Beyond the Etch-a-Sketch

When Barry Goldwater ran for president in 1964 he ran a bold campaign, saying he was offering America “a choice, not an echo” – he wouldn’t try to be all things to all people, trying to please this voting block or that. That’s what all politicians do – they tone down their true beliefs to achieve the widest possible appeal, and in the process they abandon their own convictions and maybe lose their very soul. And he wouldn’t do that. He hated the Soviet Union and labor unions and the welfare state, although he had no problem with gay folks in the military, and he had no use for the whole civil rights movement – so deal with it. He was an honest man who was true to himself and he would pander to no one. He was offering a real choice.

And he lost the election to Lyndon Johnson, spectacularly. Goldwater won his home state of Arizona, and won Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina – the Deep South. But that was the last election down there where for all intents and purposes practically all the voters were white. Those states had traditionally been Democratic all along, and this time they voted Republican, in protest of the Civil Rights Act, passed by Johnson and the now disappointing traitors-to-their-race Democrats and a few craven Republicans earlier that same year. They may have not been voting for Goldwater, exactly – they may not have had deep feelings about the Soviets or unions, or any feeling at all about such things. But Goldwater got their vote anyway. But that was about it. Johnson ended up with 486 electoral votes to Goldwater’s 52 – a rout.

Of course this showed that Goldwater was a true conservative, and an incompetent politician – or at least one who was only effective in limited markets. But the key to winning elections is effective marketing, to every possible constituent/consumer out there. You need lots of votes to win, even the votes of people you probably despise. It’s just like developing the uniform menu for a highly success for chain of family restaurants, where you have a franchise in every mall from Boston to Bakersfield – you offend the most people the least, and make a ton of money. The trick is to be as conventionally daring as possible, with the clever new item that allows folks to feel that this, deep-fried onion nuggets or whatever, is amazing and inventive, in a very safe and comfortable way.

And politicians face that same problem – offend the most people the least, with something that’s conventionally daring, so they feel they’re getting something entirely new, and entirely unthreatening. And yes, this rule does not apply to the primaries, where you face a limited market, the true believers in your own party, who want to assess your total commitment to true conservatism, or the liberal principles of compassion for all and taking care of everyone. And this year’s Republican primaries showed that, with its array of candidates who presented themselves as true believers, scoffing at compromise, and at science and economics and so-called women’s rights and so-called gay rights, and at insufficient commitment to Jesus and Israel and all the rest. And you can add in stuff about smelly and scary Mexicans too. It was a classic limited-marketing campaign.

And it failed in the larger mass market. The news was filled with the latest strange thing that each successive front-runner had just said – first Donald Trump then Michele Bachmann then Rick Perry then Herman Cain then Newt Gingrich, then Rick Santorum and then Gingrich again, and then Santorum again. The base was momentarily enthralled, again and again, while the pundits wondered what the hell was up with the now-crazy Republican Party. And Fox News tried to salvage what they could from this mess, excusing this and that as well-meaning enthusiasm and not that crazy if you really thought about it – or maybe the liberal media had it out for conservatives and were reporting what was said far too much, making a big deal out of little eccentricities. But after twenty or so primary debates it was obvious these folks weren’t ready for primetime politics. Only Mitt Romney survived, never winning big in any of the state primaries or caucuses, but never getting blown out anywhere – winning the nomination by just being crazy enough when a specific setting demanded that, and being general and inoffensive the rest of the time. He became the master of the conventionally daring. And no one ever knew what the hell he really believed. He was the anti-Goldwater, and the base seethed. But they accepted the inevitable. Enough of them might have remembered the 1964 Goldwater debacle, in spite of the Tea Party crowd demanding ideological purity. Mitt would do just fine.

But now that that’s settled and were moving into the mass-marketing phase of this all, the general and not the narrow and specific party elections, Obama has pulled a fast one on Romney – he decided to end the process of deporting young illegal immigrants who were brought here as little kids and have since been good citizens, even if they’re not citizens. Can he do that? Yes, he can do that by executive order – he’s charged with enforcing the law, but he gets to decide how to enforce it – where to direct the available resources. So you keep deporting the bad guys and jerks, and in fact step up that effort, and you decide to no longer work on deporting the good kids who we brought here before they were sixteen. It’s a reasonable administrative position, and humane, and probably good policy – and it’s certainly good politics. The right is fuming, and Romney is kind of trapped between his base and needing at least some of the Hispanic voters to pull the lever for him in November.

