Politics, media and the politics of media.
credit: The Dish/The Daily Beast
Last night Chris Matthews called the Etch-a-Sketch comment by Mitt Romney’s top aide one of the worst gaffes in political history, or something equally apocalyptic. Asked if Romney would be hurt in the general election by tacking so far right now, Eric Fehrnstrom said, “Well, I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch-a-Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and we start all over again.”
Matthews is often hyperbolic, but here I think he’s right: We finally have a powerful new metaphor for electoral pandering, one that perfectly defines Romney’s habit of repeatedly and mechanically saying whatever he needs to get across.
Flip-flop is exhausted, two-faced is even duller—but an Etch-a-Sketch is visual, it’s red, it’s a fun toy everyone knows, and you can hold it in your hands (it feels like a chunky prototype of the iPad). As many pundits have pointed out, these metaphors stick to Romney, as they don’t to Santorum or even Gingrich, because they’re true: his tailoring of policy to his electorate is rampant, almost compulsive. But Etch-a-Sketch bites more than flip-flop because the toy operates, as Mitt seems to, like an awkward machine that can’t draw a curved line.
An Etch-a-Sketch forces you to draw in straight lines, unless you’re patient enough to counter-intuitively twist both dials at once. It is drawing reduced to a mechanical process, but one that requires a kind of automatic dispensation for not getting the picture exactly right—like the image of Romney his campaign conjures, you have to use a little imagination to make the resemblance seem lifelike.
Naturally, Santorum and Gingrich started carrying around Etch-a-Sketches all day long as props. And within hours the Democrats had cranked out ads for the web. Here is the DNC’s, and here’s a far better spot, by American Bridge 21st Century, a progressive Super PAC from Media Matter’s David Brock:
This mock ad on YouTube, while too fuzzy and too long, captures the disconnected nostalgia of Romney’s campaign in general.
But of all the Romney Etch-a-Sketch mock-ups, so far only the image above, from Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish, actually shows the awkward, squared-off letters made by a single continuous line that the little machine forces you to draw with.
Another reason the Etch-a-Sketch remark—unlike “I like to fire people” or even the saga of Seamus the dog—may do real damage is that it is, as Tim Noah in The New Republic calls it, “America’s First Multiplatform Gaffe.”
Fehrnstrom’s Etch-A-Sketch crack will inspire parody images, Web widgets, and apps downloaded onto computer screens, tablet computers, iPhones, and of course Etch-A-Sketches. These images can effortlessly be e-mailed, Facebooked, and tweeted hither and yon. Competitive impulses will be stirred among rival campaigns, amateur and professional Web designers, and legions of wiseacres with too much time on their hands.
On the more positive side, one thing Fehrnstrom’s comment did for Romney was prove the vulture capitalist’s fine touch for American business. Late today, Ohio Art, the maker of Etch-a-Sketch, saw a 140 percent gain in stock price thanks to the slew of free advertising.
Fox News contributor Margaret Hoover and Fox & Friends co-host Gretchen Carlson dared to tell Bill O’Reilly on his show last night that they think the new MoveOn ad, “GOP War on Women,” will be effective. In the spot, various women read recent Republican comments on birth control and abortion, and conclude that “the GOP must have a serious problem with women, and until the Republicans get over their issues, we women have got a serious problem with the Republican Party.”
After O’Reilly ran the latter part of the ad, Hoover said, “As a Republican, while I don’t like it, I actually think it is a hard-hitting and will be highly effective ad.”
O’Reilly: But what sort of person would associate an entire political party with a few people’s opinions?
Hoover: …It’s not just a few people....
O’Reilly: I can’t believe you guys think it will be effective. What kind of moron would think that?
Hoover: Because we’re women, Bill.
O’Reilly: It has nothing to do with women.
And so it went, until Bill came back to say, “I have to scold Hoover now.”
Even Carlson (who doesn’t seem to dumb herself down on the Factor as she does on her own Fox & Friends) looked like she wanted to scold Bill right back as she reminded him that Republicans are losing the war for women.
