August 5, 2012 · 3 Comments
By Marie Burns:
Ross Douthat, the Vatican’s ambassador to the New York Times, has taken a break from his Sunday sermonizing about all things sexual to weigh in on the presidential election. Perhaps alarmed by opinion pieces like this one from Michael Tomasky of Newsweek on a possible Obama landslide, or by election models like the one devised by the Washington Post‘s Ezra Klein which “predicts that Barack Obama will win in 81 percent of possible scenarios,” today Douthat begs Mitt Romney to “define himself…, loosen up and take some chances…, [and] get over his fear of offending his own party’s interest groups.”
If Douthat places some of the blame for Romney’s flagging campaign on the Republican candidate’s “complacency,” he devotes the better part of his column to griping about Obama’s “left-wing stridency” and “frank character assassination” – what Douthat calls the “McGovern-meets-Nixon approach.” Douthat blames “MSNBC hosts and left-wing bloggers ” for Obama’s supposed metamorphosis from halfway reasonable liberal to radical leftist panderer. I wish. If Obama had listened to “left-wing bloggers,” we would likely have had a broader, lengthier stimulus, more and better American jobs, real mortgage foreclosure assistance, and yes, a bigger deficit. We also would have had a single-payer healthcare system, stronger unions, more than a few Wall Street fat cats walking the plank, the too-big-to-fail banks briefly nationalized and slashed to pieces, a Dodd-Frank bill with teeth, regulators who regulated, tough ozone restrictions, a quicker draw-down in Afghanistan, a repurposed Guantanamo, more humane treatment of prisoners of war, fewer whistleblowers subject to prosecution, and so forth. If Douthat wants to compare Obama to Tricky Dick, he can’t do it on the basis of campaign styles. He has to do it on substance: Obama’s rhetorical “shift to the left” nudges his economic policy preferences to “slightly to Nixon’s right.”
Unable to justify (so unwilling to even mention) Mitt Romney’s plan to widen the economic class gap, Douthat concentrates on attacking the attacker. According to Douthat, Obama’s campaign ads have characterized Romney as “part Scrooge, part Gordon Gekko; an un-American, Asia-loving outsourcer; a tax avoider and possibly a white-collar felon.” (Links are Douthat’s.) I am unaware of any instances in which Obama ads have characterized Romney as a Scrooge, unless Douthat means those ads that show he avoided taxes by placing millions in foreign bank accounts – and in that mysterious $100 million IRA he claimed. As for equating Romney with Gordon Gekko, it seems to me Romney has done that to himself. Obama’s ads merely restate what Romney has said or what journalists have written about Romney’s practices at Bain Capital.
Obama has never cast Romney as un-American; Douthat has fabricated the charge (so it is hardly surprising he can’t find a link to support it).
On the other hand, a central premise of the Romney campaign is that Obama is not sufficiently American. Romney said in July, “It’s a very strange and in some respects foreign to the American experience type of philosophy…. His whole philosophy is an upside-down philosophy that does not comport with the American experience.” Romney has said in campaign speeches that he would “keep America American,” a phrase widely used by Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. By contrast, Romney says, Obama “wants to transform America into a European style nation.” Top Romney surrogate John Sununu, the disgraced Bush I chief-of-staff, was even more explicit: “I wish this president would learn how to be an American,” he said in July. He also said the president had come from the Chicago ‘felon’ environment.” Sununu later went on Fox “News” to explain these earlier remarks: “He [Obama] has no idea how the American system functions, and we shouldn’t be surprised about that, because he spent his early years in Hawaii smoking something, spent the next set of years in Indonesia, another set of years in Indonesia, and, frankly, when he came to the U.S., he worked as a community organizer, which is a socialized structure, and then got into politics in Chicago.” This line of attack continues. This morning I heard Reince Priebus, chair of the Republican National Committee and Romney surrogate, say on ABC News’s “This Week” that Romney would “save America” from Obama. Evidently, this is standard Priebus rhetoric. Last month, Priebus told Fox “News” that voters must elect Romney to “save America,” and for “the sake of the very idea of America,” for “liberty and freedom,” and to prevent President Obama from ending “our way of life in America.” When Douthat claimed Obama charged Romney with being un-American, clearly he was just projecting what his candidate and his candidate’s surrogates do on a routine basis. Finally, let us not forget Romney’s embrace of Donald Trump, one of the nation’s premier birthers. You can’t get much more un-American than being a Manchurian candidate of “anti-colonial Kenyan” extraction. Obama might have spent a little time hobnobbing with Chicago felons, but other than that, his only familiarity with this country’s “culture” is colored by his plan to destroy it.
The ad Douthat cites to claim that Obama has cast Romney as an “Asia-loving outsourcer” was produced by Priorities USA, a pro-Obama PAC, not by the Obama campaign. (The ad “has been removed by the user.”) However, Douthat is not far off-base. Vice President Biden did say “You got to give Romney credit. He’s a job creator – in Singapore, China, India. He’s been very good at creating jobs, overseas.” Nothing about loving Asia (and why not love Asia?), but, well, Asia. And President Obama himself said in a campaign speech,
Today, we found out, there’s a new study out by a non-partisan economist that says Governor Romney’s economic plan would in fact create 800,000 jobs. There’s only one problem. The jobs wouldn’t be in America. They would not be in America. They’d be in other countries. By eliminating taxes on corporations’ foreign income, Governor Romney’s plan would actually encourage companies to shift more of their operations to foreign tax havens, creating 800,000 jobs in those other countries. This shouldn’t be a surprise because Governor Romney’s experience has been investing in what were called pioneers of the business of outsourcing.
