In The News
Returning to a political hurricane
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Milwaukee Labor Press
Posted November 1, 2012
Hurricane Sandy forced me into an extra two days near the closed D.C. airport. The storm’s trajectory plus the shutdown of mass transportation mingled with deep apprehension for all the residents along the East Coast as well as family in Manhattan, but power outages kept me painfully in the dark for a day.
In such circumstances, even devout political junkies found thoughts of November 6 pushed from the front of the mind. But they still lurked around the edges. The top questions that kept intruding -- did the horrors of Sandy benefit one side more than the other? Would citizens now be more engaged or less in politics since issues seldom discussed on the stump were now front and center – infrastructure improvement, climate change and the government role in disaster relief (the last forcing extensive memories of how Romney when he sought to seem conservative in those Republican debates said states and even private companies should take over the role of FEMA).
Put simply, if this was not a hurricane but a series of tornados sweeping Wisconsin, who would you rather have in the White House – Obama or Romney? If only we would vote on that basis!
Both candidates said they would suspend campaigning during the storm, but in truth only one did. It was Obama. He had to go to work as president and organizer in chief, winning huzzahs across party lines and praise even from New Jersey GOP Gov. Chris Christie as he coordinated relief, snapped red tape, sent in troops and helicopters without pause and performed the hat trick of caring, helping official on all sides and rushing aid to the needy. He was also the first to say that politics was off the table during the hurricane and that “the election would take care of itself.” (He waited until November to return to the campaign trail, including scheduled Wisconsin stops.)
Cynics might say that country first was easy for the president since he holds the office. But he also holds the responsibility and will be judged on his actions – and he was clearly up to the challenge. Election watchers wonder if lucky timing showing his competence will really make a difference – because his nimbleness in office, the ability to handle many tasks simultaneously, has been on display before and didn’t stop the opponents from calling him lazy and incompetent. Will they find a way to do so again?
(For his part, Romney “converted” election rallies into “storm relief” events – and more later on how rather than being honorable it exposed again his tendency to mendacity.)
As I flew belatedly back to Milwaukee rethinking politics, my first stop on Halloween was a Tammy Baldwin event on Milwaukee’s northeast side, where I jokingly shared how hours earlier I had been in the city the Democrats expect to return her to November 6.
But I shared something else with her. I had been stuck in another battleground state, Virginia, and between intermittent TV outage over five days I learned almost as much about the Tammy-Tommy campaign excesses as if I had been locked in Milwaukee.
Frankly, I think no other state could be as inundated with wall to wall political ads as Virginia, where candidates on both sides try to personalize their case by picturing the state as a young woman. (“Yes, Virginia, there is an election.”) It made Wisconsin’s political ad blitz seem tame since D.C. media covers multiple states so it was not just Romney vs. Obama but Tim Kaine, the Democrat, against George Allen, the Republican, for senate, ballot proposition commercials and House elections. Endless.
Yet national and cable TV spent more news time on the Tammy-Tommy race in Wisconsin as one of the most expensive and clearly the ugliest senate battle in the nation. You would think that not since Jeffrey Dahmer had Wisconsin so caught the media attention, and it was largely Tommy’s head-butting buffoonery. (What in the world sent him into the gutter?)
Though the media tried to stay neutral, it was clearly dumfounded by footage of the Thompson overreach –accusing Baldwin of lacking patriotism, of refusing body armor for the troops, calling her “Joe Biden” and then accusing her of opposing Iran sanctions in a few votes, the last opening him up to revelations, calmly made by Baldwin, of how he had bought stock in Russian and Chinese companies helping Iran mine uranium. (When he revealed in a debate with her that he was selling the stocks that day, the crowd snickered.)
Such Tommyisms had national fact checkers foaming at the mouth to expose him, New York leaders outraged as his remarks attacking her clear support of 9/11 resolutions and colleagues rushing to her defense. Baldwin did well on her own in debates politely but firmly refuting the blusters, and all that made good TV for her.