Here’s the O'Reilly segment (and the even better, extended version of the MoveOn ad below):
A great column today by Frank Bruni on “Why are scarlet letters stitched only on women?” He responds to novelist Paul Theroux, who wrote in the Daily Beast that liberals “must give Limbaugh a pass, otherwise you lose the right to go on calling Gingrich and Eric Cantor pimps for Israel, and Rick Santorum a mental midget, and if you foreswear colorful, if not robust or wicked language altogether you might as well shut up.” Here’s Bruni:
It’s an interesting point, but it ignores the precise type of language Limbaugh turned to and assumes an even playing field where one doesn’t exist.
While both men and women are called idiots and puppets and frauds, only women are attacked in terms of suspected (or flat-out hallucinated) licentiousness. And only for women is there such a brimming, insidious thesaurus of accordant pejoratives.
Decades after the dawn of feminism, despite the best efforts of everyone from Erica Jong to Kim Cattrall, women are still seen through an erotically censorious prism, and promiscuity is still the ultimate putdown.
It’s antediluvian, and it’s astonishing. You’d think our imaginations would have evolved, even if our humanity hasn’t.
Anthony Weiner may have been felled by his libido, but the weirdness of its expression and his recklessness were what people mainly balked at. Ditto for John Edwards. No one called them gigolos.
You could argue that Limbaugh chose the slurs he did for Fluke simply because the context, a debate over contraception, was in part sexual.
But there are examples aplenty of women being derided as sluts and prostitutes—two of his descriptions of Fluke—when sex is nowhere in the preamble, nowhere in the picture.
Rush Limbaugh talks with guests in the East Room of the White House in Washington, January 13, 2009. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)
Rush Limbaugh’s show has never sounded so bleeding-heart liberal as it did this week, when commercial sponsors bailed and were replaced by the United Negro College Fund, Feeding America, the US Department of Health and Human Services and other nonprofits and governmental agencies. In fact, of the eighty ads running Friday on the online stream of Limbaugh’s flagship station, WABC in New York, seventy-one were public service announcements and three were station promos. According to Media Matters, one of the six remaining paid ads was from an advertiser who had asked for it to be pulled.
Now some fifty national advertisers—more if you count locals—have pulled their ads from Limbaugh’s show to avoid being associated with his attacks on Sandra Fluke as a “slut” and “prostitute.” Rushbo is so radioactive right now that even some PSA freebies are running away from him. The American Heart Association wrote in an e-mail to Bloomberg.com, “It is our practice to be a content-sensitive advertiser, and in light of the current controversy, we will be asking WABC to no longer utilize these unpaid PSAs.”
So it’s been a bad week for Rush. Though maybe not quite as bad as CNN, MSNBC and some blogs have made it sound. They all reported that on Thursday WABC suffered more than five minutes of dead air time where ads were supposed to have run on Limbaugh’s show, leaving the impression that radios across Gotham fell into real radio silence.
But it wasn’t quite as simple, or as satisfying, as that. The five minutes and thirty-three seconds of dead air (distributed over four commercial pods in the three-hour show) occurred, as Media Matters reported, only on WABC’s online show, not on the station’s broadcast.
The dead air, however, was indeed caused by the flight of Rush’s sponsors. Explaining what happened, one radio insider told me, “If advertisers are asked to pull [that many] ads, the system is experiencing something it hasn’t experienced before.” That is, the software’s algorithms couldn’t handle the replacement of so many regular spots with PSAs in the time before transmission.
I asked Michael Harrison, publisher of the trade magazine Talkers if this was the largest exodus ever of radio advertisers. “It’s hard to rank because it’s hard to say how long it will go on,” he says. But in terms of that many advertisers bolting in so brief a period, he says, “This is the biggest.”
“Here’s what matters: how many listeners start to pull out,” Harrison continues. “Then there’s a problem for the future. We suspect that his audience is increasing now. The irony is that Limbaugh’s advertising is probably worth more than ever. But unless you believe that the American advertising industry has a high bar for standards and taste, then there will [eventually] be more advertisers coming on. We’re talking about nobody advertising on the number-one show in the business. How likely is that?”
Harrison, who describes himself as politically neutral and interested only in the health of the broadcast industry, adds, “The worst thing that could happen is that advertisers will gang up on Limbaugh and he’ll end up on satellite or streaming only. If this accelerates to where it severely hurts Limbaugh and thereby all of terrestrial radio, including many stations that play liberal hosts, it will be another nail in the coffin of terrestrial radio.”
But for now, at least, Limbaugh’s stain appears to be spreading mainly to other right-wing talkers (as well as some of the cruder shock jocks). Some ninety-eight advertisers have asked that their ads appear nowhere near Limbaugh, Hannity, Beck, et al., according to Radio-info.com. The website published a memo from Clear Channel subsidiary Premier Networks that listed advertisers (including Ford, GM, Toyota, Allstate, Geico, Prudential, State Farm, McDonald’s and Subway) who, as the memo states,
specifically asked that you schedule their commercials in dayparts or programs free of content that you know are deemed to be offensive or controversial (for example, Mark Levin, Rush Limbaugh, Tom Leykis, Michael Savage, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity). Those are defined as environments likely to stir negative sentiment from a very small percentage of the listening public.
Of course, if it really was so very small a percentage, this would not be a big problem for talk radio. And Rush would not be spending so much of the time on his program raising support for the United Negro College Fund.
Even before we saw the above clip of Andrew Breitbart screaming “BeHAAAVE yourself! BeHAAAVE yourself!” at Occupy protestors outside the CPAC conference last month, that’s how many of us saw Andrew Breitbart: red-faced, veins popping, eyes like pinwheels as he leans forward (and not in the MSNBC sense) to spew barely coherent rants like, “You’re freaks and animals!” “Stop raping people! Stop raping people!” “You freaks! You filthy freaks! You filthy, filthy, filthy raping, murdering freaks!”
True, he wasn’t all exclamation points all the time, but Breitbart, the conservative blogger/impressario who died Thursday at age 43, had come to represent the tantrum at the heart of the right wing.
That tantrum will not die with him, but his death—coming within hours of Rush Limbaugh’s “slut” tantrum that he later (and barely) apologized for—may have prefigured something about the future of hyperventilating right-wing extremism.
This is not to dance on Breitbart’s grave, as many on the right have been attacking the left for doing (and I say that not just because I don’t want to go through what Matt Taibbi is right now). It doesn’t really matter that Breitbart himself danced on Ted Kennedy’s grave within minutes of his passing, either. No, I actually found Breitbart’s death shocking and strangely resonant. And I wonder if the hysteria you can see in his eyes in that clip doesn’t come from righteous anger alone but also from a sense of impending doom—and if something similar doesn’t explain the ugly, self-destructive rage that’s been bursting out on the right ever since the election of Barack Obama.
After all, in the coming months, Breitbart was facing a lawsuit from former USDA official Shirley Sherrod that he well might have lost. Sherrod was fired from her job after Breitbart posted a heavily edited tape of her speaking to the NAACP that made it seem as if she had treated white farmers with “reverse racism,” when in fact the rest of the speech proved she was actually urging her audience to overcome such feelings. The suit was sure to win exhaustive coverage and, whatever its outcome, would almost certainly have left Breitbart’s reputation (such as it was) in tatters and his wallet lighter.
If he had lost the suit and had to pay damages to a civil rights figure for defamation, he would have found his tweets less trusted and his websites less believed. For many people, a conviction would have also shown how dishonest the ACORN videotapes, made by his protégé James O’Keefe had been all along. The destruction of ACORN is still Breitbart’s greatest media victory (if you don’t count destroying Anthony Weiner, who was headed that way anyhow and just happened to use Breitbart as his weapon of accidental, career suicide). And in that atmosphere, who would take seriously the mystery videos that Breitbart announced at CPAC would prove that Obama’s presidency was “plotted” long ago in the “salon” of Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn?
Breitbart’s death doesn’t shut down the Sherrod lawsuit; it is likely to continue against his estate and his aide Larry O’Connor (also named as a defendant), unless Sherrod drops it. Sherrod hasn’t said what she’ll do, but she did issue a graceful if brief statement on Breitbart’s death: “My prayers go out to Mr. Breitbart’s family as they cope during this very difficult time. I do not intend to make any further comments.”
Obviously, Breitbart was under a lot of pressure, considerably more pressure than being a slave to “this twittering, unending bloghorreic chatter,” as Andrew Sullivan put it. (Sullivan went on to call Breitbart “our first new-media culture-war fatality.”) Maybe it’s a bit like the pressure of running in the Republican primaries. That seems to drive people into crazy talk, too.
And maybe it’s like living under the ever-increasing demographic and cultural pressure of simply being a twenty-first-century, severely conservative Republican. Obama’s very presence in the White House reminds them of their impending extinction; that he attends to their every outburst of hysteria with unflappable calm makes them even more desperately sure that he’s their mortician.
Breitbart died less than twelve hours after Rush Limbaugh called Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute” for testifying before Congresss about the need for health insurance to cover birth control. The next day, Limbaugh amped the attack, saying, “If we are going to pay for your contraceptives, and thus pay for you to have sex, we want something for it, and I’ll tell you what it is. We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch.”
On Friday, with some advertisers abandoning his show, Limbaugh tried to double down again, but he seemed confused, even wheezy with dread. By Saturday, much of the GOP backing was away from him, however meekly, and he was, for one of the few times outside of his OxyContin bust, apologizing—well, non-apology apologizing, referring three times to his “choice of words,” without mentioning his intent.
Andrew Breitbart’s death resonates because it happened now, just as the right’s artillery of outrage seems to blowing up in their faces. And that may be his real legacy.
The permission slip above is not real, not yet. But it could be if the Senate passes the Blunt amendment, which would allow employers to deny insurance coverage for birth control if it conflicts with their “religious beliefs or moral convictions.” Just in time for today’s vote, the Obama campaign posted this mock-up of what the future could hold. The only thing they left out is that employers could deny coverage for any* medical service that rubs them the wrong way—from amniocentesis to vaccinations. Have a moral objection to bionic humans? There go the knee replacements!
* The Blunt amendment states: “Nothing in this title (or any amendment made by this title) shall be construed to require an individual or institutional health care provider, or authorize a health plan to require a provider, to provide, participate in, or refer for a specific item or service contrary to the provider’s religious beliefs or moral convictions.”
Update: The Senate voted down the Blunt amendment on Thursday by a razor-thin margin of 51-48.
With Mitt Romney producing strange statements like “The trees are the right height” and “I was a severely conservative Republican governor,” Chris Matthews has been flabbergasted at how the likely Republican nominee “doesn’t speak our language.” Now, in anticipation of tonight’s Academy Awards, where the The Artist, a film about a silent movie star, is competing for Best Picture, Matthews debuted a trailer for a movie of his own: Mitt: Better Off Mute.
US Republican presidential candidates (L to R) US Representative Ron Paul, former US Senator Rick Santorum, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich stand for the national anthem before the start of the Republican presidential debate in Mesa, Arizona, February 22, 2012. REUTERS/Laura Segall
My expectations were low, but still it seemed odd: During the three-hour GOP debate last night in Mesa, Arizona—117 miles from Tucson, where a year ago Jared Lee Loughner shot six people dead and injured thirteen, including Representative Gabby Giffords—no one raised the issue of gun control. Not that I thought the candidates would touch the subject (even if a day earlier Newt had bully-boyed Chevy’s most energy-efficient car by saying, “You can’t put a gun rack in a Volt.” Watch this dude prove him wrong). After all, NRA-fearing politicians from Obama on down have been as silent on gun control post-Tucson as they were effusive over Giffords’s brief appearance in Congress last month, when she announced her resignation.
Nor did I expect anyone in the auditorium audience to risk life or limb by squeaking out a query on gun violence, banning high-capacity ammunition clips, or doing background checks on customers at gun shows. But I did hold out a sliver of hope that CNN would let either someone over the Net or moderator John King himself venture there. Apparently, though, King’s last run-in at a debate with Gingrich—who blasted him as piece of liberal-media detritus—left him gun shy.
But wait—I stand corrected: one reference to gun control did penetrate CNN’s bulletproof process, and it came from Ron Paul. Rick Santorum was explaining why he believes that “contraception is dangerous.” It leads to, he said, “the increasing number of children being born out of wedlock in America.”
Paul, an Ob-Gyn, could have countered with the obvious, that contraception could help lower the number of children born out of wedlock, but instead the doc said:
I think it’s sort of like the argument—conservatives use the argument all the time about guns. Guns don’t kill, criminals kill. So, in a way, it’s the morality of society that we have to deal with. The pill is there and, you know, it contributes, maybe, but the pills can’t be blamed for the immorality of our society.
So, the closest the fearsome foursome got to even obliquely talking gun control in gun-happy Arizona was to liken it to birth control. If the Medieval crowd goes any further down this road, their new verity could become: “Birth control pills don’t kill people, having sex kills people.”
Sake, a pug, is carried in a backpack by his owner Tate Hausman of Brooklyn during a protest aimed at Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in New York, Tuesday Feb. 14, 2012. (AP Photo/Ginger Tidwell)
So far Mitt Romney has come off as weak, weird and willing to say anything to be elected. But lately, a new meme has been taking hold. “Mitt is Mean!” read the protest signs outside the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in New York this week. The “Dogs Against Romney” are howling that Romney once drove his family from Boston to Canada with their Irish setter, Seamus, in a carrier strapped to the roof of the car. (“Dad, gross!” one of his sons cried, as he saw diarrhea sliding down the back window. The mild-mannered Mitt has always insisted, though, that the pooch “enjoyed” the twelve-hour, breezy ride.)
Now a Santorum ad running in Michigan says that Mitt is even meaner to human right-wingers. “Romney and his super PAC have spent a staggering $20 million brutally attacking fellow Republicans,” says a voiceover as a Mitt lookalike (“Rombo”) fires an automatic weapon loaded with mud at a Santorum cardboard cutout. Mitt keeps missing his target, and the mud eventually backfires onto his crisp white shirt.
Mitt does have a mean streak, but it hasn’t always been obvious, if only because he packs it behind a frozen smile and an Auto-Tune laugh. Bland on the outside, roiling on the inside, he’s almost the definition of passive-aggressive: expressing “negative feelings, resentment, and aggression in an unassertive passive way.” Mitt regularly attacks, lies or infuriates people, all the while professing to be blissfully unaware of any negativity. “I know the Speaker’s angry. I don’t know why,” Romney said patiently as pro-Romney ads carpet-bombed Newt Gingrich in Iowa. The former Massachusetts governor won’t even own up to the normal aggression expected of politicians. On why he didn’t run for a second term, he gets all Eddie Haskell-y, saying, “But that would be about me.”
When asked about Santorum’s humorous ad, Romney laughed, a lot, and said, “My campaign hasn’t run any negative ads against Rick Santorum.” Maybe not. But the pro-Romney Super PAC Restore Our Future has been hitting Santorum with a barrage of attack ads that paint him as a big-spending Washington insider. In fact, third-party, Super PAC destruction machines like Restore Our Future—run by the creator of the Willie Horton ad, Larry McCarthy—are perfectly engineered for passive-aggressive pols: they, like Colbert or Romney, can displace the source of aggression from themselves onto someone else and thus can technically deny all responsibility. Why, if he coordinated in any way with Restore Our Future, Mitt says, they’d send him to the “big house” (and not the one he’s enlarging in La Jolla).
Look, it’s hard to run for president, and it’s particularly hard not to come across as phony when you have to appeal to such a wide range of mutually hostile political types. But just about everybody who has followed the 2012 campaign has noticed something about Romney’s personal delivery that makes them think he’s lying, even when he’s not. He’s a flip-flopper, yes, but so are most pols. Just as John McCain’s campaign in 2008 bared his true soul as a reckless gambler with a touchy sense of self-importance, Mitt Romney’s campaign is baring his psyche, and it is sorely divided.
His whole emotional tug-of-war appeared last week in one word, the only word, in fact, that Romney ad-libbed during his speech at CPAC. “I was,” he said, “a severely conservative Republican governor.”
Romney’s press secretary, Andrea Saul, said on CNN that her boss simply meant he was a “strict conservative,” even insisting that strict and severe mean the same thing. Perhaps Romney was thinking of the “strict father” in the linguist George Lakoff’s formulation: while liberals seek “nurturing parent” types in their politicians, Lakoff says, conservatives are drawn to all-powerful, authoritarian daddy figures. The kind, you might say, who dole out severe punishments, like trying to cut women off from contraception and passing legislation that would force women seeking abortions to first receive vaginal ultrasound probes. (Yes, Virginia Republicans, there is an Invasive Government. It exists as certainly as you do.)
