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Romney’s Choice: Be Reagan, Not Nixon

In the last week, the Romney campaign got a taste of some of the same treatment from the mainstream media that has afflicted Republicans for decades. The GOP candidate’s foreign trip was widely lampooned. The substantive issues he discussed in Israel and Poland were buried underneath a torrent of ridicule because of his Olympics gaffe as well as the media’s blind acceptance of the false idea he had misspoken about the Palestinians. Some of the frustration of the Romney camp became visible today in Warsaw, when a staffer blew up as reporters shouted questions at the candidate as he left a wreath at the Polish Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

The irony is, as Politico reports, members of the media had their own beef with Romney because he has largely stiffed them on the trip, affording them virtually no opportunities to ask questions or interact with the man they are covering. There are some lessons to be learned here for the Romney campaign, though those in his camp may be too mad about the poor treatment their guy has gotten to pay attention. Nevertheless, now would be a good time for them to remember that while they cannot undo liberal media bias, there are better ways to cope with it. Indeed, the choice for every Republican or conservative is pretty much the same as it has always been. Romney can try and be a Ronald Reagan, and he and his team can present a positive face to the country and the media no matter how badly he’s treated, or he can be another Richard Nixon and scowl and fight with the press.

I think we all know which of those two scenarios will work out better, so here are four easy rules for coping with the problem of media bias that Romney and every Republican ought to follow:

1. Gaffes are nobody’s fault but your own. Liberal bias cannot be wished away, but you can control how you act and what you say. It does no good to complain about the media when your candidate hands them his head on a silver platter. What Romney said about the London Olympics was probably true, but he ought to know better than to say so out loud in public.

2. The press may be the enemy, but walling yourself off from them isn’t going to make things better. It’s true that no presidential candidate was more inaccessible than Barack Obama was in 2008, and his press conferences since then have been few and far between, but any Republican who expects to be treated fairly isn’t smart enough to be president. Conservatives may have snickered at John McCain’s openness with the press in 2000 and during the 2008 primaries, but it worked–at least for a while. It may not be possible to do that under Romney’s current circumstances, but he should be prepared to expose himself more often to tough, even adversarial questions. It won’t be any easier when he squares off with Barack Obama in the October debates.

3. Smile and stay on message. Romney has had his moments of public irritation during the campaign, but in general, he has avoided meltdowns. While affable, he lacks the common touch that great politicians instinctively possess. This is not a fatal flaw, but he needs to make a greater effort to tell us what kind of person he is. Modern campaigns think they can bypass a biased media and address the public without the filter of the press, but that doesn’t remove an obligation to try and do better. Even if you believe, as Rush Limbaugh does, that some in the media are trying to create gaffes as much as report them, Romney will do better to show some humility and laugh at himself more often. That’s a tactic that can disarm even the nastiest of critics. Like it or not, the media still has a large audience, so it is Romney’s obligation to show the press he is as good a guy as those who know him say he is. And his staff needs to follow the same pattern.

4. The message, not the media, is what counts most. Right now, the Romney camp is fuming about what they think is the media’s sabotaging of his foreign tour. But he needs to remember that he didn’t go to Britain, Israel and Poland to play media games but to put his foreign policy agenda on display. Romney may have undermined that effort in Britain, but his speech in Israel on the Iranian threat and his acknowledgement that Jerusalem was the country’s capital was exactly what he needed to do. The Polish visit and the endorsement of Lech Walesa did the same. Instead of worrying about what the press is saying, the Romney camp needs to be showing confidence.

The bottom line is that no matter how raw a deal you’ve received, whining about media bias does nothing but make a candidate look weak and stupid. Republicans can’t alter liberal media bias, but they can rise above it. The sooner Romney’s camp realizes this and starts reading from Reagan’s playbook, the better off they’ll be.