January 5, 2012 · 2 Comments
By Marie Burns:
If you read the New York Times print edition today, you just may think GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney is a jolly, politically-independent pragmatist, a candidate his Democratic opponents have unfairly and unwisely labeled a flip-flopper. For the most part, you have to go elsewhere to find out otherwise.
In a column titled “Waiting for Mitt the Moderate,” Nicholas Kristof writes,
As recently as 2002, in his successful run for governor of Massachusetts, [Romney] described himself this way: 'People recognize that I am not a partisan Republican, that I’m someone who is moderate, and that my views are progressive.'
That was accurate, and Romney became an excellent, moderate and pragmatic governor of Massachusetts. But then, in 2005, he apparently began to fancy himself as Republican presidential timber and started veering to the right in what we can all pray was a cynical, unprincipled pander....
Democratic claims of constant inconstancy seem exaggerated. The excellent Web site FactCheck.org found that most of the accusations in the Democrats’ video were dubious. Typically, Romney had a fairly complex position, and the Democrats caricatured it to portray a flip that wasn’t there or that was ambiguous....
If we do see, as I expect we will, a reversion in the direction of the Massachusetts Romney, that’s a flip we should celebrate. Until the Republican primaries sucked him into its vortex, he was a pragmatist and policy wonk rather similar to Bill Clinton and President Obama but more conservative. (Clinton described Romney to me as having done 'a very good job' in Massachusetts.) Romney was much closer to George H.W. Bush than to George W. Bush.
Kristof asserts that FactCheck.org is “an excellent Web site.” He seems unaware of – or is unwilling to share with readers – the controversies surrounding fact-checking organizations like FactCheck.org and PolitiFact. This year, liberals went ballistic when PolitiFact chose as its “Lie of the Year” the Democrats' claim that the House/Paul Ryan budget would “end Medicare as we know it.” The New York Times' Paul Krugman was among many commentators who vehemently disputed PolitiFact's claim. PolitiFact's defense? FactCheck.org backed up PolitiFact’s dispute with the Democrats' GOP Medicare charge. But, as conservative writer Ramesh Ponnuru told NPR, “A fairly large proportion of the time, [the fact-checkers] are not actually calling out factual inaccuracies — they are suggesting that their interpretation of facts is superior to the one that a politician is offering.” Ponnuru agreed with the Democrats' claims that Republicans in the House passed a bill that would end Medicare. He said that “the end result of fact-checking efforts like PolitiFact is to shut down intense political discourse.” Kristof should have at least alluded to the possibility that FactCheck.org might not be totally reliable. Instead, he gave FactCheck.org his unconditional seal of approval. Their work is “excellent.”
Kristof then claims that FactCheck.org found that “most of” the Democrats' accusations about Romney's flip-flops were “dubious.” That's not quite true. FactCheck.org analyzed 15 claims and found that nine were not flip-flops and six were flip-flops. (One they rated a half-flip; another they called a flip-flop-flip.) I guess you could call 9 out of 15 “most of.” I would say “the majority of.” But if you look at those nine instances where FactCheck.org gave Romney a pass, you'll find that the fact-checkers were extremely generous to Romney. For instance, FactCheck.org said Romney did not flip on Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Really? In 1994, Romney said DADT “is the first of a number of steps that will ultimately lead to gays and lesbians being able to serve openly and honestly in our nation’s military.” In June 2011, he said, “I believe that ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ should have been kept in place until conflict was over.” Well, it depends on the meaning of “ultimately,” doesn't it? I would say 17 years – almost a generation – is pretty darned closed to “ultimately.” Young Americans eligible for military service in 2011 were a year old when Romney said gays should ultimately be allowed to serve openly. And exactly when is “conflict over” in a perpetual war? Well, “ultimately,” never.
When, during a debate, Romney said he had never hired an illegal immigrant, then admitted less than three minutes later that his lawn service employed illegal immigrants, FactCheck.org labeled that “an embarrassment,” not a flip-flop. That was another one of the nine the organization said the Democrats got wrong. In several other cases where FactCheck.org gave Romney a pass, Romney's changes in policy were well-orchestrated rebranding. For instance, according to FactCheck.org, Romney has not flip-flopped on “ObamaCare.” But to say he has flip-flop-flip-flop-flipped is closer to the truth. Take a look at this April 2010 video, where Romney says he would repeal some of ObamaCare, but “keep the good.” Now he says he would “repeal ObamaCare his first day in office.” He is all over the board on this. For FactCheck.org to claim – as it does – that Romney has not flip-flopped on healthcare reform is disingenuous, at best.
