Greg Sargent, a liberal columnist for the Washington Post, has written a remarkable column. It is remarkable most of all for its honesty in explaining what is happening on multiple fronts in the Obama campaign.
In 2008, the mainstream media was in love with Barack Obama. They had a collective thrill running up their legs. John McCain was stunned — he thought the national press was his base. But McCain was foolish to think that the national media would give him a fair shake if he ran against a Democrat in the general election. McCain got the good press only when he ran against George W. Bush for the GOP nomination in 2000. That was an easy call for the media. Bush was a born again Christian, a Bush (privileged), a Texan. He spoke with a southern accent. These are characteristics all worthy of contempt if you write for the New York Times or Washington Post. McCain was a maverick. He supported campaign finance reform. He did not always vote with Republicans in the Senate. So backing him versus Bush was easy.
In 2008, the national media effort on behalf of candidate Obama had several components:
- Make him a more appealing choice (fresher, younger, uncorrupted by politics) than Hillary Clinton.
- Condemn any attempts by Obama critics to examine his largely unexamined history.
- Create an image of Obama as a man above politics, a uniter, a healer, a redeemer, a post-racial candidate (unthreatening).
- Dirty up McCain’s record with innuendo about adultery and colluding with lobbyists, and portray him as a man too old to serve — unsteady, out of touch, a cancer patient.
- Report all attacks by the Obama campaign on McCain as truth.
- Destroy Sarah Palin, making the GOP ticket look too risky to voters, given McCain’s age and health.
The 2012 race is different. Obama has been in office for over three and a half years, and to summarize his economic record in a phrase — he has been a failure.
As Sargent puts it:
Americans disapprove of Obama’s handling of the economy. But if the Obama camp can persuade swing voters that Romney isn’t the answer to their problems, then perhaps they can neutralize Romney’s natural advantage on the issue — that voters are prepared to grant him the presumption of economic competence as a businessman and generic alternative to disillusionment with Obama.
So how does the press help the Obama campaign neutralize Romney? There are several components to the approach here, but in essence it is to make the news story of each day whatever is the campaign’s attack line on Romney. Change the subject from Obama’s failure to get the economy going and the declining economic numbers as the election approaches.
Sargent’s own newspaper is at the center of the confluence of Obama attack ads and messaging — and news stories on which they feed. Consider the attack on Romney for being an outsourcer of jobs during his years at Bain. He wasn’t, of course, but why let a four-Pinocchios rating for your ad bother you when winning is what matters? A malicious Washington Post attack on Romney appears — and an Obama ad is on the air a few hours later. Could the campaign have known the story was coming? Hmmm.
The same pattern has been seen over the last few days. The Brookings Institution undertakes a study and issues a report on the Romney tax plan, which involves rate cuts and the elimination of tax preferences written into the code. Can you guess who asked them to “score” the plan? Brookings does not know the details of which preferences will be eliminated, so they make assumptions. They conclude the rate reductions will result in a loss in revenues. That is not a great surprise, even if economic growth rates accelerate some from the changes. Of course, revenue losses from tax policy have never been a big subject of worry for the administration. They have asked for them in the original stimulus, in the payroll tax cuts the last two years, and in many other proposals over Obama’s term. In fact, giant deficits have never been a problem for the Obama team. That is why federal spending is now a four percent larger share of GDP than it was four years ago and why the total federal debt has grown by over five trillion dollars due to trillion dollar plus annual deficits.
But composing a study that shows Romney’s rate reduction plan is not revenue neutral is not the real purpose. The Obama team needs more — namely, that the rich (meaning Romney himself) will get richer and the middle class will have to pay more in taxes to make up for it. So the Brookings study assumes that the rich will get their tax rate cut but that it will be paid for somewhere else — by the middle class, of course, which will suffer the impact of a disproportionate loss of their tax preferences.
Within hours of the release of the study, the major national papers were reporting the results with grim headlines, perfect for a new Obama attack ad released this week that even Sargent calls harsh.
So do you wonder why Harry Reid is going around telling everyone who will listen that he heard from someone (name not revealed) that Romney did not pay taxes for ten years ? I think it is because the new Obama attack campaign is designed to make Romney look like a slimy tax cheat. Harry Reid has no shame. He is a millionaire many times over. Being a senator has been very, very good for Harry Reid. So he is willing to carry the water for the Obama campaign and make charges that are baseless, without any evidence whatever, while demanding that Romney disprove them. Ann Coulter says the demand for Romney to release back tax returns also relates to the fact that Romney has a squeaky clean personal history. Since David Axelrod, the keeper of the bedroom logs for Obama opponents, can’t attack Romney on infidelity charges, he needs to mislead voters about Romney’s taxes.
What we are seeing is a search and destroy mission. The goal is to make Romney appear out of touch with ordinary Americans. He is one of the richest Americans. He cares only about his own social class and cuts corners to stay rich (tax avoidance and cheating). If you are hurting, it is not because Obama let you down. Bush dragged the economy down, and Romney did just fine, thank you, through all of it. Now he wants to help the rich some more at your expense.
As Sargent says, the Obama campaign also needs to smudge Romney’s reputation for business competence. Part of that is the greed/tax cheat messaging. Another part of that effort was the media’s coverage of Romney’s foreign trip, when the press obsessed over supposed gaffes committed by the candidate. Will many American voters care what the British press thinks of Romney’s comments on the preparations for the Olympics? I doubt it. I think most American voters agree with Romney’s appreciation for the Israeli culture that has contributed to that country’s economic success. But if the press can make the story a different one entirely, not about the substance of what Romney said, but about supposed gaffes that made some folks abroad unhappy, then they can contribute to a message that Romney is not ready for the big stage.
There is one final angle to the developing narrative and it comes from the opinion polls: Romney is in terrible shape, and Obama is pulling away. The pollsters tell us that Romney is sinking because voters are hearing about Bain and Romney’s tax dodging and they are getting nervous about the challenger.
In fact, there is only one substantive reason for the supposedly good numbers for Obama in some of the most recent surveys: significant oversampling of Democrats. The two major organizations which have been in the field polling every day, Rasmussen and Gallup (each interviewing 15,000 people a month), show no change in the race — that it is still a virtual tie. Is the oversampling which favors Obama by certain polling organizations deliberate? When the organizations paying for the polls and trumpeting the results are the New York Times, CBS, and Pew, it is not out of the question. The alternative is that the polls are just doing a bad job by not adjusting their samples to reflect a more appropriate mix of voters.
If the media can create a picture that Romney is slipping and his campaign is in trouble, it could turn some voters away from Romney. People like to be with the winner. Momentum builds more momentum. The economy is flatlining. But the media story is that Romney is making too many gaffes, slipping in the polls, hiding his tax returns, and preparing to stick it to the middle class with his tax plan, as he did with Bain and outsourcing. The next few weeks should be good ones for Romney — picking a VP and his convention. But then again, his foreign trip was supposed to be an easy opportunity to score some points as well, and the media would not let that happen.
If this were a hockey game, you could say that Obama is playing with a man advantage.