I spent most of July in the upper Midwest and was reminded that not everyone in America passes the summer fixated on politics. They go to the beach, catch fish, grill burgers, eat ice cream, try to stay cool, see The Dark Knight Rises without recognizing it as the fascist tract that shrewder observers from Rolling Stone do. In the Bear Lake Tavern where I would have dinner not far from Lake Michigan, the TV over the bar is set to the Olympics before being turned to CNN or Fox or occasionally NBC (but not MSNBC). I got a dose of the promiscuous political advertising that’s rarely glimpsed in New York or California but saturates the electorally competitive territories that stud the Atlantic seaboard just south of D.C., the Southwest just shy of the Rocky Mountains, and the stretch of Rust Belt states from Pennsylvania and Ohio to as far west as Iowa and as far north as Minnesota.
At the moment Michigan politics is dominated by a more local matter: a peculiar episode involving something called Public Act 4, by which Republican lawmakers and the Republican governor last year concentrated extraordinary control in the hands of unelected “emergency managers” overseeing municipalities and school districts where they can suspend existing laws and ordinances more or less on a whim. These managers wield an arbitrary power sweeping enough that when a couple hundred thousand signatures—a good deal more than legally required—were recently collected to repeal Public Act 4, the Republican powers-that-be ruled the signatures invalid, to no small dismay by much of the public. Last week the Michigan Supreme Court instructed that the repeal be placed on this fall’s ballot after all. Most big states suffer a certain political bipolarity, but Michigan’s is as pronounced as one might expect of a place that has adopted not one, two or three but four constitutions, and where the progressive identity of eastern Michigan is matched by west Michigan conservatives who sometimes are just this side of survivalists. Along with whatever connection to the state that Mitt Romney claims by virtue of his father George’s governorship here more than 40 years ago, this accounts for why Michigan can still be a battleground in a presidential race between an incumbent who saved the state’s biggest industry and an opponent who called for it to go bankrupt. But over the last two decades Michigan has cast its electoral votes for Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry, and Barack Obama, and though the state’s executive and legislative machinery is now monolithically Republican, the president currently leads native son Romney by about six points.
Just hanging around TV sets that are on in bars or people’s houses, you sense the limits of political-advertising saturation. For every ad on the president’s behalf there are three in favor of the challenger. But the Romney ads tell the public what it already knows—that both the state and national economies remain a source of anxiety—and therefore barely register; on top of that, while hardly cheery, the mood is incrementally less bleak than the last summer I was here or the summer before that. “It’s turned around a little,” allows one woman on a cruise ship around the lake where I’m paying more attention to whether my seven-year-old is going to bound over the side railing. If anything cuts through the static it’s an Obama ad featuring Governor Romney singing “America the Beautiful” while the visuals detail all the jobs he sent overseas to other countries as both a businessman and governor, and all the profits he stashed in remote overseas bank accounts. In contrast with the old news about a sluggish economy, this is relatively new information to normal Americans not trolling the likes of Politco everyday. It’s an effective spot to begin with and—counterintuitively—all the more so because, amid the tsunami of Romney spots, it’s that much more conspicuous.
The Romney campaign hopes and argues that folks in Michigan or elsewhere aren’t paying attention to the ruckus over, say, the governor’s unreleased tax returns, and at the moment the campaign isn’t wrong. But people are hearing just enough, and even for those not keeping track of every single thing Romney did at Bain Capital or when he did it, the candidate who was running as a cool-headed CEO is in danger of morphing into a financial buccaneer who’s the poster child for much that Americans now despise. With every passing moment, whatever the governor finally does reveal about his taxes becomes inevitably less satisfactory; you don’t have to endorse the latest machinations of Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, smacking as they do of something from the Michele Bachmann playbook, to conclude there’s something in those returns Romney doesn’t want us to see no matter how much heat is brought to bear on him. It’s possible his campaign is correct that people will become bored with the matter, but it’s also possible that the returns will overshadow the three scheduled presidential debates that, before this, Romney was in a good position to win just by beating expectations.
The bitter irony for Republicans is that some among their rank named Gingrich, Perry, and Santorum tried to raise questions along these lines during the primary campaign and were shouted down by others in the party as anti-capitalist. It may yet become lethally evident that the party would have been better served to consider those questions and their answers before nominating their weakest presidential candidate since … since … well, I keep going back, back, back to Landon in ’36 or Harding in ’20 (who won, it should be noted), with no end in sight—so let’s stick to one man’s political lifetime, which is to say, mine. Whatever else was true of him, no one doubted Richard Nixon was a man of ability. Whatever else was true of him, no one doubted Barry Goldwater was a man of conviction. No one doubted that Gerald Ford was a man of integrity, or that Ronald Reagan was a man of eloquence, or that George Herbert Walker Bush was a man of experience, or that Robert Dole was a man of legislative accomplishment, or that George W. Bush was a man of crusty charisma, or that John McCain was a man of heroism. Nothing we’ve seen of him so far indicates that Mitt Romney shares a single one of these qualities. Craven, arrogant, empty, dull, opportunistic—he’s a man of only ambition and acquisition, his distinctions the antitheses of all the attributes that have commended others to his party in the past. As such he reflects what the party has become: a political body so obsessed with defeating the president as to nominate a man known for but a single thing, which is that the name those mysterious tax records bear is not “Barack Obama.”