You may have noticed that I’ve been unusually quiet this year. In fact, you’re reading my first new post since the Newtown massacre last December. I’m fine, really. I didn’t suffer a debilitating stroke or a nine-month writer’s block. I simply needed a break. A long break.
Burned out on politics and exhausted from reasoning with disciples of Ayn Rand, I decided that life had more to offer than endless debates over how a republic should or shouldn’t be governed. After all, I’m in the September of my years. The days grow short — why should I fill them with pointless wrangling over airy, abstract, wretched ideas when there’s music and ice cream to be enjoyed?
I never announced that The New Moderate was going on hiatus, because I had no idea whether it would be temporary or permanent. Until now.
Like the Roman satirist Juvenal, I’ve concluded that it’s harder not to comment on the current scene — even with the infinitesimal prospect of fame or riches as a reward for my labors. As lefties and righties traded insults during the George Zimmerman trial, I was beginning to feel like a muzzled hound on a fox hunt.
So here I am, back at the helm, ready once again to fight for fairness and scour the seas in hot pursuit of wanton extremists. I probably won’t be writing as regularly as in the past, and I definitely won’t be jumping into the ensuing “Comments” free-for-all with my accustomed fervor. But I’ll be here, and I’ll be spouting my “radical moderate” opinions whenever I feel moved to spout them.
More than ever, America needs to hear from its opinionated moderates. If, like me, you feel passionately about the need for righteous balance and common sense in politics and culture, I hope you’ll join me.
The burials have already begun, up there in Connecticut. Cheeky young football fan Jack Pinto and rambunctious, bright-eyed Noah Pozner both went to their graves under a leaden December sky, a week before Christmas Eve, that most magical of nights. They were six years old, both of them — absurdly, maddeningly young to be laid out in caskets like their ancestors and lowered permanently into the ground. Their eighteen schoolmates, also dead, would be following soon, along with the six brave women who tried to protect them. Twenty-six homes in this leafy corner of New England would be desolate beyond consolation this Christmas.
Make that a hundred million homes, because an entire nation has been numbed and traumatized by the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. We won’t know a fraction of the anguish those Newtown parents are feeling now as they bury those innocent sprites and confront those silent bedrooms, but we’re anguished all the same.
Innocence lost. It’s one of the eternal themes threading its way through world literature, and we Americans have spoken about it before. Pundits lamented our loss of innocence after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. In fact, we had already been losing it for decades.
Let me count the ways: Rock. Rap. Blood-spattered movies. Trash TV. Escalating public profanity. Deliberately repellent art. The damnable cult of “cool.” Eviction of religion (and with it, the teaching of morality) from our public schools. The rise of religious fanaticism. Relentless irony in comedy and conversation (why are we afraid to be sincere?). Mockery of simple, good-hearted squareness. Veneration of antiheroes. The rise of divorce and the fracturing of families.
The list goes on… The loss of mutual loyalty between employers and employees. The decline of community spirit. (“Communities” are now made up of people who look like us, vote like us, worship like us, have sex like us.) The ongoing decay of our cities. The ownership of elected representatives by powerful moneyed interests. The slow and sinister transmutation of heartfelt patriotism into belligerent “exceptionalism.” The ruthless pursuit of unlimited wealth at the top of society — coupled with the abandonment of personal responsibility at the bottom. The brutal ugliness of so many toys and video games marketed to American boys. Mass shootings of innocent people. In short, we’re a mess.
Innocence lost. When I was a boy, back in the faded golden light of the Eisenhower and Kennedy years, we were brought up to emulate people of worth and character: Washington, Lincoln, Clara Barton, Helen Keller, Lou Gehrig, George Washington Carver. These were our models, not the pop star du jour. Our favorite TV hosts promoted solid values along with the fun. I remember them fondly: Buffalo Bob Smith, Captain Kangaroo, Shari Lewis and a galaxy of kindly, unsung local personalities who influenced us more than they ever supposed.
We knew our neighbors, walked to school without fear, swapped baseball cards, played freely and joyously with our friends (no pre-arranged, parent-supervised play dates for us!). The nerdier boys among us (and nerds were probably a majority in those days) found quiet joy in stamp-collecting, model-building, Monopoly, or peering at the moon through rickety telescopes.
