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June 14, 2011

Mitt Romney's Devious Debate Performance (And I Actually Mean That In A Good Way)

This post is a bit long. Further, it synthesizes a lot of things I've said about the actual art of politicking -- not policy, but politicking -- I've mentioned before, because I think the debate was good showcase for those arts. Skip it, of course, if you like, but I think this is a cogent take.


I.

Because I was (am) a dork, I owned a role-playing game called Gangbusters, which was basically D&D set during Prohibition, Treasury agents & gangsters & cops. The game included a preface by a descendant of one of the actual Untouchables (forget which -- not Elliot Ness), in which he listed the attributes of a successful law enforcement agent vs. the attributes of a successful criminal.

The lists were virtually identical, except, at the end, the successful cop was bound by loyalty and honesty, whereas the top-flight criminal was not so restricted.

He made a special point of noting one attribute that was crucial to both -- deviousness, in the definition 3:b sense of cunning or craftiness, or as Shakespeare used to call it, "art."

A good cop needs to be able to think like a good criminal to bring him in in irons. Barack Obama is playing a devious game himself, and it's going to take some deviousness -- seeing what Obama's master plan is, and countering it -- to eject him from office.

II.

Obama is not running like the typical incumbent President, of course. He is running again as Candidate Obama. And even Candidate Obama didn't run as a typical candidate. He broke the long-understood agreement as to what a candidate is supposed to be and supposed to stand for -- and he profited from his rule-breaking, because no one called him on it.

When Candidate Obama ran in 2008, he curiously ran as both the most liberal candidate in the race (naturally), and, oddly enough, as the most conservative candidate in the race. He talked up his centrism and his temperament, a temperament, he averred (with David Brooks and other useful idiots vouching for this), which was innately cautious and careful and thoughtful, and therefore "conservative" by nature, whereas the jerky, erratic McCain was the radical.

Oh, and he also promised a tax cut, which McCain didn't.

This is powerful position to run from. If you imagine a pie chart representing all possible policy solutions to an issue, usually a candidate occupies only a relatively small slice of that pie. People who like that particular slice will vote for him. People who don't like that smallish slice of policy pie will not necessarily vote against him, but also won't vote for him based upon a slice of pie they don't fancy.

Candidate Obama ran, basically, as the whole pie minus John McCain's meager serving. John McCain had a narrow slice of the pie representing McCain's Policy Portfolio -- much more detailed than Obama's gaseous promises of hope and change -- and so limited himself largely to voters who were 1, going to vote Republican anyway, and 2, liked that narrow bit of pie.

Whereas Candidate Obama had the voters who 1, were going to vote Democrat anyway, or 2, didn't like McCain's slender piece of pie and would rather select from all other parts of the pie not claimed by McCain. Thus, McCain had 10% of the pie and Candidate Obama claimed ownership of 90% of the pie.

This is why you had "conservatives" endorsing him. Among the policy pie claimed by Obama were slices which were actually on the right side of the pie, or at least not the left.

III.

That's how he ran as a Candidate. At least you can understand that. Having voted "present" on so many critical issues as a Senator, having cautiously avoided committing himself to any particular position on anything apart from the fundamental awesomeness of one Barack Hussein Obama, you could see how he could get away with this (assuming an acquiescent media, and let's go ahead and assume just that).

Generally we expect our candidates to do more as regards specific promises made to voters, promises which can both attract some voters and repel others. Candidate Obama ran on one set of assumptions and also their polar opposites.

Ah well. That's all in the past now. Except it's not. Now running not as Candidate Obama but as President Obama, you'd imagine, must certainly now not run on the Whole Fat Rest of the Pie but must, now at least, run on the specific narrow slice of pie which is defined by his actual policy decisions and his actual political accomplishments.

Obama has punted on every major issue, time and time again. This is not mere cowardice. It is that, of course. It is cowardice and dereliction of duty.

But it is something more than that, too: It is cunning.

IV.

Because Obama doesn't plan on running -- and here, let me toss out some logical designations, because I can't talk about slices of pie forever -- as "A," A being defined has his actual positions and achievement.

He plans on running, again, as Not A, every other conceivable policy response, and plans on making his opponent, whoever that might turn out to be, "A."

That is, he is avoiding any specific response to debt or Medicare because he doesn't want the burden of having to defend a thin policy slice called "A."

Instead, he will force his opponents to pick a policy slice -- like Ryan's plan -- and call that "A," and run as "Not A" against it.

Republicans will have to defend a narrow position, unpopular simply because it is realistic and detailed and responsible and responsive, whereas Obama will simply run as "Not in favor of that."

In favor of something else. But in favor of what, exactly?

Shhhh. He's not telling. Loose lips sink ships, Old Chap.

If he is permitted to take this rhetorically insensible and fiscally irresponsible position, and is not refuted hard on this dodge, he has a very good chance of being elected again.

Under no circumstances can he be allowed to run, for the second time, as a "blank screen upon which you can project your hopes."

V.

The reason I think Romney won the debate -- and also earned some respect from me -- is that he was the most forward in challenging this outrageous pose of Obama's.

Obama's "Not A" posturing -- basically running as a challenger, while making the actual challenger appear to be the well-defined, shackled-by-specific-positions incumbent -- is a cunning, if dishonest, way to run.

He can win if this dishonesty is not challenged and exposed at every turn.

And there is one way to do that: To note, as Romney did repeatedly (and Bachman tossed in an attack here, too), that Obama is "missing in action," "absent from office," "leading from behind" (whatever the hell that could possibly mean), and fundamentally abdicating his duties as Commander in Chief of the United States of America.

