Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Any Way You Look at it, You Lose

Mitt Romney is in trouble.  Contrary to rampant conservative denial (see here, here, here, here and here), he’s down in the polls, particularly in important swing states like Ohio and Florida.  For the longest time he was neck and neck with President Obama, but in recent weeks a significant gap has opened and remains open.  It seems the American people are deciding to stick with Obama and it seems that only something big might change that.  But many Romney supporters eagerly point to something big actually scheduled to happen tonight, Wednesday, October 3rd: 2012’s first general election presidential debate.  While partisans on both sides have been busy lowering expectations for their respective candidates, some Republicans claim that the debate will change everything.  Last Sunday, New Jersey governor Chris Christie proclaimed that (my ellipsis), “On Wednesday night Mitt Romney is going to be standing on the same stage as the president of the United States. And . . . come Thursday morning the entire narrative of this race is going to change.”  Behind closed doors, many GOP insiders, including those within the Romney campaign itself, admit that this may be Romney’s last chance to change people’s minds.

But can the debates really do that?  Are they the “something big” Romney desperately needs?  Probably not.  As Miranda Green shows in a comprehensive Gallup analysis of presidential debates from 1960 to 2004, “historical data shows the debates are rarely game changers.”  It doesn’t even matter who is seen as “winning” the debates; the study found “no direct correlation between the winner of each debate and the winner of the presidency.”  There are many reasons: most debate viewers are un-persuadable partisans; the debates are not usually particularly decisive, they don’t usually have a dramatically clear winner.  But what really constricts the possible effects of the debates is the pre-existing election narrative.  That is, by the time the debates occur a widespread media consensus has already coalesced around a simple and memorable storyline that purports to explain the election.  Think of Al Gore the wonky stiff vs. George Bush the likeable frat boy.  Or Obama the calm and cool intellect vs. McCain the desperate old man.  Once a narrative becomes widely embraced it becomes almost impossible to dislodge it.  A candidate’s every word or action becomes understood only by reference to the negatives and positives expressed in the narrative.  The 1996 narrative depicted Republican nominee Bob Dole as a curmudgeonly fossil, a noble World War II veteran hopelessly out of touch with the modern world.  When he mistakenly referred to the “Brooklyn Dodgers” it set that narrative in concrete. 

Any change to an election’s dynamics must work either for or against its existing narrative. According to the Gallup study there were only two elections in which the debates made a real difference: 1960 and 2000.  Before the debates John Kennedy was seen by many as a lightweight playboy, but the televised debates showed him to be cool, thoughtful and effortlessly charming.  That is, he managed to undercut his perceived negatives (his inexperience) and boost his positives (his charisma).  Before the 2000 debates Al Gore led George Bush in the polls despite his highly uncharismatic public persona.  (Chris Matthews famously characterized Gore as a “man-like object.”)  But the debate cameras showed Gore rolling his eyes and sighing while Bush was speaking, greatly adding to his personal un-likeability.  The Gallup story doesn’t mention the famous 1980 debates, in which Ronald Reagan presented himself as nothing like the addled, right-wing crank that the media mainstream had thought him to be.  Kennedy and Reagan won by changing the narrative, Gore lost by reinforcing it.  But, fair or not, they all had to wrestle with it.  But a debate can only change the narrative if the narrative can be changed by a debate.  It depends on the content of the narrative.  Kennedy’s perceived weakness, his inexperience, could be undone by a debate performance spotlighting his command of policy detail.  Reagan’s perceived extremism could be undone by moderately and reasonably weighing the issues.  If Kennedy had faltered on policy questions and if Reagan had pounded the table like an ideologue then each would have gone the way of Al Gore.

And here is the narrative for 2012: Obama is a likeable, intelligent, measured, decent man who seems to unable to translate those traits into policy success, particularly on the economy. Romney is a competent, intelligent technocrat, but – because of his great wealth and plutocratic disdain – he’s desperately out-of-touch with the struggles of most Americans, and he’s so utterly bereft of genuine conviction and feeling that he comes across as vague and evasive, or painfully fake and forced.  It’s not clear how well the Romney campaign understands this year’s narrative.  Their debate strategy seems to have three components.  First, pepper Obama with pre-written zingers, shaking his cool and making him look rattled and flustered.  Second, harp on the bad economy, characterize Obama as “in over his head” and Romney as broadly competent.  And third – and this is where things get a little bizarre – use the administration’s fumbling explanation of the Benghazi consulate attacks to paint Obama as the reincarnation of Jimmy Carter, as a weak and irresolute failure.  Even more bizarre, they seem think that Benghazi-gate is the silver bullet that will kill Obama’s inexplicable and persistent lead.

