In the Pits

Everyone wants the real story, the inside story of what’s really going on, the stuff no one else sees. If you’re one of the twenty-three Americans who follow Formula One racing – where the cars turn both left and right and have to negotiate odd twisty bits – you want to go to Monaco in June. That race is one of the few still run on real streets, in this case with that one corner than turns in on itself two times, and steep downhill no less, and with a tunnel and everything – but you’re really not there for the race. Real fans want a pit pass, so you can watch them set up those odd cars with the little small-block engines that would fit in your Civic but pump out nine hundred horsepower at eighteen thousand RPM and don’t even blow up, and watch how they tweak the suspensions and set up all the new electromechanical gizmos they use these days. It’s all in the preparation. The race isn’t really that important – no one can pass on that track anyway – and you also want to see more than the cars. There are the drivers and the teams that support them, the oddest collection of young international daredevils and wild-eyed technical wizards and haughty transnational industrialists (the owners) you can imagine. It’s quite a show and also better than the race itself. The only one who ever gave us a sense of that world was John Frankenheimer with his 1966 film Grand Prix – a rather shallow melodrama actually, but setting is everything, and Françoise Hardy was quite a dish back then (she still is by the way). Adolfo Celi – before he became the bad guy in a few James Bond films – made a fine Enzo Ferrari too. All in all it was a quite satisfying movie – seeing the good stuff from the inside, even if it was a bit coded, with names changed to protect the innocent, or really, to avoid lawsuits. Hey – Citizen Kane wasn’t really William Randolph Hearst after all – wink-wink, nudge-nudge and so on. We do love our inside stories.

Everyone wants to be a fly on the wall, watching the subtle planning and preparation that no one’s supposed to see, where the race is actually won, or where it’s lost. That’s why, two days before the first presidential debate of this election cycle, everyone wants to know what’s going on – but of course no one does. Obama is holed-up somewhere near Las Vegas, working out all possible responses to all possible questions, and all possible parries to whatever Romney might say. Obama has John Kerry playing the part of Romney in all this – nothing but another rich self-important guy from Massachusetts, with great hair, would do. Romney is also in hiding, doing the same, and using Rob Portman to play the part of Obama. Portman is not cool and urban-urbane and gracious and quick like Obama, but he was George Bush’s Director of the Office of Management and Budget for a time, so he’s not dumb. In June 2007 he quit that gig, just before the economy crashed in a way we hadn’t seen since 1929 – so maybe he’s also lucky with his timing, like Obama. On the other hand, if the objective is to work out how to counter the hip, Portman may not be the man. No one ever accused him of being hip and he’s probably proud of that – he’s a Republican after all.

In any event, both sides are hard at work and no one has the inside scoop on who is planning what. All we hear is the spin – each side saying the other is formidable and they’ll be lucky to survive the debate at all. It’s all spin – lowering expectations. He who makes the fewest mistakes wins. Winning is being able to say look everyone, yes, I was really only stultifyingly boring, but the other guy was a goofball and a fool. No wonder many are put off by politics – that’s not much of a choice.

New Jersey’s governor didn’t get the memo – Chris Christie said Romney’s debate performance was going to change everything – by Romney being warm and incisive and wise and wonderful in a way no one has ever seen before and no one expects or whatever. But the public isn’t buying it. A survey from the Washington Post and ABC News two days out reported that a majority of likely voters expect Obama to win the first debate – by 51 percent to 33 percent no less – and that may be good news for Romney. He won’t be burdened by any expectations that would make it difficult for him to deeply impress viewers – all he needs to be is good enough. Chris Christie should have kept his big mouth shut. Those Jersey guys can be a pain in the ass.

It’s all in what you say is coming. Obama’s staff has been muttering all sorts of things about how their guy is too busy being president to properly prepare for the big showdown in Denver, while Romney’s team has taken to saying that brave Mitt will be standing across the stage from a “universally-acclaimed public speaker” in Obama and so on.