Obama plans to demagogue the Republicans after having been so irresponsible as to force them to do something they realized was against their political interests -- propose a detailed, specific plan to deal with the impending financial collapse of the country.

And having forced them into doing so, he now intends to further profit from his callous disregard of the national interest.

He cannot be permitted to do so. He cannot be permitted to pretend that, as the elected, serving President of the United States of America, he has no obligation to take positions on the most critical issues of the day, but instead can play golf and inform us "I'll get around to that eventually; right now, I'm voting present, yet again."

VI.

Disclosure: Romney mirrored two idea I've repeated endlessly myself -- that Obama "delegated the stimulus to Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid," and that Obama is "failing to lead." I've marked both as the two most potent campaign themes.

Do I think he's reading my blog? No, not really. This stuff is sort of obvious. Nevertheless, I have to confess some intellectual vanity here that may compromise my judgment -- I can't help but feel pleased that Romney has come to the same conclusions I have, even if they are obvious.

Obvious or not, I can't help feel a little vindication that my own obvious observation has been validated by a major presidential candidate.

So there's a brief disclosure of potential compromise. I have an ego.

VII.

Now, on to why I think Romney won and Pawlenty performed under expectations (again). I'm not dealing with the other candidates because, hell, we're already up to Part VII. And I don't think that all candidates are actually plausible candidates anyway.

Obama's strategy: Remain as undefined as possible, even though this makes not a lick of sense, given that he finally has a record and a meager set of accomplishments (and a rather more lengthy accounting of failures). Make the GOP opponent, whoever that might turn out to be, the defined one. Define him, and, as Alisky said, freeze him, polarize him. Continue running as the candidate of Hope and Change, despite the fact that after four years, you'd think he'd be able to run as the candidate of Accomplishment and Deed.

Romney's strategy: Call out Obama for failing to define himself through action and proposal; do not allow him to grab the mantle of "Not A." But also -- and this is tricky -- also run himself as a fairly undefined candidate. That is to say, while Obama seeks to run as "Not A" to an opponent's "A," Romney wants to reverse the situation and run as "Not A" to Obama's "A." But Romney himself, then, is using this "blank screen" strategy.

Pawlenty's strategy: Obama is A, and should be defined as such. And Tim Pawlenty is B. That is, as Obama has a series of defining traits (and failures), Tim Pawlenty has sought, through three fairly bold proposals, to sharply define himself in contrast to Obama. Obama shall be A, and Pawlenty will not just run as Not A -- a nebulous, undefined thing -- but as B, well defined, and making specific promises on issues.

A quick aside: Running as "Not A" puts you in a better position to win, but running as "B" is bolder and more honest, as it alerts the public to what you actually intend to do if you assume office. Running as B, though, also gives voters more specific reasons to specifically reject you.

VIII.

Here's why Romney won, then, and Pawlenty didn't. Romney was permitted, by Pawlenty (and the others), to execute his strategy of defining Obama as A and himself as Not A, a strong rhetorical position to be in, with few specific policy promises to repel voters. Essentially, Romney ran down Obama, and promised the ideologically-neutral, universally-desired attributes of "leadership" and "better managerial skills" and "sharper brains."

No one can say "Oh, I'm ideologically opposed to those." Just as no one, except for a radical praying for the implosion of the American system, can be against a growing economy and low gas prices.

If you remember 2000, Bush's refrain in his nomination speech was not a series of specific policy promises. It was the musical, rhythmic, non-ideological:

They had their chance.

They did not lead.

We will!

Romney's promises were similar. Sure, he did in fact make a series of conservative commitments with respect to the economy, but almost every candidate on that stage would have said the same basic things, had John King permitted them to.

But he also repeatedly attacked Obama on non-ideological grounds -- a failure of leadership, and a complete failure of achievements.

Non-ideological grounds are perfect for a general election, of course. And they even sell in the primaries... if your opponents permit you an advantage in this department.

Now, Pawlenty, as I said, has a bolder platform. But if he wants to actually profit from that, he has to leverage that into actual support, and to do so, he must compare himself to Romney.

That is, just as Romney was eagerly cutting into Obama for a failure to lead, Pawlenty needed to do the exact same thing to Romney and accuse Romney of attempting to run as some kind of stealth candidate, with less policy meat on his campaign-theme bones.

But Pawlenty didn't.

Pawlenty can't forget he is the challenger here to front-runner Romney. Romney wins on a tie and wins by default. Pawlenty can't just do okay; he has to actually beat Romney to beat Romney. Whereas Romney doesn't have to beat Pawlenty to win. Romney just has to not lose, or lose, but not by much.

Romney executed, and was permitted to execute, his plan of playing Not A to Obama's A.

Pawlenty didn't execute his own plan to be B to both Obama's A and also B to Romney's A.

Romney is running more -- as a front runner can sort of get away with -- as the general-election candidate of broad themes and bold strokes.

Whereas the upstart Pawlenty is running as the guy with the detailed plan, details that can both attract and repel voters, true, but an upstart has to count on the "attract" part of that being the stronger impulse.

It's just a matter of execution in performance. Romney's plan makes sense. So does Pawlenty's. But one guy executed on the stage, and the other guy forgot all of his own advantages and failed to leverage those into a favorable contrast.

IX.

Just kidding. There is no IX.

But if you want a IX, revisit this.

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posted by Ace at 03:00 PM

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