Let’s just set aside the Fox-bubble-induced Benghazi pipe-dream, since only adherents to the alternative conservative narrative – Romney the virtuous job-creator must slay Obama the America-hating, government-loving socialist – will find it remotely convincing.  That is, it is so removed from the mainstream narrative (and from reality) that it can’t possibly change anyone’s perceptions.  If the zingers, however, actually do fluster Obama it could undercut perceptions of the president as cool and collected.  They might just backfire, though; if they seem too pre-scripted and forced they would confirm the perception of Romney as a fake, as someone all too concerned about appearances and all too lacking in substance.  And the problem with harping on Obama’s economic policy failures is that we’ve heard all this before and on this issue the American people seem willing to give Obama a pass.  That is, this has already been incorporated into the narrative and Obama is still ahead in the polls.  Those zingers had better be good.

Is there anything Romney could do in the debates that would change the narrative?  He could try to make himself warmer, more human, more accessible.  But this just doesn’t seem possible for someone so disconnected from ordinary people and his own convictions.  We’ve seen the embarrassing results of his forced attempts at human-ness.  Also, debates demand tremendous preparation – Romney has been prepping for these debates for months – and it’s not easy to train yourself to be genuine.  Are there non-Benghazi lines of attack that could make Obama appear foreign, arrogant, radical or socialist?  Could Obama be successfully tarred with the Jeremiah Wright/Bill Ayers/Saul Alinsky brush?  No, all these attacks suffer from the same failure as the Benghazi attack: no one buys them.  Limbaugh et al. have been ranting all day long, every day for the last four years about Obama being a Kenyan-Muslim-Marxist – and no one buys it.  Maybe Romney could undo charges of policy evasion by making detailed proposals; for instance, he could specify which income tax exemptions he would eliminate in order to make his proposed high end tax cuts revenue-neutral.  But he’s running as a movement conservative, if he suddenly became candid about fiscal policy he’d have to confront the mathematical reality that is so unkind to conservatives: you can’t lower taxes, balance the budget and jump-start the economy all at the same time.  If he became specific he’d either have to embrace conservative fiscal and economic fantasies and be laughed off stage or reject them and be burned in effigy at Tea Party rallies.

But this, of course, reveals Romney’s real problem: He’s stuck in the conservative quagmire.  He had to wade into that murky and unpleasant pool of social and cultural resentment to become the Republican nominee and he must remain there to keep conservative votes.  And he reached down deep into the muck to pull up conservative darling – and fellow fiscal math denialistPaul Ryan to be his running mate.  So now his position amounts to: please don’t look too closely at the muck.  But that strategy is not working – why not?  The answer is simple: 47%.  When a video surfaced showing Romney in a private meeting addressing a group of wealthy donors and maligning 47% of America as worthless tax evaders and welfare queens there was much discussion about whether it represented Romney’s real views or whether he was simply pandering to a rich, conservative audience.  But it doesn’t matter.  The video didn’t reveal the real Romney, it revealed the real conservative disposition.  When Romney picked Ryan he explicitly made the election about the size and role of the federal government.  Indeed, that’s what this election has always really been about.  Romney’s criticism of Obama’s Keynesian attempts to jolt the economy was really criticism of any government intervention in the economy.  In Romney’s worldview all we have to do to fix the economy is to get government out of the way and let the market work its magic.  Choosing Ryan merely made explicit Romney’s insistence that the welfare-regulatory state be substantially scaled back.  But Ryan plus the 47% video is deadly.  We now see the primary (though not the only) instinct behind conservative anti-government policy and that instinct is an ugly one.  It views social welfare as a plot to turn the morally weak into willing wards of the state.  It disparages half the country as people “who can never be convinced to take responsibility and care for their lives.”  When Romney strides out onto the debate stage tonight he’ll be stinking of that ugliness.  And there’s not much that a debate performance can do to remove that stink.

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