No one really gets old in America – you’ve seen the Viagra commercials. They just get cool in a different sort of way, like Clint Eastwood or Betty White. They get all what-the-hell loose and, presumably, devastatingly honest about everything, although in the case of Eastwood there’s that touch of strangeness, bordering on incoherence, and an underlying meanness that’s pretty nasty. No one quite knew what to make of his entirely improvised twelve-minute conversation with that empty chair and the imaginary Obama at the Republican convention in Tampa. The Republicans tried to look pleased – he is a big star – but you could see they were bewildered. If there was a compelling pro-Romney narrative there they couldn’t follow it. No one could. Everyone just shrugged and moved on, even the Democrats. The strange old man was, in the end, mostly just strange – and it wasn’t all that important anyway. Later Eastwood said this – “If somebody’s dumb enough to ask me to go to a political convention and say something, they’re gonna have to take what they get.” Old coots are like that. They don’t give a shit, and that’s cool, or it’s supposed to be.
It’s not surprising that the whole episode was soon forgotten. It wasn’t much of a news story, because there was no “story” there – no narrative was being advanced. Clint was just riffing on some thoughts that were bouncing around in his head. There was no way to turn that into an important-conflict-and-deeply-satisfying-resolution tale, which is how the news folks like to structure what they present. After all, they present news stories, not news fact-nuggets. They tell exciting tales that make sense of things, where the good guys win, or tragically don’t – which is damned hard when events don’t help them out. Sometimes there’s no tale to tell – things are going as they have been going and nothing much is changing. If so, the task has to be to create an exciting narrative out of nothing and if you’re an old coot – maybe not as old as Clint Eastwood – you might remember NBC Saturday Night, before it became Saturday Night Live, and the fun they had with this news media need for narrative in the mid-seventies. The fake newscaster would be handed a piece of paper, glance at it, and shout out THIS JUST IN! But was always the same thing – “Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead!“
The audience always laughed. Sometimes there’s just no news, there’s no story to tell, even if Americans want to be told “the real story” – with a narrative already provided to make it all fit together from crisis to resolution. And of course we also require a denouement, to be told what the story means in the great scheme of things. Then that denouement becomes the teaser for the next episode. Stay tuned. Our minds are conditioned to see things in narrative terms.
Watergate was the perfect example of that – it had that “you can run but you can’t hide” kind of narrative flow, and the Washington Post kept the thing coming in discreet episodes – we all waited for the next installment. Nixon shed Halderman and Erlichman and told us all about it in a sad speech, and the weekend firing of Archibald Cox was another good episode in the tale that had the Nixon resignation at the end, wrapping up it all up. Cool, and along the way we had stunning revelations and defensive denials, heroes and villains and dupes, interesting characters like a sly country lawyer from North Carolina (Sam Erwin) and a tall, odd Ivy League scholar in a bowtie (Cox) and the two dim-witted loyal royal daughters (think King Lear) and various colorful Cuban patriots and the two kind-of-Germanic henchmen with buzz-cuts (Halderman and Erlichman). It was a fine story. Everyone likes a good story.
That’s why everyone is a bit disappointed now, in an election year with heated partisans having at it in a close race – except it isn’t that close anymore. This just in! Mitt Romney is still dead!
That’s the tale, one week before the first debate – all the polling showing Obama pulling ahead with Nate Silver, the most trusted statistician in the nation, carefully analyzing all available data, weighing all factors, and assessing Romney’s chance of winning – which, if you click on the “Now Cast” tab, is now about two percent. That makes it hard for the news media to move the story forward, as from this point forward there’s only one story to be told. Mitt Romney is still dead. All there is to talk about is what went wrong, or maybe how all the polling must be wrong, or how something unforeseen will surely change things. But that’s the problem with things unforeseen – you can’t see them. You have to talk about what’s not. That’s no way to tell a story.