Such innocent pursuits seem almost comical now, but they nourished and satisfied us. By contrast, too many of today’s socially marginalized boys seem to require body piercings, “goth” garb, homicidal video games and semi-automatic weapons. The dark side calls to them, and they’ve become too deadened and morally feckless to resist its charms. Eventually, as some of them slowly lose their sanity and their attachment to the human community, the bloody slaughter of innocents begins to gain a weird, wild appeal.
The gun control debate is coming to a head now, accompanied by puffy clouds of hot verbiage. And yet the solution is simpler than the talking heads would lead us to think. Here it is: we need to preserve our right to bear arms, and we need to ban semi-automatic weapons. And yes, that goes for those evil ammo clips, too. Especially the ammo clips, because we can’t do anything about the millions of assault weapons already in circulation. End of story. No compromise. No exceptions.
I’ve never been a hunter — and I feel for the hunter’s inoffensive victims – but I can understand the excitement of the chase. I can even understand the need to keep an ordinary gun handy for self-defense. What I will never understand is the need for any sane person to collect weapons expressly designed to mow down dozens of human beings with minimal effort.
Who in their right mind would embrace semi-automatic weapons? Only gun dealers, the NRA and its paid shills (including our Congressmen), rigid Second Amendment fundamentalists and the half-demented survivalists who look forward to the day when they can blast the government troops who invade their homesteads. But it’s enough.
Cars kill thousands more people each year, the pro-gun pundits are fond of reminding us. Should we ban them? They miss the point: cars have multiple uses and benefits aside from smashing into hapless drivers and pedestrians. By contrast, the only purpose of a semi-automatic weapon is to kill multiple people with alarming efficiency. You don’t need an assault rifle to gun down an intruder in your home or business. You don’t even need one to stop a lunatic armed with assault weapons. A single well-aimed bullet would do the trick. Better yet, don’t give the lunatic access to assault weapons. Give him proper psychiatric care instead.
We need to reclaim our innocence, and we need to reclaim it now. An impossible task, you say? Too late, you insist? Nonsense. It won’t be easy to stuff all those evils back into the bag. In fact, it will take a heroic effort — but that’s precisely why it appeals to me.
How do we recover our cultural sanity without winding back the clock to the 1950s? Start with the children.
Back when my son was in kindergarten and first grade, I’d volunteer one morning each week to help the teachers and assist the little folks with their reading skills. I fell in love with those kids. I was looking at the human animal in its purest and most charming state: mirthful and mischievous, joyously uninhibited, sweet and trusting and full of wonder… old enough to make amazingly astute observations, but still too young to have been corrupted by the deadly influences of our culture.
A six-year-old child today is a timeless representative of our species, still as perfect and unsullied as the children of ancient Athens or Victorian England. If we can rescue a single generation of children from shabby values… if we can nurture them and guide them and still let them be their endearingly anarchic selves… maybe we can start to reverse the cultural rot that’s eating away at us today.
The bright and heartbreakingly lovable faces of the twenty juvenile Newtown victims, broadcast endlessly over the media in recent days, filled me with sadness but also with hope. I’m sure many of us feel as if we’ve come to know those children, and we’ll never forget them. The spark of life in their young eyes will remain with us, will never be extinguished, and will help us understand how human nature at its purest and best can ultimately conquer all manner of evil.
Maybe it is 1860 all over again. Within days after President Obama’s re-election, disgruntled red-state Republicans (and even some terminally alienated blue-state GOP diehards) were petitioning their states to secede from the Union.
Granted, these latter-day rebels were scanty in number and could easily be dismissed as cranks. Secession has been a touchy issue on these shores since the previous Civil War, and our federal government doesn’t exactly help grease the wheels of state secessionist movements.
What made the secession threat intriguing was the accommodating response from so many denizens of the left and near-left: Let them go, and good riddance!
