Nothing is Unprecedented

Parents and teachers all know the general rule about dealing with adolescents in deep distress, when the kid is sure his or her world is falling apart. Yes, it isn’t falling apart – one bad grade or one lost game, even if it’s a championship game, or not having a date for the prom or whatever, is not the apocalypse – nor is not getting into Harvard. It’s not like they’ll never be happy ever again. These things happen to all people all the time and they’ll get over it – you make whatever adjustments are necessary and move on. It’s just that you don’t say that to the kid, and you certainly don’t say you know just how they feel, even if you do. That’s the rule. They don’t want to hear that. They want to feel unique and thus somehow important – no one has ever had such an awful thing happen to them ever before in the history of the world and so. Disabuse them of that notion, quite logically, and you’ll face a few months of seething resentment – so let them wallow in what they think is their utterly unique misery. Avoid implying that they’re not all that unique and really not particularly important. They’ll figure that out all on their own later, as we all do, because it’s true. And sooner or later they’ll also figure out there’s not much new in the world.

On the other hand, some things do seem new this year – you’ll see big thinkers on cable news, except on Fox News, saying the Mitt Romney is clearly the worst presidential candidate this nation has seem in living memory, and the polling confirms that:

A review of Pew Research Center and Gallup favorability ratings from September finds that Romney is the only presidential candidate over the past seven election cycles to be viewed more unfavorably than favorably.

No one has ever had such an awful thing happen to them ever before – even the losers in all the past elections had approval ratings over fifty percent, if only by a little. Someone liked them. But that’s not the case with Mitt Romney, and at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen, Tod Kelly is amazed:

Of all the presidential elections I have ever witnessed, this is by far the strangest – and Romney’s campaign is the most obviously troubled. Think of all of the moves he has made over the past couple of months, long after having shored up the Republican nomination: He picked Paul Ryan, the darling wunderkind of the far right of his base, and he felt forced to do it way too early. He’s advocated preemptive war against Iran. He traveled to Europe and insulted them, then travelled to Israel and insulted the Palestinians. He’s gone above and beyond to paint himself (fallaciously, in my opinion) as the most socially conservative guy in the room. And now he seems poised to double down on his 47% gaffe, regardless of how it plays out to that part of America that doesn’t get its news from FOX, Limbaugh or Beck.

Romney did say forty-seven percent of the country simply wants to play victim and have no sense of personal responsibility and they don’t want to make anything of their lives – they’re just “takers” from others – and Kelly gets that:

In other words, he is working his ass off to make sure that the base of his own party is willing to vote for him in November – even though he’s running against an incumbent his party views as the anti-Christ, in a bad economy with high unemployment.

We’re in uncharted waters here:

Has this ever happened before in the modern-media age? Has a major-party Presidential candidate ever had to focus so much energy on getting his own party to be willing to vote for him? Last November, I would have bet you many rounds of top-shelf scotch that by now the GOP’s candidate would have been tacking to the center so hard and fast he or she would be breaking all kinds of land-speed records. But ironically, the only electable candidate of that entire bunch may turn out to be the least electable of all, because his party’s base doesn’t trust him enough to let him tack anywhere but further right. (And trust me on this – after attending last weekend’s Values Voter Summit I can assure you that the base does not like Mitt Romney, and they do not trust him – at all.)

This is pretty bizarre, and it’s no wonder many in the party are calling for an intervention – not that it would do any good. All the advice is vague – be brave, be yourself, or damn it, don’t be yourself, or figure out who you are. At least no one is telling him they know just how he feels. Maybe nothing is unprecedented, but maybe this is the exception to the rule.

This is where you would turn to history, for precedent, but Slate’s David Weigel suggests that’s tricky:

In May of 1970, when he was a young former journalist working for the White House, Pat Buchanan offered President Richard Nixon some tips that he’d never stop using. “I strongly endorse symbolic gestures toward groups,” wrote Buchanan, “especially the blacks where symbols count for so much.” In order to divide the country effectively, Nixon had to pretend that he wasn’t dividing it at all. “The President is President of all the people and while they will never vote for us, we must never let them come to believe we don’t give a damn about them – or that they are outside our province of concern.”

Forty-two years and four months later, an older, more widow-peaked Buchanan appeared on Fox News to explain the leaked video of Mitt Romney talking to donors. Had Romney stumbled when he wrote off the “47 percent” of voters too dependent to vote Republican? No, said Buchanan. “Barack Obama is a drug dealer of welfare. He wants permanent dependency, in my judgment, of all these folks.”

Ah, what worked before won’t work now:

The younger, wiser Buchanan argued that a president (presidential candidate, in this case) should avoid telling voters just how much he needs them to splinter if he’s going to win. The new Buchanan, who’s been a pundit since Paul Ryan was listening to Led Zeppelin on a Walkman, is ready for a guns-a-blazing debate about lazy moochers versus broad-shouldered job creators.

