07/27/2012 05:49 pm ET Updated Sep 26, 2012

Mitt Romney U.K. Vacation And Our Pretty Vacant Politics: The 2012 Speculatron Weekly Roundup For July 20, 2012

By now, you've probably heard that Mitt Romney has spent a day in the U.K., where he failed rather miserably at carrying the Star Spangled Banner, making a series of gaffes and blunders that rivaled "The Increasingly Poor Decisions Of Todd Margaret", and which earned brickbats from British Prime Minister David Cameron and London's Tory mayor and Chris Matthews doppelganger Boris Johnson, who delighted a cheering crowd by referring to him as "a guy called Mitt Romney."

Lord knows that even in this special relationship we have with our nation's forebears, there are easy pitfalls into which one can plunge. President Barack Obama, for example, has had a rather difficult time giving gifts to the Brits over the years, famously getting into a spot of bother over a set of DVDs he got for then-P.M. Gordon Brown, that weren't correctly region-coded. (Also, it was a sort of chintzy counter-offer, given that Brown came bearing a pen-holder carved from the wood of the HMS Gannet, the sister ship of the HMS Resolute, from which the desk in the Oval Office was carved.)

And, hey, President George W. Bush and Tony Blair went all-in for a stupid, costly war in Iraq, so, you know ... there are degrees to this sort of trans-Atlantic incompetence.

The most significant error Romney made, from a pure foreign policy standpoint, was blowing up the MI-6 spot by publicly declaring that he'd met with the head of the agency, Sir John Sawers, whose schedule and movements are a closely guarded secret. Most of the other mistakes were largely cultural miscues -- he misused the word "backside," and he referred to Labour Party leader Ed Millband as "Mr. Leader." (This is pretty forgivable, frankly, considering that Milliband, from the standpoint of being able to leave vibrant personal impressions on people, is sort of the U.K. equivalent of Tim Pawlenty.)

The worst mistake, of course, was slagging the London Olympics on the day before the grand debut. This is more than a little bit ironic, considering the fact that concerns Romney cited were concerns that were widely shared by Olympic organizers and their critics at home. And anyway, the Brits have been the leaders in the field of grousing about the London Olympics. In March 2011, the BBC premiered a television mockumentary series called "Twenty Twelve" that depicted the members of the Olympic Deliverance Commission as a gang of bureaucratic incompetents. (It's hilarious! It stars Hugh Bonneville from "Downton Abbey!")

The thing is, though, even though Romney may have been only echoing numerous Brits in his critique of the games, the Brits prefer to be the sole proprietors of their own self-effacement. As Andrew Sullivan put it, "The Brits bitch and moan about everything all the time. They are characterologically piss-takers and doom-mongers, fearing (and predicting) national embarrassment always around the corner. But if a non-Brit joins in the doom chorus, the ranks will close, and the anger will be intense."

This sort of etiquette, by the way, should be standard and understandable on this side of the Atlantic, too. When your Speculatronners welcome people to their home by saying, "Gosh, sorry the place is a wreck," the expected response is, "Oh, don't even worry about it," and not "I find your lack of organization to be disconcerting and I'm not sure you're ready to be homeowners."

Anyway, Romney's mistakes, taken individually, are really small potatoes. Piled at his feet, however, they more-or-less decimated the entire point of his trip to the United Kingdom, and created the one thing that he didn't want and which few, in all likelihood, could have predicted -- a hot, multi-part gaffe-laden news cycle disaster, now popularly known as the Romney Shambles.

But the real question isn't, "Why did Romney navigate these cultural differences with greater precision?" It's "Why is Romney in England, at all?" It was a few Sundays ago that the Sunday morning political-teevee mouth-havers started talking about Romney's "important trip" to the London Olympics, while failing to qualify what on earth was so important about it. It seemed for all the world to be one of the least important things you can do when your best shot at winning the 2012 election is to continually make a case about how you'll handle the domestic economy.