Slate’s Dan Kois has a bit of fun with this, starting from the real and moving to the surreal:

“While Mitt Romney has done 20 debates in the last year, [Obama] has not done one in four years, so there’s a challenge in that regard.” – Obama campaign spokesperson Jen Psaki, Sept. 17

“President Obama is the most gifted speaker in modern political history, so it is hard to imagine anyone outscoring him in debate points.” – Romney campaign spokesperson Andrea Saul, Sept. 20

“Mitt Romney I think has an advantage, because he’s been through 20 of these debates in the primaries over the last year. He even bragged that he was declared the winner in 16 of those debates.” – Obama campaign adviser Robert Gibbs, Sept. 23

That was the real stuff, and Kois ends up here:

“This morning the president played basketball for three hours, and then drank about a quart of Scotch. He just really threw it back. Right now he is wandering the West Wing pantsing all the Joint Chiefs he can find. We hope he’ll be ready for the debate tonight, but who knows.” – White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, Oct. 3, 10:15 a.m.

“Look, English isn’t even my native language. President Obama is going to – ¿cómo se dice? – wipe me all over the floor?” – Mitt Romney, Oct. 3, 11:20 a.m.

“If I can get up there and not literally soil myself, honestly, that’s a victory as far as I’m concerned.” – Barack Obama, Oct. 3, 1:45 p.m. …

“Hello, I’m Jim Lehrer and welcome to the first presidential debate of the 2012 campaign. Unfortunately, neither candidate is here. In place of Barack Obama, the Democratic National Committee has sent comedian Elayne Boosler. Meanwhile, at Governor Romney’s podium, there is in fact a large honey-baked ham. We’ll see you on October 11 for the second debate, which will focus on foreign and domestic policy. Good night.” – Jim Lehrer, Oct. 3, 9:04 p.m. …

That won’t happen. They’ll both show up, but they’re certainly not going to let you know what’s going on in the pits, as they tune the powerful engine and tweak the trick suspension. Or maybe they will:

Mr. Romney’s team has concluded that debates are about creating moments and has equipped him with a series of zingers that he has memorized and has been practicing on aides since August. His strategy includes luring the president into appearing smug or evasive about his responsibility for the economy.

That’s it? Robert Schlesinger states the obvious:

This nicely illustrates one of the big problems that the Romney campaign has brought upon itself: They keep trying to find one magic moment on which they can turn around the race. They banked first on the vice presidential roll out and then on the GOP convention as instances where the American people would see and embrace a new Mitt Romney while finally turning on President Obama in the manner Republicans believe he deserves. That magic bullet instinct also explains the campaign’s jumping around from attack message to attack message (see: welfare attacks, “you didn’t build it,” “bumps in the road,” and so forth).

But things don’t work that way:

While we remember big moments in debates, they rarely if ever actually turn elections. The classic example is Gerald Ford’s declaration that the Soviet Union wasn’t dominating Eastern Europe – it’s remembered as a crippling gaffe, but he closed on Carter during the period of the debates that year. And while conventional wisdom (and, apparently, the Romney campaign) holds that Ronald Reagan only broke through after decisively besting Jimmy Carter with “there you go again” and “are you better off…?” in their late October debate, he was already leading in the polls at that point. It’s true that the polling trend line shows a Reagan surge after the debate, but he had been leading Carter since the late spring and had been creeping upward since late August. The Reagan-Carter debate accelerated an existing trend; it didn’t turn the election or change its dynamics.

And Schlesinger cites the American Conservative’s Daniel Larison on Twitter – “If people don’t like a candidate to start with, they aren’t going to be impressed when he uses one-liners and put-downs.”

Schlesinger – “People already find Romney unlikable, in other words; coming across as more of a smarmy smart-ass isn’t going to help him.”

Yes, but maybe it was a fake-out move.

The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein says this:

The idea that this election can be reshaped by a zinger speaks to a deeper problem in the Romney campaign’s fundamental view of the race. As they see it, Obama’s record is an obvious disaster and their job entails little more than pointing that out over and over again. That the polls haven’t seemed responsive to this theory hasn’t dissuaded them. The new explanation for Romney’s difficulties is that the media are in the tank for Obama and that’s why the Romney campaign’s message isn’t breaking through.

