Long ago, in another age – 1979 actually – the nation was humming along to the hit song of the year, actually named Song of the Year by the Grammy folks, What a Fool Believes – the Doobie Brothers dabbling in a bit of epistemology. You remember epistemology – the branch of philosophy that examines knowledge itself, specifically how we know what we think we know, if we even know it at all, which we probably don’t. It’s hard to be certain of anything in Plato’s Cave – we only see the shadows and not the thing itself and so on – and sometimes even those damned shadows are deceptive. In essence, we kid ourselves a lot, and that was good enough for Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins. They wrote a song that reminds us that what a fool believes is pretty much all he sees, and often that’s a matter of maintaining one’s ego-structure or some such thing. We’re reminded that something is always better than nothing – the alternative is existential despair. There’s a natural human impulse to believe something, anything – life cannot have no meaning at all. So we delude ourselves, like the guy in the song who wants to win back the girl who never gave him a second thought in the first place, or even a first thought. He made it all up, an alternative reality. All this is really quite dismal actually, but the tune was catchy and it had a good back-beat, and Michael Jackson was in one of the backing tracks, maybe. No one knows that for sure either.
Maybe no one knows anything. That’s the sort of thing they discuss in epistemology, or the sort of thing pretentious college freshmen discuss in the dorm room late at night over beer and pizza, or these days what Republicans are discussing as it becomes clear that Mitt Romney is going to lose to Barack Obama in November. The polling is dismal – there seems to be no path to victory for Romney. The swing states are all lining up for Obama – the numbers don’t lie and only the debates remain as a last chance to change the game, as everyone likes to say. Not many think that’s likely. Romney is who he is – bland and careful and earnest, and also disliked even by his own party, and also prone to say odd things, along with saying the opposite of what he said before, on record. He was pro-life and now he isn’t, and some days he’s proud of bringing universal healthcare to Massachusetts and some days he won’t mention it, because it was the model for Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which he will repeal in its entirety, except for the parts he won’t, or will, depending on who he’s talking to and where.
That’s the problem. In these three debates he might be forced to clarify what he really thinks and no one knows what that is on any given topic, not even him these days. Or in one of the debates he might be asked to explain something even more basic – why he wants to be president, what his vision for America is. But even that’s unclear, or so Mom-and-Apple-Pie generalized that it’s silly. He just wants to be president and he’s not Barack Obama – that should be enough. It’s not. Voters don’t seem to want to buy a pig-in-a-poke, even if they think Obama isn’t doing a very good job. At least they know Obama. The other guy is the rich guy who doesn’t think much of anyone who’s not rich and who wants to be president, and that’s about it. It’s hard to make that compelling.
This is where it all turns into the Doobie Brothers song. This shouldn’t be happening and Peter Kirsanow at National Review is wondering why Romney isn’t up by ten points:
Conservatives exhibiting less hysteria do remain puzzled by the polls. After all, the Obama presidency has been a train-wreck of Carter-esque magnitude. Almost every historical predictor shows that Romney should have a sizeable lead: Unemployment is high, consumer confidence is low, two-thirds of voters think the country is on the wrong track, more believe we’re worse off now than we were four years ago, household income has plummeted, gas prices are hovering near record highs, and most voters perceive America to be in decline.
Ed Kilgore offers the possibilities here:
There are really only three ways to deal with all the evidence that Obama is ahead with time beginning to run out: (1) blame it on a bad Romney campaign; (2) argue some 1980-style “big shift” to Romney is inevitable and perhaps already baked into the cake; or (3) just deny it all on grounds most of the pollsters are wrong, biased or both.
Many have done the first – urging Romney to change his ways or calling for an intervention – and the second is wishful thinking and these guys really do know better than to go there. Kilgore notes they’ve chosen the third alternative, almost by default, as the hot story of the moment is the sudden rise of Dean Chambers, the man who is carefully recalculating all the major polls and revising the approval-disapproval numbers. It’s a matter of Party ID weighting – people always undercount Republicans, you see. Dean Chambers adjusted for that and shows that Romney will win in a landslide of historic proportions.
Isn’t it pretty to think so? No wait, that’s Hemingway not the Doobie Brothers. What a fool believes he sees. Kilgore puts it this way:
Aside from the technical arguments over “party ID weighting,” the demands of conservatives for more favorable polls reflects the very strangest of all the phenomena of Campaign 2012, from my perspective: the pathological need of many Republicans to predict victory with a fanatical degree of certainty – yea, with angry hysteria aimed at anyone friend or foe who doubts for a single moment that Republican will win. I’ve yet to entirely figure out whether this is a product of a general point of view intolerant to doubt about anything (this is the party, after all, in which it is entirely acceptable to refer to your mundane political activism as “spiritual warfare” aimed at “Satan”); or is based on a mysterious conviction that a lot of votes turn on who voters think is winning; or is just habitual spin by people who see no particular reason to spend any time conceding they could be wrong about anything.
