The PJ Tatler

Will 2012 be a Battle of the Paper Tigers?

The Obama campaign signals in yet another fundraising email that they fear the Romney smear machine. Sure they do. If you believe that, I’ve got a bridge to nowhere to sell ya. Barack Obama’s entire career can be traced through a series of artful smears and back room games. He won his first race, against incumbent Alice Palmer, by getting her kicked off the ballot. Jack Ryan — smeared using sealed divorce records. Hillary Clinton — smeared with the race card, despite her husband having been the first black president, in spite of his being a white horndog from Arkansas. Then Obama beat John McCain, thanks in no small part to the 2008 financial crisis, and McLame’s pathetic campaign. The point: It’s not so much the case that Obama is this great campaigner who wins voters over with his charms and locks them to his side with his brilliant ideas. He’s kind of boring and predictable, and doesn’t have any original ideas at all. He wins by a combination of gauzy language, ruthlessness, media complicity and dumb luck, and let’s face it, because millions wanted to vote for the first actual black president.

His luck may run out if his opponent is Mitt Romney, who whatever else one wants to say about him, is just as ruthless and more efficient, if a bit less lucky in who he has had to run against.

But Romney isn’t exactly the master of blitzkrieg either. He lost Iowa to a candidate who hadn’t run a race since 2006, and hadn’t won a race in 12 years. He won New Hampshire mainly because it’s Massachusetts’ back yard. He lost South Carolina because Newt Gingrich ripped CNN’s John King in half on stage and turned to the audience, blood still dripping from his bare hands, and shouted “Are you not entertained?” And now Romney wins Florida, mainly by outspending Gingrich a bazillion to one on negative ads, and by Gingrich proposing Newtist colonies on the moon when we’re downgraded and facing national bankruptcy. Are we not entertained?

Eh, I’m not. Obama’s record in office is abysmal and swing state polls reflect his incompetence. He’s Jimmy Carter without the peanut farm and the musical Georgia drawl. It’s clear that not only does he not understand the basics — how the private sector economy works, how wealth is created, the role of government in calling balls and strikes as opposed to picking winners and losers, how the Constitution limits his powers — he isn’t even interested in understanding them. He is interested in settling scores, empowering the bureaucracy and socially engineering his way toward that “fundamental transformation” that he promised/warned us about. He’s a petty, thin skinned demagogue who literally cannot get through a speech without the aid of a teleprompter, and the speeches he does deliver don’t uplift, and don’t inspire. They don’t even survive a rudimentary fact check. They’re just fluffy base-pleasing pap, designed to elicit applause from his hand-picked audiences.

But let’s turn to Mitt Romney. Here’s his Florida victory speech. His campaign team emailed it out last night within seconds of his delivery. That speaks well of Romney’s management. His charges hit their marks with an efficiency that is rare in politics. But the speech itself is…blah. Kind of generic. Could have been delivered by a hologram of a caricature of a Rockefeller Republican candidate. Where Obama delivers lines to please his base, Romney consistently fails even to do that much. It’s his party’s base that remains most skeptical of him, because his own record in office is nothing to brag about.

Neither Obama nor Romney is particularly well loved. Both seem aloof, outsiders looking in. Both carry glaring weaknesses. Neither should strike fear in the heart of the other. Neither appear to be the man for the moment, yet the way to bet is that they will be going head to head in the fall. Romney can’t count on heavily outspending his opponent. Obama can’t count on hopeychangy carrying him back to office.

We’ll see maneuvering over minutiae, appeals to race (thanks, Juan Williams, for giving us all a heads up on that), petty spats over lots of nothing and next to nothing. We’re unlikely to see either candidate rise to the moment America faces. Neither will openly stand for very much. They will both stick too closely to poll tested memes to risk trying to inspire or challenge. We’re in for a pretty depressing election, I think, as two paper tigers try to kill one another via death by a thousand paper cuts.