Leslie Savan | The Nation


Leslie Savan

Politics, media and the politics of media.

Homeland's Anti-Drone Message Hits Obama at Home

Courtesy Showtime Networks Inc.

However Homeland ends its amazing second season next week, I’m already anticipating its real-life cliffhanger: How does President Obama react to Brody assassinating the vice president for killing scores of children by drone?

Homeland fans couldn’t help but half-recoil and half-cheer last week when Marine Sgt. Nicholas Brody triggered a fatal heart attack in Vice President Walden by helping terrorists reprogram his pacemaker (a stretch, but possible). Obama, who says Homeland is one of his favorite TV shows, has ordered five times as many drone strikes as President Bush, many of which have killed innocent civilians, including children. If Obama hasn’t seen the shocking episode yet, he’ll likely catch it later on DVD. This is surreal. How exactly does Obama handle Homeland’s hitting so close to home?

A little background for those just tuning in: Brody is a POW turned terrorist turned sympathetic antihero. Although terrorist leader Abu Nazir held Brody captive and had him tortured for eight years in Afghanistan, Brody eventually becomes Nazir’s devotee and comes to love his young son, Issa, as his own. When a drone strike, secretly ordered by Walden, kills Issa and eighty-two other young students in his madrassa, Brody “turns.” At Nazir’s behest, Brody returns to the US to win Walden’s trust in order to destroy him and undermine America. In the name of Issa.

That much was in season one, which we know Obama saw. At a state dinner he told Damian Lewis, the British actor playing Brody, “While Michelle and the two girls go play tennis on Saturday afternoons, I go in the Oval Office, pretend I’m going to work, and then I switch on ‘Homeland.’ ”

This season, Brody is a congressman and is working with the CIA against Nazir. But Brody must off the veep or else Nazir will kill Carrie (Claire Danes), Brody’s CIA handler (in all senses). It’s not pretty watching Brody literally give Walden a heart attack, but the show encourages us to cut him some moral slack: When, moments earlier, he tells Walden he’s withdrawing his name from consideration as Walden’s future running mate “for my family,” the veep says, “Fuck your family.” If he’d say that to Brody, the show suggests, just think what he’d tell the survivors of drone-attack. Does Walden, as Brody contends, “deserve” to die? Last night’s episode made clear that Carrie can live with that.

More to the point, how does President Obama take all this in? Is he, like most of the audience, both glad and disgusted that Brody is taking it to the evil veep? Does he identify at all with Walden? With Brody? Does he dismiss it as “just TV”?

“I can only imagine what he must be thinking when he watches a show like ours that explicitly deals with the collateral damage of drone strikes,” Damian Lewis told The Atlantic in late September. The “overtly political” show, he said, goes “straight to the heart of the drone argument. We have a left-center or liberal president, and yet we seem to be sending in more drones than ever before. That’s a decision that the current president has made—though obviously none of these decisions are easy to make.”

Now, Obama’s no Walden, who’s more of a Cheney-like figure (and a bad father to boot), always scheming behind the back of the presumably more moderate president. Perhaps to avoid too direct a criticism of Obama, the show has thus far not shown us its POTUS. Furthermore, Homeland never says never drone. The really good guys—Carrie and her boss Saul (Mandy Patinkin)—are determined to kill terrorists, but they’d rather not kill innocents along the way. And the show, while sympathetic to Nazir’s argument that the drone strikes are terrorism, wants you to know that he’s a monster (right down to the “nazi” in his name). So Homeland is complex and nuanced, as is Obama.

The connections to reality are all the more surreal because the Showtime hit’s co-creators, Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa, were also lead writers on 24, the Fox show whose hawkish defense of torture had neocons like Cheney and Anthony Scalia giving high-fives to each other and the finger to the bleeding-heart left. As Jane Mayer recounted, veteran interrogators met with 24 to complain that American soldiers wanted to copy the hero Jack Bauer’s tactics under the false and dangerous impression that torture “works.”

Is Homeland Gordon’s and Gansa’s penance for 24? Possibly (though the chief pro-torture guy behind 24 was its co-creator, Joel Surnow). In an interview with Mother Jones last year, Gordon described himself as “apolitical,” “a centrist, an issue-specific person,” while Gansa said, of Homeland, “[E]verybody here tilts left of center more than they did on 24.” Drone attacks, he went on, are “being debated in the CIA, according to our consultants: Here we’re not allowed to carry out any sort of coercion or harsh interrogation techniques anymore, but we’re allowed to fly over somebody’s village, without due process, and kill them all? It’s a very interesting dialog.”

