The inevitability of Mitt Romney

“Conventional wisdom” has kept other GOP candidates at bay and ensured Romney remains the likely Republican nominee.

Mitt Romney
The media has played a key role in discrediting many of the other Republican presidential candidates [GALLO/GETTY]

“Why don’t they like me?” Time magazine asked on the cover of its December 1, 2011 issue, next to a face shot of a bushy-browed American politician Mitt Romney.

According to that nebulous vapour that accompanies conventional wisdom, the former governor of Massachusetts will inevitably emerge as the Republican Party’s nominee to challenge President Barack Obama in November.

The wise white men of the media also posit that the GOP isn’t happy about it. The pundits say that Republicans feel that it’s Romney’s turn in a party that traditionally hands its top spot to the guy (Dole, Reagan, Bush, etc.) who’s been patiently waiting. The pundits also say that Republicans also feel that Romney is too liberal, too squishy, and too Mormon for a party that has been hijacked by its right-wing Tea Party faction and right-wing Christian fundamentalists based in the South and Midwest.

As these conflicting narratives play themselves out in editorial pages and news analyses, the twisted relationship between media determinism and popular democracy is being exposed in sharper relief than in any recent election.

Reporters tell us – and no doubt believe – that they are dutifully relating the Republican Party’s discomfort with Romney’s inevitable turn.

There was no mention made of a similar inevitability when Hillary Clinton, heir apparent to the Democratic throne, was vying for the Democratic nomination four years ago.

Phil Singer, adviser to Hillary in ’08, was quoted in an October 13, 2011 ABC News piece (headline: “Is Romney Inevitable?”) saying that there’s a “Goldilocks balance” to the inevitability dance: “You want to be inevitable, but not too inevitable because it takes away a sense of urgency from your supporters”, Singer said. “If you create this perception of inevitability you run the risk of seeing a more lacklustre turnout than you would need for a favourable result.” But, on the other hand, he also said that “inevitability is an asset in terms of chilling your opponent from raising money and mounting a challenge”.

But what about the media’s role in a story they’re supposed to be covering, rather than shaping? Would Romney be the widely-accepted frontrunner without their description of him as such? Would Republicans be annoyed by Mitt’s reputation as a flip-flopper – a tag that could stick to just about any politician anywhere – if the punditocracy didn’t go on-and-on about it?

Conventional wisdom

First, a word about “conventional wisdom”.

Conventional wisdom in the United States is created by the media; it is an opinion that originates close to the ideological centre-right and is promulgated by a corporate-employed pundit deemed safe to follow (typically a print columnist). It then spreads rapidly through the press and news broadcasts.

A few examples of conventional wisdom in the American media:

  • The 20th century was the American century. Unless “we” (the United States) “do something” (ie, rise to the challenge), the 21st century will belong to China. This view is frequently paired with calls for fiscal austerity. Pierre Buhler supplies an example in an op-ed entitled “Whose Century, the 21st?” in the November 25, 2011 New York Times. He says that “while post-World War II America secured its position in Europe through what resources it could muster, credit-worthiness and cutting-edge competitiveness, the America of today is a heavily indebted country paralysed by political gridlock and burdened by low competitiveness in the tradable sector”.
  • The US won’t take climate change seriously until there is a major environmental disaster. The Bloomberg wire service cites Robert Stavins, director of the Environmental Economics Programme at Harvard University: “It’s unlikely that the US is going to take serious action on climate change until there are observable, dramatic events, almost catastrophic in nature, that drive public opinion and drive the political process in that direction.”
  • The death of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il has created two main assumptions. First, his successor and son Kim Jong-un has six to 12 months to consolidate power or risk removal in a military coup. “The military’s support is considered crucial to his consolidating control after the death of his father,” reported the Times on December 24, 2011. Considered by whom? And second, that the basic structure of the regime will continue as is for the foreseeable future.

False wisdom without a price

Conventional wisdom often turns to be wrong. Most American major media outlets agreed with the Bush administration – and the conventional wisdom floggers at the big papers and TV networks – that Saddam Hussein probably had weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. In 2006, they routinely denied warnings from outside the “mainstream” that the housing bubble was about to burst and trigger a worldwide economic disaster.

Phrases such as “no one could have known” proliferate after failures of conventional wisdom, belittling the fact that other voices – ridiculed and marginalised as “outside the mainstream” – did know.

