Mitt Romney and the Art of Improvisation

It’s something you learn as a young jazz musician, before you discover you’re really not very good and no matter how hard you try you never will be. You learn that improvisation is hard. No matter how solid your tone and technique, or how cool you think your ideas are, there’s a lot of theory involved, or there is now. Unless you’re always playing three-chord twelve-bar blues, well, things get tricky. There are odd chords, often inverted, changing rapidly, and even if Miles Davis showed us all how to run the modes, sometimes running up and down Dorian goes nowhere and some things just don’t fit – and then Phrygian mode doesn’t work either. Damn. There are wrong notes that sound just awful, so you have to be careful, and it gets really painful with something like that Bobby Hebb tune Sunny – there each new thirty-two bars moves up a half-step, so you have to improvise in all thirteen keys, one right after the others. Ouch. You can’t just use your ear and wing it. Only someone who’s an absurdly talented natural can do that, and there are few of those. Maybe they’re mutants. The rest of us come up with real clinkers, quite regularly. The trick is to pretend you really meant that weird note that seemed so jarring. You meant to play just that and that clearly unsophisticated audience out there just isn’t hip enough to get it. It was a defiant statement. You’re cool. No one else is.

Don’t laugh – it works. People do step back in awe, except for the rest of the guys on stage with you. They just roll their eyes. They know it’s a scam, but they also know you’ve pulled off that scam and they grin too – and of course there’s a life-lesson in all this. When you’re riffing on any topic at all, improvising on the fly, there will be clinkers. Just pretend you actually meant that boneheaded thing you just said, and then assume the pose that the stunned narrow fools listening to what you said simply don’t get it. They don’t understand how cool and insightful you really are. In short, you double-down – you know, like Mitt Romney.

The political world exploded Monday with the release of that tape of Mitt Romney riffing on general Republican themes at a private fundraiser last May in Florida – previously discussed here – where he was essentially trolling for dollars. It was casual. He was improvising, running the changes as jazz guys say, laying new melodies over the fixed structure at hand. It’s just that he managed to say that half the country was a bunch of parasites, happy to vote for Obama because they liked getting something for nothing from the government, paid for by rich guys like him and the others in the room – and that they were a lost cause. They loved playing victim and there was nothing he could do to makes them assume personal responsibility and take care of their own damned lives – so screw them. They were hopeless. He’d go after the few undecided independents and win this damned thing. And he also mentioned things would be easier if he were Latino – minorities always get all the breaks, they always get the benefit of the doubt.

That last bit will not endear him to the Hispanics, the fastest growing demographic of the electorate, but it was probably an indirect jab at Obama, who wouldn’t be president if he were not black, as he would never gotten into Columbia or Harvard Law either. That was the real implication. White rich guys always get the shaft. His audience laughed. They assumed it was true. They knew it was true. They know they’re opposed and held down.

It’s a convenient fiction, shared by these folks to make them feel better about themselves and better than those useless others – and they were playing victim of course. There’s no need to point out the irony, and he rest of it wasn’t true either. The New York Times’ resident thoughtful conservative, David Brooks, put it best with this slam:

Sure, there are some government programs that cultivate patterns of dependency in some people. I’d put federal disability payments and unemployment insurance in this category. But, as a description of America today, Romney’s comment is a country-club fantasy. It’s what self-satisfied millionaires say to each other. It reinforces every negative view people have about Romney.

Even the intellectual apologist for all things neoconservative and everything Republican, William Kristol, joined other mainstream conservatives who were not at all pleased, writing in his flagship Weekly Standard:

It remains important for the country that Romney wins in November (unless he chooses to step down and we get the Ryan-Rubio ticket we deserve!). But that shouldn’t blind us to the fact that Romney’s comments, like those of Obama four years ago, are stupid and arrogant.

