A few weeks ago, the Republican candidates for president came together for two hours on a Monday night for the first presidential debate of the 2012 cycle in New Hampshire. The brief summary of what transpired goes as this: Tim Pawlenty was unimpressive (blowing off prep for bowling won’t happen again), Mitt Romney won the debate, Michelle Bachmann got a lot of applause, Ron Paul got his libertarian on, and Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain duked it out in the fight for the most ridiculous comment.
Now that it is officially summer, the candidates and media turn their attention to Iowa. Home of the first in the nation January caucuses, as well as the Ames Straw Poll in August, most serious candidates try to visit as many county fairs, shake as many hands, and tirelessly criss-cross the state.
While the Ames Straw Poll and the quarterly fundraising totals are campaign stories that come down the pipe at scheduled intervals, there is a news vacuum of sorts in the coming months that puts some journalists in a bind. They have to switch from reporting to analysis and for one Howard Kurtz, that creates some problems.
This past weekend on The Daily Beast, Kurtz’s article, “Mitt Romney for President 2012: Boring Campaign May Be Genius.” In a cycle where candidates (in name or action) like Gingrich, Palin, Bachmann, and Cain have gotten coverage and in some cases traction from making off-the-wall comments, there very well could be room for a Republican candidate to run on policy, highlighting the shortcomings of the Obama administration and said candidate’s plans to right the economy and solve other issues.
Maybe Kurtz has forgotten what boring means, because the article he writes doesn’t describe Mitt Romney as a boring candidate, it describes a Mitt Romney who is running a Rose Garden strategy campaign as a challenger. Romney isn’t running as a policy wonk, he is the guy who stays away from the press to raise money. Only periodically does he make retail appearances or talk to the press, typically conservative outlets or faux-journalists like Piers Morgan (“Mitt Romney, you’ve got talent!”)
Kurtz’s article is written in the style of a Rudy Giuliani presidential campaign. Superficial, quickly brushes past serious negatives, and eager to accept any information that will fit pre-established beliefs.
Lets start with superficial. For all intents and purposes, Kurtz hands Romney the Republican nomination. Yes, of all the candidates in the GOP field, Romney is closest to Central Casting’s image of a president, and he turned in a solid performance at the New Hampshire debate earlier this month. But this is June. There are seven months until the Iowa Caucuses and more than a year until the Republican convention in St. Petersburg. A lot can happen in a year. Romney has been through this before, but so had John Edwards in 2008 and he fared no better. Romney has a lot of competition to the right of the him, to the Libertarian of him, and for his own type of voter (Mormon or centrist or Mormon centrist) from former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman Jr.
How about those serious negatives since there are a whole lot Howard Kurtz is sweeping under the rug. First, Romney’s decision to avoid the press spotlight means the only thing being written about him are “recycled gems” about his vulnerabilities and flip flops. These include, but are not limited to, his previous support of gay rights, abortion rights, and as his Republican opponent Tim Pawlenty attacked him for, Obamney Care. Yes, Mitt Romney was the governor of Massachusetts when he helped secure legislation that mandated all citizens of the state have health insurance.
With little more than a peep on these negatives from the campaign, Kurtz doesn’t examine how these factual attacks on Romney going unrefuted will affect Republican voters opinion of him during the primary season. But don’t worry about Mitt, he’s got some killer campaign plans that will get Obama next fall.
Kurtz accepts the logic of those plans eagerly. Romney’s strategists want their candidate to focus on fixing the economy. Stuart Stevens, Romney’s media adviser, tells Kurtz that Romney had no intention of running for the White House “until the economy plunged into a deep recession.” [Kurtz's words, not a direct quote from Stevens.] Right, the recession that began in December of 2007 and ended in June of 2009. A 19 month recession, of which, 14 months occurred during the Bush Administration. You know what does fall in that time span? November 5 – the morning after Obama beat McCain. That is when Romney decided to run, yet Kurtz accepts this implied Obama is responsible for the recession argument at face value.
The effectiveness of the strategy also goes unexamined. Kurtz explains that the Romney camp has posted online videos about the “Obama Misery Index,” while the candidate focuses on 9 percent unemployment with periodic retail appearance and sometimes engagement with the press. While Kurtz does acknolwedge that a Romney appearance in Florida (Giuliani style!) was dogged by a joke about Romney being unemployed too, he ignores how Romney committed an unforced error when that quip became a story of its own. Kurtz either ignores or is unaware that a Romney “Obama Misery Index” video features a recent college grad who talks about being out of work, despite the fact that the guy has a job. It is not that there aren’t folks who can’t find work, it is that the Romney campaign was too lazy to find one of them and instead chose a Republican volunteer for the gig. As of yet, Romney’s job plan sounds like it is a job plan for one: him.
All of this could be a little more forgivable, or at least less aggravating, if this was a profile piece, not an article fronting as legitimate analysis. However, Kurtz sums up his argument with a recent ABC News poll that has Romney leading Obama 49 to 46, and pacing his other Republican rivals when they go head-to-head against the president. That argument should make you want to shout: POST HOC ERGO PROPTER HOC! Just because the poll happened after the campaign implemented their jobs strategy does not mean it is the reason Romney has a three point lead. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that Romney is a known commodity having run in 2008. And all his other declared rivals are far less well known. And while we are at it, can we agree to a moratorium on citing national polls more than a year and a half before the election as a solid barometer of anything when a candidate still has to go through primary season? Oh wait, the most recent poll in Iowa has Romney and Bachmann all tied up, which would torpedo Kurtz’s argument that he could defeat her.
Kurtz admits the Romney avoidance plan has an expiration date come the fall when the race heats up and his rivals are “fully engaged.” Kurtz compares this time of the campaign season to spring training. I’ve got to disagree with him wholeheartedly here. These summer days are the regular season. It is a 162 game season, including the dog days of summer. Those campaigns that make it as far as the late fall and survive through winter caucuses and primaries are duking it out in the playoffs. Spring training is over and Romney’s strategy may help him in the short term, but it will hurt him in the long run.
You know who knows this? Real reporters. Yesterday’s First Read placed the candidate’s activities in Iowa as their first story. President Obama was there giving a speech on manufacturing, Sarah Palin was there for the premiere of the documentary on her time as governor of Alaska, and Michele Bachmann announced her candidacy in Waterloo, Iowa over this past Monday. By not making Iowa a priority now – Romney is skipping the Ames Straw Poll – there is a serious chance, he could hurt his chances of picking it up if he becomes the Republican nominee next year. And unlike Kurtz’s national poll loving, First Read explains how any Republican nominee will most likely need two of three states of Iowa, Ohio, and Wisconsin to unseat President Obama.
You aren’t going to find that type of reporting in Kurtz’s article because it is a puff piece parading as serious analysis.