Friday, October 5, 2012

Can’t ‘win’ for losing:
Romney and the post-debate debate

FORTY-EIGHT hours after holding serve in the first presidential debate, Mitt Romney is in a curious position: While much of the punditburo proclaimed Romney the winner in Wednesday’s debate on elements of style, Team Romney has had to release corrections to some of the candidate’s debate-night statements — the kind of backing & filling you expect from the loser.

And in his zeal to project an image of fiscal rectitude, Romney made an enemy of a beloved icon of childhood and early learning. As President Obama showed on Wednesday, there’s more than one way to “win” a debate. As Romney has shown in the days since, there’s more than one way to lose one.

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In the Walk It Back Dept., Romney campaign honcho Eric Fehrnstrom had to retract some of Romney’s debate-night comments on health care. Romney said that “preexisting conditions are covered under my plan. … In fact, I do have a plan that deals with people with pre-existing conditions. That’s part of my health care plan.”

Never mind the fact that Romney has no health-care plan (besides the DNA within the one that’s federal law). After the debate, Fehrnstrom told Evan McMorris-Santoro of Talking Points Memo that those who lack coverage now due to pre-existing conditions would need their states to enact their own laws barring insurance companies from discrimination. In short: “You’re on your own if Obamacare is repealed, which is what we want to do.”

Team Romney also walked back the candidate’s debate-night assertion that “about half” of the renewable energy companies backed by the Obama administration “have gone out of business.” Right after the debate, Politico responded to that hazy recollection with facts.

Politico reported that Romney “was referring only to the first seven green energy companies to get loan guarantees from one Energy Department program in 2009 and 2010. Three of them — including the solar company Solyndra — have since filed for bankruptcy, and ‘a fourth is on the verge,’ a Romney campaign aide said by email.

“Romney’s stats didn’t include the 19 companies that later received loan guarantees under the same program. None of them went bankrupt, and some are even thriving.

“The three bankruptcies amounted to 12 percent of the total 26 companies — far less than half. ... Romney was basing his statistics on just the first two years of the program.”

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ALL THAT’S bad enough. But Romney’s bigger gaffe on Wednesday night came when he began to outline some of the things he’d cut from the federal budget if elected.

“I’m sorry, Jim, I’m gonna stop the subsidy to PBS,” Romney said Wednesday night in Denver, speaking to Jim Lehrer, whose “NewsHour” program is in the PBS lineup. “I like PBS, I love Big Bird — I actually like you too — but I am not going to keep spending money on things [we have] to borrow money from China to pay for.”

The portion of the federal budget that PBS occupies is about 1/100 of 1 percent.

The backlash was immediate. Loren Steffy at the Houston Chronicle: “PBS gets $444 million in government subsidies, Amtrak gets $1.4 billion and the arts endowment gets $146 million. Taken as a whole, the programs come to slightly more than $2 billion, which is so insignificant against the $1.1 trillion deficit that it's not worth mentioning.” Steffy said that, “as a deficit reducer, it's like throwing a few grains of sand over the rim of the Grand Canyon and saying you're fighting erosion.”

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The Big Bird thing may be more disruptive than Team Romney thinks. It points to something that has nothing to do with numbers. It has to do with a smallness about the campaign, a baseline punitive aspect in its spirit, a fundamental meanness that’s hard to spin away. Add to that the actual numbers involved — the miniscule dollars-and-cents savings to the budget by defunding PBS — and you have the emergence of a new unforced error by the Romney campaign, one that matters to educators, early-childhood advocates, and mothers of young children across this country. Most of whom vote.

Peggy Noonan understands that. “Watch out for Big Bird,” she wrote Friday in the Wall Street Journal. “Putting the merits and realities of overall PBS funding aside, Mr. Romney here gave a small gift to the incumbent. Democrats will merrily exploit it. Big Birds will start showing up outside Romney rallies, holding up signs saying "Don't Kill Me!" Think this through.”

Except that the Big Bird flap is more than a “small gift” to Team Obama already. It’s a big, wet kiss from an unlikely place, and it complicates the centrist outreach to a wider constituency that Romney is trying to make (quite belatedly).

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WHETHER HE intended it or not, Romney’s threat to Big Bird deepens the meme of Romney as heartless plutocrat; it intensifies his economic villain’s aspect and revives the idea of Romney as a man who’d happily exchange what’s popular for what’s political — what’s effective for what’s efficient.

Adding that to Romney’s well-documented “47 percent” philosophical big reveal in Boca Raton makes Romney look irretrievably insensitive — just what he doesn’t need right now. Optically, it’s unspinnable: If Romney’d just mentioned PBS and let it go at that, he might have been OK. But the moment he mentioned Big Bird, he put a face on an otherwise nondescript organization taking government money. Romney made it personal, and in the process, he made a problem for himself. And maybe a big one.

Mary Elizabeth Williams got this in a recent piece for Salon: “It's one thing to try to go all folksy, man of the people, we won't make poor struggling Americans pay for your highfalutin’ Der Ring des Nibelungen marathons and your Frontline documentaries about homosexual artists, and it is quite another entirely to go after Big Bird.

“You. Do. Not. Screw. With. Big. Bird.... Going after Big Bird is like putting down baseball and rainbows and YouTube videos of otter pups. You just don't.”

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THE BETTING window is now open as to how long it takes Team Romney to walk back his assault on Big Bird, and by extension retract an attack on an organization serving the wider spiritual needs of the nation — and doing so at a relative bargain given the immensity of the rest of the budget.

If it happens (or more likely when), the Romney campaign will swallow another reality check, one the public already gets: It’s easier being green than it is being nothing at all.

Image credits: Romney: Pool from Oct. 3, 2012, debate. Talking Points memo logo: © 2012 TPM Media LLC. Big Bird poster: Unknown artist; image recalls the design style of Shepard Fairey. Tweets by their respective creators. 

UPDATE: Oct. 7 — Now it’s really getting personal. Diane Mapes, my sister in letters, posted to Facebook a picture of her impossibly adorable niece, Nora, who’s lodging her own protest against Mitt Romney’s plans to send Big Bird packing. When all’s said and done, when politicians have had their say and the budget wonks have spoken … this is what it comes down to. If Nora and the millions like her around this country have anything to say about it (and they do by way of their parents, who vote), Romney better find something else in the budget to cut. Back off, Mittens. You don't know who you're messing with.

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