Leslie Savan | The Nation


Leslie Savan

Politics, media and the politics of media.

Mitt Romney: Heterosexual White Vampire Hunter

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. (AP Photo/Rich Schultz)

GOP pitchman Fred (“Demon Sheep”) Davis wanted Chicago Cubs owner Joe Ricketts to give him $10 million for an ad campaign attacking President Obama for promoting himself as a “metrosexual black Abe Lincoln.” It’s a great phrase, like “Etch-A-Sketch candidate,” but that trio of sneers sounds a lot more like the mood of those restive GOP debate audiences last winter.

The black part is pretty straightforward—the ad campaign would link Obama to his former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who has been code for “scary black man” on Fox News for four years running. “Metrosexual” is “a roundabout homophobia taunt,” as Charles Blow says, as well as demeaning code for Obama’s most annoying (to the GOP) trait—his cool, unflappable acceptance of contemporary life, including gay marriage, which is splitting their coalition (even the Ricketts family itself, since Joe’s daughter, Laura, is an LGBT activist and Obama bundler). And “Abe Lincoln” is, of course, ironic: Davis didn’t mean Obama is equivalent to the first Republican to be elected president, he meant that Obama sees himself as a charismatic leader on a moral crusade to win America’s current management/labor dispute. Billionaires like Joe think Obama taking the mantle of Lincoln is meant to make them look like Simon Legree.

“But, they still ‘like’ him,” Davis wrote in the fifty-four-page storyboarded ad proposal that appeared on the front page of the New York Times last week.

Bitter is the taste of another man’s bread, and the gall of Obama’s success with the American people taints every morsel of Davis’s text. This particular ad campaign will never air, of course, because both Ricketts, whose fortune comes from founding TD Ameritrade, and Mitt Romney repudiated it as soon as the Times exposed it. Brian Baker, head of Rickett’s Ending Spending super PAC, issued a statement saying that the campaign was “merely a proposal—one of several” and that “attacks that seek to divide us socially or culturally” reflect “an approach to politics that Mr. Ricketts rejects.”

That may be, but it wasn’t as if Ricketts, or Baker, had previously rejected the plan out of hand. The day before its story broke, the Times asked Baker “whether Mr. Ricketts had rejected the advertising proposal, [and] he said only that no decision had been made.” You’d expect them to deny it now; the point is the proposal exposed the GOP’s nervousness about Obama’s personal likability. After three years of the GOP’s non-stop obstruction and economic hostage-taking, coupled now with an austerity program that’s being rejected around the world, the Republicans simply can’t believe people don’t blame the president for all that.

“Yet, we still ‘like’ him,” Davis wrote.

When you are running with a popsicle stick like Mitt Romney, that’s a problem. Most of the outrage over the Davis proposal stems from its willingness to dredge up Reverend Wright once more; his fiery sermons about “not God bless America, God damn America!”led to Obama’s eloquent speech about race in 2008, which pretty much ended the issue. Wright (and race) are still important reasons for the GOP base to hate Obama. But most of the Republican establishment thinks using race will turn off independent votes—just as the McCain campaign feared it would when they rejected an Obama-Wright ad Davis tried to sell them back in 2008.

Mark Salter, a close McCain adviser, figures that’s why the ad campaign ended up in the Times in the first place. “I suspect this was leaked by someone who wants to stop it from happening,” he told ABC News. The conventional wisdom now is to read this whole kerfuffle as a Karl Rovian warning shot that Citizens United freelancers need to fall in line and bear Mittness to a unified message.

Fred Davis has played for both the mainstream and Tea Party sides of the Republican roller derby since the McCain/Palin defeat. Davis’s greatest talent is for creepy, GIF-like visuals that invoke apocalyptic or occult imagery, like the red-eyed demon sheep he created for Carly Fiorina, the pulsing millennial strobe of the Obama “Celebrity” ad for John McCain, or Christine O’Donnell, candidate for US Senate, looking straight into the camera and saying, “I am not a witch.” Davis is still smarting that he wasn’t allowed to take down Obama the Wright way the first time, and he had reason to think Ricketts is, too. The proposal starts out by quoting Ricketts saying, “If the nation had seen that [2008 Davis] ad, they’d never have elected Barack Obama.”

Well, they saw something like it, in an ad by the National Republican Trust, which, as Dave Weigel says, went over “like a lead balloon.”


But there’s every reason, judging from the proposal, to think that Davis saw playing with racial anxieties as a door-buster, a budget multiplier:

Prepare for a great deal of howling and gnashing of teeth from all of the usual suspects and some of their weak-kneed Republican co-conspirators. Obama for sure will play the race card, as will the liberal press.

That gives us enormous free airtime and we will prevail provided our response is locked, loaded and ready.

It's a phenomenally powerful argument that's never been properly exploited.

