This past Friday was one of those strange and sad days in the life of a country when a number of things don’t so much converge as share the commonality of the moment and thereby exist within the shadows of each other. The massacre that greeted the release of the year’s most-awaited movie just a few midnights ago in a tiny Colorado town took place at cross-coordinates social, cultural, and political by virtue of timing and the parameters of the occasion, if nothing else; though the more terrible the toll in such circumstances, the more natural it is to draw conclusions, learn lessons or arrive at resolutions, the only thing straightforward about any of it is the horror.
Surely by now you’ve figured out that you shouldn’t be listening to any of us, haven’t you? One of the more nitwitted arguments of Marxist-Leninists—back when there were such people—was that history is a science and human behavior is as predictable as chemical interaction, rendering sociological results inevitable,; and if few of us in what passes for the commentariat these days would put matters in such a way, we still tend to view politics as a series of patterns determined by previous patterns, which are defined by ideology and demographics.
Mitt Romney is running as the Trojan Horse candidate of 2012, the big empty gift to America who will be wheeled into the gates of Election Night only for the bottom to pop out the next morning and whatever lurks inside to reveal itself. Watching his small disaster of an interview on Face the Nation this past weekend, we can only conclude he believes he will win the presidency by answering and offering nothing in the most calculatedly vacuous campaign since Richard Nixon’s in 1968. The difference is that in 1968 the American public knew Nixon all too well and, compared with the specifics of Nixon that people had understood for years, a vague Nixon was considered a step in the right direction.
Over the past month or two, as the president’s political position has continued to erode and he becomes more vulnerable, an extraordinary and vaguely preposterous conversation has taken shape. Variations on it have been advanced by everyone from former presidents chatting with Hollywood moguls on news cable TV to esteemed Sunday-morning newspaper columnists picking their way through the racial bric-à-brac of the presidential psyche. In a way, it’s the corollary of the birther discussion at the other end of the spectrum, which is to say that it’s a conversation we’ve never had about any other president.
There’s been a growing sense over the last month that Barack Obama is winning battles but losing the war—until this past week, when he lost the battle too. Governor Mitt Romney, repudiating an effort by the former chairman of a major online brokerage firm to underwrite a $10 million advertisement that raises anew questions about the president’s former minister, equated the tactic to the “character assassination” represented by questions about Romney’s experience with the private-equity company Bain Capital.