Revisiting the Media Outrage When Romney Called Russia Our Greatest Foe

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February 24, 2022

While Russia’s recent aggression against Ukraine may have taken some world leaders and members of the chattering class by surprise, at least one person saw it coming a long way off: Utah senator and 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

A decade ago, Romney asserted in an interview on the 2012 campaign trail that Russia was the "number one geopolitical foe" of the United States. The Obama campaign saw it as a gaffe and repeatedly needled Romney for the remark, in particular during the final 2012 presidential debate, where Barack Obama quipped that "the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back."

This mantra was picked up by other Democrats. Then-senator John Kerry suggested that Romney "talks like he’s only seen Russia by watching Rocky IV."

But it wasn’t just the Democrats who thought that Romney’s suggestion—supported by the benefit of hindsight—was mock-worthy. After his comment in May and President Obama’s debate zinger in October, the corporate press savaged Romney’s assertion.

Several media outlets simply parroted the Obama campaign’s criticisms, with outlets including the Hill, the Daily Beast, and Salon amplifying the attack.

The New York Times editorial board went a step further, saying Romney’s comments displayed "either a shocking lack of knowledge about international affairs or just craven politics. Either way, they are reckless and unworthy of a major presidential contender." For the Times, Romney’s position wasn’t just wrong: It was unsayable.

Then there was a fact check from Glenn Kessler at the Washington Post. Kessler side-stepped whether the comment was "a Cold War throwback" and zeroed in on Romney’s specific allegation that Russia was "always" a roadblock for action against the world’s worst actors.

The conclusion? "Significant omissions and/or exaggerations." Kessler would add that "The Russians may be tough negotiators, but there’s nothing wrong with that."

But this "fact check" is more than a little obtuse about Russia’s actions toward America’s foes. Even in 2012, Russia had long supported Iran’s regional ambitions, providing direct military transfers as recently as 2007. Kessler's analysis focused only on Russia's vetoes at the United Nations, but this approach misses the policy forest for the trees. As was noted repeatedly by leading think tanks at the time, Russia’s support for a toothless resolution against Iran while allowing them to continue pursuing a bomb aligns with that support. And Russia has a long history of supporting North Korea through food aid and economic expansion.

And some commentary from reporters hasn't stood the test of time. That includes CNN’s Chris Cillizza, who called Obama’s dig "the best line of the 3 debates."

A decade later, these takes have aged poorly. Even CNN conceded that it was time to admit that Romney was right. Suspiciously absent from that acknowledgment was the role that the media played in carrying water for a campaign attack that looks worse by the day.