Ah – the answer is to create a story, which is why Alex Massie, the Spectator (UK), expects we are in for what he calls a barrage of Romney Comeback stories – “chiefly because the press needs a new story to tell and this is one of the few even semi-plausible tales remaining.” And he adds this – “It may even be necessary to concoct a Romney comeback even without there being any actual evidence for a Mitt Recovery.”
There’s also Robert Wright in the Atlantic:
If there’s one thing the media won’t tolerate for long, it’s an unchanging media narrative. So the current story of the presidential campaign – Obama sits on a lead that is modest but increasingly comfortable, thanks to a hapless Romney and a hapless Romney campaign – should be yielding any moment to something fresher.
The essential property of the new narrative is that it injects new drama into the race, which means it has to be in some sense pro-Romney. This can in turn mean finding previously unappreciated assets in Romney or his campaign, previously undetected vulnerabilities in the Obama campaign, etc. The big question is whether the new narrative then becomes self-fulfilling, altering the focus of coverage in a way that actually increases Romney’s chances of a victory. And that depends on the narrative’s exact ingredients.
Wright suggests some possible thing we might soon hear, like Romney has a previously undiscovered sense of humor, which he finds unlikely. We’ve all seen the man, and that’s as unlikely as some sudden and unexpected foreign policy something or other from Mitt, although vaguely plausible:
Whereas Obama had seemed to have an edge in the realm of national security and foreign policy over Romney (who, you may recall, has never ever killed Osama bin Laden), suddenly the tables turn! Actually, this narrative is already starting to take shape. After being widely panned for his too-early exploitation of the uprising over “Innocence of Muslims” a chastened Romney did some not-too-early exploitation of it that was received more warmly. And, helpfully, Obama has been far from sure-footed. Asking YouTube whether the video in question complies with its standards played into Romney’s “apology” trope; calling Israel “ one of our closest allies in the region” was a pre-packaged Romney Florida ad; “bumps in the road” was an unfortunate turn of phrase; and so on.
And of course it would be a big news story if Obama would suddenly seem off balance and get all gaffe-prone:
In theory this should be a dog-bites-man story. The truth is that Obama has never been an especially deft off-the-cuff speaker – he’s about average, as recent presidents go – and has always been a bit gaffe-prone. It’s just that the media has never had an incentive to characterize him that way. But when the media gropes for a new narrative, its incentive structure changes, and Obama is likely to provide enough poor turns of phrase to fit into the new structure.
The media might turn on Obama, just to create a story to tell, but Wright suggests they’ll just do something more conventional, like report that Romney was surprisingly good in presidential debates:
This meme, like the previous one, should by all rights be DOA. The truth is that Obama is not a great debater. Four years ago Hillary was on balance more impressive than he was in the primary debates, and then in the fall debates he had the good fortune to go up against a dim and crabby John McCain. Romney, though erratic, is a much better debater than McCain and on any given night has a good chance of outshining Obama. And since Obama enters the debates overrated, and Romney enters them underrated, a tie will go to Romney, who will have “exceeded expectations.”
Wright thinks that might not work out for Romney – it’s only a hope and Obama’s no slouch – so he suggests Romney find a sense of humor soon, as that’s the real issue here:
Romney’s basic problem is that lots of people find him unlikable, and it’s hard to dislike someone who (intentionally) makes you laugh.
But Wright really anticipates a combination of all of this from the news media:
“A new Mitt Romney – sporting a previously hidden sense of humor, showing a new sure-footedness in foreign policy, and facing a surprisingly gaffe-prone President Obama who seemed thrown off balance by growing global chaos – exceeded expectations at last night’s debate ….”
No, Mitt Romney is still dead, and Massie cites Andrew Roberts:
It seems incredible that a man who was CEO of one of America’s most successful companies, who made a personal fortune of over $200 million from his business acumen, who turned round the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, and whose whole career seems to personify the American Dream, is lagging on the question of economic competence behind a former community organizer from Chicago who publicly derides entrepreneurship and individual enterprise, and who hadn’t run any enterprise before entering politics.