Yeah, Obama had said some folks who had lost all clung bitterly to the guns and religion, because they had nothing else left, which was stupid and arrogant – but Obama said he wanted to go sell himself to those folks, to offer them at least a little hope. Romney said he’d just write off the parasites. There is a difference as Romney said this:

My job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

Andrew Sullivan says that Romney saying these folks love to think of themselves as “victims” is the real problem here:

They couldn’t even be convinced to take care of themselves, as long as they can get government handouts? Romney thinks that applies to almost one in two Americans. Or to put it bluntly: the real crime of 47 percent of Americans is their laziness – and then they have the gall to whine about the One Percent. He is using the key argument of racists against African-Americans through the ages against 47 percent of the country. That’s the equivalent of calling a lot of old white people the n-word.

Sullivan goes on to say it’s more than racism:

Romney’s Randian callousness also goes against the core American grain. Americans do not see themselves as victims, but as potential winners, even in rough times. Romney’s contempt for the 47 percent violates a central tenet of the American dream: anyone can make it. Romney is saying that half the country can’t make it, don’t even want to make it, and are parasites on the rest. Asking for their vote would be like asking children to give up their toys. Why would they?

More to the point: this was a cynical man with a cynical tone different – and more convincing – than his usual stilted public speech. The best defense of it – morally – is that it was designed for an audience of super-rich donors who say these things all the time in private, listen to Rush Limbaugh, and needed to be ginned up. He is whatever he needs to be for each separate audience. He aims to please.

So there are two possibilities: this is the real Romney, a callous cynic with contempt for half the country, the weaker part; or that Romney is a man so empty of human qualities he even has to fake cynicism.

That was unkind. Romney did give that quick damage-control press conference – maybe he put all this inelegantly. But he said he meant it. People should take care of themselves. They government should do nothing for them, so they’ll grow up, or something. In jazz terms, he hit a real clinker as he was improvising, but it really wasn’t a clinker, not really. Cool people get it. The next day Rush Limbaugh said he understood – this could be a “golden opportunity” for Mitt Romney. Romney could lay it all out, offering the true conservative view – there’s no place for parasites in this country. They just want our stuff.

Others were worried, so Scott Brown, the Republican in a tight Senate race in Massachusetts, simply ran for the hills:

That’s not the way I view the world. As someone who grew up in tough circumstances, I know that being on public assistance is not a spot that anyone wants to be in. Too many people today who want to work are being forced into public assistance for lack of jobs.

Scott Brown was not alone – this was toxic stuff down-ticket, except not everyone was running for office, like Laura Ingraham on Fox and Friends:

I’m very pumped up about this. I think it’s ridiculous that people are seizing on it and that we’re even giving all that much airtime to it, frankly.

And there was Matt Lewis at the Daily Caller:

This is basically what he was trying to tell the donor who asked the question: We live in a world of limited resources and campaigns must wisely husband their resources (time and money). Political targeting involves two very politically incorrect things – profiling and discrimination, and Obama and I will do both. We will profile and target persuadable, likely voters for advocacy. We will target supporters for turnout. And, yes, both sides will ignore people we know will never vote for us.

Note: I can say this because I’m not running for president.

Fine, but Romney is running for president, and that’s the problem, so the answer was to get on Fox News right away:

Seeking to shift the attention away from a leaked video from a private fundraiser in which he said he doesn’t have to worry about 47 percent of non-income tax paying Americans, Mitt Romney today sought to draw attention to a 1998 audio clip in which President Obama said he supports redistribution of wealth from “some” to “the others.”

“The president’s view is one of larger government, there’s a tape that came out today where the president’s saying he likes redistribution,” said Romney during an interview with Fox News’ Neil Cavuto, the candidate’s first interview since the leaked videos showed Romney referring to 47 percent of the American people who feel “entitled” and who are “dependent” on government.

“I disagree,” said Romney on the issue of redistribution. “I think a society based upon a government centered nation where government plays a larger and larger role, redistributes money, that’s the wrong course for America.”

Romney was referring to an audio clip of then-Sen. Barack Obama’s speech at a conference at Loyola University in 1998. Obama said at the time that he thinks he does “believe in redistribution.”