Yes, have that debate. That seems to be the advice now, because now there may be no choice, as Weigel suggests it’s probably no more than the best of what are just bad options:

First of all, what would he gain if he said he was lying to a bunch of gullible rich people? And second, there’s a team of conservatives giving him terrible advice, telling him to make a general election message out of this story.

They’re saying what Pat Buchanan is saying. “Any Republican running for president has to acknowledge we’re not going to get that 47 percent of the electorate,” said Ann Coulter, who’s promoting a new book this month. “We could probably tell 40 states it’s very expensive, you don’t really need to vote. We just need to have 10 states vote. They’re the only one who we’re not sure about.”

On his Tuesday night show – the first to mention the tape – Sean Hannity credited Romney with “one of his sharpest critiques yet of President Obama and the entitlement society that he enables” and insisted that “conservatives and fiscally conscious Americans are applauding Governor Romney’s statements.” On his radio show, Rush Limbaugh called the video “a golden opportunity,” because “work is how you become independent,” and voters needed someone to tell them.

Romney may be stuck with this argument, and any attempts to back away – there have been a few – will just anger his base – and Talking Points Memo’s Brian Beutler explains the long history of the general idea here:

The tensions between haves and have-nots have been colored in the United States by a strand of upper class paranoia that the lower and middle classes, through sheer power in numbers, would use democratic means to redistribute wealth downward – to essentially vote themselves all the rich peoples’ money.

That’s fueled political fights bearing eerie resemblances to the one between Romney and Obama about the beleaguered 47 percent. In this 1972 Richard Nixon campaign ad attacking George McGovern, even the numbers are the same.

Yep, watch the Nixon ad – and then move forward:

Just before the 2000 election a quote of disputed provenance began circulating on the Internet, then in its early adolescence.

“A democracy is always temporary in nature; it simply cannot exist as a permanent form of government. A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover that they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse due to loose fiscal policy, which is always followed by a dictatorship.”

In 2002, the Wall Street Journal published a now-infamous op-ed called “The Non-Taxpaying Class,” which described working class people with no effective federal income tax burden as “lucky duckies.”

It just goes on and on, all the way through Obama’s famous encounter with “Joe the Plumber” and the McCain ads that used that footage. There’s nothing new under the sun:

By May, when he made his secretly videotaped remarks to donors, Romney had locked up the nomination and built a line of attack against Obama for wanting to shape the country to foster “equality of outcome” – effectively a massive cash transfer from wealthy and upper middle class people to the poorer half of society – rather than “equality of opportunity.”

That’s not quite the same as saying people who pay no income taxes have been lulled into a state of dependency. And it’s definitely not the same as claiming those people will all ultimately vote for Obama. But it has common philosophical roots.

The only difference this time is no one particularly likes Romney, even those on his side. But of course there’s precedent for that too, as Jack Shafer argues that Mitt Romney is really Dick Nixon:

Like Nixon, Romney is not only at war with the Democrats but also with the base of his own party, which has never been convinced that he’s a true conservative. Both Nixon and Romney have dressed their pragmatist campaigns in conservative clothing, but with the exception of their cultural biases against sex, drugs and pornography – and their instinctual disrespect for disrespecters of authority – none of it has ever rung true. The stink of inauthenticity wafts so heavily from both that their early biographers have incorporated it into the titles of their books, as historian David Greenberg pointed out to me in an interview. The Real Romney, published this year, and 1960′s The Real Nixon, both posit that what you see is not what you get with these two men.

Shafer relays this from David Greenberg:

Romney is the most patently phony presidential candidate since Nixon. The most talented politicians express a natural ease, by backslapping or chit-chatting with people. Nixon and Romney don’t have that skill, but they try anyway.

Shafer adds this:

The failures of Nixon and Romney to connect, to seem “real” or to appear likable have resulted in both doubling their efforts to be personable and human, making even the sympathetic cringe.

Reagan’s former speechwriter, Peggy Noonan, is certainly cringing quite a bit, but Shafer takes us back and shows us we’ve cringed before:

The camera hated Nixon, and it showed. In 1968, Roger Ailes, now head of Fox News Channel, worked on the Nixon campaign as a consultant and improved the candidate’s stagecraft. Yet the camera still magnified Nixon’s internal discontent. Romney, a more handsome version of Nixon, doesn’t sweat or glower when facing the lens, but press encounters tend to give him the yips, jamming his efforts to pave a communications groove with voters. Like Nixon, Romney reflexively despises the press, which he blamed for the disaster that was his July foreign policy trip.

Stagecraft, however, isn’t the real problem. We’ve been here before. There’s a problem when there’s nothing there:

Had either Nixon or Romney grounded himself in ideology – conservative or otherwise – realness wouldn’t be as conspicuous a problem. They’d be dull politicians, reciting from their catechisms like Rick Santorum, if you seek a flesh-and-blood example. But say what you will, nobody ever doubted whether Santorum had an anchor, and nobody will ever write a book titled The Real Santorum. Pragmatists like Nixon and Romney, who have few core beliefs beyond the personal, require staff pollsters and strategists to tell them where they should be on issues.

