It is difficult to have a rational conversation about reelecting Barack Obama. The right still likes to believe the left considers him "Obamessiah." Progressives seem to salivate at how pristinely their principles appear next to his shortcomings. And those young enough to not have experienced the soulfucker that was Clinton's second term almost revel in their worldly contempt after seeing their 2008 dreams brought low. Look, ma, I got my political disenchantment badge!
Still, he is a vastly preferable candidate than Mitt Romney, a cipher who calls to mind the venial, sniping entitlement of Frank Burns from M*A*S*H and a Hawkeye quip from early in that series: "Someone ought to tear him down and put up a human being." Romney's campaign was an egregious concatenation of lies, and his advisors admitted as much on more than one occasion. He attempted to cravenly bullshit his way to the most powerful job in the world, and he did so with such disdain for voters that he straight-up said, My strategy is to lie to your dumb ass. It worked an awful lot.
This is the creature Barack Obama vaults over—a little bit.
Everyone who voted for Obama has the right to be pissed. No, not for an economy held captive by mindless reverence for deficit- and tax-reduction and held hostage by an obstructionist congress. There are few forces as shambolic as the Democrats' coalition of backward Blue Dog assholes, arms-contractor pimps and Wall Street cheerleaders that could have overcome the Republican party's lockstep positioning and Mitch McConnell's vow that the GOP would pass no bill that would enable a second term for Obama.
But they're right to remember that he vowed to close Guantanamo Bay and could have done so with an executive order on Day One. Instead, he changed his pledge to close the facility at Guantanamo Bay and move its human rights terrors to a site in Illinois, at which point "Not In My Back Yard!" took hold, forcing Guantanamo to stay put, since no mainland site would take it. Obama twirled rope around his wrists and acted surprised to wake up and find his hands tied.
His supporters are right to remember that his response to the financial crisis was to name many of its architects as his economic advisors, to continue to bail out Wall Street while all but ignoring relief for homeowners on Main Street. The people who broke the world remain unindicted—as does the previous administration's murderer's row of war criminals who authorized torture across the globe in America's name—leaving Obama with a record of policing institutional corruption and malefactors less rigorous than that of noted animate corpse Bud Selig's in Major League Baseball.
Those who voted for Obama are right to remember that his actions lend a bipartisan stamp of approval to unchecked expansion of global theaters of war, unchecked surveillance of American citizens, unchecked prosecution of whistleblowers seeking to inform the public of government acts committed against them and in their name, and unchecked executive privilege to execute American citizens without due process.
And yet there is not one disappointing item above that Mitt Romney would not appreciably worsen. He is so committed to tax cuts that he would punch an over $10 trillion hole in the debt his party allegedly cannot abide. His foreign policy advisors—a warmed-over gaggle of Bush-era sadists who never got their Nuremberg—not only cheerlead Obama's expansion of war theaters, surveillance and drone killing but call for the resumption of official American torture. Romney's plans for Wall Street and its oversight define "regulatory capture" so thoroughly that the last SEC employee with any integrity and an ability to breathe through her nose wouldn't last long enough in his care to film a proof of life video.
Then there are those genuinely good things Obama has done and the nasty things he would not do, at least by omission. Romney would dismantle the desperately needed Obamacare and replace it with something or nothing—prayer or leprosy or Ayn Rand fun-bucks. Apart from all the times he said the opposite, Romney has proudly expressed his desire to destroy Roe v. Wade and appoint judges who would. He would replace FEMA with 50 individual state agencies, unless he wouldn't, or not—or just appoint some GOP flunkie to the sinecure and have everyone cross their fingers that no part of the United States needs disaster planning or recovery funding over the next 1,460 days. Romney and Paul Ryan would also slash social safety-net programs far more than Obama would in any gutless "Grand Bargain"—the working-class sellout with the first-class name.
Which brings us back to Romney's campaign. Watching Mitt Romney the candidate has been like watching a Foucault Pendulum. He swings back and forth—the pivot of Himself forming the focal center of the known world—as the earth rotates around him, gradually bringing into his path a new point on any issue that he can knock off on the stump. He has held so many positions on any matter of significance that they can be arrayed around him in 360º, bringing him back around to whatever his first attitude was, to start the process anew.
