In politics there’s no such thing as a good defense. There are good deflections and good counter attacks, and the two should never exist independently of each other.
Our national popularity contests are won by the more clever candidate backing his opponent into a corner with usually ridiculous, mostly fictional personality attacks that force the stupid bastard into the limelight for the ever-vigilant mainstream media, where he grovels and whimpers until there’s virtually nothing left of his ideas or his character.
Republicans have known for decades that the more time a candidate spends in front of a camera, the less people will like him, the less they’ll relate to him, and the less they’ll eventually want to elect him Grand Poohbah*.
None of the grand masters of the Grand Ol’ Party appear to have informed Mr. Willard “Mitt” Romney, the Republican presidential nominee-to-be, of the rules of the game. Nor does he appear to be catching on.
In an effort to take the sting out of the Obama campaign’s now-numerous television ads attacking Romney over his unreleased tax returns, his record of outsourcing American jobs and bankrupting American companies at Bain Capital, and his apparent preference to invest his fortune in Swiss and Cayman Island bank accounts to avoid paying taxes in the U.S., Romney has gone on the defensive.
He’s released ads defending himself. He’s sent out poor-me e-mails to his “fans.” And he and his staff have granted TV interviews (rare for Romney), where they’ve attempted to defend his record.
The results haven’t been as fruitful for the Romney gang as, say, closing a steel mill in Missouri.
Playing the victim might work when you’re paying a shrink eighty bucks an hour to feign sympathy during hour-long monologues detailing the minutia of your pathetic life, but a presidential campaign isn’t therapy, and national TV isn’t Freud’s couch.
Ignoring the Republican Party’s time-tested tactic of aggressively, quickly, and mercilessly countering any and all accusations, Romney has decided to play ball in Obama’s court. Rather than brushing off his opponent’s attempts to pin him down as either a liar or a felon, a lose-lose situation if I’ve ever seen one, he appears to have embraced the traditionally Democratic strategy of playing the whiny, put-upon victim of a smear campaign.
News flash: all campaigns are smear campaigns!
The fears of the electorate are fed to them by the media. The more sensational the event, the more airtime it gets and the more “informed” (and I use that term lightly) we are.
To the average American, and I’m quoting Rush Limbaugh here, this doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. Or at least it wouldn’t if Romney weren’t fueling the fire of his own presidential pyre.
As a general rule, the media will give scant and usually half-assed attention to one candidate’s one-sided claims about his opponent. The more boring the accusation—and one’s tenure at a venture capitalist firm is about as boring as it gets—the less likely it will go viral. But if you play into the accusations by responding to the media’s inquiries, it’s the same as legitimizing the claims, which in turn allows the media to investigate, and of course hype, said accusations.
At issue is whether or not Romney was or wasn’t head of Bain Capital between 1999 and 2002, when the firm appears to have destroyed American jobs by sending U.S. companies overseas. That’s about as interesting as a “60 Minutes” profile on the sober, law-abiding actress who doesn’t wear tenderloin meat suits in public, doesn’t snort an eight-ball of angel powder for breakfast, and doesn’t make sex tapes with a has-been hip-hop artist.
This shouldn’t be news.
Editor: “Morning everybody. What have we got for tonight’s show?”
Reporter No 1.: “We should open with a segment trying to explain why it may or may not be controversial that a millionaire venture capitalist was or perhaps wasn’t making millions venture capitalizing.”
Editor: “Anything else?”
Reporter No. 2: “There’s a story about a naked guy high on bath salts who ate the face off a transient before getting shot four times by police.”
A Mitt Romney-Herman Cain sex tape? That’s something to quibble over. An accidentally tweeted picture of Willard’s junk bulging from his Jesus jammies? That might be scandalous enough to spend weeks in damage control mode. Even a consensual blowjob from a Temple administration intern might be something the American people would actually find interesting.
But this? A back-and-forth bitch-fest over tenure?
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not as if I don’t think this “issue” is relevant. To me, if Romney wasn’t overseeing the devastation of American families via the outsourcing of jobs, then he was “saving” the Olympics by conning the U.S. Congress into coughing up a $1.3 billion taxpayer-funded bailout for the 2002 Winter Games. Considering that Romney could be our next president, I think the American people need to know what they’re getting into. What bothers me is how the Romney campaign has actually facilitated the Obama camp’s attempts to make a full-blown scandal out of a non-issue.
Instead of doing what they call “controlling the message,” Romney is getting consensually gang-raped by it. His inability to let it lie and move on has resulted in a shit-storm of media attention. Every major network is now continuously reporting on the story, and whether or not the American people are titillated enough to really tune in and fully absorb the information is irrelevant. It’s bound to leave a bad taste in their mouths. What’s being reported is shady, and Romney’s disingenuous, unbelievable, and unpolished excuses (like the “retroactive retirement” whopper) aren’t improving the matter.