I’d read these mini-diatribes against Red America – that primitive and alien land of old-time religion, gun worship, antipathy toward gays and blacks and foreigners, anti-science obstinacy, substandard grammar and misplaced apostrophes, environmental brutality, cheerleaders with big hair, and on and on. We’re two separate and irreconcilable cultures, proclaimed the blue-state hipsters with their radio dials perpetually tuned to NPR’s squeaky-voiced Ira Glass and whatever obscure music combo happened to be looking edgy at the moment. And it wasn’t just the hipsters: several of my more mature, tax-paying, solid-citizen liberal friends were feeling the same urge to jettison the hicks and get on with life.
As I compared the beefy, godfearing, trailer-dwelling Bubbas with the ironic, compulsively slim, chef-worshipping bicoastal urbanites, I began to wonder if Lincoln made a mistake by attempting to lasso the Confederate states back into the Union. All those hundreds of thousands of gallant young warriors cut down in their prime — for what?
In 2012 the United States seems to consist of two peoples inhabiting opposite sides of a deep gorge. The bridges are down, and
the two cultures are evolving away from each other. Eventually, like Darwin’s finches on their isolated islands, they could emerge as separate species. Maybe we needed to go our separate ways after all.
Then I came to my senses. First we had to consider the thorny logistics of dismantling the republic. What if a hipster magnet like Austin wanted to secede from Texas? What if the hillbilly stronghold of central Pennsylvania decided to go rogue and cut the cord from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh? We’d make the pre-Bismarck patchwork of petty German kingdoms and duchies look like a unified empire by comparison.
More important by far, we needed to think about the shared qualities that brought us together in the first place — aside from our boiling resentment of the taxes imposed by good old King George III. Surely a people that collectively loves pizza, movies and beer can join forces once again for the common good.
But even there, chances are that the blue-staters would prefer white pizza with artisanal goat-cheese topping, small independent films and microbrew beer, preferably from Belgium. The red-staters would gladly take pepperoni, blockbusters and Budweiser. Is there any hope?
What made us — all of us — a unique people known to the world as Americans? Was it our willingness to abandon ancestral roots for the chance to start a fresh life? Our bold spirit of pioneering, discovery and enterprise? Our national preoccupation with success? Our ability to welcome and assimilate newcomers from a hundred nations? Our admirable balance between rugged individualism and community spirit? Our willingness to help our neighbors — even if they lived halfway around the world? Our good-natured, down-to-earth irreverence in the face of airy pretentiousness (a trait embodied by native American philosophers like Mark Twain and Will Rogers)?
I’d vote an emphatic “Yes!” to all of the above. So what happened?
First, the ’60s happened. Traditional values came under assault by scruffy young radicals, and the traditionalists rebounded by digging in and rebelling against the rebels. Soon enough it turned into a shouting contest: Rush Limbaugh bellowing against the mushy entitlement state… liberals heaping infamy on the banksters… Bush Derangement Syndrome followed swiftly by Obama Derangement Syndrome… Republicans refusing to cooperate with Democrats… red-staters and blue-staters morphing into grotesque self-caricatures… Twitter mavens tweeting to their own amen corners… contentious opinions swirling in cyberspace, growing more and more distorted and snarky and intolerant of dissent… age-old friendships ending abruptly with a flurry of political and cultural fisticuffs.
It doesn’t look promising at the moment. A grueling, open-ended recession (no apparent light visible yet at the end of this tunnel) has frayed our national nerves, fueled hostility and exacerbated our differences. The haves are pulling blithely away from the have-nots, and (most alarmingly) the middle class is joining the underclass in an unhappy and unexpected alliance of the downtrodden. Upward mobility is virtually dead unless you’re already up (with a little effort, members of the elite can grow still eliter).
We begin to look more and more like a Latin American republic, even without considering the vast numbers of unassimilated Spanish speakers in our midst: a small, self-entitled upper crust and a vast peasantry, separate and unequal.
But this is the United States of America, you insist. We have our pride. Our history and our legacy are at stake. What can we do to rouse ourselves, reunite ourselves, restore a sense of common purpose?
I have an answer (not the answer, because nothing is that simple these days. But any answer is better than none). And my answer is simply this: stop thinking in terms of “us” and “them.” See individuals. Individuals who are just as proud, ornery, flawed, confused, scared and magnificent as we are. Like all living organisms, they simply want to survive, thrive and pass the baton to the next generation.
If we want a baton to pass along, we’ll have to stop hunkering down in our ideological bunkers. We need to step outside, breathe some fresh air and wave to our neighbors on the other side of the chasm. Then we need to repair the bridges that broke down over the past few decades. We don’t want to evolve into two separate and incompatible species, do we? After all, we’re not finches… we’re Americans.
We couldn’t have asked for a more portentious finale to a hard-fought presidential campaign. The swirling storm swept up the Atlantic seaboard, emptied its wrath on the Jersey shore, battered lower Manhattan and the southern shore of Long Island, and produced scenes of Old Testament destruction before it veered inland. Any soothsayer worth his sooth would have quaked in fear of its occult meaning.
Coming as it did a week before a bitter election, the monster hurricane with the disarming name took our minds off partisan politics for a moment. But make no mistake, America on Election Night 2012 is more sharply divided than at any time since 1860. That year, with the nation already barreling inexorably toward Civil War, the election of a moderate anti-slavery Republican named Abraham Lincoln over his Democratic archrival Stephen A. Douglas was enough to break up the Union.
Tonight, no matter whose name flashes on our TV screens when the networks reveal their final projections, we’ll be sliding toward the most contentious era in our history since the last four years — but even more so.
Conservatives hate Obama with a passion generally reserved for the Vietnam-era Jane Fonda. They proclaimed him a socialist, even though his domestic policies would place him slightly to the right of Richard Nixon. During his first term they continually attacked his legitimacy and even his nationality; the Republican majority in the House went out of its way to thwart his every move, even at the expense of the country as a whole. Then, naturally, they blasted him for his lack of accomplishments.
Liberals, for their part, fear that a Romney presidency (and particularly a Ryan vice-presidency, which goes with the package) would propel us even more speedily toward a winner-take-all society — a latter-day Yankee replica of Latin American republics with their self-pampering upper classes and impoverished peasantry. They excoriate the Michigan Mormon for his shape-shifting policies, his slippery penchant for saying whatever he needs to say to win votes at the moment: conservative when stumping for his party’s nomination, moderate when appealing to the national electorate, and who-knows-what after he takes office.
The reality is that both nominees are more moderate than their supporters. Yet each man has come to symbolize the rampant polarization that defines America in 2012. We’ve been torn asunder by financial collapse, endless unemployment, corporate outsourcing, growing wealth disparities, abortion, guns, race, religion, gay rights, the insatiable greed of bankers and the insatiable needs of the unfortunate. We’ve taken sides like a land split down the middle by an earthquake, with most of the populace on one side or the other, and only a sprinkling of hardy souls occupying the middle.
The polarization of America has been fueled not only by hyperpartisan politicians, but by the tireless militancy of Twitter extremists and Facebook fanatics. These chatty radicals are something new on the American scene; they preach to a homogeneous choir in a vast echo chamber that raises the volume and distorts opinions until there’s no possibility of compromise with the enemy.
As a wise Republican once warned us, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” The winner of the 2012 presidential election must work to find common ground between America’s dangerously overheated liberals and conservatives. It shouldn’t take a disaster like Hurricane Sandy to unite partisan warriors like Obama and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in brotherly affection. If Americans refuse to unite, we’ll have an even more devastating disaster on our hands.
LATE-BREAKING BULLETIN: It’s Obama! The president won narrowly in most of the battleground states, and it was enough to put him over the top. Romney conceded late but graciously, and Obama’s victory speech should have been enough to convince (nearly) all doubters that this president wants to be a uniter. Now it remains to be seen if the Republican Congress (and all those fervent Tea Partiers out there) will let him govern.
Most reasonably objective viewers (and even a few conservative ones) scored the third and final presidential debate as a solid win for Obama. After his widely panned performance in the first debate, the president rallied to take the best-of-three series. But presidential politics isn’t as simple as a baseball playoff, as we’ll see.
In that third debate, Obama never looked better: relaxed yet authoritative, appropriately serious yet animated by a mischievous wit. His “horses and bayonets” retort to Romney’s irrelevant lament about the shrinking size of our navy was sheer comedic inspiration:
You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military has changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go under water, nuclear submarines.
