Campaigns have been becoming more expensive, more vicious, and more ridiculous over the past half century. They have ceased to be “great debates” about the issues of the day, but marketing campaigns where both sides deal in sound bites and tested scripts. Veer from the script and say something wrong and you risk being accused of a ‘gaffe.’ Gaffes are dangerous, and politicians try to avoid them.
Of course, if we ever looked at a transcript of our day to day conversations, we’d uncover gaffes all over. But we’re not candidates. Human error and carelessness — something we all possess — becomes a sign of something nefarious and weak. More important than that, political campaigns have become marketing campaigns where the end product increasingly has little or nothing to do with the campaign itself.
Every candidate now has websites where his or her campaign promises and positions are posted. They have to — that’s part of the marketing campaign, you have to show voters that you have serious proposals and substance. What that substance is results from a serious effort to determine what will impress the voters. Candidates know that once they are in office they cannot be held to anything they said before. The reason is that parties block each other, and President Obama, for instance, can easily say “if the Republicans didn’t obstruct I’d be able to do whatever I wanted and deliver.”
Still, Mitt Romney’s ability to be all things to all people with no clear core makes him the pinnacle of this evolution. He is the post-modern candidate, a man whose positions and speeches mean nothing except to play their role in the marketing campaign that is a Presidential election.
Back in 2008 I noted this trend (citing the Joe McGinniss book ‘The Selling of the Presidency’ about the Nixon campaign in 1968), and how the Obama campaign had gone further than anyone treating it as an exercise in marketing. Romney has taken it yet another step further. We don’t really know where Romney stands, except that he’ll take the stance necessary to try to get elected.
Another aspect of his post-modern flavor is not only don’t we know what he truly believes at core, but he is very secretive about his past, his financial affairs and even it seems when he left Bain Capital. Apparently he has a Swiss bank account, other off shore accounts (or at least had them) and doesn’t want to release old tax returns or other details about his life. The latest controversy about when he left Bain is a case in point.
He claims to have left in 1999 when he went to head the Olympics. Yet documents show he was listed as CEO until 2002, and there are other reports of his involvement. His campaign’s reaction? To angrily denounce the accusations as they admit that “technically he was still the owner.” Technically?
Some believe that “Baingate” could severely damage the Romany candidacy. If it does come out that he lied, it could be an albatross around his neck through November. Even if the issue fades, it adds to the way the Obama campaign wants to define Romney, and distracts from the arguments Romney is making.
The upside of being a post-modern candidate is that if people don’t really know you or where you stand, you can create a persona and take whatever positions are most beneficial to your quest. The down side is that it becomes easier for people to imagine the worst. In a campaign you don’t control the narrative, it’s a competition.
I suspect I do know Romney’s core. The hundreds of millions of dollars big donors are giving PACs to run a slash and burn negative campaign against Obama give a hint: he’s supported by the business and financial elites who see in him someone who will protect their privilege and profits. He’s probably a decent man of privilege, believes he knows what’s best for the country, and govern pragmatically. He’s known for having no qualms about being as ruthless as possible to defeat an opponent, and for saying whatever necessary to get elected.
Recently I was on a flight back from Germany with a group of students. I sat next to a friendly woman, probably in her sixties, who was returning from France. The three of us in that row had a conversation which was mostly not about politics. At one point though she said, “I don’t see how any one can think someone making $300,000 is rich. You take the property taxes and other costs, it’s middle class.”
I didn’t want an argument so I simply said, “well, only about 2.5% of the population earn that or better.” She switched topics saying only, “yeah, sometimes we forget there is a whole country between the coasts.” She was a nice woman, but apparently doesn’t really understand the reality outside her socio-economic group. Romney is like that as well – the conventional wisdom of the elite is his conventional wisdom, and if it takes shifting positions and skewering opponents with attack ads to get the Presidency, then it’s the game he’ll play.
He even looks and acts the part. Handsome but boring. Getting lots of money but generating little adoration. He hopes if he says the right things, takes the right positions and attacks and outspends his opponent he’ll get the job he deep down knows he deserves. Then he will serve the people. Noblesse oblige.