The Obama-Homeland-24 connections wind tighter still when you consider that 24, as if to counter its right-wing tilt, gave the nation its first black president on weekly TV. Movies have long featured black presidents, from James Earl Jones in 1972’s The Man to Morgan Freeman in 1998’s Deep Impact, but I’m convinced that seeing the steady, deliberative, wise President David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) every week for a couple years in the mid-2000s helped ease the idea of a black president into mainstream America’s consciousness. (One of 24’s wilder conceits is that no one in its fictional America mentions the president’s race, much less goes all birther and secessionist over it.)

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President Palmer was in fact so deliberative that he refused to attack a Middle Eastern country without irrefutable evidence that it planned to attack us—even while, in reality, President George W. Bush was busy invading Iraq based on fake evidence.

I’ve no doubt Obama is deliberative and thoughtful when ordering drone strikes. And apparently, new rules on when and how to drone are in the works in order to, as Obama told Jon Stewart, “make sure that not only am I reined in but any president’s reined in terms of some of the decisions that we’re making.”

There’s more to that statement than meets the eye, Conor Friedersdorf writes. And even when drones don’t kill civilians, they terrorize everyone. As the Stanford/NYU report Living Under Drones found:

Drones hover twenty-four hours a day over communities in northwest Pakistan, striking homes, vehicles, and public spaces without warning. Their presence terrorizes men, women, and children, giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities. Those living under drones have to face the constant worry that a deadly strike may be fired at any moment, and the knowledge that they are powerless to protect themselves.

Obama has seen the effects of this, at least fictionally. What’s he going to do?

From Living Under Drones:

In an open letter to Barack Obama, Tom Englehardt criticizes, among other things, the president’s drone campaign.

Things You Shouldn't Read Too Much Into, but…

But Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are practically writing a novella. I’m not the first one to notice the glaring body language as the Titans of ’12 greeted each other at lunch at the White House yesterday.

Photo credit: White House

There’s Obama—all relaxed, looking curious and friendly, mouth open to speak, and, as if to echo his (and MSNBC’s) motto, leaning forward. His left hand in his pocket signals a nonthreatening ease—though the southpaw could also be “hiding his hand.”  

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No wonder Romney looks all tense and defensive, his mouth zipped and his body frozen. Or, maybe he suddenly realized he forgot his flag pin.

The other thing not to read too much into was what the White House served for lunch: white turkey chili.

A poll conducted by NYU grad students show Obama’s tax plan is widely understood. Check it out in Leslie Savan’s last post.

The $250,000 Question: Poll Shows Obama’s Tax Plan Is Widely Misunderstood

For the last four years, President Obama has been pushing his plan to raise tax rates on people’s income over $250,000, but a new poll indicates that most people still don’t understand one of the plan’s most basic concepts.

OK, it’s a poll conducted by my journalism grad students at NYU, and it’s not highly scientific. But I can say with a reasonable degree of certainty that it’s more accurate than the Gallup and Rasmussen polls were about the election.

Here’s the Obama plan in brief. The Bush tax cuts would be extended for households with an annual income under $250,000 (or $200,000 for individuals), but the tax cuts would expire on any income above $250,000. That means, for example, if you make $300,000, your tax rate would rise a few percentage points, to the Clinton-era rates, but only on the portion above $250,000; in this case, only on $50,000. Bottom line: no one—not a billionaire, not someone making $251,000—would have to pay more taxes on that first $250,000.

There’s a widespread misconception, however, and it’s causing a lot of unnecessary fear. It’s the faulty belief that if your income is above $250,000, you’d have to pay the higher rates on all your income, as if you were suddenly being moved entirely into a higher tax bracket. That is wrong.

But our poll—which, as far as I know, is the sole poll specifically on this $250,000 question—suggests that most people are making this mistake.

When my fourteen students asked five people each (one asked four) how the tax plan would work, they found that of the sixty-nine respondents

  • 46 percent incorrectly said that one’s entire income, including the first $250,000, would be taxed at higher rates;

  • 37 percent correctly said that only income over $250,000 would be taxed at higher rates; and

  • 17 percent said they didn’t know.

So what we have here is a hefty 63 percent who were either wrong or didn’t know how the tax-rate raises would work.

