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The Story of 'the Stench' and the Future of the Right | The Nation

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Leslie Savan

Politics, media and the politics of media.

The Story of 'the Stench' and the Future of the Right

As you may have sniffed out by now, Paul Ryan has not really been going around calling Mitt Romney “the Stench,” as Roger Simon wrote in his Politico column on Tuesday:

Though Ryan had already decided to distance himself from the floundering Romney campaign, he now feels totally uninhibited. Reportedly, he has been marching around his campaign bus, saying things like, “If Stench calls, take a message” and “Tell Stench I’m having finger sandwiches with Peggy Noonan and will text him later.” 

…Ryan reportedly said, “Let Ryan be Ryan and let the Stench be the Stench.”

It’s all satire, Simon said late yesterday. It may not be particularly good satire when it’s located inside false quotation marks. But the significant thing is that so many people so easily believed that either Paul Ryan would call his boss “the Stench” within earshot of reporters or that his entourage would eagerly leak such roguishness. From MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell, who devoted a thirteen-minute segment to the Stench (“Yeah, he said that,” said O’Donnell with glee) to Craig Robinson, a former Iowa GOP political director, who inadvertently inspired the fracas, almost no one, including me, saw this as mere truthiness.

It all started when Robinson was quoted in Sunday’s New York Times saying, “I hate to say this, but if Ryan wants to run for national office again, he’ll probably have to wash the stench of Romney off of him.”

On Wednesday, when Robinson saw the Simon story, he took pains to explain what he meant on TheIowaRepublican.com: “I used the word stench to basically say that Paul Ryan will have plenty of baggage to deal with should he and Romney come up short on November 6th. I don’t think anyone would disagree with that, but my choice of words has elevated my comment to something I didn’t necessary [sic] intend it to be.”

Simon eventually fessed up to Buzzfeed that the column was “satire,” and late last night wrote not an apology, exactly, but an explanation for confused readers:

Jonathan Swift did not really want Irish people to sell their children for food in 1729; George Orwell did not really want the clocks to strike thirteen in 1984; Paul Ryan, I am sure, calls Mitt Romney something more dignified than ‘Stench’ and Microsoft did not invent PowerPoint as a means to euthanize cattle. At least I am pretty sure Microsoft didn’t.

But the Swift and Orwell examples seemed clearly over the top even in their time (and the PowerPoint dig is hyperbole, not satire, as Mediaite pointed out). The Stench nickname, however, simply rang true to a lot of people. Why was everyone so ready to believe it?

First of all, we have the indelible precedent of Sarah Palin going “rogue” four years ago. Other VP candidates may have wanted to break from the head of their ticket, but she’s the first one to do it in such a single-mindedly, nakedly ambitious way (and make a demi-career of it afterwards).

Secondly, there’s the circumstantial similarity that people are beginning to see the Romney campaign circling down the drain, just as they saw McCain’s snake-bit campaign getting flushed four years ago. It seems the temptation for Ryan to wear a T-shirt printed with an arrow and “I’m with the Stench” must be nigh on overwhelming. Ryan’s far-right confreres have been dumping on Romney for his incompetence for weeks now, and it’s only natural to expect Ryan to at least make some sort of hand signal to his constituency that he knows he’s trapped and wants out.

And finally, there’s the future of the whole “movement conservative” idea at stake. Ryan was chosen to suggest that there’s a rising tide of low-body-fat young people who can’t wait to join the GOP, help update Ayn Rand, and gently ease Medicare off a cliff. But the minute Ryan seems like he’s leading a conga line into a roach motel instead, he becomes toxic. He could come to represent the abject failure of those ideas with the Republicans’ own base.

We have the additional example of the faded careers of most losing GOP vice presidential candidates. Bill Miller, Goldwater’s running mate, Bill Miller, for instance, disappeared so completely he did one of those “Do You Know Me?” American Express ads a few years later. Even Sarah Palin was a no-show in Tampa this year—for a minute I thought Clint Eastwood’s empty chair was for her.

That’s what Lawrence O’Donnell (whose Last Word blog apologized for taking the Stench story at face value—we’ll see if he does so on air, too) has been saying all along: that by throwing his hat in ring with Romney, Ryan is throwing away his political future.

If the Stench calls, take a message, please.

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