We have met the enemy… and he is us.
October 29, 2012 by Noel Eisenberg
If you’re looking for someone to blame for the dead-heat state of the race these days, don’t look to President Obama or those poor besieged undecided Midwestern voters… just go look in your nearest mirror. That’s right – we have no one to blame for Mitt Romney’s stunning surge but ourselves.
For several years now, the media have been touting the importance of social networks and new information outlets. Never has this been more visible than in the Lehman-like collapse of President Obama’s lead following the first general election debate of 2012.
The twitter-verse exploded with plaintive cries of dismay on the night of October 3rd when Democrats (myself included) first realized that the President intended not to engage fully with the wildly different candidate who showed up in Denver, aka “Moderate Mitt”. Unnerved by Mr. Obama’s calm, above-it-all demeanor, his downcast mien and his decision not to engage in petty back-and-forth, the left wing exploded in a frenzy of panicked partisan pleading for a more bellicose response. “Hit him back!” seemed to be the universal refrain.
Further amplified by the hysterical shrieking of Chris Matthews, Andrew Sullivan and the rest of the left-wing media elite, this massive overreaction fueled the fury. In the critical hours and days that followed, President Obama’s adequate if lackluster performance morphed from a passable C- into an F. And that’s the perception that stuck. Ironically the question after Denver of “Who was that guy?” was leveled not at the staggeringly mutable Romney but at the steady, placid Obama. And it was done by Democrats.
The Right wing tends to be better disciplined but even they found themselves guilty of this same mistake following the release of Governor Romney’s 47% video and his botched reaction to Benghazi. Talking heads, off-the-record sources, even the doyenne of media manipulation herself, Peggy Noonan, fell prey to the escalating spiral of negativity. Her NY Times op-ed calling Romney’s campaign “incompetent” for those double missteps was a shot heard round the political world. It was a rare show of public disunity that accelerated into a chorus of right-wing public recriminations, amplifying the storm of criticism so much in the lead-up to the first debate that pundits were openly speculating about an Obama landslide. Republicans abandoned their unified defense and the results were a startling jump in numbers for the President.
Sadly what this means is that party faithful can no longer engage in truth telling. It’s not just the candidates and their surrogates who must now spin, it’s all of us, bloggers and bricklayers alike. Because the echo chamber that we live in picks up all voices, large and small. In WWII, oftentimes an Allied bombing target would be so engulfed by flames that the disparate conflagrations would converge into a firestorm that sucked so much oxygen from the air that it would become self-sustaining. A similar (if metaphoric) reaction seems to be happening now with alarming regularity. Reactions amplify themselves wildly and it’s critical to realize what will happen if people do not push back against the other party’s collective message. After all… It’s what has dogged the Obama Administration throughout the majority of its first term, when a distaste for self-promotion allowed the Progressive cause to be negatively defined on issue after issue, from the tax cuts of the stimulus to the passage of the (née Republican) health care plan to the insanity of the debt ceiling showdown.
Imagine a different scenario for the night of the first debate: in the first few minutes, the Left-wing surrogates and talking heads admit nothing to the Right. They instead articulate their incredulity at Romney’s craven shift to the middle after months of campaigning as a “severe conservative”. They hit back at Romney’s bold mischaracterization of his own record and positions and refute any and all attempts to portray Obama’s performance as weak. Instead they call it dignified. Presidential. It shouldn’t be too hard to imagine. After a similarly passive and affable performance by Governor Romney, marked by bouts of flop-sweat and fibs, the Right wing talking heads actually proclaimed him triumphant. Faced with opposing claims of victory – the public seems to have concluded that the night was a modest win for the President instead of the outright drubbing it really was. Ah, what might have been.
Walt Kelly’s reaction to Joe McCarthy may not be an exact fit for our times, but it carries a sentiment that is dismaying: facts are no longer facts when you disagree with their premise. And passivity spells certain demise for those who do not raise a constant full-throated defense of their beliefs. Even on those nights when we may not feel like it.