No mention of Asia-loving or even Asia. The reference to Romney’s company being “pioneers of the business of outsourcing” is a citation from a Washington Post investigative report by Tom Hamburger. According to Hamburger, “During the nearly 15 years that Romney was actively involved in running Bain, a private equity firm that he founded, it owned companies that were pioneers in the practice of shipping work from the United States to overseas call centers and factories making computer components, according to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.”
In his claim that Obama has accused Romney of being a tax avoider, Douthat cites a Politico story by Manu Raju, which covers Senator Harry Reid’s (D-Nevada) repeated assertions that “an old friend and longtime investor at Romney’s former company Bain Capital … told the Senate majority leader a couple months back that the GOP nominee didn’t pay taxes for at least a decade.” If, like Jon Stewart, you think Reid’s repeating an unsubstantiated claim makes him “a really, really terrible person,” you might want to watch the excellent Rachel Maddow segments embedded here. If Reid’s friend made a false claim against Romney, the candidate need only release ten years of tax returns to disprove it.
Douthat is correct in his claim that members of the Obama campaign team have accused Romney of “possibly [being] a white-collar felon.” The remarks – particularly those by Obama campaign operative Stephanie Cutter – caused a good deal of excitement in the excitable press. Though fact-checkers and even some liberal pundits initially attacked Cutter, a number of them walked back their objections when they reviewed Romney’s numerous conflicting signed statements and testimony regarding his exit date from Bain Capital. (There is more in those Maddow segments I linked above. It seems Mitt – and/or his spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom – lied about his having filed Massachusetts state tax returns while he was in Utah managing the Olympics. Like his “retroactive” retirement from Bain, Romney retroactively filed Massachusetts tax returns to make him appear to meet the state’s residency requirement for gubernatorial candidates.)
Douthat finds it wholly unfair that Obama and his surrogates would point out Romney’s deep flaws – Douthat accuses Obama of “slash-and-burn liberalism.” But Obama is merely using what the press have already documented about Romney. It never occurs to Douthat that the candidates on “the other side” have a duty to highlight the flaws in the policy prescriptions of their opponents, particularly opponents like Secret Mitt, whom even Douthat admits appears not to have any policies “save bullet points and platitudes” designed not to “offend his own party’s interest groups.” So, yeah, Obama and his partisans – along with the press – must do their best to find out what Romney has done in the past, weigh those findings against what he now claims he would do as president, and project how these bits and pieces of Secret Mitt would actually inform a Romney presidency.
If the Obama camp sometimes does its duty in the form of blunt language, blame it on the electorate. Very few voters are sitting in ivory towers discussing the nuances of trade policy. But – if a candidate can get their attention – they do understand “shipping your jobs overseas,” for instance, even if “shipping your job overseas” is not always a bad thing to do. (It is likely to be a bad thing when a candidate proposes to manipulate tax policy to make outsourcing – or “offshoring,” as the Romney campaign prefers to call it – attractive to American businesses.)
Douthat finds plenty of fault with the policies Obama has touted during the campaign: “He’s dropped all but a pro forma acknowledgment of the tough choices looming in our future, and doubled down on the comforting progressive fantasy that we can close the deficit and keep the existing safety net by soaking America’s millionaires and billionaires.” Douthat is making stuff up here, too. What Obama has been pushing for on the campaign trail and in White House remarks is a middle-class tax cut that politicians on both sides claim is (a) necessary for economic stimulus and (b) polls well. (Are tax cuts the best stimulus? Well, no.) Obama has said repeatedly that “we can’t afford to” continue the tax cut on incomes above $250,000, but he has never suggested that “we can close the deficit and keep the existing safety net by soaking America’s millionaires and billionaires.” The slightly more progressive tax structure Obama proposes would be a small step toward reducing income inequality, stimulating the economy, and establishing a more fiscally responsible tax policy. Douthat doesn’t dare mention that Romney’s tax proposals would do the opposite: increase income inequality, retard economic recovery and raise the deficit. It is easier for Douthat to fault Obama on specifics and ignore Romney’s intentions as indecipherable “bullet points and platitudes.” At the same time Douthat acknowledges that Romney’s strategy is to obfuscate, Douthat generously accommodates the Romney strategy: I can’t criticize Romney’s policies because I have no idea what they are. But let me tell you what’s wrong with Obama’s left-wing agenda.
I would call Douthat’s entire column a good example of The Sociopath’s Guide to Election Etiquette, wherein the “other side” has to play by Marquess of Queensberry rules, warning voters of a bleak future with “tough choices” while “my side” can – as Douthat puts it – “accentuate the positive, and run as the candidate of (right-of-center) hope and change.” (Because there is so much “hope and change” in policies that exacerbate almost all of our problems, domestic and international – see last week’s edition of Willard’s Excellent Adventures Abroad.)
As Romney seems to be flailing about, offending our special Anglo-Saxon friends, further unsettling the Middle East and falling into crazier and crazier charges about the President, Douthat has reason to worry. But he isn’t helping his candidate by making his own false claims about the President in a newspaper whose readership is hardly as naïve, gullible and irrationally partisan as the Fox “News” crowd with whom Douthat would be so much more comfortable.
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com