Jonah Goldberg: Mitt Romney is owed an apology, although he likely won't get it
“Romney didn’t win, did he?”
That was former Senate Democratic majority leader Harry Reid’s response to whether he regretted lying about then-GOP presidential nominee — and now Utah senator — Mitt Romney.
Reid accused Romney on the Senate floor in 2012, when he was running for president, of not having paid any taxes in four years. It was absolutely untrue and was discredited by Washington Post fact-checkers and others at the time. But that didn’t stop the onslaught of unfair and inaccurate accusations and innuendos.
The Mitt Romney who ran for president in 2012 went on to vote for conviction in President Trump’s impeachment trial. And that same Romney became the first known Republican senator to march with the George Floyd protesters over the weekend.
You remember 2012, right? That was the year of the last presidential election before Donald Trump’s victory. And the way liberals attacked Romney’s presidential campaign on opinion pages of newspapers, news broadcasts and in the media echo chamber of blue check-mark Twitter, has a lot to do with how the next election went — and how this one will go. Their treatment of Romney was an inflection point for many on the right.
A recent fundraising email from the Trump campaign begins: “President Trump isn’t running against Sleepy Joe Biden. He’s running against the Radical Left, the Deep State, the Do-Nothing Democrats, and their partner, the real opposition party, the Fake News media.”
Trump didn’t invent the idea of the media as “the real opposition party.” In the modern era the tactic dates to Richard Nixon. It was Nixon’s VP Spiro Agnew — with the help of speechwriters Patrick Buchanan and William Safire — who launched a war against the media as a “tiny and closed fraternity of privileged men, elected by no one.”
In 1988, George H.W. Bush goosed his shot at the nomination by aggressively pushing back against CBS’ Dan Rather in an interview. In 1992 his campaign sold bumper stickers, “Annoy the Liberal Media, Reelect Bush.” Rather’s failed attempt to destroy his son’s reelection in September of 2004 by using forged documents only confirmed conservative hatred of the media in general and Rather in particular. You could see conservative hatred of media reaching critical mass when Newt Gingrich turned nearly every debate question into an attack on the media as an elitist, partisan, fifth column determined to do the Democrats work for them, and the base loved him for it.
But it was the understandable perception of conservatives that the press treated Romney unfairly that caused many on the right to openly declare war on the media, because they believed that the press had already declared war on them.
What you see is what you get with Romney, if you don’t have partisan blinders on. He’s a transparently decent man who is also a transparently conventional, if a bit stiff, Republican politician. He’s not immune to the charge of flip-flopping on issues like abortion or healthcare, but that hardly makes him unique. What he isn’t — and wasn’t in 2012 — is a racist, a sexist or a cold-hearted monster. And yet, that is how he was routinely depicted by his opponents, including commentators across the mainstream media, with precious little pushback from mainstream reporters.
Put aside for a moment that New York Times columnist Gail Collins mentioned a trivial incident with Romney’s dog in more than 70 columns to make him sound like an abuser of animals (ignoring the equally trivial fact that Barack Obama ate dog while living in Indonesia as a child). Recall instead the time when Romney explained how, when he was elected governor of Massachusetts, he bent over backward to work with women’s groups to get names of qualified women to staff his administration. He said he got so many recommendations — which he used! — that he needed binders to hold all the resumes. In other words, a Republican governor did exactly what feminist groups want elected officials to do, but the internet exploded with condemnation and liberal commentators reacted to his phrase “binders full of women” like he was a character from “A Handmaid’s Tale.”
Then Daily Beast columnist Michael Tomasky called Romney a “race-mongering pyromaniac.” Why? Because he referred to Obamacare as — wait for it — “Obamacare” in a speech to the NAACP.
The lesson many on the right took from all the Romney attacks was that a candidate can’t win by being decent. “At least he fights” became a kind of unofficial mantra of the Trump brigades.
Now, Trump the Fighter vs. The Fake News is the defining issue for many on the right, as Reid’s once-damnable cynicism has become a Republican virtue. Now it is the right that attacks Romney’s character while the left has a strange new respect for it, not because his character has changed, but because it hasn’t.
Jonah Goldberg is a nationally syndicated columnist whose work appears regularly in the Grand Forks Herald.