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.