Davis wanted to leach the sting of the racism charge by hiring “an extremely literate, conservative African-American” spokesman, and recommended California talk show host Larry Elder. According to the proposal, Davis’s people approached Elder “in confidence and he immediately understood and ‘got it.’”

Hundreds of thousands of Republicans were really taken with Herman Cain, too. All of this seems obviously racist to many of us, but to conservatives, it’s not. Think of it as identity politics in reverse—the more you claim to see no racial conflict in America, the more you establish your Republican identity. And yet many believe that Obama won because he’s black. Davis is groping towards a way of saying, “Of course you like the exotic, handsome black guy, but face it, you can’t afford him.” The long lines of devoted fans following Obama “like sheep,” stubbornly liking him after all the economic pain his administration has overseen, similarly defy the way the Republican establishment thinks of politics itself, chiefly as a way to apportion wealth.

And wealth, in many ways, is Mitt Romney’s race; for one thing, it’s both a positive and a negative. It’s Joe Ricketts’ race, too, and billionaire Frank Vandersloot’s,who gave a million dollars to a Romney Super PAC, took the title of Romney finance co-chair, and then complained that his private business had suffered prejudice because of his politics.

There’s nothing the GOP can do, really, about Obama’s log-cabin-to-the-White House story, which reminds us of another metrosexual from long ago (or wait—wasn’t he a vampire hunter? It doesn’t really matter). The essential thing is that selling a financial capitalist who favors austerity and the Ryan plan during the Great Recession won’t be easy, and to do it, this year, for the first time, a sitting president will have to be outspent in advertising. In all that paid time there has to be room for a few spots that really make you dislike the guy.

Not because he’s black, of course…

Mitt Would Force Us All to Take a Haircut

(AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

The more we learn about Mitt Romney, the more it makes sense that his defining physical characteristic is his hair.

Since 2004, pundits have insisted that Mitt’s helmet, tinted silver at the sides just so, is “perfect” and “presidential.” His hair is one of his few natural political gifts—it is not dyed (as far as we know), any more than it ever gets mussed or hangs in his eyes. And now we know from period photos that his current do is the lineal descendant of his hair in prep school, where, in his senior year, Mitt attacked a fellow student for his defining physical characteristic: his hair.

As Jason Horowitz tells it in the Washington Post, in 1965, when Romney returned to Cranbrook School after spring break,

he spotted something he thought did not belong at a school where the boys wore ties and carried briefcases. John Lauber, a soft-spoken new student one year behind Romney, was perpetually teased for his nonconformity and presumed homosexuality. Now he was walking around the all-boys school with bleached-blond hair that draped over one eye, and Romney wasn’t having it.

“He can’t look like that. That’s wrong. Just look at him!” an incensed Romney told Matthew Friedemann, his close friend in the Stevens Hall dorm, according to Friedemann’s recollection. Mitt, the teenage son of Michigan Gov. George Romney, kept complaining about Lauber’s look, Friedemann recalled.

A few days later, Friedemann entered Stevens Hall off the school’s collegiate quad to find Romney marching out of his own room ahead of a prep school posse shouting about their plan to cut Lauber’s hair. Friedemann followed them to a nearby room where they came upon Lauber, tackled him and pinned him to the ground. As Lauber, his eyes filling with tears, screamed for help, Romney repeatedly clipped his hair with a pair of scissors.

Lauber’s hair wasn’t just long and free, like a woman’s, and bleached as only a woman’s would be in 1965; it also covered one eye. A person was hiding under there, peeking out at the others, keeping a secret—maybe he was winking—and this made the hair on the back of young Mitt’s neck stand to attention. “He can’t look like that! That’s wrong. Just look at him!”

Maybe none of the boys who attacked Lauber felt even a momentary attraction stirring in that repulsion, the kind of repressed homoerotic feelings that Colbert weaves into his standard parody of right-wing homophobia. Romney now claims that he, apparently unlike almost everyone else at Cranbrook, hadn’t a clue that Lauber was gay (which he was).He also says he doesn’t remember anything about the incident—which he nevertheless doesn’t deny and ever so weakly apologizes for.

An unnamed former classmate, who describes Romney’s behavior in the dorms as “like Lord of the Flies,” doesn’t believe Romney can’t remember the episode the other boys involved can’t forget. The classmate told ABC News: “It makes these fellows very remorseful. For [Romney] not to remember it? It doesn’t ring true. How could the fellow with the scissors forget it?”

But let’s take Romney’s word for it. If he really doesn’t remember, maybe it’s because he’s repressed the memory of Lauber’s sexual orientation along with any memory of why his hair was so threatening in the first place.

Well, not to get too Freudian here. Rush Limbaugh, for one, says that even if Romney did cut Lauber’s hair, it had nothing to do with the gay: it was just good ‘ol American hit-a-hippie fun.

1965—probably a stretch to say it had anything to do with the kid being presumed gay. You had long hair in 1965, you were gonna get razzed. It didn’t matter. They weren’t gonna think you were in the Beatles. If you had long hair in 1965, you were gonna get made fun of. See, 1965’s a great year; bullying was legal.