It does seem unfair that a candidate who looks suspiciously like a leading member of the capitalist supermen who were in large part responsible for the greatest financial crisis since the 1930s struggles to win the confidence of people who wonder why these capitalist supermen appear to have escaped more or less scot-free! Why it’s almost incredible!
Who would have thought that a candidate who writes off – or is perceived as writing off – 47% of the electorate might also have trouble “connecting” with ordinary folks? Independents disapproved of Romney’s comments by two to one: 57-27. (Even one third of Republican voters think worse of Mitt as a result of this blunder.)
And who among us does not think a man whose father was governor of Michigan and whose mother ran for the United States Senate is not the personification of the American dream?
A reader at Talking Points Memo puts it this way:
Is it possible that the conventional wisdom has not quite fully grasped the damage – perhaps irreparable, barring a huge event – that Romney’s “47%” comment did to his campaign? The internals of the latest WaPO/ABC and QPAC/NYT/CBS polls paint a picture that should be dispiriting to the Romney camp, which is already in denial, about how the candidate is now being perceived, even among his strongest group of supporters – the seniors. Could it be that The Comment has finally crystallized in the voters’ minds what they had suspected all along about Romney but simply could not put their finger on?
The editor of Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall, carries that forward:
My take is that Romney came out of the conventions reeling. He then seriously hurt himself with his rash response to the Libya attacks. An unforced error of immense magnitude. Then 47% basically sent him down for the count. So, bad convention, self-inflicted wound, devastating revelation – in a rapid-fire three weeks, right when people were really starting to pay attention. … I thought the story was “devastating” and probably that rare story where the press actually understates the magnitude of the damage. I still do.
Marshall actually sees this as the end of a much longer story:
You can read into the totality of the last 18 months and the poll numbers that have tracked them that the general public had real doubts about Mitt Romney, what his priorities were, what he really believed and so forth. These of course were counter-balanced by deep discontent with the state of the economy. Against this kindling of doubt, Democrats painted a picture of Romney as an out-of-touch centi-millionaire, who played every rigged angle of the current system and had some mix of contempt and indifference for the lives of ordinary working and middle class families. Then those 47% comments came along and it turned out that cartoon caricature Mitt Romney was actually real Mitt Romney.
I suspect that’s when he definitively lost the race.
The story ended. The tale is over. There’s no more to say:
There are six weeks to go, lots of money still being spent, debates to be held and unpredictable events to unfold. We can’t know the outcome. But at some point it becomes dishonest to pretend the outcome isn’t becoming pretty clear simply because of our instinctive fear of getting egg on our faces. For reasons bigwig reporters probably are not entirely able to grasp, I think 47% was devastating, a blow that sent Romney down for the count.
Those bigwig reporters just wanted a story to tell. They needed a story to tell – that’s their profession. Now all they can do is list fact-nuggets, and now Marshall is saying this:
Karma, Irony, Fate and perhaps even God seemed too determined at the moment to kick Mitt Romney’s ass. The political class seems finally to be waking up to the truly devastating nature of the 47% remarks. Yes, everyone figured it was a 6.8 on the Political Face-Plant Richter Scale. More likely it was an 8.8.
So Romney desperately needs to prove he’s not an arrogant rich jerk who barely knows and couldn’t care less about the struggles of Americans who aren’t blessed with great wealth. And it turns out there’s an argument at hand: RomneyCare, the first successful effort by an American Governor to provide universal health insurance coverage at the state level.
Too bad he’s spent the last two years shape-shifting into the butt-kickinist enemy of Obamacare and mandates and universal coverage this side of the Cayman Islands. His best, really his only argument is radioactive within his own party.
Evan McMorris-Santoro covers that:
Mitt Romney pointed to the health care law he signed as governor of Massachusetts one of his signature achievements Wednesday, a move that has drawn swift and strong rebuke from conservatives in the past.
Romney pointed to the Massachusetts health care law – the foundation for the national healthcare reform law Romney promises to dismantle if elected – as a key highlight of his record in an interview with NBC News.
