SEVENTEEN DAYS – AND ONLY ONE MORE DEBATE
Well, folks, we may not be at the finish line, but we’ve sure come to the home stretch. “The turn,” as they say in horse racing, consisted of two debates. No, I’m not talking about the Romney/Ryan diversion – that was purely for entertainment purposes. I’m referring to the event a few weeks back when President Obama got off his horse and droopily waited for Mitt Romney to approach him, and then the more spirited tilt this past week, when the President leapt back on his ride, just as Romney was about to overtake him, and took out the whip. Now that we are “headed for home,” as they say in the Sport of Kings, President Obama once again finds himself with a surmountable, yet clear, lead. Don’t pay attention to the national polls – look at the swing state polls, and you’ll agree that Romney will need to hit the proverbial trifecta to pull this one out.
Truth be told, this race track is a bit of a hybrid. For the most part, it looks like the track at a Triple Crown venue, with nothing but clear skies ahead toward the finish line -- nothing, that is, except for one obstacle, and in that regard, it looks like the track of a steeplechase. The obstacle is this coming Monday night’s debate, and the topic, of all things, is foreign policy. If Mitt Romney is to win this election, he has to kick some serious butt in that debate. And that requires excelling on a topic in which his inexperience is exceeded only by his apparent apathy. Before our eyes, he had better turn into a reincarnation of John Foster Dulles – either that or you can bank on seeing a whole lot more smiling and hand waiving from Barack Obama. Romney simply lacks any other opportunity to seize back the momentum that he lost in this past debate.
Tuesday’s town hall was a far cry from the debacle in Denver, where there was only combatant. Obama mailed that one in before the debate even started. But he sure showed up in debate number two, and that put Romney in a bind. Obama is the sitting President. When awake, he comes across as Presidential – classy, measured, intellectual, sharp, personable … and let’s not forget, historic. Plus, the Romney campaign has given him a whale of a narrative: that we face a choice between the leader who saved GM and killed Bin Laden, and a gaffe-prone, detached plutocrat who is beholden to troglodytes and is more of a shape shifter than that liquid- metal policeman from the Terminator 2. On some level, I suspect, Romney understands his plight as a candidate. And this is why, this past Tuesday night, you could sense his desperation. He felt the need to employ high school debate tricks to back the President into the corner, alpha-male style, as if he were hoping that his rival would fall apart and pee his pants. Sorry, but that kind of strategy rarely works in the adult world, and certainly not on a stage like this. If anything, when one candidate watches the other look desperate, it only serves as a stimulant.
And that brings us to next Monday night. What in Joseph Smith’s name can Mitt Romney do to score the needed knockout? He has tried “Rush Limbaugh Mitt” in the primaries. He has tried “Gordon Gecko Mitt” when talking to fundraisers. He has tried “Schoolyard Bully Mitt” in the last debate. None of them worked. So is he out of options? Not necessarily. Maybe he should think back to what did work, if only for a moment: his first debate performance. He was respectful, genuinely funny (remember the reference to Obama’s anniversary -- “I’m sure this was the most romantic place you could imagine, here with me”), politically moderate, and proud of his record as a unifier-not-a-divider. In other words, this truly was “Governor” Romney – the RINO Chief Executive of the People’s Republic of Massachusetts. That one night, for perhaps the only time since Mitt began running for president a half a decade ago, America liked what they saw from him.
Do you see the irony? Barack Obama ran in 2008 as a change agent who is perfectly situated to heal the great divide. And now, four years later, America generally, and Washington in particular, is more polarized than it has been since the Gilded Age. Not only does Obama appreciate that sad truth but he also realizes its consequences. If this country is to retain its place as the brightest “light unto the nations,” it will need to undertake great national projects in which all hands are on deck (meaning government, capital, labor, and civil organizations must buy in together). Sadly, with a sharply polarized political culture, no such promise can be fulfilled. Instead, we can look forward to mounting debt, governmental gridlock, business uncertainty, and the continued passing of the torch to leaner and hungrier economies overseas. This is one point on which we can all agree – polarization is a fatal poison to our national interests. The problem is that when it comes to identifying the antidote, there’s where the agreement ends.
Pundits wonder why the President doesn’t talk more about his plans for the future. But the answer should be obvious: the President doesn’t know how to purge ourselves of the poison that’s been destroying our society. I’m not saying he has given up. I’m just saying he can’t possibly be confident. As long as the Republicans want to make him a relatively impotent President, they can do so. They know it, and so does he. That’s why his campaign promises are so tepid, and his rhetoric is anything but soaring. That’s why we’re seeing him campaign almost entirely about Mitt Romney and not about Barack Obama.
Frankly, it does present an opportunity for a challenger. And if Romney could have only run as Governor Romney (rather than as Shape Shifter Romney), he might actually be in business right now. But he can’t bring himself to do it, can he? Governor Romney was successful because bi-partisanship was his only option. If he had governed as a conservative Republican, he would have been rolled over by his state’s overwhelmingly Democratic Congress. It’s known as a veto-proof government, and it would have made the Governor more vestigial than the appendix. Now, unfortunately for Mitt, when he looks out at his “audience,” he doesn’t see a bunch of liberal Democrats (or moderate Independents) whom he has to meet halfway; he sees a bunch of friggen Flat Earthers. This is a Party that has turned Michelle Bachman into a leader, and that won’t even make room for Dick Lugar, one of the great, bi-partisan statesmen of our era. It certainly doesn’t have room for “Governor” Romney. So … he shape shifts, talks about “etch-a-sketch” campaigns, and hopes that somehow, President Obama won’t show up for debates. It worked once. It won’t work again.
If Mitt Romney wants to become President of the United States, he has but one chance: really make a play for the Independents and hope to hell that his base hates Obama enough not to desert their Party’s newly-moderate flag-bearer. Romney would have to trump his record as a unifier, put Obama on the spot as someone who has failed in that capacity, and hope that the American public blames that failure on Obama (rather than the Republican Congress). Honestly, if a moderate voter is seriously considering voting for Mitt Romney, his argument wouldn’t be that Obama is solely or even primarily at fault for failing to stop our toxic polarization. The argument would be that, for whatever reason, Obama hasn’t get the job done and maybe Romney can. It could have been a decent argument … if Romney had tried to pursue this approach over the past few months and demonstrated an ability to put together a coalition across ideological lines. But that hasn’t really happened, now has it? And that is why, when push comes to shove, anything Romney tries will likely be too little, too late.
Still, though, the race isn’t over yet. Romney does have, as they say in poker, “a chip and a chair.” Nobody expects him to spend all of Monday night’s debate talking about foreign policy; clearly, he will work in references to economic issues early and often. Perhaps he’ll also tie his comments together with compelling remarks about his track record as a “unifier.” And, perhaps, Obama will make a fatal misstep of his own. While I doubt the latter will happen, it’s certainly possible. But what’s of paramount importance isn’t what happens on Monday night, or even on the first Tuesday of November. It’s the need for the people of this nation to recognize that we are being poisoned by polarization and the gridlock that ensues from it, and that we truly do need to work together to find an antidote. Whoever is best situated to provide that antidote deserves to be our next President. And whichever gentleman is elected had better make finding the antidote one of his highest goals.
This nation won World War II because it came together after Pearl Harbor for a common purpose. And it came together again after 9/11. Do we truly need to be the object of violent attacks in order to come together? And if so, does that make us a warrior nation, rather than one that thrives on peace? I sure hope it doesn’t. It would be sad if we have reached the point in our history where we require death and destruction in order to prosper as a people.