Kris Kristofferson’s 1970 song, “Law is for Protection of the People,” attests to how common unprovoked ganging-up on nonconformists once was:

Homer Lee Honeycutt was nothing but a hippie
Walkin’ through this world without a care
Then one day six strapping brave policemen
Held down Homer Lee and cut his hair

’Cause the law is for protection of the people
Rules are rules and any fool can see
We don’t need no hairy-headed hippies
Scaring decent folks like you and me
No siree

To this day, forced hair-cutting is used to punish those who flout authority. Last fall, Sam Mullet Sr. and fourteen members of his family were charged with conspiracy and hate crimes after allegedly cutting the beards and hair of fellow Amish men and women in Bergholz, Ohio. Mullet, the leader of the community, was apparently upset that they weren’t conforming to his religious commands.

Today, Romney won’t be pinned down about the Cranbrook incident. The really disturbing thing is that even as he insists he doesn’t recall the attack, he chuckles. Here he is on Brian Kilmeade’s radio show, jovially not remembering anything.

The laughing denial is a Romney tell—and not just when he’s talking about gay-bashing. He chuckles while chatting about anything uncomfortable, whether about the dog on his car roof or his dad closing down a car factory in Michigan, as Rachel Maddow showed last week.

But the guilty giggle over hazing homosexuals seems particularly strained, and not just because gays vote: hate crimes carry real penalties today, as the Amish are finding out. The state of New Jersey just convicted a college student for secretly taping his roommate (who later committed suicide) with a gay friend—and that perpetrator never laid a finger on his victim, much less swarmed him with a posse of preppies to throw him to the ground and cut his hair.

And that’s one reason Romney will surely ignore two smart proposals on how he can redeem himself. Joe Klein recommends that Romney say something like, “If elected President, I will try to atone for my teenage behavior by campaigning against bullying all across this country. What I did back then should be an example of how not to behave. I hope we can all learn from this. I know I have.”

Lee Hirsch, the director of the documentary Bully, suggests a similar salvage job. “What I see is an opportunity for Mitt Romney to lead and really be an advocate for decreasing bullying,” Hirsch told TPM. “It’s sad to hear what occurred many years ago characterized as ‘pranks’ and ‘horsing around.’…This was a presidential moment, and this should be a teachable moment for him.”

Such suggestions would require Romney to acknowledge that he was a bully, however, and that’s just not the way Mitt rolls.

Anyway, according to Limbaugh, the real victim in all this is Mitt Romney. “It is so pathetically transparent what this is,” he said on Thursday. “Media ganging up on Romney—a pro-Obama media ganging up on Romney.”

That is one of the stories right-wingers, like Karl Rove and Erik Erikson, tell themselves now, that somehow the Lauber story isn’t true, that it’s a liberal-media fabrication, and anyway, what happened in high school should stay in high school.

All this personal stuff is irrelevant, they say. The real issue is the economy, and the Obama team is using a cultural wedge issue to unfairly divide the GOP (where’d they get that idea?).

But maybe the public will see that this character question, about whether it’s okay for rich insiders to gang up on the weak and vulnerable, isn’t so distant from economics after all. The fear is that if this bully with no capacity for self-examination is elected president-–and if he is, opposing gay marriage and civil unions may be a big reason why—he and his Ryan-budget buddies will hold us all down and make us take a permanent haircut in medical benefits and programs like Social Security.

And we didn’t even wink at him once.

Is America an Abused Spouse?

If America were filling out a women’s magazine questionnaire about its relationship with the GOP, it’d be hard to deny that it’s fallen into a nightmare marriage with an abusive spouse. And we don’t even have to go into the House Republican bill that would weaken the Violence Against Women Act, to the point that it would actually leave some women open to more abuse.

Here are three of the serious warning signs that every spouse should heed. Ask yourself:

Does he impute bad motives to everything you do? 

On WNYC’s and PRI’s The Takeaway yesterday, Republican strategist and former Dick Cheney aide Ron Christie was asked (at 6:20) about a tweet he’d sent out about Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng. It read: “I wonder if #freechen was pro-choice rather than pro-life whether the Obama Admin would have been more forceful in protecting him.”

While it’s true that Chen has been supported by a church in Texas, lumping his case in with anti-abortion protests in the United States is really a stretch (Chen was protesting forced abortions, not endorsing personhood laws or forced ultrasounds for women seeking abortions).

Farai Chideya, also on the show, asked Christie, “Do you think that a…pro-choice dissident would get more favorable treatment? That I just don’t follow.”

Christie immediately backed down—and then denied he said what he said. “No, I will concede that. I think that’s right. But,” he added, “I put it out there [sic] how our administration’s dealing with it.”

To which the only possible reply is, Huh?

Does he send you messages that mention mass murderers?

