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. Aided by a media chronically paranoid about accusations of liberal bias, and then the even more vivid assistance of Obama supporter Newark Mayor Cory Booker along with other Democrats whose ethical logic apparently is as clear-headed as their political logic, Romney’s gambit successfully complicated beyond all due reason the matter of what’s “fair game” in a campaign.
Anything is fair that both is true and has a plausible bearing on how one might conduct his presidency. Even as it’s to 2008 Republican nominee John McCain’s credit that he was unwilling to pursue the line of inquiry in that year’s race, it was perfectly fair to expect Obama—running as someone who would unite the country—to speak to his years-long membership of a congregation headed by a minister who called on God to damn America. Obama did speak to it, of course, on more than one occasion, including the “More Perfect Union” speech in Philadelphia in March of that year, the most thoughtful given by a serious presidential candidate in memory. By the same token, as the president stated at his Chicago press conference on Monday more forcefully than anyone else in his campaign to date, it’s not untoward to expect Romney to answer for Bain and how his management of the firm would inform his management of government, since Romney himself has advanced the Bain credential as part of his résumé for the job he seeks.
Nonetheless, as every political junkie knows by now, on this past weekend’s stupefying installment of Meet the Press, one of the canniest Republican strategists, Mike Murphy, reiterated the Romney insinuation that Bain is a “bum rap,” whereby Mayor Booker, in all other ways one of his party’s most attractive spokesmen, added his own full-throated condemnation (“nauseating”). Whether Booker’s assent was another instance of a center-left that’s pathologically intent on displaying evenhandedness even at the cost of common sense, or only was the most conspicuous flourish of the post-partisan identity that Booker strives to create in the wake of the president’s failure to do so, perhaps even the mayor himself doesn’t know. In any case, every question now about Romney’s Bain record will be accompanied by another question of whether it should be questioned, leaving the president on the defensive on his overarching and entirely legitimate argument against his challenger while trying to make distinctions between creating jobs and creating wealth.
This coincides with some poll numbers that the Obama campaign should regard as alarming. What seemed an irrevocably negative view of Romney forged in the Republican Party’s recent bitter primary battle has proved not so unshakeable at all, evinced by a higher favorability rating particularly on the single issue that people find most troubling; as well, a number of barely blue states (Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, Virginia, North Carolina) slip from the Democrats’ hold even as the occasional red state once conceived as potentially blue (Arizona) looks red after all. The formidable electoral edge that the president had only a month ago has evaporated. The president’s campaign hopes this is just a matter of people not yet paying attention; it hopes the public still skims the political shorthand of the race, casually registering the hyper-capitalism of Romney’s earlier days as reassurance that he can fix what Obama can’t while at the same time not yet processing that Romneyism (assuming any ism credibly attaches itself to Romney’s name) is the mindset that took us to the brink in the first place.
The truth is that voters aren’t feeling casual but rather already are becoming locked into their preferences. The depth of rage that some unquantifiable segment of the American public feels toward Obama has about it a quality of cognitive dissonance, unmoved as these people are by the national situation that confronted the president when he took office—the most dire since 1969 if not 1933—and sanguine about an opposition that offers no viable alternative other than a budgetary blueprint by Congressman Paul Ryan that would make Ayn Rand’s heart flutter if she had one. What’s happening now among the electorate, and maybe it’s been happening for some time, is more atmospheric than analytic, and this is that some are making a choice as to what to believe about Barack Obama in defiance of memory or fact. For reasons either practical or primal they’re choosing to believe that after eight years on the national stage and three years in the White House the president remains a mystery man, a shadowy figure at best who, at worst, isn’t just wrong or misguided or out of his element but should be “tried for treason,” as a woman put it at a Romney rally in Cleveland. To these people Obama is culpable less for what he does than who he is, and more than anything this election becomes a call and response: He’s not one of us, to which each of the rest us in turn has only one answer, assuming we choose to give it: If he’s not one of you, then neither am I.