Stuart Stevens and the Exploding Aircraft Carrier

Noam Scheiber’s profile of Romney strategist/factotum/author/raconteur Stuart Stevens is a lot of fun, but it makes a sharp wrong turn near the end. Stevens, according to Scheiber, used to have a lot of fun in politics, portraying his candidates as just-folks dudes who understand the average man. His last hellzapoppin’ success in the genre was the 2000 branding of George W. Bush. Then came the backlash.

[S]omewhere between the Florida recount and John Kerry’s swift-boating, a whole liberal industrial complex—cable channels like MSNBC, watch dogs like Media Matters for America, blog partisans like Daily Kos—began hacking away at the artifice. It has left Romney, already less believable in the just-folks role, badly exposed. Stevens’s indifference to this shift—and to the partisan bloodlust that fuels it—helps explain how the campaign was caught flat-footed by allegations that Romney hadn’t severed his ties to Bain Capital until 2002, three years after he’d initially claimed… as The [Boston] Globe later acknowledged, the story was initially driven by enterprising bloggers at the liberal websites Talking Points Memo and Mother Jones.

Absolutely, the liberal media is stronger and more influential than it was in 2000. But you can draw a venn diagram between strictly left-wing media and mainstream political reporting, and in the intersection, you will find “explanatory, fact-checking reporting,” enabled by the endless archives and space of the Internet. And it’s this stuff, not the left-wing character assassination, that has really upended Stevens-ism. In The Big Enchilada, his memoir of the Bush campaign, Stevens remembers – many times – how Team Bush was able to throw the press off of ugly stories. Any minor Gore exagerrations would be used to portray Gore as a liar, someone whose attacks on the Bush record must be bunk. “We needed to communicate to voters that the same guy who exaggerates his own record would surely do the same when it came to his opponent’s,” wrote Stevens. “If we could help voters make that connection, it would go a long way toward ‘blowing up the aircraft carrier instead of shooting down the planes,’ as it was known in political circles.”

In a chapter about the first Gore-Bush debate, Stevens recalls how his team spun Gore’s sighs and minor mistatements, like a tale about a girl having to stand up in an under-funded classroom, into a character story.

“The thing is,” Ed [Gillespie] said, “the press needs a new plot. If we can get them to buy ‘Gore’s back to his old ways,’ that’s a hell of a good story.”

“They want to write something different, you can feel it,” Dan Bartlett said.

… “So this race is going to come down to whether or not some sixth-grade girl is still standing up or not?” I said.

“We can spin it without that,” Ed said, smiling. “But it sure would be fun with it.”

This was what liberals and media monitors came to hate about the 2000 election. It wasn’t that the press was insufficiently pro-Gore. It was that the press was too easily distracted by meaningless crap and spin. In 2012, there’s an army of truth-monitors ready to hit the WFT button every time a candidate makes an odd and misleading policy claim – like Romney and welfare, to pick an example from today. The “on-the-other-hand” reporting of 2000 no longer drives the coverage. There’s more obsessive reporting now, quicker fact-checks. Romney’s “likeability” is a problem for him, I guess, but it hasn’t damaged his ability to get the message out the way that the campaign’s frequent and easily-debunked lines of attack have. In 2000, pre-YouTube, I think Team Romney would have gotten off scot-free for the whole “You didn’t build that” trick.