But during the debates, voters will see the two men on a stage together, with no media filter, and that could change everything. After the first debate, says Romney surrogate Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.), “this whole race is going to be turned upside down.” That’s the kind of thinking that leads you to pepper your debate prep with zingers. But it’s also the kind of thinking that’s losing this race for Romney.

It’s rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, of course. Still there have been some rather famous debate gaffes of the past, and Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal has a greatest hits video here – to remind you that Obama could blunder when confronted by a good zinger. But this doesn’t impress Kevin Drum:

The most famous gaffe of all, Richard Nixon’s refusal to wear makeup and his profuse sweating in the television studio, probably didn’t actually make any difference. The myth that Nixon lost the debate among TV viewers but won among radio listeners was seriously called into question long ago… Al Gore’s famous sighing in 2000 didn’t prevent him from posting a convincing win over George Bush in the overnight polls. It was only after the media got hold of the sighing meme that it took off.

As for the others, who knows? Reagan was already well ahead of Jimmy Carter when he invented the debate zinger in 1980, and it’s pretty unlikely that George Bush looking at his watch in 1992 really made much of a difference. As for the Ford and Dukakis gaffes – well, I don’t know. But I guess I’d like to see some evidence that there was a sharp tick in the polls shortly afterward.

There wasn’t – zingers don’t seem to work – and Drum simply points out the other foolishness here:

I don’t doubt that Team Obama is doing the same, but the big difference here is that the Romney guys actually bragged about it. This is so mind-numbingly stupid that Romney probably ought to be tossed out of the race just for sheer campaign incompetence.

Yep, you can see what will happen, and to move beyond what Drum says, imagine Romney drops his first well-rehearsed zinger and Obama says this:

That’s it? That was one of your big zingers? Cool – let’s hear the rest of them – might as well get them out of the way now. It’ll be fun. You go, Mitt!

That would be devastating – the president, juggling the thorniest issues in the world, day in and day out, on stage next to a guy channeling Don Rickles, for cheap laughs, just like down the street here at the Laugh Factory on Sunset. Mitt’s team doesn’t seem to see that the point of getting to debate the incumbent president, one on one, is to end up looking just as presidential as he does, if not more so. Doing stand-up might not be the answer here.

They can’t be serious. Something else must be going on in the pits before the race, something no one sees as no one has a pit pass. There must be some October Surprise in the works, and according to Craig Unger in Salon, in fact there is:

According to a highly reliable source, as Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama prepare for the first presidential debate Wednesday night, top Republican operatives are primed to unleash a new two-pronged offensive that will attack Obama as weak on national security, and will be based, in part, on new intelligence information regarding the attacks in Libya that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens on Sept. 11.

It comes down to this:

The source described the Republicans as chortling with glee that the Obama administration “definitely had intel” about the attack before it happened. “Intelligence can be graded in different ways,” he added, “and sometimes A and B don’t get connected. But [the Romney campaign] will try to paint it to look like Obama had advance knowledge of the attack and is weak on terrorism.”

He said they were jubilant about their new strategy and said they intended to portray Obama as a helpless, Jimmy Carter-like president and to equate the tragedy in Libya with President Carter’s failed attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran in 1980. “They are so excited about it,” he said. “Over and over again they talked about how it would be just like Jimmy Carter’s failed raid. They feel it is going to give them a last-minute landslide in the election.”

Andrew Sullivan is flabbergasted:

What’s amazing to me is that they are still trying to re-conjure Reagan’s 1980 campaign! The man has been turned into a God and his policies and electoral tactics are like some kind of eternal creed to which these lost souls subscribe. But using the recent mess in Libya as Obama’s equivalent of Carter’s helicopter crash? Please. Obama had one such moment – and he killed Osama bin Laden, something Dick Cheney couldn’t do however many people he had tortured. And yet today’s aspic-GOP have nowhere but 1980 to turn.

At the Foreign Policy site, Marc Lynch has a similar reaction:

In what passes for foreign policy debate six weeks before a presidential election, Republicans are focused on selectively parsing words to concoct a fantasy of the greatest scandal in American history — worse than Watergate! As dangerous as the failure to connect dots before 9/11! Grounds for impeachment!

