How the Media Helped a Flailing Romney Reinvent Himself
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Analyzing the presidential campaign in the wake of the first debate, Time magazine's Mark Halperin wrote on October 10 that Mitt Romney's sudden "rush to the center" politically had emerged as the key topic -- "the central tactical issue"-- for Barack Obama's team to address. Halperin stressed it would be a challenge for Democrats because the Romney campaign's "brazen chutzpah knows no bounds."
How odd. At the first debate Romney had so brashly reinvented himself by shifting his position on taxation, immigration and health care away from the Republican Party, that the onus was on Obama to counter Romney's slick maneuver. In other words, Romney's flip-flops, according to Halperin, were a major problem for the Obama campaign, not for the Republican who late in the game unveiled a new political persona. (Farewell "severely conservative.")
It's also telling that on October 10, Halperin considered Romney's makeover into a moderate to be the campaign's dominant issue. Yet one week earlier on the night of the first debate when Halperin graded both participants, the pundit made no reference to Romney's "rush to the center." In real-time, Halperin heaped praise on Romney's style "(Started strong, level, and unrattled -- and strengthened as he went along") as well as his substance ("He clearly studied hard.")
Final grade, Romney: A-
Between the first debate and October 10, Romney's brazen flip-flops were not subject to any serious critique from Time's political team. What coverage Romney received for altering positions (aka his " tack toward the political center") mostly revolved around how conservative activists reacted to Romney's sudden embrace of moderate rhetoric. (They're totally fine with it.) Time was much less interested in what the about-faces said about Romney's candidacy, his character or what his presidency might look like.
The fact that the Republican candidate had radically altered his positions on core domestic issues just one month before Election Day was not treated as a campaign evolution that reflected poorly on Romney. To the contrary, it was largely portrayed as a savvy move by the Republican.
Time's soft peddling of Romney's broad reinvention was typical of how the Beltway press has politely covered the candidate's latest chameleon turn.
Politicians once flip-flopped at their own risk knowing the price they'd likely pay from the hypocrisy-sensitive press corps. Indeed, there was a time when it meant something if a candidate made it clear he didn't believe what he had been saying on the campaign trail, and the press held that revelation against the candidate. Recall that Al Gore was hammered in the press in 2000 as a politician without any core convictions. And George W. Bush's 2004 re-election campaign was largely built around calling Sen. John Kerry a flip-flopper; a tag that stuck thanks in part to the press coverage.
But this campaign Romney has mostly skated through his latest reincarnation, as pundits marvel at the political ease and wisdom of his flip-flops: "Crafty" announced The Daily Beast. At BuzzFeed, Blake Zeff suggested Romney had bet his entire campaign on the hope that "the era of the flip-flop as untenable, campaign-ending, non-starter is over." If it is, Romney has the press to thank.
Just look at how his jarring reversals have been watered down in recent days [emphasis added]:
• "Romney ditched that strategy and repeatedly softened the ideological contrasts with Obama." [ Daily Beast]
• "Romney polished the rough edges" [ Los Angeles Times]
• "Behind the new efforts by the Romney campaign to soften his conservative edges" [ New York Times]