Romney, for his part, played it safe and low to the ground. This was a foreign affairs debate, after all — and if the former chief of Bain Capital has an Achilles heel, this is it. His gaffe-a-minute overseas tour this past summer is still fresh in our memories. But Romney watched his words, committed no bloopers, smiled frequently (if a little nervously) and practically endorsed his opponent’s foreign policy.
Some observers noted that the Republican nominee was sweating in the time-honored tradition of Richard Nixon. I didn’t discern any telltale droplets myself, even on my high-def TV, but Romney looked as uncomfortable as the president looked assertive and commanding. It was the polar opposite of the first debate.
So shouldn’t the Republican faithful be panicking right now? Shouldn’t they be alarmed that their nominee gave the kind of passive, milquetoast performance that earned Obama such opprobrium in the first debate?
Of course not. It was all part of the plan, you see. Romney needed to boost his credibility among undecided moderates — and especially female undecided moderates. What better way to say “Vote for me, ladies” than to present yourself as a mild, peace-loving guy… a “safe” Republican, not one of those strident and bellicose apostles of American exceptionalism (not to mention unfettered capitalism and upward mobility for the already-rich). We were looking at a Mitt Romney who wouldn’t have been out of place talking to a women’s book group or chatting it up with Oprah (if Oprah were still chatting it up with anyone).
This carefully manufactured “safe” Romney,one of his many incarnations over the past year, reminds me of a classic skit from the early glory days of “Saturday Night Live.” There would be a knock at the door, followed by a garbled voice (SNL veteran Chevy Chase) asking incoherently for a Mrs. Somebody-or-Other.
Gilda Radner, stretched out on her couch, asks him what he wants. “Plumber,” comes the faint reply.
When Gilda tells him she hasn’t called for a plumber, the voice changes his story. “Telegram,” he mumbles. So Gilda rises from her couch, opens the door and is promptly devoured by the voracious “land shark.”
Later, in the forensics lab, a rattled John Belushi tells his associate (played by Dan Aykroyd) that the land shark is “the cleverest species of them all.”
In the next scene, Laraine Newman is lounging on her sofa when she hears the knock at the door. There’s the same mumbling, incoherent voice: “Flowers… plumber, ma’am.” But Laraine is on to him.
“I don’t need a plumber,” she retorts. “You’re that clever shark, aren’t you?”
“Candygram,” comes the faint reply.
“Candygram my foot!” says Laraine. “You’re the shark and you know it.”
“I’m only a dolphin, ma’am.”
That does the trick. “A dolphin? Well, OK.” Laraine lets him in and gets devoured on the spot.
Is Romney really a land shark? I don’t know… and that’s the problem.
Does anybody know who this guy is? All we know is that he’s been claiming to be the Candygram man lately — and frankly, I wouldn’t advise anyone to open that door.
I miss the days when heavyweight boxing loomed large over the American cultural landscape. The great champs were men of mythic stature — Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano and (most mythic of all) Muhammad Ali. Then the sport deteriorated like a jack o’ lantern two weeks after Halloween.
The hulking, ear-biting Mike Tyson is the last heavyweight champ whose face I can remember. An upstart named Evander Holyfield followed him, and I couldn’t name you a single one of Holyfield’s heirs. The sport has trailed off into insignificance, replaced by video games, reality TV and presidential debates.
Yes, our presidential debates are the next-best thing to the heavyweight bouts of yore. Especially the town hall debates, which allow the candidates to get up from their seats, move around and invade each other’s private space.
The defending champ and his Republican challenger met this past Tuesday for the second in a best-of-three contest. Both men entered the ring in fighting trim: tall, lean and energized… not an ounce of flab around the waist or skull, boyish hairlines intact. Romney at 65 was looking more unnaturally youthful than his 51-year-old rival, whose arduous three-plus years in the White House have taken a visible toll.
Obama, recovering from his lethargic TKO loss in the first debate, needed to show the world that he could still catch fire and pack a well-aimed punch. The Republican challenger, who had the momentum along with a paper-thin edge in the polls, simply needed to look like a champ while successfully dodging and weaving in the ring.