Of course, Romney's trip abroad mirrors a similar "Holidays In The Sun" trip that then-candidate Obama made to the European continent, where he demonstrated that he was able to ... uhm -- what, exactly? That he could stand and walk and talk without falling down? That, too, was an instance of a candidate making some hopelessly superfluous effort at statesmanning. Obama fared better than Romney, in that he did not spectacularly piss off the locals, but his trip abroad mainly managed to provide Sen. John McCain with one of his better ad campaigns -- the famed "Celebrity" ad.

The short answer to why Romney is killing time this summer by jaunting off to foreign locales is that he has far too much time to kill. Romney secured his nomination in a fashion that was fairly rapid in terms of calendar days and yet still seemed like it took forever. And ever since, the campaign has mostly been day after day of picayune political craft, punctuated by occasional daft crap. The press has been gagging for a veep pick -- traditionally an end-of-summer disclosure -- for months now, because they are unlucky enough to have to stay invested in the long summer months of the campaign. Most Americans have smartly taken the summer off from politics.

The irony is that Mitt Romney could really benefit from the way electoral politics is practiced in the nation in which he's currently bumbling and stumbling. Actually, scratch that: America could benefit from the way the Brits play this game. See, while the British version of the "general election" shares many similarities to our own -- such as an easy-to-rile media and rotted-out campaign "consultants," it is blessedly short. It's not a two-year long crap-show of bad taste, poor judgment, and questionable intelligence. (It's only a handful of weeks of that.) And it makes a difference. Joe Klein elucidated the difference rather well back in 2001, writing for the Guardian:

Shorter is better. At the end of an American campaign -- after two years of inanity topped by a 72-hour marathon of mindless state-hopping in an aeroplane that smells like a high-school locker room (close-quarters with American television crews resembles nothing so much as close-quarters with British football fans on a European jaunt; the reek is staggering) -- after two years spent following an American politician, even a brilliant one like Bill Clinton, the best minds turn to mush, addled by a tsunami of junk food and a tour of the world's most dreary motels. The Stockholm Syndrome takes hold; by the end of a campaign, the press corps can, and often does, recite the candidate's stump speech as he delivers it (although Ronald Reagan's harangues were so predictable that the press often would vacate the hall to play Liar's Poker, leaving a designated note-taker behind in the unlikely event that Dutch slipped and "committed" news). After an American election, almost everyone goes to fat farms, rehabilitation centres or the Caribbean. Last year, when it wasn't over even after it was over, there was the additional nightmare of a month in Florida, working, not basking, in Tallahassee, not Miami. So a one-month campaign is very nice.

Look, we're not putting ourselves out there as having a fix for this -- though we'd suggest, amid an inevitable chorus of "We couldn't do that here!" that some limitations could be placed on the timeframe of allowable campaign activity, and the primary system, with sufficient courage, could be reformed -- but it's hard to deny that "shorter" would be "better." Even if you found the idea to be a complete non-starter, I doubt you could rally a crowd of people in the style of Boris Johnson around the shared idea that two years of numbing inanity is good for the country.

A shorter campaign cycle would limit the political media's excesses considerably, and free up more time to actually report on what's going on in the actual country, with the actual humans that live and work and die in it. That could lead a shift in discussion, where our various and sundry economic maladies are treated as something that happens to ordinary people, as opposed to something that impacts the electoral hopes of some permanently affluent political celebrity.

Also, there's a decent chance that the candidates themselves would be a great deal more substantive and searching -- there wouldn't be this inducement to play political games, score
cheap news cycle points, or use the abundance of time to paper over your policies with the turd polish of super PACs or the silver-tongued junk of brand marketers. Candidates couldn't spend month after month dodging questions from reporters, or take so much sweet time waiting to roll out their platform, in fear of what might happen if you show some convictions or make a decision.

And perhaps best of all, the public policy apparatus could function outside the penumbra of the campaign season. We wouldn't look at, say, a decision to deliver some immigration reform by executive fiat as a crass bit of election-year pandering. (And if that was the spirit in which such a policy might be offered, perhaps people would think twice before offering it.)

