At the Values Voter Summit this past weekend, GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan lit into President Barack Obama for his propensity for making straw-man arguments: "No politician is more skilled at striking heroic poses against imaginary adversaries ... Nobody is better at rebuking nonexistent opinions. Barack Obama does this all the time." This is actually quite true. For all of Obama's celebrated oratorical skill and the celebrity standing of his speechwriters, the straw-man trope -- in which Obama invokes the "some" who are always "saying" or who "may say" that some outcome is impossible -- is an annoying rhetorical crutch, used constantly by the president.
The bad news for Ryan is that in Mitt Romney, Obama has drawn an imaginary adversary as his opponent -- a walking, breathing straw-man whose core identity has been thus far obscured. And it's been obscured because Mitt Romney has just about willed it to be that way. Ryan, now that he's had to take the time to do Romney's damage-control mop-up for him, can perhaps appreciate that fact a little more at the end of this week than he could over the weekend. At the very least, Ryan should be able to observe that he is just about the only thing that conservatives seem to authentically like about the Romney campaign.
The ironic thing about the Internet having spent such a considerable amount of time yesterday debating whether Romney actually sought to give his face a caramel sheen for the purpose of appealing to Hispanics during his Univision forum appearance, is that the foundation make-up Romney was wearing lent him more definition than the candidate himself has been able to manage in weeks. And that's been Romney's problem during this campaign: the first two big tasks of a political campaign are to define yourself and to define your opponent. That Romney has done little to achieve the former and pursues the latter in slipshod fashion is what's killing his campaign right now.
Let's zoom in on this week's big shiny hullabaloo: the recently released video of Romney at a donor bash, dishing on the "47 percent" of the electorate that he holds to be irretrievable moochers. It's very clear that this has caused Romney no small amount of consternation. It's not a matter he'd prefer to litigate at this late stage in the campaign. And it's never a good scene when your downticket allies are rebuking you over something you said. But it's not this "gaffe" itself that really hurts Romney. Indeed, as John Sides has found, the immediate impact of "gaffes" on public opinion is negligible.
But that doesn't mean they don't have an effect on the vitality of a campaign. As Alex Pareene explains, "gaffes" tend to "add up," because of the way the information that seems so hot and new and important to the tiny sliver of the population that's hyper-engaged about politics slowly flows out into the larger electorate:
What Sides shows is that gaffes don’t matter individually or immediately. And of course they don’t, because few people pay attention to the news the way we (journalists, commentators, bloggers and people who read Salon) do: almost obsessively. The Romney tape just came out on Monday, and the campaign has a couple days still to furiously spin in order to make sure that the end result is a wash for Romney. But it takes a bit of time for this stuff to trickle down to people who consume political news like normal people, in a limited and incidental fashion ... The comments will be repeated in ads in October and November (political science is also sorta iffy on whether or not ads matter, but still), and probably continue coming up every time Romney says or does anything for the next month. If he suddenly starts beating Obama nationally or in Ohio or Virginia, we can say this gaffe didn't matter, but if he continues trailing, his treatise on moochers will be part of the reason he can't bridge the gap.
This is why it's important to do a good job of defining yourself: It means you've already put a bunch of stuff on public display for voters to chew on, in advance of all the occasional slip-ups that come from just having to be in campaign mode all day, every day.
A good way to think about the central mission of a political campaign is to imagine the candidate is attempting to build a mosaic that illustrates what the future is going to look like if that candidate is elected. The candidate's job is to add tile after tile, gradually giving voters a full picture of what one envisions for the nation. What the candidate's opponent is going to try to do is obscure that image, by knocking tiles off the board or otherwise obscuring them. The central fight is to stack up assets and positives at a rate that exceeds attrition through opposition research and unforseeable unforced errors.
Candidates have some powerful tools at their disposal to fill in the picture at a fast clip. They can, for example, use the money and media at their disposal to mount a massive biographical campaign. They can use advisers and experts to craft a set of specific policies, with which they can make campaign promises and paint a picture of hoped-for outcomes. And a presidential candidate has the unique ability to speak broadly of big national missions in which all voters can play a part. Remember "bridge to the twenty-first century"?