Romney came out of his corner in response to a college student who wondered aloud if he’d ever find a job. The Marauding Mormon conveyed friendly concern and instantly promised him gainful employment. Romney was being Romney: the smooth, upbeat, ideologically elusive plutocrat who’s gallantly forcing himself to sympathize with ordinary middle-class Americans.
Now it was Obama’s turn: the president surprised the doubters with a show of renewed moxie. Energized, intense and combative, he quickly brandished his own credentials as a Certified Friend of the Middle Class and repeatedly put his opponent on the defensive. Obama jabbed Romney again and again, knocking his opponent’s faith in “top-down economics”… his mysterious promise to roll back the deficit while cutting taxes (“the math doesn’t add up”)… his flip-flopping on illegal immigrants and Obamacare… his haste to make political hay out of the Libya consulate attack… his fealty to the GOP’s right-wing fringe in general and the National Rifle Association in particular.
But despite his adroit maneuvers, Obama never put his opponent away with a decisive knockout punch. Romney countered with jabs of his own: Obama’s broken promises, lingering recession, billowing deficit, sluggishness in drilling for oil, mishandling of Libya, prohibitive taxes on American companies. But again, nothing fatal. Each attempted to paint himself as a moderate while his opponent quickly defaced the self-portrait.
Both men, masters of self-control under less stressful circumstances, began to frazzle visibly midway through the bout. Romney grew prickly and impatient; the president quietly fumed and sulked. But neither man collapsed. Each danced defiantly onto the other’s turf. Both abused their allotted time slots; both wrangled with the referee, CNN’s Candy Crowley, she of the feisty humor and tanklike physique –and no pushover in the ring.
All the while, often nervous and fumbling, the hand-picked inquisitors — a gathering of undecided, mostly white Long Island voters — tried to extract straightforward answers from the two combatants. Not much luck there. In the end, nobody asked the most important question of all: What will you do to stop lobbyists and big-money interests from buying our elected representatives? If I had been in the audience, that’s the question I would have asked… though it might not have made it past the censors.
The most decisive action came late in the match. In response to an audience member’s challenge for Romney to differentiate himself from the unfortunate George W. Bush, the Mittster appropriately cited his faith in small business (as opposed to big corporations) as the engine of growth and progress. Obama also drew a contrast between the two Republicans — and scored a minor coup by providing evidence that Bush the Younger was actually more liberal than the current GOP nominee! Then, in his closing statement, the president finally pulled Romney’s infamous “47%” remark out of his hat.
The victor: Obama on points — not a knockout — not even a TKO — but still an encouraging turnaround for the embattled chief executive.
It strikes me as odd and unseemly that our presidential elections increasingly hinge on the combatants’ skill in the debating ring. Debates favor quickness, glibness, style and maneuverability over substance and character. Not exactly the kind of screening process we need to recognize a great leader… but one that’s suited to a nation in thrall to pop culture and its mandatory slickness.
George Washington, perhaps the single most magnificent character to emerge from the entire 400-year American pageant, wouldn’t have stood a chance in a televised debate. A reluctant speaker, starchy and slow of wit, he would have sputtered and mumbled through his grotesque false teeth while a Romney or an Obama shredded him alive. But after all, folks, that’s show business.
Hard to believe (isn’t it?) that as I write these words, less than a week has passed since the first debate between Mitt Romney and the embattled occupant of the White House. Hard to believe that less than a week ago, the Romney campaign appeared to be imploding.
The Mittster’s notorious “47 percent” remark, uttered behind closed doors to a group of supporters and promptly leaked to the public, seemed to crystallize the GOP nominee’s image as a staunch and clueless plutocrat – an arrogant member of the privilegentsia who could blithely dismiss nearly half the U.S. population as freeloaders. It was only the latest in a long line of oafish remarks uttered by an otherwise intelligent, competent and supremely slick public servant. But coming as late as it did in the 2012 campaign, the ill-chosen quip seemed to seal Romney’s fate.
What a difference a single debate can make.
Within minutes after the closing remarks in Denver, America’s vast media machine unleashed a swirling torrent of punditry, nearly all of it blistering in its criticism of Obama’s performance. “Calamitous” seemed to be the general consensus. Romney, they agreed, appeared sharp, well-prepared and eager to win, while the president essentially slumbered through the most pivotal evening of the entire campaign.