If you believe in climate change, then you’re like Unabomber Ted Kaczynski. The Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based right-wing think tank, says its other billboards feature Charles Manson and Fidel Castro.

“The people who still believe in man-made global warming are mostly on the radical fringe of society,” Heartland’s website explains. “This is why the most prominent advocates of global warming aren’t scientists. They are murderers, tyrants, and madmen.”

“Of course,” it adds helpfully, “not all global warming alarmists are murderers or tyrants.”

Does he routinely dismiss your achievements?

This week, Veterans for a Strong America, one of those anonymous, Citizens United–birthed black ops groups, tried to Swift Boat Obama on his greatest foreign policy victory, the killing of Osama bin Laden. They can’t exactly claim that Obama lied about it, as the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth insisted that Senator John Kerry lied about his Vietnam record during his 2004 race against George Bush. But they are saying that Obama is stealing the credit from the heroes who really deserve it.  


Now the comeback to this ad—that Obama repeatedly gave credit to the Seals, the military, the intelligence agencies and everyone else involved—was made earlier, by Jon Stewart:


Stewart says, so yeah, the ad’s “a little bit of a cheap shot,” but then, as he notes earlier in the segment, “Bush landed on an *#!*ing aircraft carrier with a football-stuffed codpiece. He spiked the football before the game had even started.”

For all these reasons and more, the ultimate question for all victims of abuse is: If you can’t change him, when will you leave him?

The GOP’s Fear of a Cool Obama

(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Republicans used to exult in fielding candidates that voters would like “to have a beer with.” This year, of course, their candidate doesn’t drink beer—in fact, Mitt Romney’s so socially challenged that his advance team is wary about letting him share cookies with voters. But lately Obama has been raising the ante on social comfort, asking which candidate would you like to share a song or nod to a pulsing beat with, and the GOP clearly considers this to be some kind of dirty trick.

And so in the two days since Obama and Jimmy Fallon “slow-jammed the news” on Fallon’s late-night show (specially taped at the University of North Carolina to underline the Democratic campaign to keep student loan interest rates from doubling), the Republicans have put out two web ads. Each tries to turn Obama’s strength into a weakness, insisting that the “Preezy” is too busy being cool to be presidential:

That was from the RNC, where heads seem stuck in the primaries still—the contrast between Obama’s supposed frivolity and Romney’s seriousness actually comes off as a contrast between O’s grace and Mitt’s forced emoting, but they can’t see that yet. Their ears are still ringing with triumphalisms from the debates about Obama’s “failures.” And here’s how Karl Rove’s American Crossroads PAC hit Obama just hours later:

Both ads, of course, are a reprise of John McCain’s 2008 “celebrity” ad, which likened Obama to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears and suggested that his fans had fallen into some kind of mass delusion. (McCain dropped that line of attack like a hot potato the moment he chose Sarah Palin as his running mate.) And both ads, aimed at college students’ swing-voting parents as well as the base, try to obscure the fact that Romney only recently came around to keeping student interest rates at 3.4 percent, under pressure from Obama. What’s more, House Republicans are still grumbling about paying anything more for education.    

Nevertheless, the Republican media apparatus immediately picked up the tune, expressing horrified dismay that anyone in politics would stoop to being popular. “I think it’s nutso,” Fox & Friends’ Gretchen Carlson said of Obama’s appearance on Fallon, adding, “I just personally do not agree with the highest office of the land, the most important figure in the world, going on these comedy shows. I think it lowers the status of the office.”

Ann Coulter told Sean Hannity that it was “pathetic” for Obama to go on Fallon, where the audience, she said, is “only a few hundred thousand.” “Who are these shut-ins watching Jimmy Fallon?” (Apparently, about 2 million people tuned in the night Obama appeared.)

Never mind that Romney was on Leno recently or that during the primaries he read the Top Ten on Letterman (where he said, “What’s up, gangstas? It’s the M-I-Double Tizzle”) and is apparently weighing whether to host Saturday Night Live this fall. Almost every politician has been eager to do these comedy shows ever since Richard Nixon went on Laugh-In in 1968 to say, “Sock it to me?” There’s no good-faith argument here—per usual, the right is merely criticizing Obama for whatever he does, even when they do it themselves.

But as you watch the two ads above, it becomes clear that it’s not only Obama acting like a celebrity that has the GOP’s nose out of joint. He’s also “acting black”--in fact, he’s rubbing their faces in it, just like he did when he sympathized with Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. for getting arrested in his own home. And that gleams like troll gold to Republican strategists.

Obama has dared to be a cool black man more often lately. First, in January, he sang, “I—I’m so in love with you” at a fundraiser at the Apollo Theater, with Al Green in the audience, a totally engaging moment the Rove ad doesn’t fail to sneer at. (As Maureen Dowd wrote, “For eight seconds, we saw the president we had craved for three years: cool, joyous, funny, connected.”) Then, for a Black History Month celebration in the White House, Obama sang a few bars of “Sweet Home Chicago” with B.B. King, once again looking terrifically comfortable in his own (black) skin.

By March, the right was criticizing Obama for acknowledging, of Trayvon Martin, that “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” Newt Gingrich called that comment “disgraceful.”

At some level, much of the GOP base still believes that Obama’s race is somehow disqualifying for the Oval Office, and they can barely keep themselves from overtly attacking him for it. But the demographics are daunting, and their professionals know it. To see a white guy like Jimmy Fallon acting black—doing a silly Barry White impression with Obama and Roots vocalist Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter behind him—reinforces the fear among some on the right that the hip youth culture is increasingly a black culture and that it’s inexorably taking over. Obama, half-black/half-white himself, is at the center of this race jam, which is as “impure” as topical comedy itself--a mélange of news and clips of political speech marbled with rap, R&B, tech-talk and global kid culture. (Let’s hope we see more of that Saturday night when Jimmy Kimmel hosts the White House Correspondents Dinner.)

It's all that mixing that sparks miscegenation imaginations, creating GOP fears about cool whites leaving them behind in electoral limbo, forever.

Or, as Stephen Colbert called Obama’s slow jam of the news, a “pathetically successful ploy to be appealing.”

Sunday Talk Shows Still Skew Right and White, but There's Light at the End of the Week

The pundits and the guests on the major Sunday talk shows still to tend to come in three basic flavors: right, male and pale, according to a new study by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. Despite a few diversity tweaks here and there, the “Sabbath gasbag” shows (as Calvin Trillin has dubbed them) have been that way for decades. Major corporations—like GE, BP or Conoco Phillips—sponsor them in order to reach their most coveted audience—corporate-friendly, inside-the-Beltway players, who tend to tilt right-of-center. What’s different this time, however, is that two truly “liberal media” alternatives—Up with Chris Hayes and Melissa Harris-Perry—have hit the Sunday circuit.

First, though, the devilish details from FAIR. The liberal media watchdog group monitored the four main Sunday shows—ABC’s This Week, NBC’s Meet the Press, CBS’s Face the Nation and Fox News Sunday—for eight months, from June 2011 through February 2012, and found:

    Of one-on-one interviews, 70 percent of partisan-affiliated guests were Republican. Those guests were overwhelmingly male (86 percent) and white (92 percent).

    The broader roundtable segments weren't much more diverse: 62 percent of partisan-affiliated guests were Republican. More broadly, guests classified as either Republican or conservative far outnumbered Democrats or progressives, 282 to 164. The roundtables were 71 percent male and 85 percent white.

    U.S. government sources—current officials, former lawmakers, political candidates, party-affiliated political operatives and campaign advisers—dominated the Sunday shows overall (47 percent of appearances). Following closely behind were journalists (43 percent), most of whom were middle-of-the-road Beltway political reporters.

“Middle-of-the-road Beltway journalists made 201 appearances in roundtables,” FAIR adds, “which serves to buttress the argument that corporate media’s idea of a debate is conservative ideologues matched by centrist-oriented journalists.”

OK, but the period measured was all about the Republican primaries, so, one might figure, the shows’ deep-red hue is understandable. But, FAIR points out, in 2003 and 2004, when it was all about the Democratic primaries, the Sunday talk shows still leaned right. Citing a Media Matters study of Sunday shows, FAIR writes that in 2003 a “tally of ideologically identifiable guests, both one-and-one and roundtable, favored Republicans/conservatives (57 percent) over Democrats/progressives (43 percent). The following year the breakdown was again Republican-heavy, 56 percent to 44 percent.”

Anyway, the GOP primaries don’t explain the dearth of women and nonwhite guests. “Women were just 29 percent of roundtable guests,” FAIR says. “The ethnic diversity was similarly woeful: 85 percent white and 11 percent African-American, with 3 percent Latino. Other ethnicities made up an additional 2 percent of roundtable guests.”

FAIR’s Peter Hart (not the democratic pollster Peter Hart) writes: “Even when the shows attempted more balance, the Democrats and left-leaning guests tend to be of a more moderate variety than the Republicans (Extra!, 9/10). Juan Williams—who, by the criteria of this study, counts as a left-leaning voice (but see Extra!, 3/12)—was on twenty-four Fox News Sunday broadcasts. As FAIR has argued (Extra!, 9–10/01), it’s likely that the politically connected corporations who sponsor these shows prefer a center/right spectrum of debate that mostly leaves out strong progressive voices who might raise a critique of corporate power.” (Voices like Paul Krugman or The Nation’s Katrina vanden Heuvel, both of whom have appeared on the network Sunday shows more frequently in recent years.)

Any whisper of change, and Republicans and corporate America push back. “During much of the study period,” FAIR writes, “ABC’s This Week was hosted by Christiane Amanpour. Perhaps due to her long career as a foreign correspondent, the show she hosted took a different approach than its network counterparts, often featuring reported pieces (not included in the study) from around the world. The show also featured guests that rarely make it onto the Sunday shows—feminist icon Gloria Steinem, Palestinian leader Hanan Ashrawi and Occupy Wall Street activist Jesse LaGreca.”

