If Mitt Romney manages to capture the Republican Party's presidential nomination next year, he and his staffers might just look back to the second week in August as the crucial turning point in the campaign.
And no, I'm not referring to his manufactured victory in the Iowa straw poll in Ames. I'm talking about the colossal campaign blunder Romney uncorked on the stump just days before the poll, and how, thanks to a lapdog press corps, the candidate was able to dodge what could have been a painful, self-inflicted wound.
The episode highlights the clear double standard political pundits and reporters use when judging Democratic and Republican presidential candidates by their embarrassing, unscripted moments out on the stump. For Democrats, foul-ups are often portrayed as revealing moments of character. Yet when a Republican candidate like Romney lets loose with what even one conservative blogger called "the dumbest answer ever by a presidential candidate," the press turns away.
Romney's gaffe occurred on August 8, while at an "Ask Mitt Anything" Town Hall meeting in Bettendorf, Iowa. That's where Rachel Griffiths got up and asked Romney if any of his five sons were serving in the military, and if not, how did they plan to support the war against terrorism? "The good news is that we have a volunteer Army and that's the way we're going to keep it," Romney told the crowd, adding, "[O]ne of the ways my sons are showing support for our nation is helping to get me elected, because they think I'd be a great president."
You don't have to be a paid political observer to instantly recognize that Romney really stepped in it by equating his sons volunteering to help get their millionaire dad elected president with other people's sons volunteering to serve in Iraq. I mean, does elitism on the campaign trail come any more unvarnished than that?
The remark, posted on YouTube, was especially offensive considering Romney campaigns as a gung-ho supporter of the Iraq war and has been urging support for President Bush's war policy. The "good news," according to Romney, was that his kids don't have to fight if they don't want to.
And remember, this occurred during the dog days of summer when campaign reporters are usually desperate for fresh news material. But not desperate enough, apparently, to simply report the fact that when asked about making sacrifices to fight the war against terrorism and volunteering to serve in Iraq, one high-profile GOP hopeful announced that his Army-age sons were showing their patriotism by trying to get their dad elected president.
Rachel Griffiths, who asked Romney the question, quickly posted her account at Daily Kos, one of the most widely read political websites in the world. The influential liberal site Eschaton immediately crowned Romney its "Wanker of the Day." Over at The Huffington Post, the widely read progressive news and opinion hub, the AP's article on Romney and his sons was highlighted as the top story all day long. And Jon Stewart's The Daily Show mocked Romney, as did NBC's Jay Leno.
What's even more telling is that as word of Romney's gaffe ricocheted around the web, even conservative bloggers agreed the candidate's answer was just plain dumb, creating rare bipartisan ridicule:
- Allahpundit: "Oof. Either this came out wrong or he was caught surprisingly flat-footed by the question; as stated, it sounds awful."
- Outside the Beltway's James Joyner: "Mitt Romney has given what may be the dumbest answer ever by a presidential candidate. ... Now, I fully agree with Romney that we have an all-volunteer force and that his sons have every right to decide Army life isn't for them. But, sheesh, let's not pretend campaigning for dad's political ambitions is somehow equivalent to going to war."
- NRO's Jim Geraghty: "While participating in our democratic elections process by volunteering for a campaign is often a good thing, I don't think it ought to be compared to military service... Seems like comparing apples and oranges, to me."
The Romney story garnered lots of online buzz, which meant every journalist covering the campaign knew about Romney's clumsy/offensive comments. The mainstream press, however, remained completely uninterested.
In the 24 hours following his miscue, I found, using TVEyes.com, 71 mentions of Romney on network and cable television, as well as National Public Radio. Of those 71 mentions, less than six dealt with his comment about his kids helping to get him elected. In fact, three days after it occurred, I still could not find any proof in CNN's transcripts that the news outlet ever reported Romney's outrageous comment. I repeat: CNN never reported the story.
The morning after Romney's blunder, The Boston Globe, Newsday, the Chicago Tribune, and the Orlando Sentinel ran brief, 100-200-word items about it. USA Today included just a couple of sentences about the gaffe at the bottom of a longer Romney campaign report.
Incredibly, those were the only major American newspapers in the country to touch on the story in real time. I have a hard time imagining the same deafening silence would have met Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) or John Edwards if they had made such dismissive and condescending remarks as suggesting their children served their country not by serving in the military, but by working the rope line on their parents' campaigns.
Keep in mind that Romney was crisscrossing Iowa for the entire week, which meant reporters had opportunities to ask the candidate follow-up questions about his controversial remarks prior to the Iowa straw poll. From what I can determine, no journalist did that for days.
The issue, though, clearly struck a nerve with voters who, three times in three days, pressed Romney about his sons not serving in the military. Still, journalists descending into Iowa last week by the plane-load to cover the straw vote couldn't have cared less.
And it wasn't just the Old Media's print and broadcast outlets that passed on the Romney story. The swarm of online websites affiliated with, or backed by, traditional media companies also ignored the Iowa whopper; sites that are dedicated to vacuuming up every conceivable campaign development.
