My, how things change.
At this time four years ago, Mitt Romney was the media's top reporting target. We scrutinized his record at Bain Capital, his management of the Olympics, his tenure as Massachusetts governor and even his canine transportation methods. Much of the coverage was unflattering.
So it was impossible not to feel a bit of whiplash on Thursday as many in the press treated the 2012 Republican presidential nominee like a venerable elder statesman.
Entire newsroom pauses to watch once-hopeless Mitt Romney emerge as the visionary elder statesman of the Republican party. What a world.
— Alastair Jamieson (@alastairjam) March 3, 2016
Romney is delivering the statesmanship the GOP needs....six months too late.
— Jonathan Capehart (@CapehartJ) March 3, 2016
Cable news stations interrupted their midday programming to air live Romney's much-hyped, anti-Trump speech from the University of Utah. The Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal and other leading newspapers posted stories about the address atop their homepages.
Romney getting full across board news attention now
— Hadas Gold (@Hadas_Gold) March 3, 2016
Four years ago, the media's message to voters on Romney was "be skeptical of what he says." Job creator? Meh. "Severely conservative?" Oh, come on. And then he ran what pretty much everyone regarded as a disappointing campaign — undone by dismissive comments about the "47 percent." He wasn't beloved — even by Republicans.
But on Thursday, the press's implied message seemed to be "listen to what he says." This is a man of substance!
Listening to Romney speak we are reminded a bit of what a presidential candidate should sound like. #NeverTrump
— Amanda Carpenter (@amandacarpenter) March 3, 2016
As Romney delivered a forceful critique of Donald Trump's policies and temperament, some journalists wondered where this side of the one-time GOP standard-bearer had been in the last election.
If Romney had been this aggressive and forward-leaning against Obama there'd be no Trump since Mitt would be sailing into his 2nd term now.
— John Schindler (@20committee) March 3, 2016
This is most passionate Romney has ever been including his wedding night.
— Ana Marie Cox (@anamariecox) March 3, 2016
Romney, if he follows coverage of his remarks, might ask a different question: Where was this kind of respect in the last election?
Not everyone in the press lent credence to Romney's commentary, of course. Some pointed to his acceptance of Trump's endorsement in 2012 as a sign of hypocrisy that weakened his argument.
Romney speech would have been more effective (on its own terms!) if Romney had expressed regret & apology for campaigning with Trump in '12.
— Josh Barro (@jbarro) March 3, 2016
Romney is obviously not in the best position to demand the release of Trump's tax returns, given his own reluctance to do the same.
Romney using Trump's unreleased tax returns to insinuate serious wrongdoing is amazing https://t.co/e2owbwnv4J
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) March 3, 2016
And Romney's high-brow style — on full display in his plea to avoid "improvident choices" — continued to rub some observers the wrong way.
This speech is reminding me how bad a candidate Romney was.
— andrew kaczynski (@BuzzFeedAndrew) March 3, 2016
But there is little doubt that Trump's uniquely vitriolic campaign has caused many journalists to feel pangs of nostalgia for the basic decency of Romney. As Vox's David Roberts noted on Twitter, we've already seen a similar kind of wistfulness attached to George W. Bush in this election.
It's worth noting here that perceptions of media "attacks" on a presidential candidate are often based on a mistaken belief that journalists personally dislike the politician in question. For all the negative coverage Romney received four years ago, I don't think many reporters ever hated the guy. Their job was to be a check against the positive spin that he — like every other candidate — put on his record, so voters could make informed decisions. It's a task that by its very nature put journalists in conflict with Romney. But it didn't mean there was deep animosity.
With that in mind, perhaps the shift from four years ago to today shouldn't seem so dramatic.
Nevertheless, it would have been hard to imagine on Election Day 2012 that, in the next campaign, the press would view Romney as a highly regarded voice of reason speaking out against a fellow Republican who, by comparison, makes him look like a media darling. Yet here we are.