The trouble with normal: Romney’s lies and Obama’s non-response

Obama’s lacklustre performance in the debate seems to genuinely reflect how he really feels.

US - VOTE - 2012 - DEBATE
Romney's biggest lie was a lie told in advance - an act of projection accusing Obama of being the liar in the debate, weeks before the debate was even held [AFP]

Mitt Romney went out on stage at the first presidential debate and lied himself blue in the face. That was to be expected. President Obama seemed utterly flummoxed – as if he’d been living under a rock somewhere these last four years (or decades), possibly on Mars, and simply had no experience with confronting Republican lies. That was inexcusable.  

Yes, it’s true, as Rachel Maddow pointed out the next day, that incumbent presidents usually lose the first debate – five out of six times since the debates became a regular part of the election process – and this doesn’t mean much for their re-election process, since they’ve only gone on to lose the election three times. But, when Democrats have been in office – a much smaller, statistically meaningless sample size of two – the correlation has been exact: Carter lost both the first debate and the election, Clinton won both. 

But it wasn’t just losing the debate that rankled so, even if it does turn out to mean nothing electorally. Former New York Times columnist Bob Herbert put his finger squarely on point: It wasn’t the performance, it was the pattern – underperformance by the President, and excuses by defenders who ought to be leading the charge for him to do more. 

“Ever since he was elected,” Herbert wrote, “there have been reasons offered, either publicly or privately, for why Obama has been unable to fully engage some of the nation’s most important challenges.” And he went on specify just what he was talking about: 

“Despite the rampant increase in poverty in the worst downturn since the Depression, Obama supporters whispered that he couldn’t do more for the poor and couldn’t speak out more forcefully on their behalf because that would not be politically advantageous. So nearly all of his economic initiatives had to be couched in language that referred to the middle class, even though the poor were being hurt far worse. LBJ could launch a war on poverty but not Barack Obama.”

Obama’s lacklustre performance

At the debate, however, it was even worse than Herbert describes – and predictably so. “The trouble with normal is it always gets worse,” as Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn warned at the dawn of the age of Reagan, and so it was once again: Romney mendaciously presented his trickle-down tax cuts for the rich (a 20 per cent cut in marginal rates) as aimed at the middle class. 

And why not? Once you stop arguing that “the least of these” (Matthew 24:40) are morally deserving of our concern, it’s only a matter of time before everyone else gets thrown under the bus as well (hence, Charles Murray is now writing about how degenerate poor whites are). It’s been happening at least since neo-liberal New Democrats like Bill Clinton started working on “welfare reform” back in the 1980s, so why should it stop now? It always gets worse.

At the end of his piece, Herbert warned, “The president let his people down. And if he’s capable of doing that in an election that is clearly so important, it means he’s capable of doing it again if he wins a second term.”

But hasn’t this already happened countless times already? Banks bailed out, while homeowners left stranded, tens of millions of Americans either foreclosed on, facing foreclosure, or holding onto homes worth less than what they owe on their mortgages – and the President doesn’t even talk about them?

If he were a Republican, wouldn’t those supporting him now be up in arms over this? And can’t the same be said about his coddling of BP in the wake of their oil spill? Or his amped-up use of drone strikes – even to kill US citizens?

Or his ongoing, Nixonian pursuit of Julian Assange and Bradley Manning? Or his union-busting support for “education reform” that’s funnelling billions of public education dollars into private hands, while hundreds of thousands of teachers have lost their jobs?

Indeed, if anything, Obama’s lacklustre performance in the debate seems to genuinely reflect how he really feels. It’s the passionate day-late-and-a-dollar-short rhetoric of the next-day campaign rally that doesn’t match up with Obama’s actual record. That’s where the Democrats – and America’s – problem lies, given the total catastrophe that conservatism delivered on so many fronts during the Bush years.

