The Immense Challenge of Defeating the Shape-Shifters

October 13th, 2012 at 11:14 pm

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.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

9 comments in reply to "The Immense Challenge of Defeating the Shape-Shifters"

  1. Jake says:

    Economists do not practice the art of persuasion so using their immense analytical skills won’t solve the problem of effectively addressing how to respond to people who don’t say what you expect them to say in public. Debate coaches in speech departments know what to do. It can be as simple as saying, “This is my position on what he just addressed. This used to be his position, and maybe we can talk about why he has changed once he tells us.” It’s persuasive speech or rhetoric not facts that win the day in public speaking, including debates. Maybe the high priced political consultants have turned to other more complex things.

  2. luko says:

    It’s truly remarkable. The tribalists don’t care…they want their tribe to win and if their candidate needs to shapeshift into Karl Marx himself it doesn’t matter. The so-cons think they will be able to control the man who, deep down, they know is a satanic cultist once he is in office. Good luck with that. So there is very limited opportunity for votes here.

    I do see an opportunity with the more libertarian wing of the party. Romney will not bring small government conservatism. No such thing. Business give-a-ways and massive tax cuts to the 1/10 of 1% is not a growth agenda. There are no cost savings anywhere…only a cut to PBS. That’s it! Nothing more. Just increased spending and less revenue for as far as the eye can see…

    That’s the truth Obama needs to make. To the young mostly white mostly men who are pusing Romney over the edge right now.


  3. readerOfTeaLeaves says:

    FWIW, I’ve been in series of hissing matches with #1 Son, who is ‘praying for Romney to win’ because the costs of “Obamacare” on the business in which he works are (in his mind) so onerous that it’s possible they’ll go out of business.

    He does not understand how a health care exchange actually might work in his (red) state, for the business where he works. He has medical coverage, but expanding the coverage to all the company’s employees is costly. He views Obamacare as such a dire threat to his employer that his anxiety predisposes him to want to believe whatever Romney dishes out.

    If there is a podcast that explains how Obamacare would help my son provide medical coverage to the employees he supervises, then he has not yet located it. (He is a big consumer of econ and business podcasts.)

    Like most of us, my son needs a user’s manual for Obamacare.
    His confusion breeds mistrust, which plays into Romney’s shape-shifting hands.

    In a conversation last week with someone who will vote for Romney, and who thought Obama was ‘arrogant’ at the last debate, we agreed on one thing: the lack of specifics about how things actually work make us distrustful of government, and of the candidates.

    I see this same sense of aggravation and alienation in my son.
    I also see it in a woman that I know who cannot afford health insurance, despite being in the medical profession. She does not understand how Obamacare might help her, and is unsure how to vote.

    So we need honesty.
    But we also need basic, working knowledge about how some of these programs actually work.
    Without simple explanations of how a health care exchange might work in Oregon, or Montana, people are very vulnerable to the seductions of Romney.

    People need a User’s Guide.
    Without it, they are frustrated in a state of confusion, and extremely vulnerable to superficial charm.

  4. Rima Regas says:

    They should have called on you to coach our president for the economic-related questions in the debates. What was most needed in the first debate was a lesson in the economics of austerity.

    I fear that in spite of the experience of the last four years, the thinking in the White House (including the president), still isn’t as close to Keynes as it needs to be. I also don’t see many Keynesians in the House or Senate, on the Democratic side of the aisle. Looking beyond November, this is especially worrisome. I have my ideas as to whom he should nominate to Treasury and the Fed (should Bernanke leave)… Both people sport beards. We need them.

  5. Russ Abbott says:

    Well said, “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.”

    Here’s an additional idea. Give Romney (and Ryan) credit for saying superficially plausible things and then point out how wrong they are. My favorite current example is Romney’s and Ryan’s claim that our Air Force and Navy will be the smallest they have been since whenever.

    Point out that if they would be willing to trade our current Air Force and Navy for the ones we had in, say, 1950 they are not qualified to be commander in chief. There is, of course, absolutely no comparison. Our current military is so far superior to the one we had in 1950 that it’s laughable even to suggest a comparison. To go further and suggest that our current forces are weaker than our forces in 1950 is ridiculous. Yet, it may actually be correct to say that depending on what you count our current military is “smaller” than the one we had in 1950. That’s a good example of why it’s important not to believe what Romney and Ryan say.

  6. Russ Abbott says:

    P.S. I would use Romney’s smallest Air Force and Navy claim against him as often as possible. Whenever Romney says something that seem difficult to refute directly, I’d say, “And you also believe that our military is weaker now than in in 1950.” I’d repeat that over and over. Make that position stick to him. Demonstrate how untrustworthy he is and point out that nothing he says can be taken at face value.

  7. mitakeet says:

    Nerd alert: the first shape shifter was in the second movie and was the T-1000.

  8. Grovegal says:

    Thanks for the post. A shapeshifter is a good definition. Mr. Romney has given countless indications he has narcissistic personality disorder. They are devious, diabolical liars intent on power at all costs with a total lack of empathy.

    Entitlement is a core trait as is charisma and need for complete control. Having had an in-law diagnosed with NPD, I’m well aware of how they ‘shapeshift’ to suit the needs of the moment. Most psychiatrists refuse to treat them as it’s hopeless to break through their delusions.

    That’s what threw PBO off in the debate. He arrived in good faith to debate issues and was greeted by a diabolical man infused with his own power.

    Healthy narcissism is good; the extreme end is often seen in children of wealthy parents who, without intentionally doing so, instill superiority and elitism in their children. Their cruelty surfaces in teenage years and grows progressively worse with age. Hence Romney gleefully holding a young man down to cut off his hair.

    PBO is up against a shrewd and calculating narcissist. God help us if he is elected president.

  9. DavidR says:

    Just wondering — was Obama “shape shifting” when he “evolved” on his deeply held beliefs on gay marriage over the course of a week?