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    Mirror, Mirror


    Just to be clear: this essay isn’t about President Obama or Governor Romney. It isn’t about what they said or didn’t say, what they did or didn’t do.  It’s about you and me, and our friends and our spouses and our companions.  It’s about the breadcrumbs we choose to follow or not follow, the forests we enter or avoid, the good we invite or ignore.

    It’s about stories. The one’s we tell ourselves and the ones we allow ourselves to be told, some of them all too grim.


    One of the narratives that has recently bored its way into the political psyche is the one about specifics—and the want of them from candidate Romney.  The governor has been regularly assaulted on this point, both as he stumps across the swing states and as he debates President Obama.  Just recently, a sarcastic meme emerged that takes you to a page on which a large button sits. “Get the Details” on Romney’s plan it cajoles, encouraging you to click a big red button.  The joke, though, is that every time you click the button it just moves away from you…

    Pundits from both parties have pushed the point about Romney’s plans lacking detail; here’s a quick snippet from a Face the Nation broadcast in which Rich Lowry of the National Review suggests that Romney has a “great allergy to specifics:”

    That was from back in April, right around the time Rick Santorum dropped out of the race, effectively ceding the nomination to the former Massachusetts governor.  From then until now, the narrative persists. In this clip from the most recent debate at Hofstra University, President Obama calls out Romney, accusing him of having only a single specific plan: eliminating BigBird and Planned Parenthood:

    But we Americans seem to have short memories.  When Barack Obama was campaigning in 2008, his stump speech was remarkably shy of details.  He spoke about Dr. King’s “fierce urgency of now,” and reminded us that change in America “does not happen from the top down,” but from the “bottom up,” and that he wants to “go and tell the lobbyists that their days of setting the agenda in Washington are over.” A detailed look at then-candidate Obama’s standard oration quickly reveals a complete absence of any specifics.

    Well, fine, you might say.  But that was still pretty early in the primary season.  Apart from the 107% of New Hampshire-ites who consider themselves political junkies, nobody was paying all that much attention.  Nobody gets specific that early in the game. 

    Okay. Fair enough.  I’m sure that his policy wonks were hard at work, and I accept that Obama was far more interested in out-maneuvering the Hillary contingent than he was in educating the electorate.  But it’s not like things got much more specific as time went on.

    Here’s the transcript of the first McCain-Obama debate.  Again, there isn't much specificity on Obama's part, though he does say the following in regard to improving the economy:

    What I do is I close corporate loopholes, stop providing tax cuts to corporations that are shipping jobs overseas so that we're giving tax breaks to companies that are investing here in the United States. I make sure that we have a health care system that allows for everyone to have basic coverage. I think those are pretty important priorities. And I pay for every dime of it.

    He doesn’t say how, but he does spends a fair bit of time attacking the Bush administration, mentioning George W.’s failed policies ten different times.

    If we compare the two cycles we can see the true narrative emerge: Opposition party challengers attack the record of the previous administration (as both Obama did then and Romney does now) while offering little in the way of their own plans. They run against rather than run for. In this respect, Romney is reading from the script, doing precisely what Barack Obama did four years ago.

    But those breadcrumbs don’t lead to where many of us want to go.  Those breadcrumbs would lead us on a path that questions our assumptions, that makes us take a look at ourselves, at how and why we accept such facile conversation from those who would but lead us.  Instead, we stay in our respective comfort zones, believing what we want to believe.  This leads me to the following conclusion: Either (a) the guy we like can’t ever do anything wrong, and the guy we don’t like can’t ever do anything right, or (b) an inordinately large chunk of us are pretty damned closed-minded.

    I’m going with (b).


    What’s more difficult to answer is the why.  Why do we insist on hearing only our own stories while refusing to listen to others?  Why do we sit, chilled, in the dark, lighting match after match, praying for light and warmth? Is it perhaps because of the way these tales are told, in snippets and screams, to frighten us? Is it perhaps because, though we don’t like the darkness of the forest we’ve wandered into, it’s become so familiar that we no longer even realize we’re in it?

    We should all try just one simple thing: listening—really listening—to someone else’s story.  Listen to the idea that Governor Romney might really care about our country. Listen to the idea that President Obama made a mistake about Libya.  Or, if you’re of a mind, flip it all around. Listen to the idea that Governor Romney might actually hurt the middle class, or that President Obama has turned the economy around. 

    If each of us were willing—just a little bit—to hear those other stories, perhaps our conversations would be more civil, more productive.  Perhaps we’d find a new path to walk, new breadcrumbs to follow.


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    Reader Comments (3)

    Very well written and a good argument.

    My only retort would be to look at the record of both men, at the time of when they were in the challengers position, as Romney is now. Look at what their public positions have been, what they have said in public etc. I think what you will find is that Romney has a certain reputation for taking the mirror (to borrow your term) opposite position on every topic or subject or issue under the sun. I don't think there is one thing that he has remained principled on (except for not showing us his taxes). Not one.

    And so you fold that into his not getting specific about a crucial thing, contrast that with his getting overly specific about everything and always changing his position, and you get a human equivalent of that "Get the details" button that is always moving away when you try to pin him down.

    While the equivalency you've set up here is certainly true about very narrow, siloed topics (like specifics on how he will get things rolling again), when taken in the full rainbow of who a person is, it is clear that Gov. Romney is a slick salesman who will tell you anything you want to hear, but will leaving you hanging on the details of things you HAVE to here.

    And then there is the Fox news bubble that is like heroin to the right. According to them, all other news outlets are wrong, and people need only open their eyes (a phrase they use a lot) to "see the truth".

    Closed minded indeed. There is no equivalency here. One side is closed off from reality. The other side has perhaps hardened their views in response, but can you blame them?

    October 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPeter

    These are specifics:
    1) What I do is I close corporate loopholes
    2) Stop providing tax cuts to corporations that are shipping jobs overseas so that we're giving tax breaks to companies that are investing here in the United States.
    3) I make sure that we have a health care system that allows for everyone to have basic coverage.

    "Let Congress work out the details" is not a specific.

    October 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

    I want to know specifics from Romney because he is promising to increase defense spending, not cut Social Security and Medicare (paid with from their own dedicated taxes so not relevant to deficit reduction anyway), cut taxes, balance the budget/reduce the deficit (am I right, do I recall him saying wipe it out?) and grow the economy at 4% per year. Any person who doesn't want to know some details on how he's going to pull off this political economic miracle has either decided not to vote for him or is blindly voting Republican (or anybody but Obama) no matter what.

    Perhaps more importantly, I want to know something about the man's character. None of us can guess all the issues and problems the next President will face during his term. It is a safe bet that there will be important issues and problems that aren't even on the radar screen yet. So specifics are irrelevant here. But the character of the man who will deal with those unknowns is.

    Romney's public statements are too often mushy (devoid of specifics) or worse diametrically opposed -- even day-over-day. Every moderated statement is followed by a contradictory "severely conservative" one on exactly the exact topic. Worse, his "misstatements" are "corrected" by campaign staff in a way that makes it sound to me that his staff has overruled him. Asking for details is a way of seeking some sort of clarity on who he really is, what he really believes in and stands for. Without that we're left to figure out if we want to turn over addressing the unknowns to someone who appears to be no better that a snake oil salesman -- who will do and say anything to close the sale. And then, when confronted with the actual work, leave it to Congress or his staff or who knows who, to sort out the details. This may be OK in the Executive Partner at Bain Capitol, but it's not OK in the leader of the "Free World."

    October 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAlan

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