Yet the purveyors of conventional wisdom rarely pay a price for their mistakes. They huddle together and give one another cover when reality differs from their predictions.

Eight years into the occupation of Iraq, former Bush national security adviser Condoleezza Rice was still claiming that “no one could have known” that Saddam didn’t have weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) – and was not challenged by reporters, most of whom had dutifully regurgitated the official line that the Iraqi dictator was so evil that it simply stood to reason that he would never have given up his weapons programmes.

Phrases such as “no one could have known” proliferate after failures of conventional wisdom, belittling the fact that other voices – ridiculed and marginalised as “outside the mainstream” – did know. And said so – even if no one heard them.

If a Marxist economist – or Scott Ritter – falls in the woods, does anyone care?

Predictions by the forces of conventional wisdom ought to have a better track record. After all, they’re self-fulfilling.

A boon to politics

In no area is this clearer than in American media attempts to handicap political horseraces.

Barack Obama’s re-nomination at the head of the 2012 Democratic ticket has been a foregone conclusion – even in coverage of the party’s schism between the president and disgruntled leftists and liberals. “The idea [of a 2012 primary challenge to Obama] seems to have little momentum for now, not least because there isn’t an obvious candidate, and because such a challenge would seem to have about as much chance of success as, say, a reality show about David Hasselhoff,” Times political reporter Matt Bai wrote on December 7, 2010.

It’s unusual for a Democratic incumbent not to face a primary challenge. Not only does a primary run raise one’s profile in preparation for a future run, there are ideological divisions to be exploited when a leader like Obama departs from party orthodoxy and there is deep discontent about the state of the economy.

“I’d love to have that candidate [the liberal that Obama ran as in 2008] back,” Oregon Representative Peter DeFazio told The Hill newspaper in September. “I think it would be helpful.”

Jimmy Carter, a centre-right Democrat presiding over an economic crisis that compares favourably to today’s, nearly lost his party’s nomination to liberal stalwart Ted Kennedy in 1980. So why, in Bai’s words, isn’t there “an obvious candidate”?

In part it’s because the media machine has determined that an anti-Obama Democrat would be neither desirable nor viable. That determination, illustrated by glib lines of type like Bai’s cute reference Hasselhoff, dissuades potential campaign donors and transforms a prediction into fait accompli.

Keeping Romney at the front

Back in July, when Tea Party favourite Michele Bachman was surging in polls of the Republican faithful, perennial militant moderate New York Times columnist Ross Douthat put together a few sentences that summed up the raison d’être for the establishment’s sense that Romney would emerge victorious:

Romney remains a weak frontrunner, to be sure – weak enough that I was sure he was a dead man walking a year ago. But the candidate who beats him has to peel off some of his moderate-establishment support as well as mobilising Tea Party voters, and such a candidate hasn’t yet emerged. It might – might – be [Texas governor] Rick Perry, but it isn’t Michele Bachmann. I have no doubt that she can give him a serious scare, but it will be the kind of scare that Jesse Jackson gave Michael Dukakis in 1988, or Jerry Brown gave Bill Clinton in 1992 – enough to earn her a nice convention speaking slot, but not the nomination.

The “moderate-establishment support” are the old-money Republican donors and media types like Ross Douthat.

Left unspoken are several other factors: Romney’s looks, straight out of central casting for an American president; his moderate political past (his healthcare plan for liberal Massachusetts inspired Obama’s federal plan), which makes liberal media types comfortable with him; and even his Mormonism. His religion cuts both ways – anything that turns off the Christian right turns on the secular liberal reporters and pundits who dominate the media.

The Republican base – the right-wing Christian conservatives – continues to bristle. Their discomfort has manifested itself via short-term rises and implosions of one not-Romney candidate after another, all before the first primary vote has even been cast.

Some of Romney’s foes fell apart all by themselves. Former pizza executive Herman Cain didn’t require assistance from the Romney-is-inevitable media brigade to self-destruct.

Rick Perry’s baffling performances in the primary debates, highlighted by a seemingly endless brain freeze about the name of a cabinet department he promised to eliminate should he become president, did him in as surely as an assassin’s bullet.