In other words, where Kristof asserts that “most of” the Democrats' claims were “dubious,” it can easily be demonstrated that Kristof's – and FactCheck.org's – claims are just as dubious. Kristof paints a rosy, inaccurate picture of Romney's record.
Helene Cooper and Mark Landler write what I guess is supposed to be an analysis for the Times' print edition (page A16) of the Obama campaign's strategy for weakening Romney:
Mr. Obama’s political brain-trust trained most of its fire on him, painting him as both a Wall Street 1 percent type and an unprincipled flip-flopper. How long the Obama campaign can condemn Mr. Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, on both counts is not clear, given that independent voters may view his protean tendencies as evidence of pragmatism.
This is the same argument Frank Bruni made in his New York Times column yesterday. I thought it was stupid then, and I think it's stupid now. David Axelrod, the Obama campaign strategist, apparently agrees with me: “Taking two positions on every fundamental issue doesn’t make you a centrist; it makes you a charlatan.” Obviously, in the general election, Obama will not emphasize the fact that Romney once claimed he was an anti-Reagan independent; instead, the Obama campaign will go after the new Moderate Mitt as a phony who was a rabid right-winger a whole month before. When Mitt takes a new flip, Democrats will remind voters of the last Tea Party-friendly flop. As political scientist John Sides tells Cooper and Landler, “It might be more effective to concentrate on the conservatism.” No kidding.
Meanwhile, Jeff Zeleny and Jim Rutenberg write the front-page news article for the print edition of the New York Times with this lede: “Mitt Romney flew here Wednesday, displaying his financial and organizational muscle in New Hampshire against the upstart candidacy of Rick Santorum....” To read Zeleny and Rutenberg's piece, you would think Mitt had a great day, doing a victory lap on morning teevee, jetting from Iowa to New Hampshire in style, accepting the endorsement of former rival John McCain, and jovially touring New Hampshire with the state's leading Republicans.
The funny thing is, columnist Dana Milbank of the Washington Post went to the same events Zeleny and Rutenberg describe, and Milbank's lede is, “If this is Mitt Romney’s idea of a victory rally, one shudders to think what would have happened if he had lost the Iowa caucuses.” Milbank writes, “When [Romney] went to the back of the plane to visit the press corps, he made a labored attempt to demonstrate that he was at ease.” Milbank goes on to describe the McCain endorsement as a tortuous event in which McCain “grimaced,” grew “increasingly impatient..., checked his watch,” during Romney speech. Then in his endorsement speech, McCain almost forgot to mention Romney's Iowa win, which the senator mockingly described as “a landslide.” (Romney won by 8 votes, a statistical tie.) Afterwards, Romney Occupy infiltrators ambushed Romney with embarrassing questions. Romney, according to Milbank, “menaced” one of the Occupy questioners.
A story posted at about the same time as Zeleny and Rutenberg's article – this one by Michael Barbaro and Ashley Parker – does appear on page A-14 of the dead-tree edition of the New York Times and more-or-less backs up Milbank's account of the Romney-McCain event. (By of 8:00 am ET this morning, the Barbaro-Parker story had fallen off the front page of the online edition of the Times.) The Barbaro-Parker account still portrays Romney's day-after-Iowa in a decidedly more positive light than does Milbank's. Perhaps that is appropriate in that the Times writers wrote a straight news story and Milbank is an opinion columnist. Barbaro and Parker say the Romney-McCain event “went by the script.... Yet the two men made little eye contact, even when Mr. Romney was introducing Mr. McCain. They shared a stiff, half-hug on stage, patting each other on the back in a perfunctory manner. And they exchanged detached banter about the weather in Arizona.” Then the Times reporters go positive: they write that McCain paid Romney “his highest compliment.” They add, “the half-glow of a thin victory pervaded the day. Campaign aides erupted in applause when he boarded his plane from Iowa to New Hampshire, prompting a rare display of swagger from Mr. Romney, who answered them with effusive congratulations.” Milbank described Romney as wearing the same wooden smile throughout the flight, whether he was going into the bathroom or thanking his staff.
Op-ed writer Gail Collins, whose column is about the Not-Romneys, does say this about the Romney-McCain pas de deux:
McCain’s old loathing of Romney has now been totally overshadowed by his hatred of President Obama. 'You can’t hide from your record of making this country bankrupt, from destroying our national security and making this nation one that we have to restore with Mitt Romney as president of the United States of America!' McCain snarled into the mic. It was an endorsement, but not the feel-good moment we were sort of looking for.
Collins is kind enough to remind us why we are glad the grumpy old man did not get the job Romney has spent the last seven or so years vying for. And she finishes by repeating the story of Romney strapping his dog to the roof of the car for a family trip to Canada. In case you missed that.
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com