It has arrived right on time. For days and days, the media splurged on the gaffes and alleged-but-not-actual gaffes of Mitt Romney’s three-country tour. Now comes the post-gaffe-a-thon media self-examination.
The Huffington Post, in a piece titled “2012 Election Gaffes Fuel Media Obsession, Leading To Scripted Campaigns,” laments:
Whether at home or abroad, presidential candidates’ so-called gaffes — and the media’s preoccupation with each inartfully phrased or impolitic remark — have defined the 2012 election. Gaffes get tweeted, blogged, and reported. Cable pundits declare them game-changers. And rival campaigns amplify them through any means possible. When that’s done, the story becomes whether the campaign gaffed in cleaning up its gaffe.
The story quotes Republican consultant Steve Schmidt thusly: “The energy of the press corps is to find the silliest and most twistable thing said on any given day and run with that.”
And The Post’s Ruth Marcus has this headline on her latest column, “A gaffe a day keeps substance away.” She writes: “So I’m not against gaffe coverage — I’m against covering only gaffes, which is where campaign reporting seems to be trending.”
Then you must not be much of a Wolf Blitzer fan!
The CNN standby did some seriously substantive work with Romney during the very trip that produced all the gaffe coverage. The nitty-gritty back and forth on foreign affairs beamed into U.S. homes from Jerusalem. Some transcripting of their discussion about possibly moving the U.S. embassy in Israel:
BLITZER: Just to be precise, if you are president, you would consult with the Israeli government, and if they said, please move the embassy, you would do that?
ROMNEY: I’m not going to make foreign policy for my nation, particularly while I’m on foreign soil.
My understanding is the policy of our nation has been a desire to move our embassy ultimately to the capital. That’s something which I would agree with. But I would only want to do so and to select the timing in accordance with the government of Israel.
BLITZER: Because you know that every U.S. president since ‘67, since the Six-Day War in 1967 — behind you is the Old City of Jerusalem. You see the beautiful walls there, and we’re not far away.
But the pre-’67 line was in front of those old walls. But since then, every president from Nixon to LBJ, to Carter, Ronald Reagan, the Bushes, President Clinton, now Obama, considers East Jerusalem, including the Old City behind you, to be occupied territory, not part of Israel. Would you change that?
ROMNEY: I’m not going to talk about the borders.
Fox News’s Greta Van Susteren also took on the likely Republican nominee on foreign turf. Nothing but substance, as Van Susteren presses Romney on peace in the Middle East:
VAN SUSTEREN: So we just wait, or is there some role for us to sort of, you know, encourage or jump-start discussions?
ROMNEY: Well, the current administration has encouraged discussions and encouraged the process. Again, because I’m on foreign soil, I don’t want to describe what might be different, a different course that I might take if I were president, but the president has said — has sent an envoy to be responsible for pursing negotiations here between the Israelis and Palestinians. It’s a high priority for our country. It’s one which I believe any future president would feel committed to.
VAN SUSTEREN: But is there any — I guess I’m trying to think, it’s eluded everybody. You know? Nobody (inaudible) it is a problem that no one seems to be able to jump-start and solve. And I wondered if you have any sort of different thought on how we can approach that.
ROMNEY: Well, I do, but again, and you understand this long tradition, ever since I think it was Senator Vandenberg of Michigan who said politics stops at the water’s edge. And foreign policy should not be made by challengers to office. The foreign policy of our nation is guided by the president and his administration, as long as he’s in power. So I am not going to, on foreign soil ,lay out a posture with regards to the peace process that would be different than that of the current administration. That does not mean I don’t have ideas of my own, but I do have a commitment to seeing the Palestinians and the Israelis coming and negotiating amongst themselves, and America will be part of that effort, I’m sure. We will help encourage it, and hopefully others will as well, but that’s something which I hope to see occur sometime in the near future.
NBC’s Brian Williams, you’ll recall, sat down with Romney on the first leg of his trip, in London. Yes, they talked horsies. But substance creeped in when Williams asked about Olympic preparations, not to mention the economy. Have a look:
BRIAN WILLIAMS: And let’s talk about domestic — the economy before we wrap things up. The major planks of your job plan, lower taxes, both corporate and marginal rates, and reduce regulation. Explain how that would be different from what George W. Bush tried to push through?
MITT ROMNEY: Well, let me describe — actually, there are five things that I believe are necessary to get this economy going. One, take advantage of our energy resources, particularly natural gas, but also coal, oil, nuclear, renewables. That’s number one. A huge opportunity for us, and doing so is gonna bring manufacturing back, because low-cost, plentiful energy is key to manufacturing, in many industries.
Number two, trade. I want tre — to dramatically increase trade and particularly with — with Latin America. Number three, take action to get America on track to have a balanced budget. Now those three things, by the way, are things which we have not been doing over the last few years, which I think are essential to getting this economy going again.
Number four, we’ve got to show better training and education opportunities for our current re — workers and for coming workers. And then finally what I call restoring economic freedom. That means keep our taxes as low as possible, have regulations modern and up to date, get health care costs down. These things will restore economic freedom.
So my policies are very different than anything you’ve seen in the past. They’re really designed for an America which has some new resources, energy being one of them, trade with Latin America being another, and the need for a balanced budget now more urgent than ever before.
Now for even more substance, this time via ABC News’s David Muir:
MUIR: You’ve talked about, back in the States — I know that you are on foreign soil, but you have been critical before with the president’s timetable to pull US troops out of Afghanistan, and in your recent speech before the VFW, you said you wanted to complete the transition by 2014. Is that the same time frame?
ROMNEY: It’s the same time frame the president is speaking of with regards to the transition of the Afghan forces. I also indicated that I want to make sure that we have had consultation with the commanders on the ground. The place where the president and I have had a difference with regards to timetable is with withdrawal of our surge troops. Commanders were looking at a December 2012 withdrawal point. The president moves that up to September 2012, which is still during fighting season I sided with the commanders and felt the 2012 decision, the September 2012 decision, was premature.
Had enough broccoli, folks?
Romney’s comments about consulting with the commanders didn’t dominate headlines in the manner of the gaffe parade. Nor did the comment about training and education opportunities for U.S. workers. Nor did many of the other sober and unexciting comments that Romney made in response to substantive questions from reporters.
The lack of bounce is no mystery. One reason is that Romney, politician that he is, often avoids specifics. And the foreign-soil pretext is a convenient and diplomatic-sounding way of resorting to platitudes. That’s a bipartisan instinct — the Obama people, too, have been criticized for failing to outline detailed plans for a second term.
The other reason why substance isn’t breaking through: It’s getting old. This election cycle started — I can’t even remember when it started. But I do know that it wound through 20-plus Republican primary debates that pressed the candidates on some frivolous topics along with plenty of substantial ones. Romney engaged in all the key cross-fires, over the economy, foreign policy, health care and beyond. So substance has had its day.
Gaffes, at this point, have an advantage over earnest discussions on the economy, foreign policy and the like. They’re news.
There’s a practical consideration in here for the Romney camp, too. As the transcripts above demonstrate, the candidate engaged in some susbtantive discussions with the media — the establishment television media. The rest of the media contingent got to ask three questions in London and nothing the rest of the way. They were the ones shouting questions to Romney about all his gaffes after an appearance in Warsaw.