It’s been a minute since I wrote up my thoughts on the presidential campaign. I thought I’d post about it now to let you know that this? This nonsense that’s been going on? This is why I think it’s important to pay attention to the primaries.
The primaries are where the real substance of the campaigns happen, regardless of which party is holding them. After the primaries, when the field is narrowed to one candidate from each side, that’s when all the meaningless, stupid, petty, shallow, dumb-ass mudslinging starts. And that’s the only thing most people see. No wonder they hate presidential elections.
I suppose one could argue that it’s a flaw in the system, that the real substance of the debates should continue when everyone is forced to pay attention. But by then, really, the candidates are just trying to get the majority of Americans to know their names and a few catch phrases that are easy to remember in a voting booth. Sure, it’s insulting, but it’s also effective because they’re appealing to the lowest common denominator who don’t really care about the substance as much as they say they do. If they did, they would have paid attention to the primaries.
Or at least read my blog about them. (Check out the Political Snark category for more stuff with which you can enthusiastically agree or disdainfully disagree. Or, if you stumbled drunkenly into this post, there are other categories you might hate less.)
Yet and still, it seems that this time around, the candidates have really missed the mark on each other.
What Pres. Obama is doing wrong
President Obama’s camp keeps doubling down about Romney’s taxes and his wealth while never striking at the heart of the matter. Nobody cares that Mitt Romney is rich. Good for him. What people care about is whether Mitt Romney has any idea what it’s like not to be rich. And he seems to have demonstrated several times that, in fact, he does not. The president doesn’t have to replay Romney’s gaffes; he only has to make it clear to voters that Romney doesn’t know what it is to be middle-class or poor, so how could they trust him to make sure they don’t suffer under his economic policies, should he ever care to share them? That’s what the Obama campaign should be pushing. Instead they’re wandering around in these woods of “did he pay taxes?” and Sen. Harry Reid is going off half-cocked on the floor. It’s silly.
The president needs to stop blaming Pres. Bush for everything. He was right to do it from 2007 until maybe 2010 or so. After that, it’s time to own it. The people who were upset with Pres. Bush and his policies, who blame him for the situation Pres. Obama inherited, still remember that. The president need not remind them of that. The president needs to start appearing to take responsibility and carry a mantle.
They need to get Vice-President Biden to stop saying stupid stuff. You can’t tell voters in Southern Virginia that Mitt Romney would put them “back in chains.” Full stop.
They need to talk more about what they’ve done right. Fine, a lot of people hated part of the women’s care provision in the Affordable Care Act. (I didn’t happen to love that part, either.) But there is a lot in the Affordable Care Act (that’s its actual name) that is good, and not just the coverage for adult children or the end of exclusion for pre-existing conditions. Beat those drums. Beat the drum of national security. Beat the drum of education improvement. Beat the drum of a better image around the world. They’re getting all of that wrong.
What they’re getting right is beating the drum of 28 consecutive months of economic growth. But they aren’t really following through. They need to drive home the factual question mark about what happens if the country changes horses now. The factual question mark, not the emotional one. Emotional appeals, while hugely popular in campaigns, are hollow and see-through to those who have been paying attention.
What Mitt Romney is doing wrong
Well, for starters, he’s making an ass out of himself all over the place. I don’t mean that disrespectfully. But he managed to piss off Israel and the Palestinians at the same time. It may have demonstrated the first time those two sides have agreed on anything, which is phenomenal, but it’s not good. He got off the plane in London and immediately said they weren’t ready for the Olympics, which was just stupid on a lot of levels – and also, turned out, incorrect. In Poland, his aide swore at a reporter and in the same breath called the place where they were standing a holy site. This was Romney on the world stage, and it wasn’t pretty.
It is still, all these months later, difficult to know what Mitt Romney stands for. Those who will vote for him seem more interested in voting against Pres. Obama, or in voting for the theoretical principles of the Republican Party, than in voting for Mitt Romney. While I get that, it’s not enough to sway those who feel something less than hatred at having Obama as president. Romney has been too vague. In comparison, Rick Santorum in the primaries made a lot of his ideas very clear: specifics on how to change corporate taxation to bring about more manufacturing, leading to a better business environment, more exports and more jobs, for example. Romney just says “we need more jobs.” He somehow manages to cross messages, shouting that government doesn’t create jobs, and then arguing that if he were president, he’d create more jobs. Wha…?
He doesn’t take a firm stand on anything, ever. Maybe that’s because he’s seen it burn President Obama (see: unemployment). But, for example, when he talks about energy, he says in the same sentence that we’re using too much oil and we should drill for more here. Those points seem contradictory. When a radio host called a college grad student a slut for advocating for birth control availability, Romney moused that “those weren’t the words” he would use. If you can’t take a hard line about whether it’s appropriate to call that woman a slut several times on national radio, what can you take a hard line about?
He still comes off as stiff at worst, forcing it at best. He seems insincere. He seems uncomfortable. He seems only to know that which he’s heard anecdotally about the world of the unwealthy. He’s still Thurston Howell the Third to everyone else’s NASCAR Nation. And if this makes him better for the job, he’s not demonstrating that. Yes, Mitt Romney can stump for years on how President Obama hasn’t delivered on promises about unemployment or the economy, and that’s true. He was a fool for having made those promises to begin with. But Mr. Romney has run on words that gloss over issues and make it sound like he’s articulating an idea. Romney has run his entire race on the theory that the election is just a referendum on President Obama, and he need not do anything else.
Until he realized he needed to do something else. That’s when he picked Paul Ryan to run as vice-president.
Ryan doesn’t help make up any undecided voters’ minds. So what’s the point? I think the GOP is worried that people will stay home on November 6th. Ryan will galvanize Tea Partiers who were lukewarm about Romney and maybe independents who didn’t think either candidate was firm enough on anything; he lends numbers and solid plans to a candidate who lacks both on the economy. And Ryan helps with states like Florida, which could mean more electoral votes for Romney. From now until the convention, the two men will not appear together. They’re dividing to conquer, which allows Ryan to go places where Romney alienates people. (The interesting thing about Ryan helping in Florida is that his budget plan calls for a $700 billion reduction in Medicare. Coincidentally, so does Obama’s.)
Make no mistake: the selection of Paul Ryan was a move to the far-right. The less flashy, more moderate picks would have been Rob Portman or Tim Pawlenty. But, like the campaign of 2008, the GOP needs energy. Like the campaign of 2008, they have disregarded the qualifier of whether the VP could actually be president and gone with the person who’d be sexier for the campaign. All that remains to be seen – besides endless attack ads – is who Americans can stomach the best.