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.