In science-fiction, among the toughest villains to defeat are the shape-shifters, the bad guys who can pose as…anyone. I’m recalling a scene in the first Terminator movie (I think) where the alien killer from the future morphs into the kid’s parents, who of course he trusts. How do you go after someone if you can’t distinguish them from the your allies, friends, parents?
Obama was unable to solve that problem in the first debate; to my eyes and ears, Biden did so in the second one, but to do so he had to intervene as his opponent was shape-shifting in real time. It’s unfortunate to interrupt—I know, I try hard not to do it on cable TV—but if you let the shape-shifters get too far, they’ll morph into someone they’re not and at that point it’s “he-said, she-said.”
Sure, you can leave it for the fact-checkers to sort through the next day, but a) by then it’s too late, and b) they’re contractually obligated to show balance, so they tend to basically take a “pox on both their houses” view. It’s of course the case that both sides stray from the facts, but claiming deficit savings that arguably aren’t there (though I disagree with that one) is of a total different magnitude then pretending you’re not going to go after a women’s right to choose, you’re going to go after the big banks, you’re not going to cut taxes for the wealthy, you’ll protect those with pre-existing health conditions, you actually haven’t been running for months on a $5 trillion tax cut, you’ll work with Congress to pay for that cut when you and almost every other Republican in Congress has pledged never to raise taxes.
Many of us were—naively, I see now—looking forward to the debates as the chance to draw out the differences between the agendas that have been clear for months, and to do so right at the point that millions started paying attention. Sure, Mitt’s campaign telegraphed that the etch-a-sketch would soon be shaken, but given the “severely conservative” positions he’d staked out, I thought it shouldn’t be too hard to point the shape-shifting out to people.
But it is harder than I thought, and the debates are actually a tough venue for that. Instead of the debating the salience of the terribly pressing challenges we face as a nation and the very different agendas for meeting them, as President Clinton so masterfully did at the convention, the President and VP are basically stuck saying, “folks, that’s not your mom and dad—it’s a shape shifter!”
To my mind, that’s why Obama was so flummoxed in debate one. He came to argue about visions—something he does well—but, in a colossal prep failure, he had no strategy against shape-shifting.
He will, I’m sure, be ready for that in round two, but Mitt Romney’s campaign mode is, and always has been, very clearly based on trying to become whatever the moment calls for to get the votes of whoever’s listening.
As Hendrik Hertzberg put it:
All the evidence indicates that Romney has no “core beliefs” beyond a gauzy assumption that the business of America is business and an unshakable, utterly sincere conviction that he, Mitt Romney, ought to be President, deserves to be President, and, for the sake of the country, must be President. His ideological rootlessness, which excites the mistrust of the Republican hard right, is what makes him the most dangerous opponent Obama could have drawn.
The NYT made a similar observation:
From the beginning of his run for the Republican nomination, Mr. Romney has offered to transfigure himself into any shape desired by an audience in order to achieve power. In front of massed crowds or on television, he can sound sunny and inclusive, radiating a feel-good centrism. His “severely conservative” policies and disdain for much of the country are reserved for partisans, donors and the harsh ideologues who clutter his party’s base. This polarity is often described as “flip-flopping,” but the word is too mild to describe opposing positions that are simultaneously held.
There are two ways to beat shape-shifters. One, as the VP showed, is to interrupt the process—morph blocking. That worked for Joe, but I don’t think it’s Obama’s style.
But there’s another way: to disqualify the shape-shifter from high office by clearly explaining to the electorate that such a person cannot be trusted. We cannot elect someone whose core-beliefs are so elusive, whose capacity for judgment so unknown, whose thought processes are so engrossed in shape-shifting that we can’t know how they’ll govern.
The President, on the other hand, can and should emphasize that he has consistently said what he’s going to do, while pointing out how he’s done much of what he said he would do (and while being forthright about what he’s not accomplished, and about what’s been blocked by Congress).
Some voters will not like that agenda. Some of them will face higher taxes (the top 2% of households; the top 3% of small businesses). Some will face greater regulation (financial institutions). Some actually will have to provide insurance despite pre-existing conditions. So be it.
But like him or not, the President is running an honest campaign that forthrightly explains his agenda and where he stands on the key issues. There’s no etch-a-sketches and no shape-shifting.
And that may be his most potent weapon against his shape-shifting opponent.