Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Roldo: Will Plain Dealer endorse Romney?

Veteran alternative journalist Roldo Bartimole is out with a prediction: He thinks the Plain Dealer will endorse Mitt Romney for president -- and maybe set off another controversy like the paper’s embarrassing 2004 non-endorsement.

He doesn’t explain his prediction, but his spider sense is tingling. I think he may be on to something.

The PD boldly will endorse Sen. Sherrod Brown for the U. S. Senate. A Democrat over Republican. Josh Mandel, Brown’s opponent, has been shooting himself in the foot. The Pee Dee has been taking note of these self-inflicted wounds. ...

Having shown itself as willing to nominate a Democrat, I figure the editorial board (which is a misnomer for “the boss” Terry Egger) will nominate Mitt the Romney for President. Making Republicans (and Kevin O’Brien) happy. …

I read the Plain Dealer’s editorials, just like Roldo does, and I think he’s catching on to a trend. But first, a little background, from Roldo’s column:

You may remember the debacle in 2004 after the board chose John Kerry as its Presidential endorsee. Oh, wait. Publisher Alex Machaskee then ordered it changed to the other guy – George Bush. After some internal wrangling, the PD choose the silliest way out. The paper punted. It didn’t endorse anyone. It made a fool of the paper nationally.

After Terrance Egger succeeded Machaskee in 2006, he was often asked about the 2004 non-endorsement. Though Egger is a Republican who nudged a liberal editorial board toward the center as St. Louis Post-Dispatch publisher, he reassured Clevelanders he wouldn’t pull a Machaskee.

“We will endorse,” Egger told a City Club audience in August 2006. “Whose decision that will be will be the editorial board’s. And I mean that.”

He was implying that, as publisher, he wouldn’t use his authority to overrule the rest of the board. (See my Jan. 2007 story "The New Dealer" for more on this.)

Sure enough, when the paper endorsed Barack Obama in 2008, the editorial carried an unusual tagline that named all the members of the usually anonymous editorial board who voted on the endorsement.

The PD’s endorsements have swung back to the right since then. The paper recommended John Kasich for governor in 2010 and endorsed last year’s Issue 2, also known as Senate Bill 5, which would’ve severely restricted the power of public-employee unions. Both editorials sounded strained, written by committee, like unsuccessful efforts to reconcile deep internal divisions.

The Kasich endorsement called on the governor to cut out his “Red Bull style” and his habits as a “Fox News provocateur.” And the pro-SB5 editorial was probably the paper’s worst-argued in years. Naively, it called for Kasich to go back to the bargaining table if voters approved SB5 to negotiate away its most divisive provisions. But the law would’ve given Kasich total victory over the unions, leaving them with no leverage and the governor with no reason to bargain. It was as if the Plain Dealer had no idea how power works.

Roldo implies Egger controls the endorsements. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s safe to say that Egger is one of the board’s more conservative members. He’s likely to have played a major role in the Kasich and SB5 decisions.

Follow the trend from the last two years, and it’s easy to imagine the PD dismissing Obama as a disappointment and endorsing Romney, while trying to appease the dissenters with a rose-colored call for him to embrace his Massachusetts-moderate past once elected.

Editorial page endorsements aren’t as influential as they were in newspapers’ golden age, especially in presidential elections. A thousand voices are deluging Ohioans with screams and roars and tweets about Romney and Obama. Voters can make up their minds about a president without the Big Voice of the Big City Paper weighing in.

Still, Clevelanders’ reaction to the 2004 cop-out suggests they'll still care what the Plain Dealer says. Major endorsements let readers know where an editorial page stands, what its values are. And as Roldo says, the paper’s in an interesting position: it has a centrist editorial page in a Democratic metro area, so a Romney endorsement could anger a lot of readers.

So, yes, Clevelanders will pay attention to the paper’s presidential decision. Even if it says more about the editorial page than it does about Obama or Romney.

Update, 7/23: A Plain Dealer editorial yesterday called on Romney to release more tax returns.  "He is basing his candidacy largely on his success in the private sector and first-hand knowledge of job creation," it says. "Voters expect and deserve a look behind the curtain."  Hmm, is that a hint of skepticism?

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