Of course, in the current arrangement, the top-tier candidates all benefit from these excesses, and would likely prefer that they stayed in place. Which is why I'd point out that if Mitt Romney had only been given a few weeks to campaign, there's no way he would have spent any of it traveling to England, and he would thus have avoided this week's disasters.

And, of course, this campaign would not currently be stuck in the ridiculous place it is right now.


So, America is now in its second week of "You Didn't-Build That A-Go-Go," and as no one has come up with a way to limit the existence of the month of August, there's not likely to be an end to it any time soon. This is to everyone's detriment, including the Romney campaign, which has made the decision to weaponize a thin selection of the available works of Barack Obama oratory, because a convenient misuse of the pronoun "that," instead of "those," enabled it. As Jon Stewart pointed out on "The Daily Show," if Obama had summoned the obviously intended word "those," it would have grammatically mapped back to the correct antecedent -- "roads and bridges," not built by business owners -- instead of "business," which is obviously built by a business owner.

From the standpoint of pure, concern-free political calculus, it's easy to see why the Romney campaign allowed this lie to leave the barn. As Jonathan Chait points out, it allows Romney to reinforce the idea that "Democrats as taking money from the hard-working white middle class and giving it to a lazy black underclass." And the press enjoys feeding the mischaracterization. After all, the political media largely lives in a "post-concern" world, too, and as long as they can say things like wow, this really reinforces the caricature of Obama, they can fool themselves into believing they are being substantive.

There's something (unkind) to be said about the quality of the initial response from Obama-favoring partisans as well, who quickly unearthed a clip of Romney telling the Salt Lake City Olympic athletes that they didn't achieve their glory on their own. (They had the damnable support of their families!)

That's a pretty great riposte -- if we're out on the third-grade playground playing snaps. On substance, though, it's just another heap of turds. "I'll see your unfair distortion of an unobjectionable sentence of public speaking and raise you with an even more distorted example of the same!" It's just mutually-assured distraction, being perpetrated by people who have such despoiled character that they think nothing of going out in the world and pretending that they do not understand English. Any honest broker should maintain that neither candidate, in either instance, said anything remotely controversial, let alone reprehensible.

But Romney's campaign shoulders the bulk of the blame here, and not simply because of those same third-grade playground rules that dictate that shame should fall hardest on the person who "started it." Romney is -- or he should be -- perfectly capable of elevating the discourse. In his biographic presentation, this is who he puts himself out to be -- an ordinary family guy, a skilled businessman, an efficient manager of a statehouse. That should be a solid foundation on which to build a distinct identity.

But it's pretty clear he doesn't want to build on that. He simply wants to join all of those whose preference for depicting Obama's cautious and incremental brand of policymaking as pure, rabid tyranny really does a great disservice to actual tyrants, and their Great Works.

"You didn't build that," of course, could win an election for Romney. But it will come at a cost. It is, at bottom, a deception. As such, it just sends hemophiliac ideas out into the world, which when cut, leave a permanent blood trail. The businessman featured in his "You Didn't Build That" ad campaign, for example, actually built his business on an awesomely comfy cushion of taxpayer largesse. It's another one of those "creepy, small lies of Mitt Romney," that seem like they needn't have been made in the first place. Why not attempt an actual authentic critique of the Obama economy?


Hey, everyone! You remember that book that Noam Schieber wrote, called "The Escape Artists: How Obama's Team Fumbled The Recovery?" Now, that sounds to me like the sort of place where you might try to build an authentic critique about the economic decisions made by the Obama administration. Maybe not a winning one, but one that would at least force a substantive, lively debate. And if I recall correctly, Mitt Romney was reading that book! How did that turn out?

The author of a book documenting the White House's policy making strategy, cited multiple times by GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, says the former Massachusetts governor is using the book to dishonestly accuse President Obama of intentionally harming the economy.

"That is false, in a variety of ways. I don't believe that it's substantively true," Noam Scheiber, author of "The Escape Artists," told TPM by phone Thursday morning.