Now that Romney has summarily dismissed nearly half the country as useless, this last option may no longer be open to him. This is ironic, because Romney has the distinct advantage of facing an incumbent whose best play, as far as establishing a national mission in which everyone can participate, is to promise to finish the old national mission he advanced four years ago. But the larger problem here is that Romney has failed to do the work of defining.
Romney's strange inability to put forth a positive version of his own biography is, indeed, a bafflement. Earlier this week, Jon Ward wrote about the "disappearing Mitt Romney" and how the Romney campaign's promise of a "push" to "better introduce their candidate to the nation ... has not materialized." And this is in spite of the fact that they've built the tools to do just that.
Mitt Romney's campaign produced a 10-minute documentary film about the candidate that forced even liberal Democrats, when it was shown at the Republican National Convention, to admit that it was a moving portrayal of Romney's life and values.
The problem is not very many people have seen the video, and the Romney campaign appears to have made little effort to change that. Romney revealed to donors in Atlanta on Wednesday that he himself had not seen the entire thing until it was shown before his remarks at a fundraiser.
The vacuum, of course, has famously been filled by the Obama campaign, who spent the bulk of the summer hitting all of Romney's vulnerabilities and finding, to their surprise, that the candidate had seemingly no intention of fighting back. As a result, we now have a Pew Poll that finds that "Romney has gained no ground on Obama in being seen as more credible or more empathetic," and has Obama leading on nearly every issue category, despite the fact that we remain in a decidedly down economy.
And the bad economy? Well, that was supposed to provide Mitt Romney with another opportunity to define himself as the 'quick turnaround artist' who would lead the nation to a faster recovery than the 'in over his head' Obama. Romney has continually asserted that this is the case, but beyond those assertions, he's got nothing else. He has kept his plans and policies utterly vague, to the extent that his conservative allies have been urging him for months now to offer the specifics as to how a Romney administration could light the path forward out of our current economic straits.
If Romney had put some flesh on his bones, none of these endosteum-ravaging gaffes would be defining his candidacy right now. His failure to do so is baffling. But his failure to cut away the Obama campaign's flesh isn't going that well either.
There is, for a man in Romney's position, an abundance of material with which to make an authentic argument against the Obama campaign. The way the Obama administration has stumbled around with shifting explanations on the recent attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi is a good example of a current event on which Romney could be scoring points. From the GOP's perspective, the entire Libyan intervention is a sore thumb of inconsistency that makes no sense alongside the administration's soft-footing on the same sort of slaughter going on in Syria.
On the economic front, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama have decidedly different opinions on what the best policy for the foreclosure crisis is: Romney's advantage is that Obama's plan, HAMP, has been a failure. Heck, Romney could start there and then borrow a slew of arguments against the Obama administration cribbed from Neil Barofsky's book; and as the guy who's vowed to disembowel what few guts actually exist in the Dodd-Frank law, Romney can make the 'Obama consistently failed Main Street' argument without offending Wall Street donors. At one point, Romney said he was reading Noam Schieber's book "The Escape Artists: How Obama's Team Fumbled The Recovery," which primed everyone to expect Schieber's critique to form the backbone of a lengthy argument. It hasn't materialized.
In fact, rather than do that, Romney went out of his way to mischaracterize Schieber as "pro-President Obama," an utterly needless assertion that only drew Schieber's ire.
But Romney's misarticulation of a book that could have actually served him in good stead is resonant of a consistent theme in Romney's attempts to define Obama: His criticisms of his opponent are all glaringly inauthentic. Whether it's 'apology tour' or 'sympathizes with attackers' or 'Obama is an enemy of success' or 'Obama is a socialist mastermind from Kenya' -- these criticisms, while they may rally the dead-enders, have limited salience among independent voters, and they certainly don't help you steal back votes from the key voting blocs (blacks, women, Hispanics) that they need to get back in the GOP tent.
