Romney's Shift and an Electorate as a Blank Slate

10/23/2012 02:40 pm ET | Updated Dec 23, 2012

Having emerged from the shower of post-debate analysis and reaction, I feel like shaking myself off like a wet dog. Obama was logical, precise and attacking, but he may not have sealed the deal. He had a few good lines, notably on the purpose of aircraft carriers, and he seemed presidential. Romney appeared a little pale and tight, and he did surprisingly agree with Obama on nearly every administration foreign policy. He offered up some odd moments -- Syria as Iran's route to the sea, the 1917 U.S. Navy, Ahmadinejad getting arrested by the UN for inciting genocide, the belief that the U.S. never told other countries what to do -- but they were just the odd mash up of factual inaccuracy and bent dogma that politicians normally indulge in. Romney remained calm and didn't, according to the punditry, execute a fatal swan dive into the concrete. He had "momentum." He "seemed" presidential, as if he could easily lead the U.S. and the rest of the world through a period of -- a new favorite word -- "tumult" based the sheer presence of his "leadership" qualities. He did not harangue Bob Schieffer.

I was mildly disappointed that Obama failed to pounce on Romney's disastrous dress rehearsal, from a diplomatic perspective, in London during the Olympics. But you can't cover everything in 90 minutes.

All this is an avenue not into a-yet-another analysis of the debate but rather to a contemplation of the American electorate. Except in the middle of a war (and not even every war -- it has to be a big or controversial one) Americans don't do foreign policy. Historically speaking, the last 60 years or so are an anomaly: The U.S. is historically an isolationist nation. Granted, this has gotten more difficult since World War II, and the development of modern transportation, computer and missile technology, but it's a big country and it's easy to pretend, if you're wandering around the vacant spaces of Montana or Nevada, that foreign lands don't exist. The historical realities, however, create a strange, sometimes toxic mix, when they blend with other bedrock beliefs, notably American exceptionalism. To the isolationist world view, American exceptionalism argued that we, the original democratic people, were simply better than the rest of the world and needn't corrupt ourselves by dealing with them. Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson began to change all that: American exceptionalism meant we needed to bring the good life to other folks oppressed by dictators or unclear about how elections and free enterprise work together. We had to save a fallen world. This is where we are today. Despite their differences, both Romney and Obama must regularly offer up pronouncements that America is the world's last great hope and therefore must remain No. 1 in everything. America needs to wade into ugly domestic disputes around the world, because we have a moral, Wilsonian calling.

The tension here, of course, is that we really don't want to; the old isolationist tendencies easily surface, particularly after ugly wars. Some of this is pretty old hat but worth repeating: We feel the need to fix the world's problems even though most Americans would rather watch baseball or football than hear two candidates thrash out foreign policy. Who out there knows a single fact about Mali, Romney's new trouble spot? How many Americans could locate Yemen on a map? Shiites? Sunnis? Alawites? The Baath Party? Hamas and Hezbollah? Well, Americans undoubtedly know more about this stuff now than a decade ago; as Edward Luce in the Financial Times said recently, the GOP is particularly fixated on 9/11 and terrorism, but it's like a thin crust of snow on a mountain of ignorance. Foreign policy, even in the smooth hands of Obama, is a cartoon: creditor China, our "closest ally" Israel, Putin Russia. As a few commentators noted, Europe, even Britain, doesn't exist. The eurozone crisis, probably the single greatest threat to our economy, has gone missing.

This is not news, of course. But it does explain the most striking aspect of the debate: Romney's willingness to articulate new policies (for himself -- the substance of them veered into alignment with Obama's) so late in the campaign and at such a forum. This had the liberal crew on MSNBC apoplectic after the debate. But despite their charges of deception and pandering, they were quite willing to accept that it probably wouldn't matter. And they, and pundits generally, refused to go to the real problem. It's not Romney really. We've had politicians willing to do all kinds of things for a long time, despite Chris Matthews' sputtering that Romney's cynicism is somehow unprecedented. No, the truth is that there seems to be no sense of a voter check on such "flexibility," as one of the post-debate spinners characterized it. You can fact-check until you're blind. A large part of the voting public not only doesn't know or care about the facts of Libya, Mali or Yemen, they resist the attempt to know. The audience responds to simple zingers effectively delivered. As Alessandra Stanley noted today in The New York Times, Obama is often "professorial," which is viewed as a bad thing, not unlike the obscure nattering of economists. It's true: There are many reasons Americans don't like Obama, but the fact that he's smart, articulate and worse, intellectual, is probably one of them.

Again, not exactly a revelation. However, it is worth wondering whether the American electorate has "declined" in some way. It's not a subject discussed by the punditry, even when they bring up issues of "epistemic closure" or "low-information voters." To question the electorate is to question their own mass audiences. But would a candidate -- even a trickster like Richard Nixon -- be able to get away with such obvious changes of positions as Romney? This isn't fooling the people with relative subtlety, like Jack Kennedy harping on the missile gap in 1960 or George H.W. Bush's Willie Horton; it's dramatically changing your entire outlook. Would the failure to punish this by voters represent an educational failure, one associated with the saturation of media, inequality and economic distress or simply that some voters dislike Obama so much they'll accept any alternative? Democracy may be a wonderful thing, and "the people" at times (like the market), can prove wiser than they seem. And perhaps that will be the case here. Many did finally reject Sarah Palin, but it was a close-run thing. We'll soon see.

A final truism, which of course is often ignored: A crisis of democracy is, almost by definition, a crisis of the people. Our representatives are mirrors of ourselves. We worry about the ability of markets to process information efficiently and effectively. Part of that concern is the fact that transparency quickly breaks down; large parts of the market, even regulators and senior executives, don't know what's going on. To the public, the financial system is a problem that can't be penetrated; even the well-educated crowd throws their hands up. (Paul Krugman in the Times, that rare popular economic commentator, has been hammering on the subtle difference between a recession and a financial crisis to a population that believes Obama caused the crisis in the first place.) The same applies to foreign policy, as evidenced by both candidates' attempts to drag the conversation back home. Despite the fact that American supremacy remains an unchallenged verity, much of the electorate seems willing to accept foreign policies as disposable as razorblades. That's disturbing.