Romney is powerless against Murdoch’s lash
Mitt Romney must be wondering where it all went wrong. With the president presiding over a jobless, barely perceptible recovery, with most Americans thinking Obama is on the wrong track, and with his healthcare legislation widely derided, the Republican champion should be coasting by now. Yet Romney has been languishing in the head-to-head polls for almost a year, and prominent conservative commentators are complaining.
It is rare to hear such a concerted chorus of disapproval, not least with the election just six weeks away. Rupert Murdoch, at least, can say to Romney, “I told you so!” In July, he warned on Twitter: “Tough O Chicago pros will be hard to beat unless he drops old friends from team and hires some real pros. Doubtful.” It was advice Romney could afford neither to accept nor refuse. To fire his staff at the behest of the media boss who controls the nation’s most unforgiving conservative news outlets would be to follow successive weak British leaders who bent to Murdoch’s will, with tragic results. Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron, to name just three prime ministers, are still trying to rid themselves of the taint.
So Romney did nothing. Better, perhaps, to die as a lion than live as a sheep. Romney is hardly the sort of man Murdoch admires. He is too smooth, too well turned out, too prissy, too financially independent to pay homage to the likes of Murdoch. Romney has about him many of the characteristics Murdoch despises in what he calls the “old toffs” in England who refused to kowtow to the publisher of “family” tabloids with expletives on the cover and bare breasts inside.
Over the summer, Murdoch kept up the pressure through cryptic Tweets. When Romney picked Ryan as his veep, Murdoch conceded: “Romney re-energised and speaking better.” During the Republican convention the Ozzie oracle added a hint of menace: “Tide turning? Romney must hit ball out of park next week. Great manager proven, now we must hear great vision for future. Must inspire.”
Romney’s oratory in Tampa proved disappointing. After Murdoch declared Ryan’s speech “utterly brilliant,” his verdict was: “Conventions mixed but net big win for democrats. Michelle O and Clinton the big stars.” In the Romney camp, the absence of praise from the man who owns the mainstream conservative commentariat must have sent a chill down the spine. Perhaps Romney should have treated with Murdoch after all. By early September, the News Corp boss was clear: “To win Romney must open big tent to sympathetic families. Stop fearing far right which has nowhere else to go. Otherwise no hope.”
Murdoch’s patience seemed to have snapped about the time Romney’s “47 percent” remarks were leaked. Leading the charge was Peggy Noonan, keeper of Reagan’s flame and the least dogmatic of Murdoch’s Journal surrogates. “There is a broad and growing feeling now, among Republicans, that this thing is slipping out of Romney’s hands,” she declared. “It’s time to admit the Romney campaign is an incompetent one … Mitt, this isn’t working.” She resumed her critique a few days later, apologizing for dubbing Romney’s campaign “incompetent.” “I called it incompetent, but only because I was being polite,” she wrote. “I really meant ‘rolling calamity.’”
Noonan’s deadly critique signaled that the gloves were off. Fox contributor William Kristol derided Romney’s “47 percent” comments as “stupid and arrogant;” Charles Krauthammer declared on Fox, “You don’t win an election by disparaging just about half the electorate;” Fox contributor Pat Caddell said Romney was running “the worst campaign in my lifetime;” Laura Ingraham, Bill O’Reilly’s stand-in on Fox, thought that “if you can’t beat Barack Obama with this record, then shut down the party;” and in Murdoch’s New York Post, John Podhoretz warned, “Romney headquarters in Boston better pay attention” to the unease and are “wrong if they think negative feelings toward Obama are sufficient” to win the presidency.
So, what is Murdoch’s game? Is he abandoning Romney’s sinking ship or trying one last time to browbeat the floundering campaign into victory? What we know about Murdoch is he likes winners and even backs liberals if they look like they can win. As Noonan explained: “They’re starting to think Romney’s a loser and they don’t want to get loser on them.” To win the regulatory concessions News Corp’s media properties constantly need, Murdoch cultivates those on the way up so they feel obligated to him when they reach positions of power. Right now it looks as if the faltering Romney has failed to pay sufficient obeisance and is reaping the wrath of an old man in a hurry.
Nicholas Wapshott’s Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics has just been published in paperback by W.W. Norton.
PHOTO: Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney speaks at a campaign rally in Toledo, Ohio, September 26, 2012. REUTERS/Brian Snyder