Commentary Magazine


Topic: 2016 presidential campaign

Has Romney Really Thought This Out Yet?

Days after telling supporters that he is considering another run for the presidency, Mitt Romney appears to be moving quickly to prepare his campaign and to give it a clear rationale. Given that only a few weeks ago most Republicans were not exactly clamoring for the former Massachusetts governor to make a third attempt at the White House, that is probably the most important thing Romney can do. His confidants are telling reporters like Politico’s Maggie Haberman and James Hohmann that he intends to run to the right of Jeb Bush on some issues but also to make tackling the issue of poverty one of the key elements of his campaign. In theory that sounds good, but like his statements about changing his approach to a presidential run while retaining what seems like most of his 2012 staff, the disparate elements to Romney 3.0 don’t seem to match. All of which leads one to wonder just how thoroughly the normally meticulous wonkish Romney has thought all of this out prior to jumping into the fray last week.

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Days after telling supporters that he is considering another run for the presidency, Mitt Romney appears to be moving quickly to prepare his campaign and to give it a clear rationale. Given that only a few weeks ago most Republicans were not exactly clamoring for the former Massachusetts governor to make a third attempt at the White House, that is probably the most important thing Romney can do. His confidants are telling reporters like Politico’s Maggie Haberman and James Hohmann that he intends to run to the right of Jeb Bush on some issues but also to make tackling the issue of poverty one of the key elements of his campaign. In theory that sounds good, but like his statements about changing his approach to a presidential run while retaining what seems like most of his 2012 staff, the disparate elements to Romney 3.0 don’t seem to match. All of which leads one to wonder just how thoroughly the normally meticulous wonkish Romney has thought all of this out prior to jumping into the fray last week.

Romney’s entire effort seems geared toward preventing Bush from gaining a stranglehold on the party’s establishment wing and major donors. To that end, he has seized on a key flaw in Bush’s strategy: his seeming determination to run against the party’s base by sticking to his unpopular positions on Common Core and immigration. This way he’ll avoid having to tack to the right during the primaries and then back to the center in the general election as Romney did in 2012, an inelegant process that is at least partially blamed for the Republican defeat in November. Romney, who sought to appease a party base that distrusted him on ObamaCare by taking an uncompromising stand on immigration in his last campaign, understands that this could be a formula that could help a candidate from the party’s more conservative wing gain an advantage in the primaries.

Yet at the same time, Romney thinks he can talk more about poverty. Is that possible?

The short answer is that there is no contradiction between a tough stance on immigration or even education and concern about poverty. Indeed, it is high time that Republicans began following the lead of Rep. Paul Ryan (who just declared that he won’t run for president) and become the party of ideas again by charting a conservative approach to economics and opportunity that will help the poor. Indeed, the idea that the only way to help the impoverished is to create more big government and entitlements is antithetical to the notion of promoting self-sufficiency.

But it will take a deft touch on policy to be able to swing between those two modes convincingly. To imagine that Romney, a brilliant thinker and analyst but a poor political communicator, is the man to do it requires a considerable stretch of the imagination.

Even worse is the fact that the public’s image of Romney is that of a wealthy plutocrat.

It should be conceded that this image is the creation of a systematic campaign of Democratic attacks more than reality. Though he is wealthy, Romney’s extensive religious activities, a story that he and the GOP did a poor job of telling in 2012, were largely focused on good deeds and helping others. But unfair or not, politicians rarely get a second chance to define themselves before the general public. To do so on one’s third run for national office is unprecedented.

This is, after all, the same man who was caught on tape claiming that the “47 percent” of the country that were beneficiaries of government largesse would never vote for the Republicans. He disavowed that statement as an unfortunate gaffe but he reinforced it after the election on a conference call when he seemed to be saying more or less the same thing about Democrats buying the votes of various groups with funding.

For any politician to undo such an image while speaking convincingly about poverty while also running to the right of the leading moderate in the race would seem to be the sort of nuanced trick that might challenge the talents of even a communicator as skilled as a Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton. But does anyone seriously think Romney can pull it off even if it is, as it surely must be, a sincere reflection of his views?

Like the idea that he had created a completely different kind of campaign that is smarter and more attuned to technology with a lot of the same people running it, this set of ideas doesn’t exactly compute. Perhaps with more preparation and a more experienced Romney at its helm, this campaign can head off Bush, a host of conservatives challengers, and then defeat Hillary Clinton in the general election. But until this gets sorted out, it’s hard to shake the impression that all of this hasn’t been entirely thought out very well. If Romney is to succeed, he’s going to need to sort out all of this out in a manner that so far does not seem to have happened. Until he does, Jeb Bush may be forgiven for thinking that Romney’s entrance into the race is a problem but not a catastrophe.