In December, ABC brought back This Week's previous host, George Stephanopoulos, to replace Amanpour.

That’s why the Chris Hayes and Melissa Harris-Perry two-hour Sunday (and Saturday) shows on MSNBC are so extraordinary, and I say this not just because they’re from The Nation. Theirs are the most diverse political weekend shows in terms of gender, race, ethnicity and the parts of the brain utilized. They draw guests from academia (Harris-Perry, of course, teaches at Tulane), activism and the arts. They avoid the lazy and masturbatory political horserace chat, and instead are willing to sound dangerously smart.

Hayes’s show, which debuted first, in September, is different still in that it’s almost all panel discussion (usually including at least one intellectually respectable conservative) all the time, which he moderates with an almost meta touch. Last Saturday, for instance, during a heated argument about the Trayvon Martin case, Hayes tried to pinpoint exactly why the case had become polarized in the first place. Why did it move, he asked, from a “general consensus that we have, yeah, a kid of 17-years-old buying Skittles and iced tea shouldn’t be shot and left dead” to “all of a sudden, on conservative blogs it’s all about the New Black Panthers are doing this or that. And my question is why is that the important thing? Why is there this—just because Reverend Al Sharpton is doing something, why do conservatives feel the need to take the other side of the bet, why does it have to be the case that you sort of mobilize in favor of George Zimmerman, or point out double standards? Why not just leave well enough alone, and say, yeah, the guy should probably be arrested and let the trial work?”

It’s discussions like this that make the regular Sunday shows seem all the more clueless.

The Language of the Hilary Rosen/Ann Romney Phony Feud

Credit: Reuters Pictures, AP Images

When Hilary Rosen said that Ann Romney “never worked a day in her life,” she was trying to say that Ann Romney’s great wealth makes it hard for her to identify with women who must work for a living. But unfortunately, Rosen grabbed the first and most obvious cliché to blurt that idea out. “Never worked a day in her life” is such an inherently aggressive, formulaic insult that it guarantees an equally aggressive, formulaic response. Them’s not just fightin’ words, them’s media bait.

Not that the Republicans wouldn’t have tried to create a phony controversy had Rosen (or any Dem) issued a milder, less pointed remark—like, say, “Ann Romney doesn’t work or struggle, so she can’t really understand women who do.” Even such a prosaic comment could have set off a torrent of ginned-up outrage, because (1) manufacturing outrage is how the right is bringing manufacturing back to America, (2) Rosen directed her insult at a candidate’s spouse, always a risky gambit, and, most important, (3) the supposed bad blood between working women and “stay-at-home moms” (a loaded phrase itself, implying both contentment and immobility) is so pathetically easy to stir up.

Yes, women in one group may resent or envy those in the other group, but it’s essentially a dying and phony feud. These two “groups” constantly overlap, especially now as more women are forced to stay home because they can’t find a job or want to stay home but must work, not to mention every possible permutation in between.

But the phrase “never worked a day in her life” is just the sort of poke in the eye sure to resurrect old frustrations and resentments. The very structure of “never did blank a day in her life” is provocative. Never is a broad, sweeping assertion and already extreme; a day in her life narrows it right down to a specific individual, one person not doing (through luck or choice) something that most people do at least on occasion (exercised, been sick, or whatever). Rosen’s words all but dare you to prove her wrong, to find the exceptions to “never.” And when fraught verbs like worked, worked with his hands or set foot in church fill the blank, the phrase immediately sets up an Us vs. Them contrast, getting people to pick a side and lock themselves in. As Republican consultant Matthew Dowd said this morning of Rosen’s comment, “It’s the best thing to unify the Republicans behind Mitt Romney.”

Word that the DNC will no longer pursue the “Republican war on woman” line comes right as this kerfuffle reaches its peak. Do professional Dems believe that Rosen’s misstep lends credence to Mitt Romney’s absurd claim that Obama’s the one waging the war? That would certainly follow the pattern of the Democrats backing down just when they’re ahead.

Come on, guys, have the courage of your own convictions. Unlike the stereotype that Ann Romney “never worked a day in her life,” the Republican war on women is real.

Trayvon, the Right Wing and Obama’s 'Mockingbird' Moment

From a right-wing perspective, President Obama’s brief introduction to the fiftieth anniversary screening of To Kill a Mockingbird, airing tonight on USA Network, is a dirty trick. They think Obama’s using the 1962 film to pose as an Atticus Finch–type hero, though all he and the liberal media really want is to divide the country along racial lines. And blame whitey.