“I think the trick is figuring out how do we structure government systems that pool resources and hence facilitate some redistribution, because I actually believe in redistribution, at least at a certain level, to make sure everybody’s got a shot,” Obama said at the time.

See! Obama wants to take your stuff, and everyone should get to keep their stuff. Successful people should get to keep what they earn, all of it. Anything else is un-American, and Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt was having none of it:

“The Romney campaign is so desperate to change the subject that they’ve gone back to the failed playbook co-authored by Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber. Fourteen years ago, then-Senator Obama was making an argument for a more efficient, more effective government – specifically citing city government agencies that he didn’t think were working effectively,” LaBolt said. “He believed then, and believes now, that there are steps we can take to promote opportunity and ensure that all Americans have a fair shot if they work hard. Unlike Governor Romney, he doesn’t believe that if you’re a student who applies for a loan you’re looking for a handout.”

This was getting hot and Ben LaBolt had a point. That Obama quote was from fourteen years ago, about something else. Is that all you’ve got, really?

The short answer is yes. That’s it. When you hit the wrong note you pretend it was the right note, and pretend it was way cool in ways that no one understands, unless they’re cool too. It was for the cognoscenti – those in the know. You just narrow the audience to the unspeakably cool. Alex Seitz-Wald at salon.com suggests that’s just what Team Romney is doing:

It may sound far-fetched, and many voters will undeniably be turned off by his statements, but many others will likely embrace them. The notion that the comments will be entirely harmful is based on the assumption that Romney is focusing on winning over moderate independent voters. But Boston [the Romney campaign] has apparently abandoned that approach in the dramatic strategy change the campaign rolled out this week (off to a great start!). Now, the thinking in Romneyland is, “This is going to be a base election, and we need them to come out to vote.”

Assuming the campaign is correct in believing that appealing to the GOP base over independents is the better strategy (they presumably have lots of internal data to support this conclusion), then it’s easy to see how Romney’s comments could actually be an asset.

There was no wrong note:

“Forty-seven percent of the population is content to be slovenly, lazy takers,” Limbaugh told his 15 million listeners almost a year ago. And conservatives continue to embrace the sentiment today. “I would love for that to be a message for anyone on the stump,” Fox News host Brian Kilmeade said this morning.

Indeed, polling data show an “enormous” partisan division over the question of how much government should help poor people, said Scott Keeter, the director of survey research at the Pew Research Center, “largely because Republicans have become significantly more conservative than in previous years.” Keeter pointed to Pew data showing “partisan differences of 35 points or more in opinions about the government’s responsibility to care for the poor, whether the government should help more needy people if it means adding to the debt and whether the government should guarantee all citizens enough to eat and a place to sleep.

“On all three measures, the percentage of Republicans asserting a government responsibility to aid the poor has fallen in recent years to 25-year lows,” Keeter said. Today, just 40 percent of Republicans agree that the government has a responsibility to “take care of people who can’t take care of themselves,” down 18 points since 2007. This is a shocking contrast from 1987, during Ronald Reagan’s second term, when 62 percent of Republicans agreed government had a responsibility to care for the poor. Indeed, Reagan called the Earned Income Tax Credit, which exempts some low-income earners from paying income tax, “the best antipoverty, the best pro-family, the best job creation measure to come out of Congress.”

Romney was riffing on new chord changes:

Many pundits have pointed out that much of the 47 percent Romney maligned, if not most, are actually Republican voters, such as retired whites who collect Social Security and don’t have other income. But Harvard political scientist Ryan Enos said these people probably won’t be offended by Romney’s comments because Americans’ perceptions of who takes social welfare are often unrelated to reality. “I think there is a good possibility it won’t hurt him and may even help, insofar as these things can help (which probably isn’t very much),” Enos said.

“Insofar as there are undecideds out there, there is some reason to believe that they will not hear this and think Romney is talking about them or even people like them. It has to do with our tendency to have a positive self-image. There are very few people out there that hear the word ‘moocher’ and think it is about them.