He has a problem. One of his advisors had said, unfortunately, that once the primaries were over it would be Etch-a-Sketch time for the campaign – shake the box, erasing everything, and start again, with new positions, for the new general audience. And of course Santorum and Gingrich had fun with that late in the primaries, derisively calling Romney the Etch-a-Sketch Candidate – just shake the box and start a new picture – this man has no core beliefs at all. And that was marginally effective at the time – Santorum and Gingrich stayed alive in the race for a few more weeks. But even party zealots knew better. The idea was to beat Obama in November – so go ahead, shake the damned Etch-a-Sketch. It had to be done.

But no one expected that after everything previously had erased there’d be no new picture:

Mitt Romney criticized President Obama’s decision to stop deporting some illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States as children as an election-year political move, but he repeatedly declined in an interview Sunday to lay out an alternative plan.

The presumptive Republican presidential nominee said he wants a “long-term solution,” unlike what he derided as Obama’s “stopgap measure,” but would not say what it would entail other than to provide permanent residency to those who serve in the military.

Maybe it’s best to say nothing:

Romney is midway through a bus tour of six potential battleground states and on Sunday, he stumped across the most critical of all, Ohio. He spoke at a pancake breakfast in Brunswick and a rally in the town square of Newark and then campaigned with House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) at a hamburger shop in Troy.

But his speeches were short and general. At the rally here in Newark, Romney revved up a couple of thousand supporters by promising to “shock the world with how our economy’s coming back,” but in a speech that clocked at just nine minutes, offered only broad outlines and few specifics.

It was all boilerplate, but this Washington Post item quotes Stuart Stevens, the Romney campaign’s chief strategist, explaining that while Romney really will have to be more specific, Obama has been even less specific than Romney – so there! Stevens offers no examples. It was just a taunt. But this could be a problem:

The candidates will address a national group of Latino officials this week in Orlando, where Romney will face pressure to further define his position.

Romney made his first extensive comments in the CBS interview about immigration policy since Obama’s announcement Friday regarding the citizenship status of child immigrants who go on to become law-abiding residents.

When anchor Bob Schieffer asked Romney whether he would repeal Obama’s policy, he said: “Well, it would be overtaken by events, if you will, by virtue of my putting in place a long-term solution, with legislation which creates law that relates to these individuals such that they know what their setting is going to be, not just for the term of a president but on a permanent basis.”

He’ll have a rough time in Orlando. Obama did something specific. And Romney is getting jammed from an odd corner. On Fox News Sunday, Chris Wallace asked Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard and one of the big guns on the right, how he felt about Obama’s announcement that the Department of Homeland Security would halt deportations of all these undocumented students and little kids. And here was Kristol’s stunning reply:

I think it’s a sensible policy. I think it would be much better if that were the law of the land, and I think the president’s pushing the edges of prosecutorial discretion in saying we’re not going to enforce a law in order to leave these people in the country. But I think it’s the right thing to do, actually.

Romney didn’t need that. And Ian Millhiser adds context:

Notably, this is a significant shift from Kristol’s previous attitudes about President Obama’s immigration policies. Two years ago, Kristol falsely accused the Obama Administration of being “reluctant” to enforce immigration laws, when in fact deportations are at record highs under President Obama.

Kristol’s transformation, however, closely maps the GOP’s efforts to paper over their recent anti-immigrant positions as the November election draws nigh. During the primary, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney campaigned with the former hate group attorney that wrote Arizona and Alabama’s harsh immigration laws – on Martin Luther King Day. This morning, however, Romney twice refused to say whether he would reverse Obama’s recently announced pro-immigrant policy. As Kristol put it this morning on Fox, the Republican standard bearer’s hardline past on immigration is a “big problem for Romney.”

But then there’s this:

Maricopa County Sheriff Office deputies arrested a 6-year-old suspected illegal immigrant Friday, the day President Barack Obama softened the country’s deportation policy toward young illegal immigrants.

The girl was with 15 other people believed to be in the country illegally who were traveling to the Midwest and northeast United States, said Chris Hegstrom, spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office.

“She’s been turned over to ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) to try to determine where she’s from. She told us she’s from El Salvador. That’s what she told us,” he said.

The arrest took place Friday night at an undisclosed location in northern Maricopa County.

“It was part of a human-smuggling investigation that we’ve been investigating throughout the Valley,” Hegstrom said.

The whereabouts of the girl’s parents or other caretakers is unknown. All of the people traveling with her claimed to know nothing about the girl.

“Where was she going? What are they going to do with her? We’re trying to get to the bottom of this right now,” Sheriff Joe Arpaio said.