Those who’ve followed this issue closely are beginning to wonder, if this is how candidate Romney handles something so petty, then how will President Romney perform as leader of the free world?
I can’t see that far down the road. I wonder how Romney will make it to the November election. If this is how he handles questions about his record at Bain Capital—the very centerpiece of his candidacy—then there’s little hope that he’ll be able to weather the storm brewing over the secrecy of his personal, financial, and potentially even religious life.
All he had to say was something like this:
Look folks, it’s unfortunate that President Obama’s economic policies have failed so utterly that he’s been forced to run from, rather than on, his record, but when a man can’t admit that he was wrong about the bailouts and the stimulus, when his experiment in ‘redistributing the wealth’ falls short of his socialistic expectations, maybe it’s time we move on. Better yet, maybe it’s time the hard-working people of this great nation explain to President Obama how capitalism really works. Explain to him that taking risks means exactly that. You trust your instincts and you trust in the willpower of your workers. In my experience at Bain Capital, a good many of those risks worked out. But to attack someone for the few times when it doesn’t work out, to defame his character and rewrite his history because he didn’t succeed one-hundred percent of the time? That’s un-American. It’s unpatriotic. Risk opens the door to possible failure. I admit, not everything I took risks on in my thirty-year business career panned out exactly how I’d hoped. I can say the same about life in general. But I can also say that no matter how many times in my life I fail to meet the bar, I will always choose to strive for it. That’s the American Dream. That’s why it’s called the ‘pursuit of happiness,’ not the ‘guarantee of happiness.’ You have to work for it, as opposed to having it handed to you by the government. That’s my hope for America, and that’s what I will work toward if you elect me president. You can listen to Obama argue all day long over whether or not my record is spotless, but I’ll spare you the trouble and tell you right now that it’s not. So long as I have ambition, drive, and the internal fortitude to forge on, I can live with being imperfect. I just hope that as we near Election Day, President Obama can accept that, as we’ve seen, he’s imperfect too.
It doesn’t matter that this is empty rhetoric, or that it’s a fantasy, or that it distorts Obama’s record while grossly inflating Romney’s. (Here’s another news flash: All stump speeches are bullshit!) Details don’t matter. Character does. A response like this would show that Romney has a spine. It would sound real. It would feel real. It would turn heads and invigorate the base, because if there’s one thing that gets conservatives screaming like drunk pre-teens at a Justin Bieber concert, it’s schoolin’ the president about capitalism. Romney might even make a few Democrats doughy-eyed at the thought that, one day, they too could steal from the middle class and become rich.
Because he has chosen to rebut and refute rather than deflect and counter, Romney has come off looking like a penny-pinching prick who bankrolled and bankrupted American companies. (He has, but that’s not the point.)
Obama has essentially called him a pig fucker, and rather than laughing it off, Romney’s has gone into vivid detail trying to explain away the bestiality accusation. The result: people can’t see Romney without picturing him fornicating with swine.
Obama is reframing Romney’s greatest political asset, and it’s working because Romney is letting him, just like John Kerry did when George W. Bush hijacked Kerry’s war record.
The bungled handling of this issue is indicative of political incompetence at the highest levels of the Romney campaign, and it very well may prophesy a whirlwind of chaos for the Republican candidate as more issues come to light. And they will, especially if Obama keeps turning up the heat. Which he will.
On March 18, 2008, less than a week after the nation cringed as a radical preacher and presidential candidate’s mentor made headlines for denouncing America as racist, that candidate rose above politics and delivered a speech, titled “A More Perfect Union,” which would later be filed in the “teachable moments” folder of his candidacy and eventual presidency.
Though revered for its poignancy and lauded for its honesty, the speech could also be filed in the “changing the subject” folder and heralded for its political genius.
The beauty of that unknown Illinois senator’s words can be found as much in the message as in the effect. He distanced himself (and the media) from the liberal extremist plotline—already overplayed by conservatives in the 2004 election (among others)—by creating a more sensational, and therefore more newsworthy, story for the major news outlets to report. Callused though this perspective may be, racism was it. For the first time since Robert Kennedy, a promising, young presidential contender was addressing an issue most politicians wouldn’t approach in an armored Humvee. The media ate it up, the rightwing Rev. Wright conspirators lost their microphone, and that unknown senator from Illinois went on to win the White House.
If Romney doesn’t figure out how to turn a potential disaster into a teachable moment, and find out soon, the 2012 presidential election will be over before the convention.
*—For a moment I thought that perhaps Barack Obama was the exception to this rule, but then I remembered that Sen. John McCain blessed the Obama campaign with Sarah Palin, who held the media’s attention throughout the 2008 campaign continues to hold the nation’s attention.