The political calculations here are almost painfully transparent, as the Romney campaign desperately flails about for a way to attack Obama on foreign policy and change the subject to anything which doesn’t include the phrase “47 percent.” The media, bored with the current electoral narrative and always infatuated with sensational images of Muslim rage and the hint of scandal, is happy to play along. Such is policy debate during election season.

The focus of the “BenghaziGate” narrative has been on the conflicting narratives offered by Obama administration officials about what happened. The administration, they argue, intentionally played down the terrorism dimension of the attack for political reasons. A fair reading of administration statements would suggest confusion in the initial fog of war, with conflicting information and carefully guarded assessments which were updated as more evidence came in. Frankly, I don’t think the administration did a particularly good job of communicating their stance, or coordinating their message across different officials, and they did seem oddly defensive and reactive as the media narrative gathered steam. But as “scandals” go this is weak stuff indeed.

Lynch prefers critics ask real questions:

Was this an opportunistic attack by local extremists, or an attack coordinated with and supported by the remnants of al Qaeda Central? Even if it was opportunistic and unplanned, will its success become a model for future attacks? Will the Libyan government and the popular movements to disarm militias be strong enough to successfully establish state control? What is the significance of the fizzling of the protests across most of the region, and the crackdown by elected governments on the groups behind them? What about other governments faced with potentially emergent extremist groups, from Tunisia and Egypt to farther afield? How could the United States effectively work with those governments to meet such challenges? And at home, does Romney support Arab democracy along with long-time advocates in his party such as John McCain and Bill Kristol, or does he side with those on the GOP right more fearful of the empowerment of Islamists?

I certainly don’t know the answers to all these questions, even if most contributors to the “debate” seem to have such perfect information.

Perhaps Romney shouldn’t bring this up in any of the debates. Obama might turn to him and ask him if he’s thought about any of the obvious questions that Lynch poses. Obama has no doubt thought about them all, carefully – that’s his job. These are not the sorts of things stand-up comics think about.

Still there is something else bubbling around in the background and Greg Sargent identifies it:

The executive order banning torture was the very first one signed by Obama, to improve America’s image abroad, explicitly repudiating a major policy of his GOP predecessor. The Romney camp is internally debating whether to rescind that order, which would represent a return to those policies. There are only five weeks until the election, and we still don’t know what Romney will do on an issue with far reaching moral and international implications.

Yes, Romney has said he favors going beyond the techniques outlined in the field manual. But we still need an answer to the specific question of whether he would rescind the executive order itself. That’s because, even if Romney says he would revive the techniques, if he doesn’t rescind the order it’s not really clear he could do that, for a host of reasons. For instance, he might say he’d use the techniques in certain situations – but the relevant agencies might be reluctant to defy the executive order or might not want to act if it didn’t feel there was a persuasive legal rationale for doing so.

Well, maybe, but Salon’s Alex Pareene senses that Romney probably will raise the issue in the debates:

I think there’s a decent chance Romney will wholeheartedly embrace torturing the hell out of terrorists (and suspected terrorists and dudes who look like terrorists) at one of the upcoming debates.

Of course he will. That plays well with the base. It’s that attitude thing – torture doesn’t work, you get bad information, you become a pariah nation, but on the other hand no one messes with you, because they know you’ll do any damned thing you please and there’s not a damned thing they can do about it. You torture people for only one reason – because you can and you want everyone to know you can. Romney’s crew calls that leadership. Torture is no doubt being discussed in the pit right now.

Or it isn’t being discussed. No one knows what’s going on in the pits before the race, where the race is actually won or lost. We have no access. Maybe the Romney team is just working on their zingers and nothing else, with Obama working on trying different ways to stop himself from rolling his eyes and sighing. This may be no grand prix race after all, just a slow leisurely drive down familiar roads. Everyone wants to be a fly on the wall when momentous things are being discussed – but maybe flies can get bored too. There may be a good reason both sides are lowering our expectations. It’s not going to be much of a race.


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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