Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Mittens vs. Newtron

Posted by on Tue, Jan 24, 2012 at 4:02 AM

Talking Heads
  • Talking Heads
A reporter — or a citizen for that matter, but reporters do this for a living — can write about a political race in a number of different ways. There's the policy approach, or following the positions espoused by the candidate and seeing how voters respond. There's the process approach — the guts of the campaign organization and how it runs. There's the personal style of the candidate, there's the statistical horse race (polling) and there's the media game — paid media (ads) versus free (the press). And there's the whole campaign money stuff.

As for myself? It's really just an elaborate version of the Would-You-Rather-Have-A-Beer-With-This-Guy test.

We begin, first, with vision. I don't really think most voters pull a lever based on one issue (pro-choice, anti-obesity, cap and trade, whatever). Rather, I think voters carry a big, broad understanding of what a candidate would do in office. Ronald Reagan was optimistic about America, the city was still shining on the hill, and so forth. Bill Clinton was both from, and had, Hope. These are visions, the umbrella under which every decision uttered by a campaign can be explained.

Item No. 2 is the candidate's biography and character. John Kerry sought to define himself as a patriot who had served his country before he became the local windsurfing champion of Martha's Vineyard — and don't forget the spandex. George Bush beat back the impression of being an unaccomplished frat boy to emerge, with chainsaw in hand, whacking mesquite in the dust of West Texas and clamoring about in a pickup truck with the windows down. Effete East Coast limousine liberal? Or rough-and-ready warrior of frontier America? Which candidate was America more comfortable with?

Ultimately, the vision question and the biography question must merge, as if it were all a matter of destiny and preordination. The messenger becomes the message. Or if you don't like McLuhan, then study your Yeats: "How can we know the dancer from the dance?"

Barack Obama was so good at this. He successfully twained his polyglot upbringing and community organizing background with an argument for both American assimilation (read that as "getting along with one another") and upward mobility.

This is all to say that Mittens Romney has serious problems in this department. And that Newtron Gingrich deserves some credit.

First, Mittens.

What is his vision?

I cannot tell you. From day one, he sought to cement his frontrunner status by focusing his fire on Obama. The string would be pulled from his back, and the words of attack would mechanically pour forth in play mode. It was never convincing. Nor was it particularly smart criticism. His message devolved into the kind of professionalism once promised by Michael Dukakis. I can run big organizations. I ran the Winter Olympics. Hey, bring on the Federal Reserve!

He does present well on a Christmas card, however, with a lovely passel of kids and wife. But the biography of financial and personal success demands a narrative that involves sacrifice, derring-do, staying calm under fire, a moment at which the company would have gone under save for the brilliance and leadership of The Man.

Romney pulled some all-nighters while earning both an M.B.A. and J.D. at Harvard. The coffee goes cold.

Newtron, on the other hand, gets no love for the Vision thing, which he does so well. The night of the South Carolina Primary, the media storyline was that Newtron was just a vessel for the anger, vitriol, economic insecurity and anti-Mittens vote. But in his speech, Gingrich outlined the two big issues in the race (bad economy, shaky foreign policy) and then firmly posited both under the assumption of American Exceptionalism, a right of American leadership on the world stage as outlined (and he said this) in Paine's Common Sense, the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution. We are not here by accident. We are here by an act of 18th century destiny, the Enlightenment in action. It is purposeful in its creation, and perhaps (though he did not say this) ordained by God. And we are today living inheritors of this tradition.

Newtron scored. Sure, he channeled anger and aggrievement. But he framed the discussion. He had a thesis paragraph with supporting arguments. He brought it all home.

Newtron is a highly flawed human being, but American history is replete with rascals, and the line separating one from the other is often thin. The argument Mittens is making before the jury is that he promises to run things as well as he has run such a nice, personal life. But what Mark Twain would tell you about the American character is that, in times off great moral urgency (say, slavery), a little bit of mud on your boots speaks volumes.

We're doubling down in the economic hole of Florida, where Mittens is trying to go on the attack but finding that in so doing he tarnishes his squeaky-clean demeanor, and so all his sons can do is publish photographs of him doing the family wash. Again, the dude stays clean.

Newtron, meanwhile, is thinking evil thoughts, because they come naturally to him.

Winston Churchill defeated the Nazis in part because the people had confidence that he recognized the lunacy in others, probably because he recognized it in himself. His depression — he called it the "Black Dog" — ensured the British went elephant hunting with an elephant rifle. He knew the beast. The beast was brutal.

Mittens was last seen with a Daisy Red Ryder B.B. Gun — and I think the people are starting to get that.

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