Skip to main content

What's behind Mitt's meltdown

By Howell Raines, Special to CNN
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Tue September 18, 2012
Mitt Romney waves after speaking at a campaign rally in Fairfax, Virginia last week
Mitt Romney waves after speaking at a campaign rally in Fairfax, Virginia last week
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Howell Raines: Politico article showed media feeding frenzy over slipping Romney campaign
  • He says it arrayed evidence of Romney-bashing from normally supportive right-leaning media
  • He says Romney faces a presidential-type decision on his embattled strategist
  • Raines: Real problem is Romney based his run on faulty premise that Obama very vulnerable

Editor's note: Howell Raines is an author and former executive editor of The New York Times. He is working on a novel set during the Civil War.

(CNN) -- For students of journalistic feeding frenzies in presidential politics, the Romney campaign meltdown story merits close study.

The first striking feature is that the flashpoint story that pulled together his missteps -- the bungled foreign trip, his lackluster convention, his widely denounced response to the Libya carnage, to name a few -- appeared in the "new media." The article on his slipping campaign ran on the Politico website under the headline "Inside the campaign: How Mitt Romney stumbled," rather than in mainstream newspapers or on the networks' evening news shows, the traditional pacesetters in campaign coverage. (This was on Sunday, well before his cherry-on-the-top comments about the freeloading 47% hit the headlines on Monday night.)

By Tuesday, as Romney's controversial comments to a roomful of potential funders, recorded in secret, went rocketing around the Web, every follow-up "stumble story" had a fresh headline.

iReport: 'I'm the 47%, but you're wrong, Romney'

The late David Broder, longtime political editor of The Washington Post, was a master at the type of story Politico posted, which doesn't depend on a single scoop but on being able to put the pieces of a mosaic together to see a pattern in a stark way. It is indubitably a sign of the nation's ongoing media power shift that this campaign's watershed story arrived on Politico, which was founded by former Washington Post reporters who couldn't get funding from the mother ship.

Romney camp. defends comments in video
Howell Raines
Howell Raines

Politico's big-picture analysis had all the classic features of a game-changing overview. First there was a series of early warning signs. Since the GOP convention, Romney has been getting blasted by his ought-to-be fellow travelers, notably The Weekly Standard, The Wall Street Journal, and freelance radio right-wingers. Where others have bludgeoned the Republican nominee, Fox News has nibbled, as if to indicate that telling the real, whole news would let too much water through the Titanic-like hole in the USS Romney.

In an energetic follow-up to Politico on his Monday morning show, Joe Scarborough said he was the first high-profile media conservative to announce that Romney is blowing a winnable election and that Limbaugh et al. followed him in defining Romney's damning new persona: a CEO who says American needs a CEO, but who is publicly failing at being CEO of his own billion-dollar campaign.

In the first round of the Romney-bashing stories, it was Stuart Stevens, the campaign's chief strategist/manager/ad director who was being set up as the scapegoat by backstabbing teammates. Stevens' main liability seems to be that he is an affable, quirky risk-taker in the charm-challenged world of GOP political pros. In any event, the risk-averse Romney is faced with the kind of real-time decision that presidential candidates, not to mention presidents, have to face: Will he keep Stevens and be the steadfast CEO who stays the course with an embattled colleague? Or will he dump strategist and strategy alike and emerge as the dexterous CEO with the guts to head off trouble?

Whatever miscues Romney has committed in the media glare, the real problem is that he has based his campaign on faulty premises promoted tirelessly within the conservative echo chamber. To wit:

1. Obama can't win because he is so unpopular.

2. The economy will defeat him.

3. Voters don't want a "socialized" America.

4. American foreign policy is weak.

And so on. There are many ways to state the misperceptions and wishful assumptions that have put the Romney campaign into a decline that could easily turn into disarray. (Perhaps we should place bets on how long before we see the trend-setting "rudderless ship" story. For signs of morbidity, stay tuned to Fox.)

As for Obama being unpopular, the Republicans mistakenly believe that the loud, passionate minority of haters, birthers, and factional zealots like the tea party will convert magically into an electoral majority.

As for the economy, as Time magazine's Joe Klein pointed out on the Scarborough show, the middle class is feeling more secure about employment stability, home ownership and 401(k) trends.

As for "socialism," can Romney avoid a landslide defeat once he succumbs to conservative demands that he "unleash" Paul Ryan as his "explainer"? The more Ryan channels Ayn Rand's John Galt, the more people will value tax equity for the middle class and a sensible safety net for the unfortunate. Ryan's erudite budgetary lectures will alienate people facing such non-Randian, nonintellectual future realities as custodial care for aging parents, hospital bills for major illness, college tuition loans, and medical "vouchers" that don't match health insurance costs for the average retiree.

Here's the picture that is troubling the silenced tribe once known as "mainstream Republicans." Old Reaganites, for example, remember what a winning candidate looks like two months out from Election Day, and they can count. If current trends continue, Obama will look more and more presidential, and Republicans and their preferred news sources will continue to lose faith in the mantra that Obama can't win because he's too black, too liberal and too modern. Interpolating from the polls, only about one-third of the electorate believes that. So from here on out, it's all simple arithmetic, as Bill Clinton said in a convention speech that really was a watershed.

Now, let's get back to the media circus. Maybe we'll see Joe Scarborough pondering how a man confused by Stuart Stevens would have handled Osama bin Laden.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Howell Raines.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:37 AM EDT, Tue October 28, 2014
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
updated 7:45 AM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
updated 3:04 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
updated 8:32 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
updated 7:19 AM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Julian Zelizer says control of the Senate will be decided by a few close contests
updated 8:12 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The response of some U.S. institutions that should know better to Ebola has been anything but inspiring, writes Idris Ayodeji Bello.
updated 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The Swedes will find sitting on the fence to be increasingly uncomfortable with Putin as next door neighbor, writes Gary Schmitt
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The Ottawa shooting pre-empted Malala's appearances in Canada, but her message to young people needs to be spread, writes Frida Ghitis
updated 9:48 PM EDT, Sat October 25, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT