"There will be an effort," Mitt Romney said recently, "by the, quote, vast left-wing conspiracy to work together to put out their message and attack me."
By those words, many observers thought Romney, speaking to Breitbart News, meant the press. After all, the Republican nominee is likely to face some pretty tough coverage from left-leaning outlets in the months ahead.
But Romney meant much more than the press. In fact, "vast left-wing conspiracy" refers to a set of institutions whose work helps shape the coverage that ultimately appears in the press.
That's what Breitbart questioner Larry O'Connor was trying to get at in the Romney interview. Mentioning Think Progress, a pro-Democratic war room that is part of the lefty think tank Center for American Progress, and the left-leaning media watchdog organization Media Matters, O'Connor said to Romney, "You really are going to battle with the media and these nonprofit groups who are all working together. Are you guys ready for that fight?"
"I think you're absolutely right," Romney said, noting that he's fully aware that a vast left-wing conspiracy will be arrayed against him.
In the past few months Romney aides have watched closely as Think Progress, Media Matters and others have hit the former Massachusetts governor both on important issues like jobs, taxes, the deficit and foreign policy, and also on flap-of-the-day stories like the "war on women" and Romney's dog. Accusations that originate with those organizations sometimes make their way into lefty publications like Talking Points Memo and the Huffington Post, and then into the bigger outlets of the establishment press.
"There is a network that seems to coordinate and push the liberal agenda, which then gets picked up by the mainstream press," says a Romney aide. "We're working to combat that."
It's a network long in the making. In 2005 I wrote a book, "The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy," that traced a group of then-new liberal organizations like the Center for American Progress, MoveOn.org and the precursors of today's super PACs as they created a new style of liberal political activism. The groups used the Internet to organize supporters and push a message of the day -- or a message of the hour, or a message of the minute -- into the political conversation with aggressiveness and speed.
Some of the organizers liked to call themselves the vast left-wing conspiracy, a play on the time when Hillary Clinton, during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, referred to her husband's antagonists as "a vast right-wing conspiracy." (Don't be too serious: Neither name refers to criminal conspiracies or wrongdoing.) And they based some of their ideas on older organizations they saw on the right. The Center for American Progress, for example, was modeled in part on the Heritage Foundation, and Media Matters on the conservative Media Research Center.
But the Center for American Progress, founded by former Clinton White House chief of staff John Podesta, turned into as much a war room as a think tank, spinning off Think Progress and other overtly partisan political message centers. Media Matters became a research operation indistinguishable from the Obama campaign. (In fact, its founder, right-wing-hitman-turned-left-wing-hitman David Brock, hopes to become a major Democratic super-PAC player.)
It's fair to say that in terms of purely partisan impact, the Center for American Progress and Media Matters wield more influence than their older models on the right.
Of course, they're not the only parts of the vast left-wing conspiracy. There are the traditional regions of the media, academia and Hollywood, too. For example, earlier this month the AMC series "Mad Men" featured a scene in which a character who works for 1960s-era New York Mayor John Lindsay was on the phone discussing campaign appearances. "Well, tell Jim his honor's not going to Michigan," the character says, "because (George) Romney's a clown and I don't want him standing next to him." (Mitt Romney's son Tagg had a quick response on Twitter: "Seriously, lib media mocking my dead grandpa?")
Of course, Romney has new resources on his side, too. The fact that Romney was doing an interview with Breitbart News, founded by the late conservative Web entrepreneur Andrew Breitbart, is an indication that Romney will be using new right-leaning media to press his case. And conservatives are founding other organizations, like the Washington Free Beacon, that are specifically designed to try to counter the strength of the new organizations on the left.
But when Romney talks about the vast left-wing conspiracy, he's not joking.