It’s Destroying American Politics
By Brian Rosenwald
Special To The Washington Post
Many Republicans take it as an article of faith that Mitt Romney was badly mistreated by Democrats and the mainstream media during the 2012 presidential campaign.
Republicans blamed mistreatment of Romney for ushering in the Trump tide, but Romney proved prescient about Russia, which he memorably called America’s “number one geopolitical foe.”
Most recently, conservative commentator S.E. Cupp tweeted, “When you think about that, I hope it’s crystallized that Democrats tried to demonize a good man with awful invective that wasn’t true. Those controversies were propped up by the media. And that was a disgraceful failure of the press, which has contributed to a huge distrust.”
But Romney was treated no worse than countless presidential candidates in both parties over the last half-century. Rather than damning evidence that Democrats and the media (rather than Republicans) paved the way for Trump, Romney’s experience is an indictment of a longstanding -- and damaging -- obsession with gaffes and scandals that dominates our politics.
American politics has always been brutish. But changes in the media over the last half-century, along with an intense focus on every word candidates say and every mistake they make has resulted in saturation coverage of peccadillos and blunders rather than policies. This may be a good business model for the media, and effective politically, but it has undermined attempts by both parties to overcome polarization and govern.
Campaign hardball is nothing new, but between the death of the 19th-century partisan press and the mid-1960s, journalists maintained a coziness with elected officials and kept their personal secrets off the record. Journalists guarded the truth about Franklin Roosevelt’s paralysis and declined to question his fitness for office, even as his health slipped in his third term, while John F. Kennedy, revered by many in the press corps, never saw his sexual liaisons splashed across the front page.
The Vietnam War began to change this posture. As officials maintained that the war was going well, even as video from the battlefield made clear it was not, a credibility gap emerged and led to newfound scrutiny of public officials -- something partisans took advantage of.
The exposés of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate gave rise to a new era of investigative journalism. The press became more adversarial, looking to pounce on any perceived misdeed or character flaw as journalists sought to become the next Woodward and Bernstein and expose the next Watergate.
But not all gotcha moments revealed the sort of corruption and lies that those famous investigations revealed. In 1972, Democratic frontrunner Ed Muskie braved a snowstorm to fire back against charges leveled against him and his wife by Manchester Union Leader publisher William Loeb. But when Muskie’s voice broke during the press conference, some national reporters interpreted moisture on his face as tears -- not melted snow, as campaign aides later insisted -- and wrote that he had wept. This called into question Muskie’s emotional stability and dealt a critical blow to his presidential hopes. A moment that had little to do with Muskie’s capability or stances resulted in critical coverage that drove away voters.
Two other changes in the 1970s and early 1980s exacerbated the tendency to put candidates under the microscope. As conservatives pressed the media for fairer coverage, the press settled into a both-sides approach to fairness, demonstrating their objectivity by including a voice from the left and a voice from the right in most stories. While this sounds fair, it allowed spin artists to push claims regardless of their veracity, knowing they would be included for balance.
Technological changes furthered this trend. The 1980 launch of CNN spawned a 24-7 news cycle, creating a programming need for saturation coverage of any gaffe or perceived scandal.
These shifts all meant candidates had to withstand ever-greater scrutiny over ever-smaller flaws.
Politicians aimed to manipulate these new media dynamics, offering spin targeted to meet the media’s needs, while also “working the refs” and building extensive dirt-digging operations designed to offer up unflattering tidbits on the opposition.
These changes made it that much easier for politicians to take their adversaries down through innuendo and overblown charges. In 1988, it was Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis who unraveled after a string of such moments. His opponent, Vice President George H.W. Bush, participated in the onslaught, questioning Dukakis’ patriotism because he vetoed a bill requiring teachers to lead students in the Pledge of Allegiance. Bush’s allegation ignored the fact that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court advised Dukakis that the bill was unconstitutional. But facts didn’t matter. The charges stuck.
In response to these claims that he was unpatriotic and weak on defense, Dukakis’ team staged a poorly conceived photo op in which a helmeted Dukakis rode around in a tank. The media aired the cartoonish image repeatedly, and it quickly became the butt of jokes and the focus of Republican attacks.
Not that the press needed the other party’s help. Journalists often took candidates down on their own by wildly distorting the magnitude of a sin (like, say, a private email server).
In 2000, the media relentlessly scrutinized Vice President Al Gore’s word choice, fueling a narrative that he struggled with the truth, even though most of his misstatements were mild exaggerations or failures of memory. Commentators and reporters also adopted Republican spin that the real story of the first presidential debate was Gore’s affect -- his sighs and exaggerated reactions to Bush’s statements -- rather than the debate’s substance. As a result, poll respondents who didn’t watch the debate saw their perception of Gore’s performance slip over the subsequent week, whereas those who watched continued to believe that he had won.
Even more egregiously, in 2004, Democratic nominee John Kerry, a distinguished veteran, was slimed by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth -- a group with deep Republican ties that assailed his military service with claims that were largely debunked. In the first month after the first Swift Boat Vets ads appeared, the press devoted intense attention to the claims without adequately interrogating them.
Countless other candidates in both parties, including Romney’s father, George, George H.W. Bush and Howard Dean, similarly saw campaigns collapse thanks to gross distortions or unyielding coverage of verbal miscues or over-interpreted gestures.
And so, the harsh treatment of Romney and the emphasis on missteps like his infamous binders full of women gaffe was not the exception but the rule in American politics. It exposed the usual political tactics and media coverage that have marked our campaigns for decades.
His champions today are correct that Romney is a good, decent person -- far less objectionable than President Trump. But they are incorrect that his treatment was an unusually fierce partisan slime job or the product of biased media.
Instead, his experience reflected a broken political process that forces candidates to withstand two years of relentless scrutiny from partisans. The media, in turn, magnifies even the smallest missteps with wall-to-wall coverage, including point-counterpoint segments that amplify partisan claims and serve as a substitute for analysis or rigorous fact-checking.
This coverage, in turn, strikes the aggrieved candidates’ supporters as unfair, building mistrust toward the media that impedes journalists’ ability to hold candidates accountable for actual crimes and corruption. The relentless scandal-mongering also anesthetizes the electorate to real flaws that expose a lack of fitness for office.
Instead of trying to shame Democrats and the media, Republicans lamenting Romney’s treatment ought to focus on reorienting our politics and media coverage to focus on issues and qualifications, instead of dissecting and nitpicking each sentence and facial expression. The result might be smaller ratings, but would be a far healthier democracy.
Brian Rosenwald is a senior fellow at the Fox Leadership Program at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the co-editors of Made by History. He is working on a book on the rise of talk radio and its political and policy impact between 1988 and 2016.