Even Romney's fellow Republicans and—for now—staunchest advocates have admitted as much:
Describing a political campaign as the most mendacious in memory usually signals an easy capacity for surprise or a remarkably short memory, but Romney's handily nets the distinction. Not just for baldfaced lies, like the first debate, where he denied his own budget and tax plan to Obama, though Obama had merely described its actual contents. No, not for acting like a far-right hatchet man, then moving toward the center in the debates—for calling Obama un-American and then shaming him for running "the most divisive campaign in history." And, no, not for the countless times when Romney promised something—"my repeal of Obamacare would still cover preexisting conditions"—and an aide immediately denied that the candidate had said that and later clarified his statement, after the rally, when the fans were gone, with a policy far less crowd-pleasing. Most candidacies develop a platform as a set of ideas or proposals that engage extant problems in reality. Romney's platform airily hovered in a space unbound by gravity, historicity or even the ability to remember the day before. For them, lying was not merely a means of selling policy but the policy itself.
Even that last detail of hubristic contempt for reality would just seem a natural development in an increasingly cynical political culture, but the Romney campaign went one step further. What takes the cake is that Romney and his advisors admitted they were doing this. Long-time advisor Eric Ferhnstrom flatly acknowledged that the transition from the primary campaign to the general election would be like an "Etch-a-Sketch," a total strategic reset. In short, he conceded that after promising as many hardline conservative points to the GOP primary audience as possible, Romney would abandon those pledges to handcraft promises and lies for independent voters and wavering Democrats. The Etch-a-Sketch got used again before and between the debates. Had the Romney campaign replaced it with a baby, they'd have shaken to death a trail of infants leading from D.C. to Boston.
Then, after repeated press pushback of talking points, Romney pollster Neil Newhouse said, "We're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers." Good thing for him, because the next night Paul Ryan addressed the Republican National Convention with a speech so riddled with low-effort lies that newspaper fact checkers gave up, just picked two or three to correct, and wearily passed on the rest. Had they been a bit more clever, they could have saved newsprint and man hours by simply running a column verifying the few bits of his speech where reality blundered in. Ryan lied so artlessly and dim-wittedly that he could have stood behind the podium with crumbs and chocolate smears on his face, picked at his bottom and said in a toddler lisp, "No, I habn't been eating a cookieth," and appeared more sophisticated.
After putting a dog on a car and torturing it for hours, after calling corporations people, after blundering from England to Israel to Poland, after endless insufferable dorkbag gaffes, after owning a horse worth more than some middle class suburban blocks, after car elevators and houses with their own lobbyists, after overseas tax shelters and hidden tax returns, after pledging to gut almost every program keeping middle class people alive after retirement, after a secret video in which he wrote off almost one half of the country as useless to him—and, after lying his ass off without remorse for months on end while admitting to doing so, Romney is still just a few points away from Obama in national polls.
It's tough to avoid the sense that Obama is the candidate that a demographically fractured country needs but that Romney is the candidate it deserves. Obama kept nearly 200 campaign promises. Obama believes in things—big, aspirational things. What they are often isn't clear, and if anything, Obama's message is that he believes in the importance of believing in things. Obama's spiritual appeal is that spirituality is good for the spirit. We should try harder at being better so we can feel more. Romney, on the other hand, declared his belief in money and bet that the sound of a cash register would drown out or intimidate all other noises emitted by the campaigns. He promised everything to everyone and in doing so offered only vapor and dust. He dedicated himself to the fungibility of not only everyone in America but the job he wanted, and got away with doing so gracelessly. Romney's the guy at the poker table with so much money that it doesn't really matter that he's incapable of bluffing anyone.
After all these months, however, it's anyone's guess whether people really require that pro forma effort at exhibiting concern. People should vote for Obama, if only to stave off the Thunderdome nightmare of a binary, up-down society for a little while longer. That is, assuming they want to.
When he was describing America's resistance to socialism, John Steinbeck might well have been explaining millions of people's inability to feel a collective unconscious revulsion to a slithering plutocrat as predatory as Romney: Americans don't think of themselves as poor, or vulnerable, or put-upon compared to the extremely dangerous and extremely comfortable. They see, past all evidence, a kind of social kinship. Despite the vast economic strata of this country, Americans see themselves as "temporarily embarrassed millionaires." If they put Mitt Romney in the Oval Office, they won't be electing a stranger. No amount of lies he's told them will be as profound as the one they've told themselves.