Paul Mann: All The Scented Snake Oil You Could Want – October 31, 2012

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Let’s look at the situation now, a week before the election, from Joe and Josephine Six Pack’s point of view.

To capture their view of things, we must set aside substance and issues, keeping in mind the old chestnut that politics consists of three things: emotion, emotion and emotion. Not policy.

Remember the woman who, half-way through Obama’s tenure, told him point blank how disappointed she was in him? Tired of having to defend him to friends and neighbors? Her disappointment has spread like wildfire in reaction to the debates.

Let’s assume that, to six-packers, women in particular, Obama came across as cold and angry in the debates. He showed little of the emotional intelligence women are alert to. “Too cerebral” is a commonly heard complaint, inside and outside the White House, and in Bob Woodward’s new book.

In contrast, Romney comported himself on the surface (even if, as his critics claim, he’s mostly surface) as warmer, more personable, more at ease; he’s definitely someone you’d find it easier to slap on the back than you would Obama. No six-packer would dream of slapping Obama on the back. He’s a Harvard lawyer. Cool yes, but that has become a liability. Now he’s seen to be aloof, too carefully reasoned, remote; most importantly of all, emotionally inaccessible. No Clinton charisma or humor on the debate stage. No sign of empathy, despite his compelling logic and reasoning on behalf, say, of Planned Parenthood.

Further: Romney is white and he’s debonair in the manner of a Clark Gable, updated of course. Mitt’s hair and sculpted features may look artificial and contrived to the political cognoscenti, but they make him look suave and smooth and skillful to the politically and psychologically uninitiated. Remember we’re talking gut reactions.

Maybe Wal-Mart moms are inclined to fall for Romney’s “charm” after all, even if snooty upper class Democrats find him shallow and empty.

Now to be serious for a moment about political psychology: suppose, just suppose that women, more than men, are not only disappointed in Obama, they’re also weary of beingdisappointed in him. He’s the husband they’re seriously considering showing the door. They’re in the mood of a disillusioned spouse who’s disappointed in her Mister (he hasn’t measured up to expectations) and they’re susceptible to the prospect of a fresh suitor, especially when the hubby hasn’t been shoring up the household income.

It’s courtship time: Josephine’s rather attracted to the rival; not fully persuaded, mind you, but definitely interested—interested despite the 47 percent debacle. Seriously thinking about embracing the guy anyway, hard as that is for Obama supporters to imagine.

Hence: if the tracking polls are on to something, women want Romney to romance them, even if they can smell the snake oil. They want to believe again in a president and they don’t really believe in the incumbent; they’d like to, but their hearts aren’t in it. Women voters increasingly are ignoring, or getting used to, the bad smell, if the polls are picking up something significant about the economy. This is because (at least partly) Mitt is simply a new face; and a new white face at that. He represents a kind of relief that may be fatal to Obama: the relief of reverting to the familiar, racially speaking.

Don’t underestimate the attractions (however foolish) of a new presidential face — even though, as the estimable Nicolo Machiavelli sagely warned, the people warmly trade an old leader for a new one, only to discover they’ve made an even worse bet. And that’s what it is: a gamble.

Given this persistent historical folly, it’s not really a surprise election-eve polls say Romney continues to gain among women on the subject of the economy.

Keep in mind that family income and the U.S. standard of living have been declining for years, reaching back well before the 2008 crash (and in certain respects back to the 1980s and the 1973 oil shock). It may well be that Obama is paying, and will pay Nov. 6, for longer-term economic history as well as for the relentlessly anemic recovery.

There is also this: neither candidate—not even William Jefferson Clinton on the sidelines—has leveled with the American people about the train wreck just ahead, the result of profound, organic and structural defects that are paralyzing national politics. It is akin to a colossal bridge teetering on the proverbial edge. Changing personnel in the Oval Office and Congress will not rectify these grave structural infirmities. (Liberalism’s principal illusion is that new officeholders can fix things—not with the same, unelected army of lobbyists obstructing them they can’t).

Churchill twigged in the mid-1930s why leaders and their peoples fail to avert an oncoming train wreck: denial. He put it this way to the Commons: when the political/historical situation is manageable, it is neglected. We muddle along. Remedies are applied too late (e.g., Obama ignored the Bowles/Simpson Deficit Reduction Commission and Ryan voted against it) when there was time to effect a cure.

There is nothing new in this story, Churchill admonished. “It is as old as the Sibylline Books. It falls into that long, dismal catalogue of the fruitlessness of experience and the confirmed unteachability of mankind [my emphasis]. Want of foresight, unwillingness to act when action would be simple and effective; lack of clear thinking; confusion of counsel until the emergency comes; until self-preservation strikes its jarring gong—these are the features which constitute the endless repetition of history.”

If the women being polled on election eve are plausibly representative of some segment of the voting female population at large, more repetition may be in the offing.

Paul Mann was a White House correspondent from 1982 to 2002.