But she wisely pointed out to me that, except for an occasional Wisconsinite like me stuck in the storm, none of these East Coast viewers were voters who would help her win the state.
Baldwin’s right, of course. Nationally it’s nice the media sees the real Baldwin, somewhat demure, soft-spoken and direct on issues from 14 years in the US House. This is the Baldwin I’ve always known. But the national media hasn’t been exposed to the most frequent anti-Baldwin ad here from the Thompson team – a distorted grainy video of five seconds of an old Fighting Bob speech when atypically she said “damn right” when asked if the Madison protests made a political difference. That moment has now been elongated into a screech and repeated endlessly to justify the view that any liberal legislator must be an escapee from “The Exorcist.” I expect to see her head spin in the next commercial.
Don’t get me wrong. When it comes to unflattering images, partial sound bites and distorted simplicities of statement, neither side in these elections can proclaim sainthood.
But Thompson has clumsily stepped into a methodology of violent exaggeration that models the Romney playbook, only Romney is a lot smoother and looks sincere when fabricating. If you lived in Ohio you would know what I’m talking about.
In the last 10 days before the election, Romney went rogue desperate with the most scurrilous ad in my memory -- and my journalism career is longer than Joe Biden’s involvement in public life. And he also called it the “most flagrantly dishonest” commercial he has seen in his decades in politics. It brought the unprecedented moment when normally conservative leaders of corporations (GM and Chrysler/Fiat) had to step in to a political campaign and call the Romney camp out for spreading fantasies from an “alternative universe.”
Romney claimed that GM and Chrysler‘s Jeep will move US production jobs to China. And it was an easily disproved fallacy that exposed ignorance about auto production and even China export policy. Obviously, success at these companies led them to expand US jobs but investigate entering more foreign markets with additional plants that would dovetail with added production jobs and revenues in the US. Ohio workers follow the auto industry closer than pro football. They knew what was going on and frankly couldn’t believe Romney didn’t. Which made him either a liar or a fool.
Rather than back down and admit error. Romney got running mate Ryan to join him in doubling down, adding showing of these ads before the election. And all that is now backfiring at the polls, because Romney and Ryan had only one trump card in this race – the image of economic acumen that would lend credence to the idea that they could do better with the economy than Obama. But the Jeep desperation exposed the stupidity within their supposed fiscal expertise.
Similarly, when Romney suspended campaigning by turning election rallies at announced locations into staged “storm relief” efforts, the sham was quickly exposed in media reports. It was not only that the events still played campaign videos, they flew in the face of what the Red Cross said it wanted – not trucks of canned goods, which might make the public feel good, but sidetracked employees to sort, clean and sift unneeded stuff while staff on the ground had identified needs and had asked openly for financial contributions to get them. Romney instead sent aides to local stores to buy thousands of dollars of goods and handed them to volunteers to hand back to him. It was a better photo op than signing checks to the Red Cross.
While Obama surrogates Bill Clinton and Joe Biden continued campaigning and didn’t pretend to do otherwise, Paul Ryan and Ann Romney converted campaign schedules into such useless relief opportunities in Wisconsin while Romney did the same in Ohio.
Why does Romney keep doing this sort of thing? Is he that dumb? Or is he convinced that most voters won’t hear about it, that Republicans will vote for him anyway and the uninitiated will choose the image of character rather than actual character.
We live in a short-term memory culture. It would once be an automatic disqualifier to the public to find a candidate lying. But that requires knowing about the lie. It requires educated voters following the campaign. Are they still around? Changing positions or evading details, saying one thing to well-heeled conservatives and another to a different audience to sound smoothly middle of the road used to be the kiss of death, the proof of duplicity and repulsive opportunism.
But what if the public didn’t pay attention to the months of campaigning and what if the ad blitz might prove to be annoying volume no one really listened to but believed the little dribbles of sound they heard the most often? That sure seems the Romney campaign strategy. Little else could explain this personal hurricane of hot air.