It’s a wonderful irony of the 2012 election that the only flaw the Romney team can find in their flawless campaign was the fact that they believed their own bullshit. They watched Fox News, read The Wall Street Journal, clicked on Drudge and the Daily Caller, and listened to the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Hugh Hewitt, Karl Rove, Dick Morris and Peggy Noonan promise them that their Kenyan/Muslim/socialist/terrorist nightmare was nearly over. One election was all that stood between them and a country without capital gains taxes, pollution regulation, healthcare mandates, gay marriage and abortions for rape victims. The less wonderful irony involves the supporting role the mainstream media played in this un-reality show.
Post-truth politics reached a new pinnacle this year as major MSM machers admitted to a lack of concern with the veracity of the news their institutions reported. “It’s not our job to litigate [the facts] in the paper,” New York Times national editor Sam Sifton told the paper’s public editor, Margaret Sullivan, regarding phony Republican “voter fraud” allegations. “We need to state what each side says.” “The truth? C’mon, this is a political convention” was the headline over a column by Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post “fact-checker.” (Yes, you read that right.)
Blogger and Rachel Maddow Show producer Steve Benen, who kept track of such things, counted fully 917 false statements made by Mitt Romney during 2012. Just about the truest words to come out of the campaign were those of the Romney pollster who explained, “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.” But not only did many members of the MSM give Romney a pass on his serial lying; they actually endorsed his candidacy on the assumption that we need not take seriously any of those statements the candidate had felt compelled to make in order to win the nomination of his party.
The Times’s David Brooks set the tone for this sort of argument with an election-eve column in which he argued that a victorious Romney would “observe the core lesson of this campaign: conservatism loses; moderation wins” and so “govern as a center-right moderate.” Recall that Romney, who described himself as “severely conservative,” ran as the candidate of a party that rejects science as well as basic economics. Yet the same “Republicans in Congress” who would prefer to see the country default on its debts rather than raise a nickel in tax revenue from people making more than a million a year “would probably go along,” says Brooks.
This form of magical thinking was not limited only to New York Times pundits. It characterized the reasoning of numerous newspaper editorial boards across the nation. As Ezra Klein wrote in The Washington Post, “In endorsement after endorsement, the basic argument is that President Obama hasn’t been able to persuade House or Senate Republicans to work with him. If Obama is reelected, it’s a safe bet that they’ll continue to refuse to work with him. So vote Romney!” The Des Moines Register made exactly this argument: “Which candidate could forge the compromises in Congress to achieve these goals? When the question is framed in those terms, Mitt Romney emerges the stronger candidate.” Sure, he sounded like a lunatic during the primary season, when, you know, he was running for the nomination of the party with whom he hoped to govern—or as the Register’s editors put it: “Romney had to tack to the right during the primary season.” But no matter; now that he wanted the votes of normal people, he’d “recalibrated his campaign to focus on his concern for the middle class, and that is believable if the real Mitt Romney is the one on display as governor of Massachusetts who passed a health care reform plan that became the model for the one passed by Congress.”
It is almost unfair to focus on the Register editors when, as Slate’s Dave Weigel points out, at least twenty-one newspapers that endorsed Obama in 2008 switched to Romney four years later. Weigel calculated that roughly half of these were “couched in the hope that Romney hornswoggled Republican primary voters and will govern as a moderate.” This is post-truthism in its most pristine form. Never mind everything that Romney has said and done since announcing his first campaign for the presidency. As the leader of a radicalized Republican Party energized by an electoral victory and a particularly obstructionist Republican House majority—one that represents a minority of voters, by the way—Romney would govern in the same fashion he did when serving as the governor of America’s bluest state and faced with a liberal legislature. (The alleged bipartisan success of his term there was yet another myth, as it happens.)
Shortly after it endorsed Obama’s re-election, the Post published a remarkably plain-spoken indictment of his Republican challenger. Titled “Mitt Romney’s campaign insults voters,” the editorial itemized some (though, of course, not all) of the ways Romney had demonstrated “a contempt for the electorate. How else to explain his refusal to disclose essential information…. How, other than an assumption that voters are too dim to remember what Mr. Romney has said across the years and months, to account for his breathtaking ideological shifts? [Or] his misleading commercials (see: Jeep jobs to China) and his refusal to lay out an agenda…. And then there has been his chronic, baldly dishonest defense of mathematically impossible budget proposals.”
Mr. Romney, the editors concluded, “seems to be betting that voters have no memories, poor arithmetic skills and a general inability to look behind the curtain.” He was wrong about the voters, thank God, who turned out to care a great deal more about the truth than many of their constitutionally sanctioned watchdogs in the mainstream media.
In our November 12 issue, Eric Alterman dissected “The Mainstream Media's Trivial Pursuit of Campaign 2012.”