I am fully aware of how electoral politics is used to distract us from pursuing any kind of direct democratic action: as a siphon of limited time and organizing energy, but also as a restraint to keep us in line. If organizing a social justice movement (political campaign) without the stated objective of influencing electoral politics is ineffectual (as those in power brand it), then why bother? Just stick to voting every couple of years. Reading my blog, it may not surprise you when I write that the win/lose construct is one of the most effective tools to discourage us from participating in shared dialogue. That said, I feel like there is an opportunity for us to move forward here by simply recognizing the missing point.
Try this - when thinking about what was said at the debate, apply this filter: every single attack Romney made on Obama at the debate was for something that Republicans had requested, initiated, or modeled prior to Obama picking it up and moving it forward. Does this alter your perception of the debate?
A little background. There was a lot of media attention and speculation when Supreme Court Justice Roberts presented his “dissenting” opinion concerning the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act mandate. Left leaning media hailed it as a victory for Obama, citing dissension within the court between Roberts and Scalia. Strangely I did not find, and still don’t find, anyone writing about how saving the legislation would be a boon to the Romney campaign. The logic here is simple - “Obamacare” is the single most important issue specific avenue of attack that the Romney campaign has in its arsenal. Other values based issues have been used again and again in Republican campaigns, but this issue is specifically a product of the Obama Administration, often described as Obama’s “signature legislation.” Removing this issue from the table would have been disastrous for Romney, having spent so much of his campaign focused on “repealing Obamacare.” Roberts’ re-contextualization of the mandate as a “tax” was widely panned as a stretching of the law, but it did do one thing perfectly: it defined a specific difference between Obama’s healthcare legislation and Romney’s Massachusetts healthcare legislation. Romney’s was a mandate, but Obama’s was a TAX. And Republicans love taxes.
After Paul Ryan gave his speech at the Republican National Convention, there was again an uproar in the press over all the “lies” he told from the stage. But again, I saw no specific critique that pointed out that each of the legislative problems Ryan blamed on the Obama administration was actually dreamt up and put into motion by Ryan and his cohorts. This was a blatantly transparent strategy of toxification. You have an issue that you will undoubtedly use against me in a debate. I preemptively attack you for creating the issue in the first place. My base believes my attack because they do not have any other information to dispute my claim. When it is time to debate, you cannot bring up the issue without immediately being blamed for it - it has been made toxic. Your ace in the hole is now my ace in the hole.
This is the strategy that Romney used throughout Wednesday’s debate. Once this strategy has been put into motion it is practically impossible to defend against. If all of what I witnessed on Wednesday was not simply scripted spectacle, then it would seem that Obama’s campaign is not quite as smart as they are given credit for. It is too late to mount a defense when you finally realize that each of the legislative compromises you made is a trap which will be used to attack you. If you defend yourself by saying “I gave you what you wanted,” they will only label you a weak, whiny liberal. When Romney flipped the switch attacking Obama repeatedly for making cuts to Medicare (under the guise of balancing the budget, reducing the deficit, reigning in spending, ALL Republican talking points) there was simply no defense he could mount. When Romney attacked Obama on Obamacare saying that it was a failure at a federal level while declaring (for the first time) that his own Massachusetts plan was a model for all states to emulate, what could Obama say? But my plan is based on yours? If yours is a success, then SO IS MINE!? How does one draw attention to the essential difference between oneself and one’s opponent when the majority of one’s “successes” come through compromise with them?
So why didn’t the Democrats see this coming? Is this just the ultimate outcome of bi-partisan politics? I don’t have any faith in this President, but I also know that Romney/Ryan could be even more of a nightmare, for the simple fact that their base offers little or no resistance to (and would even celebrate many of) the draconian measures they would certainly codify into law. Even with all of his outrageous expansions on policies initiated during the Bush (and Clinton) years, Obama still has to maintain a public image as benevolent leader that Romney will not. Of course, all bets are off during a lame duck presidency...
There really is only one way (that I can see) to deal with this Republican flip the switch strategy. Mobilize the American people to support legislation that they actually want. Basing new policy on past Republican policy proposals in order to garner Republican support? How’s that workin’ for ya? Yeah, not so much. Perhaps our current “great communicator” president wasn’t up to the task of popularizing a program of renewal with the American people, or perhaps his pragmatism keeps him from launching the kind of ambitious plan that Americans could actually get excited about, or perhaps he is actually just the smiling face of corporate control. Whatever the reason, it is up to us to recognize how these concepts link, and how they yield predictable results - if we don’t want to get swept up in the horse race frenzy that our political system has become.
Who won the debate? Who cares.
P.S. Regarding Big Bird - remember this? Are we really this easy to manipulate?