The Romney campaign is better at dismantling than mantling. They’re better at taking opponents apart than building a compelling candidate of their own. They do not seem capable of deepening his meaning, making his stands and statements more textured and interesting. He comes across like a businessman who studied the data and came up with the formula that will make the deal.
A particular problem is that he betrays little indignation at any of our problems and their causes. He’s always sunny, pleasant, untouched by anger. This leaves people thinking, “Excuse me, but we are in crisis. Financially and culturally we fear our country is going down the drain. This guy doesn’t seem to be feeling it. So why’s he running? Maybe he thinks it’s his personal destiny to be president. But if the animating passion of his candidacy is about him, not us, who needs him?”
Mitt Romney’s aides are making the classic mistake of thinking the voters want maturity, serenity and a jolly spirit. What they want is a man who knows what time it is, who has a passion to reform our country, and who yet holds these qualities within a temperament that is mature, serene and jolly. Newt Gingrich has half the package: He has a passion to reform, but it exists inside a crazy suit. Mitt has no particular passion within an obviously sane suit.
Which leads to Rick Santorum. Nobody in the conservative base hates Rick. Newt is hated by many and Mitt by some. Mr. Santorum is liked. He has real indignation about what’s happened to America, and he brings passion to his ideas about reform. He’s got little money, little organization—there’s no broad assumption he can pull it off. And by the time the Romney campaign is done dismantling him, he may have some people who hate him. But this will only underscore the Romney campaign’s reputation for destroying, not creating. And nobody loves a Death Star.
Newt’s not done and could rise again. I keep thinking of what a sage old pol, a veteran former GOP governor, said two weeks ago. He turned to me in conversation and said, “By the way, don’t call it a brokered convention. That’s what the media and the Democrats will call it because it implies there are brokers. Call it a contested convention because that’s what it will be, contested.” Could it really come to that? The odds, he said, are still way against it. “But they’re probably the best in my lifetime.”
Let’s turn to low turnout in the Republican races. Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri this week were all down, Iowa and New Hampshire were flat, Florida, that Little America, was down almost 15%. All this in a volatile race, in a time of crisis.
What are the reasons? Maybe it’s the increasing negativity of the campaign, maybe it’s widespread dissatisfaction with the field. Maybe it’s that, and more.
There are some small indicators something else may be going on. Cable news ratings, which should spike in an election year, and which indicate interest on both the left and the right, are relatively flat, with mild increases here and there. Broadcast evening news ratings continue their gradual decline. One network anchor, on being urged to capture more of the joy and ferocity of the Republican contest, sighed. “Every time we show those guys, our numbers go down.” A major website operator tells me people aren’t clicking on political stories.
But it’s not confined to the Republican side. Look at President Obama’s State of the Union numbers. That speech famously blankets all television and radio networks. His first speech to a joint session of Congress, in February 2009, drew 52 million viewers. A year later the State of the Union had an understandable fall-off to about 48 million. In 2011, another fall: 43 million watched. A few weeks ago his 2012 State of the Union drew just 38 million. From 52 to 38: That’s quite a decline. And again, during an continuing crisis and in a presidential election year. As for the president’s interviews and other speeches, well, when was the last time you heard someone ask excitedly, “Did you hear what Obama said?”
Whose numbers are up? The NFL’s.
Maybe the story the political class is missing is not “They don’t like the Republican field,” or “They don’t like Obama.” Maybe the story is that people are tuning out altogether. Maybe they’re bored with politics, and most especially with politicians. Maybe they don’t think our government can’t solve anything. Maybe, even, our political class has done such a good job depicting the crisis we’re in that the American people, with their low faith in institutions, think nothing, really, can be done about it. So let’s check out. Let’s watch the game.
An update on the furor surrounding ObamaCare and the Catholic Church. The Obama White House was surprised by the pushback but hopes it will blow over. Their thinking: The Catholics had their little eruption, letters were read from pulpits, the pundits came out, and then the pols. But life goes on, new issues arise, we’ll hunker down, it’ll go away. Meanwhile, play for time. Send David Axelod out to purr about possible new negotiations.
That would be a trap for the church. Any new talks would no doubt go past Election Day, at which time, if the president wins, he’ll be able to give the church the back of his hand.
The short-term White House strategy is to confuse and obfuscate, to spread a thick web of untruths about the decision and let opponents exhaust themselves trying to fight from under the web.
The church must be resolute and press harder. Now is the time to keep pounding—from the pulpit, in all Catholic publications and media, in statements and meetings. For how long? As long as it takes. The president and the more radical part of his base clearly thought the church was a paper tiger, a hollow shell, an entity demoralized and finished by the scandals of the past 20 years.
Now is the time for the church to show it’s alive. How?
• Educate. Unconfuse the issues. Take a different aspect of the ruling and its deeper meanings every week, and pound away.
• Reach out. This is bigger than the Catholic Church. Go to the mainline Protestant churches, evangelicals, synagogues and mosques. Plead for vocal, public and immediate support: “If the church is forced to go against its conscience, religious liberty in America is not safe. If religious liberty is not safe, you are not safe.”
• Know your people. Mr. Obama carried secular Catholics overwhelmingly in 2008. But churchgoing Catholics were evenly split, 51% to 49% for John McCain. These are the voters the president could lose by huge margins over the ruling. And he will, if they fully understand it. Such a loss could determine the 2012 outcome. He knows it, you know it. Have faith in the people in the pews. Give it to them straight, week after week, and they’ll back the church overwhelmingly. The White House is watching. Pound away.
• Call for Democratic support. Religious liberty should not be a partisan issue. Republicans have come to the fore, but it’s better for the church if Democrats do too. They’re starting to come over. Make clear from the pulpit that members of both parties are absolutely essential in this fight. “All hands on deck.”
You can win. Keep the faith. Literally: Keep it.