With a primary win and a big-name endorsement, Mitt Romney could have had a better news cycle Wednesday had the media not been far more entertained by the gaffe his adviser made about campaigns-as-Etch-A-Sketches. Did his campaign bring it on itself? According to some pundits who are looking back on the hooplah Thursday, it might not have been fair the way the media focused only on the bad news from Team Romney, but it's what Romney's campaign gets for being so standoffish.
Fox News' Bret Baier hinted at this while discussing Romney campaign adviser Eric Fehrnstrom's infamous statement that it's easy to move to the center in a general election campaign because campaigns are like "Etch-A-Sketches." Baier said, "This on a day when the Romney campaign was supposed to be touting a big win in Illinois and also a big endorsement ... But it got so intense, late in the day, Mitt Romney had to talk to reporters." [Emphasis ours.]
Note how Baier phrases that idea as if to imply that Romney speaking with the press is the absolute last-ditch option, and you get a sense of why reporters might not feel so bad about focusing on something as stupid as a Romney advisor's misspeak. This gets at a longstanding observation, usually made while noting Ann Romney's warm relationship with journalists, that Mitt Romney isn't very comfortable or warm around the press.
[T]his is what happens when you don’t have a solid base of support that can serve as a cocoon of protection during the toughest of times ... In fact, it was notable during yesterday’s “Etch A Sketch” controversy that we didn’t see many prominent conservatives railing against media bias or unfairness. Instead, they were either standing on the sidelines or piling on. And that’s a problem for Romney.
As I’ve noted before, Romney’s campaign has made a strategic decision to be aloof ... this has consequences. There is no reservoir of goodwill, for which they can draw. They don’t get the benefit of the doubt.
It didn’t have to be this way. Imagine for a moment what would happen if one of Marco Rubio’s aides made a similarly silly statement, which was then seized on by the DNC or a liberal media outlet. Does anyone think it would metastasize into a mess that would dominate a news cycle?
.... Center-right journalists and conservative bloggers and social media mavens would have pushed back on the narrative at a fast and furious pace. But Rubio has gone out of his way to develop relationships with conservatives ....
We'll set aside the question of whether a Jeb Bush endorsement was, in fact, as deserving of attention as the cleverly-formed revelation from an aide that Romney believes he can move to the center in the general election. These writers, at least, seem to think it was, and that if Romney had more vocal friends, they'd have pointed this out.
It might be strategically true that campaigns who make themselves more available and friendly to the press get better or fairer treatment as a result. But maybe Wednesday's Etch-A-Sketch frenzy was actually a self-defeating effort for the media. If journalists share a goal of making Romney more available to them, are they really doing that by focusing on an error a campaign aide made while he was in the midst of a media availability? It's like the schoolyard bully who pushes a girl over in the sandbox because he really wants her to talk to him. He never gets what he wants, but still he keeps trying. Just as we imagine the Romney campaign won't feel much warmer toward the press in the coming weeks, so too, do we expect the media to be no less unforgiving each time Romney or his aides say something damaging. It's as cyclical as the turns of an Etch-A-Sketch wheel.