by Paul Waldman
Mitt Romney did something unusual over the weekend: He sat down for an interview with a journalist not employed by Fox News. The result may not have been a Palin-esque train wreck, but it showed why Romney allows himself to be interviewed so rarely.
A candidate forever conducting a precarious balancing act between his extremist base, the desires of the broader electorate, and the reasonable issue positions he renounced to capture his party’s nomination, Romney has a difficult time constructing talking points that can withstand scrutiny. You’d think that this fundamental weakness would present a major hurdle for his campaign. But these days, it’s much less of a problem for a candidate than it used to be.
First, let’s look at what happened to Romney this weekend, because his struggles in one-on-one interviews demonstrate just how important it is that the press be given the opportunity to ask follow-up questions that go beyond a candidate’s talking points. In this case, the issue was President Obama’s new immigration policy, which offers young undocumented immigrants the ability to work and go to school without fear of deportation, but does not give them a path to citizenship. Caught between a fervently anti-immigrant Republican base and the knowledge that if he keeps alienating Latino voters he’s “doomed,” as he himself put it, this fall, Romney tried to condemn Obama (since everything his opponent does must of course be condemned) without saying what he himself would do about immigration. Bob Schieffer of CBS News pressed him to say whether he’d undo Obama’s policy, but he dodged and weaved, refusing to say.
But Romney may have gotten away with it for now, because it could be months before he’s pressed on the issue again. That’s in part a result of the multiplication of media and communication channels, which ironically, makes it easier for candidates to escape this kind of accountability.
Why? With so many different ways to reach voters, today’s candidates can avoid direct contact with reporters for long stretches of time if they choose to—a strategy Romney appears to have turned into an art form. Back in the days when you could fit representatives of every important media outlet into one small room, politicians had little choice but to speak to them and answer their questions. That’s still the case for the president himself, who despite all the trappings of his office is more accountable to journalists than the typical challenger candidate. John F. Kennedy began the tradition of regular televised presidential press conferences—he held 65 during his brief presidency, or an average of about one every two weeks—and ever since, we have expected that on a regular basis, the president should come before the cameras and take questions from the press. Some have done it more than others, and the events may be somewhat choreographed, but none have been able to avoid journalists’ questions entirely..
Being able to campaign largely without taking reporters’ questions allows a candidate to lie almost with impunity. After all, if he’ll never have to defend his false claims, there’s little incentive to avoid doing so. (For details on Romney’s burgeoning volume of falsehoods, see Steve Benen’s ongoing chronicle of Mitt’s mendacity). If it’s feeling particularly aggressive, the mainstream press may politely point out where he’s departed from the truth, but rarely will these “fact-checks” rise to the level where ordinary voters will become aware of them.
If there’s one question I wish more reporters would ask politicians, it’s this: “Can you be specific about that?” Because so often, it turns out that the candidate’s broad talking points have nothing beneath them. This is particularly true of Romney, who isn’t even able to tell us specifically what he learned in business—the entire foundation of his candidacy, you’ll recall—that would enable him to do a good job managing the economy.
It does seem as though every time Mitt Romney sits down for an interview, things don’t go well. (It didn’t get as much attention as it should have, but when Romney talked to Time’s Mark Halperin, he acknowledged that big spending cuts would throw the economy into a recession—undercutting almost the entire premise of Republican economic policy). It isn’t because he’s dumb or uninformed, but it does demonstrate that his themes and talking points are unusually hollow, even for a contemporary candidate.
Perhaps as we get closer to November, he’ll do more interviews, and the public will have a greater opportunity to learn just how hollow they are. But chances are he’ll avoid them as much as he can. And he may pay little political price for doing so.
Paul Waldman is a Contributing Editor with The American Prospect magazine and the author or co-author of a number of books about media and politics, including The Press Effect: Politicians, Journalists, and the Stories That Shape the Political World. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, and many other newspapers and magazines.