How The Press Helped Romney Reinvent Himself

Analyzing the presidential campaign in the wake of the first debate, Time's Mark Halperin wrote on October 10 that Mitt Romney's sudden “rush to the center” politically had emerged as the key topic - “the central tactical issue”-- for the Barack Obama's team to address. Halperin stressed it would be a challenge for Democrats because the Romney's campaign's “brazen chutzpah knows no bounds.”

How odd. At the first debate Romney had so brashly reinvented himself by shifting his position on taxation, immigration and health care away from the Republican Party, that the onus was on Obama to counter Romney's slick maneuver. In other words, Romney's flip-flops, according to Halperin, were a major problem for the Obama campaign, not for the Republican who late in the game unveiled a new political persona.  (Farewell "severely conservative.")

It's also telling that on October 10, Halperin considered Romney's makeover into a moderate to be the campaign's dominant issue. Yet one week earlier on the night of the first debate when Halperin graded both participants, the pundit made no reference to Romney's “rush to the center.” In real time, Halperin heaped praise on Romney's style "(Started strong, level, and unrattled -- and strengthened as he went along") as well as his substance (“He clearly studied hard.”) 

Final grade, Romney: A-

Between the first debate and October 10,  Romney's brazen flip-flops were not subject to any serious critique from Time's political team. What coverage Romney received for altering his campaign positions (aka his "tack toward the political center") mostly revolved around how conservative activists reacted to Romney's sudden embrace of moderate rhetoric. (They're totally fine with it.) Time was much less interested in what the about-faces said about Romney's candidacy, his character or what his presidency might look like.

The fact that the Republican candidate had radically altered his positions on core domestic issues just one month before Election Day was not treated as a campaign evolution that reflected poorly on Romney. To the contrary, it was largely portrayed as a savvy move by the Republican.

Time's soft peddling of Romney's broad reinvention was typical of how the Beltway press has politely covered the candidate's latest chameleon turn.

Politicians once flip-flopped at their own risk knowing the price they'd likely pay from the hypocrisy-sensitive press corps. Indeed, there was a time when it meant something if a candidate made it clear he didn't believe what he had been saying on the campaign trial, and the press held that revelation against the candidate. Recall that Al Gore was hammered in the press in 2000 as a politician without any core convictions. And George W. Bush's 2004 re-election campaign was largely built around calling Sen. John Kerry a flip-flopper; a tag that stuck thanks in part to the press coverage.

But this campaign Romney has mostly skated through his latest reincarnation, as pundits marvel at the political ease and wisdom of his flip-flops: “Crafty” announced The Daily Beast. At BuzzFeed, Blake Zeff suggested Romney had bet his entire campaign on the hope that “the era of the flip-flop as untenable, campaign-ending, non-starter is over.”  It if is, Romney has the press to thank.

Just look at how his jarring reversals have been watered down in recent days [emphasis added]:

• “Romney ditched that strategy and repeatedly softened the ideological contrasts with Obama.” [Daily Beast]

•  “Romney polished the rough edges” [Los Angeles Times]

•  “Behind the new efforts by the Romney campaign to soften his conservative edges”  [New York Times]

•  "It also meant altering or softening his positions on a handful of bedrock issues." (BuzzFeed)

Romney abandoning the hard-right persona he crafted and campaigned on for the last four years is 'softening the edges'? Besides, Romney's maneuver is no big deal, goes the media narrative, because candidates always shift their beliefs for the general election.

From the Washington Post:

Of course, a second-half pivot is a time-honored maneuver in the political playbook. In a primary campaign, a candidate must play to the passions of the base; as he moves toward the general election, the sensibilities of swing voters become paramount.

Right. But we're not talking about a “time honored” primary-to-general election pivot happening now. We're talking about a candidate who was trailing in the polls and who decided in October to reinvent himself. That's not the norm in American politics, although the press has tried to pretend it is. Note that when Obama did reverse his position on the issue gay marriage in May, he offered a public, detailed explanation as to why. Not Romney. He doesn't bother to explain his campaign 180s and the press doesn't seem care.

They're too busy admiring the “chutzpah,” as Halperin called it.

These tweets last week from Politico reporter Ben White helped capture the media's admiration for Romney's flip-flops:

Very soon the Mitt Romney who ran in the primaries will be entirely erased. In his place will be a moderate who may win.

-- Ben White (@morningmoneyben) October 10, 2012

Want to know why Romney is softening on abortion? Married moms in swing states, per Bloomberg poll.

-- Ben White (@morningmoneyben) October 10, 2012

Dismiss it as etch-a-sketch if you will but the Romney reinvention is brilliant politics

-- Ben White (@morningmoneyben) October 10, 2012

See? Romney's reinvention, his decision to alter his views on the central issues of the campaign weeks before Election Day, is “brilliant.” The brash flip-flopping doesn't reflect poorly on the candidate or suggest that Romney's unsure, or unprincipled, about his positions. Instead, it signals savvy politics and “crafty” campaigning.

For the final push of this campaign Mitt Romney is trying to reinvent himself as a moderate, less-scary Republican. And the press is helping him at every turn.