Damage Control

09.20.12

Why Mitt Romney Turned to Fox News’ Neil Cavuto for Damage Control

The Fox News anchor scored when the candidate needed to explain away his videotaped remarks denigrating the ‘47 percent.’ Cavuto tells Lauren Ashburn where Romney’s performance fell short.

Neil Cavuto landed a big one—and didn’t let him off the hook.

The day after Mother Jones released a secretly recorded tape of Mitt Romney seeming to dismiss 47 percent of the country as freeloaders, the campaign chose Cavuto’s Fox News show for the candidate to practice the time-honored art of damage control.

It’s called a “get” in the biz, and Cavuto and his colleagues score far more of them from the Romney camp than any other network. Let’s face it, Romney’s not exactly enamored with MSNBC and its unabashed liberal slant. He certainly didn’t get a fair shake when Chris Matthews and Rachel Maddow hosted prime-time coverage of the party conventions.

In an interview with The Daily Beast, Cavuto dismisses as “insulting” the notion that Romney agreed to the interview because the anchor and his network are viewed as right-leaning. “If the president appeared on MSNBC,” he says, “would you ask the same question?”

If Romney expected softballs on Tuesday, he must have been disappointed. Cavuto asked the question that anyone who saw the “47 percent” video would want answered: “Now, you have said that your wording might have been inelegant, but others have said that you just kissed half of the electorate goodbye this election year, that you all but called them moochers. Did you?”

Romney, while answering a quick “no,” pivoted to a broader discussion of his economic philosophy, bobbing and weaving in an attempt to change the subject. “I think he tried to put a nice spin on something that is inelegant,” Cavuto says, referring to 47 percent of Americans paying no income tax, although many do pay other taxes. “I think he tried to change this to an argument about big government and whether it can sustain itself.”

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Lauren Ashburn and Howie Kurtz discuss the interview and Romney's '47 percent' remark.

Cavuto says Romney “fell short … when I tried to hold him down to what is an exceptional percentage: are they all moochers?” But he says he believes the underlying issue raised by Romney is valid. “There is no nice way of saying that’s a startlingly high number and it’s got to be addressed,” Cavuto tells me.

I thought Cavuto was probing without being confrontational, though he might have followed up more aggressively. But Baltimore Sun television critic David Zurawik disagrees, saying Cavuto “lets Romney run for almost a two-minute answer focusing on this out-of-context old videotape of Obama talking about redistributing the wealth…It was a safe forum designed to try and help Romney go on the defensive.”

Lost in the coverage of Romney’s language at the closed-door fundraiser, says Cavuto, is the bigger question the media should be pursuing: “How did we get to the point where many pay no income taxes?” It is here that Cavuto, who describes himself as a fiscal conservative, parts company with the Republican nominee.

“There is frustration among many in the Republican Party that Romney has not delivered the goods,” says Cavuto. “I’m not sure that his response is the answer, or the president’s is the answer, but we’ve got to do something about it.”

The argument over taxes and entitlement programs is tailor-made for Cavuto, whose wheelhouse is financial news. Unlike more bombastic Fox hosts such as Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, his Your World with Neil Cavuto is part of the channel’s daytime news programming. (He also hosts another program on Fox Business Network.) Your World routinely trounces the cable competition, averaging 1.6 million viewers so far this month.

Cavuto is a survivor in more ways than one. He joined CNBC on the first day of its launch, in 1989, and Roger Ailes lured him to the newly created Fox News for its 1996 debut. Cavuto also has beaten cancer and sometimes struggles with his multiple sclerosis, which has occasionally led to hospitalizations but doesn’t stop him from maintaining a packed schedule.

Cavuto asked the question that anyone who saw the “47 percent” video would want answered.

Cavuto can be a feisty interviewer and regularly sits down with CEOs, including Rupert Murdoch, who owns Fox’s parent company. Tuesday’s interview was his fourth with Romney during this campaign, and Cavuto spoke to Ann Romney last week (asking her, “as a fellow MSer,” whether she should talk more about her illness). Several of the other exclusive guests touted on his website are prominent Republicans, such as Marco Rubio, Rick Perry, and Dan Quayle.

What about the White House? “I’d be lying if I didn’t say we’ve had trouble getting the president,” says Cavuto. “Never mind that we’ve been very critical of House Republicans in particular…I’m a bipartisan ranter against government waste.” Cavuto notes that he chided House Speaker John Boehner for promising to get spending under control and resorting to short-term budget fixes instead. Cavuto also says he criticized the Bush administration for keeping much of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars off budget.

When some detractors criticized Obama for appearing on Jimmy Fallon’s late-night show, Cavuto told them to “just cool it.” On the larger question of candidates yukking it up on talk shows, Cavuto fondly remembers Richard Nixon appearing on Laugh-In and the real Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live. “They are actually more revealing than in other more traditional news venues.”

For Cavuto, though, his coverage of the campaign is no laughing matter. He sees his job as holding both parties accountable and following the money.

“I’m not red or blue,” he says. “I’m green.”