Yet in the very specific time frame of the 24 hours following Romney's comments about his sons, most of those sites were mum about the gaffe.
During that 24-hour window, MSNBC's First Read posted more than one dozen campaign news updates. None of them concerned the Romney slip-up. (First Read thought the utterly irrelevant online video debut of the Romney Girls clip was newsworthy, yet Romney comparing his sons' volunteer campaign service with serving in Iraq was not.)
On Aug. 9, ABC's First Look, the early morning precursor to its daily tip sheet The Note, linked to 35 must-read articles for campaign junkies that day. None of them were about the Romney story. Hours later, when The Note was posted, it reported that the Romney campaign had succeeded "in (partially) redirecting the storyline away from his thud of a joke equating military service with his sons' decision to campaign for him." [Emphasis added.]
A joke? Again, here's a clip of Romney's answer. I'm hard-pressed to label it "a joke." But by characterizing the statement as such, The Note certainly helped soften the blow for the Romney camp.
Meanwhile, Washingtonpost.com's The Fix posted five items in the 24 hours following Romney's comments -- none were about the candidate's misstep. Also, Washingtonpost.com's The Trail, dubbed the "daily dairy of campaign 2008," posted 15 updates during that time frame: Zero dealt with Romney's comments.
Also, CBSNews.com's Pure Horserace made no mention of the Romney controversy.
Newsweek.com posted nothing about Romney's misstep.
The Washington Times' Stephen Dinan, who blogs exclusively about the Republican candidates, failed to report the Romney blunder.
Mike Allen's daily nuts-and-bolts campaign round-up, Politico Playbook, neglected, on Aug. 9, to mention Romney's gaffe.
Allen's Politico colleague, blogger Jonathan Martin got it right, though, posting almost immediately on August 8 that for Romney to draw a comparison between Iraq and Iowa was politically "dangerous." Martin wondered "[w]hether the comments have political legs" and suggested that would be determined by whether or not Romney's Republican rivals decide to make his blunder an issue, especially McCain, whose sons are currently serving in the military.
Two points there: When 'news' broke about John Edwards' expensive haircuts, journalists did not wait for Edwards' political rivals to elevate the issue; they did that on their own. And they had to because none of Edwards' Democratic opponents has ever suggested his haircuts were important. Journalists loved the haircut angle because they claimed it revealed a hidden truth about the candidate, so they wrote about it incessantly. The same journalists could have made the same determination about the Romney story. (i.e. another pro-war Republican with no military connection or tradition.) Instead, they came to the opposite conclusion and determined the story was meaningless. They chose to ignore it.
Second, as for McCain's response to the Romney quote, NBC's Matt Lauer had a chance the following morning on the Today show to raise the issue with McCain. And he did. But Lauer completely soft-pedaled the story by asking McCain it if was "fair criticism of Romney that none of his sons serves in the military."
D'oh! Romney's comments weren't newsworthy because his sons don't serve in the military. They were newsworthy because Romney compared their volunteer duty driving a Winnebago around Iowa with serving in a war in Iraq. Lauer didn't just bury the lede, he buried the entire story.
I must say, MSNBC television producers seemed to be alone in having their news antenna up and working on the Romney story. Live with Dan Abrams quickly tagged Romney as one of the day's Losers, in its Winners and Losers segment, for "pronouncing his sons were supporting the nation by pounding the pavement to help him get elected."
The following day MSNBC interviewed Rachel Griffiths on the air and asked her about her question to Romney and the candidate's odd response.
And even though it took him almost 36 hours, Chris Matthews, Hardball's host, finally addressed the Romney issue on August 9, saying he was "astounded" by Romney's answer to the question about his sons and the military. Also appearing on the program was Salon.com editor Joan Walsh, who agreed Romney's response was "terrible." She spelled out the possible implications:
WALSH: Romney has this problem of looking like an entitled country club white guy, who just strolled off the golf course. And then to say that his sons are serving the country by getting him elected, it just feeds into this caricature almost of this entitled rich guy, who thinks the rest of us are here to serve him and serve his interests.
Walsh's analysis was dead-on. But why was she virtually alone in making that point via a mainstream media news outlet?
In the end, it took nearly 96 hours for a big time journalist to ask Romney about his odd response to the question about his sons not serving in Iraq. That came on Fox News Sunday, where the candidate promptly apologized ("I misspoke"), stressing that he should not have compared working on a campaign with serving in the military.
How convenient for Romney that journalists allowed him to avoid the topic until after the Iowa straw poll votes had been tallied.
Correction: This paragraph previously read: "RealClearPolitics.com posted 10 entries, including 41 links, about every key development of the campaign. There was no mention of Romney's slip-up, though." We regret the error.
Correction: This column previously read: "Time magazine's political blog, Swampland, never referred to Romney's misstep." That is incorrect. We regret the error.