Tens of millions of American are out of work or underemployed, several Arab countries have descended into chaos, and our national debt is $16 trillion and rapidly climbing. With all these frivolous distractions, it’s a good thing we have the national media to remind us of the truly important issue in this presidential election: Mitt Romney’s tendency to make gaffes and clumsy statements.
The latest media frenzy is over a leaked video of Romney discussing federal taxes and entitlements. Although the video shows him making several good points about the growing culture of dependency, Romney himself admits that his statements fell short of “elegant.” The national media — claiming that Romney’s comments demonstrate his disdain for half the country — has gleefully declared Romney’s presidential hopes over. Why wait for the actual public reaction when you can tell your audience how they are supposed to react?
Of course, when Obama labels Americans who disagree with him as “enemies” deserving of “punishment” or claims that the country is full of people “bitterly clinging” to their religion and guns, those are just trivial distractions, with no broader significance.
Prior to the video leak, the biggest story in world politics involved the attacks on U.S embassies in Egypt and Libya. But it wasn’t the actual attacks or their regional implications that were the newsworthy issues. Rather, it was the timing and nature of Romney’s response that dominated the media discourse. Apparently, Romney didn’t wait long enough before issuing his statement. And even if he did wait long enough, he shouldn’t have been critical of the Obama administration in the face of a tragedy on foreign soil. The media was quite clear that criticizing a sitting president at such a time is a breach of standards of civility and decency, which up to this point had been respected by all presidential candidates of both parties. Of course, when Obama criticized President Bush in 2007 immediately following the killing of a U.S. diplomatic officer in Iraq, it was simply an important contribution to a robust foreign policy debate.
And before the embassy attacks, the most important political issue of the day was … Clint Eastwood’s speech at the Republican National Convention. Both parties’ conventions featured dozens of important political and industry figures delivering speeches in support of their parties’ respective candidates. The media mostly ignored everyone but Mr. Eastwood, who deviated from the usual script and delivered an unconventional speech. Before even waiting for the dust from the speech to settle and finding out what the actual public reaction was, the media labeled the speech a “bizarre” spectacle, and confidently declared it a “disaster” for the Romney campaign.
This media’s savaging of Romney began immediately after it became clear that he was the front-runner in the Republican primary. In December 2011, The New York Times’ Paul Krugman described Romney as the biggest liar in the history of U.S. politics. And for those thinking that this attack on Romney can be dismissed as hyperbole from a single, albeit highly influential, columnist, Krugman’s statement was parroted by The Washington Monthly’s Steve Benen, Newsweek’s Andrew Sullivan and many other mainstream political pundits. Considering that the statements the media regards as Romney’s “lies” were also made by all the Republicans who were seeking the GOP nomination (e.g., that Obama has been apologizing for America), there’s little doubt that whoever represented the GOP in this election would be regarded as the biggest liar in history.
The truth is that for the upcoming election, it makes little difference how poorly the economy is doing or how well Romney runs his campaign. Like every political candidate, Romney is bound to make clumsy and self-damaging statements. And each time he does, the media will pounce with a furious sense of urgency, diverting coverage from issues likely to damage Obama’s re-election prospects.
Expect much of the same from the upcoming presidential debates, which the media will treat as nothing more than fertile ground for exposing and sensationalizing any new Romney gaffe. And to the extent Romney is able to avoid such missteps, the media will respond by simply spending more time covering the ones he has already made.
Mendy Finkel is a corporate attorney practicing in New York. He is a graduate of Columbia Law School.