitt on Jay Leno last week? Leno was better than Murrow, I kid you not. Certainly better than Brian Williams or George Stepenopolus. He had Mitt on the ropes like no other interviewer ever.


  6. avatar GeoHagop says:

    Romney the nominee to flank his brutal foes
    Out on a limb broke his electoral hopes
    Despite a media makeover
    And a dung heap rakeover
    In the end, he only got Mormon votes

Please, feel free to post your own comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.