Don’t look now, but the top story at the Drudge Report is about how former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is promising to sharpen his response to attacks leveled at his candidacy by others seeking the GOP nomination. Folks like Mitt Romney and Ron Paul have effectively chipped away at Gingrich’s status as frontrunner by painting the former Speaker as a career inside-the-Beltway politician, and by linking him with the housing collapse.
While I admire Newt’s promise to avoid direct attacks against fellow Republicans, the mere fact that he has been forced to confront his failure to effectively rebut entirely predictable attacks brings to the forefront my top concern about Newt Gingrich as GOP nominee — that, with Newt at the helm, the GOP will be forced to remain on the defensive due to the plethora of traditional problems with his candidacy at a time when going on the offensive would be seemingly easy and certainly effective.
Every candidate, it seems, has his or her own advantages and disadvantages, strengths and weaknesses which each individually play upon his or her electability on a national scale. The problem, it seems, is that folks seem to believe that Newt has more disadvantages and weaknesses than he does advantages and strengths. The question, therefore, is whether his campaign would be able to keep things on message as the final push is made toward November.
I don’t think anyone doubts the importance of the debates during the Republican primary, and I don’t think anyone doubts that it has been Newt’s debate performances that has propelled him to the top despite having very little money. Further, I don’t think anyone doubts that Newt would mop the floor with President Obama during head-to-head debates as summer turns to fall. The question is whether those debates will matter in the grand scheme of the most contentious and pricy presidential contest in our nation’s history.
If the media environment were different, I might have more faith in the right’s ability to keep the news cycles focused on issues. The problem, however, is that the media environment is what it is. In 2008, even with many people seeing most of Barack Obama’s personal indiscretions and unfortunate associations for the first time, it was the news media that shaped the discussion and put the McCain campaign on the defensive, both on substantive issues such as weariness of the Iraq War and personal issues such as Sarah Palin’s family drama.
Take a good look at some evidence of the mainstream media’s bias during the 2008 election. (My favorite is the comparison between Charlie Gibson’s questions for Sarah Palin and Barack Obama.) This time around, I expect more of the same. And, if this was the case during the home stretch in 2008 …
- Study of TV (NBC, ABC and CBS) coverage of election, Oct 2008:
- 61 percent of the stories that appeared on the networks between Aug. 23 and Sept. 30 were positive toward the Democratic Party.
- In contrast, just 39 percent of the stories covering Republicans were favorable.
- Study of 2,412 news stories from 48 news outlets, from the conventions to the final 2008 presidential debate (and here).
- 14 percent of stories about McCain were positive. 57 percent were negative.
- 36 percent of stories about Obama were positive. 29 percent were negative.
- Study of network news coverage of Sarah Palin, Sept-Oct 2008
- Major network news shows ran 69 stories about Sarah Palin. 37 stories were negative. 2 were positive.
- Not a single evening news show ran a positive story about Palin.
… I think that it is fair to expect that the vast majority of stories seen by the vast majority of Americans are going to highlight negative aspects of the nominee’s candidacy at the expense of both positive stories about the nominee’s candidacy and negative stories about Barack Obama. If Newt Gingrich is the nominee, that means that three out of every five stories about the Republican candidate will be focused on Newt’s marital transgressions and habit of assuaging big-government Democrats and climate change fanatics, while Obama’s epically progressive failures will likely go largely unnoticed.
So, would Mitt Romney be a better candidate because he wouldn’t be constantly forced to be so defensive? I don’t think so. I believe that it is fairly obvious that the left is capable of destroying the character of anybody it pleases, and even if the facts aren’t there to support the character assassination, the left is adept at perceptionally destroying character. I still don’t buy the accusations against Herman Cain, for example, but for a large number of people just the mere perception of Cain as a duplicitous womanizer was too much to bear.
It might seem overly simplistic to say, but the left is the left. And, frankly, the media is the media. As soon as the GOP’s nominee is chosen, that nominee is going to be absolutely savaged by a billion-dollar smear campaign, regardless of who that nominee is. We need to stop thinking perceptionally in terms of who will have the least negatives, and start thinking perceptionally as to who will be most capable of concisely and effectively rebutting those negatives while simultaneously articulating the positives about a small-government message and hammering the president on his own failures.