Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Proteus Rex (October 24, 2012)

Late Monday night, as Team CNN waited breathlessly for the results of their insta-poll, each commentator took pains to note that Barack Obama had probably won, “on points.”
Winning “on points” appeared to be some kind of code for grudgingly conceding that Barack Obama actually knew more than Mitt Romney and had a clearly superior grasp of foreign policy, but that other, more mysterious Ouija board forces were at work last night that were whispering that Romney actually did more for his candidacy.
They seemed to be realizing that Mitt Romney is inventing a new and highly functional paradigm for running for President of the United States in 21st Century America.
This new paradigm is based on the notion that the winning strategy is just to say the thing – and be the person – that is suited to the immediate time, place, and situation. That consistency over time – of beliefs, conviction, and now, even personality – is needlessly limiting in a 7/24/365 world that is relentlessly focused on the real-time "now.” 
In last night’s final major “now” moment of the campaign, Mitt Romney embraced a seemingly entirely new belief system centered on “world peace,” a lovely notion to be sure but one that had never once been mentioned in the previous six years of his quest for the presidency. More significantly, however, he also deployed a fully-reconfigured personality; a new Mitt-self designed to convey the stature, contemplative nature, and even-demeanor necessary for the man who has the power to press the button.
Proteus, from Greek mythology, had the unique gift of being able to constantly change form in order to survive and prevail in any given situation. Should Mitt Romney emerge triumphant on November 6, we must acknowledge the ascension of a new political being. Call him King Mitt, Proteus Rex.
Between Iraq and a Hard Place
Perhaps the single best question that has been asked of any of the candidates this past six weeks was the one posed to Mitt Romney by one of the many “binders” at the Hofstra debate.  Unhappy with the past four years, but understandably even more worried about a return to a policies of the most recent Republican administration, she asked Romney to itemize the differences between him and George Dub’ya, old number 43, the original decider of bad decisions.
The legacy of George Bush the Second hangs over the Republican party like a pungent fart at a cocktail party; repulsive, lasting, and impossible to ignore, yet it is still considered the ultimate in bad form to publicly blame the responsible party. 
So it is that Mitt Romney entered the final debate for the Presidency of the United States wedged between Iraq and a hard place: on the one hand needing to communicate a wide gulf between himself and the war mongering Bush-Cheney flavor of republicanism, while simultaneously needing to create the impression of clear divide between himself and the current president. This is a divide that, of course, does not really exist.
Too, Mitt went into Monday night with a huge “binder gap” problem. Mitt’s pollsters told him that his anger, testosterone, and disrespect might be thwarting his ability to increase his acceptability to all those binders full of women.
Cleverly, Romney realized that he could address both of these substantial problems by simply becoming a completely different person.  He would come to the final debate as gentle Mitt; the right man to lead a country seeking only world peace, the modern man to leading the party for whom war is only the last, last possible recourse; the learned man who seeks dialog with middle east scholars, wisely observing that “we can’t kill our way out of this problem.”
Mitt, who now has more releases than Microsoft Windows, gave good gravitas by agreeing wherever possible with actions taken by the President that he found acceptable; though always casually concluding that he would have acted sooner, more comprehensively, or more decisively.
Speaking with a newly minted and elegantly condescending patrician romniscience, Mitt dismissively  informed Barack Obama what the leaders of Middle Eastern states were thinking while Obama visited their countries.  (Note to fact checkers: what the hell are you going to do with that?).  Keeping in style with his substance-challenged tax plan, Romney slid across the surface of Middle East complexity by telling us what he planned to do but never how he intended to do it.
Proteus: the Original Moving Target.
The fact that a new Mitt Romney shows up at every debate is making Barack Obama crazy. There were times when Obama edged toward exasperation with the large glob of mercury behind the other podium. Romney was impossible to pin down, utterly unwilling to provide details, and lobbing fabrications about “apology tours” with casual aplomb.
Obama ticked off an impressive list of achievements, including the clever observation that his strategy of global coalition building had allowed us to accomplish more in Libya in two weeks than Republicans had achieved in years and billions in Iraq. He laid out a clear rationale for not interceding in Syria. And, of course, he invoked the mantra of his foreign policy success: Bin Laden, Done That.
Obama picked up where he left off in debate number two, slamming back, challenging assertions, and demonstrating a superior command of fact.
And yet Obama seemed to sense that Protean man had morphed fully into an outsized nerf ball, absorbing punches and readily reassuming his original shape without apparent damage.
Even Obama’s toughest soundbyte echoed hollowly in Mitt’s house of mirrors. Obama had been particularly effective when he ridiculed Romney’s simplistic calculation of naval might, skewering the tally of reduced warships by noting that “we also have fewer horses and bayonets.” Yet even at that powerful moment, you could sense Romney happily envisioning a new tv spot to run in Newport News, Virginia; a hugely important swing state that probably counts warships three times a day.
And you began to wonder whether Proteus actually had the Machiavellian genius to plant that trap. Noooo. Did he???
Obama won. I think.
There was a broad-based consensus that Obama actually won the debate. CNN had it 48-40 for the President. Tellingly, Ari Fleisher gamely argued that the issue wasn’t who won the debate, but who had positioned himself to win the election. 
Ari neatly teed up David Gergen, whose M.O. is to discount the immediate opinion surveys in favor of his own aristocratic assertion of the bigger implications. Gergen chose to make his lead headline that Romney had conveyed heft, depth, and presidential demeanor.
I would like to think that when the dust settles, a few days from now, the Republican base will begin to express frustration that Romney’s “Peace, Love, and Understanding World Tour” simply meant that Mitt lost both the second and the third debate. They cannot be happy about that fact… and there is actually enough time for any lingering Romney momentum to dry up, dissipate, and even reverse.
Unless, that is, that Mitt has still one more release up his sleeve, one more version, one more person who people want him to be. Can he pull it off by November 6?
Can he pluck it down?
I can add colours to the chameleon,
Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,
And set the murderous Machiavel to school.
Can I do this, and cannot get a crown?
Tut, were it farther off, I'll pluck it down.

--William Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part B, Act III, Scene 2


  1. You hit the nail on the head here, Steve. And you made me laugh too, right out loud at times. Thanks for writing these debate recaps ... I hope we hear more from you.

  2. Steve,
    I just got out of the elevator with Will McAvoy, Chris Matthews, and Bill Greider. "Proteus and Shakespeare all as part of the most coherent statement yet on any debate?" said McAvoy. "I give up. I'm going to get job doing color spost for the Series, and then maybe the weather for the Today Show," said Matthews.

    Tom, how about a weather spot for Obameter?


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