Thursday, September 13, 2012

Correlation v. Causation: The Romney Campaign's Only Hope

In his convention speech, Obama said more about Mitt Romney’s foreign policy with a slight pause than Mitt Romney managed to say in a whole week of free advertising:

OBAMA: Now my opponents are … new to foreign policy.


Evidently this stuck in Romney’s craw. He’s now so trigger-happy to attack the President on foreign policy that he couldn’t hold his wad until the 9/11 moment of silence was over. Or until he knew what had actually happened in Libya.

Slate’s John Dickerson has been a strenuous apologist for Romney lately and the apology runs something like this: sure Romney got the Libya timeline wrong. But we should respect the “larger truth” of his critique. The Arab Spring saw a handful of countries begin the democratic overthrow of their longstanding dictators. In Romney’s view, this rash of democracy happened because Obama has “apologized” for America. In the absence of relevant questioning, one is left to suppose Romney preferred the dictators. Certainly Sarah Palin does, as evidenced by her ever-classy remark, “How’s the Arab Spring working for you now?” The “larger truth” that Dickerson and others are trying to sustain is this: Obama may not have apologized for America after the embassy attacks, but we should seriously consider that his non-existent apology tour caused the attacks.

By my count, Romney’s latest snipe is the third in a string of desperate associations. First, we had the welfare-to-work attack. Sure, the apologists say, it was factually wrong from start to finish. But come on! Black man want welfare money. That’s a larger truth! Second, the Obama-wants-to-take-God-off-our-money attack. Sure, the apologists say, Obama never did that and actually intervened at the convention to restore God language to the platform. But come on! Socialist Obama hates Jesus. That’s a larger truth! And now, the embassy “apology.” Sure, we’re told one more time, Obama did no such thing. But …

Come on. Each of these attacks has one thing in common besides their outright falsity: they are flimsy associations. Impressions. Correlations in place of causation. You may have noticed that ice cream consumption and murder both spike in the summer. Well, according to Romney we must fight crime … by prosecuting Ben & Jerry. I know, I know. He never said that. But consider the larger truth.

Then there's the biggest association Romney needs to make, the one central to this election: the economy isn’t good, so ditch the guy in office. Snapshot A: the current economy. Snapshot B: the current president. Set your Skinner Box to “stun,” repeat A and B with hundreds of millions of dollars in funding, and await your victory.

This is the same shallow trendsmithing that gets George F. Will and Charles Krauthammer out of bed in the morning. Perhaps you’ve heard this breathless warning from Will already:

"If Barack Obama wins a second term, this will be the first time there have been three consecutive two-term presidencies since Jefferson, Madison and Monroe between 1801 and 1825."

Holy shit, that’s right! After Bush squeaked his way into one term and scared his way into a second – a string of catastrophes most Americans would gladly fix if they had the chance -- it’s only fair that we should fire Obama because, you know … Monroe. What on earth is the point? And why should Romney get the crown instead? This is what goes for historical analysis now. Simply elide all sense of history – of one event causing another – and stick to the slippery cosmetics of impression-making.

Krauthammer works even harder to forge such impressions. So hard, in fact, that the overweening impression one gets from each of his columns is the sad spectacle of a former Mondale aide using every ounce of his intelligence to advance the most cynical and stupid thesis he can muster. Here he is on Obamacare:

"What did he suggest to address the plague of defensive medicine that a Massachusetts Medical Society study showed leads to about 25 percent of doctor referrals, tests and procedures being done for no medical reason? A few ridiculously insignificant demonstration projects amounting to one-half of one-hundredth of 1 percent of the cost of his health-care bill."

Damn, sounds pretty bad! Except tort reform is a matter of law, not resources.  Which is why that reform is in the Act, not the price tag. But that doesn’t stop C-Kraut from comparing the cost of the bill’s premium subsidies with the cost of … the paper it takes to print better tort law.

Mitt Romney ran in one of the silliest primary fields in living memory and still never managed to crack 25% of his own party’s vote. Time and again, he offers a haircut in place of an argument. Because when that fails, you can always drown a Santorum or Gingrich in an avalanche of negative ads. He’s really hopes to do the same against Obama, using whatever easy impression comes to hand. Welfare! Embassy! Misplaced Antecedent to the Word “That”! After all, you can’t make Obama’s “you didn’t build that” quote work without a jagged cut in the middle of the footage. No matter! The larger truth transcends the omission of truth.  The impression is what counts. And so we had to watch the RNC convention pin its whole case … on a jump cut.

True to its instincts, the media will enable any development, no matter how frivolous, so long as it keeps the conflict amplified and the election close. This is their biggest quadrennial ratings draw, after all, so what good would it do to evaluate the candidates on their stated intentions and larger record? Anytime we get that kind of analysis, the polls only tilt further towards Obama and reiterate that he can and should proceed with a final four years as President. But there’s nothing new in that news. So if Romney wants to make another schoolyard taunt, in escalating magnitudes of mendacity, reporters and the general commentariat are all too happy to let him.

Recall the cynicism that attended every reaction to the American Jobs Act. Romney wants to spend $5 trillion on rich people again, with the promise that this time -- this time -- it will really work.  All you need is the impression and amnesia. Obama wants to spend one-tenth of that putting 2 million people back to work immediately. In one stroke, we could drop unemployment to 6% and boost GDP by two points, to boot. And the commentary ran like this, “Sure Obama’s plan is good, inexpensive, and economically smart. But Republicans in Congress will never allow it, so mark it down as another failure for Obama.” This same attitude now attends predictions about the next four years. “Sure, Obama would have a mandate for a grand bargain in his second term, but Republicans in Congress will still obstruct him, so we may as well give them the keys instead.”

With cause and effect restored, the simple fact is this: Obama can broker a far better deal with his veto pen than Romney can advance with the rabid caucus of Boehner and Cantor at his side. Starting next year, those same Congressional Republicans will finally have to go back to worrying about their jobs (and ours) instead of the president’s. We should deliver them from that which so distracts them, by keeping Obama on the case.

A final word for the biggest and most hilarious impression of the lot -- that Obama is Carter and Romney is Reagan.

I mean, my god! Look at the R’s in their names! And also did you notice that Romney’s logo is a not-so-subtle anagram for R-MONEY?

Say what you will about the guy ... he’s got the dyslexic vote locked up.

Back to cause and effect: Jimmy Carter inherited a bad scene and made it worse. Obama inherited a catastrophic scene and made it better. Meanwhile, Ronald Reagan was a charismatic man harvesting a nascent political movement that he had shepherded for decades. He was also riding a larger sea change against a half-century of dominant liberalism. By contrast, Mitt Romney is at best a walking word cloud. And the sea simply ain’t changing in his direction. Not on immigration. Not on gay rights, women’s rights or progressive taxation. Like each of his attacks so far, brute shallowness defines both the man and his cause. Nevertheless, for the press in general and Romney in particular, it’s much easier to show history repeating through a sequence of familiar impressions than it is to show history unfolding according to the very contingencies they’re supposed to be reporting in the first place.

In an election where so much depends on amnesia, we do well to remember that this is the same press and the same party that gave us the fabulous impression -- excuse me, the “larger truth” -- that Saddam Hussein ordered the 9/11 attacks.

Snapshot A. Snapshot B.

Hop in the Skinner Box, kids, and brace for many more shocks to come.

Romney may have enough cash and credulity behind him to wage a campaign on nothing more than special effects.

But Barack Obama actually has a cause.