“Don’t forget – I got everybody in my state insured,” Romney told NBC. “One hundred percent of the kids in our state had health insurance. I don’t think there’s anything that shows more empathy and care about the people of this country than that kind of record.”
Yeah, yeah – but in August this sort of thing had blown up in face – a Romney staffer spoke positively about Romney’s Massachusetts health care law and conservative commentators said it “just might be the moment Romney lost the election.” Now saying it was a good thing will win him the election? He’s still dead.
But it’s a plan, and Greg Sargent at his Washington Post blog show it is part of a larger plan:
A Democrat familiar with ad buy information tells me that starting Friday, the new ad the Romney campaign rolled out today will begin airing at full throttle in all of Romney’s media markets in nine swing states, and it will be the only Romney ad running in them…
The new ad features Romney speaking directly to the camera; he allows that he and Obama “both care about poor and middle class families.” The size of the buy behind it suggests the Romney campaign sees the need for a major effort to reverse the damage caused by Romney’s disdainful comments about nearly half the country. After a months-long campaign by Dems to paint Romney as uncaring when it comes to working and middle class Americans, video of Romney himself playing to type is potentially devastating. Today’s NYT/CBS poll found that only 38 percent of Ohio voters think Romney cares about the needs and problems of people like them.
You can watch the ad and consider this:
The new ad’s acknowledgment that Obama, like him, cares about ordinary Americans also suggests a shift to a somewhat softer approach to the president. While the ad paints a dire picture of the Obama economy, it seems less harsh in tone than Romney messaging that suggests Obama harbors sinister redistributionist leanings that will take away the wealth and health benefits of middle class Americans and hand them out to those other people. Obama’s favorability ratings remain high, and there is no sign swing voters see Obama in the more lurid terms the Romney campaign had been employing, so this may be a shift, too.
The ad also represents a significant reframing of Romney’s message. The previous, backward-looking frame – “are you better off than you were four years ago?” – is replaced in this ad with the forward-looking assertion that we can’t afford another four years like the last four. So the investment in the new spot suggests an admission that the previous framing failed and a heavy bet on this new messaging as his best shot of salvaging his candidacy.
Garance Franke-Ruta at the Atlantic suggests nothing will be salvaged:
It’s not the most polished video in the world. But you can see the thinking behind it. The candidate will directly address the voters, making a spare, authentic, heart-to-heart appeal that he cares about how “too many Americans” are suffering.
And then he says it.
“President Obama and I both care about poor and middle-class families. The difference is my policies will make things better for them.”
That’s the problem, the word “them” in this context:
Mitt Romney keeps talking about the people whose votes he needs as “them.” In the 47 percent video, it was “those people.”
“I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives,” Romney said.
But presidential elections are always about the grand, national us. They are about we, the people. And when it comes to a candidate, they are about me and you.
As Bill Clinton famously said, “For too long we’ve been told about ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Each and every election we see a new slate of arguments and ads telling us that ‘they’ are the problem, not ‘us.’ But there can be no ‘them’ in America. There’s only us.”
That statement elides a lot of social divisions, but Clinton was right that as a matter of politics that’s how you have to talk win. Even George W. Bush ran as “a uniter, not a divider.”
The problem with Romney’s campaign is not just a secret video, or media- and PAC-hyped candidate gaffes. It’s an approach to talking to and about people in a way that is othering, rather than empathetic – so much so that in direct appeal to middle-class voters, Romney doesn’t think to say (or, rather, no one on his campaign thinks to have him say), “The difference is my policies will make things better for you.”
Franke-Ruta wonders who the hell he was he talking to. The title of the ad is “Too Many Americans.” Maybe he thinks there are too many of us or something. The ad changes nothing. The story is over and the rich man is now saying that he cares about all you little people, he really does. It’s like Nixon talking to David Frost all those years after Watergate, saying he did nothing wrong, really he didn’t. There the story was over too.
What is the press to do? They do need a narrative, a story to tell. It may be that they have to report that Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead. That’s where everyone laughs.