Skip to main content

What's behind Mitt's meltdown

By Howell Raines, Special to CNN
September 18, 2012 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Mitt Romney waves after speaking at a campaign rally in Fairfax, Virginia last week
Mitt Romney waves after speaking at a campaign rally in Fairfax, Virginia last week
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Howell Raines: Politico article showed media feeding frenzy over slipping Romney campaign
  • He says it arrayed evidence of Romney-bashing from normally supportive right-leaning media
  • He says Romney faces a presidential-type decision on his embattled strategist
  • Raines: Real problem is Romney based his run on faulty premise that Obama very vulnerable

Editor's note: Howell Raines is an author and former executive editor of The New York Times. He is working on a novel set during the Civil War.

(CNN) -- For students of journalistic feeding frenzies in presidential politics, the Romney campaign meltdown story merits close study.

The first striking feature is that the flashpoint story that pulled together his missteps -- the bungled foreign trip, his lackluster convention, his widely denounced response to the Libya carnage, to name a few -- appeared in the "new media." The article on his slipping campaign ran on the Politico website under the headline "Inside the campaign: How Mitt Romney stumbled," rather than in mainstream newspapers or on the networks' evening news shows, the traditional pacesetters in campaign coverage. (This was on Sunday, well before his cherry-on-the-top comments about the freeloading 47% hit the headlines on Monday night.)

By Tuesday, as Romney's controversial comments to a roomful of potential funders, recorded in secret, went rocketing around the Web, every follow-up "stumble story" had a fresh headline.

iReport: 'I'm the 47%, but you're wrong, Romney'

The late David Broder, longtime political editor of The Washington Post, was a master at the type of story Politico posted, which doesn't depend on a single scoop but on being able to put the pieces of a mosaic together to see a pattern in a stark way. It is indubitably a sign of the nation's ongoing media power shift that this campaign's watershed story arrived on Politico, which was founded by former Washington Post reporters who couldn't get funding from the mother ship.

Romney camp. defends comments in video
Howell Raines
Howell Raines

Politico's big-picture analysis had all the classic features of a game-changing overview. First there was a series of early warning signs. Since the GOP convention, Romney has been getting blasted by his ought-to-be fellow travelers, notably The Weekly Standard, The Wall Street Journal, and freelance radio right-wingers. Where others have bludgeoned the Republican nominee, Fox News has nibbled, as if to indicate that telling the real, whole news would let too much water through the Titanic-like hole in the USS Romney.

In an energetic follow-up to Politico on his Monday morning show, Joe Scarborough said he was the first high-profile media conservative to announce that Romney is blowing a winnable election and that Limbaugh et al. followed him in defining Romney's damning new persona: a CEO who says American needs a CEO, but who is publicly failing at being CEO of his own billion-dollar campaign.

In the first round of the Romney-bashing stories, it was Stuart Stevens, the campaign's chief strategist/manager/ad director who was being set up as the scapegoat by backstabbing teammates. Stevens' main liability seems to be that he is an affable, quirky risk-taker in the charm-challenged world of GOP political pros. In any event, the risk-averse Romney is faced with the kind of real-time decision that presidential candidates, not to mention presidents, have to face: Will he keep Stevens and be the steadfast CEO who stays the course with an embattled colleague? Or will he dump strategist and strategy alike and emerge as the dexterous CEO with the guts to head off trouble?

Whatever miscues Romney has committed in the media glare, the real problem is that he has based his campaign on faulty premises promoted tirelessly within the conservative echo chamber. To wit:

1. Obama can't win because he is so unpopular.

2. The economy will defeat him.

3. Voters don't want a "socialized" America.

4. American foreign policy is weak.

And so on. There are many ways to state the misperceptions and wishful assumptions that have put the Romney campaign into a decline that could easily turn into disarray. (Perhaps we should place bets on how long before we see the trend-setting "rudderless ship" story. For signs of morbidity, stay tuned to Fox.)

As for Obama being unpopular, the Republicans mistakenly believe that the loud, passionate minority of haters, birthers, and factional zealots like the tea party will convert magically into an electoral majority.

As for the economy, as Time magazine's Joe Klein pointed out on the Scarborough show, the middle class is feeling more secure about employment stability, home ownership and 401(k) trends.

As for "socialism," can Romney avoid a landslide defeat once he succumbs to conservative demands that he "unleash" Paul Ryan as his "explainer"? The more Ryan channels Ayn Rand's John Galt, the more people will value tax equity for the middle class and a sensible safety net for the unfortunate. Ryan's erudite budgetary lectures will alienate people facing such non-Randian, nonintellectual future realities as custodial care for aging parents, hospital bills for major illness, college tuition loans, and medical "vouchers" that don't match health insurance costs for the average retiree.

Here's the picture that is troubling the silenced tribe once known as "mainstream Republicans." Old Reaganites, for example, remember what a winning candidate looks like two months out from Election Day, and they can count. If current trends continue, Obama will look more and more presidential, and Republicans and their preferred news sources will continue to lose faith in the mantra that Obama can't win because he's too black, too liberal and too modern. Interpolating from the polls, only about one-third of the electorate believes that. So from here on out, it's all simple arithmetic, as Bill Clinton said in a convention speech that really was a watershed.

Now, let's get back to the media circus. Maybe we'll see Joe Scarborough pondering how a man confused by Stuart Stevens would have handled Osama bin Laden.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Howell Raines.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1729 GMT (0129 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT