Cohn & Kirn Debate the “Real Romney”

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SEPTEMBER 19, 2012

Cohn & Kirn Debate the “Real Romney”

In a new feature, Jonathan Cohn, TNR’s longtime policy wonk, and Walter Kirn, a novelist covering his first presidential campaign, debate the week’s big political stories via Google chat. This week, they discuss whether we’ve finally seen the “real Romney;” why the rich are no smarter than anyone else; and Bill Kristol’s political maneuvers.   

Jonathan Cohn

why don't you start- i gather you have a counterintuitive take on the 47 percent fiasco

actually, don’t we need a name for this? 47-percent-gate doesn't work. moochergate maybe?

but i'll let you go first

walter kirn

I think Romney has stumbled into authenticity. he's humanized himself despite himself. that's the short answer. i watch the whole 'secret' tape and I think: if this were a guerrilla exercise in capturing the nation's attention for a long speech they wouldn't pay any attention to otherwise, how could it have worked any better?

and yes, the guy -- in his element, among rich republicans in a fancy dining room -- finally seems genuine in a way he just doesn't addressing the unwashed at midwestern state fairs.

the whole thing reminds me of how faded movie and tv stars reinvigorate their careers with 'stolen' sex tapes. not to say this document isn't for real. just to say it works in a way i would never have anticipated.

to campaign entirely in gaffes is a brilliant postmodern political strategy. i'm more than half serious.

i watched the full tape today with the rapt attention i usually reserve for dirty movies and shark week documentaries.

the 'under a vase' POV of the hidden camera made the meeting seem Masonic and intriguing in a way that was spellbinding.

Jonathan Cohn

I believe you're more than half serious. And I think you are more than half right. I'm not sure a "real Romney" exists. But, if it does, it's the guy in that tape. He said later that his words were not artful but -- and I'm not the first to observe this -- he seemed extremely artful to me. As you say, he seemed genuine in a way that he rarely has during the campaign. And that's because, as you note, he's not very comfortable campaigning.

In fact, I don't think he's very comfortable around people generally. This was one rap on him while he was governor of Massachusetts -- he was terrible at the backslapping and gladhandling. (Or is it gladhanding? I never get that cliche right.) 

walter kirn

gladhanding. but i like gladhandling better.

Jonathan Cohn

The funny thing is, he had a lot of experience dealing with total strangers when he was a Mormon missionary in France, during the late 1960s. But I'm not sure he was very good at it.

Anyhow, I agree that the tape offers us more insight into Romney's personality than most of what we've seen before. The trouble is, it's not a very appealing person. It's a caricature of a caricature of a plutocratic snob running for president. I'm genuinely curious to see how SNL handles this, because I'm not sure how you parody something that is parody.

walter kirn

you've made my point for me with that last observation. mitt has placed himself beyond parody suddenly.

also, just to see the man comfortable and spontaneous among fellow humanoids is riveting at this point.

Jonathan Cohn

Yes, you can't parody this. But I can't imagine it's good politics, particularly since it lines up pretty well with his agenda. This is a guy who has proposed massive cuts to government programs, which is precisely what you'd expect from somebody who thinks people on government programs are moochers.

So we have a moment of Romney authenticity. And it's authentically unappealing.

walter kirn

watching him actually be a snob is somehow more charming to me than knowing he is one and watching him ineptly hide it. i mean, come on: all the tape really does is show Republicans being Republicans. the shock over the spectacle in the media is being hugely overplayed.

Jonathan Cohn

True! The amazing thing about this controversy is that anybody would be surprised to hear Romney say this. It's conventional wisdom on the right. I've certainly heard Paul Ryan say things like this and I'm pretty sure I've heard Romney say things like this, too, though i need to check that. But...

Jonathan Cohn

I suppose you could argue Romney's phrasing was particularly stark -- and it has that whole "secret sex video" feel to it, as you so elegantly put it (although, Walter, I really didn't need that mental image). But it's really nothing we haven't seen or heard before. In fact, my hope is that this gets people to stop and think about what the right has been talking about all these years when they attack government. But now I'm scooping the blog item I'm about to write -- and I don't want to make the powers that be at TNR unhappy.

walter kirn

What was your favorite bit on the tape? i'll tell you mine. the guy who asks mitt if, when he's president, he'll stop minting pennies (which aren't cost effective) and order that all prices be rounded to the nearest nickel. that's just the kind of clever-banal-crackpot request that idiotic big donors wanting to seem clever make at those sort of high-dollar gatherings. getting to see such exchanges raw and unedited is a real public service. it shows us that behind the scenes the bigwigs are truly pinheads.

To me the tape should be called The Protocols of the Elders of Bar Harbor

Jonathan Cohn

I confess I haven't watched the whole thing yet -- I'm still catching up on yesterday's coverage. (Timing of the Jewish holidays were particularly unhelpful this year.) But I’m not surprised to hear you say that. My exposure to the high roller crowd in politics is limited, but what I've seen has not impressed me. Their sense of policy and politics is usually simplistic and occasionally wackadoodle. But, you know, they have a lot of money and the politicians need it, so the pols and their advisers act like they are taking these donors seriously.

