A Campaign On The Edge (And It's Not The One You Think)
N.B.: I wrote most of this before the fundraiser video – the tempest in a teapot du jour – came out, and will address that silliness shortly.
I was once interviewing to join a campaign when I heard a screaming fight break out between a deputy campaign manager and one of the senior consultants over which one needed more inbound lines on their respective office phones. (We had landlines then, and dinosaurs roamed the Earth.)
I sat, quietly appalled, while they proceeded to trash one another over the phone issue, the size of their offices and who neeeeeded more staff support. In the end, the campaign was a trainwreck for purely external reasons, but at the time I thought, “Holy hell...everyone is going to be able to see this from the outside and it'll be a disaster.”
And sure enough, stories ran about the trainwreck. About tension and infighting. About a campaign off the rails and in deep trouble. About consultants and staff, sniping at one another to the detriment of the candidate.
But they didn't matter one whit. The economy, the other candidate, the style and content of the message...all of those killed our guy, not the infighting of consultants or even the petty gaffes of the day.
Inside the Gang of 500 chattering-class universe of reporters, producers, political operators and so on, there is the firm, almost ontological, certitude that the machinations of the Big Show aren't just a big thing...they're the only thing.
Which is why we get process stories with headlines like “Romney Speaks Too Soon On Egypt: Has He Caused A World War?” and “Chaos In Boston: Is Cannibalism Next?”
Process stories are easy. They're fun. They play who's up-who's down game using simple signifiers and narrative shortcuts. In doing so, they present the phenomenon, not the noumenon, if I may go all Kantian on y'all.
They're about the “unreal seen” as opposed to the “unseen real.” They're driven by the need to slap more electrons up on the screen, 24/7.
But process stories – on either side, as “bitter clingers” proved – don't win elections.
Of the dozen or so Romney gaffes in the primary and beyond, each has been greeted by a media more intent on declaring it to be the fatal moment. Each time, Romney grinds along, pushing through and moving forward. Romney wasn't my guy in the early primary going, and I was amazed at how willing he was to drop the hammer on one opponent after another, push past mistakes and keep on winning.
I grew to admire just how much drive the guy had to hammer past the press coverage, the other campaigns and the sniping. In the words of of the Gunnery Sargent Hartmann in Full Metal Jacket: “...he's got guts, and guts is enough.”
Now, everything about Barack Obama's brand – which is what has replaced the Democratic Party, to its future peril – relies on what John Hayward called “...a manufactured political narrative that bears little resemblance to reality.”
The delta between the world as Obama and his legion of fanboys describe it and the world as it is grows more spectacular and more impossible to sustain by the day.
Which is why stories about surreptitious videos and of Romney's campaign being on the precipice of destruction from internal tension and fights over strategic messaging are missing the most important point: there's only one campaign at real risk of destruction right now, and it belongs to Barack Obama.
Mitt Romney is running against Barack Obama.
But Barack Obama is running against Mitt Romney, and against a domestic economy in almost existential peril and from an Arab world sinking into chaos and darkness from Algiers to Aleppo, and from two of the world's economic superpowers about to start a hot war in the Pacific and from his “good war” in Afghanistan warming up to become a genocide at the hands of the Taliban as American troops inevitably withdraw, their decade of sacrifice and heroism squandered.
Obama is running against all those glittering, gorgeous promises of economic miracles and civic harmony from 2008, and of powerful stimulus programs that were guaranteed to generate millions of green jobs.
He's running against the grim reality of the real world, foreign and domestic.
Barack Obama is a man, once that beautifully constructed political narrative collides with reality, who is demonstrably out of his depth, and who relies on having every externality dutifully ignored.
Any one of those examples can break, suddenly and terribly, and end Obama's campaign tomorrow.
Which is why process stories and Obama's considerable self-regard can't paper over an economy teetering on the precipice. Process stories can't make the fiscal crash that's coming any less catastrophic or record unemployment less systemic.
Process stories can't stop the video of burning U.S. Embassies and of the beaten, violated corpses of American diplomats being dragged through the streets. Process stories can't stop the grim sight of Al Qaida flags proudly flying over what were once U.S. diplomatic compounds.
No matter what video of Mitt Romney at a fundraiser emerges, the process stories it generates won't be a part of Americas cultural memory, much less be decisive in this campaign.
But what's happening around the world and in this economy most certainly will.
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