Quick, what's the first line that comes to mind when you think of last Tuesday's presidential debate?
If you've been slinking under the sodium street lamps of the leftist blogosphere for the past few days, your answer is probably this riposte by President Obama: "Governor Romney doesn't have a five-point plan; he has a one-point plan. And that plan is to make sure that folks at the top play by a different set of rules. That's been his philosophy in the private sector. That's been his philosophy as governor. That's been his philosophy as a presidential candidate."
Politico listed that as President Obama's best debate line. Salon.com and Talking Points Memo cheered. Greg Sargent said the quip "went some way" to "aggressively unmask Romney's five point plan as a sham."
It was also devoid of substance and wholly separated from reality. Even if you disagree with Romney's tax plan, anything that closes (however vaguely) deductions predominantly on the wealthy isn't some gilded heist. And Romney, who donated more than a quarter of his income to charity last year and decided to reform health care in Massachusetts after the CEO of Staples convinced him it was the humane thing to do, isn't exactly a cackling plutocrat.
The line rang from liberal steeples not because it was true, but because it reinforced a cartoon version of Romney that the left has been drawing. Through their eyes, Romney is a lying robber baron hell-bent on bankrupting the treasury to benefit his rich buddies. They've become so contemptuous of this false image that they want it reinforced over and over again. And that's what Obama did during the debate.
Joe Scarborough writes that "turning political opponents into cartoon characters is the work of fools." That may be, but it's also a proud tradition that dates back to the American founding. Thomas Jefferson was portrayed as an atheist Jacobin; John Adams as a raging Anglophile. Even George Washington took his lumps from the press as an American monarch in the pursuit of absolute power.
The modern right does this too. President Obama has been tarred with plenty of stereotypes and we've all laughed at Onion articles featuring Joe Biden as a cad.
But such attacks have become the all-consuming strategy of the Obama campaign. Team Obama's primary objective is to paint Romney as something he's not; to turn every one of his policies into a corporate misogynist plunder and every one of his statements into a blackhearted mendacity. Seeing Romney as a heel, the left then wants Obama to debate the heel, not the real Romney.
This mentality was at work during the vice-presidential debate too. Biden's most praised lines weren't rousing defenses of liberalism. They were ripostes about Paul Ryan's hypocrisy on stimulus money or the 47% comment that Romney disavowed. And they were backed up by the smuggest display of smirks, sneers, leers, laughs, and quips that we've ever seen from a modern vice presidential candidate.
The most celebrated line was an interruption from Biden: "Oh, now you're Jack Kennedy. This is amazing." It was a meaningless comment and came while Ryan was making a serious point about tax policy's history of success, including under JFK. But it confirmed the stereotype of Ryan as a greasy liar. So Ryan never got to finish and the Twittersphere reacted as if the vice president had just won the Battle of Midway.
This isn't the stuff of visionary politicians; it's the stuff of insult comedians. At a recent debate with Bill O'Reilly, Jon Stewart got adoring applause when he said conservatives live on "Bulls--t Mountain," an insulated peak of untruth. Is there really much difference between that comedic stereotype and what the Obama campaign is doing to Romney? After Biden's vacuous line, you could almost hear an audience of college students cheering in the background.
The Obama campaign is like a smarmy stand-up act. It tosses out barbs left and right. It derives humor by painting its political opponents as cartoonish fools. But it never assembles a cohesive plan or vision. It makes dents in Romney's tax plan or political record (some of which are fair game) but it never does the mature work of creating anything itself. Where is the Obama-Biden debt plan? No one knows. But gosh darn, how about that Mitt Romney guy, huh? He says he's worried about China so he'd better send Ann to the dining room to clean it! Boom! Folks, my name's Jim Messina and I'm here all week.
And man, how about those evil oil companies, huh? And corporate jets? And Big Bird? Actually that might have been the moment when the strategy went off the rails. After the president got roundly thumped on policy during the first debate, his campaign decided to smirk away the entire thing by running an ad showing a silhouette of Big Bird in a corporate building. Having cast others as fictional characters, the Obama campaign now starred an actual fictional character.
They probably imagined people smirking at how clever they were while the narrative shifted with their joke. Instead the entire political world took a step back and said, "What the hell are you doing?" Having run into a wall of actual substance, the cartoon shadowboxing strategy disintegrated.
They're still using it, of course. (Say, did you hear the one about binders of women?) And it has a certain appeal for progressives who buy into the portrayal of Romney-Ryan as vicious tycoons. Both Republicans are on Bulls--t Mountain, after all.
But for everyone else, the act is tired. The American people want a better economy, less government, and confidence in the future, not an animated comedy. The debates were instructive because they showed the world that Romney wasn't the cartoon he'd been made out to be. For many swing voters seeking an alternative, that was all they needed to see.