Of course, sometimes the politicians are pretty simple-minded too.

walter kirn

and the Dems should remember, before they get too gleeful, that Obama's own unscripted taped remarks about people 'clinging' to guns and religion only made him seem honest to his base and didn't do much to alienate his non-base.

Jonathan Cohn

Which brings me back to Romney, who is not simple-minded. His analytical skills are superb, at least based on what I've heard and read. And I think that's the other "real" Romney -- the guy who is actually good at collecting data, evaluating it, and solving problems. I think the best of what we saw of him in Massachusetts, when he was governor, reflected that side of his personality. Folks who worked with him on the health care law told me they were genuinely impressed with his performance in that episode.

I agree Dems should not be gleeful -- to paraphrase Romney, there's 45 to 47 percent of the country who won't vote for Obama no matter what. That will keep the race competitive. So will Romney's own money, which will be there even if the party financiers abandon him.

walter kirn

i've heard similar things about Romney's acumen. which brings up the great mystery of the campaign: how could the man before us be the same one whose career was such that he's now here before us.

the tape helps answer that question. the real romney only emerges at friendly and very fancy dinner parties.

Jonathan Cohn

Still, I think this is more damaging than Obama's gun comment (which did, I think, hurt him -- at least in the Pennsylvania primary). Obama could still appeal to the people he alienated with policy. He could say, hey, I'm going to help you get health care, etc. Romney can't, because his agenda really is about taking benefits away from these people.

Right - the real Romney is good only in small groups of people, preferably of similar social class and/or education level.

He looks like a president, or a casting director's idea of a president, but in every other way he's an awful politician. I didn't expect that. I always thought he'd be very formidable. Man, was I wrong. 

walter kirn

the paradox of our politics is that people who get benefits don't necessarily vote like people who get benefits. and there romney was just flat wrong. a lot of americans vote small government as a way of easing their conscience for relying on big government. i've seen it many times.

Jonathan Cohn

Seriously, though, I hadn't thought about that -- people voting for small government to ease their guilt over taking government benefits. I tend to think it's more a cognitive dissonance: Medicare and Social Security don't count as "benefits" or "government," even though they are.

walter kirn

do you think Mitt actually lost any votes with the latest 'revelations'? i don't.

Jonathan Cohn

Yes, I do think they will hurt, although the reasons are complicated. Here goes...

1) There are the comments themselves. The combination of language and atmosphere (a "secret video") gives this breakout potential -- i.e,. it'll be the sort of thing that even people who don't follow politics clearly will hear about. By itself, it won't change their minds. But it will reinforce an image of Romney that will make them less likely to vote for him.

2) I hate the pundit's cliche about "losing the day." But in this case I think it's true. Romney is behind right now and he needs to make up ground. This will last for a few days, at least, and that's a few days he's not making arguments about Obama's weaknesses. It's also a few days of negative coverage, which is something even low-information voters will pick up.

(Note: Being a "low information" voter isn't the same thing as being stupid. There are plenty of good reasons why a smart, conscientious person might not follow politics that closely. For example. if you are holding down two jobs to feed your kids, you probably don't have time to watch the Ed Show and read the Times every day.)

3) Romney has had a bad two weeks and, at some point, the elite of the Republican Party will start to give up on him. We may have seen the first signs of that today. Everybody is talking about the David Brooks op-ed, which was indeed harsh. But... 

walter kirn

(That's our job: Helping low information voters one semi-informed opinion at a time!)

Jonathan Cohn

...the more significant essay, politically, was the one Bill Kristol posted at the Weekly Standard, in which he called Romney's comments "arrogant and stupid." Kristol is a pragmatist. The Republican elite -- and here I mean not just fellow pundits and strategists, but also funders -- surely noticed that. If at some point they decide they no longer want to spend the time or money helping Romney, it's hard to see how he could seriously compete. If nothing else, he needs those people to validate his arguments and repeat his message. No amount of Romney personal money could make up for that.

Having said all that, this could fade quickly too. My opinions on politics, as opposed to policy, are most certainly semi-informed.

walter kirn

You've made sensible points all around. and yet this is a bizarre year. billions are spent but the polls don't move. the dems have a great convention, the repubs a poor one, and the polls don't move -- much. romney runs what so pros are calling the worst campagin they've ever seen and -- the polls don't move. what will move them, finally, if anything can, is a mystery.

Jonathan Cohn

well obama did get a convention bounce, right? though the polls are tightening up again. anyhow, yes, it is a weird year -- although it occurs to me all that tv ad money must be good stimulus, right? i mean, in a state like ohio, that much money has to move the needle on growth,. (kidding, i think.)

so should we call it quits?

walter kirn

yes. let's quit. it's time for the evening news -- and lately it's been pretty entertaining.

Jonathan Cohn

yes it has! it's been fun, as always.

ps - you watch the evening news? i didn't think anybody did that anymore.

except my parents.

walter kirn

it makes me feel like i'm still in minnesota in 1974. it's my version of media comfort food.

Jonathan Cohn

ok, let's end on comfort food. that's a good line.

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