Step right up and vote for that "transparent faker" Willard Inc. and the unknowable contents of his campaign Mystery Box
"Everyone could see [Romney] was a faker and could accept that because he was such a transparent faker. It's the polished faker who scares politicians, master fakers like Bill Clinton and Lyndon Johnson."
-- Russell Baker, in his contribution to NYRB's
election symposium in the November 8 issue
election symposium in the November 8 issue
"Here is the Romney strategy: since you don't like what you've got, vote for what you haven't got. Whatever it is you haven't got, it is better than what you've got. . . . [T]he Romney campaign is taking what-you-haven't-got-ism to new heights of what-you-mustn't-know-ism. It supposes that revealing any details of what you haven't got will just distract from the fact that you haven't got it. . . . So we are supposed to vote for a big Mystery Box full of things we haven't got."
-- Garry Wills, in his contribution
I've been trying to figure out how to clue you in to the New York Review of Books's election symposium in the generally remarkable November 8 issue. The individual pieces, by 13 contributors including a number of the magazine's most prized regulars, don't even have titles. They're just interspersed through the issue in four groups, which you will now be able to access directly online via this little guide (with apologies for the woefully inadequate summaries):
Michael Tomasky on the mangled politics of the coming four years ("If Obama wins, we will see a battle within the Republican Party the likes of which we’ve not witnessed in modern history. . . . And if Romney wins, which Romney will govern?").
Elizabeth Drew on the prospects for a second Obama term ("[Q]uite remarkably, Obama lost the definition of the health care bill he was battling to get through Congress. . . . A second term will show us how much he learned from his first one").
Cass R. Sunstein, former White House regulation overseer, on the thousands of rules and regulations issued by the Obama administration and their fate at the hands of the future federal judiciary ("Of course it is true that the 2012 presidential election will help to establish the meaning of the Constitution. Perhaps equally important, it will help to establish the fate of numerous rules designed to protect public safety, health, and the environment").
Frank Rich on the descent to 2016 ("As a retail campaigner, Romney’s human skills fall somewhere between those of Richard Nixon and Hal the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey").
David Cole on national security and human rights ("Of course, President Obama has not exactly been a beacon of light on such critical rule-of-law issues as transparency and accountability . . . Still, as the latest 'torture memo' illustrates, President Romney would be far worse").
Ronald Dworkin on the stakes for constitutional law ("The record of the Roberts Court is already one of the worst in our history. . . . Perhaps it is impossible to make independent voters alert to these dangers. If so, that is a shame").
Russell Baker on the candidate the Republicans hate but were stuck with ("The nine [presidential wannabes] who took the stage for the Republicans' first televised debate reminded all America that ours is not a great age for producing statesmen"), for which they hated him even more ("Many obviously hated him for being inescapable, but what could be done?").
Darryl Pinckney on Willard and the politics of ethnic division ("Romney's kind control the country's wealth, but they cannot get back in charge, psychologically, and this induces a kind of mania in people like John Boehner and the Koch brothers . . . . Such white folk cannot forgive Obama for winning in the first place").
David Bromwich, the Yale English professor, on invisible campaign issues ("Obama clearly believes that political democracy cannot survive in the face of extreme and widening economic inequality. Unless he finds a way of saying so without embarrassment, his largest differences with Romney will seem to the uninformed a matter of recondite details").
Kwame Anthony Appiah of Princeton on the likelihood of wrongly learned lessons from Obama's first term ("Administrations are often credited with initiatives that were really undertaken by their predecessors. . . . The problem is that if the wrong person gets the credit, we learn the wrong lesson").
Steven Weinberg, the Nobel physicist, on the disappointments of the Obama first term ("If I lived in a swing state like Ohio or Florida, I would doubtless swallow my disappointment and vote for Obama. In any case, I would not allow disappointment with Obama to keep me from voting for truly liberal candidates for Congress, such as Elizabeth Warren").
Garry Wills on the "Mystery Box" Willard has chosen to ask voters to vote for ("The strategy of no full disclosure at the top of the campaign silently meshes with the party of no full confession below. Under all the other hidden things, the Mystery Box is hiding a lethal level of radioactive racism").
Jeffrey Sachs on the insanity, built into our political system, of operating the U.S. government, "the world’s largest enterprise, with $3.7 trillion in outlays, $2.5 trillion in revenues, and 2.1 million civilian workers," and "also the most complex, operating in every sector of the world’s largest economy, in every country of the world, and in every possible setting: markets, technology development, social programs, basic science, and much, much more" without any kind of planning beyond our day-to-day seat-of-the-pants partisan brinksmanship.
JEFFREY SACHS'S PIECE MAY BE THE MOST IMPORTANT,
BUT REGULAR READERS WON'T BE SURPRISED . . .
. . . that it's Garry Wills's I want to spotlight now. (However, I reserve the right to return to Sachs's, or to any of the others, for that matter.)
At the top of this post I've already introduced Garry W's idea of the "big Mystery Box full of things we haven't got" which is the core of what Willard Inc. is asking voters to vote for. Let's have him explain a bit.
