Blunder-mania is coming for the GOP. Can the 2016 candidates avoid the smackdown?
Republican presidential candidates have a major media problem on their hands — and it has nothing to do with partisan bias
Republican presidential candidates have a major media problem on their hands, and it has nothing to do with partisan bias.
Between the day they announce their candidacy and the night their debates begin, they will draw little to no media attention unless they blunder.
Blunders — be they bursts of anger at interviewers or interpretative gaffes about the Iraq War — will be the central organizing principle of media coverage. There will of course be plenty of excellent journalism committed along the way, but it will be read by people whose minds are already made up, and it shall generally be forgotten. (There's usually one exemption per cycle: In 2007 and 2008, Ron Brownstein divided the Obama and Clinton coalitions by employing a great metaphor: Hillary was supported by beer-track voters; Obama was supported by wine-track voters.)
For Republican candidates with national images — Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, perhaps Bobby Jindal — the downside potential for their favorability ratings among Republican primary voters is significantly greater than the chance that they'll finish the fallow season with a favorable glow at all. For others, like Scott Walker, media attention to blunders might seem helpful, in the way that Republicans like to capitalize off of their own base's resentment with the press. But Fox News, too, is not immune to this observation. Jeb Bush's Iraq War circumlocution was born there, and in his effort to clean it up, he took to conservative talk radio.
What to do? Hillary Clinton's approach — to ignore the media and let surrogates deal with the media's blunder-based coverage model — won't work for the GOP. For one thing, Clinton is a known commodity, as basic to politics as steel is to cars. For another, the major "thing" — call it a knock against her — that people know about Clinton is that she's a Clinton. Fortunately, her Clinton-ness has been factored into how voters think of her, and even more fortunately for her, it is marginal to how well voters might assess her as a president. Bush, on the other hand, has to deal with his Bush-iness, which the blunder-based coverage model will never get enough of. This is probably the most obvious thing I've ever written, but neither Republicans nor Democrats feel good about George W. Bush's policies. (We like him as a person, and as a painter, perhaps, but as a president…)
The candidates could try not to blunder, but that's not really possible. Just what constitutes blundering differs from day to day. If Marco Rubio gives a speech about immigration, departures from orthodoxy are going to be labeled as blunders, requiring newscyclettes upon newscyclettes to explain. Pundits are always asked if candidates made mistakes by doing whatever they just did, which presupposes that they always make mistakes.
It's quite annoying to be a presidential candidate. I'm glad I'm not one of them.