The "Vetting" Obsession

When the Washington Post story about Mitt Romney's high school years (including an incident in which the former Massachusetts governor forcibly cut the hair of a student whose commitment to conformism was insufficiently vigorous) came out, leading Republicans were fairly quiet about it. Whether the incident happened or not, they said, it tells us virtually nothing about the man Romney is today and the issues at stake in this election. That's a perfectly reasonable argument, but it isn't the one you would have heard from many of the foot soldiers in the Republican base. Among the troops, there was outrage, not so much about the Romney story, but about what they saw as a double-standard. As one e-mailed me after I wrote a piece on the topic, "I saw your article on CNN. When does the vetting of President Obama begin? Have you delved into his past? The next time I read an article about a young Barrack [sic] Obama will be the first."

As I replied to this person, there were hundreds, maybe thousands of articles written in 2008 (and since) about Barack Obama's youth. He even wrote a pretty frank book about it himself, before he ever became a politician. If you think he wasn't "vetted" you weren't paying attention. But there are millions of conservatives who believe precisely that, and as we approach Obama's possible re-election, with an extremely busy and consequential first term almost behind us, the obsession with his allegedly hidden past only grows. So what does it mean that a candidate is "vetted"? Does it mean we know everything there is to know about him? Of course, that's simply impossible. Perhaps it means we know everything important, everything that might make a difference once he's in office. Which is what makes the continued conservative interest in vetting Obama so strange. Now that he has been president for three years, can't we just look at his presidency to see what he'll do as president?

Yet even at this late date, conservatives are still hoping that within Obama's past lies a blockbuster secret that will change everything once it is revealed, even if it's not so secret or not so new. Last week the New York Times reported a proposal made to billionaire conservative Joe Ricketts to air $10 million worth of ads attacking Obama for his association with his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright. "The world is about to see Jeremiah Wright and understand his influence on Barack Obama for the first time in a big, attention-arresting way," the proposal said (my emphasis). It further quoted Ricketts himself asserting in reference to a never-aired 2008 McCain ad about Rev. Wright, "If the nation had seen that ad, they'd never have elected Barack Obama." Just for fun, I searched Google News for stories about Reverend Wright between March 2008, when the story broke, and election day of that year. There were over 10,000 news stories that mentioned him.

So just what are these people thinking? In a way, their perspective shows an almost charmingly naïve faith in the power of information to persuade. Although the Ricketts plan was quickly aborted, I'm sure that if it went ahead, he wouldn't have thought he was trying to stir up racial resentment, but rather that he was simply putting information voters needed in front of them. It simply can't be that voters heard about Reverend Wright and decided that whatever they thought about the things he had said, it wasn't sufficient grounds to reject one of his parishioners as a presidential candidate. Ricketts found the fact of Obama's association with Wright so appalling that as far as he was concerned, it disqualified Obama from the presidency. If a majority of Americans didn't agree, it could only have been because they just didn't know.

So on the right, the desperate search for the appropriate "vetting" material continues. For instance, the late Andrew Breitbart's constellation of web properties continues in its founder's spirit, breathlessly promoting one "revelation" about Obama's pre-political life after another. Obama was friendly with a Harvard Law School professor with strong views on race! In 1991, Obama's literary agency mistakenly said in a promotional brochure that he was born in Kenya! There is so much to be learned that has created a whole series entitled "The Vetting."

I'm sure this investigative juggernaut will uncover a tree of mild interest here and there, even if the searchers are utterly blind to the forest. Are there small details of Obama's pre-presidential life that haven't been widely discussed? Of course. In the 47 years of his life before his inauguration, he moved through institutions, met and interacted with people, rented apartments, bought and sold cars, held jobs, went to the doctor, ate meals, brushed his teeth, and who knows what else. The mistake that so many conservatives make is in believing that in some (or all) of these details of his life lies the key to Obama's undoing. If only we can find the radical mentor, the girlfriend holding on to a decades-old secret, or the revealing document, then Obama will be unmasked, his true horrifying self revealed at last for all to see. Then the scales will fall from the voters' eyes and they'll boot him from the office he never deserved to occupy in the first place.

We should acknowledge that it isn't as though the Obama campaign is afraid of engaging in its own "vetting" of Mitt Romney. Right now in Chicago, a thick and growing oppo file on Romney rests on someone's hard drive, its contents being tested in polls and focus groups to find the most injurious details. The campaign would love nothing better than to find an awful secret, say that while leading Bain Capital Romney personally fired a pregnant woman, tossed her out of her home, kicked her dog and ran over her child's favorite teddy bear with his limo. But they probably won't. There is still much to learn about Romney, and some journalists are doing an excellent job of exploring how he came to be who he is today (see, for instance, this interesting piece in yesterday's New York Times about the role of Mormonism in Romney's life). But there probably are no secrets, or at least none so horrifying they will change everyone's view of the man. I doubt Romney has a hidden love child or a terrible crime in his past, just as Obama wasn't born in Kenya. It isn't that those things never happen (see Edwards, John), but they are pretty rare.

We should of course explore the candidates' pasts, not because we hope to be shocked by what we find, but because the job they're seeking is an awfully important one, and we want to know as much as we can about them. But only a fool thinks that if horrible secrets aren't revealed, then the "vetting" never really happened at all.