Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Romney, Russia, and Racism Revisited

Like Yakov Smirnoff, Mitt Romney is having a Moment, both of which have been brought about by Vladimir Putin's treatment of Ukraine as a nation-sized New England Patriots Super Bowl ring. Coincidentally, my old friend Caleb Howe drew me into a Twitter fight with my longtime sparring frenemy (or enemiend, if you prefer) Oliver Willis over another blast from the Romney past. (Mitt Romney was the Republican nominee for president in 2012.)

On Russia, Romney (and assorted wingnuts) have been crowing about how right Mitt Romney was when he called Russia our #1 "geopolitical foe, which President Obama used to fuel this sick burn during the 3rd presidential debate. Here's where some liberals, the ├╝ber-"fair-minded" variety, like to give Romney a little bit of credit for context. Fuck that, but while the quote was every bit as wrong and revealing as it was made out to be, I will concede that it was misused against Romney. The President, for one, accused Romney of calling Russia our greatest "threat," rather than foe, and failed to point out that Romney also said, in the same interview, that "a nuclear Iran" was the world's greatest threat.

This distinction, though, misses the point of why Romney was wrong. You can be right about 9 things, and the 10th thing can render you completely wrong, like if you name the New York Yankees starting lineup, then call them football players. Here's what Romney was right about:
"They (Russia) fight every cause for the world's worst actors." "when these - these terrible actors pursue their course in the world and we go to the United Nations looking for ways to stop them, when - when Assad, for instance, is murdering his own people, we go - we go to the United Nations, and who is it that always stands up for the world's worst actors? It is always Russia, typically with China alongside."
These things are true, and they were true then. Russia is a truly royal pain in the ass, an obstacle to progress on many issues in the world. Where Romney was wrong was in characterizing them as a "foe" and an "enemy" because of it. In between Romney's remarks and the Crimea invasion, President Obama and our other allies have managed to move the needle on Russian intransigence regarding the very issues Romney cited; namely, Syria and Iran. That was not accomplished by treating Russia as an enemy or a foe, but as a reluctant, pain in the ass quasi-ally.

So, at a time when we were trying to secure Russian cooperation on a wide range of issues (for which we still need them), it didn't seem wise to elect a guy who was running around calling them our enemy, or having his advisers still calling them the Soviet Union. If the mockery was overly-broad, it was still well-earned.

Now, on the Romney racism tip, I took a whole lot of shit in 2012 for pointing out that Romney's "Obama Isn't Working" campaign was evocative of a particular racial stereotype, or as reading-challenged wingers put it, "Lefty Mediaite Blogger: Mitt Romney’s 'Obama Isn’t Working' Banner Is Racist…"

It was an observation that was shared by Goldie Taylor, and in much stronger terms, by Van Jones. Still, because it lacked the overtness required to make it a safe thing for people to call out, not many people were prepared to do so.

In retrospect, I was far too kind to the Romney campaign, as their subsequent climb up the RAF™ Scale demonstrates, but at the time, I gave them the benefit of the doubt that this was mere insensitivity, or at worst, a happy, deniable accident.

I revisit it now because the episode became the subject of a Twitter fight that Caleb Howe started yesterday, then promptly ejected himself from, in which Oliver Willis characterized my assessment of the slogan as "derp."

You can read the entire discussion here, which includes tweets from Goldie, and from Chauncey Devega, who writes the "We Are Respectable Negroes" blog. The reason I bring this up, though, is because until yesterday, I hadn't seen Chauncey's excellent analysis of the "Obama Isn't Working" campaign, which you should also read in full. Seriously, go do that now.

Although amplifying Chauncey's razor-sharp insights is reason enough, the reason I'm writing this is because he made me wonder if, had I read his piece at the time, would I still have bothered, because he correctly predicted the result (emphasis mine):

Mitt Romney's "Obama Isn't Working" campaign is a racial smart bomb aimed at white Independents (and other right-leaning fence-sitters). Ultimately, Mitt Romney is vulnerable on many issues such as his gangster capitalist roots, insincerity, aloofness, religion, the Tea Party GOP's failed economic policies and obstructionist behavior. Romney's flank is also exposed because he is the nominee for a political party that is possessed by Culture Warriors whose views are outside of the American mainstream. These are weaknesses to be exploited.

However, I would suggest that folks not sally forth and engage Romney regarding the racial invective present in his "Obama Isn't Working" campaign theme. To do so, would be to fight on Romney's chosen terrain. Nor would such an engagement offer up many political gains. The cause would be noble; the battle would still be lost.

Of course, Chauncey's warning came about a month too late for me. I took more shit over that piece than a kleptomaniac at the George W. Bush Presidential Library Gift Shop. At the time, I was super-pissed that none of the very prominent liberals who agreed with me in private were willing to call it out.

But even knowing all of that, I'd do it again, and I'd do it stronger, because this is where the mostly-vacant exercise of media criticism has real value. Partisans are mostly interested in using stuff like this to score points, so if a conservative can say "See? The liberal media calls everything racist," it's useful to them, and conversely, if a liberal can't definitely say something is racist, if they can't get the points, then why bother?

To illustrate the latter point, the time I got the second-most shit over an article was my defense of Rick Santorum over his "blah people" comment. There were points to be scored if Santorum said "black people," and no incentive to give the points back.

The real mission, though, isn't to score points, but to get the media to tell the truth, and to hopefully provide a disincentive for this shit. If campaigns know they're going to be called out for this stuff, then maybe they'll think twice next time. As Cenk Uygur pointed out, even if this wasn't intentional, maybe next time, the campaign will employ someone with ears made of something other than tin.

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