Live on a quiet side street in the middle of Hollywood long enough – almost twenty years now – and everything seems to be one movie or another. This place is where they were all made and the tour busses roll through all the time. Those houses on North Orange Grove were the ones the Halloween movies, and that motel on Las Palmas is the one from the last scene in Pretty Woman, and Blazing Saddles ends at the Chinese Theater just down the street, and so on and so forth. Every corner looks familiar, because it is. There are those movies where you see the gritty mean docks of Manhattan or Jersey, which were shot down in San Pedro, on the waterfront, by the old warehouses. That small leafy New England college town is Claremont out here – they keep the palm trees out of the frame – and the Wild West is the north side of the San Fernando Valley. You recognize the rock formations, not the adjacent strip mall. That was digitally removed. It’s no wonder you always feel like you’re in some half-remembered movie, without a script of course. It’s disconcerting, and it also frames your thoughts. You sort of know the plot. There aren’t that many of them – boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back, or someone finally grows up, or some hero saves the world, and gets the girl too. Things work out as expected and somehow, in the end, all is right with the world.
Life isn’t like that, as everyone knows, but it’s hard not to fall into that mindset – there are too many visual cues. All of life becomes some half-remembered movie, and the only way to break the spell is to remember some obscure and subversive movie, like the little-known 1999 Jamie Babbitt movie But I’m a Cheerleader – a surreal girl meets girl, girl loses girl, girl gets girl back satire. It’s not what you would expect. The happy and seemingly normal high school cheerleader is actually neither of those things, and her friends and family are convinced that it must be because she’s a raging lesbian in denial. Actually she is, and they arrange a hoot of an intervention and send her to a bizarre and dreamlike residential inpatient reparative therapy camp, to cure her. It doesn’t work, because it cannot work, and true love triumphs. The whole thing is way cool, even if the smarmy God-Hates-Gays characters and the other smug fools are a bit broadly-drawn. Still, it’s a movie that breaks the endless loop of the expected.
That may be the movie we’re in now, one where the smug tell the rest of us there’s something wrong with us and something drastic must be done, for our own good. Think of it as a parable for the final fifty or so days of this year’s presidential campaign, where all sorts of odd things are happening – things that we are told are for our own good, even if we don’t realize it. For example, the incumbent Republican Senators just killed a veterans’ jobs bill, as Steve Benen explains here:
The bill needed 60 votes to advance. The final tally was 58 to 40, and all 40 opponents of the proposal were Republicans.
As proposals go, this should have been a no-brainer. The Veterans Job Corps Act of 2012, sponsored by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), sought to lower unemployment among military veterans, giving grants to federal, state, and local agencies, which in turn would hire veterans – giving priority to those who served on or after 9/11 – to work as first-responders and in conservation jobs at national parks.
The bill was fully paid for, and entirely bipartisan – Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) had his own set of ideas for the bill, and Murray incorporated all of them into her legislation.
And yet, all but five Senate Republicans voted to kill it anyway, 48 days before a national election. Even Burr sided with his party to defeat the bill, and it was filled with his provisions.
Yes, that’s crazy, and the New York Times’ Lawrence Downs says the only clear rationale for the Republicans killing the bill was “denying the Obama administration any kind of victory this year, regardless of the cost to jobless vets.” Maybe so, but there could be other reasons we might be offered. Republicans might argue that all combat vets, like all soldiers, hate wimpy Obama and they’ll gladly pay the price of being unemployed to make him lose again in congress and thus lose the presidency. Or maybe we’ll hear this is really Obama’s fault, because he failed to do his job and work with congress, and thus he couldn’t get the sixty votes to break the Republican filibuster – Obama just didn’t try hard enough, so it’s his fault. Or maybe they’ll pull a Romney and say these vets aren’t like the forty-seven percent of the country who want to play victim and have no sense of personal responsibility and don’t want to make anything of their lives – these guys aren’t “takers” from others. They didn’t want these programs anyway. They don’t whine that the country owes them anything at all. They take personal responsibility for themselves, as we all should.
