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Smart v. Stupid

Romney’s 'bless his heart' strategy in post-racist America

Now that Mitt Romney is the presumptive Republican nominee, we’re starting to get indications of his general election strategy. Apart from trying to Etch A Sketch the radical-right positions he took in the primary, what is emerging is a strategy based on two tactics: be vague and make liberal use of belittlement.

Be vague is a publicly acknowledged plan for the campaign. Romney has said he believes he lost a 1994 Senate race and the 2008 nomination because he was too specific about what he’d do as president. In other words, when he said what he wanted to do, people wouldn’t vote for him. So he plans to talk a lot, but not say too much.

Unless you’re a potential donor, of course. In that case, he wants you to know that he’d gut federal programs for low-income housing and make the Department of Education’s only mission to oppose the right of teachers to organize in order to get better pay and working conditions. You can see his problem.

The second strategy, in essence, is to say, "Bless his little heart. He’s a perfectly nice young man, but he’s just not up to the job." I call it Southern-style snark. You can just imagine TV chef Paula Deen saying it as she throws another stick of heart disease into the roux.

So how will these two strategies work?

The platitudes-before-policies strategy has had longstanding success for Republicans, even before Reagan made high art of it. Republican voters practice what I like to call “faith-based politics.” They vote for people (like George W) who say the things they’d say. And they operate on a strict belief system. If something they believe in doesn’t work, it never crosses their mind that they are wrong. They just need to do it more, they think.

So for them, fist-pumping while yelling “America is best!” is enough. They’ll turn out for Mitt. Candidate Romney’s say-nothing strategy will get the votes of traditional Republicans and those “independents” who always vote Republican. “We’re the greatest, thank God, and pass the ammunition!” is all they need.

But by itself, say-nothing won’t win a majority, much less an election. So Mr. Romney needs the second strategy. He needs to make Obama seem inept and foolish, despite the evidence otherwise. 

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Ridicule is the most powerful force in politics. No one votes for the motley fool. Don’t believe me? Just ask Michael Dukakis (who was killed by a funny hat) and Howard Dean (whose promising candidacy was killed by an enthusiastic scream.) Either would have been a good leader. But they were winning one day, dead the next.

The Republican Party has already been successful at holding down President Obama’s popularity by (arguably made-up) ridicule about his popularity, his capability, his relatability and his experience. It works with anyone who is not listening too closely. That said, after years they haven’t managed to deliver anything close to a knockout.

Is Mitt Romney the guy to deliver a fatal blow? He has his own ridiculousness issues, of course. He’s the out-of-touch rich guy who likes to fire people. And Romney’s ridiculousness is entirely his own making. He calls Paul Ryan’s slash and burn budget “marvelous” a view probably shared only by Paul Ryan. Even before the primary, Mr. Romney was already famous for, as Michael Eric Dyson says, “blowing in the wind.”

Romney seems intent on making the case that rich people deserve to be honored, simply for being rich. This is the kind of talk you hear at country club cocktail parties, but it is usually privileged 20-something children doing the talking, not the grownups. Nonetheless, we’ll all be sure to admire Bernie Madoff, Muammar Gaddafi and Pablo Escobar, won’t we?

The other way that belittlement could backfire for Romney is if it is seen as racial. Certainly, any hopeful delusions of a post-racial America have been quashed of late. But just as certainly, we live in a post-racist America. The recall of Russell Pearce, architect of Arizona’s "Papers Please Law" and the national outcry over the killing of Trayvon Martin are clear evidence that a large majority of Americans – and most white people – simply won’t abide racism. Racism, when discovered, simply isn’t tolerated anymore.

If people come to believe Mitt Romney is calling President Obama “boy,” his candidacy is over. It’s a fine line of perception that Mitt is probably not deft enough to avoid. Trying – or failing – may just neuter Romney’s attempt to ridicule – a tactic he desperately needs if he is to win without saying anything about what he plans to do.

Wouldn’t it be ironic if Romney’s campaign was brought down not by any of his actual flaws, but by the views he made us guess about?

Jimmy Zuma splits his time between Washington, D.C. and Tucson. He writes the online opinion journal, Smart v. Stupid. He spent 5 years in Tucson in the early ‘80s, when life was a little slower, swamp coolers were a little more plentiful, Tucson’s legendary music scene was in full bloom, and the prevailing work ethic was “don’t - unless you have to.”

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Mitt Romney

Certainly the platitudes-before-policies strategy has had longstanding success for Republicans, even before Reagan made high art of it.