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‘What’s my motivation?”
This clichéd question is a staple of the acting profession. “What drove me to hobble James Caan?” Kathy Bates surely asked about her character in Misery. “How come I eat everybody?” is a good question for Anthony Hopkins to ask about Hannibal Lecter. And these questions have answers: The shut-in woman wants Caan all to herself; Hannibal Lecter apparently had a rough childhood.
That’s all fine for thespians, but politics is different. Don’t tell that to the GOP, though. Every few years — pretty much with every election — I write a column on one of my biggest peeves with Republicans: They read their stage directions, they explain their motives. And it drives me crazy.
George H. W. Bush remains the poster boy for this malady. In 1991, after David Duke became the Republican candidate for governor of Louisiana, then-President Bush went to the cameras and said, “We have — I have — want to be positioned in that I could not possibly support David Duke because of the racism and because of the very recent statements that are very troubling in terms of bigotry and all of this.” And of course there was the classic: “Message: I care.”
Bob Dole, who petulantly told conservatives, “If that’s what you want, I’ll be another Ronald Reagan,” turned his entire 1996 bid into an open debate over the question: “Should I go negative?” His advisers often told the press that Dole’s goal was to “act presidential.”
There are plenty of other examples. It’s a wonder John McCain’s campaign plane could ever take off, weighted down as it was with the ballast of blue-blazered bozos who liked to read their playbook aloud to the gang from Newsweek, Time, and MSNBC. And remember Mitch McConnell telling everyone his top priority was to defeat Obama? You can defend the sentiment and the strategy, but he didn’t need to air his internal monologue like that.
But the Romney campaign is shaping up to be something special. It seems to be part of their strategy never to miss a chance to tell the press why they’re doing what they’re doing. His adviser Eric Fehrnstrom, to take an infamous example, waved away objections to Romney’s move to the right during the primaries by saying that in the general election, the campaign could erase Romney’s primary performance and remake it, as though shaking an Etch A Sketch. And of late, the campaign seems to be run entirely by “unnamed sources” obsessed with telling everything and showing nothing. Recently, one of them said, “This is an economy election and if he gets off on foreign policy or war policy, he’s playing on the president’s turf.”
Now, I don’t think that’s correct, but even if it were, why on earth would they say it? The Romney campaign is so careful not to distract the voters with actual ideas and arguments — or, heaven forbid, ideology — that it seems at times determined to run on stage directions alone.
There is a defense to be made of this infuriating tendency: The Right doesn’t take politics as seriously as the Left. For the Left, politics is life. For the Right, or at least the old Bush-Nixon wing of the GOP, politics is a hobby at worst and a call to service at best. George H. W. Bush won in 1988 by dancing for the rubes, but once in office, he governed as the establishment stalwart he was. In 1992, he and his advisers couldn’t keep the act up. Politics, for him, was the price you pay for the privilege of governing.
But you still have to win. What worries me about Mitt Romney is that while he seems to want to run like the ’88 Bush, he’s filled his campaign with strategists who are so eager to please and so devoid of a governing philosophy that they make the ’92 Bush look like Barry Goldwater.
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