While I, like the vast majority of you, thought that Mitt Romney was lying through his pearly teeth in the first debate, I was less confident that the American-viewing public in general would recognize it as such. The fact is that Mitt Romney wanted to look moderate in his introduction (yeah, sadly, it still was that) to much of the public that doesn't tune into the election until around now -- and he did. He did not seem as scary as those of us who have been following the election know that he is.
Yes, Obama should have done better in the debate by responding to Romney's lies -- but that's harder to do than one might think.
Mitt's personality remake in the first debate, no matter now much we may say that we saw it coming -- was hard to anticipate. That he'd try something like this at some point was no surprise, but the sheer extent of the transformation was shocking. It was a high-risk strategy -- or at least it should have been.
First, it depended on conservatives absolutely not caring a whit that he was backing away from his severe conservatism -- the equivalent, perhaps, of Obama backing off on gay rights and abortion in a debate, which would have had most of us screaming so hard at him that we still wouldn't have stopped. We forget how easily and firmly conservative Republicans fall into line; "he's just trying to snooker the ignorant masses" is a positive for them.
Second, it depended on a massively inattentive and malleable public. I and many others didn't think that Mitt would try quite so brazen a remake as he did because his campaign had already had a huge gaffe earlier in the year that should have made it a terrible choice: the "Etch-a-Sketch" reference.
Eric Fehrnstrom's promise that after the primaries Romney would just be able shake up the Etch-a-Sketch and refashion his political personality was an embarrassing "Kinsley gaffe" -- yes, that was the plan all along, but you're not supposed to acknowledge it. And there had been good reason, prior to the first debate, to think that Romney was not going to try that sort of extreme and deceptive tactic -- mainly, that in the seven or so months since he had won the nomination, he hadn't done so. The plan seemed to have been abandoned, especially as each week of his being "severely conservative Mitt" seemed to bind Romney's hands all the tighter.
For that reason, I am less prone than many to blame Obama for failing to call Romney on his specific lies -- and, beyond that, for the more stark and general deception of his overall demeanor. In hindsight, one can say "you'd better be ready for that," but it really was a surprise to think that Romney would come out whole hog shape-shifter like that. That's what Obama wasn't ready for.
One reason that he wasn't ready for it is that it's a very hard thing for the participant in a Presidential debate to counter in real time -- because one thing on which Presidential candidates are judged (and Vice-Presidential candidates generally aren't) is their affability.
The best example I can think of came in the 2004 debates. Republicans were running in part on a gay-bashing strategy. Democrats had a great retort to this: Republicans were hypocritical, as was obvious because Dick Cheney was perfectly accepting of his lesbian daughter Mary. In the Vice-Presidential debate, John Edwards had slyly used Cheney's acceptance of Mary to show that people could and should be more tolerant in this respect, Cheney acknowledged the compliment tersely and the debate moved on. In the subsequent Presidential debate, though, John Kerry made the same sort of mild reference to the respect and love that Dick Cheney had for Mary Cheney regardless of her lesbianism -- and the Republicans made the most of their lack of consistency.
After the debate, Mary Cheney's mother Lynn attacked Kerry for being a "horrible man" -- without so much as acknowledging her daughter's lesbianism, making it seem like a shameful family secret with which she was being unexpectedly and gratuitously confronted on national television -- and it became a disaster for the Kerry campaign.
That was a trap for Kerry in 2004. He had been lulled in part by Dick Cheney's restrained reaction to Edwards in the Vice-Presidential debate into thinking that he could point out an obvious truth -- and the Republicans beat him with the "outraged mother" club. Similarly, calling out Romney on his shameless, eye-popping shape-shifting was a trap for Obama. Yes, it had to be done. Yes, Biden got away with it just fine in the VP debate. But there was not necessarily a good way for Obama to do it that night. (We may think of some now -- but we've had time to do so.)
In part, the fault for this is with Obama's campaign -- but like it or not, we're an unofficial part of that campaign, so the burden falls upon us as well. We should have done more to block off Romney's escape route. Maybe we still can -- but we have to realize that that's specifically what we have to do. We have to get even low information voters to understand the cynicism of this comment made the day after Romney had won the Illinois primary at the start of spring:
“Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch a Sketch. You can kind of shake it up, and we start all over again.”WE HERE all know about that quote and what it signifies. The brilliance of our opponents, the Marketing Party, is that they know that the low-information voters who will decide this election don't.
So how do we counter that? It's two-step process:
(1) Polling should assess whether average (and low-information and swing) voters out there even know how the term "etch-a-sketch" applies to the 2012 campaign. This is not so much to find out whether they do -- they don't -- as to collect data to point out that they don't. Crosstabs will show that those that don't skew hard towards Romney.
(2) We then need to -- with all of the force and effort that the Republicans used to shove a chestnut from the earlier days of the 2008 primary, William Ayers, into the face of the electorate -- get people to understand why the Etch-a-Sketch matters: Mitt Romney absolutely, more than any Presidential candidate since Nixon, cannot be trusted. He is not what he seems -- and he doesn't even care that you suspect it. There are enough suckers out there whose votes can be won to swamp you.
Do you know what I'd love to see happen? (I'm just riffing here, don't take it too seriously.) I'd love to see, during the third debate, President Obama flip his side to one side and unbutton the middle half of his dress shirt, and pull it apart like Clark Kent to show a t-shirt featuring a huge Etch-a-Sketch. Would that be "cheating"? How much do you care, in this instance?
(Alternatively, when Sasha and Malia accompany Michelle Obama on stage after the debate, have Sasha carry an Etch-a-Sketch. And of course there can be commercials....)
Now is the time when people are tuned in and trying to figure out whether Mitt Romney really is as horrifyingly extreme as we've been saying he is -- and he didn't seem like it in Denver. But Eric Fehrnstrom handed us a great gift back in March -- and we've stopped playing with it and showing it off to company.
People who don't pay close attention to politics don't know about the Etch-a-Sketch. Romney gambled that they wouldn't -- and so far he's winning that bet. We -- Obama too, but we, as that's something that we ourselves can control -- have get the public up to speed. Do that, and they may still yet be aghast at how badly Romney lied on October 3 -- because for the first time they will understand and believe it.
We fight now under the banner of the Etch-a-Sketch -- but we have to explain to people what that banner means. (We have one great advantage in that fight: it will be fun.) This is not a time for us to be subtle; this is not a time for us to wink archly at each other. Brandish the Etch-a-Sketch high and explain to people what it means:
Mitt Romney Cannot Be Trusted. He's Playing You.