You know Mitt Romney is facing a hyper-hostile media atmosphere, including (especially?) from right-wing outlets, when MSNBC.com’s First Read has among the most thoughtful takes on yesterday’s media frenzy over Eric Fehrnstrom’s unfortunate reference to a child’s toy:
[I]t is important to take a step back here. One, Romney never said the remark (senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom did). And two, a lot more good for the campaign happened yesterday (aftermath of winning Illinois, getting Jeb Bush’s endorsement) than bad (“Etch A Sketch”). Yet the feeding frenzy highlights a bigger problem for Romney, especially as we begin transitioning to the general election: He gets almost no benefit of the doubt. Every gaffe becomes a story; every mistake become fodder for late-night comedians. And more importantly, this is what happens when you don’t have a solid base of support that can serve as a cocoon of protection during the toughest of times. Successful presidential candidates (Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama) had grassroots supporters rushing to their defense, even in the toughest of political times. Romney — right now — doesn’t have this. In fact, it was notable during yesterday’s “Etch A Sketch” controversy that we didn’t see many prominent conservatives railing against media bias or unfairness. Instead, they were either standing on the sidelines or piling on. And that’s a problem for Romney.
I couldn’t agree more, with the caveat that MSNBC’s broadcasts hyped the incident as much as, if not more than, any news outlet. (Does fairness extend beyond the blog?) The question remains whether the problem is ”fixable” for the Romney campaign.
On one level, the Romney team can likely count on a certain rally-round-the-nominee effect when he does close this thing out. In some sense, yesterday can been seen as the latest spasm of anti-Romney bile spilling forth from the right. There is nothing so impossible as trying to cheer up someone who doesn’t want to be cheered (any parent knows that), so less may be more in terms of Romney’s outreach to conservative media.
And certainly if Romney continues articulating his conservative economic message and selects a running mate who is reassuring to the base, some of the hostility on the right may diminish.
But the Romney team can script itself only so tightly and do only so much media outreach. (In response to perceived unfair coverage, campaigns can holler, appeal to fairness and shower reporters with news tidbits, but no matter what, journalists will grouch they aren’t being courted or given enough access.) And if the right wing is intent on sinking Romney to prove a center-right candidate can’t win the White House, well then, the GOP is in much deeper trouble than Romney can remedy.
The Romney team in the general election can deploy helpful conservatives (e.g., Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Marco Rubio), who are currently on the sidelines while a nominee is being selected. It can prepare for the foreseeable attacks (by, for example, getting armed with data and personal stories on the Bain story). It can do more on offense every day on the president’s words and actions, which are skewerable. (President Obama bragging about the pipeline today? Oh, puleez.) And it can use Ann Romney, who has the unique ability among the Romney players to charm and defuse the media.
The media environment is never going to be favorable, but it may become less terrible for Romney than it currently is. Nevertheless, the Romney staffers should keep their expectations low.