The elements for such a paranoid vision are all there: the country and the media are passionately torn over the Trayvon Martin case—Fox’s Bill O’Reilly has argued that the liberal media wouldn’t mind “inciting racial violence” against accused shooter George Zimmerman, while MSNBC host Al Sharpton has led protest rallies in Sanford, Florida, where Martin was shot dead. Further, NBC made a grievous error by editing a tape of Zimmerman’s 911 call that made it sound as if he had volunteered that Martin was black, when in fact he was asked Martin’s race by the dispatcher. NBC has fired the producer in charge of that tape. (Sure, Fox News has misleadingly edited tapes and promoted lies—for Fox, it’s a minor error and almost no one ever gets fired—but when mainstream media do that, it’s evidence of a hidden bias against conservatives. Fox’s bias is anything but hidden.)

And conspiracy theorists take note, the big-deal White House screening of Mockingbird—endorsed by Harper Lee, author of the 1960 book on which the film is based—is “also tied to the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Universal film studio. The studio and USA Network are both owned by NBC Universal,” as the New York Times writes.

That is, by the right’s lights, liberals and NBC are cynically using the venerable film to further Obama’s reelection chances. They believe Obama is posing as the reincarnation of the beloved, beyond-reproach Atticus Finch, the small-town attorney who defends Tom Robinson, an innocent black man who is accused of raping a white woman. And by extension, many conservatives say, Obama is making Trayvon Martin out to be Tom Robinson, who was later killed. Some commenters on the Breitbart.com site Big Hollywood feel sure about what’s really going down. WALTER90 writes:

Obama will stand or sit there and compare the Travon martin [SIC] situation to what transpires in To Kill a Mockingbird. He will ask America why we haven’t moved on. Why we are still a violent racist society. Of course, he won’t lay any of the racism charges on blacks, or latinos or anyone except white people.

NOPEFULL agrees:

You are right, the comparison is very striking, but it is 180 degrees from the book…. As today’s true story emerges, Obama and the MSM now represent the racist mob that wants to lynch the accused. In Harper Lee’s story, a race card was placed to cover up the truth. Then the card was white; now it is black. Whatever the final outcome, Zimmerman is a mockingbird that black hatred killed.

Of course, in right-wing eyes, Obama was up to racial no-good well before his Mockingbird remarks. When Obama commiserated with Trayvon’s parents by saying, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” Newt Gingrich shouted “disgraceful.” “Why is Obama getting involved in that mess in Miami?” a white woman in the South indignantly asked someone I know. One thing our first black president should never do is openly acknowledge his race.

Still, there’s some truth to the right’s idea that identifying with Atticus Finch is politically charged. This is the movie the Obama campaign has been wanting him to star in since forever. Like Atticus, played by Gregory Peck in an Oscar-winning performance, Obama avoids outrage; like Atticus, Obama is stymied in achieving justice by reactionary forces, but he responds with restraint. Even when he loses his battles, that restraint, with its hint of honor, can pass as sufficient, because it makes clear how wrong his opponents are—as we see in this clip, in which the father of the girl who charges rape confronts Atticus:



It’s not exactly the same as shouting “You lie!” but the tone is similar. Peck’s decency is so noble that its ultimate ineffectiveness is almost entirely forgiven. And it’s redeemed in a way by the Boo Radley subplot, which has the poor, white, social outcast save the Finch children from racist revenge, hinting that the least among the whites do indeed share in some of that Peckian nobility.

The question in the Trayvon Martin shooting is, Who, of any race, plays Boo Radley?

Etch-A-Sketch, Move Over

Via the Onion, another way for Romney to erase "inconsistencies in the timeline." Good Mitt.

Romney To Travel Back In Time To Kill Liberal Versions Of Himself

GOP Code Confusion

As we get closer to the general election race, the Republican Party is descending into ever deeper confusion over its rhetorical codes and when and how to use them.

This is more than just an awkward pivot from pitching to the base to focusing on the general electorate. It’s a direct result of decades of Republicans fashioning their language to obscure what they really mean—like asserting that “cutting taxes will raise revenues” when the real idea is to shift the tax burden from the rich to the poor. The GOP is so distracted by its multiplicity of phony attack lines that it’s begun to confuse itself.

We’ve all seen how, during the primary debates, the Republican candidates were forced to acquiesce to the notion that, say, booing a soldier on duty in Iraq or shouting down the Golden Rule are, respectively, the patriotic and Christian things to do. But when Perry and Gingrich started attacking Romney from the left as a job-destroying vulture capitalist, they started to seriously step on their own neckties.

And the reason they did is pretty simple: Reactionary movements demand a certain ability to flip meaning around in their members’ minds in order to argue with opponents who, like Obama, are (only too) willing to compromise. However, this technique has come to so dominate the GOP policy discussion that it’s become a universal reflex. Rick and Newt were simply extending the manufacture of false outrage to Mitt, their opponent du jour; tripping over their own laissez-faire principles along the way was secondary to going on the attack.