To be sure, the fault is not Obama’s alone. Even the greatest of presidents are constrained, limited by their times and circumstances. But they have their choice of how to confront those constraints, and Obama has repeatedly chosen the politically disastrous (and thus, not surprisingly, unprecedented) path of pre-compromise, undercutting his most ardent would-be supporters from his base, giving his enemies at least half of what they want in advance, and empowering the worst actors on both sides of the partisan divide in a process that inevitably ends up in a much more conservative place than initial advocates began – only to have conservatives denounce the end result as socialism.

It always gets worse. Such was the case with TARP, the Stimulus, Obamacare, even the debt ceiling compromise. Obama seemingly can’t even sneeze without following this politically self-defeating pattern.

More popular with the pundit class than Herbert’s account (and mine) is the “too professorial” critique. In Salon, historian Kevin Mattson gave us one of the best in this genre, as he compared Obama to Adlai Stevenson, recalling, “When Adlai Stevenson won the nomination that year, he told the party faithful at the convention that he wanted to ‘take advantage of this great quadrennial opportunity to debate issues sensibly and soberly… Better we lose the election than mislead the people’.”  

The problem here is not just a professorial image or tone, though that’s the easiest thing to hang your hat on. The deeper problem is the false belief that fact-talk trumps story-telling, not just as a means of political communication, but as a way of describing the world (see my review of The Republican Brain for a refresher on this).

Lack of public language

The reality is that issues and facts don’t exist in a vacuum, they’re always part of a story – indeed many stories, contesting with one another. There’s always a social and historical context, what we see always depends on where we stand, however much we might want to pretend otherwise, and those disenfranchised, on margins, pretending less, are actually able to see more.  

 Brief history of US presidential debates

In Stevenson’s day, it was Rosa Parks who could see more, could see the utter hollowness of conventional democratic rhetoric in the “greatest nation on earth”. Today, we can all see Rosa Parks’ point of view.

In Stevenson’s day, the political class was utterly blind to it. We’ve come a long way, we’d like to believe. Everyone in the political class will tell us so. But if we could ferret out today’s Rosa Parks, no doubt she’d tell us something quite different, pointing perhaps to Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, which paints a stark sociological contrast with the individual advancement of America’s first black president, drilling down deep into a topic that Obama dare not even breathe about. 

Once again, Bruce Cockburn’s words apply, “The trouble with normal is it always gets worse”, and the detached “objective” analysis of Stevenson’s day has decayed dramatically down to our day. Our collective inability to even see how contradictory racial progress has been – the utter lack of a public vocabulary to describe, much less discuss such matters – is just one glaring symptom of that decay.

Returning to the debate itself, and how it illustrates this point, consider this snippet of reporting by Evan McMorris-Santoro at Talking Points Memo, illuminating the Stevensonian approach that Obama took:

It was striking that some of the biggest Obama attack lines of the past few weeks didn’t make an appearance in the debate, another sign that Romney was the aggressor. After the debate was over, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina explained to reporters that the infamous “47 per cent” line from Romney didn’t make an appearance because the right time never arrived.

“It just didn’t come up in the debate,” Messina said. “It wasn’t a deliberate decision.”

The professorial passivity is obvious. The first rule of debate is you don’t wait for topics to come up – you define topics in advance, in order to create a space to say what you have to say – and to make it all the harder, if not impossible, for the other side’s talking points to “just come up”.

But there’s a deeper problem here: Obama’s attack lines were crafted, not organic. They are not grounded in a coherent systematically thought-out public language, in part because after decades of conservative assault, such language no longer exists, and the promise that candidate Obama might revive and reinvigorate such language – argued for most passionately by George Lakoff in 2008 (here, for example) – was yet another promise that Obama has dropped without a word (Lakoff, by the way, has an excellent analysis of why Obama lost the debate, here).

The lack of such a public language was made obvious when Romney spouted the nonsense phrase “trickle-down government”, a typically mendacious effort (typically, unchallenged by Obama) to neutralise the well-deserved contempt for 30-plus years of failed trickle-down economics.