There are lots of ways to spin this but Lawrence Downs is probably right – passing the bill would be seen as a win for Obama. It’s a cost-benefit calculation. Blowing off the vets looks bad – hell, it looks awful – but a win for Obama would look worse. One assumes most vets just shrug. Everyone knows how politics work. The smug intervene and real folks get hurt, but life goes on.
It’s just that there’s a whole lot of smugness in the air, like in the obscure cheerleader movie, even if it was a broad and rather simple satire. In fact, Michael Kinsley calls Mitt Romney a cartoon conservative:
Ayn Rand, the favorite author of many geeky teenage boys (who generally grow out of it) and Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan (who didn’t), combines an extreme libertarian capitalist message with a high-Soviet-propaganda literary style. This makes parody fairly easy.
Still, it would be hard to top Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee. His Ayn Rand imitation in remarks at a private fundraiser last May, caught on video and posted on the Web by Mother Jones, is pitch-perfect. Romney observes that 47% of Americans don’t pay taxes and yet feel that they are victims, entitled to have all their basic needs – housing, food, healthcare – supplied by the government. This nicely captures the contempt that Rand had, and that Romney apparently shares, for those who don’t make it to the top of the success ladder.
Romney later said that his point was “not elegantly stated,” but he’s being modest: It was a perfectly elegant summary of the views of a cartoon conservative, which is what Romney took his audience to be full of.
It seems everyone sees that, as the media are ripping him apart and even key conservatives, like Reagan former speechwriter, Peggy Noonan, who is calling for an intervention:
It’s time to admit the Romney campaign is an incompetent one. It’s not big, it’s not brave, it’s not thoughtfully tackling great issues. It’s always been too small for the moment.
Mitt can say but, but, but… but I’m a cheerleader! He isn’t:
Today at a speech in New York with what seemed like many conservatives and Republicans in the audience, I said more or less the above. I wondered if anyone would say, in the Q&A, “I think you’ve got it wrong, you’re too pessimistic.” No one did. A woman asked me to talk about why in a year the Republicans couldn’t lose, the Republican candidate seems to be losing.
I said pre-mortems won’t help, if you want to help the more conservative candidate, it’s a better use of your time to pitch in with ideas. There’s seven weeks to go. This isn’t over – it’s possible to make things better.
And she had ideas:
Wake this election up. Wade into the crowd, wade into the fray, hold a hell of a rally in an American city – don’t they count anymore? A big, dense city with skyscrapers like canyons, crowds and placards, and yelling. All of our campaigning now is in bland suburbs and tired hustings. How about: New York, New York, the city so nice they named it twice? You say the state’s not in play? It’s New York. Our media lives here, they’ll make it big. How about downtown Brooklyn, full of new Americans? Guys – make it look like there’s an election going on. Because there is!
Romney doesn’t seem like a Brooklyn kind of guy, but Brooklyn is probably better than a residential inpatient reparative therapy camp. You can see why the intervention scene from the cheerleader movie came to mind, but some Republicans are really upset that Romney is spending too much time raising money and not enough time holding rallies:
“There’s not really a campaign here,” said one Republican with extensive ties to the party’s fundraising community. “He’s getting ready for the debates, and he’s out fundraising. You’ve got enough money!”
Intervention advice is cheap. “Romney needs a big idea, and then he needs to shift the debate to spending,” comes from the Republican strategist Greg Strimple – but he had no idea what that one big idea might be, just that Mitt needs one. Noonan is similarly vague:
What should Mitt Romney do now? He should peer deep into the abyss. He should look straight into the heart of darkness where lies a Republican defeat in a year the Republican presidential candidate almost couldn’t lose. He should imagine what it will mean for the country, for a great political philosophy, conservatism, for his party and, last, for himself. He must look down unblinkingly.