What's more is that the lengthy attempt to hang the words "you didn't build that" around Obama's neck have done more to court backlash than it has to shore up a Romney constituency. And the reason it's played out this way is clear -- the media, which can look at the speech from which "you didn't build that" came and very quickly see the falsity of that line of attack, has rejected it and is now holding everything Romney says to a higher scrutiny.
Here's a tip for future presidential campaigns: The media will allow you to lie to the public for as long as you care to do so. To the political press, a lie you tell the voters is just another "interesting point of view" in a "grand debate." But the moment political reporters think you, the candidate, are lying to them, it's game over.
Now, if the Romney campaign isn't doing anything to help the public get to know its candidate, or offering specific policies or advancing salient critiques, what have they been doing all this time? We are glad we asked ourselves this question. The answer is that this campaign, bereft of ideas, is filling the void with tactics, one political maneuver after the other.
You can see that in their response to the "47 percent" flap this week. They've gone from standing firm behind Romney's previously unheard remarks to pretending the video (containing the remarks they just stood behind!) was "debunked"; to getting foursquare behind a 1998 video where Obama says the word "redistribution" but that actually revealed Obama as a standard-issue centrist Democrat 14 years ago; to attempting to make hay over Obama's remarks that "You can't change Washington from the inside," which is not just something Obama has been saying for years, it's something Romney has been saying for a long while as well.
Somewhere in that mess of tactical responses is something that maybe could have helped Romney get back on his feet, but the shifting gambits come so fast and change so quickly that none of them have time to marinate in the same way that the "47 percent" video has.
When former McCain aide Mark McKinnon wrote about his reaction to the "47 percent" video, his narrative was pretty telling. He had, up until then, been "giving Romney the benefit of the doubt, assuming that at some point during this campaign he would reveal some things about himself that would give me some insight into who he really is and what drives him." The donor party tape did exactly that, but it was "not what I was hoping for."
McKinnon is only echoing every one of Romney's nominal allies who have for months begged him to tell the country about himself, his plans, the path to the future on which he would set the country -- the real stakes of the race. Had he done so, there would be some weighty material to consider alongside the errors and opposition. There would be some counterweight to some of the damage that's come from the Obama campaign and the rigors of campaigning itself, with which the Romney campaign has become freighted. But Romney and his campaign have not done that work. And as a result, things like this donor party video have had an outsized salience in the campaign narrative.
The funny thing about this phenomenon is that it's not primarily the case that Romney's gaffes are hurting him because they say something about him. Rather, the gaffes are hurting him because they highlight the nothing about him.
AND YET, ROMNEY CAN ABSOLUTELY STILL WIN THIS THING: Not bet-hedging, just a fact. For all the dire pronouncements that this gaffe or that flub has doomed Romney's campaign to the Admiral Stockdale Memorial Dustbin, he is definitely not out of the running. And we should perhaps see this as a feature, not a bug, of life in America, land of opportunities and second chances. Only in America can one pursue Bigfoot hunting or UFO chasing as an actual job. Only in this country could Joe The Plumber be Joe The House Candidate, and not Joe The Guy Who Is Usually Elbow Deep In Human Excrement And Specializes In Extracting Plugs Of Human Hair From Underground Tubes.
The list of nations in which a man like Mitt Romney could plausibly contend to be head of state is not a long one. If we were all Aussie, "Crocodile" Bill Kristol would have long since driven Romney into the outback to be ravaged by dingoes. But America, f*** yeah, is on that list and so here we are in September, with Romney still alive and well and chasing after his opponent's diminishing convention bounce. Heck, y'all realize that the toughest election opponent that President Barack Obama has ever faced, by a mile or so, is ... Mitt Romney, right?
What we're trying to say is that the strongest and most enduring part of the American welfare state is the part that props up the fortunes -- both monetary and opportunistic -- of affluent celebrity politicians long after they've shown a high propensity for stumblebummery. So let us not count Romney out, by any means. Rather, let us consider Reid Cherlin's highly plausible scenario for "How Mitt Wins," which he lays out for GQ, especially steps 4 and 5:
4. Romney goes into the debates with expectations utterly in the basement. He exceeds them. How? By preparing hard and landing some good one-liners. (He has shown he is capable of doing this occasionally.)