While the scope and sweep of Romney’s lying may have been unexpected, it shouldn’t have been. Debates are not white papers. Condensation and simplification are the order of the day. Littler lies get aggregated into bigger ones. That’s what happens in debates when lies are the order of the day. And that was clearly going to be the case in this debate. 

Romney’s biggest lie

As a little-noticed post at Daily Kos pointed out (“Romney’s Biggest Debate Lie“), Romney’s biggest lie was a lie told in advance – an act of projection accusing Obama of being the liar in the debate, weeks before the debate was even held. The diarist, Mitchell4a, goes on to point out the strategic necessity involved: For Romney to successfully Etch-a-Sketch himself as a moderate, without Obama calling him on his flip-flop, he’d have to “devise a narrative in which Obama is made to appear as if he is lying when he challenges Romney”.  

 Inside Story US 2012 – US presidential debates:
Fact or fiction?

Thus – contrary to what many pundits said – it was virtually inevitable, not just foreseeable that Romney would essentially deny the economic centerpiece of his campaign, the gargantuan tax cut for high-income Americans like himself. “I will not reduce the taxes paid by high-income Americans,” Romney said in the debate. But even as he spoke, his website still touted his plan to cut marginal rates by 20 per cent – a monumental amount of savings for those at the top, which would necessarily have to end up hurting those who make less, be they poor or middle class. 

Romney’s big lie about his tax-cut plan is actually composed of several different lies, all tied together. But the central lie was outed by MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell, a former Senate budget staffer, who knows this territory the way that seasoned professionals do.  

Yet, the point he made should be obvious to anyone: when you propose a tax-cut, the size of the tax-cut is the size of the tax-cut. In his exact words, “The tax cut is measured by how much revenue you will cut from tax collection. That’s what – that’s how the tax cut is described.” 

When you propose ways to off-set the cut, seeking to minimise or eliminate its impact on the budget, those are ways of paying for the tax-cut, which O’Donnell notes, are “a whole separate section of the legislation”.They do not magically turn the tax cut into not a tax cut. They are policies, not pixie dust.

The new normal

Once upon a time we had a normal public language for talking about such things. But conservatives have spent decades dismantling that language, making it difficult, if not impossible, to simply describe the most basic truths. Normal language, like everything normal, always gets worse. This was just one more example. 

Anyone could have easily seen Romney’s tax-cut lie coming. Last weekend, for example, Paul Ryan said on Fox News that “You can lower tax rates by 20 per cent across the board by closing loopholes and still have preferences for the middle class for things like charitable deductions, for home purchases, for health care”. 

Of course that’s a lie – analysis from the Tax Policy Center shows that 20 per cent cuts to households above $200,000 would cut tax burdens by $251bn per year among households with income above $200,000, but there are only $165bn in total loopholes to close – leaving an $86bn annual shortfall (“Oops!” as Governor Perry would say).

But it’s pretty much the same lie that Romney told in the debate: The tax-cut (spelled out on his website, and mentioned repeatedly in speeches) is not a tax-cut because it has offsets (which Romney refuses to specify). Romney simply stated it more baldly than Ryan did, nothing more. 

So why wasn’t Obama prepared? Why was he caught flat-footed? It’s the Stevenson thing, plus the Cockburn thing, plus the Bob Herbert thing as well. Even as trickle-down economics has failed disastrously over the past 30-plus years, it has simultaneously become part of the fabric of elite thinking, making it virtually impossible to stand outside of it, and call out its deceptions in clear, unambiguous terms. Hence, anyone who does call out its deceptions in ordinary, non-professorial language, is by definition an outsider, a Rosa Parks, someone unserious whom none of us need pay attention to. 

And yet, almost 60 years later, we all know that Rosa Parks was right. 

“No lie can live forever,” as Dr Martin Luther King prophetically said. How long will the current crop last? As long as we let them. 

Paul Rosenberg is the senior editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.