Republicans’ war on the TelePrompter — and its limits

at 12:24 PM ET, 03/12/2012

From the start of the 2012 presidential race, the most consistent — and popular — criticism of President Obama by the GOP candidates has not been on the economy, health care or foreign policy. It’s been on the incumbent’s use of a TelePrompter.

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum took the TelePrompter criticism to a whole new level over the weekend by declaring that “when you run for president of the United States, it should be illegal to read off a TelePrompter,” adding: “Because all you’re doing is reading someone else’s words to people.”


WASHINGTON - AUGUST 30: U.S. President Barack Obama delivers remarks from a teleprompter to the press after his daily economic briefing in the Rose Garden at the White House August 30, 2010 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

While Santorum seems to have taken the TelePrompter critique to its logical end, it’s former House Speaker Newt Gingrich who has made a living on the campaign trail of criticizing President Obama’s alleged reliance on the Prompter.

Dating back at least until November, Gingrich has featured a TelePrompter shot at Obama in his stump speeches around the country. “If [President Obama] wants to use a TelePrompter, that would be fine with me,” Gingrich said last fall. In his speech touting his Georgia primary victory on Super Tuesday, Gingrich gave the more-updated version of the Prompter line: “I’ve already promised that if the president will agree to seven three-hour debates in the Lincoln-Douglas tradition, he can use a TelePrompter if he wants to.”

(Make sure to check out Phil Rucker’s terrific piece on the history of the TelePrompter attack in the Republican presidential race.)

Republican candidates rely on attacking President Obama’s use of a TelePrompter for one reason: It works. Gingrich’s Prompter line is regularly one of the biggest laugh-getters of his speech and Santorum’s “make TelePrompters illegal” line was almost certainly a planned hit not an off-the-cuff remark.

Why? Because, for Republican base voters, it epitomizes everything they dislike about President Obama. It reveals that “he’s all show,” explained Curt Anderson, a Republican media consultant who did work for Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s presidential bid but is now unaffiliated in the race. “All hat, no cattle.”

Added Rob Stutzman, a California-based Republican consultant: “Obama took the TelePrompter to a new level of absurdity when he reached the White House. It seemed he couldn’t even greet a little league team without the Prompter in place.”

In short: The use of a Prompter gets at authenticity, which should be the watch word for all politicians in the coming election. These days voters tend to believe that all politicians are telling them what they want to hear. For Republicans, Obama’s use of the TelePrompter is the height of inauthenticity — reading words written for him by someone else from an electronic device.

Democrats rightly note that while President Obama does rely on a TelePrompter for virtually all of his public remarks, most president have used the technology regularly since it was invented in 1950. (The man who invented the Prompter, Hub Schafly, died in 2011.)

And, while bashing Obama’s TelePrompter use may be a good formula for winning over the most conservative of voters during this protracted Republican primary fight, it’s a strategy that also has limits.

With the economy still struggling to regain the ground it lost over the past few years and gas prices soaring, talk of TelePrompters can seem trivial by comparison.

“This is one of the reasons we’re not in good shape,” said Republican party strategist John Weaver. “Where is the discussion about jobs?”

Stutzman described Santorum’s latest line of attack as an “eye roller”, adding:”It’s an odd line of attack. One could counter it makes more sense to ban sweater vests.”

The Republicans’ war on TelePrompters is an example of why many in the party are wary about the GOP nomination fight extending all the way through June. Attacking TelePrompters might be a winning strategy (or at least part of one) in a Republican primary race but’s it hard to imagine any swing voters this November being persuaded by that line of attack.

The Fix asked Twitter and Facebook followers where they stand on the use of teleprompters. Here’s what they said:

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