Why can’t the press let politicians have principles?

Plus: HuffPost's good work on campaign consultants, and a better way to cover gaffes

No one—not even the love child of Horatio Alger and Ayn Rand—rivals campaign reporters when it comes to worshipping ambition. In the eyes of the press pack, all behavior in the political realm is motivated by a lean and hungry look at the next office. A prime example is how the media handled two acts of Republican apostasy this week relating to the Bush alumni network and family.

Trip Gabriel reported Monday in The New York Times that former Education Secretary Margaret Spellings had dropped her informal role as an outside adviser to Mitt Romney in an understated protest over the candidate’s policies. Spellings, who had worked for George W. Bush as Texas governor, objected to Romney’s preference for vouchers and school choice over federal accountability standards. Since Spellings is not a politician, publications ranging from Politico to National Review treated her defection as a statement of ideological principle.

That same day Jeb Bush told a breakfast for reporters sponsored by Bloomberg View that the GOP’s rightward tilt was so extreme that his father and Ronald Reagan would have trouble fitting into the modern Republican Party. While a Times story by Jim Rutenberg did refer to friends saying that Bush’s comments reflected “a man free from the constraints of electoral politics,” the standard interpretation was that the Florida governor was adroitly positioning himself for a presidential run if Romney were defeated.

As Brian E. Crowley had fun pointing out in CJR this week, reporters and pundits have long been obsessed with pursuing every silly twist in the Jeb-for-veep denials. But now after Bush’s Q-and-A session with Bloomberg View, all eyes have shifted to 2016. A blog post for New York by Jonathan Chait was headlined, “Jeb Bush Ready for 2016.” Margaret Carlson ended her Bloomberg View column by theorizing that by 2016, the pendulum might swing back enough “that Jeb Bush may yet have his presidency.” And Michael Tomasky at The Daily Beast, using Bush’s comments as a springboard to muse on dynastic politics, concluded, “A Jeb-Hillary match up in 2016 could by spicy.”

For more than a half-century, all paid-up members of the Columnist Guild have been entitled to speculate two presidential elections in advance during particularly slow news periods. All that’s required are standard hedge verbs like “may” and “could.” As Robert Caro recounts in The Passage of Power, pundits, even before John Kennedy’s assassination, were already salivating over a future Lyndon Johnson-Bobby Kennedy presidential battle. An April 1963 New York Herald Tribune column by Roscoe Drummond was headlined, “LBJ MAY FACE BOBBY IN 1968.”

But an outgrowth of this venerable deadline-driven columnist tradition is an unfortunate tendency to assume that every sentence uttered by a once-and-maybe-future politician represents a strategic gambit in a multi-year chess game. Sometimes a remark to reporters is just a remark to reporters. And maybe, just maybe, Jeb Bush was merely expressing his inner convictions—just like Margaret Spellings.

A Shout-Out to HuffPost’s Coverage of Politics, Inc.

In a CJR column two months ago, I lamented that reporters rarely apply their vaunted skepticism to the ways that campaign consultants enrich themselves from the torrent money in politics. So The Huffington Post deserves plaudits for a recent and ongoing series of stories that it is grouping under the heading, “Profits of Politics.”

The inaugural article in the series, by Howard Fineman and Paul Blumenthal, ranked the 10 most lavishly compensated campaign-consulting firms based on the difficult-to-decipher records from the Federal Election Commission. But equally important, Fineman and Blumenthal adopted the correct cocked-eyebrow approach in describing the industry that could be called Politics, Incorporated. They write that rather than just being inspired by a selfless love of good government—or a desire to see their political party prevail—campaign consultants are also motivated by “the old-fashioned desire to make a buck.”

Memo to all political reporters: the quiet pre-veep-pick last days of spring would be an ideal time to pepper the Obama and Romney campaigns with questions about how much profit their consultants are making from their eight-digit monthly media buys. Campaign donors (who are also readers and TV viewers) deserve to know what portion of their money is going to elect a president, and what portion will end up in 2013 paying for beach houses for ad-makers and strategists.

(Now for a complicated full-disclosure paragraph: Fineman and I worked together at Newsweek in the 1980s, when we collectively decided that Alan Cranston would be the 1984 Democratic nominee because he had won the all-important Wisconsin Straw Poll. And as part of the 2011 alliance with AOL, Arianna Huffington and The Huffington Post shut down the website Political Daily, where I was a senior correspondent).

Guidelines for the Gaffe Patrol

Brendan Nyhan this week at CJR offered the political scientist’s argument that candidate misstatements (even Jerry Ford’s bumbling claim in 1976 that Poland was not a Communist country) do not change votes or move the polls. Nyhan went on to suggest that rather emphasizing coverage of these outbreaks of foot-in-mouth disease, editors should direct their resources to more substantive arenas.

That is all laudable—and, yes, I see a unicorn grazing on the sidewalk outside my apartment building. But, in perhaps more practical terms, here is a small suggestion for campaign reporters who fail in their praiseworthy efforts to sell their editors on a four-part series comparing the agricultural policies of Obama and Romney.

If you are forced to cover the fallout from a gaffe based on a maladroit choice of words, make sure that you provide, high up in every article and blog post, the full context for the candidate’s comments. Also indicate whether, as is often the case, those comments have been ripped out of context by political rivals or turned on their head by artful omissions. Too often the initial articles highlight the circumstances behind the verbal glitch, but then this needed background gets dropped for brevity as the press corps goes into full feeding frenzy. In my view, it is the constant, context-less repetition that—regardless of what political scientists say—convinces some voters that Jerry Ford did not understand geopolitical realities, John Kerry was a weathervane, and Barack Obama has no grasp of the private sector.

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Walter Shapiro just chronicled his ninth presidential campaign. He writes the “Character Sketch” political column for Yahoo News. Follow him on Twitter @WalterShapiroPD.