You can say the sample size was small (agreed) or “skewed”—NYU students, naturally, talked to a lot of New Yorkers—but the students didn’t go looking for people who couldn’t do simple math. One student said, “All of the people I spoke with are college educated, and three out of five have advanced degrees. The only person who knew the correct answer, though, was someone who works directly in finance and who is currently getting an MBA. He understands tax regulations professionally.”

And our poll is bolstered by news accounts of people making financial decisions based on their erroneous belief that $250,000 is some do-or-die, cursed number.

For instance, The New York Times recently reported on a chiropractor in McLean, Virginia, who said that

she and her husband planned to closely monitor the business income from their joint practice to avoid crossing the income threshold for higher taxes outlined by President Obama on earnings above $200,000 for individuals and $250,000 for couples.

Ms. Collins said she felt torn by being near the cutoff line and disappointed that federal tax policy was providing a disincentive to keep expanding a business she founded in 1998.

“If we’re really close and it’s near the end-year, maybe we’ll just close down for a while and go on vacation,” she said.

Others have explained why this sort of thinking is utterly fallacious. But it’s not just the public’s distaste for details, or math, that is leading people to cut off their income to spite their taxes.

You can also blame the media and Obama himself.

On Tuesday, Rachel Maddow took up the chiropractors’ story and rightly scorched the Times for not explaining that the couple is dead wrong. By casually referring to the woman’s worry about “being near the cutoff line,” the Times in effect seconded her faulty notion. Same thing happened back in 2009, Maddow noted, when ABC News reported on, but didn’t correct, an attorney who wanted to make $299,999 and not a dollar more for fear she’d be hit with tax hikes on the entire thing. (ABC later issued a correction.)

Other major media outlets, as Dan Amira writes, have been framing the tax proposal so simplistically that you can see why attorneys (and apparently even some US senators) are confused.

But Obama also shares some responsibility for the confusion: It’s his healthcare messaging problem all over again, though writ small. Yes, he sometimes explains that taxes will rise only on income over $250,000 or that no one will see tax hikes on their first quarter-million. But he hasn’t done so consistently or forcefully. More often he short-hands it, as the media do, talking about raising rates on people making more than $250K rather than on their income over that amount. (And muddling it all, for Obama and the rest of us, is the whole endlessly reversible syntax of the debate—we’re alternatively allowing tax cuts “to expire” or “raising rates” or “extending” Bush, and so on.)

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The Obama team not only needs to explain, repeatedly, how the plan works, they need to acknowledge that a common misconception is out there and that it’s worrying people needlessly.

Obama could also use a killer metaphor, something as potent as “death panels” was against healthcare reform, but one that’s actually accurate.

Ideas, anyone?

For more on economic policy, read William Greider's endorsement of Ben Bernanke for Treasury Secretary.

Is Romney’s 'Gift' Doctrine as Bad as It Sounds?

Republicans from Bobby Jindal to Chris Christie to Kelly Ayotte are fleeing from Mitt Romney after he tried to excuse his defeat by telling donors Obama had bought the votes of blacks, Latinos, women and youth with “extraordinary financial gifts from the government.” Which sounded a lot like Romney’s secretly recorded assertion during the campaign that “47 percent” of the electorate are living off of government goodies, and, try as he might, he could “never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

Romney himself will always be one of the greatest gifts the Democrats will ever get.

But is it possible that Romney’s gift doctrine isn’t quite as bad as it sounds nor as pejorative as the 47 percent insult? Maybe Mitt Romney is saying—in his own tongue-tied, convoluted, plutocratic, and incredibly insensitive way—that Obama’s voters are no different than… Mitt Romney.

That may seem insulting in itself. But Romney, so practiced at the art of telling people with money the bad news he sees in their spreadsheet, was talking turkey: that as much as he, or any rich Republican money man, is a self-interested, rational actor, so is the American voter. And Romney’s telling the people who bankrolled him that in a competitive market, this democracy thing is always going to be a loser for them if they can’t sweeten the deal.

Granted, you may have to dig deep, as deep as a proctology exam (to use the visual Haley Barbour[!] inflicted on the GOP) to find this ever-so-slightly more enlightened Mitt. And you have to probe behind his offensive use of the term “gifts” for what are commonly known as “policies.” But grab a scope, and look at what he said in one of the two recent conference calls with yet more high-level, wealthy donors, as The New York Times listened in. Obama, Romney stated, won the election by pulling out the

“old playbook” of using targeted initiatives to woo specific interest groups—  “especially the African-American community, the Hispanic community and young people.”