5. As the nation looks on, Obama gets irritated, as he often does, by the very fact of having to spend time on the stage with Romney. This is exacerbated by the fact that Romney seems actually to be doing pretty well. Obama says something stupid. (He has shown he is capable of doing this occasionally.)
All well worth considering. After all, if we're going to compare Mitt to John Kerry, as many have done, we should honor the fact that Kerry, in 2004, made up a lot of ground after the first debate. It ultimately was not enough, but by the time Romney and Obama meet for their first debate, the gap between them may be less daunting than the one Kerry faced.
We're biased, because Chernin also uses an observation from our own Sam Stein, who tweeted this week: "Prediction: [Two weeks] from now, when these comments have faded [and the] race is still relatively close, story line will be: why can't O[bama] put R[omney] away?" Watch for this. The media loves a horse race, so they are always prepared to help make it one, at which point they will turn on the horse that has the slight lead and ask why that horse is so awful at winning.
Naturally, for all we know, there could be a very clear, observable reason why one candidate is failing to put the other one away. But it's just as likely that the reason no one has won the election yet is because Election Day has not yet happened.
CAMPAIGN AD KAYFABE: We think we can all agree that if we live in or near a swing state, political ads are the scourge of everyone's existence, and we hope that those who have inundated us in them will pay a hefty price for it when they come to meet their maker -- reserving the hottest place in hell for whoever allowed political ads to be shown before Hulu programming streams, thus denying us all that safe haven.
In order to underscore the overall reprehensibility of campaign ads, however, every election cycle needs a good article documenting precisely how phony they are. And so we commend you to John Stanton's enjoyable piece on the subject, where you will see all of Colorado's Democratic Representative Ed Perlmutter's staged conversations with fake people and Kentucky Republican House Candidate Andy Barr's ad featuring coal miners.
The guy in the latter ad, by the way? Identified as Heath Lovell? Not a coal miner. He's actually a coal company executive. You probably could tell, though, given that Lovell looks like he hasn't lifted a tool in his mother-loving life, and is ridiculously out of place dressed up like someone who might actually perform something we'd popularly define as "labor."
It should be noted, of course, that the aforementioned Mr. Perlmutter has drawn wide praise for an ad that the Atlantic's Andrew Cohen calls "the best of the season." You know, as far as he knows, anyway.
HERE'S A POLL THAT POLLS THE POLLED ABOUT ALL THE POLLING: Yes, this actually happened. A polling company polled people to find out how they felt about all the polls. The findings? "Among those who responded to the poll, 46 percent hold favorable views of polls in general, and 47 percent have negative ones."
More polls are needed!
ELECTORAL PROJECTION: It's time once again for your Speculatroners to end the week with our trademarked Electoral College projection, which is -- as always -- a mix of careful poll study, analysis of prevailing economic trends, pundit speculation and complex numerological analysis of Mitt Romney's recently released 2011 tax returns.
At the beginning of the week, Obama's convention bounce was said to be on the wane, in keeping with what your Speculatroners had been expecting. However, we end the week with a little bit of uncertainty over that, and what we see in most of the battleground states is Obama keeping a consistent lead over Romney. There are exceptions: Colorado seems to be tightening up, and North Carolina remains extremely close. But Obama's advantage in Ohio remains wide, and lately he has opened up a lead in Florida that can't be sniffed at.
Most of the battleground states remain close enough for Romney to overcome his slight deficit -- and having conceded New Mexico, Romney can move resources around out west. It's worth noting that the notion that Romney could challenge Obama in Wisconsin seems to be fading, so if you want to complicate Obama's path to 270, Nevada and Colorado are the way to go.
This is, perhaps, the widest advantage we've gauged for the incumbent since we started doing these projections. We expect this to narrow before long.