Flashback: Romney calling Russia 'our number one geopolitical foe' prompted media onslaught in 2012

Media top headlines February 22

In media news today, Chris Rufo thanks John Oliver for ‘unintentional favor’ following critical race theory monologue, The Washington Post editorial board voices support for federal no-fly list for passengers who disobey mask mandates, and NBC’s Beijing Olympics ratings are called a ‘disaster’ for the network.

Nearly 10 years ago, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney scolded his future opponent for telling Russian President Dmitry Medvedev he’d have more “flexibility” toward the country after his election. 

“This is to Russia, this is, without question, our number one geopolitical foe,” he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on March 26, 2012. “They fight every cause for the world’s worst actors. The idea that [President Barack Obama] has some more flexibility in mind for Russia is very, very troubling, indeed.”

Pressed by Blitzer, Romney then said the “greatest threat” America faced was a nuclear-armed Iran. But the perceived damage was done.

While the Russia comment was ripped by Democrats and the media as a gaffe underscoring Romney’s foreign policy inexperience at the time, it’s viewed now as prescient. It’s also seen by critics as a stark example of the mainstream press echoing Democratic talking points, particularly in light of subsequent years of fervent Russiagate media coverage and bellicose actions by autocratic Russian leader Vladimir Putin, like this week’s invasion of Ukraine. 

“It looks more like a signature [bias] moment in retrospect, that everyone can recognize Romney was right … just as they now recognize Romney was a much more decent chap than they painted him,” Tim Graham of the conservative Media Research Center told Fox News Digital. “But in the ardor of battle, in reelecting Obama, demonizing was king.”

Mitt Romney and President Obama are shown campaigning in Virginia Sept. 27, 2012.
(AP)

Obama, then-Vice President Joe Biden, and top officials like Secretary of State John Kerry and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton blasted Romney for the comments at the time, when Romney was heading towards clinching the GOP nomination and facing Obama in the general election.

“You don’t call Russia our No. 1 enemy unless you’re still stuck in a Cold War mind warp,” Obama said that year.

“Governor Romney is mired in a Cold War mindset,” Biden said. Kerry called it “preposterous,” while Clinton said it was “dated to be looking backwards.” The Obama team cut a video with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright saying it showed Romney was unprepared for the job. Albright apologized in 2019.

Liberal and mainstream outlets piled on as well.

The New York Times editorial board said Romney’s “comments display 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,” the Times wrote at the time. It would go on to endorse Obama in the general election; the Times has not endorsed a Republican for president since 1956.

In 2017, in the midst of fervent Russiagate coverage in the mainstream media, the same editorial board savaged then-President Donald Trump for not doing enough to counter the “rival foreign power” of Russia and its election engineering efforts abroad.

“A throwback to the Cold War,” MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell said of Romney’s comments in 2012. “I mean, we work with Russia all the time.”

Former MSNBC host Chris Matthews criticized Romney and praised Medvedev’s comeback that the Republican should “look at [your] watch: We are in 2012 and not the mid-1970s.” 

“Is he trying to play Ronald Reagan here or what?” he asked his panel on “Hardball.”

“He’s not a dumb man, but he said something that was clearly dumb,” liberal columnist Cynthia Tucker told Matthews.

Vladimir President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022. 
(Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

The Huffington Post’s Sam Stein, now with Politico, said it was an “antiquated worldview.”

“Mitt Romney rather unproductively distracted everyone from focusing on the critique he was making of President Obama,” Eric Randall wrote in The Atlantic. The Boston Globe said that Romney “seems intent on screaming ‘fire’ in a crowded theater, even if his audience doesn’t seem to be responding. He should choose his words more wisely. Diplomacy, far more than campaigning, requires finesse.”

A former Romney campaign staffer said his old boss had been proven “100% correct.”

“The mainstream media in 2012 were shills for the Obama-Biden campaign and the Democratic Party just like they are today,” he told Fox News Digital. “Former President Obama’s failed leadership and the mainstream media’s mockery of Romney’s comments and failure to hold the Biden administration accountable are as much to blame for the situation currently unfolding in Ukraine as President Biden’s repeated weakness on the world stage.”

“Remember, they were so energetic to ‘get Romney’ that they tried to make ‘binders full of women’ an atrocious sexist thing,” Graham said.

Obama was prepared with a zinger at the final presidential debate that year, telling Romney, “I’m glad that you recognize that al-Qaeda is a threat, because a few months ago when you were asked what’s the biggest geopolitical threat facing America, you said Russia, not al-Qaeda. And the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.”

As the Washington Post put it, that moment generated “approving headlines.” 

Paul Begala, a longtime Democratic strategist and now a CNN contributor, considered it a devastating burn at the time, saying he “nails Mitt … Bam!”

Shortly after Donald Trump was elected president in 2016 and in the midst of what would be years of fervent Russiagate coverage, Begala tweeted, “Mitt was right.”

Romney’s remarks have often been revisited in the years since, such as in 2014 when Russia invaded Crimea, and throughout Russian collusion coverage and the sprawling Robert Mueller investigation. 

Romney campaign strategist Stuart Stevens told Fox News’ Howard Kurtz in 2014 that the Democratic spin about Romney’s remarks “gets amplified by MSNBC and unfortunately it drives a narrative for many editors and reporters … It’s an effective spin machine.”

Stevens, who’s become a fierce GOP critic and advises the disgraced Lincoln Project, now claims both the “left & right” went after Romney for the line. He frequently appears on MSNBC.

Former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau of the left-wing podcast Pod Save America also felt remorse about criticizing Romney so fervently.

“Look, I’m willing to say that in 2012 when we all scoffed at Mitt for saying that, gee, Russia was our No. 1 geopolitical foe, think we were a little off there,” he said in 2017.

CNN’s Chris Cillizza called Obama’s quip a “mic drop” moment and the best line of the three debates in 2012.

Nearly 10 years later, he’s eating crow too.

“At the time, the attack worked,” Cillizza admitted on Tuesday. “Obama cast himself as the candidate who understood the current threats — led by al Qaeda. Romney was the candidate still stuck in the Cold War age, a black-and-white figure in a colorful — and complex — world.”

Cillizza said Romney’s comments were “widely perceived as a major mistake” at the time.

“What looked like a major flub during the 2012 campaign — and was used as a political cudgel by Obama — now looks very, very different,” he wrote.

Demonstrators hold placards during an anti-war protest in front of the Russian embassy in Berlin, Germany, February 22, 2022.
(REUTERS/Christian Mang TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)

To say much has changed politically in the U.S. regarding the stance toward Russia is an understatement. After Romney was defeated, Republicans nominated Donald Trump in 2016, and the storyline of Russian interference to boost him in 2016 and accusations of “collusion” with the Kremlin dominated in the media for nearly his entire campaign and presidency.

Biden recast himself during his successful bid in 2020 as the only candidate who could properly counter Putin.

But Romney, now a U.S. Senator representing Utah, remains a staunch Putin critic and has called for a “withering” NATO response to his military actions.

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