“With regards to the young people, for instance, a forgiveness of college loan interest was a big gift,” Mr. Romney said. “Free contraceptives were very big with young, college-aged women. And then, finally, Obamacare also made a difference for them, because as you know, anybody now 26 years of age and younger was now going to be part of their parents’ plan, and that was a big gift to young people. They turned out in large numbers, a larger share in this election even than in 2008.”

And, wow, how that healthcare can bribe poor folks and “illegals”:

“You can imagine for somebody making $25,000 or $30,000 or $35,000 a year, being told you’re now going to get free health care, particularly if you don’t have it, getting free health care worth, what, $10,000 per family, in perpetuity—I mean, this is huge,” Mr. Romney said. “Likewise with Hispanic voters, free health care was a big plus. But in addition with regards to Hispanic voters, the amnesty for children of illegals, the so-called Dream Act kids, was a huge plus for that voting group.”

Pity the poor quarter-billionaire candidate of austerity, because “giving away free stuff is a hard thing to compete with.”

Watch More News Videos at ABC | 2012 Presidential Election | Entertainment & Celebrity News

Shades of Moderate Massachusetts Mitt: If he were a Dem, he says, he’d throw dental coverage into the mix! I’m all in!

Of course, it’s cowardly of Romney to blame poor people for his electoral failure, rather than his ideas, organization, lack of vision or prostration under the heel of the far right. But just possibly Mitt is saying: Let’s face reality. Our old tax-cutting default position doesn’t work anymore. Those days are over. We’re outnumbered. And unless we start tossing out “gifts” to the masses, too, we’re over.

Romney was talking to his fundraisers—not the crazies, but the elites, for whom bribery is honorable, in fact, a sound business plan. These are his people. And though he lost the election, he doesn’t want to lose touch with them.

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The Times writes that during the conference call, Romney suggested that the group meet annually and start up a monthly newsletter to, in Romney’s words, “stay informed and have influence on the direction of the party, and perhaps the selection of a future nominee, which, by the way, will not be me.”

That was a joke. You had to be there.

The Electoral Storm

This election has been an emotional roller coaster, but over the past week it’s really jumped the shark—I mean, what kind of melodrama ends with a hurricane devastating New York City just days before a few undecided Ohioans choose the leader of the free world? Is this the oldest democracy on the planet or an open-air production of The Tempest?

It certainly has us caught up in its titanic, almost mythic coils. All things being fair and equal (which they’re not), it looks like an Obama victory. Of the twenty-one battleground state polls published on Saturday, Obama is winning sixteen, two go to Romney, and three are tied, according to Nate Silver, who bumped the president’s chances of winning up to 85.1 percent, the highest figures since the Denver debate.

But my heart’s gone up and down with every poll (Obama up by two in Florida! But wait: Romney leads there by six!), every GOP bluff (could Romney win Pennsylvania?), and every major plot twist.

First there was the sour, self-involved and hurricane-lashed Republican National Convention in Tampa (“The Key Largo Convention”). Then there was the joyous wonkery of the Democrats in Charlotte, which was soon followed by the media breakthrough of Romney’s “47 percent” comment on video, which together seemed to set the election on a trajectory as sure as the Martian Rover’s.

Then came Obama’s abysmal debate performance in Denver, which seemed to give the lie to his whole campaign depicting Romney as an out-of-touch plutocrat who didn’t give a hoot about anyone else. Suddenly, our young, slender hero looked like he didn’t give a hoot and couldn’t be bothered with making an argument for his own policies.

But Joe Biden rode in to laugh off Paul Ryan’s entire career in politics, reasserting Democratic dominance on the issues, and Mitt walked into his own gotcha question in the second debate. When Romney all but conceded the foreign policy debate, the election seemed to revert to its pre-August stasis, with Obama holding a narrow lead in the battleground states that would give us at least the same deadlocked government we’ve suffered for two long years.

And then Sandy hit, and Mitt’s loyal thane Chris Christie seemed to jump ship for a minute, and we had the sharp, effective, compassionate president we all need once again—and “now I will believe that there are unicorns,” as Shakespeare put it in The Tempest.

