Ah, an odd week finally ends – and all the political posturing of a presidential campaign, that hit full-speed far too early and then like in the Mel Brooks movie Spaceballs shifted to Ludicrous Speed, ended too, for a moment. The London Olympics began, with a lavish opening ceremony that was equal parts Pomp and Circumstance and Monty Python – with a little Benny Hill and Mary Poppins thrown in, along with shout-outs to labor unions and their wholly socialized healthcare system over there, saving folks in hard times. No one knew what to make of it, but the Times of London had sponsored a motto-writing contest and the runaway winner of that had been prophetic – No Motto Please, We’re British. Hell, let the athletes do what they do, and let the damned opening ceremony be happy and hopeful and inspiring, and funny. A number of conservative (Tory) politicians were outraged by the opening ceremony – the whole thing had been far too leftie – but they were quickly mocked. This wasn’t about politics – this was about England in all its glorious ambiguity. Loosen up. Deal with it. No one likes a prig, or a twit.
Mitt Romney found that out. The Sun had called him “Mitt the Twit” and the other British newspapers were just as unkind – he had been the talk of the town. The man who had run the Salt Lake City Olympics opened his London visit by saying he wasn’t sure the Brits could pull this off, and he wasn’t sure the British people were ready for what was going to happen. The Prime Minister and the Mayor of London – both conservatives and Romney’s naturally allies – ended up mercilessly mocking Mitt Romney and defending the British people, naturally. And that was just the beginning of a total disaster – Romney spent the next two days walking back his comments, but you also need to get key leaders’ names straight too, and you don’t ever mention MI6, and it’s always a good idea when visiting a country to call it by its rightful name.
Mitt Romney has repeatedly said that Barack Obama is stunningly bad at diplomacy – he has said he gives Obama an F on all aspects of Obama’s foreign policy, saying Obama makes nice with the wrong people and insults our allies, like Britain and Israel. And one of Romney’s advisors had said that Obama just doesn’t appreciate the “Anglo-Saxon heritage” we share with the Brits, which is the foundation of our “special relationship.” So the idea had been that Romney would arrive in London and show Obama, and the world, and American voters, how these things are done. He would charm our allies, not piss them off, and reassure them, not alarm them, and prove that he should be president starting next January. All this would kick-off in London, the easy first stop, where a bunch of harmless white guys lead a seemingly quite conservative government. But he managed to insult everyone in sight. Oops. He wisely said nothing about the opening ceremonies. Perhaps British irony is beyond him. Perhaps real people, with their own issues and views, puzzle him.
Perhaps things will go better at the next stop, Israel – if he remembers to go easy on the Jesus stuff the base of his party insists is the core of everything. That shouldn’t be all that hard, as Romney is already used to not talking about Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. But here too, there may be another opening problem – Romney’s repeated claims that he and Prime Minister Netanyahu go way back, that they’re old friends who chat all the time, and Netanyahu’s comment that he thinks he may have met Romney once, but he’s not sure if he remembers him.
Someone is going to have to change their story. This may not go well and Netanyahu is not dumb. He knows there’s a fifty-fifty chance that Obama will win in November, so getting all buddy-buddy with Mitt Romney could screw him, and screw Israel. Taking sides in American politics is always a bad idea. And for Romney that means that this next stop might not be a slam-dunk, like London was supposed to be, but wasn’t. Showing Obama how this statesmanship and foreign policy stuff is done is turning out to be harder than it looks.
But it’s still a fifty-fifty bet – Romney could win. The polls show a dead-heat at the moment, between the actual mensch and the clueless twit, and the trend lines clearly favor Romney now, in spite of all his stunning missteps and personal inadequacies, and in spite of his party’s residual dislike of him, and their almost complete mistrust of him.
How does Romney do it? That is a puzzle, but this might explain some of it:
Thursday’s poll showed that the percentage of Republicans who think Mr. Obama is Muslim has nearly doubled over the past four years, from 16 percent in 2008 to 30 percent this month.
There was no new evidence. The numbers just doubled on their own, which means Romney is no more than the guy who isn’t Obama, and this year that may be enough – even a clueless twit would be better than Obama.