Ann Romney, asked about abortion, said she could not address that since it would just be a distraction from the promised great economy (what we haven't got). Asked about her husband's tax returns, she said two years are all we are going to get (leaving all other years among the things we haven't got). Romney himself, asked what loopholes he would eliminate to fund his great new plans, said telling us that would cheat Congress of the wonderful surprise of working with him on the problem.Even the selection of right-wing love god Paul Ryan was configured into the Mystery Box format.
His views on voter-identification drives to reduce the electorate? A distraction. On requiring ultrasound exams for pregnant women seeking abortions; on "legitimate rape"? Just distractions, all of them. So, for that matter, is whatever he did at Bain Capital, or as governor of Massachusetts. The main thing we are supposed to advert to or be reminded of in his past is that he "saved the Olympics."
Even Romney's strong first debate was simply a harder emphasis on what you've got (falsely, a doubling of the deficit) and what-you-mustn't-know-ism (what deductions will be eliminated and how this will reduce the deficit) -- which Romney got away with because the president inexplicably let him limit the discussion to those terms. All the things Romney treated as "distractions" -- women's rights, gay rights, citizenship for undocumented immigrants, the 47 percent of moochers -- Obama treated as if they were indeed distractions. But they are not, and that should become clear by the election.
[T]here was an expectation that Ryan would pop out like a jack-in-the-box, filling the air with numbers like confetti. He was the party's great thinker; he would make the campaign serious and nerdy; he would blind with pure intellect his Elmer Fudd vice-presidential rival. He would turn his Ayn Rand death ray on him and Biden would evaporate. But as soon as Ryan was asked for his great specific plans, he was told that he could not violate his master's secrecy campaign, and Jack was stuffed back into the box.Garry points out, "We have seen this kind of mystery election before."
In the elections of 2010, we were told that the Tea Party candidates arriving on the scene would eliminate the deficit and shrink the government, somehow. Other issues were set aside. Abortion, gay rights, religion in politics -- those were all part of the old religious right, now supplanted by the deficit purists. But in a great bait and switch, the first thing the new people in Congress, the state houses, and state legislatures did was introduce a flood of bills to limit, stigmatize, or eliminate abortions, and the flood has not abated -- 944 provisions on abortion or contraception were still being introduced into state legislatures during the first three months of 2012."The mass of voters," Garry points out, "did not choose that."
There was no way it could. No one knew what was in the 2010 version of the Mystery Box. In the same way, if we vote for "the economy only" Republicans, the old causes will again race to the top of their agenda -- challenges to women's rights, gay rights, global warming, religious education, and Supreme Court nominees. All of a sudden, other things will not be distractions from the bad economy.When Willard does get specific, Garry says, it's "a specificity about the non-existent.
He will not apologize for America -- as if that were occurring. He will not cut work requirements from welfare -- and neither has anyone else. He will not take God's name off our coins -- lifting a burden of fear from the beleaguered "Keep God on Our Coins" movement."On the other hand, he was very specific about one thing": Anyone who wanted to be his vice presidential running mate would have to produce ten years' worth of tax records.
Romney was too smart to let anyone standing for that office tell him it was none of his business. No one could use mysteries on the Mystery Box candidate. But we are not supposed to be as smart as Romney when it comes to taking risks about important offices. What was required to become a candidate for the vice-presidency is off limits for becoming the president. That is still in the Mystery Box, and it has to stay there.As with the Teabaggers in 2010, 2012 Willard conceals what's in his Mystery Box by waging "a revulsion campaign . . . rid[ing] the diffuse and partly disguised distrust of Obama."
Romney could explicitly voice only one aspect of this revulsion, Obama's economic performance. But under the vague general feelings about Obama -- reports to pollsters that he is not quite one of us, perhaps not a citizen, not a Christian -- there were radioactive centers too hot for a candidate to handle directly. He could, nonetheless, profit from their broader toxic waves, an unconfessed (sometimes, perhaps, unconscious) force. It was rightly said that a historic boundary had been crossed when a black man was elected president. That breakthrough partly escaped but did not cancel a long sad record of historic American racism. A proof that many were not willing to live with this new level of tolerance is that twice as many conservative Republicans (34 percent) now say that Obama is Muslim as the number who said it when he was elected (16 percent). The number of Republicans in general who say it is 30 percent.
That is not because more evidence has emerged in the last three years, or because the evidence has been more carefully considered. It is because a number of people are digging in their heels even more firmly against where the nation is going. As I say, there is no open racism in the Romney campaign. But it has to be fiercely concentrated on other things (like the economy) to turn its eyes from what sizzles below the surface, and sometimes not very far below.
Dinesh D'Souza's book Obama's America became number one on the New York Times best-seller list, and the film based on it has played in over a thousand theaters, yet its chapter on Obama's mother revives one of the oldest racist stereotypes, that a white woman must be a slut if she has sex with a black man. A "documentary" with that same theme has been mailed to thousands of voters in key states, screened by Tea Party groups and by Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum Council. Guess which man the audience for these, and for hundreds of obscurer tracts, will vote for?
Romney, of course, does not cultivate these voters. He does not have to. He does not denounce them, either. He needs them. He cannot disown a third of his party -- and those are only the hard-core Obama revulsionists. Who knows how far the penumbra of softcore revulsionism has spread among the less candid or more cautious harborers of it? The strategy of no full disclosure at the top of the campaign silently meshes with the party of no full confession below. Under all the other hidden things, the Mystery Box is hiding a lethal level of radioactive racism.