Among the misrepresentations was a statement Romney made at a campaign appearance, in which he described the book a having been "written in a way that's apparently pro-President Obama." It wasn't. Not at all. And there was no reason in the world to characterize it as such. But it seems that Mitt Romney just cannot resist putting a tiny lie on an otherwise clean shot.


Into our summer-heated cauldron of whimsy, shame, and breathless nonsense this week was dropped a hot, shiny, simmering scooplet from across the pond. In a Daily Telegraph story, an anonymous Romney advisor was responsible for this lede:

In remarks that may prompt accusations of racial insensitivity, one suggested that Mr Romney was better placed to understand the depth of ties between the two countries than Mr Obama, whose father was from Africa.

"We are part of an Anglo-Saxon heritage, and he feels that the special relationship is special," the adviser said of Mr Romney, adding: "The White House didn't fully appreciate the shared history we have".

And so the cauldron boiled over, with goop everywhere, as outrage mounted and denials flew. But from the outset, we saw a series of red flags. First, the source: on a long enough timeline, you'll come to meet many a political keyboardist whose fingertips have been singed rebroadcasting the semi-unreliable to unreliable narratives in the U.K. press, and papers like the Telegraph.

Second, the way the story read to us seemed sketchy -- the frame of "racial insensitivity" was advanced not by the source, but by the paper. It's actually quite banal to simply assert that the U.K. and the U.S. have a relationship rooted in shared "Anglo-Saxon" heritage. It's specifically the only hereditary trait we have in common. Whether you accept the notion that Obama doesn't appreciate it correctly is your argument to make. We personally think it's not true -- we observed, for instance, the president and PM Cameron getting along famously while the prime minister was stateside -- but clearly, if you're a Romney foreign policy advisor, you're not likely to say, "Oh, yeah, Obama gets this key alliance perfectly," in any event, racially-tinged or otherwise.

The final red flag was best summed up by Kevin Drum:

As for the swelling tide of suggestions that this was a racial dog whistle, color me dubious. Does anyone seriously think that the Romney campaign decided that the best way to send a message to southern whites was via a quote to a London newspaper? That's a tough sell.

It's not the first time we've been sold the idea on a Brit-culture-based racial dog whistle, nor is it the first time we've considered it, disregarded it, and felt pretty okay about having done so.

But stories like these have an interesting place in the world of tribal politics, where the only two emotional states are the ecstacy when your guy is winning, and the terror at the thought that your guy might lose. Amid all that fear, there is an understandable tribal desire to find that secret weapon that's going to kill off the enemy before the fight even begins. In 2008, we were treated to many displays of such supposed doomsday devices. The birth certificate claims, the Jeremiah Wright flap, the never-found so-called "Whitey tape" -- all of these were cherished devices of political destruction, which, if pulled from the stone like Excalibur and wielded by the right person, could defeat the enemy.

This sort of desire doesn't particularly fit well with the circumspection that should, ideally, be a hallmark of political journalism. What the tribe demands -- and we see this a lot in the Birther swamp -- is satisfaction. You haven't done your job, as a journalist, until you deliver the story the tribe wants to read.

Which is too bad. In this case, circumspection yielded a likely source for the quote -- a Romney advisor named Niles Gardiner -- who wouldn't own the quote. Eventually, Talking Points Memo got confirmation that Gardiner "was not the source of the 'Anglo-Saxon' quote in the original article." Good news for those who opted out of having a full-square freak-out over this red flag-draped story.

Of course, the really silly thing about all of this is that this Telegraph story wasn't actually necessary. You want to point to Romney allies who've broadly characterized him in terms of racial "otherness" or otherwise "un-American?" They're out there, and they've signed their name to the dotted line. You want to point out how much irrational racial hatred there is out there, being directed at the president? Can do. Want to critique the worrisome people on Romney's foreign policy team? There's nothing stopping anybody. You can subject Gardiner to this as well.

