Thursday, January 19, 2012

Privileged rich douchebag: The Mitt Romney narrative for 2012

Last week, I wrote that, should he win the nomination (as seems likely), the various attacks on Romney by his fellow Republicans, notably by Gingrich, would cling to him like gonorrhea. What I really meant to say was, like a really bad case of gonorrhea.

As you know, a key element of Newt's attack has been the mostly accurate allegation that Romney made a massive fortune as a job-destroying, life-ruining vulture capitalist. This has some appeal among non-elite Republicans, who, like most non-elite Democrats and independents, have a healthy suspicion of ruthless, blood-sucking corporate malfeasance. But Republicans generally respect the rich and don't much care for anything that smacks of an attack on capitalism, which in its unregulated form is, in their black-and-white world, the only alternative to totalitarian socialism. In the Republican primaries, therefore, such an attack can only go so far. In the general election, however, Romney will face an enormous obstacle. Can he avoid being brought down by his own image, the image of Romney, rooted firmly in reality, that Newt and others have been drawing on the national stage?

Even if he avoids the vulture capitalist label, and even if some of Newt's attacks don't stick, Romney faces another perhaps even more enormous obstacle: himself. It's not easy to distinguish between Mitt Romney (the man) and "Mitt Romney" (the candidate), and perhaps the two have become one and the same, merged into a single soul-less being that isn't quite human anymore, a political cyborg, but what seems abundantly clear -- because he has made it abundantly clear -- is that Romney is a privileged rich douchebag who has no connection to and little regard for anything or anyone "ordinary," a man who profited off suffering, has a tax rate of about 15 percent, thinks that $374,327.62 is "not very much," and sends a lot of his money to the tax haven known as the Cayman Islands. (If you can relate to all that, you too may be a privileged rich douchebag. Congratulations.)

Now, "douchebag" isn't a nice word and may not be all that fair, I admit. But it seems accurate in Romney's case. As Jon Chait writes:

The utter failure is that Romney has come to be defined, through a recurring series of off-the-cuff gaffes, as a callous, out-of-touch rich man...

Romney declared "I like to be able to fire people who provide services to me." He described concern about rising inequality as "envy," suggested only people who are independently wealthy should run for office, suggested inequality should be discussed only in "quiet rooms," laid down a $10,000 bet in a debate with Rick Perry, deemed corporations to be people, and jokingly referred to himself as "unemployed." He has done the work of an opposition researcher on himself.

Yes, much of what Romney has said has been taken out of context, if not as ridiculously as he attacked President Obama way out of context, but the narrative of Romney as privileged rich douchebag has been coming together for some time:

Whatever the merits, the total self-portrait Romney has helped craft is utterly devastating: the scion of a wealthy executive, who helped create, and benefited from, revolutions in both the market economy and in public policy in the last three decades that favored the rich over the middle class, and who appears blithe about the gap between his privilege and the lot of most Americans.

Douchebag (Wikipedia): "The term usually refers to a person, usually male, with a variety of negative qualities, specifically arrogance and engaging in obnoxious and/or irritating actions, most often without malicious intent." If we weren't required to be all civil when talking politics, wouldn't we call Romney a douchebag? Or something similar?

Indeed, the only problem with the word, according to the Wikipedia definition, is that it suggests intent that isn't malicious. In the sense that Romney is an entitled asshole -- which, again, we would say about most people doing the things he does and saying the things he says -- sure, it may be that he's just being himself, that he can't help himself. Like when he talks about firing the people who serve him or pushing $10,000 bets. But there's more to him than that. Consider, for example, that under his tax plan he would find his taxes cut in half. Yes, here's a rich guy who thinks that politics should be for rich guys who has a plan to make rich people like himself even richer and who dismisses the rest of us as envious.

Douchebag? You make the call. Feel free to suggest a more appropriate word for him.

Anyway, whatever we call him, this narrative of Romney as "a callous, out-of-touch rich man" is sticking. And, Romney being Romney, it will continue to stick through the campaign. Democrats can help it along by pointing to Romney's plutocratic, self-interested agenda, as well as to his work at Bain Capital, but he is his own worst enemy in the sense that he is feeding this narrative all by himself, just by being himself.

The concept of the "narrative" is overused, I agree, but narratives really do drive electoral politics a great deal. They shape the stories that the media tell and that voters base their decisions on. Sometimes they're about trends or issues, but sometimes they're about people. Obviously, the key "issue" narrative for 2012 is the bad economy and Obama's handling of it, for better or worse. But especially in presidential elections voters choose a candidate more than a platform, and so in this case the narrative about Romney is Romney's story, from his upbringing to Bain and beyond, and what it says about who he is a person and how he would be as president. This story, this narrative, is how Romney will be presented to the public by the media, how voters will come to know him and understand him, and ultimately there isn't much anyone can do about it. Once a narrative takes hold, it's hard to replace.

It's early, but Romney is already defined. And he's done it largely by, and to, himself.

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  • Mr. Stickings, this post is absolutely magnificent! Thank you for lifting my spirits, sir, a douchebag you are most certainly not, and I look forward to your further observations on this the most ridiculous collection of presidential aspirants I've ever witnessed!

    By Anonymous logotic, at 11:39 PM  

  • Unfortunately the press and the Obama administration is not pressing the issue of Romney being only for himself and his rich donors; let's not forget corporations, as they are people too, and can donate indiscriminately to get their candidate in office and secure more capital. Our democracy is dead. Good post, by the way.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:26 PM  

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