Paul Waldman at American Prospect looks into this:
The widespread belief on the right that Barack Obama is a Muslim is one of the stranger features of this period in history. There are some of them who know that Obama says he’s a Christian but are sure that’s all an act designed to fool people, while he secretly prays to Allah. But there are probably a greater number who haven’t given it all that much thought; they just heard somewhere that he’s a Muslim, and it made perfect sense to them – after all, he’s kinda foreign, if you know what I mean.
So the number who thinks Obama is a Muslim simply had to grow:
For many of them, it’s just shorthand for Obama being alien and threatening. So it leads me to ask: Can we say, finally, that no Democratic president has ever been hated by Republicans quite as much as Barack Obama?
Waldman thinks Obama wins that prize:
In the past when this question has been asked, the sensible reply is to not forget history. After all, when Bill Clinton was president, one of the Republican Party’s most respected figures distributed videotapes of a documentary alleging that Clinton was the head of a drug ring and had murdered dozens of people. And they did impeach him the first chance they got. Republicans had a visceral hatred for Franklin Roosevelt, too.
But I really think we’ve reached a new height. What makes this different isn’t just the kind of venom you see among the party’s true-believing supporters but that the hate goes so far up, all the way to the top. The party’s candidate for president literally claims that Obama hates capitalism and is not really American (Mitt Romney recently said, and not for the first time, that Obama has a “very strange, and in some respects foreign to the American experience type of philosophy”). Liberals look at conservatives claiming that Obama is a socialist or that he doesn’t really love America and think, “Those people are nuts.” But there is practically consensus in the GOP that these things are true. If a Republican candidate came out today and said, “Barack Obama is a good person who loves his country, but I just think he’s wrong about policy,” that candidate would probably get kicked out of the party.
Waldman also adds this:
This antipathy has multiple sources interacting together, so it’s overly simplistic to say that it’s just because of Obama’s race, or it’s just because of heightened partisanship. But it’s getting harder and harder to claim that there’s ever been a Democrat Republicans hated more.
That alone might explain why the race is so close, but Jonathan Chait offers a bit of detail:
Mitt Romney’s plan of blatantly lying about President Obama’s “you didn’t build that” speech is clearly drawing blood. But what makes the attack work so well is not so much the lie itself but the broader subtext of it.
Chait has clips of the attack ad in question and adds this:
The key thing is that Obama is angry, and he’s talking not in his normal voice but in a “black dialect.” This strikes at the core of Obama’s entire political identity: a soft-spoken, reasonable African-American with a Kansas accent. From the moment he stepped onto the national stage, Obama’s deepest political fear was being seen as a “traditional” black politician, one who was demanding redistribution from white America on behalf of his fellow African-Americans.
And Chait cites the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial-page columnist Kimberly Strassel:
The Obama campaign’s bigger problem, both sides are now realizing, is that his words go beyond politics and are more devastating than the Romney complaints that Mr. Obama is too big-government oriented or has mishandled the economy. They raise the far more potent issue of national identity and feed the suspicion that Mr. Obama is actively hostile to American ideals and aspirations. Republicans are doing their own voter surveys, and they note that Mr. Obama’s problem is that his words cause an emotional response, and that they disturb voters in nearly every demographic.
Strassel is an insider, with good sources, and there seems to be a clear plan here, which Chait sees as a plan that traps Obama:
This is why Obama is suddenly pivoting to positive ads, with him talking to the camera. It is the soft-spoken Obama of old, with a gentle musical background.
It’s nice. It might be effective, but Obama has no other option. If he attacks Romney, or even if he gets specific about policy, he’s the Angry Black Man – who wants your stuff.
It’s a clever trap:
What concepts is Obama associating himself with here? Hard work, middle class. It’s people getting out of bed early, tossing bales of hay into trucks, wearing business attire in office settings. Not lazy-welfare-underclass.
The entire key to the rise of the Republican Party from the mid-sixties through the nineties was that white Americans came to see the Democrats as taking money from the hard-working white middle class and giving it to a lazy black underclass. Reactivating that frame is still the most mortal threat to the Democrats and to Obama. That is why Obama is reacting so urgently to reestablish himself.