In short, when you can make a great case on credible material, there's nothing that requires a reporter to start making bad cases on flimsy material. Of course, the reason the tribe demands otherwise, is that it's almost August of 2012, and you were supposed to have ended Romney's hopes with your reporting. It doesn't work that way.

KING AND THE CHAMBER: Angus King, the former governor of Maine and current independent candidate for the U.S. Senate, is the odds-on favorite to claim the seat being vacated by Olympia Snowe. And King has famously dithered over which party he'll caucus with, when (and if) he gets there. If we're being charitable here, we'd say that King is looking to be a free-agent when he gets to the Senate, but if we're being honest, it really seems that King just doesn't quite understand how the Senate works.

But regardless, the point is that King is up for grabs, in terms of his future alliances. Which is why it's weird that the Chamber of Commerce seems to want to push him to the left. Per the Portland Press Herald:

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has purchased what appears to be close to $200,000 in ads in Maine media markets, according to several public disclosure documents at local stations. The ads target Angus King, the independent former governor who enjoys front-runner status in recent polls.

"While King was governor, state spending skyrocketed to $2.6 billion; the king of mismanagement, when King left office, he left Maine with a $1 billion shortfall," the narrarator in the ad says.

Graphics in the ad label King "the king of spending."

This could really help King make up his mind. Now, in fairness to the chamber, if you undertake an inventory of King's policy stances, it's pretty clear that he's destined to align himself with the Democrats. But if you're holding out hope otherwise, here's a significant thing to know: he's publicly stated that he "might have voted against the Wall Street regulatory overhaul, saying it has caused too much collateral damage with community banks." Why would the chamber not want to at least entertain the idea that King is wooable?

"YOU DIDN'T BUILD THAT" DIVIDE, IN POLLS: Here's the extent to which the "you didn't build that" stuff has aggrieved the electorate so far. According to Gallup, Obama's lowest approval ratings, sorted by occupation, come from "business owners, who disapprove by a 35 percent to 59 percent margin. Who does Obama fare better with? Lots of the people that those business owners employ: professional workers approve 52 percent to 43 percent, clerical/office workers approve 51 percent to 45 percent, and service workers approve 50 percent to 40 percent. If there's a worry for Obama here, it's not that the one-percenters disapprove so much, it's that the 99-percenters don't like him more.

Among all workers, it's a wash: 47 percent to 47 percent.

AMERICA IS PRETTY MUCH DONE WITH THE CAMPAIGN: According to a Pew Research study, anyway:

With more than three months to go before Election Day, most voters already feel that there's little left to learn about the presidential candidates. When it comes to Barack Obama, 90% say they already pretty much know what they need to know about him; just 8% say they need to learn more. A substantial majority (69%) also says they already mostly know what they need to know about Mitt Romney. Only about a quarter (28%) say they need to learn more to get a clear impression of Romney. Combining these two questions, fully two-thirds of voters say they already know as much as they need to about both presidential candidates.

We seem to recall someone suggesting that the campaign season just goes on too long?

VEEPSTAKES: Jeb Bush really, really wants Marco Rubio to be Romney's vice-presidential pick. But then, Jeb Bush really, really likes Marco Rubio a lot more than Mitt Romney.

ELECTORAL PROJECTION: And so we've once again come to the part where your Speculatronners make their trademarked Electoral College projection, which is -- as always -- based on a mix of careful poll study, an analysis of prevailing economic trends, candidates "Klout" scores, and whatever we learned picking through the trash of "soccer moms."

Obviously, this week's big story is Mitt Romney's headlong plunge into Gaffetown during his trip to England. We lean heavily in the direction that eventually, it will not prove to be much of a game-changer. Of course, we're here to try to capture the current state of the race, based upon our best cogitations, so in the immediate sense, Romney's stumbles do tend to glare brightly. Even so, a question that's tough to answer is this: do Romney's mistakes necessarily cause esteem to accrue in Obama's column?

It's a tough matter to divine with any certainty, but here's our prediction. Mitt Romney is not going to win any of the United Kingdom's electoral votes. (Probably!)

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