Even within the ranks of Obama’s supporters — especially within those ranks — the disgust overflowed like hot lava from a long-dormant volcano. Liberal icon and generous Obama campaign donor Bill Maher wondered aloud if the president had spent his $1 million gift “on weed.” Even The New Yorker, that bastion of urbane progressivism, issued a cover cartoon that carried the most damning possible image of the debate: it depicted Obama as an empty chair.
I watched the debate that evening and I have to admit I was blindsided by the intensity of the Obama-flogging that followed. I actually thought the debate was a draw — a conclusion that probably nullifies any pretense to political omniscience on my part.
The way I saw it, Obama said the right things and said them well (if not forcefully or memorably by his standards). He came across as a model of concerned rational moderation: supportive of America’s beleaguered middle class… a champion of small business as the driving engine of the economy… commendably eager to reward businesses that hire American workers.
Romney, for his part, looked smooth and energized. He engaged his opponent forcefully but cordially, and generally took the high road. That much is praiseworthy. But he also told enough whoppers to turn his nose into a telephone pole. Liberal website ThinkProgress enumerated “27 myths” that Romney unfurled during the 38 minutes that he held the floor.
What I noticed at Romney’s end was an abundance of weaseling — not outright lies (though there were enough of those, too), but clever evasions calculated to rebrand the GOP’s elusive shape-shifter as a stalwart champion of the middle class. Example: Challenged on his scheme to cut taxes for the nation’s economic elite, Romney repeatedly countered, “I will not put in place any tax cuts that will raise the deficit.”
That’s right, Mitt: you’ll compensate for your tax cuts on the rich by cutting federal support for education, the environment and Big Bird. Anyone can see that, right? Mr. President? Care to comment? [Faint snoring sounds emanating from Obama's lectern.]
So yes, Romney succeeded in slipping some big ones past the president. He looked animated where the president looked worn and depleted; he drove the debate, deliberately slinked from the right to the center and danced around his opponent, who was too tired, demoralized, indifferent or simply unprepared to take advantage of all those glaring opportunities for potential counterthrusts. And yet, if I had to score the debate on content alone, I’d still call it a draw. Obama committed no gaffes; he didn’t sweat or stammer; he simply told his side of the story. But it wasn’t enough.
Contemporary Americans, of course, are addicted to style — the flashier the better. That’s why Lady Gaga earns more than your average tax accountant. Back in 1960, Nixon famously “lost” his televised debate with Kennedy because he appeared haggard and unshaven. (He had just recovered from an illness and had lost several pounds.) Yet those who listened to that same debate on the radio generally proclaimed him the winner.
Obama is nothing if not a master of style, but a difficult presidency has taken its toll on the man who crusaded so brilliantly for hope and change just four years ago. He can still flash that winning smile, but he flashes it less frequently now. What a stinging irony that the silver-tongued orator lost the debate on style points to the starchy Mormon from Michigan!
In fact, the lingering image of Obama from last week’s debate is that of a numb, chastened, unhappy man staring down at his notes with a petulant frown. He had good reason to be unhappy, even on his twentieth wedding anniversary. He had just been sideswiped by an opponent who was rebranding himself with each new statement, and no amount of note-taking was going to salvage the evening for him.
Romney made himself immune to attack simply by dodging and denying his previous positions, and Obama didn’t know how to bring down a moving target. The rational Mr. Spock was no match for a Mighty Morphin Power Ranger.
One particular image of Romney lingers in my mind, too. I couldn’t find a photograph that perfectly captured its essence, but I’ll try to describe it for you. It was the image of Romney listening to the president, his craggy L. L. Bean male model’s face fixed in a condescending but curiously indulgent smile. It was the look of a father listening to his ten-year-old son telling him that the dog ate his homework. It was the visual equivalent of Ronald Reagan’s “There you go again.” It was well rehearsed, and it was unnerving.
The fatherly glow in Romney’s eyes seemed to radiate kindness, but it was the cursory kindness of a wealthy man who was decent enough to listen to a street beggar’s sob story. It projected a sense of assumed superiority. It was the look of a man who knows that his authority and social position are unassailable. And as a tactical weapon in a debate with a sitting president, it was pure genius.