Here’s a thought I had reading E.J. Dionne’s excellent column this morning on Mitt Romney’s evasive performance at the second debate. The column was mostly about the substance of Romney’s dishonest rhetoric about taxes and other matters, but he also devoted a little space to Romney’s behavior, his “pointless on-stage litigation of the debate rules” (while simultaneously and serially breaking them, which E.J. did not point out) and his demonstrations of “disrespect” for Barack Obama and Candy Crowley.
He’s right of course. Romney’s behavior was awful. Obama, as I noted in the piece I wrote after the debate, had some lapses of his own in this area, but it was obviously Romney who set the bickerish tone. And it was his direct questioning of Obama, which started as I recall only about 20 minutes into the proceedings, that directly violated the rules the two sides had agreed to (the allegedly unfair Crowley never called him on it).
Why does this matter? Maybe it doesn’t. But you can bet that if Obama had behaved exactly as Romney did, boy oh boy would we have a meme on our hands. The president was petulant. He was a baby. A whiner. Shocking. Outrageous behavior. Completely unpresidential. Can a man who behaves like that in a mere debate be counted on to sit across the table from Putin or Bibi without throwing a hissy fit? From Limbaugh to Breitbart and right on up to the so-called serious voices on the right, this would have been the entire story emerging from the debate.
They would have pushed it and pushed until it became the topic of cable-news segments, and not just on Fox (a weakness of CNN, and even sometimes MSNBC, is to base segments on phony right-wing talking points). The late-night hosts would have picked it up, and SNL, and then some video mash-ups, and pretty soon at bars and gyms and Starbucks outlets across the country, people would be talking, and talking, about how rude Obama was. And thought it would never be mentioned outright (well…maybe not), everyone would understand that a black guy being rude is somehow ruder than a white guy being rude.
This is hardly speculation on my part. It’s what they do, and it’s what they’ve done. Al Gore and his sighs. Joe Biden, just last week. It didn’t quite take hold with Biden the way it did with Gore, but that wasn’t for lack of effort. It’s probably just because people don’t care as much about veep debates. But the president represents us to the world. He must behave.
Our side doesn’t do that. David Brock, in his book Blinded by the Right, wrote that Grover Norquist used to be fond of a particular Lenin quote: “Probe with bayonets, looking for weaknesses.” The right does that constantly. Okay. Our guy lost that debate, we privately know this. But let’s not say that, or if we must, let’s say it quickly. Let’s then pivot to the weakness and make that the story. There’s no high command that sends this out, unless it’s Limbaugh himself. But he doesn’t have to. It’s a mentality that’s shared.
There’s a little of that on the liberal side. Some do it, others don’t. But E.J.’s column reflects the general approach, I think. We’ll mention it, as I did the other night, in passing, but then move on to what we think of as more important stuff.
Why? It’s not because we’re superior, nobler people. But it is because most liberals still can’t quite get used to the idea that people reason emotionally. We still think we’re going to persuade people with lucid factual arguments about Romney’s tax plan (this very much includes my good self). In general, we want to think people will respond to that, not calling someone a crybaby.
But we rate it a second-tier issue, and having done that, we just can’t work ourselves into super- high dudgeon about it. And we just don’t have that besieged mentality that conservatives have. This goes back to the different views of human nature I wrote about the other day.
Be all that as it may, Romney’s behavior was appalling. Badgering Obama about his pension. What an ass, and what a whiner. He was pretty bad on all these counts in the first debate too. If he continues this in the third, I do hope my side makes an issue of it. I don’t know that it would have anything to do with how he’d comport himself with Putin, but I do know that I don’t want a boorish jerk for a president.