These factors would not be crucial in shaping coverage of Romney—if he were perceived as a winner. But campaign reporters are sycophantic about candidates on the way up and sarcastic about those on the way down. For better or for worse, any reporter who has covered a state auditor’s race and been to a national convention believes that he or she is a great armchair political strategist. So when Romney puts Eastwood on stage without a script, releases an intemperate statement before the American ambassador is murdered in Libya, and is accused by Politico of running a dysfunctional campaign, the press invariably will pile on.
(For my own critique of Romney’s management style, see my column this week for Yahoo News.)
The biggest gap, though, between Romney and those who chronicle his political fortunes is cultural. Michelle Obama, during her speech to the Democratic convention, spoke about how her husband had “started his career by turning down high-paying jobs.” Everyone wearing a press credential in Charlotte could relate to Obama’s economic choice, since no one brighter than a dead flashlight battery goes into journalism for the money.
Romney, in contrast, predicated his life before politics on profit maximization. So did George W. Bush (the only other presidential nominee with a Harvard MBA), but back in 2000 most reporters could understand his years as a scapegrace son and envy him for owning a baseball team. Even the fabulously wealthy presidential contenders of yesteryear (JFK, Nelson Rockefeller) had an insouciance about money that came from having inherited it. But for Mitt Romney, the road to riches was, by all accounts, paved with humorless dedication.
This is all about values, not conservative political ideology. Campaign reporters can relate to a career politician like Paul Ryan who has been drawing an upper-middle-class salary on the congressional payroll since he was 28 years old. What matters here are not Ryan’s views on the optimum level of taxation and government, but rather his life choices. By running for Congress in 1998 after a youthful career in Washington think tanks, Ryan radiated his belief that an influential career in public service was far more important than amassing a nine-digit investment portfolio.
“Bias” is an explosive word to use in describing the media’s attitudes toward Romney, so I want to be precise about what I mean. I am not describing any deliberate effort by the media to “get” Romney, or to reelect Obama. It’s just my sense that—like watching a smug banker slip on a banana peel in an old-time silent movie—campaign reporters appear to derive a special glee out of every Romney pratfall. The best remedy is some simple self-awareness, and a moment of hesitation and reflection before trotting out the parallels to the 1988 Dukakis campaign.