Change Newspapers Can Believe In
How Mitt Romney turned flip-flopping into a virtue.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Newspaper endorsements don’t matter in presidential campaigns, until the campaigns say they do. On Oct. 27, nanoseconds after the Des Moines Register endorsed Mitt Romney, the Republican campaign hot-lined an “In Case You Missed It” email to reporters. As if any of them had missed it. The political press was already in full sweaty-palm tweet-mode about the Iowa paper’s first GOP endorsement since Nixon ’72. Stephanie Cutter, the Obama campaign’s master of the can-you-believe-this-crap snicker, had to sit and listen to George Stephanopoulos read the endorsement to her before she could say it wasn’t “based in reality.”*
She was wrong. It was based in a brighter, more optimistic version of reality. “Romney had to tack to the right during the primary season,” argued the paper’s editors. “Since then, he has recalibrated his campaign to focus on his concern for the middle class, and that is believable if the real Mitt Romney is the one on display as governor of Massachusetts who passed a health care reform plan that became the model for the one passed by Congress.” The Romney campaign’s email excerpted most of the editorial. It skipped the “ifs.”
At least 21 newspapers that endorsed Barack Obama in 2008 have endorsed Mitt Romney in 2012. Half of these endorsements are couched in the hope that Romney hornswoggled Republican primary voters and will govern as a moderate. “Like his primary rivals,” editorialized Florida Today, “we never bought Romney’s newfound conservative purity. During the presidential debates, Romney wisely resumed his identity as a pro-growth pragmatist.” And “pro-growth,” in the Space Coast region covered by Florida Today, means helping out NASA. Romney has pledged to do that without pledging to increase the budget.
The “flip-flop” charge has cursed Romney for most of his national political life. It was the easiest hit on the candidate who, in 2007, was trying to introduce himself to skeptical Iowans and D.C. opinion leaders. A man in a Flipper costume shadowed Romney at the 2007 Conservative Political Action Conference, and if I rummage around I’m sure I still have the green “Romney flip-flops” handed out by his enemies. This was the start of the YouTube era. Finding video of Romney taking contradictory positions was downright easy.
That continued until the evening of Oct. 3, right before Romney took the debate stage in Denver and promised “not to reduce the share of taxes paid by high-income people” and not to repeal popular parts of Obamacare. The next day, when Romney stopped by the micro-Conservative Political Action Conference in Denver, he got an ovation that didn’t end until his speech was over. The right got it—Romney could flip-flop all he wanted as long as it meant he was beating Barack Obama.
The newspaper endorsements are just the icing. “Romney has famously flip-flopped on abortion rights, the need for Planned Parenthood, access to contraceptives and health care reform in general, which disproportionately affects single mothers and lower-income women,” editorialized the Nashville Tennessean. “During his bruising primary campaign he veered to the right; in the debates, he has swung back to his moderate stances as governor of Massachusetts. The Romney who was governor reflected the attitudes shared by a majority of Americans; this is where he should stay, if elected, and resist pressure from the ‘tea-vangelicals’ in his party who want to take this country back to the repressed 1950s.”
Would he resist? The editorial writers don’t know. But they know that he should. And to be overly fair, this was the thrown-together logic that got a record number of newspapers behind Obama in 2008. But the biggest reversals come from papers that now put more faith in Romney than they ever put in Obama. “The worst thing that many critics say about Romney is that he is too flexible,” argued the Long Beach Press-Telegram, “that he bends his policies to the situations in front of him. As president, Romney would not be restrained by foolish consistency. He would be expected to do the right thing no matter where the solutions originate.” The flip-flops are part of the reason why Romney can now be trusted.*
It’s an odd view of the president and the presidency. The switchers pay almost no attention to Romney’s advisers. One example: His running mate is Paul Ryan, who led the budget committee in the House for the last two years. Ryan is rarely mentioned in these editorials, which means his voting record on spending or social issues never gets mentioned. “We've been turned off by his appeals to social conservatives and immigration extremists,” wrote the Orlando Sentinel’s editorial board, before asserting that these appeals were phony. Romney had shifted his focus, which “at least shows he understands that reviving the economy and repairing the government's balance sheet are imperative,” and so he got the endorsement.
Most of these papers have this in common: They stop the clock on Romney’s “real” beliefs in 2006, and they restart it on Oct. 3. “He stated his unequivocal support for women’s contraception rights,” wrote the Quad-City Times, “knowing it would incense a huge number of Christian and Catholic voters.” This was a reference to a terrifically slippery Romney answer in the Hofstra debate: “I don't believe that bureaucrats in Washington should tell someone whether they can use contraceptives or not.” Before that debate, Romney had dramatically opposed the HHS rule that mandates contraceptive coverage in employer-run health care, telling audiences that it amounted to “an attack on religious freedom.” Florida Today told readers that Romney “showed support for women and gay people” in the debates. This is true. He’s also pledged, to the National Organization for Marriage, to keep judges away from the bench if they don’t oppose gay nuptials.
These newspapers are convinced: The Real Mitt Romney is a moderate who got one over on conservative primary voters. But Romney himself can’t ever say this. In March, Romney’s key strategist Eric Fehrnstrom told CNN that the old, conservative stances of the primary would be easy to shake off, just like a drawing can be shaken off an Etch-a-Sketch. And what did Fehrnstrom do for a living before he started working for Romney? He was a newspaper reporter.
Correction, Oct. 31, 2012: This article originally misspelled the last name of George Stephanopoulos. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
Correction, Oct. 30, 2012: This article originally misidentified the Long Beach Press-Telegram as the Los Angeles Press-Telegram. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.