LIVINGSTON, NJ – New York Times journalist Andrew Rosenthal says the current presidential race is the most “substance-free” campaign he has covered in his long career as a reporter.
Rosenthal, who is the Times’ editorial page editor, spoke at Temple B’nai Abraham Monday night. He provided a stark look at the campaign from a behind-the-headlines perspective.
“There are these noxious clouds of nonsense that have been puffed up by the campaigns this year,” Rosenthal said. “It’s based on basically nothing. This has to be about the most substance-free campaign I’ve covered, and it’s the nastiest and the meanest.”
The candidates, he said, are “disconnected from the real issues and the psyche of the country,” adding that he thinks the only real substance came during last week’s vice presidential debate.
Rosenthal compared this campaign to those he has covered in the past, including the Dukakis campaign in 1988 that he said had so much substance that they jokingly called it “substance abuse.”
“The differences between the candidates were not all that big,” he said. “Remember ‘Read my lips: no new taxes?’ Everyone but Newt Gingrich knew that was a sound bite. Everybody knew he was going to raise taxes. As president, you can raise taxes or you can raise the debt. So in the end, Bush beat Dukakis by trading on symbolism and rhetoric.”
He said the current campaign strategy is to divide the electorate on gut-level issues and get them to vote on emotions.
Rosenthal recalled being one of four reporters traveling with Dan Quayle when George Bush was running for election, and getting a copy of Quayle’s “Murphy Brown speech.”
“His chief of staff took us out to dinner and gave us an advance copy of the speech. He said ‘tomorrow we start a campaign that Republicans have values and Democrats don’t,’” Rosenthal said. “We are still seeing that today. The thing you have to remember about Republicans is that they are better at campaigning – and talk radio – than Democrats.”
In 2000, Rosenthal said, the nation met George W. Bush, who ran on a conservative, religious platform “although he was neither, at least up until then.” The Republicans, he said, turned Vietnam veteran John Kerry into a coward and Bush, who was a draft evader, into a hero.
“Don’t get me wrong - had I been the right age and been facing the draft at that time, I would have done anything to avoid it too,” Rosenthal said. “But it was the fakery of the campaign.”
Rosenthal decried the lack of bi-partisan leadership in the country, a platform on which he said Obama ran, although there has not been much evidence of it since he was inaugurated.
“When Obama came into office, he said ‘I’ve been elected and everything’s going to change,’ and the Republicans said ‘Not so much,’” Rosenthal said, adding that on the president’s first day in office, Republican leaders declared that his destruction was the first thing on their agenda.
“They did not devote themselves to the economy, to ending two wars, or to regulating a financial industry that got so out of control and irresponsible that they essentially let the economy go off a cliff,” he said.
He mentioned the current Republican campaign ad sponsored by the Super PAC known as the Tea Party Victory Fund that shows an African American woman at an Obama rally, talking on her cell phone and telling the person on the other end that she’s voting for Obama because he gave her the phone.
“He didn’t give her the phone,” Rosenthal said. “There is a federal program that helps people who don’t have the means to buy cell phones but could benefit from having one. It was started by George W. Bush and is obviously kind of a good idea. But that ad is running constantly in parts of Ohio where middle class white people aren’t as strongly in support of Romney as they’d hoped. It plays right into the 47 percent mentality.”
Rosenthal said Americans now live in a world with two major phenomena: First, anyone can say anything they want and there’s no price; and second, the political system has no center. He gave the illustration of the day during the Iowa campaign when he and a few of his New York Times colleagues were sitting at a table with a high-ranking Republican official, and Mitt and Ann Romney came into the room. Romney started to walk over to talk to the Republican official, but when he saw the Times’ staff, he turned and walked away.
“Not a single Republican candidate was willing to come and talk to us, even for ten minutes. Even off the record. Not one,” Rosenthal said. “People just don’t want to argue, or talk, or debate.”
He said he watched the Republican primary unfold like he was watching a car wreck. “The Republicans kept pushing farther and farther way from what we all used to consider the center,” he said.
“For me, Romney was obviously the Republican candidate from the beginning because he looked good and sounded good,” Rosenthal said, adding that despite the Democrats’ rhetoric that Romney has flip-flopped, “He’s not actually saying anything different, he’s just saying it nicer” and pointed to the first presidential debate as an example. “Obama, of course, didn’t show up,” he said, referencing the president’s lackluster performance in the debate. “There are times I don’t think he’s shown up for his own presidency.”
