Politico’s John Harris has a must-read column on the manufacture of outrage, a staple of modern campaigns, over Mitt Romney’s comments on the “very poor.” He writes:
It was a vivid example of the indignation industry that drives the modern political-media culture and makes it more shallow and phony. Virtually everyone who is around politics — as candidate, operative or journalist — is familiar with the taking-umbrage business, as both participant and victim.
On both left and right, the cycle of huffing and puffing over the outrage du jour is now so ingrained in daily life that, like a smoker who lights up without even thinking about it, most people no longer pause to notice that nothing about it is on the level.
As he notes, despite the angst on right and left, “No one who read his full quote had any doubt about his intended meaning. That intended meaning — that his campaign’s message and policy ideas are focused on winning the middle class — is so commonplace as to be banal.”
And yet on this one, the right was arguably more guilty than the left in stoking hysteria. The arguments offered to justify the overreaction were decidedly unconvincing.
The first objection raised went like this: “Oh my goodness, how can we have a nominee whose words can be taken out of context by the left?!” This is the sort of argument never applied to other Republicans. To the contrary, right-wing talk show hosts and bloggers are disdainful of Republicans pols who feel the need to trim their sails and speak in only carefully scripted platitudes. The contrast to 2008 is instructive.
Recall then that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) argued against the Democrats’ cut-and-run approach to Iraq, saying that if need be we could stay “100 years” to ensure a lasting peace and pro-Western democracy. Then the Weekly Standard stood up to the liberal caterwauling. Michael Goldfarb powerfully responded to the insinuation that McCain wanted to perpetuate war: “It’s an attack on McCain’s character, and it’s an attack based on an outright lie. ” In short, when faced with a YouTube- clippable statement, Republicans stood up to the Democrats for unfair play. What a difference four years makes.
The right’s next complaint was that by referencing the safety net Romney neglected to sing the praises of capitalism in fighting poverty. Now this is a truly odd objection as a political matter. Imagine if Romney said, “I don’t worry about very poor people because capitalism is the best anti-poverty program ever designed.” Talk about a YouTube moment.
But more to the point, Romney was describing his affirmative agenda that includes tax relief for the middle class. So, unless he is going to jettison any positive agenda in favor of “capitalism works,” it behooved him to explain why his relief-from-Obama plan is focused on middle-class taxpayers.
The right’s main beef is that they fear that Romney is an inept expounder of conservative philosophy. Certainly, he’s no Jack Kemp or Ronald Reagan. But it is an ill-timed grievance considering Romney’s weeks-long defense of capitalism in the face of attacks on Bain Capital and his own success and his overt embrace of the formulation first set forth by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), namely that the election is a choice between an opportunity society and an entitlement society. (That rhetorical move was entirely ignored by nearly all conservative pundits, including those who sing Ryan’s praises.)
Let’s be honest: Republicans haven’t had a nominee to extol conservatism’s virtues since Ronald Reagan. That deficiency, however regrettable, didn’t compel the conservative punditocracy to reject McCain or George W. Bush. To the contrary, many of the critics who now want Romney to quote from Edmund Burke and Friedrich Hayek as if the campaign were a Heritage Foundation lecture series were quite understanding of prior nominees’ lack of conservative oratory. You see, those candidate were doers, not talkers.
I’d be thrilled with a conservative candidate such as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) or Jeb Bush who has mastered soaring, conservative rhetoric. Republicans who now bemoan the absence of eloquence should take it up with conservatives who couldn’t be bothered to run.
None of this is to suggest that Romney can’t improve as a candidate or doesn’t need to be more thematic in his presentation. He absolutely could use a sharper pro-growth message. He needs to go back to multi-pronged policy proposals, pluck out key elements and present a punchy, compelling pro-growth agenda.
But that said, the level of disingenuous angst from conservative quarters, which rarely show trepidation over how the left construes conservatives’ remarks, suggests that they, not Romney, are running scared. Oh, no, a businessman! A rich guy! A guy who insists on everyday appeals to middle-class voters! It’s a bit much, coming from fellas who admire Rick Santorum for catering to blue-collar workers and who haven’t written a pixel on poverty in years.
It is obvious that certain conservative critics (much of the right-wing blogosphere) haven’t liked Romney from the get-go. They’ve essentially ignored how conservative an agenda he’s advanced this time around and shrugged off the boldest foreign policy formulations we’ve seen since Dick Cheney was in office. They sized him up as a technocrat and then stopped listening. They wrote him off as wooden and didn’t acknowledge his improvement as a candidate. His constancy and single-minded determination are interpreted as robotic insincerity. They just don’t like him (too prepared, too perfect, too much of a goody-two-shoes) and don’t trust him.
That’s their prerogative and a gut feeling shared by some voters. Remember Romney was not the first pick nor the ideal candidate for many conservatives. But applying a standard used for no other recent nominee and setting one’s hair on fire each time a YouTube moment is suggested by the likes of Soledad O’Brien don’t strike me as fair, productive or discerning. Rather, it suggest conservatives are spending too much time on Twitter grieving over the non-candidacy of conservative favorites and worrying about what their liberal counterparts might think and write. Chill, guys.