Joe Arpaio is a big hero on the right too. What does Romney do now? He shook the Etch-a-Sketch and it seems to be blank now. Maybe he intends to keep it that way. Offend the most people the least, or not at all. You can’t offend anyone if you offer them nothing that could offend them – unless they’re offended by not being offered anything at all. Think of the hypothetical national restaurant and its effort to offer the least offensive exciting food they can. But if they offered no food… no, wait. What would be the point?

But Greg Sargent notes there’s even more to this:

There’s a great deal to chew on in Mitt Romney’s interview with Bob Schieffer, which just aired on CBS.

Romney repeatedly refused to say whether he’d repeal Obama’s order to halt deportations of DREAM-eligible youth. He confirmed that he would not agree to even one dollar in new revenues in exchange for 10 dollars in spending cuts. And he again reiterated that his response to the crisis would be to cut government, in order to “ignite growth,” even though economists say that more austerity now would make the crisis worse.

For a run-down of the survey of all the economists saying austerity now is the dead-wrong policy see this extensive review – but Sargent is more concerned that Romney is clearly saying that he will not be offering any details at all on how he would pay for his proposed tax cuts, not until he wins the presidency, and certainly not for the rest of the campaign:

SCHIEFFER: You haven’t been bashful about telling us you want to cut taxes. When are you going to tell us where you’re going to get the revenue? Which of the deductions are you going to be willing to eliminate? Which of the tax credits are you going to – when are you going to be able to tell us that?

ROMNEY: Well, we’ll go through that process with Congress as to which of all the different deductions and the exemptions –

SCHIEFFER: But do you have an ideas now, like the home mortgage interest deduction, you know, the various ones?

ROMNEY: Well Simpson-Bowles went through a process of saying how they would be able to reach a setting where they had actually under their proposal even more revenue, with lower rates. So, mathematically it’s been proved to be possible: We can have lower rates, as I propose, that creates more growth, and we can limit deductions and exemptions.

In case you’re wondering, he said no, and Sargent says this:

Romney went on to pledge, as he has in the past, that under his plan, the wealthy would continue to pay the same share of the tax burden as they do now. “I’m not looking to reduce the burden paid by the wealthiest,” he said. In other words, the disproportionally larger tax cut the wealthy would get from the across-the-board cut in rates he’s proposing would be offset by closing deductions and loopholes the rich currently enjoy. But asked twice by Schieffer how exactly he would do this, Romney refused to say, beyond noting that this has been mathematically proven to be possible. And in his first reply above, he confirmed that the details would be worked out with Congress when he is president – which is to say, not during the campaign.

As you may recall, Romney made big news when he was overheard at a private fundraiser revealing to donors a few of the specific ways he’d pay for his massive tax cuts. Since then, details have been in short supply. And today, Romney seemed to confirm that he sees no need to reveal those details until he becomes president.

The message, in a nutshell: No, the rich won’t make out better than everyone else under my plan. No need to say how this would work in practice. Just trust me!

The campaign shook the Etch-a-Sketch and now it’s blank. But the little screen will remain blank. No one will be offended. You can’t be offended when you’re offered nothing at all. And no one hates the food at a restaurant that serves none.

But Sargent caught up with Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt:

Mitt Romney has made clear that – for political reasons – he’s not going to disclose how he would pay for his $5 trillion tax cuts. So either he’s secretly raising taxes on a whole segment of the population he won’t disclose, making even more devastating cuts to programs essential to the middle class like education or exploding the deficit by 5 trillion dollars.

Ah, but no one will ever know. That’s the beauty of it. And there’s BooMan:

I didn’t see Mitt Romney’s appearance this morning on Face the Nation but it appears that he refused to say whether he would or would not reverse Obama’s new immigration policy and refused several invitations to explain how he would pay for his tax cuts, going so far as to say that he has no intention of answering that question prior to standing for election. He also confirmed that he would not accept any budget deal that included tax increases even if they were accompanied by tens times as much in spending cuts. So, basically, he’s running as a Tea Party candidate who won’t share any of the details of how he’ll make people suffer. I think that’s going to present some problems for his campaign.

Romney wouldn’t agree. He’s not the Etch-a-Sketch Candidate, with a new picture this time. He’s moved beyond that, to some kind of postmodern policy world, where there is no policy, but there might be one later, or not. But no one will be offended. You have to trust him on that.

How would he be as president? It’s a surprise, and he’s not going to ruin the surprise. We’ve come a long way from Barry Goldwater. But what have the Republicans learned?

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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