Ed Kilgore adds this:
Looking at the particular Crossroads ad Chait’s talking about, it is striking that all the “small business owners” who are reacting with horror to the highly edited Obama excerpts are white, and are watching him on what appears to be an iPad – like you’d watch some scary figure – maybe a criminal – in a distant news event. One through gritted teeth growls that she “worked-for-every-thing-we’ve-gotten” – a sentiment you hear often from middle-class retirees as well as “job creators.” So maybe Chait’s got a point when he says Romney and his allies are tapping into one of the more ancient and disreputable conservative themes of the last half-century…
Kilgore calls it The Return of the Scary Black Man. And he’s a Muslim too, you know.
Chait has a follow-up item – he cites all the commentators on the right howling in protest – the ad is NOT racist, they are NOT racists, and Romney is certainly NOT a racist – but Chait says that’s not quite the point. He’s not arguing that anyone in particular is a racist. But there is such a thing:
I certainly do think that race is deeply embedded in American politics in ways conservatives don’t like to acknowledge. As I argued, the collapse of liberalism in the mid-sixties occurred because large numbers of whites came to see the Democratic Party as taking resources from them and giving them to lazy or otherwise undeserving black people. Obama’s election crucially depended on his image as a different kind of black politician, not one who was chastising white America or demanding concessions on behalf of other African-Americans.
And Chait gets specific:
The trouble with the Obama clip is that it catches him in a moment, as he occasionally does, when he alters his normal cadence to more of a black-sounding inflection, and takes an unusually angry tone, and seems to be telling middle-class Americans they don’t deserve what they have. That is a toxic and dangerous combination for Obama, which is why conservative columnist Kimberly Strassel described GOP research finding the clip “raise[s] the far more potent issue of national identity,” and why, as I argued, Obama is responding in the particular way he is.
Are the ads distorting Obama’s “you didn’t build that” line racist? Of course not – but they do activate a set of emotions that are closely linked to racial feelings, but so does almost any debate surrounding Obama.
There’s no getting around it:
The inextricable link between race and, well, just about everything accounts for the pathological character of the way we discuss race.
And Chait does mean everybody:
The left certainly bears plenty of responsibility here, with many liberals immediately responding to any potential racial signal with a charge of racism. Not long ago, some of them charged Romney with racism for saying black voters wanted free stuff. I defended Romney (“Trying to categorize Romney’s line as a kind of racial slur is unfair and almost certainly pointless”). On the other side, you have conservatives in a state of deep denial about the political potency of white racial resentment. National Review recently published a cover story hilariously arguing that Democratic support for civil rights had nothing to do with the GOP takeover of the South – and if you think the whole historical narrative of civil rights is one big anti-conservative smear, you’re naturally going to feel persecuted by unfounded accusations of racism at every turn.
I try to wend between the two poles by acknowledging racial implications when they exist without accusing people of bigotry. But it’s a hard thing to do when we lack a vocabulary for describing these dynamics that adequately distinguishes between actual hatred of black people and belief systems that are connected below the surface to racial divisions.
Only one episode of The Simpsons ever got it right, where the Fox News news-chopper is flying over Manhattan, with the Fox News logo on the fuselage above the big bold words – “Not Racist, But Number One with Racists!”
There is a distinction, and yes, The Simpsons is a Fox show, so this is even more complicated, if the whole issue of race weren’t complicated enough already. Comedy writers like to see what they can get away with and the entertainment side of the house – television, movies and sports – isn’t Fox News and the newspapers. You can get away with a lot if you make a ton of money for the parent company.
But what can Mitt Romney get away with? His foreign charm offensive is a shambles as he seems to have a tin ear and a stone heart, and an uncertain grasp of the concept that everyone isn’t just like him – and his own party, on a good day, barely tolerates him, and on a bad day loathes him. And now our one ally through thick and thin, the Brits, loathe him too, when they’re not mocking him. And Netanyahu just dissed him.
It’s a good thing he’s running against an Angry Black man, who’s a Muslim too. It’s the only way he’ll survive this foreign tour to showcase his awesome foreign policy chops, and the only way he’ll survive to November. But then he may win. It might be enough.