Noam Scheiber and David Weigel traded some posts regarding why Romney strategist Stuart Stevens has encountered unexpected backlash–and not only from liberals–as he tries the standard GOP maneuvers on welfare policy, deceptively-cut Obama videos, and other matters. They each made good points. Yet both underplayed the elephant in the room in this whole matter.
Here’s the play-by-play between Noam and David:
[S]omewhere between the Florida recount and John Kerry’s swift-boating, a whole liberal industrial complex—cable channels like MSNBC, watch dogs like Media Matters for America, blog partisans like Daily Kos—began hacking away at the artifice. It has left Romney, already less believable in the just-folks role, badly exposed.
Stevens’s indifference to this shift—and to the partisan bloodlust that fuels it—helps explain how the campaign was caught flat-footed by allegations that Romney hadn’t severed his ties to Bain Capital until 2002, three years after he’d initially claimed. “The headline story above the fold in The [Boston] Globe: ‘ROMNEY STAYED LONGER AT BAIN’ … is totally, totally misleading,” one Romney adviser complained to me. “Maybe the newspaper’s got an angle because of political bias or because it sells copies—who knows what?” But the Bain story didn’t reflect the sudden vindictiveness of the mainstream media. It reflected the holy-war relentlessness of the left. As the Globe later acknowledged, the story was initially driven by enterprising bloggers at the liberal websites Talking Points Memo and Mother Jones.
David Weigel partially dissents from this diagnosis:
Absolutely, the liberal media is stronger and more influential than it was in 2000. But you can draw a venn diagram between strictly left-wing media and mainstream political reporting, and in the intersection, you will find “explanatory, fact-checking reporting,” enabled by the endless archives and space of the Internet. And it’s this stuff, not the left-wing character assassination, that has really upended Stevens-ism….
Weigel also argues that the press is now
[less] easily distracted by meaningless crap and spin. In 2012, there’s an army of truth-monitors ready to hit the [WTF] button every time a candidate makes an odd and misleading policy claim — like Romney and welfare, to pick an example from today. The “on-the-other-hand” reporting of 2000 no longer drives the coverage.
Scheiber amplifies his arguments in How Bush v. Gore Killed the Romney Campaign.” He notes the broad universe of liberal journalists such as Ezra Klein, Jonathan Cohn, and others who are available to credibly and quickly rebut GOP talking points and stories.
Weigel and Scheiber are both right, as far as they go. Yet they neglect one other matter: The GOP’s steady tarnishing of its own brand.
Republican political operatives have earned an impressive reputation for dishonesty and social intolerance. In my adult lifetime, reporters and many ordinary people have come to associate Republican political campaigns with rhetorical tropes that have sometimes proved expedient, but that have not worn well outside the hermetically sealed environment of FOX news and the Wall Street Journal editorial page. The list of such things is pretty long: The Laffer curve, Willy Horton, death panels, “You lie!” birtherism, charges that liberals support abortion to knock off the intellectually disabled.
I believe reporters and others have grown impatient with simple technical shoddiness. Republican candidates and office-holders offer sweeping sales pitches for dubious policies unsupported by accompanying critical details. How many times have Republicans presented regressive tax plans whose only concrete details concern tax cuts to the wealthy, and whose claims to deficit reduction don’t seem to add up? There is no real conservative counterpart to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and it shows.
Many within the GOP have made careers out of attacking the Congressional Budget Office, the Office of Technology Assessment, various lesser-known agencies that perform policy analysis concerning the environment, medical care, and public health. Discomfiting numbers of Republican candidates express skepticism regarding global warming. From a wholly strategic perspective, such anti-scientism is quite damaging within the educated public, not to mention among media and policy elites.
Legitimate critiques can certainly be offered of President Obama’s health reform. Many of these critiques lose credibility when prominent critics of health reform say so many other wild things. It’s bad enough that Michelle Bachmann, Sarah Palin, and Betsy McCaughey were out front, on the issue of death panels; while Dick Morris was saying obviously false things about health reform and undocumented immigrants. It’s worse when more mainstream Republicans repeat such assertions, and people notice.
Just this week, the Romney campaign released a white paper by Glenn Hubbard, Greg Mankiw, John Taylor, and Kevin Hassett in support of “The Romney Program for Economic Recovery, Growth, and Jobs.” These are four accomplished and respected economists. Yet within days the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein easily dismantled their work. Klein employed the fiendish device of contacting the independent economic experts whose work was cited by Hubbard, Mankiw, Taylor, and Hassett. As Klein reports:
In every case, they responded with a polite version of Marshall McLuhan’s famous riposte. The Romney campaign, they said, knows little of their work. Or of their policy proposals.
Ezra’s a terrific policy journalist. And campaign documents are not exactly working papers at the National Bureau of Economic Research. Still, this was way too easy.
Like the big three automakers of thirty years ago, the GOP pursued short-term profits at the expense of its long-term reputation for quality. This has become a real liability when Mitt Romney requests the benefit of the doubt regarding an incompletely-specified tax plan, or a 30-second commercial that isn’t quite honest regarding Obama’s alleged plans to gut welfare reform.
That political market reaction is long overdue. It’s not as important as many other things. But I think it will hurt the GOP, and it will linger. It certainly should.