Rosenthal said he recently had lunch with a “very senior” Democrat who told him that Obama fell victim to his own success and began to refuse to do simple things like be seen and photographed with local politicians. By the time the president’s staff finally convinced him that such photo opportunities and handshake moments are “like gold,” local politicians were no longer as eager to meet him, and that trickled down to their unwillingness to stand up for him when major issues threatened.
“I know he believes in his power of persuasion,” Rosenthal said. “I’ve met with him several times. About two years ago I was sitting in my office and my secretary came in and said the White House wanted to know if I could talk to the president in 10 minutes. He kept me on the phone for 45 minutes, off the record. We’d run a couple of op-eds he didn’t like… particularly one that ran under the headline ‘Oh, Grow Up.’ He wanted to vent, and the gist was he felt we weren’t being fair to him. Obama has the same fatal flaws that all politicians have – he thinks somehow he can get press on his side. We’re not on his team, we’re not on his side. Yes, we're going to endorse someone this year, of course, but we’re not on his side. He thinks that the reason we’re not getting it is he’s not talking clearly enough. It’s like those people who, when they find out you disagree with what they’ve just said, start all over again. I was a bit taken aback by how strongly he felt about this.”
Rosenthal also criticized his fellow journalists for being so focused on polls.
“I don’t remember any other campaign in which the press has been so obsessed with polls and tracking polls,” he said. “It’s ridiculous. But one of the reasons they are is because there’s not a whole lot more to write about.”
Rosenthal also discussed the lies and half-truths that have peppered the campaign, including Romney’s ongoing focus on Obama's “You didn’t build that” comment.
“Romney can look in the camera and say anything. He can say he’s going to create 12 million jobs. But how? He can say he’s not going to voucherize Medicare and Social Security, but he will,” Rosenthal said. “And nobody really responds. The second presidential debate is a big thing. Obama has to start answering.”
The talk ended with a question and answer session with the audience. One woman asked Rosenthal where the journalists are when politicians tell blatant lies, and why they don’t call them out.
“Obviously we’re not doing it effectively if you ask that,” Rosenthal responded. He pointed to several good websites that do call politicians out on their lies, including PolitiFact.com and the Washington Post, as well as FiveThirtyEight, a blog on the New York Times written by Nate Silver. Rosenthal said Silver’s blog is more of a discussion on polls, although it is one of the best-read parts of the Times’ site.
“I think there’s a phenomenon that I thought existed but is hard to prove, and that’s that most journalists are Democrats,” he said. “And it’s true. Journalism is a kind of liberal or libertarian kind of pursuit. We believe in certain things like a free press, and we go out of our way to appear to not be arguing with the Republican candidate.”
He said that at the Republican Convention, Paul Ryan’s speech was “built around five or six gigantic lies.” One, he said, is that Obama is going to degrade the American military and is proposing huge cuts in military spending that even his own defense secretary opposes.
“The only true part of that statement are the words ‘defense secretary,’” Rosenthal said. “Those cuts were not Obama’s idea, they were imposed by Congress as part of the deal to get out from under the debt crisis. (Defense Secretary Leon) Panetta said it was a terrible idea. And incidentally, Paul Ryan voted for it.”
Another audience member asked why people think the New York Times hates Israel. Rosenthal responded that the Times does not support Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies.
“No president of the U.S. since the creation of Israel has been anti-Israel,” he said. “That doesn’t mean I have to be supportive of the policies in Israel, especially when I don’t think they are in Israel’s best interest. I am not an expert on the Middle East, but I do know there is no status quo to defend. The idea that the Israelis can just dig in and the Palestinians will go away is just a fantasy. The idea that they can keep expanding and there is no price to pay is also a fantasy.”
Rosenthal said he was one of several New York Times journalists who met with the prime minister in late 2010, and at that time Netanyahu’s position was to do nothing until after the United States’ presidential election in 2012.
“He reached the conclusion that the Democrats were going to lose and that the atmosphere in Congress would be better for him,” Rosenthal said. “That struck me as rather cynical, but he plays our politics very well.”
The discussion on the Middle East lead to the question of what Rosenthal thinks will happen if the United States makes good on its threat to bomb Iran.
“I have not heard anyone who knows anything about it say that a military strike on Iran will actually shut down their nuclear weapons program,” he said. “What will happen is they will turn the Iranian government into overnight martyrs in the Middle East, and I think we will lose all of Europe’s support for our sanctions. Congress doesn’t post sanctions. Only international sanctions work. And the only reason the oil sanctions work is that the other Middle Eastern countries started producing more oil. If we bomb Iran, the others are just going to walk away from that deal. It’s incredibly dangerous and I don’t think it will have any effect.”