It’s been a week marked by mistakes, some new and some continuing.
The pro-Obama super PAC ad that essentially blames Mitt Romney for a woman’s death from cancer is over the line, and if it’s allowed to stand the personal attacks that have marked the presidential campaign will probably get worse. If the president rebukes the PAC and renounces the ad—and he should, and he’d look better doing it than not doing it—then we’ll all know there’s an ethical floor below which things can’t sink. The ad was a mistake for a number of reasons, one being that it makes the president look perfidious and weak: “Mudslinging is all we’ve got.” It also may finally injure his much vaunted likability ratings.
Conservative critics are correct that the Romney campaign’s pushback was weak. When someone suggests in the public arena that you are a killer you do have to respond with some force. Since media outlets have already pointed out the ad’s claim is false, no one would no one would think it out of bounds if Mr. Romney hit back with indignation and disgust.
Actually, that would be a public service. The ad’s cynicism contributes to a phenomenon that increases each year, and that is that we are becoming a nation that believes nothing. Not in nothing, but nothing we’re told by anyone in supposed authority.
Everyone knows what the word spin means; people use it in normal conversation. Everyone knows what going negative is; they talk about it on Real Housewives. Political technicians always think they’re magicians whose genius few apprehend, but Americans now always know where the magician hid the rabbit. And we shouldn’t be so proud of our skepticism, which has become our cynicism. Someday we’ll be told something true that we need to know and we won’t believe that, either.
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I suspect some conservative used the Romney campaign’s listless response as a stand-in for what they’d really like to say to Romney himself, which is, “Wake up, get mad, be human, we’re fighting for our country here!”
Romney is not over- managed by others—he isn’t surrounded by what George H.W. Bush called “gurus”—but he over-manages himself. He second guesses, doubts his own instincts. Up to a certain point that’s good: self possession is a necessary quality in a political leader. But people don’t choose a leader based solely on his ability to moderate himself. They’re more interested in his confidence in his own judgment, or an ease that signals the candidate has an earned respect for his own instincts.
Some of the unperturbed sunniness you see modern political figures attempting to enact may be traceable to Ronald Reagan, the happy warrior who set a template for how winners act. But the Reagan of the 1950s and 60s, was often indignant, even angry. When he allowed himself to get mad, or knew he should be mad and so decided to feign anger, it was a sight to behold. “I’m paying for this microphone,” he famously snapped to the moderator of the 1980 primary campaign debate in Nashua, N.H. He didn’t win that crucial state by being sunny.
A lot of politicians misunderstand this part of their art. A few months ago I talked with a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate. I asked to hear the outlines of the candidate’s planned appeal to voters. The candidate leaned forward and said with some intensity, “I’m going to tell them I can get along with people. I can work with the other side.”
This was a great example of confusing the cart with the horse. Why would anyone vote for you, especially during a crisis, only because you play well with the other children? What are your issues, where do you stand, what will you do when you get to Washington? If you believe in something and mean to move it forward the people will give you a fair hearing, and if you make clear that you hope to make progress with the help of a knack for human relations, that’s good too.
But this cult of equability, this enforced, smiley, bland dispassion—Guys, we’re in a crisis, you’ve got to know how to fight, too.
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And you’ve got to fight on the issues.
Both candidates wasted some time this week calling each other names in a sort of cheesy, noneffective, goofy way. “Obamaloney.” “Romney Hood.” Actually goofy isn’t the right word because goofy is fun, and there’s no wit or slash in what they were doing.
Calling Romney’s economic plans Romney Hood was dim because everyone likes Robin Hood, so Romney Hood sounds kind of like a compliment. Now and then the foes of a candidate accidentally do him a good turn. The Soviets thought they were disparaging Margaret Thatcher when they called her the Iron Lady. She was cold, wouldn’t bend, couldn’t compromise. The British heard the epithet and thought: Exactly! And exactly what we need!
An admiring nickname meant as an insult was born. Romney should go with it, lay out how he’ll save taxpayers from the predators of the liberal left and call that Romney Hood.
But he and his supporters should drop the argument that if we don’t change our ways we’ll wind up like Europe. That’s a mistake because Americans like Europe, and in some complicated ways wouldn’t mind being a little more like it. In the past 40 years jumbo jets, reduced fares and rising affluence allowed a lot of Americans, especially the sort who vote, to go there. The great capitals of Europe are glamorous, elegant and old, the outlands are exquisite. What remains of the old Catholic European ethic that business isn’t everything, life is everything and it’s a sin not to enjoy it, still has a lure. Americans sometimes think of it as they eat their grim salads and drink from their plastic water bottles . . .
When Americans go to Europe they see everything but the taxes. The taxes are terrible. But that’s Europe’s business and they’ll have to figure it out. Yes what happens there has implications for us but still, they’re there and we’re here.
What Americans are worried about, take as a warning sign, and are heavily invested in is California—that mythic place where Sutter struck gold, where the movies were invented, where the geniuses of the Internet age planted their flag, built their campuses, changed our world.
We care about California. We read every day of the bankruptcies, the reduced city services, the businesses fleeing. California is going down. How amazing is it that this is happening in the middle of a presidential campaign and our candidates aren’t even talking about it?
Mitt Romney should speak about the states that work and the states that don’t, why they work and why they don’t, and how we have to take the ways that work and apply them nationally.
Barack Obama can’t talk about these things. You can’t question the blue-state model when your whole campaign promises more blue-state thinking.
But Romney can talk about it.
Both campaigns are afraid of being serious, of really grappling with the things Americans rightly fear. But there’s no safety in not being serious. It only leaves voters wondering if you’re even capable of seriousness. Letting them wonder that is a mistake.