You know those Balsa wood airplanes – not the glider-types but the deluxe models, powered by rubber bands, with little propellers on the nose? I thought of those planes watching Mitt Romney debate Barack Obama the other night.
Romney's journey toward the presidency has been a marvel to behold. Dating back to his first political steps – his race against Ted Kennedy, followed by his assault on the Massachusetts governorship – Romney has been constantly twisting and contorting himself, exchanging position for position, trading pro-choice for anti-choice, flirting with pro-gay rhetoric before shifting swiftly the other way, pioneering state health care reform before bashing virtually the same plan designed on a national scale, claiming the center on everything from guns to global warming before careening right as a presidential candidate.
Then, just within this year, the contortions took him all the way around again, in a corkscrewish motion, as he first careened as far right as he could stand to win the primary season, and then twisted some more to come all the way back to his version of the center to run as a kindler, gentler sort of centrist alternative to Obama. I was shocked to hear him say aloud in the second debate that the richest people would not have their tax burdens reduced, especially since he spent the entire primary season running as a supply-sider who would create growth by cutting taxes on capital gains, interest, dividends, and eliminating the estate tax, cuts that overwhelmingly favor the very rich.
From the start of the first debate, Romney has almost seemed liberated, spouting line after line of breathless, ecstatic inventions – things that are, if not lies exactly, at the very least just simply made up out of thin air, and seemingly on the spot, too. The business about the $25,000 "bucket" of deductions which he prefaced, with seemingly half of America watching, with the phrase, "Let's pick a number": awesome. Then there was the jobs plan that creates 12 million jobs, another number seemingly plucked out of the ether: it turned out that when asked to justify the number, the Romney campaign cited three studies, none of which came anywhere near justifying claims of a 12 million-job increase. This is from Paul Krugman's new column on the subject:
Just for the record, one study concluded that America might gain two million jobs if China stopped infringing on U.S. patents and other intellectual property; this would be nice, but Mr. Romney hasn't proposed anything that would bring about that outcome. Another study suggested that growth in the energy sector might add three million jobs in the next few years — but these were predicted gains under current policy, that is, they would happen no matter who wins the election, not as a consequence of the Romney plan.
Finally, a third study examined the effects of the Romney tax plan and argued (implausibly, but that's another issue) that it would lead to a large increase in the number of Americans who want to work. But how does that help cure a situation in which there are already millions more Americans seeking work than there are jobs available? It's irrelevant to Mr. Romney's claims.
That jobs line is when I thought of the Balsa wood plane. Romney has spent his whole political career being so careful: in all his previous races, he's used his admittedly very quick mind and slick presentation skills to walk one political tightrope and rhetorical razor-edge after another, trying to run as a pseudo-conservative Republican in traditionally liberal Massachusetts, while in primary season this year, he tried his best to maintain a whiff of centrist cred as a national politician even as the immediate demands of the Republican primaries forced him to veer sharply right. The psychic energy it takes to internally manage all of those past contortions (and future calculations) while publicly walking a razor's edge is no joke: it takes a special man to do it.
But now Romney's finally all the way to the endgame, and he's just letting go. No more being careful, and weighing himself down on debate stages with painstakingly parsed positions (this was frequently the situation in the primaries, where Romney's performances were always restrained and cautious, even when he "won"). Now there's no more future to worry about and he's just casting off from his moorings and being what he basically is at heart, which is a salesman and bullshit artist of the highest order.
Romney's realized that numbers don't matter, and past facts don't even matter that much: he's run all fall on completely made-up, mathematically-incoherent jobs and tax plans, and not only is he not suffering, he's made it all the way to a statistical tie with the president (or even a lead, if you believe the Gallup polls), and the presidency is in sight. He's finally released the burden of all those internal contradictions, and the inventions and devious distortions are coming so fast and so furious now, it's energized him psychologically, and he seems to be taking flight before our eyes.
When Obama tried to nail him on his record on contraception, noting that Romney had suggested that employers should be able to decide whether or not to allow insurance coverage of contraceptives, Romney effortlessly replied: "I don't believe employers should tell someone whether they could have contraceptive care or not. Every woman in America should have access to contraceptives."
Now, I suppose that's technically true, in the sense that Mitt Romney never suggested that Bill Gates should be able to physically prevent any Microsoft employee from going to her corner store to buy condoms, but that pretty clearly was not what they were talking about. Obama tried to protest, but the moment was past, and Romney looked jazzed. You could see him thinking: "This just saying-anything-that-pops-into-my-head thing is great!" Over and over again he went to that well. The stat about 583,000 women having lost their jobs under Obama – where the hell did that number come from?
It doesn't matter. None of it really matters, at this point. Romney has all of America right now running head-scratching analyses of his tax and jobs plans, trying to figure out if there's any way the numbers fit. But my guess is, independent voters are not reading those dense commentaries, and instead are responding more to the general vibe surrounding Romney's campaign, which is clearly benefiting from the fact that he's being so aggressive that the whole world is left scrambling to react to his bullshit.
I think the new strategy, rather than try to swim down into the deep waters of Romney's bogus plans, should be to stay on the surface and simply ask him simple questions. For instance, on his convoluted tax plan, just ask these two questions:
1) You've talked a lot about who's getting a tax break under your plan. But who's paying more? Where's the pain coming from?
2) If there is no pain, and the whole thing really is "revenue neutral," WHAT IS THE FUCKING POINT?
Now, cynically, we know what the "point" is. The point is to win an election by promising a 20% tax cut with one hand while promising that nobody will have to pay for it with the other. It's brilliant stuff – the ecstasy of pure bull. I'm not sure how Obama counters it, but he'd better think of something, fast.