The Master

[Re-posted from earlier today].

If you are a salesman and you see life and politics as about the sell, you adjust the sell every time to a different customer-base. Most people find this perfectly natural in a business setting, and it makes a lot of sense. It’s called marketing. You can and should sell the product to different audiences emphasizing which elements will appeal to each. 

But we often find the same strategy a little ethically dubious in politics and religion. Why? Because the product you are selling, in these contexts, is something in the future, not something we can see now, touch and examine and test. When you change both the pitch and the product for different audiences, and refuse to tell people what the final product may be, you need a lot of chutzpah and salesmanship to do the job. You need to have a facility for lying, while seeming utterly sincere. You need to have a face that can be re-set constantly to assess and sell to every door you knock on, especially if what you are selling does not, in normal reality, add up. Especially if the people you are selling to are in desperate straits, seemingly out of their control, in confusing times, where they are losing, and looking for hope and order and authority that will never crack or reveal weakness or lose its smile:

Now I’ve slept on it, that seems to me what happened last night. It was such a mesmerizing sales job and so relentless, checked at no point by Lehrer, and at no point checked by past reality or facts, Obama was left with two options: say this pleasant-seeming guy next to him is a shameless weather-vane and liar (wouldn’t work in a debate, is just against Obama’s character) or to try and remind the country of Romney’s actual policies as he has laid them out, and rebut the facts relentlessly. Obama tried the latter really, really badly, but the obvious retort to Romney’s smiling total pivot was: what on earth are you talking about? Who are you? Who will you be tomorrow?

But here’s the key political-policy point, it seems to me. In the last few days, Romney has said he will keep the DREAM executive order, keep all the good things in Obamacare, while getting rid of “Obamacare” (impossible); he will protect Medicare from Obama’s $700 billion “raid” and keep it as an option for seniors for ever, if they choose; and he will enact his version of Simpson-Bowles, because he is more moderate and bipartisan than Obama. Lehrer, who made Romney’s case for getting rid of PBS funding all by himself, did not see himself as a fact-checker – or even a moderator who could press a candidate to explain himself. He was simply a facilitator for the Romney sales job, which flummoxed Obama, in the worst public performance bar none of his campaign (I watched him give an economic policy speech once that was seriously coma-inducing).

More fatally for the president, the argument works. And it works precisely because of GOP extremism. If one party simply refuses to support anything a president of another party proposes and is primarily devoted to obstructionism on everything, then they can, if they are reckless enough both to create a credit crisis and prevent any further stimulus, succeed in essentially blackmailing the country by destroying its political system and then blaming it on the president. It’s cynical and corrupt and contemptible and unpatriotic – but lethal.

So in reality, we recall that Obama actually set up a Simpson-Bowles Grand Bargain, but Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan, vetoed it (as was his prerogative on the commission, unlike a real fiscal conservative, Tom Coburn) and made sure it never got to a Congressional vote. Obama, in the worst mistake of his presidency, decided then to bob and weave on this, rather than risk embracing it alone. That’s what gave Romney his opening last night. He simply lied and said Obama killed S-B and Romney will resurrect it, but in line with his plan. So the obvious policy mix for now – a short-term stimulus, a long-term bipartisan debt-reduction deal on S-B lines – can only be passed in this scenario by a Republican president so long as he has a Republican House. A Democratic president cannot even hope that in the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, a single person from the GOP will compromise on anything. The Senate Democrats, however, are not like the House Republicans. They compromise. And the fiscal crisis keeps worsening. So Romney last night stole the key centrist argument of the economic debate from Obama’s weak hand – the hand he refused to seize S-B with when he could have.

So in terms of debate prowess, it was a knock-out. But from the strategic political argument, it was a very canny and dramatic move to the center, if, of course, utterly without consistency or principle.

So the obvious response to this new Romney is to say: now you’ve gone into a debate and denied you are lowering taxes on the wealthy: prove it. Show us where the new revenues come from or at least which are on your chopping block (sorry, PBS won’t solve the problem). The end of all corporate welfare? The end of the mortgage deduction? The charity deduction? Where is the money coming from? More to the point, you have to provide much more savings in the tax code than Simpson-Bowles, if you are also going to take us to higher-than-Cold-War “defense” spending, as you have also promised. How will that not mean a net shift from the already struggling middle class to the super-rich?

If I were Obama, I’d focus now entirely on Romney’s new plan. What is it? How is it paid for? What is he hiding from us? And why?