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The Newest New Mitt Message: He Cares

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The flop sweat is bursting the banks of the river Romney these days. Their campaign strategists are reduced to combing the Internet in a desperate search for footage of Obama as a teenager, smoking weed. Perhaps they will discover some damaging note written in a high school yearbook: "Keep on smoking the good stuff! Thanks for the hot sex," signed "Barry O."

Since they can't seem to find anything equivalent to the infamous "47 percent" tape on the Democratic side of the street, the only thing left is to throw Mitt himself out to the voters as a Hail Moroni pass, in the form of their first "candidate looks sincerely into the camera" ad of the season. It's an acknowledgement of just how far behind they are, when the consultants are willing to show Romney attempting to look sincere.

The ad begins with an assumption that runs counter to the now-solidified image of Romney the Callous. "President Obama and I both care about poor and middle-class families. The difference is my policies will make things better for them," Mitt intones, as if all it takes to counter a hidden-camera disaster is an on-camera assertion.

But political ads run in an environment saturated with other televised pitchmen. Former senator and extremely ineffective presidential candidate Fred Thompson is pitching his folksy on-air persona to sell seniors reverse-mortgage plans that may be, as AARP warns, as damaging to seniors as those spam emails from Nigerian princes. The reason defective products and scams are all over our TV screens is because these pitchmen can play percentages, and get rich on the margins of gullibility. If millions of people nationwide see an ad for, say, a miracle weight loss drug that promises ten pounds of fat loss in the first week, the scam capitalists only need a tiny percentage of those watching to respond with, "wow, that sounds fantastic, I'll buy a year's supply."

However, chances are the Romney camp already has the votes of people willing to buy what Mitt is selling. In fact, according to polling data, die-hard right-wing Republican voters are willing to buy all sorts of things that ordinary voters understand are just ridiculous, including the idea that President Obama is Muslim, born in Kenya, and that global warming is a conspiracy between scientists and the mainstream media. Mitt needs the votes of other people, sane people.

There are limits to the persuasive power of television ads; if there weren't, we'd all be buying those miracle weight loss pills. No matter how sincerely someone looks into the camera, we understand that they are actors acting their guts out to look "natural." The 2008 McCain campaign could not succeed in making Sarah Palin look intelligent; voters had already made up their minds, and on the best possible evidence. If you open your mouth and a continual stream of stupid is on display, there is no need for the other side to run ads about it. In the immortal words of Forrest Gump, "Stupid is as stupid does."

Getting back to Mitt's on-camera performance, he is telling us a story that runs counter to what we have seen with our own eyes, and heard with our own ears. He went out of his way to tell his wealthy donors what they wanted to hear, that the world can be divided into the good people (us) and the bad people (them). It almost doesn't matter anymore if Mitt believes it himself, he has, at the very least, told everyone who sees that videotape that he is willing to say whatever his audience wants to hear. And that makes him about as reliable a spokesman as the guy selling Sham-Wow at four in the morning on the Fishing Channel.

Self-inflicted wounds are the worst. You can't blame them on the liberal media, or spin them as bias of any kind. At this point, Mitt could do an on-camera ad saying the sky is blue, and all but die-hard far-right Republicans would go outside to check. Whenever the Romney campaign trots out a new ad from now on, all but the most loyal will be juxtaposing whatever is said against their own mental videotape. Even Ann Romney's words are going to be interpreted in the light of the 47 percent disaster, so I predict her ability to humanize Mitt and be likable has also tanked. The campaign will stop sending her out on Leno and Letterman. She will be too busy to make appearances.

I predict this is the last "soft" ad to come from the Romney campaign. We've seen this movie before. Once a campaign starts to spiral down, only a scandal of magnificent proportions on the other side can save it from certain doom. A wounded, cornered beast can only attack. They will soon realize, for the 56th time this election cycle, that they can't raise their candidate's positives, so the playbook will take them back to raising Obama's negatives. The opposition research will now go into even more manic overdrive. If Obama jaywalked, forgot to pay a parking ticket, or had overdue library books at Harvard, we are going to hear about it. In the deepest, darkest bowels of Romney-Land, somebody, somewhere, is putting the Drudge Report on speed-dial. Don't say I didn't warn you.