The New York Times went so far as to oh-so-helpfully cite neuroscience as an explanation: “Brain researchers note that countless memory lapses like these happen to the rest of us every day, whether it’s walking into a room and forgetting why you are there or being unable to recall a name that’s on the tip of your tongue,” wrote Tara Parker-Pope on November 10, 2011. Though Perry probably word have preferred the story to go away – or simply not get covered in the first place.

Convenient emphasis

The Dean Scream ran on national television at least 600 times. Yet those who were there – the people in the room at the time – had no idea they had witnessed anything unusual.

The question of emphasis comes up a lot in the interplay between media coverage and a candidate’s supposed political viability. To wit: the notorious “Dean’s Scream”, in which former Vermont governor Howard Dean saw his candidacy destroyed after his exuberant shout at a 2004 campaign rally was wilfully twisted from truth (an event that is nothing out of the ordinary) into a tech glitch (his microphone malfunctioned) and finally into smear (the man was obviously insane).

“For months, pundits have been suggesting that the only person who could stop Howard Dean is Howard Dean”, Joel Roberts reported on CBS after the beginning of the end of Dean’s candidacy. “And pundits like to be right. Add to that the antagonistic relationship the campaign has built with the press due to messy, amateurish entrances and exits to events; volatile and poorly planned ‘drop-by’ campaign stops; and a general void in the communications department, and what you get is a press corps ready to pounce on anything the governor offers.”

The Dean Scream ran on national television at least 600 times. Yet those who were there – the people in the room at the time – had no idea they had witnessed anything unusual.

Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House of Representatives who orchestrated the 1994 midterm “Republican Revolution” sweep of the US Congress, is disliked by liberal pundits for ideological reasons and conservatives who think he is pompous, egotistical and self-serving. So when he became the latest anti-Romney to pose a significant threat to Mr Inevitable, it didn’t take long for these forces to conspire to take him down.

Gingrich, a C-class historian, novelist and apocalyptic theorist who emerged as a relative intellectual giant in a field composed of science deniers like Bachman, Perry and Cain, impressed Republican primary debate audiences with his quick command of notable dates and historical movements – knowledge that is sadly lacking on both sides of the official ideological spectrum. Suddenly he became the man to beat – for Romney, and the media that had declared him inevitable.

Gingrich’s “considerable personal baggage has forced him to master the art of seeming remorseful”, scoffed The Los Angeles Times in a December 24, 2011 article that declared him “too Arrogant for Iowa”, where the first caucus is held. “Achieving common-man authenticity is Gingrich’s great challenge”, continued the paper, citing a GOP strategist. Backhanded compliments abounded: Newt is “the GOP field’s deepest thinker, who spouts ideas, many outlandish, the way other candidates spout talking points”.

Unlikeable. Disliked. Baggage. Ironically, for a man with baggage – the advantage of such a status is that you’re considered impervious to new attacks – it took a new scandal of sorts to return the race to the place the establishment liked best, where a weak-but-leading Mitt Romney coats to the nomination on the strength of his chiselled chin and bottomless pockets.

Gingrich, it turned out, had gotten paid $1.6m from Freddie Mac, one of the mortgage giants im

It’s instructive that the facts only matter when they can be used to deflate a threat to Mitt Romney.

plicated in the 2008 subprime mortgage meltdown and thus one of the most hated corporations in the US. Gingrich claimed he was paid for “strategic advice” due to his knowledge of history.

Ball served.

“That would make him the highest paid historian in history”, Romney smirked.

Slam. Point and likely match.

And now it’s after Ron Paul. The libertarian gadfly has played footsy with kooky fringe racists for years, yet never drew mainstream attention until the last week or two when his polls as the “Not Romney” began rising in proportion to the decline of Newt Gingrich. “The white supremacists, survivalists and anti-Zionists who have rallied behind his candidacy have not exactly been warmly welcomed,” The New York Times reported on December 26, 2011, “but he did not disavow their support.”

It’s an important story. Voters need to know that a man running number two for the nomination of a major political party is coddling neo-Nazis. But it’s instructive that the facts only matter when they can be used to deflate a threat to Mitt Romney.

“Newt Gingrich’s surge has slowed and Ron Paul has gained momentum, but Mitt Romney remains the clear front-runner in New Hampshire with a little more than two weeks until the nation’s first primary,” reports the Boston Globe.

Mission accomplished.

Ted Rall is an American political cartoonist, columnist and author. His most recent book is The Anti-American Manifesto. His website is

Follow him on Twitter: @TedRall

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.