From a practical point of view, the new mania for “reweighting” polls on the Right effectively removes those conservatives who indulge in it from any meaningful dialogue with the rest of us. But I suspect they are too busy lying to themselves to worry about that.
Think about the guy in the Doobie Brothers song moping about how he lost the girl he never had in the first place. It would be hard to have any meaningful dialogue with him either – but it seems the Romney campaign has enthusiastically embraced the work of Dean Chambers – everyone else is wrong and reality isn’t what everyone else thinks they’re seeing.
Is that so? At Politico, Roger Simon reports this:
Paul Ryan has gone rogue. He is unleashed, unchained, off the hook.
“I hate to say this, but if Ryan wants to run for national office again, he’ll probably have to wash the stench of Romney off of him,” Craig Robinson, a former political director of the Republican Party of Iowa, told The New York Times on Sunday.
Coming from a resident of Iowa, a state where people are polite even to soybeans, this was a powerful condemnation of the Republican nominee.
Though Ryan had already decided to distance himself from the floundering Romney campaign, he now feels totally uninhibited. Reportedly, he has been marching around his campaign bus, saying things like, “If Stench calls, take a message” and “Tell Stench I’m having finger sandwiches with Peggy Noonan and will text him later.”
Simon goes on to chronicle how Romney’s running mate has decided to accept consensus reality, not alternative reality. It’s generally safer to do so. You don’t make a fool of yourself, and no one writes hit sings about you either.
Erick Erickson of RedState is another matter. CNN, slowly dying after a good run of thirty years or so, brings him on to give the fire-breathing red-meat no-compromise right-of-right views on these matters, and Erickson has issued Romney what might be called an ultimatum to those fools who suggested Romney was the best candidate the Republicans had and then somehow had him nominated:
There are a lot of elitist Republicans who have spent several years telling us Mitt Romney was the only electable Republican. Because the opinion makers and news media these elitists hang out with have concluded Romney will not win, the elitists are in full on panic mode. They conspired to shut out others, tear down others, and prop up Romney with the electability argument. He is now not winning against the second coming of Jimmy Carter. They know there will be many conservatives, should Mitt Romney lose, who will not be satisfied until every bridge is burned with these jerks, hopefully with the elitist jerks tied to the bridge as it burns.
So they are in a panic. They are now throwing Romney under the bus to spare themselves. They are now doing the, “It’s not us, it’s him” routine. For years these people have gotten by knowing that they could hold the base of the GOP in contempt while holding on to their precious positions of “thought leaders” within the conservative movement and have no consequence should things go awry.
Not now. They invested too much in Mitt Romney and now they are running scared. They seem to think that if they cry and scream loud enough and point fingers at Mitt Romney, they’ll again be protected from any sort of blame. They think the conservative movement will give them a pass just as the movement did with No Child Left Behind, Medicare Part D, Harriet Miers, TARP, etc.
Erickson is one of those many conservatives who will not be satisfied until every bridge is burned with these jerks who foisted Romney on the party. He’s as bad as Bush! (Times have changed indeed.) And Erickson is on the warpath:
The staggering irony is that those of us who did not want Romney are now the ones defending him to the hilt while the elitist jerks are distancing themselves from Romney as quickly as possible – both upset at what their media friends tell them is to come and upset that Mitt Romney might not actually listen to their sweet whispers as much as they originally presumed.
Reality is a bitch, isn’t in? Someone should write a song about that, although Ed Kilgore offers this view of the future given this nasty intraparty rancor:
All “his” presidential candidates were remorselessly destroyed by Romney and mocked by the “elitists” promoting Mitt. They own this candidacy, and their conservative activist opponents are already positioning themselves to call in the mortgage on Mitt’s many promises to them if he wins – and disclaim responsibility for the whole mess if he loses. So nobody should have a single illusion that Romney will have a “honeymoon” with his own party base if he’s elected, or that Republicans will “move to the center” if Obama is re-elected.
It’s the scenario of a Romney win that is the most theoretically intriguing (if concretely alarming). Unlike John McCain, Romney has almost no independent political capital or personal following (with the sole exception of LDS members). He has long since alienated Democrats beyond any hope of repair. As president, he would be totally dependent on a party base and conservative commentariat that are deeply mistrustful of his intentions. They would spend the transition to a Romney administration securing as many blood pledges as possible, and demanding the heads of the very people Erickson is attacking in this post.
That’s another reality. If we elect Romney in November we get to watch his party fight it out, tooth and claw, to see just who gets to tell him what to do and what to say, minute by minute. It won’t be pretty and Grover Norquist had already explained it:
All we have to do is replace Obama. … We are not auditioning for fearless leader. We don’t need a president to tell us in what direction to go. We know what direction to go. We want the Ryan budget. … We just need a president to sign this stuff. We don’t need someone to think it up or design it. The leadership now for the modern conservative movement for the next twenty years will be coming out of the House and the Senate. …
Pick a Republican with enough working digits to handle a pen to become president of the United States. This is a change for Republicans: the House and Senate doing the work with the president signing bills. His job is to be captain of the team, to sign the legislation that has already been prepared.
