The new media narrative: ‘no-policy’ Romney

Three things reporters should remember as they press Romney for policy details

Lately, Mitt Romney is losing his reputation in the media as a politician who constantly flip-flops from one policy position to another—and gaining one as a politician who won’t take a position at all.

The shift has been sparked by the recent return to the news cycle of immigration, a delicate subject for the presumptive GOP presidential nominee. Faced with opportunities to address President Obama’s DREAM Act-lite directive or the Supreme Court ruling on Arizona’s tough immigration law, Romney has often punted—and the media has been quick to notice. Romney’s refusal, under repeated questioning from Face the Nation’s Bob Schieffer, to say whether he’d repeal Obama’s directive was widely flagged. His speech to Latino lawmakers in Florida was chided for lacking specifics by outlets from The Atlantic to the Chicago Tribune (with the latter report showing up in swing-state newspapers like The Columbus Dispatch). And his press aide’s stonewalling about the merits of the court ruling, and of the underlying Arizona law, seems to have annoyed campaign reporters, based on this Politico item. (Romney’s own subsequent statement wasn’t too much more forthcoming.) By the end of the day Monday, the “media scrutiny” had itself become a story.

And it’s not only immigration. As Politico’s Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns wrote over the weekend, under the headline “Mitt Romney’s no-policy problem”:

Vague, general or downright evasive policy prescriptions on some of the most important issues facing the country are becoming the rule for Romney. Hoping to make the campaign strictly a referendum on the incumbent, the hyper-cautious challenger is open about his determination to not give any fodder to Obama aides hungry to make the race as much about Romney as the president.

Romney is remarkably candid, almost as though he’s reading the stage directions, about why he won’t offer up details: he thinks it will undermine his chances to win.

“The media kept saying to Chris, ‘Come on, give us the details, give us the details,’’’ Romney has said about New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s 2009 gubernatorial race. “‘We want to hang you with them.’”

In addition to immigration, Martin and Burns cite Romney’s evasiveness on Wall Street regulations, foreign policy, and tax and budget issues. To my eye, some of these counts are not particularly damning—it doesn’t seem unusual, or especially unreasonable, that Romney is at this point sticking with banalities about Afghanistan and Iran. On the other hand, his vagueness on the budget—promising to close the deficit but offering only ticky-tack cuts to Amtrak and foreign aid; indicating he favors eliminating tax deductions but refusing to say which ones—is ripe to be called out. Overall, Martin and Burns assemble a credible case for their claim that, “as he enters the heat of this year’s campaign, Romney is testing just how far he can go in not telling voters what policies he’d pursue in the White House.” At Slate, meanwhile, John Dickerson chimes in to note how much more detail George W. Bush had offered by this point in his 2000 campaign.

If this is to become the new media narrative about Romney, it’s a step up from both the search for “the real Romney” and the “flip-flopper” meme, each of which Brendan Nyhan has critiqued for CJR. A basic function of campaign coverage, after all—before exposing influence, digging into the record, scrutinizing policy proposals and all that important stuff—is simply explaining to people what candidates say they want to do. If a candidate won’t say what he wants to do—or what say with enough specificity to make even cursory scrutiny possible—that’s an important story.

That said, here are three things reporters should keep in mind as they press Romney for more details and seek to inform voters about his plans:

Don’t read too much into “hot-mic” moments. Romney’s studied vagueness gives some extra juice to stories like this April account by NBC’s Garrett Haake, based on overhearing the candidate’s remarks to a closed-door fundraiser. And indeed, that article contains substantive policy details that Romney doesn’t typically discuss, like specific tax deductions and cabinet agencies that might be on the chopping block in a Romney presidency (assuming, as always, that Congress is amenable).

Inadvertent disclosures like this one are often treated as a window onto what a politician really thinks—or in this case, what a politician will do. But the very fact that these comments weren’t intended to be public might be reason to discount them. One of the reasons that campaign promises are a reliable guide to politicians’ future actions is that supporters can use those commitments to hold politicians accountable. The proposed changes Romney discussed in that talk are interesting—but his unwillingness to discuss them publicly might tell us more about how committed he is to seeing them through.

Remember that we’re in the age of the partisan presidency. Romney should offer a well-defined policy vision, and the press should take note if he doesn’t. Still, let’s not pretend that we’re too far in the dark about what either Romney or Obama will do as president—they’ll pursue the priorities of the constituencies represented by their respective parties. Jonathan Bernstein, riffing off of Garry Wills, makes that point here; Seth Masket, focusing on Obama, makes a similar point here.

This is something most reporters do understand, and it shapes coverage. There has been such scrutiny of Romney’s views on immigration partly because reporters want to know how he’ll handle the horse-race challenges the issue poses for the GOP—but also because the party is to some extent divided on the issue, and it’s not obvious where Romney will come out.

Still, the basic insight could be applied more broadly. Romney has been vague about his deficit reduction plans because Republican voters hate all the policy options that would do the most to close the budget gap. So what would he do as president? Probably not try too hard to reduce the deficit (which is not to say that he wouldn’t push to cut discretionary spending—Republican voters do like that).

Don’t let it get pathological. Reporters should tell their audiences when Romney ducks or stonewalls or otherwise avoids taking a position. But let’s not make the power struggle the story, as is already happening. And let’s not turn this into a chase for situations that confirm the narrative, to the extent that we obscure or miss the positions that he does take. Buried in many of those stories about Romney’s vagueness on DREAM Act issues are his plans for adjusting the green-card system, and for expanding legal caps on high-skill immigrants. Those don’t happen to be the particular topics that the media is focusing on, but they’re still newsworthy.

Or consider that Face the Nation interview. The attention was on the immigration exchange, but as Jon Bernstein notes, the discussion also featured Romney—who’s generally kept his distance as the rest of the GOP embraces Paulite views about the Federal Reserve—dabbling with inflation hawkery and opposing monetary stimulus. Romney won’t be setting central bank policy himself, but the next president will be appointing a Fed chairman after 2014, and that choice will have important consequences.

And finally, keep in mind Dickerson’s closing point: “So is Mitt Romney trying to get away with something? At the moment, yes, but there’s plenty of time left in the campaign for him to get specific.” This campaign might feel like it’s already lasted forever, but most swing voters haven’t even tuned in yet. There’s lots of time for Romney to put some meat on those policy bones, and to reset the latest narrative about his campaign.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.