The mechanistic, automatic opposition to Democrats has similarly made most Republicans live in such a perpetual Opposite Day that they’ve lost the thread of their own arguments--and that means they’re losing control of the political narrative. Consider the mixed messages of just the past week:

Romney on Leno

Romney was attacking—no defending—no attacking—Robamneycare:

LENO: So you would make the law stand for children and people with pre-existing conditions?

ROMNEY: People with pre-existing conditions—as long as they’ve been insured before—they’re going to continue to have insurance.

LENO: Suppose they were never insured?

ROMNEY: Well, if they're 45 years old, and they show up, and they say, 'I want insurance because I've got a heart disease,' it's like, 'Hey guys, we can’t play the game like that.' You’ve got to get insurance when you’re well, and if you get ill, then you’re going to be covered.

LENO: I know guys at work in the auto industry, and they're just not covered ... They’ve just never been able to get insurance. And then they get to be 30, 35 and were never able to get insurance before. Now they have it. That seems like a good thing.

ROMNEY: We'll look at a circumstance where someone was ill and hasn't been insured so far. But people who have had the chance to be insured—if you’re working in an auto business, for instance, the companies carry insurance; they insure all their employees—you look at the circumstances that exist. But people who have done their best to get insured are going to be able to be covered. But you don’t want everyone saying, 'I'm going to sit back until I get sick and then go buy insurance.' That doesn’t make sense. But you have to find rules that get people in that are playing by the rules.

There’s one code for the primaries: You must be a severe conservative who says, “Hey guys, we can’t play the game like that.” Then there’s another code for the general election, when you must pose as the protective father who says, “People with pre-existing conditions [are]… going to continue to have insurance.” Romney just isn’t good enough at decodification to make the transition smoothly, winding up with one of his usual lip-smashes hinting that only the good people, the deserving people, will be taken care of.

Self-contradictions are like flypaper for Romney—he can’t keep himself from touching them, and he looks ridiculous waving his arms in the air trying to get them off. He understands this, too, and when he feels a tactical need to display his command of the process he’ll cheerfully admit it. “One of the things I found in a short campaign against Ted Kennedy was that when I said, for instance, that I wanted to eliminate the Department of Education, that was used to suggest I don’t care about education,” he told The Weekly Standard this week. “I anticipate that there will be departments and agencies that will either be eliminated or combined with other agencies…but I’m not going to give you a list right now.”

Which is painfully close to saying, “If I tell you what I’m planning to do, I won’t get elected.” (Note to Romney campaign: Shake Etch A Sketch here.)

Chamber of Commerce: Oops

Code reading is always a matter of interpretation, as the Chamber of Commerce has found out, according to a front-page piece, “Business Bets on the G.O.P. May Be Backfiring,” by Jonathan Weisman in Wednesday’s New York Times. Weisman points out that the Chamber’s campaign contributions to Republican candidates in 2010 were a bad case of “be careful what you wish for.” The Tea Party’s idea of smaller government—that you don’t spend what you don’t have, including all government expenditures without a direct funding stream attached—has run afoul of the Chamber’s idea, which might be better put as “you should spend on us but not on them.”

Efforts to shut down the Export-Import Bank and the refusal to fund the annual highway bill (traditionally a universally popular piece of pork) for more than three months at a stretch are actually hurting the big-business donors to the Chamber quite a bit. But their protests seem to have as little impact on the ideology of Tea Partiers as the evidence that you can’t fight two overseas wars and cut taxes at the same time without creating record-setting deficits. As Barney Keller, spokeman for the anti-spending, tax-killing Club for Growth, told the Times, “Free market is not always the same as pro-business.”

The Supreme Court

The conniptions of the five conservative justices on the Supreme Court this week were a wind-talker’s wonder, a cacophony of conservative coding gone terribly awry. Their overarching conflict stems from the conservative Heritage Foundation’s idea that since they don’t want Medicare For All, they’d mandate that every American must buy insurance from private companies to cover everyone as Medicare For All would, thereby enriching private companies (where single-payer simply cuts them out of the system altogether). Yet now, in order to inflict political pain on Obama, the Republican-appointed justices are saying no to the mandate—an outright attack on the bottom line of the insurance companies, who are, of course, their constituency.

If every Republican cut off his nose to spite his face like this, they’d truly become a party of mouth-breathers.

And that is a long tradition in American politics. In 1833 Andrew Jackson (channeling Ron Paul) got rid of the national bank (a forerunner of the Federal Reserve) on populist principles; he touched off a credit crisis and nationwide bank failures, as well as an epidemic of inflation as state banks printed money to take up the currency slack. The economy did not fully recover until the Civil War.

Remind anyone of the debt ceiling imbroglio last summer? This isn’t about programs that work, or even ideology, but really about holding onto power at any cost. And when they know their attack lines won’t win over the voters, they’ll go for brute force, whether it’s shutting down the government or, as could be the determining factor this November, suppressing the vote. 

Romney, the Etch-a-Sketch Candidate

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. 

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