It’s GOOD That Romney Has No Principles

We’ve been seeing a lot of this sort of thing lately–this time from Elizabeth Wurtzel on TheAtlantic.com (1/9/12):

All the reasons Romney is disliked are all the reasons he would be an excellent president. Let’s start by recognizing that principled politicians are highly overrated–consider Jimmy Carter as Exhibit A. Despite our pretensions to pretension, we are not a country that loves ideology–we’re not, heaven forbid, France–so much as we are a can-do people that, after all, last elected a yes-we-can president. We like what works, not what it says in The Communist Manifesto, which reads like a guidebook for a republic of dreams, and of course ends in a Stalinist bloodbath. Romney’s, shall we say, flexibility (I refuse to use the word that refers to summer footwear) with his positions on abortion and just about everything else that makes the weasel go pop just shows that he is responsive to his constituents’ desires. When they were a pro-choice crowd, that’s where he stood, and when he fell in with the right-wing lunatics, he learned to speak in tongues. I think giving the people what they want is what we want.

This echoes Ann Gerhart in the Washington Post (12/11/11):

And in service of these goals, Romney’s flip-floppery could be interpreted as a flexibility of thinking that might help him bust through warring ideologies in Washington–an asset, not a deficit–and fix his biggest set of problems yet.

And Frank Bruni in the New York Times (1/2/12):

But what if his doubters, his nemeses and many of us pondering the protean wonder of him have it all wrong? What if changeability is his strength? Someone not fixed in a single place can pivot to more advantageous ones. A vessel partly empty has room for the beverage du jour. And Romney is ready to be filled with whatever’s most nutritive….

In the primaries, that’s a liability, and Santorum, with his ideological rigidity, could haunt Romney for a while. But if Romney nabs the nomination, his malleability may be an asset, allowing Obama-soured voters to talk themselves into him. After all, a creature without passionate conviction doesn’t cling to extremes.

Later in the Times, Helene Cooper and Mark Landler (1/5/12) warned the Obama campaign to avoid attacking Romney as a political shapeshifter, again depicting that as one of the Republican’s hidden strengths:

Independent voters might view Mr. Romney’s shifting positions as pragmatic. And by highlighting his evolving views, political analysts say, the Obama campaign risks unintentionally promoting the image of Mr. Romney as a moderate.

The very things that have made Mr. Romney less palatable to the conservatives who populate the Republican primaries and caucuses–his past moderate positions–are what make him more palatable to the independent voters who will turn up next November.

Note that this is not the way that media pundits talk about Democratic primary candidates when they attempt to make ideological appeals to their party’s base. (See Extra!, 7-8/06, for some good examples of this.) In media mythology, Democrats win when they attack their base–trying to appeal to them makes them seem “craven, weak and untrustworthy,” in Joe Klein‘s words (Time, 9/25/05).

Why are Democrats and Republicans seen so differently? Well, the Democratic base likes it when you make populist economic appeals–that is, when you point out that the sort of people who own the media have too much wealth and power. From the corporate media perspective, that’s not clever, that’s dangerous.

Appealing to the Republican right, on the other hand, generally involves a little harmless racebaiting and god-bothering. Media pundits are confident (probably overly confident) that when the election is over, Romney will go back to the technocratic champion of moderate austerity and defender of corporate profits who they believe him to be at heart. And that’s the kind of candidate who appeals to the media’s base.

UPDATE: See Peter Hart’s post “Pundits and the Romney Pass” (1/10/12) for more on this phenomenon.

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.