Many conservatives are confidently dismissing the impact of the Washington Post’s assault on Mitt Romney’s character in the form of its story on his high school pranks. They believe most Americans can see through the bias of the piece as well as the timing of its publication online yesterday so as to coincide with President Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage. They hope that along with the nasty attacks on Romney’s religion and the effort to portray him as an aloof rich guy who doesn’t understand Americans, this latest outrageous illustration of the liberal media’s tilt against Republicans will backfire.
They may be right, as it is doubtful that too many voters worried about the country’s sinking economy will regard an investigative piece about what Romney did at school nearly 50 years ago as a reason to re-elect President Obama. Yet Republicans should not underestimate the impact of what is probably only one of the opening salvos in a campaign to delegitimize the GOP standard bearer by Obama’s cheerleaders in the press. The plain fact is that although Mitt Romney has been in the public eye for many years, including a presidential run in 2008, most Americans have probably yet to really understand who he is and what kind of man he is. With the liberal media starting to pile on Romney in the wake of the Post attack, it’s becoming clear that one of the critical aspects of the 2012 election will be whether it will be Romney or his detractors who will have the last word on his image.
That’s why Romney’s camp should take seriously critiques such as those of Howard Fineman, who wrote today in the Huffington Post to pile on Romney in the wake of the Post attack. Fineman’s attempt to make an issue of Romney’s hazy memory of schoolboy antics is both nasty and weak stuff. But he’s right when he warns that this is exactly the sort of smear that can stick to the candidate because the narrative of his life is not already set in the minds of most Americans.
Along with many others, in my reaction to the Post article, I pointed out the hypocrisy of a newspaper that didn’t put much effort into vetting Barack Obama four years ago subjecting Romney to this kind of scrutiny. In 2008, Republicans spent much of the year being frustrated by the media’s lack of interest in Obama’s unsavory connections in both his political and personal life. But the problem was more than just media bias. Much of the public didn’t seem to care either. That was because Obama’s image as the overachieving, eloquent African-American who was bound to make history had been set in stone early on in the campaign. Once established as a seminal and even historic figure — albeit one who had not done anything of note yet — Obama became virtually untouchable. Nor has his status as being above the normal adversarial scrutiny of the press changed during his years in the White House.
But Romney has no such advantage. The situation is quite to the contrary. If the fact that the next few months will be a virtual open season on the Republican candidate on the part of the national media hasn’t been made clear to the GOP yet, it should be now.
Romney’s personal story is actually quite impressive in that he brings to the table success in the real life world of business rather than being a political lifer. His personal life is also exemplary, something that has forced the left to talk endlessly about his dog Seamus’s ride on the roof of a car and high school pranks.
For much of the primary campaign, Romney’s team concentrated on trying to define his opponents negatively. That worked, but it devoted relatively little time to talking about their man’s strong case for the presidency. That has got to change and change quick if the GOP is to avoid having its standard bearer carpet bombed even before nominating conventions.