But no, we may see yet more extreme plot reversals. Hurricane Sandy, by possibly preventing hundreds of thousands of people from voting at all, may in fact accomplish what voter suppression has aimed at all along: losing the popular vote for Obama and rendering his Electoral College victory suspect. One political scientist figures that Sandy alone will cost Obama as many as 340,000 votes, mostly from storm-ravaged blue states like New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. But could Sandy even cost Obama the electoral vote by depressing turnout in the Democratic strongholds of swing states, like Ohio and Pennsylvania, where Sandy-caused confusion and power outages could provide cover for the suppression already sown by voter ID laws, True the Vote, and computer “glitches”? (For anyone who thinks the courts have neutered voter suppression, you must read Ari Berman’s piece today and “Rampant Suppression Threatens Already Tight Race,” the latest report by Voting Rights Watch at The Nation.com.)

And the whole thing is made only more mythic, more like the Scottish play, by its female subplot full of menstrual blood and eyes of newt, punctuated by Republican spear-carriers saying women’s plumbing can shut down rape-borne conceptions that “God intended.”

Who writes stuff like this?

None of it budges my conviction that Mitt Romney is a CGI character, or that the entire plotline of American democracy hangs in the balance. When I close my eyes and imagine a President Mitt Romney, all I can think is there be dragons. No Drama Obama? Not anymore. One more last-minute reversal, and Chris Matthews won’t be the only one having a stroke.

Read Ari Berman's latest on how a last-minute suppression effort could swing Ohio's electoral votes.

Lena Dunham's and Ronald Reagan's First Time

Alison Harbaugh for Maryland Film Festival / Everett Collection

Folks on the right are shocked, shocked over that bit of innuendo in Lena Dunham’s ad for President Obama. Her “first time” was amazing, she says, because she voted for “somebody who really cares about and understands women” (somebody, she goes on, “who brought the troops out of Iraq” and signed the Lilly Ledbetter Act).

“If you need any further proof we live in a fallen world destined for hell fire,” writes Red State’s Erick Erikson, “consider the number of people who have no problem with the President of the United States, via a campaign ad, ridiculing virgins and comparing sex to voting.”

But thanks to Eric Kleefled at TPM, we now know that Dunham’s isn’t the first time the “first time” joke’s been made: In 1980, Ronald Reagan cracked wise about sex and voting, and he did it at the very moment of conception of millions of Reagan Democrats. On November 1, almost thirty-two years ago to the day, The Washington Post reported that candidate Reagan told a group of blue-collar workers at a Bayonne, New Jersey, bar:

“I know what it’s like to pull the Republican lever for the first time, because I used to be a Democrat myself, and I can tell you it only hurts for a minute and then it feels just great.”

How many other politicians will we find who’ve made the same, rather obvious joke? And even though Reagan expressed it in raunchier terms (levers! pain! pleasure!) than Dunham did, Republicans do not consider his “ridicule” of virgins to be proof of fallen worlds and hellfire.

Dunham, on the other hand, is a girl.

For more on Lena Dunham’s Obama ad, read Ari Melber’s latest post.

Sweaty vs. Steady: Body Language in the Third Debate

Mitt Romney’s calling card has always been his corporate crispness, at least from the chest up. His finely tailored suit jackets made his shoulders look broad and his chest solid; he was all jaw with a slap of bracing aftershave that you could almost smell through the TV. Fresh and ready to command his morning board meeting, Romney “looked like a president,” as pundits repeatedly declared and as he did, in fact, look in the first debate.

Last night, he was crumpled and rumpled. He forgot Rule #1 for males who sit before TV cameras: sit on the tail of your jacket so it doesn’t bunch up around your shoulders. It bunched. And instead of Old Spice, he wore fresh sweat.

Particularly above his upper lip. Most TV viewers have never seen Mitt Romney sweat before, but it was hard to miss. (It may have “started glistening on Romney’s forehead,” Roger Simon writes, when Obama brought up Yad Vashem.) Often when speaking, his facial expressions seemed to flit around; he visibly gulped. At many moments he seemed to be pleading with Bob Schieffer to understand him, to listen to him harder.

Romney’s flag pin was larger than Obama’s, but it seemed to grow larger still as the night went on and the man wearing it shrunk. On the split screen, Romney appeared ever so slightly smaller than Obama, filling the rectangle by a fraction less than the higher-sitting, forward-leaning president.

Obama came across less like a skinny guy with big ears and more like a rock-solid boulder. That is, for once he looked more Romney than Romney: his head all simple planes above the smooth lines of a well-fitted suit. The only wrinkles that jumped out were those from the sides of his nose to the corners of his mouth, the kind of deep lines that suggest worry over grave responsibilities.

