American political campaigns rely on what insiders call the ‘narrative’, though, like a Hollywood sales pitch, it’s a story that’s never more than a sentence long. One of the problems the Republicans have had this year is that they have three contradictory narratives for Obama. There is Obama in the dashiki: the Kenyan Muslim Socialist who ‘hates America’ (as Rush Limbaugh often says) and wants to turn the country into some sort of jihadi North Korea. There is Obama in the hoodie: the ruthless, corrupt gangsta, ‘Chicago-style sleaze’ (as John McCain said recently). And then there is the barefoot Obama, shirtless in ill-fitting overalls: an amiable but bumbling clown, ‘lazy’ and ‘not that bright’ (as Romney’s spokesman John Sununu said after the debate) who’s in over his head trying to run a government. Unfortunately for the Republicans, the images of Obama as simultaneously the blackface Scarface, Chairman Mao and Stepin Fetchit tend both to cancel each other out and bear no resemblance to the articulate, unflappable, professorial type and his seemingly perfect all-American, however unwhite, family.
The Democrats, however, have had only one narrative for Mitt Romney: he’s an arrogant, rich jerk. And week after week, Mitt (and Mrs Mitt) have dutifully, shall we say, followed the meme. Other than hedge funders and country clubbers, it is difficult to think of a segment of the population they haven’t insulted. Beyond the 47 per cent of the country who are parasites, there’s the rest of the working and middle classes, whom Mitt tends to call ‘them’, in case we’ve forgotten that’s he above their fray. And Mrs Mitt, our potential First Lady, when not telling women to ‘wake up’ and Latinos ‘you’d better really look at your future,’ had this to say about her $400,000 horse and the Democrats who, after all, represent at least half of the country: ‘My horse has more style and more class in its hoof than they do in their whole deal.’
Moreover, Mitt has a quality unique among politicians, though common to certain humans: the more people know about him, the less they like him. Heavily campaigning in Florida, his unfavourable rating went from 29 per cent in January to 48 per cent in September. In Ohio, which a Republican candidate needs to win, it rose from 34 per cent to 49 per cent. Mitt is losing, and quite possibly losing badly: the genius statistician Nate Silver currently gives Obama an 87.1 per cent chance of winning in November and a 97 per cent chance of winning if the election were held now..
The final act of the endless campaign is the series of presidential and vice-presidential debates. Silver has shown that they make no difference if a candidate is this far behind. But television and newspapers need ‘eyeballs’, and they long for a dramatic comeback and a photo finish. So the media hubbub around the first debate on Wednesday night was Romney’s stunning ‘victory’ and, as the New York Times’ Bill Keller put it, Obama’s ‘debacle’.
It’s true that Romney was like a starved German shepherd on a short chain, completely ignoring the hapless moderator, Jim Lehrer, while Obama kept staring down at his notes with a weary, perplexed smile. He never snarled back. And yet – although almost no one shares this opinion – I think Obama, doing almost nothing, was the ultimate victor, rather like the martial arts master who throws no punches, but evades all blows until his opponent collapses from exhaustion.
First, most of everything Romney said was the opposite of what he has been saying for the last 18 months. His still unspecified medical plan would now cover those with pre-existing conditions – which even his advisers had to admit later wasn’t at all true. Suddenly he was for regulating business, for Medicare, for Social Security, against cuts in education. (Previously he had called for abolishing the Department of Education and said that we already have enough teachers.) He even came out against protecting big banks.
Second, much of what he said was factual lies or, at best, half-truths. Among other things, he denied ever proposing $5 trillion in tax cuts, which he indeed had, and repeated ten times that Obama was taking $716 billion out of Medicare benefits, which was completely untrue. According to Think Progress, there were 27 different lies in 38 minutes.
Above all, he made a huge mistake – the one thing that will be remembered from this debate. He attacked Big Bird.
While railing about the budget deficit and our impoverished grandchildren, the only specific bit of deficit reduction he mentioned was cutting off funds to the Public Broadcasting System (which is 0.00014 per cent of the federal budget). As Obama said the next day, ‘He’ll get rid of regulations on Wall Street – but he’s going to crack down on Sesame Street.’ Within a few hours there were a quarter of a million tweets in the Twittersphere about firing Big Bird and countless cartoons – including inevitably, Big Bird strapped to the roof of Mitt’s car like his poor dog. Small children are now all over the internet imploring Romney not to harm Big Bird. You can’t get less presidential than that.
Obama was dull, but said nothing that can be used against him. Romney was energetic, but provided plenty of fodder for media ‘truth checkers’ and Democratic Party ads, some of which were already on television the next day. (We’ll no doubt be seeing Mitt’s line ‘The place you put your money makes a pretty clear indication of where your heart is’ juxtaposed with the palmy beaches of the Cayman Islands.) There was a telling moment when Romney denied that corporations get tax breaks for shipping jobs overseas (in fact, they do): ‘Listen, I’ve been in business for 25 years. I have no idea what you’re talking about. I maybe need to get a new accountant.’ As he suddenly wondered if there could possibly be a tax loophole he had missed, the Mitt meme emerged again: an arrogant, rich jerk.