Seitz-Wald offers much more of this research. It’s solid:

If Romney has truly given up on winning over independents in favor of turning out his base, then it’s hard to see why they’re wrong. While the Romney camp still would have preferred that the video had never been released, they may nonetheless see a silver lining where everyone else sees only gray.

Maybe so, but David Frum writes this:

The background to so much of the politics of the past four years is the mood of apocalyptic terror that has gripped so much of the American upper class… And what makes it all both so heart-rending and so outrageous is that all this is occurring at a time when economically disadvantaged Americans have never been so demoralized and passive, never exerted less political clout. …

Yet even so, the rich and the old are scared witless! Watch the trailer of Dinesh D’Souza’s new movie to glimpse into their mental universe: chanting swarthy mobs, churches and banks under attack, angry black people grabbing at other people’s houses.

It’s all a scam, but it’s a spectacularly effective scam. Mitt Romney tried to make use of the scam, and now instead he has he fallen victim to it himself.

Here’s the trailer of Dinesh D’Souza’s new movie and Kevin Drum just doesn’t get it:

The last 30 years in the United States have been better for the rich than any other time or place in human history. High-end incomes are up spectacularly. Tax rates are down. Welfare reform has been the law of the land for 15 years. Private sector unions are all but extinct. The wages that business owners pay to their employees have been virtually flat for more than a decade. For the rich, it’s been a golden age. And yet, America’s wealthy class nonetheless seems to be in an absolute fury. The looters want their money, the government is embracing socialism, the president who rescued the banking industry hates them, and their tax dollars are all going to support a bunch of freeloaders and shirkers.

Where does this come from? Why are the very people who have done the best so angry? It’s mystifying.

Maybe it’s something only the unspeakably cool people get, but Heather Parton (Digby) puts it this way:

This also ties into Mitt’s throwback comment about how it would be easier for a Mexican to be elected President (instead of a wealthy, white male with a famous political father.) This delusion of being an oppressed class is becoming pathological. When you’ve got people of vast, vast wealth acting as though the poorest and least of society has huge advantages, you know they’ve gone down the rabbit hole and may not be able to find their way back.

This isn’t about Mitt Romney. He just happens to be the perfect symbol of the American aristocrat’s persecution complex.

Or it’s a new form of post-bop jazz. Heck, no one understood Charlie Parker way back when, playing all those wrong notes, until they weren’t wrong at all. Or perhaps, as the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd, suggests, we do hear actual wrong notes:

Oh, for the days when we thought Mitt Romney didn’t stand for anything…

It’s literally rich: Willard, born on third base and acting self-made, whining to the rich about what a great deal in life the poor have. We thought Romney was secretly pragmatic, but it turns out that he’s secretly cruel, a social Darwinist just like his running mate.

You’d assume that it would be hard now for Romney to resume bashing Obama for demonizing and pandering on class warfare, with lines like he’s been using on the trail: “He and his allies are pushing us all even further apart by dividing us into groups.”

But, even as Mitt was spitefully demonizing and dividing in Boca, he remained cardboard-cutout un-self-aware, musing: “The thing I find most disappointing about this president is his attack of one America against another America.” This is the absolute height of cluelessness.

It seems that there is a danger in improving when you have no natural talent and a tin ear:

After months of doggedly trying to seem more likable, Romney came across as a mean geek, a Cranbrook kid at the country club smugly swaddled in class disdain. He thinks being president is his manifest destiny. His father didn’t make it, so he will – no matter what far-out conservative positions he must graft on. We’re in search of the real Romney. But, disturbingly, so is he.

One thing we have to give Mitt, though: He is, as advertised, a brilliant manager. He’s managed to ensure Obama has a much better chance of re-election.

There are those of us who gave up the minor jazz gigs in small clubs decades ago. The clinkers you couldn’t brazenly pretend were really intentional mounted up, so you packed it in. Maybe Mitt should do the same.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to Mitt Romney and the Art of Improvisation

  1. Russell Sadler says:

    That jazz metaphor is pure genius — one of your best!

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