Thus Shafer thinks that those who keep saying that the Mother Jones video reveals the true and inner nasty Romney, and that we should all be appalled, just don’t get it:

If only that were true! He doesn’t even have that conviction. As a pragmatist politician speaking to wealthy donors behind closed doors, Romney is content to say what they want to hear: That the 47 percent are parasites and the donors are exalted beings.

Like Nixon, this Nixon 2.0 says what he feels he must:

Romney owes much of his early campaign reputation as an unprincipled waffling weasel to his major accomplishment as governor of Massachusetts, Romneycare. Romney distanced himself from the measure during the primaries, as the Washington Post reported in early August, but once he secured the nomination, his campaign cited the legislation as a political plus, evidence that he had the skills to “reform” the healthcare industry. This sort of calculated duplicity brings us back to Nixon, who campaigned as a conservative but who once in the White House supported the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, wage and price controls, Amtrak, affirmative action and other codicils to Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.

You just never know what you’ll get:

What does Romney really care about? He’s been running for president non-stop, since 2007, and I still haven’t a clue.

It was the same way with Nixon. He went to China? No one saw that coming. But of course we lived through Nixon. No, wait – Vietnam, Kent State – not everyone lived through Nixon. Precedents can be tricky. And tricky men, whose real beliefs are hidden behind convenient words, can be tricky too, as Ezra Klein points out in this piece:

Still, for my money, the worst of Romney’s comments were these: “My job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

When he said this, Romney didn’t just write off half the country behind closed doors. He also confirmed the worst suspicions about who he is: an entitled rich guy with no understanding of how people who aren’t rich actually live.

The thing about not having much money is you have to take much more responsibility for your life. You can’t pay people to watch your kids or clean your house or fix your meals. You can’t necessarily afford a car or a washing machine or a home in a good school district. That’s what money buys you: goods and services that make your life easier.

That’s what money has bought Romney, too. He’s a guy who sold his dad’s stock to pay for college, who built an elevator to ensure easier access to his multiple cars and who was able to support his wife’s decision to be a stay-at-home mom. That’s great! That’s the dream.

The problem is that he doesn’t seem to realize how difficult it is to focus on college when you’re also working full time, how much planning it takes to reliably commute to work without a car, or the agonizing choices faced by families in which both parents work and a child falls ill. The working poor haven’t abdicated responsibility for their lives. They’re drowning in it.

Heather Parton (Digby) says just consider how detached from common sense Romney is here:

I’ve always found it so amusing that the right-wingers believe, for instance, that illegal immigrants are all on welfare. Clearly, they have no idea how many hoops one has to go through to get on the rolls and neither have they ever considered the absurdity of the idea that people who live in daily fear of the authorities would walk willingly into a government building and submit themselves to close inspection by security and government bureaucrats. They are convinced that these people are in the US to take advantage of our allegedly generous welfare benefits – and to steal our jobs. But they are still lazy Mexicans who don’t know the meaning of a hard day’s work.

They truly believe that they work harder than anyone else, that their lives are more complicated, that they are the ones who are doing everything, while the poor have it easy. I used to hear it from the wives of Hollywood executives who literally spent their days getting pampered from head to toe by immigrants who worked 80 hours a week and made less than minimum wage. I could never tell if they really believed it or if they just had to say it out loud in order to live with themselves. I suspected the former. There was not the tiniest bit of self-awareness in their complaints.

We’ve been here before:

This is the dark side of America’s Puritan work ethic. In order to justify their wealth the upper classes must pretend that those who are poorer have done it to themselves through their laziness and sloth. Otherwise, they wouldn’t “deserve” what they have and their whole value system would collapse.

That may be so, but it’s nothing new. Romney may be the worst presidential candidate this nation has seen in living memory, making one disastrous mistake after another, week after week and sometimes two or three times a week, with a party who chose him but loathes him, and with views that the nation finds repellant and his own party, save for the nasty few, finds embarrassing and must be explained away, views which Romney may or may not believe anyway, depending on the day – but maybe he’s not so special. Things have been trending this way since Nixon. He’s really not that unique. There’s precedent for everything. Only callow adolescents believe otherwise.

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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 Nothing is Unprecedented

  1. Doubting Thomas says:

    From a UK perspective, I can see that Romney wants the Presidency badly (as it turns out in both senses of the word) but I struggle to see what he wants it for. Pretty well every candidate I have read about and seen indirectly through our media here had some belief, some underlying drive which they could communicate. With Reagan it was to reduce government; with Clinton it was to improve the lives of Americans and so on but all seemed to make their pitch for all. I suppose that Romney’s statement to his fund raisers that he was not going to do anything for the 47% suggests government for the rich by the rich of the poor; perhaps that’s it and I need look no further for his motives but they seem both base and selfish for a man who seems to be a high heid yin in his religion.

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