And then he needs to snap out of it, and move.
Was this in the cheerleader movie? It sort of seems so, but Jonathan Chait sets things straight:
But where would he find this abyss? Is there one for sale? And what if he accidentally blinks? Does he have to start over? Would a series of shorter, more-shallow peeks into the abyss possibly help, perhaps if he scheduled fund-raisers in between?
This is becoming an intervention-satire, and Michael Barbaro reports this:
Mitt Romney’s traveling press secretary walked to the back of the candidate’s plane midflight on Tuesday and teasingly asked a pair of journalists in an exit row if they were “willing and able to assist in case of an emergency.”
Under the circumstances, it was hard to tell whether it was a question or a request.
A palpably gloomy and openly frustrated mood has begun to creep into Mr. Romney’s campaign for president. Well practiced in the art of lurching from public relations crisis to public relations crisis, his team seemed to reach its limit as it digested a ubiquitous set of video clips that showed their boss candidly describing nearly half of the country’s population as government-dependent “victims,” and saying that he would “kick the ball down the road” on the biggest foreign policy challenge of the past few decades, the Palestinian-Israeli peace process.
Grim-faced aides acknowledged that it was an unusually dark moment, made worse by the self-inflicted, seemingly avoidable nature of the wound. In low-volume, out-of-the-way conversations, a few of them are now wondering whether victory is still possible and whether they are entering McCain-Palin ticket territory.
It’s just sad:
Mr. Romney himself seemed pensive on the early-morning flight Tuesday from California to Utah, sitting alone with a white legal pad and a pen as he picked at a vegetarian breakfast burrito. An aide said that he had eaten dinner alone in his hotel room the night before as the video controversy began to unfold.
And then he sent out his wife to tell American that Mitt really doesn’t distain the poor at all – it just kind of sounded that way, but she knows the guy after all. And then there was this – someone must have tampered with the tape from May, because Romney really didn’t rule out the possibility of the two-state solution with Israel and Palestine and argue that anything but staunch support of Israel would be futile. Sure, it sound like he said that, if you listened to his exact words, but someone took out the good part where he said there was still hope for that two-state thing. You had to trust him on that. It just wasn’t fair not to.
Yeah, sure – whatever – and there was this:
Mitt Romney said Wednesday that he would represent “100%” of Americans, striving to dampen a controversy that has dogged him since Monday, when video surfaced of him saying nearly half the nation’s voters were dependent on the government and would never support him because he would not be able to convince them to take responsibility for their lives.
“My campaign is about the 100% in America. And I am concerned about them. I am concerned about the fact that over the past four years, life has become harder for Americans,” Romney said. “… this campaign is about helping people who need help, and right now, the people who are poor in this country need help getting out of poverty. The people in the middle class need help because their incomes have gone down every year for the last four years.”
Forget what he said about the forty-seven percent. He’s for everyone, really. You could almost hear the words. But I’m a cheerleader!
It’s not working. All that was followed by a new national Pew Research poll – data from September 12-16 (before the damaging May video was in the news) that shows Obama opening up an eight-point lead among likely voters, this time also topping fifty percent. Pew notes that the same poll at this point in 2008 showed Obama and McCain even at forty-six percent. And now that “enthusiasm gap” favoring Romney is gone:
Democratic voters are now as likely as Republicans to say they have given quite a lot of thought to the election and are following campaign news as closely. Democratic voters also are as committed to voting, and as certain of their vote, as are their GOP counterparts.
Obama’s at forty-three percent among white voters, and now leads Romney among independents and white non-Hispanic Catholics. Those last two categories won’t automatically swing the Republicans’ way this year, and here’s the overall picture:
At this stage in the campaign, Barack Obama is in a strong position compared with past victorious presidential candidates. With an eight-point lead over Mitt Romney among likely voters, Obama holds a bigger September lead than the last three candidates who went on to win in November, including Obama four years ago. In elections since 1988, only Bill Clinton, in 1992 and 1996, entered the fall with a larger advantage.
