Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Obama: don’t start using the “l” word

The first reaction of nice children when they hear there is no Santa Claus is to insist, “That’s not true.” When cornered, the more high-spirited may call you a “liar.” It’s just what they do. Mitt Romney didn’t give the Democrats the election as a Christmas present in last week’s debate. High-spirited Democrats and Jon Stewart now insist that Barack Obama could save the election and, also, finally sound like a real American if he ran around calling Mitt Romney a liar too. Don’t bite, Barack Obama, and don’t send Joe Biden out to do it for you.

Even calling politicians liars is unrewarding.

In this election, the mainstream media contracted out that work to independent business units called “fact-checkers.” They spend almost all their time sitting on the fence. Hopefully, they’ll find alternative, less unpleasant work after November 6.

The problem is that leveling the “l” word against a fellow American is rarely easy or safe. (Few vice-presidential candidates, for instance, take an hour off their best time in a running sport dominated by stopwatches.)

Unless we’ve already entered that state of partisan grace that allows us to believe unimaginably bad things about the other side, when we’re told someone is a liar, we’re forced to think, to demonstrate to yourself that we’re fair and not just politicians too.  

Consequently, being asked to recognize Mitt Romney as a liar is much harder than asking us to put ourselves in Obama’s shoes and vote early. It’s like asking a good employee to go back to the office and work on an August weekend.

Sorting out what is imagined and what is true in budget plans and in the death science of economics is asking the impossible, especially in the passionate final days of a bitter election.

Obama’s problem in the first debate wasn’t that he didn’t use the “l” word, but that he didn’t defend himself effectively and have fun with Romney’s weaknesses as the political leader of today’s Republican government-in-waiting.

Romney is, of course, a mischievous data man. Indeed, he’s made a quarter of a $billion, in part, by attractively organizing slide decks of factlets and zingers.

Last night on CNN, for instance, he could market the idea that his tax plan could create exactly 7 million new jobs, while at the same time, he could slam the very word "stimulus" and refuse to reveal one number from the tax plan he’d bring to the table as president in the next big negotiation on Washington’s finances.

Nevertheless, Obama should stick to the politics of who Romney actually is and represents.

Obama’s campaign has rather well followed the music of an old generality authored, I recall, by Norman Mailer in the late 60s: Democrats believe they are of the people. Republicans believe they are for the people.

It must be a source of great comfort for Mitt Romney to believe, as he breathlessly insists, that his heart is in the right place. Let’s even imagine he’d be the best-intentioned politician in Washington. That said, when Mitt Romney rephrases his gaffs about those who accept help from government and brainstorms with Paul Ryan about the Heritage Foundation’s latest ideas about stiffening the backs of the elderly and the poor, remember: he and his friends will be speaking vicariously.

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