The ink was barely dry on the Michigan primary results when the Associated Press circulated an "On Deadline" column from political reporter Ron Fournier headlined "Mitt Won, Authenticity Lost." Fournier savaged Mitt Romney for pandering to Michigan voters and demonstrating he is "the most malleable — and least credible — major presidential candidate." Fournier complained that John McCain "deserved a better result," and that "The man who spoke hard truths to Michigan lost."
So much for journalists not taking sides. Here's how the Fournier news analysis began:
WASHINGTON - Mitt Romney's victory in Michigan was a defeat for authenticity in politics.
The former Massachusetts governor pandered to voters, distorted his opponents' record and continued to show why he's the most malleable — and least credible — major presidential candidate.
And it worked.
The man who spoke hard truths to Michigan lost. Of all the reasons John McCain deserved a better result Tuesday night, his gamble on the economy stands out. The Arizona senator had the temerity to tell voters that a candidate who says traditional auto manufacturing jobs "are coming back is either naive or is not talking straight with the people of Michigan and America."
Instead of pandering, McCain said political leaders must "embrace green technologies," adding: "That's the future. That's what we want."
But wait. When "green technologies" -- like, say gasoline with ethanol -- are pitched in a state like Iowa, that's not pandering? Fournier's article seems like drop-dead proof of the Fred Barnes theory that reporters loathe Romney because he switched his "smart" and "moderate" positions for conservative (read: dumb, heartless) positions:
This is a man who campaigned for governor of Democratic stronghold Massachusetts as a supporter of abortion rights, gay rights and gun control — only to switch sides on those and other issues in time for the GOP presidential race. The first thing he did as a presidential contender in January was sign the same no-tax pledge an aide dismissed as "government by gimmickry" during the 2002 campaign.
He was a political independent who voted for Democrat Paul Tsongas in the 1992 Massachusetts presidential primary; now he is a Reagan conservative. He was for embryonic stem cell research; now he favors restrictions on it.
Here's the puzzling part: Romney is a smart man who succeeded in both business and politics, by all accounts a solid family man who won over Democrats and independents in Massachusetts with his breezy charm and political moderation. He tackled one of the nation's most vexing issues — the cost and accessibility of health care — and helped devise a system in Massachusetts that requires both personal responsibility and government empathy.
Rather than running on his record as a can-do pragmatist in an era of government incompetence, Romney listened to advisers who said there was a tactical advantage in turning himself into the field's social conservative.
Fournier concludes that he still thinks at the end of the day, Romney is too phony to win the GOP nomination:
And don't assume McCain is above it all; he shamelessly courted social conservatives last year and has vastly overstated progress in Iraq. In fact, all leaders pander, but Romney is taking the tactic to new heights.
This still looks to be an authenticity election. First, voters are tired of being spun by politicians who aren't getting their jobs done. From the Vietnam War and Watergate to the Iraq war and Katrina, politicians have failed the people they presume to lead, and often lied about it to boot.
Second, the Internet and other technological advances make it nearly impossible to hide a miscue or a shift of position. Can a candidate like Romney win in the YouTube era? Sure. He just did.
But to go all the way, Romney must overcome the original sin of his campaign — his choice to do whatever it takes to be president. The smart money says he can't.
(Hat tip to Kirk.)