Not only does Obama enjoy a substantial lead in the horserace, he tops Romney on a number of key dimensions. His support is stronger than his rival’s, and is positive rather than negative. Mitt Romney’s backers are more ardent than they were pre-convention, but are still not as enthusiastic as Obama’s. Roughly half of Romney’s supporters say they are voting against Obama rather than for the Republican nominee. With the exception of Bill Clinton in 1992, candidates lacking mostly positive backing have lost in November.
Also see Poll: Obama Surges In Wisconsin, Leads Romney By 14 and Senate GOP Leaders Flee Questions On Romney and Paul Ryan Struggles To Defend Romney’s ‘Victim’ Epithet and so on. This is why Peggy Noonan was calling for an intervention. It might be time.
It would be time for an intervention if life were a cartoon or a satiric movie, but as David Brooks pointed out, this is serious stuff:
Romney’s comments also reveal that he has lost any sense of the social compact….The Republican Party, and apparently Mitt Romney, too, has shifted over toward a much more hyper-individualistic and atomistic social view – from the Reaganesque language of common citizenship to the libertarian language of makers and takers. There’s no way the country will trust the Republican Party to reform the welfare state if that party doesn’t have a basic commitment to provide a safety net for those who suffer for no fault of their own.
And Jonathan Cohn argues here that things are more subtle than they seem at first glance:
The fact that the entitlement state has grown shouldn’t, by itself, alarm us. It’s actually a sign of progress, because it’s a reminder that the government has stepped in to do what the market would not. We saw, in the years before Social Security, what the world looks like when seniors don’t have adequate pensions. And we saw, in the years before Medicare and Medicaid and (now) the Affordable Care Act, what the world looks like when people can’t afford to pay their medical bills. It was not pretty. But the price for addressing those failures was the creation of some massive government programs. They cost a lot of money, yes, but we all benefit from them at some point, as Mark Schmitt noted in his essay: “Most of us, other than the permanently disabled, are givers and takers to government, because that’s what it is to be part of a community or a nation.”
Cohn prefers reality to cartoons:
If the polls are right, the voters today are pretty skeptical of government, at least relative to what they were up through the 1960s. But the voters also believe government should make sure the elderly and poor have health care. They believe government should provide pensions through Social Security. They even believe government should guarantee that everybody has food and shelter, as the Washington Post’s Suzy Khimm pointed out on Tuesday. With any luck, Romney’s controversial comments will get people to think about these contradictions – and to realize that they like government a lot more than they seem to realize.
The Suzy Khimm item had the pure data – poll after polls shows most everyone agrees the government should guarantee that everybody at least has food and shelter, and much of the rest. What is Mitt Romney cheerleading for?
You can see what he’s cheerleading for when he cites that 1998 clip from Obama:
There’s a tape that came out just a couple of days ago where the president said yes he believes in redistribution. I don’t. I believe the way to lift people and help people have higher incomes is not to take from some and give to others but to create wealth for all.
This is what Obama said:
I actually believe in some redistribution, at least at a certain level to make sure that everybody’s got a shot.
Andrew Sullivan comments:
This is not socialism. It’s about trying to ensure that “everybody’s got a shot.” It’s centrist American liberalism. But Romney cannot back away from his 47 percent speech, or he loses the base. He can’t intensify it, either, because of increasing damage from independents. So he’s trying to make the whole thing some condescending message on why he’s an American in his economic philosophy and Obama isn’t.
He’s trying to make the whole thing into a cartoonish movie, actually, and he should leave such things to Hollywood. That’s what we do out here, and we really do know it is all nonsense. Peggy Noonan may want to stage an intervention because Mitt is in denial. And Mitt may resist – “But I’m a CHEERLEADER!” But that was just a silly movie. Watch it sometime. It’s a hoot.