Monday, September 17, 2012

Nathan Explains Romney...Maybe...

By now you've likely heard all about the Super Secret Awful Romney Video, uncovered by Mother Jones and covered by basically everyone from the Washington Post to Drudge.*

No doubt it will be as politically significant in the long run as the Super Secret Awful Obama Video, which is to say hardly at all, but in the meantime there something Romney said that struck me as wrong. And the funny thing is, even my most liberal readers might think he was right about this one.

Here's what he said: "And there are, there are, there are—for instance, this president won because of hope and change."

That's a lot of "there are"s, but never you mind that.

The oft-repeated line is that Obama won the election because he represented something new, something different — a man full of hope and promise that things — politics — were going to change. One might even say it was going to be a new deal, morning in America, that little girls could once again pick daisies without fear of nuclear holocaust.**

Please. Remember what happened right around the time of the conventions in 2008? That's right: the economy was right in the middle of tanking in a major, thank-heavens-I-got-an-academic-job kind of way. Recall your Clinton: "It's the economy, stupid."

Sure, McCain's haphazard campaign didn't help, and yes, hope and change fired up the base and may have had some impact on swing voters — as in "let's try a change and hope for something better." Political scientists have debated how big a deal this and what form it takes, but the core idea is clear: when the economy as a whole is bad, incumbent political parties better watch out.

Will the real Mitt Romney please stand up?
Mother Jones was quick to argue that this was the real, sinister Romney we were seeing in a blurry video shot some time earlier this year — just like conservatives argued it was the real Obama who made the now-kinda-famous "guns and religion" remark. The political (in)significance of these two events aside, were these the real Romney and Obama?

I won't belabor the point, but it struck me that maybe this wasn't Romney being real. Instead, maybe what he was doing, and maybe what Obama was doing, was tailoring his message. Out in public, candidates can't be quite so direct — in fact, recent work suggests they may have an incentive to be ambiguous*** — but with a small group of people, they can basically say whatever they want, or more to the point, whatever that group of people wants to hear. Romney's audience in the video was a group of wealthy white conservatives. Maybe all Romney was doing, really, was pandering — not to the general public, but pandering nonetheless.

Comments welcome.

*I had to check, but yes, he's still around.
**No kids, hope and change — and fear — are not new themes. Did you really think they were?
***Steve Callender and Catherine Wilson did the original theoretical work, and Mike Tomz and Rob Van Houweling were the first to look into it experimentally.