Mitt, Myth, and Monsters
Mitt Romney has a problem. He is within shouting distance of a long-sought dream, the Presidency. He is facing one of the most vulnerable incumbents in modern memory. He is running as a highly successful businessman in the midst of a tepid economic recovery, marked by persistently high unemployment. He has an opponent who is viscerally detested by 40% of the country. He has Republican Governors and State Legislatures lined up to suppress Democratic voters. He has an unlimited war chest. He even has a huge international crisis to distract Mr. Obama and provide scary and even gruesome images. And yet, he’s not ahead by 10 points.
It’s been noticed by the party pros, who have given him a long list of suggestions, starting with “shake up your campaign team.” It’s been noticed by Republican Congressional and Senatorial candidates-some of whom are even talking about bipartisanship. It’s been noticed by the professional GOP media/publicists, who fugue between trashing Obama and telling Mitt what he’s been doing wrong. And it was noticed at the “Values Voter Forum”, the annual Earth Day (without the Earth part) for the religious right, organized by Tony Perkins, where the pure of soul (Newt was there last year) come to testify as to their fealty to conservative values and voice their willingness to use charitable religious donations to support the GOP.
What gives? How does the guy who methodically dispatched one opponent after another in the primary, using all the weapons of a modern political campaign, suddenly lose his way?
Well, actually, he hasn’t. He’s still playing the game the way he did a nine months ago-pouncing on any gaffes, trying to capitalize on any crises, coordinating (not openly, of course) with stupendous amounts of Superpac cash that invest in attack ads, avoiding discussing his own plans except in generalities, and using his surrogates to fire from multiple directions.
What he’s finding, however, is that the primary isn’t the general election.
First, the quality of the opposition isn’t the same. Obama fended off Hillary Clinton and John McCain. That took talent and toughness. Romney drew mostly second tier candidates, many with committed bases, but without broader appeal. Some self-destructed (Bachmann, Perry, Cain) some fizzled (Pawlenty, Huntsman) and some ended up talking to themselves (Gingrich, Santorum and Paul). That group was tailor-made for the patient-but-ruthless, well-resourced, and “grown-up” Romney. The GOP primary voter wanted love, but what they really wanted was to win. Romney built a Presidential-looking battleship, and they signed on.
The second is more personal. Many Republicans are united in hatred of a mythological Obama. They really believe the most fevered fantasies of the wildest paranoiacs. In the primary, that’s just fine. But the general election is different; you are preaching to a different choir. What will prized independent and undecided voters react to? More importantly, what myth sells?
Myth making is part of pretty much every high profile campaign. Professionals may call it something else, “narrative”, but at rock bottom, it is a story, either buffed up or muddied up, depending on the teller. Myth is long on images and short on details. Mitt has his own personal Myth; business titan, successful governor, Olympics savior, and deeply caring and compassionate man.
Obama, of course, had his chosen Myth: healer, Nobelist, above party, all the “hopey-changy” stuff. The Hope Myth ran right into the realities of governing, of running two wars, Obama’s personal shortcomings, and a wolf pack of an opposition. The Hope Myth is dead, and Obama knows it. The Obama narrative is now down to two things; his actual record, which is mixed, and the GOP mythical Obama-as-the-alien-socialist-eroder-of-military-and-moral-strength-monster-under-the-bed.
Monster Obama is shorthand for the GOP, and the perfect dog whistle for the base. They love sticking pins into their Obama Voodoo Doll. It was just this past week that Kansas (the entire state) agree to look past Obama's parentage and let him on the ballot. But Monster Obama has led to laziness in thinking, including in the Romney campaign, which sees it as the Occam’s Razor to all challenges. Obama is always wrong, and he’s a Monster to boot.
So, what’s not working? Well, not everyone hears the dog-whistle. There are a lot of voters out there who haven’t made up their minds yet, but don’t buy the Monster label. They see Obama as flawed and as his record as mixed, just not a Monster. So, seeking better, they ask themselves two simple questions of Romney. What kind of person is he, and what are his plans for them and the country?
That’s where Mitt runs into trouble. He doesn’t want to disclose his plans, and Ryan is under similar constraints. He’s clearly concerned that the details might be unpopular with many of those he hopes to convince. And, as to his feelings towards the general electorate, well, earlier this week a video surfaced of a Romney fundraiser with private equity types in which he tells his listeners that Obama supporters are “the 47 percent…who are dependent on government, who believe they are victims, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it.”
Ouch. 47% of us are moochers. That’s a lot of contempt for one Presidential candidate.
And, did I mention that Obama is a Monster? If not, I'm sure it will come up again.