There’s another view of reality. We’re having an election about nothing, really. It doesn’t matter who is president. The cat is out of the bag, or there was no pig in the poke, or something. It doesn’t matter what either Romney or Obama says about anything. In fact, Howard Fineman argues that both Romney and Obama are campaigning as if that’s true:
In his Senate office, Barack Obama gave pride of place to a famous sports photo: Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay back then) howling in triumph over the dazed hulk of Sonny Liston, belly-up on the canvas.
Like his boxing hero Ali, Obama is floating like a butterfly – essentially untouched – thus far in his presidential prizefight with Mitt Romney.
And that is not good for anybody: for the country, for the voters, for the political parties or even for Obama and his administration.
If American democracy is to work – if we are to prevent the blood from clotting in the body politic – presidential elections must be real contests over real ideas and real records, informed by real facts.
Fineman is upset that we’re not getting any of that at all:
Look at the numbers. A year ago, the president’s job approval rating was an abysmal 42.1 percent, his disapproval rating at 51.3. Today, his approval rating is 50 percent, his disapproval 46.3 – an upward swing of more than 12 points.
A year ago, voters’ view of the future could hardly have been bleaker. By a margin of 76.8 percent to 16.8 percent, they thought the country was “off on the wrong track” rather than “headed in the right direction.” Voters are hardly popping champagne corks today, but that yawning negative spread of 60 percentage points has closed to 17 percentage points (55.3 percent to 38.5 percent).
And of course the president is well ahead on the Electoral College trends.
He has managed to do all of this without having to seriously and substantively defend his first-term failed promises or shortcomings, and without having to say much, if anything, about what, if anything, he might do substantially differently if he is fortunate enough to win again.
Then we get the list:
Unless I missed it, the president has yet to give a detailed answer to why he has failed to meet or even come close to his promises about reducing the unemployment rate. Saying that the task was harder than he initially thought isn’t (or shouldn’t be) a convincing explanation.
He hasn’t given a detailed answer as to why he and his top advisers, led by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, failed to focus sufficiently on reviving the housing market, rather than just bailing out banks.
He hasn’t explained why his own administration is now saying that at least 6 million Americans, most of them in the middle class, will indeed face a tax increase (penalty) in 2014 if they do not buy health insurance – a new estimate substantially higher than earlier ones.
He hasn’t explained whether he shares any blame for the failure of budget talks on a grand compromise. And if the art of presidential leadership is to cajole your foes into doing deals they don’t want to do, what are we to make of his famous charming effectiveness?
He hasn’t given a detailed defense of the vast expansion of the security state under his watch – a policy that, in effect, has doubled down on the global war on terror-based approaches that his predecessor, President George W. Bush, initiated.
And so on and so forth. You get the idea. There’s no reality here, but then there’s none on the other side either:
Last fall, as he was establishing the overall strategy for his campaign, Mitt Romney and his team were confident that the Obama presidency would collapse of its own weight; that the economic and job-performance numbers were so bad that the president was unelectable. They felt that the slogan they came up with, “Obama Isn’t Working,” was so self-evident that all they needed to do was depict how bad things were and the race was over. They saw it as nothing more or less than a referendum on Obama’s and the economy’s record. They were wrong.
And there’s this:
Neither charismatic nor convincing, Romney has failed to establish himself as a credible, trusted vehicle for delivering attacks against the president. As a businessman used to spreadsheets and the cold calculus of the deal, he seems to have regarded voters as shareholders in a troubled company, who would welcome a takeover based on what the balance sheets showed. It doesn’t work that way. If voters are going to have to sacrifice – and they instinctively know that they do – it matters to them whether the new boss has a heart and a soul as well as a sharp pencil.
Fineman goes on, but it’s all mutually reinforcing:
The GOP candidate’s action plan is so vague that it allows the president to be vague, too. And in many cases, Romney is poorly positioned to launch an attack, in part because of the radical anti-government stance he has adopted for this 2012 race. Rather than lean on the banks to write more mortgages, for example, Romney wants to lean on them less, for anything.
This might be called a closed loop of meaninglessness, with Romney now at a new disadvantage:
Republican Mitt Romney’s negative ratings are preventing him from capitalizing on President Barack Obama’s vulnerabilities in the race for the White House, according to a new poll that gives the incumbent a lead heading into the first of three presidential debates.
Half of Americans hold an unfavorable view of Romney – a September high for a presidential challenger in the last three decades – and 49 percent of likely voters consider the former Massachusetts governor out-of-touch compared with 40 percent who say that of Obama in the latest Bloomberg National Poll conducted Sept. 21-24.
Even if Romney wants to say something important, to ground things in something like reality for a change, he can’t – no one’s willing to listen to him now.
Reality, you say? We’ve broken free of those surly bonds. And thus Republicans, and Democrats too, are all like the dopey guy in the old Doobie Brothers song, moping around and pining for the way things were, and should be now, even if they never were that way in the first place. But what a fool believes he sees, and something is always better than nothing. It just makes for strange politics.