Authentically Inauthentic

Brendan Nyhan suggests that Mitt Romney is becoming the Al Gore of 2012 -- in other words, reporters have constructed a narrative about Romney that says that he's a big phony, and they will interpret nearly everything he says and does through the lens that narrative creates, treating him differently for doing exactly the same things his opponents are doing:

In both cases, of course, detractors of Romney or Gore will argue that the candidate really is especially phony or inauthentic. Even if this is true, the problem is that the perception that a politician is phony encourages reporters to manufacture misleading narratives to reinforce that frame (as we saw with Gore in 1999-2000). In reality, almost every politician is calculating in the clothing they wear, the images they present, and the events they stage. Any reporter can deconstruct this stagecraft or write stories about how candidates are reinventing themselves (indeed, this is one of the few sorts of criticism allowed under what NYU's Jay Rosen calls the view from nowhere). But they tend to only write these stories about candidates for whom the narrative of phoniness seems to apply.

Just as paranoids sometimes have real enemies, actual phonies can be unfairly accused of phoniness. Back in the day, I wrote lots and lots about the narratives of the 2000 campaign, particularly the way Gore was mistreated -- in fact, that was the topic of my very first article for the Prospect. It was particularly egregious with Gore, because the idea that he was more dishonest than other politicians was built on reporters describing true or ambiguous statements he made as intentional lies. The biggest, of course, was the false idea that Gore claimed he invented the Internet, something he never said, yet was repeated as evidence of his dishonesty literally thousands of times in the media.

The evidence is pretty strong that Mitt Romney is willing to take new positions and adopt new emphases not out of genuine conviction but because he believes it's what the voters -- and right now that means Republican primary voters -- want to hear. But that doesn't mean that everything he does should be presented as evidence of his phoniness. For instance, if he appears at a state fair wearing casual clothes, then dons a suit to give a speech at a fundraiser, that doesn't mean he's a chameleon. When he finds himself amid a group of black teenagers and blurts out "Who let the dogs out? Woo, woo!", it isn't evidence that he's an unusual panderer, it's just that he's not very skilled at doing what all politicians do, which is make you think that they are sympatico with you, whoever you may be. Some of them are just better at it than others.

Finally, when reporters start reporting on Mitt's lack of "authenticity," they ought to tell us why they think authenticity is important to being president. As I've argued before, what they often value more than anything else is not authenticity itself, but the most convincing portrayal of the authentic (see Bush, George W.). All this isn't to say Mitt isn't a phony. But we should be careful about what we take as proof that he is, and how much importance we place on that judgment.