It was four o’clock on a Friday afternoon when BuzzFeed’s Andrew Kaczynski, a 22-year old student at St. John’s College, made a serendipitous discovery. Kaczynski, who has already generated a lot of buzz this election season for his talent at mining the Internet for embarrassing material on political candidates, was browsing the web archives of old Mitt Romney sites (Free Strong America, in this case), as he periodically does, looking for nothing in particular.
He found an op-ed Romney had written in July 2009 for USA Today, titled “Why the rush, Mr. President?” In the essay, Romney endorses the Massachusetts health care plan that became law during his governorship of the state—and its individual mandate—as a health care reform model for President Obama.
The op-ed proved that one of Romney’s frequent campaign claims—that he has always argued that the mandate was right for Massachusetts, but not the nation—was false.
In his blog post, “Romney’s Mandate Argument Gets Even Shakier,” The New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn asked:
How good is Buzzfeed’s Andrew Kaczynski? How lame are the opposition researchers for Mitt Romney’s Republican rivals? We now know that the answer to both questions is “very.”
Accordingly, news of the “unearthed” op-ed—nevermind that it was only 2.5 years old and had been published in the nation’s most-read daily newspaper—spread quickly, shaking the pundit class and recharging Rick Santorum with a rock-hard talking point.
National Review’s Andrew McCarthy called the op-ed “very significant.” Joe Scarborough spoke of the revelation on Morning Joe as if Romney, the campaign’s most reputed flip-flopper, had committed his greatest betrayal: “He lied yesterday—it was on videotape.”
Since then, Santorum has made the op-ed central to his stump speech. Journalists, including Kaczynski, have been digging through archives trying to pin down when Romney thought what about health care. And last Wednesday, Fox anchor Megyn Kelly grilled the candidate over a statement he made in 2008: “I like mandates.”
Not everyone cried “flip-flop”. See Glenn Kessler and Jonathan Chait’s columns for two thoughtful, opposing takes. But, if we accept that there’s meaningful news here, why is the press only wrestling with the issue now? And why did the op-ed (and supporting video) only come to wide attention through the archive-surfing of a part-time BuzzFeed reporter?
Part of the answer may be the mythology that has developed around the college-aged Kaczynski himself. More often called an “opposition researcher” than a journalist, he has quickly built a reputation that commands attention among others in the press for his finds.
Having BuzzFeed, purveyor of “the hottest, most social content on the web,” as the platform for those finds, no doubt helps, as does the backing of Ben Smith, BuzzFeed’s scoop-framing, meme-making editor-in-chief. In this case, so did the initially intriguing nugget that when you searched the USA Today site for Romney’s op-ed you got this. Rick Santorum (and surely some others) implied there were sinister forces at work, overlooking the easy-to-ascertain fact that the page could not be displayed for the same perfunctory and banal reason that other op-eds from that era could not be displayed.
I asked Kaczynski if he was surprised Romney’s op-ed, or more generally his position at the time, hadn’t emerged before.
He said no, because Santorum and Gingrich have only “bare-bones operations,” and don’t have teams in place for fundraising or opposition research.
And the media? Shouldn’t they be aware of the candidates’ positions, and question and report—not in the accusatory “gotcha” fashion of the day, but constructively—when they have revised their positions and why? That was a little more surprising to him, he said, given that the op-ed led him to a “whole Pandora’s box” of video clips and statements documenting that Romney advocated Massachusetts’ health care plan for the nation before he didn’t.
It is surprising to us, too. As a 22-year-old, Kaczynksi wasn’t following politics that closely in 2009. Most of the rest of the press corps doesn’t have that excuse and its collective amnesia about this relatively recent history is pretty bizarre.
Scott Helman is one. The Boston Globe reporter has chronicled Romney’s history on health care for his paper and in The Real Romney, a book he co-authored with Michael Kranish. “Romney’s words on health care have been under the microscope long before that op-ed resurfaced,” he said.