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Hillary Clinton, the Press, and the Permanent Campaign

The Sunday column from Margaret Sullivan, the New York Times’s public editor, was an interesting and balanced consideration of a topic that will only gain in relevance to political journalism: how should reporters cover candidates who aren’t (yet) candidates? The subject was Hillary Clinton and the Times’s decision to devote the resources of a full-time reporter to cover Clinton–who has not yet announced that she is running for president–as a distinct beat, a full three years before Election Day 2016.

Sullivan quotes academics and media watchers raising the three crucial questions: Will the dedicated Clinton beat serve to pre-anoint her and reinforce the notion that she is inevitable? Is the “permanent campaign” in the public interest? Should the media resist or enable that permanent campaign? The answer to the first question is both obvious and complicated: it depends on the coverage. The answer to the second question, with regard to the press, is: that’s irrelevant. And the answer to the third is: neither.

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The Sunday column from Margaret Sullivan, the New York Times’s public editor, was an interesting and balanced consideration of a topic that will only gain in relevance to political journalism: how should reporters cover candidates who aren’t (yet) candidates? The subject was Hillary Clinton and the Times’s decision to devote the resources of a full-time reporter to cover Clinton–who has not yet announced that she is running for president–as a distinct beat, a full three years before Election Day 2016.

Sullivan quotes academics and media watchers raising the three crucial questions: Will the dedicated Clinton beat serve to pre-anoint her and reinforce the notion that she is inevitable? Is the “permanent campaign” in the public interest? Should the media resist or enable that permanent campaign? The answer to the first question is both obvious and complicated: it depends on the coverage. The answer to the second question, with regard to the press, is: that’s irrelevant. And the answer to the third is: neither.

The concern about covering Hillary Clinton is directly related, however, to the second and third questions. When the media decides that something or someone is or isn’t in the “public interest,” it will inevitably abuse the elasticity of that category. When the media sees itself as responsible for enabling or resisting trends in American politics, it tends to take sides. It is not the fault of the New York Times that the 2016 presidential campaign seems already to be under way.

If the reality is that the campaign is off and running, then the Times’s responsibility is to write about that reality, not pretend it isn’t happening because the paper’s editors or critics don’t like the timeline. What’s more, not covering the campaign could be construed as an enabling all its own; for the press to allow politicians to set their own coverage by employing legal obfuscations or linguistic shenanigans would be to abandon its obligations. Clinton is already benefiting from using her family’s tax-exempt charitable organization as a basic campaign and fundraising infrastructure. She may be well within the bounds of election law to do so, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us aren’t entitled to adhere to observable reality instead of subjecting ourselves to the classic Clintonian spin cycle.

But that doesn’t get the Times completely off the hook. The type and tone of the coverage will matter a great deal. If the media decides to follow Clinton around and perpetuate the personality cult it helped create for Barack Obama, while insulating her from serious investigation–again, as it did with Obama–the press will be doing the public a great disservice. If it can puncture the self-constructed myth Clinton seeks to create and paints an honest portrait of the candidate, it won’t be putting Clinton’s potential rivals–who don’t have wealthy donors at the beck and call of their family foundation–at a disadvantage. It will do so, however, if it acts as Clinton’s traveling press secretary.

There is also a challenge in covering the Clintons that the Times’s reporter, Amy Chozick, will have to grapple with, especially this early in the campaign. Sullivan explains:

Carl Bernstein, the Watergate reporter who wrote the well-regarded biography of Mrs. Clinton “A Woman In Charge,” told me in a phone interview that she is “really difficult to get a reportorial handle on.”

“She’s someone who tries to write her own narrative,” and who, in words from the last chapter of his book, “has a difficult relationship with the truth.” So, The Times’s putting an aggressive reporter on Mrs. Clinton early, he said, is a laudable effort to publish “the best obtainable version of the truth.”

Saying either of the Clintons “has a difficult relationship with the truth” is about the most generous way of characterizing the world of messy relativism and unprincipled triangulation of the Democratic power couple, especially considering the vicious and royal defensiveness with which it is secured. It is not an easy beat to cover because to the Clintons there are only enemies and captives, and Chozick will have no easy task to spend the next three years trying not to be either.

Chozick, to her credit, seems to understand some of these challenges. It may be too much to hope for a complete absence of puff pieces, but those will be more palatable when balanced with articles like the piece Chozick wrote along with Nicholas Confessore last week about a review of the Clinton Foundation’s finances. It found that “For all of its successes, the Clinton Foundation had become a sprawling concern, supervised by a rotating board of old Clinton hands, vulnerable to distraction and threatened by conflicts of interest. It ran multimillion-dollar deficits for several years, despite vast amounts of money flowing in.”

The piece from Chozick and Confessore dug into these and other red flags and the personalities behind them. It shows Chozick was willing to ruffle feathers and make clear from the outset that she is not there simply to republish Clinton press releases. The article also, while ostensibly describing the Clinton Foundation, depicts what a Clinton White House may look like the second time around. It isn’t especially flattering, and it won’t get Chozick a designated seat on the Clinton bandwagon. And it’s not a bad example to set for Chozick’s colleagues.

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