Most strict-to-severe conservatives are on to Mitt’s strange locution. “The word ‘severely’ is almost always used colloquially in a pejorative or clinical sense (‘severely unhappy,’ ‘severely handicapped’),” Allahpundit writes, “yet he’s using it here in a boastful way, as if to say that he can be as strident and unreasonable as he thinks the crowd needs him to be to give them comfort on his ideological bona fides as nominee.”
Eric Erickson adds, “It sounds more like a critique of conservatives from the left than that of a conservative himself.”
He’s right: it is a critique of conservatives. “Does Romney Even Like Republicans?” Jonathan Chait asks in New York magazine, writing, “His constant discomfort on the trail is the agony of suppressed contempt.”
Chait chalks it up, as others have, to the defeat of Mitt’s father by right-wingers in his 1968 run for the GOP presidential nomination. When George Romney, then governor of Michigan, said he had supported the Vietnam war because the military had given him a “brainwashing,” he was being honest, courageous even, admitting he’d been had by US propaganda. But the severe conservatives of the day made like he was a Manchurian Candidate, and effectively ended his political career. (Then we got Nixon.) Chait writes, “young Mitt wrote to his father… ‘How can the American public like such muttonheads?’ ”
Mitt couldn’t say that publicly, of course, not if he wanted to avenge his dad’s failed bid for the Republican nomination. But he has been hating on muttonheads and avoiding unequivocal honesty (not to mention courageous stands) on fraught subjects ever since.
For the non-passive, simply aggressive Republican, this is like meeting their straw men and finding that they is us: their probable standard-bearer is a weak, effete elite (like Kerry) who is uncomfortable in his own skin (like Gore) and would look idiotic in a combat helmet (like Dukakis). The only upside to Romney for the right is that, as David Frum found Grover Norquist telling the CPAC crowd, Mitt’s such a weak sister that he’ll do whatever they tell him to do. (“We just need a president to sign this stuff,” Frum quotes Norquist saying. “We don’t need someone to think it up or design it. The leadership now for the modern conservative movement for the next 20 years will be coming out of the House and the Senate.”)
But maybe Norquist shouldn’t be so cocky. On the off chance that Romney actually wins the presidency, all the anger at right-wingers that he’s been keeping out of sight, riding on top of the car, so to speak, could explode. He does not like sharing with allies who seem to threaten his ego. Remember how, after Romney demolished Gingrich in the final Florida debate, he fired his new debate coach, reportedly because the media was crediting the coach for Romney’s victory?
Apparently, Mitt Romney likes firing people whether they serve him badly or very well.
I love it: some of the Republican Party’s all-time bully boys and girls are on the verge of forming a circular firing squad. First, Chris Christie (the gov who shouts “None of your business!” to perfectly polite New Jersey citizens) called Newt Gingrich (the debater who fancies himself the wizard of the mob) “an embarrassment to the party.” Then, Sarah Palin (the woman who kicks sand in the face of community organizers) rushes to Newt’s corner, saying Christie’s got his “panties in a wad.”
Nobody, but nobody on the right talks that way about the New Jersey gov. It’s almost as rare as righties (such as Palin, Newt and Christie himself) taking aim at Rush Limbaugh.
Is Christie going to stand for this? Or is he going to tell the former half-term Alaska governor to come say that in Trenton and face the repercussions “Jersey style”? “Yesterday, given the chance,” writes PolitickerNJ, “Christie said he didn’t want to touch Palin’s remarks.”
Like a lot of bullies (and politicians at large), he’d rather slip out a side door. As he’s also doing on the issue of gay marriage. Rather than stick to his threat to veto Democratic legislation legalizing gay marriage, Christie has proposed letting the voters decide. That way he could assure conservatives that he still opposes gay marriage, but by avoiding a veto, he also avoids alienating the bulk of New Jersey voters, who now favor gay marriage, 52-42, and who he needs to win re-election in 2013.
State Senate President Steve Sweeney, who believes Christie is really gunning to run as Romney’s veep, says, “To say that a matter of civil rights should be subject to a political campaign is not only a cowardly abdication of leadership, but a slap in the face to those whose rights are being trampled.”