The way the two men spoke mirrored their physical presence. Never sinking to his professorial drone, Obama spoke calmly and in short, to-the-point declarative sentences. Romney was often to-the-point, too, but he spoke fast, a little frantically, and he couldn’t help but give off a kind of verbal sweat with one of his signature tells—declaring that he likes or loves something. “I love teachers,” he said, twice. Schieffer tried to calm him down, saying, “We all love teachers.”

At the end of the debate, Obama was the first to stand up. Romney stood a beat later, and started to come around the back of the table for the ritual handshake and shoulder grab. Obama quickly pointed to the front of the table and walked there.

Romney took his directions and followed.

John Nichols points out that besides body language, Mitt Romney had some serious problems in last night debate.

Binders of Terror

Two phrases popped out of the second presidential debate as verbal keepers, and both were from by Mitt Romney: his proud recollection of using “binders full of women” when looking for cabinet members as Massachusetts governor, and his denunciation of President Obama for supposedly failing to say the words “act of terror” to describe what happened to our consulate in Benghazi.

The first sounds like just another instance of Mittspeak, one of his weird word salads (“The trees are the right height,” athletes engage in “sport,” his wife flies on an “aircraft”). It is the lingual oddness of a man used to prevarication (as Ari Melber points out about the “binder” meme, Romney “signed an executive order banning equal opportunity programs for women in 2003”), for whom language is more a form of selling than telling.

But the “act of terror” line was something else altogether.

Romney’s invocation of “act of terror” was the “gotcha” moment that turned into a “got me,” because Candy Crowley confirmed that, despite Romney’s insistence to the contrary, the president had indeed used those words the day after the attack. Awkward! Being called out as flat wrong seemed to both astound and infuriate Romney, as the now-famous still shot of his expression shows (and as you can see in motion here, from The Daily Show starting around 2:43):

The moment was so awkward, in fact, that the right has been busily trying to wipe it away ever since, by asserting that Crowley has taken it back (she hasn’t), or that Crowley was “biased,” or that Obama wasn’t talking about Benghazi (as Colbert asked: “How do we know he’s talking about Benghazi in that Benghazi speech the day after the Benghazi attacks?”), or by insisting that Obama’s words “act of terror” didn’t really count because he didn’t invoke the truer word, “terrorism.” “Declaring something an act of terror does not necessarily mean you are declaring it a terror attack,” declared Fox News’ Megyn Kelly. (There are other variations on this last cavil, which FAIR cooly rips to pieces.)

To the liberal mind, GOP spinners look desperate and petty when they bore down like this. But what we libs don’t understand is that Mitt Romney was at that moment citing a kind of scripture.

Words like "act of terror" are recited as a litany by the itinerant preachers of the right (known to the rest of us as “political consultants”) to drive their ideas into mainstream discourse. They are taught like new hymns and secured in the mind by rhythm and repetition. That’s why wingers so often display a punctiliousness about words—the right words, they know, can keep reality at bay, especially when chanted by a group.

The Republicans have been promoting new liturgy and reviving old standbys throughout this campaign, with varying degrees of success: “apologizes for America,” “I’m not a bump in the road,” “Simpson Bowles,” even 2008’s “drill, baby, drill.” Some words, like “Bush,” have been banned, while some formerly verboten coinages, like “Romneycare,” have received special dispensation to be used in limited circumstances, like when reinventing yourself as a moderate. It’s semi-OK now, but when Romney spokesperson Andrea Saul simply mentioned the Massachusetts health care system back in August, Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter demanded an excommunication. Coulter:

if Andrea Saul isn’t fired and off the campaign tomorrow, [big donors] are not giving another dime. Because it is not worth fighting for this man if this is the kind of spokesman he has to respond to this by citing health care in Massachusetts.

Once these phrases become part of the canon, any variation can become the mark of an apostate. Think of how a magic spell in Harry Potter must be spoken precisely to work, or how, in ancient Rome, the pontifex maximus couldn't flub a word in his public prayer without having to start the whole elaborate ceremony all over again. When Crowley said Obama had indeed uttered what Holy Writ had been declaring for two weeks that he had never said, she was not only humiliating Mitt, she was speaking sacrilege. Romney was shocked as well as angered. There just aren't words odd enough to express how it made him feel.

