I wish I could come up with a pithy name for the particular type of faux-scandal that erupted yesterday over Mitt Romney saying "I like being able to fire people", the "That inartful thing our opponent said actually reveals his innermost being" ridiculousness. When you put it that way, it shows just how absurd it is. Just what is it that Mitt Romney's opponents are now trying to persuade us to believe? That what we knew about Romney before yesterday was incomplete, but with this latest statement, the mask slipped and Romney showed his true self. And now we know! Before, we thought he was just a standard-issue corporate raider of the kind conservatives lionize, but it turns out that he actually enjoys causing human misery by throwing people out of work. Egad!
This is the most tiresome, and simultaneously most common, kind of campaign dust-up. I can promise you, this won't be the last time this year we'll hear lots of arguments about just how awful and revealing some offhand comment made by a candidate was. It's an old standby of elections. When this mini-flap came up, I said to myself, "Didn't I write a column about that once?" Lo and behold, it turns out I did, way back in August 2007:
Here's how it works: First, find something your opponent said that might be open to multiple interpretations. Next, take it out of context. After that, distort it beyond all recognition (and don't worry, the truth-seeking press will offer you no sanction for this deception). Express your consternation, your anger, your amazement that your opponent has revealed him/herself to be such a deplorable reprobate for whom no decent American could consider voting. Finally, repeat the offending statement over and over, from now until election day....
Why does it work so well? It gives television news programs a piece of video they can play again and again, and newspapers something they can quote repeatedly. But more important, it takes an abstract argument and makes it concrete. "Al Gore is a liar" is a judgment that might be persuasively refuted; "Al Gore said he invented the internet" is a compelling piece of evidence leading one to the same conclusion. The fact that Gore never actually said he invented the internet is only marginally relevant...
Just substitute the following: "Mitt Romney is a corporate greedhead who doesn't care what happens to regular people so long as he gets rich" is a judgment that might or might not be persuasive; "Mitt Romney said he likes firing people" is nice and concrete.
On a related note: You can't simultaneously believe that Mitt Romney is the world's most calculating politician, ready to shift position at the drop of a hat to appeal to whomever he's speaking to and the living embodiment of phoniness, AND believe that something he said one time reveals the true and immutable essence he's trying to hide from the American voter. Everyone should know by now that Mitt Romney has no immutable essence. Searching for it is pointless. (I'm joking. Sort of.)
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