For the Veep Debate Drinking Game: 'Wonk'

How often will Paul Ryan refer to himself at the debate tonight as a wonk? Drinking-game wise, the words wonky, wonkish, a numbers guy, even a policy freak will also count. A half shot for each mention of Power Point and double shots if moderator Martha Raddatz or even Joe Biden refer to Ryan’s superior brain power in anything but skeptical tones.

Ryan is super-amazing smart. Take his word—namely the word wonk—for it: He knows budgets like nobody’s business, he bathes in details, he walks on statistics like hot coals. Republicans and the media love portraying him as wack on wonk (a Politico headline today: “Paul Ryan's wonk appeal”): it lets them off the hook of having to repeat, defend, or even understand the details, because the Grand Master Wonk has taken care of it.  

Especially since Team Romney told him to shut up about details—on Medicare, abortion, budgets, taxes or how long it takes him to run marathons—Ryan has also let his numbers-oriented image stand in for actual numbers. Now, whenever Ryan evokes wonkery it operates as a trap door to escape the snake pit of specifics. His most notable evasion was from Fox News’s Chris Wallace, who repeatedly asked for the math behind the Romney/Ryan tax plan. “I don’t have the time,” Ryan said, “—it would take me too long to go through all of the math.” (Others have had the time to do the math.)

It’s been cute, but the jig is up. “Look, I know wonks. Ryan is not a wonk,” Paul Krugman writes. “Yes, he likes charts and slides. But he very clearly doesn’t know what his numbers actually mean.” Dave Weigel explains how the media is “[d]efining wonkishness down.” And it’s true: displaying charts are to Ryan the Wonk as clearing brush was to Bush the Cowboy. (W, if you’ll recall, was afraid of horses.)

One reason we’ve fallen for Ryan’s wonkery is, paradoxically, that he’s so good looking. If a very attractive man, or woman, is also brainiac, it can make you wish they’d just whip off their nerd glasses and let their hair hang down. It provides that cast-against-type frisson.

And in Ryan’s case, with all his heavily promoted body-building, the cerebral wonk suggests its opposite, the carnal hunk.

Maybe Ryan will surprise us all tonight with a raft of verifiable facts and specifics, much as Romney last week surprised us by coming out as Maximum Moderate Mitt. Otherwise, expect a mention or two or three of Ryan’s magnificent policy powers rather than a display of them.

So, did Ryan prove his wonkery last night? John Nichols says no.

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Why Mitt Likes to Say 'I Like'

I’m not sure if I like the way Mitt Romney likes things. As the newly empathic candidate was promising to kill Big Bird at Wednesday’s debate, did you notice how he backed into it?  

“I like PBS,” Romney started out. “I love Big Bird. I actually like you [to moderator Jim Lehrer] too. But I’m not going to—I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for it. That’s number one.”

“Like” is a decaffeinated form of “love” when Mitt uses it, but it’s also a mild protest, a plea for understanding. He usually lays a slight stress on the word, as if he’s revealing some vaguely surprising truth—“You may see me as an unfeeling, uncaring, bottom-line guy, but let me tell you, I enjoy life. I like things.” This man, who is so buttoned-up he can’t be honest about what he’s running on—like whether or not he’d cut taxes for the rich or cover pre-existing conditions in his health plan—uses like to establish his personal bona fides. I’m like you, he’s saying, I have “likes.”

Of course, it helps that like is such a flexible word, meaning “similar,” “approve” and just acting as a rhetorical placeholder, like, well, whatever. Mitt does like (indeed, he requires) a certain flexibility about what he means when he uses words. And because some of his most awkward moments during the campaign have hung from his “I like” tic, you have to wonder what he’s really saying:

I like grits,” he said, “Strange things are happening to me.”

I like seeing the lakes. I love the lakes. There’s something very special here. The Great Lakes, but also all the little inland lakes that dot the parts of Michigan…”

I like all the amendments.”

At Wednesday’s debate, we learned a few more of Mitt’s most likable things:

“And by the way, I like coal.”

“I like the way we did it in Massachusetts. I like the fact that in my state, we had Republicans and Democrats come together and work together.”

“Now, I like green energy as well…”

And it’s true, all those things are meant to be slightly surprising, particularly when listed by a man at a podium who’s running for president, and worthy of the faint stress he lays upon the word. He’s often pandering, as any politician will. But I also think Mitt is working hard to redefine the word. The most famous example is, of course:

I like being able to fire people who provide services to me.” And as PBS, Big Bird, and surely now even Jim Lehrer know, every man destroys the thing he likes.

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