A week used to be a long time in politics. In our day rival campaigns fight each other one news cycle at a time, constantly looking to wrong-foot the other side and force them into damage control. The speed at which stray remarks and gaffes can be captured and re-broadcast has made it possible for mainstream media to chronicle a seemingly endless cycle of outrageous statements (Todd Akin’s “legitimate rape” being only the most memorable), condemnations and apologies, rather than the slower work of substantive analysis. The rise of round-the-clock political journalism, exemplified by the incessant chatter on CNN, has transformed politics into something closer to reality television in which candidates become Survivor contestants, desperately trying not to be the last person voted off the island.
Shortly before the last UK election, Gordon Brown’s campaign was derailed by a few seconds of private pique captured by a ‘hot’ microphone. Forced into a humiliating apology to a woman who had buttonholed him at a campaign stop, Brown’s track record, including his intelligent response to a global financial crisis, were sidelined. Instead, for the best part of a week, political commentary yielded to speculation about what the incident said about his governing style.
It remains to be seen whether footage of Mitt Romney’s remarks to a gathering of wealthy supporters will prove as costly, but the dynamic remains the same. There is already plenty of public information about Romney and his running mate: exhaustive evidence of voting patterns, political character, policy preferences and the sort of legislation they are likely to introduce. All the new footage has shown is that Romney, like every other politician, tailors public messages to private audiences. His provocative disparagement of the “47% of Americans … who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them …” may have been impoliticly phrased but its underlying assumptions are hardly different to those of the GOP platform articulated during the recent convention. Nevertheless the US media’s relentless focus on the video has produced a week of speculation about Romney’s character rather than a serious appraisal of his public message.
It is worth recalling how close the 2008 Obama campaign came to being scuttled by similar incidents. In April 2008, a description of rural white voters who “cling to guns and religion” – a home truth that would raise few eyebrows in any other context – quickly became a flashpoint for the American right. Later on, the sky seemed to fall when a nuanced discussion about taxes with the infamous “Joe the Plumber” prompted the remark: “I think when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.” The right-wing hysteria occasioned by this snippet – proof positive that the foreign-born, radical Muslim candidate was also a closet socialist – was indicative of much that was to come. In time pseudo-events like these helped feed the extraordinary smear campaigns against Obama and gave men like Fox News host Glenn Beck licence to talk of him as someone “who has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture.”
As always, the devil is in the details. Gordon Brown did have a terrible temper. In February 2010 a national anti-bullying hotline disclosed that staff at Downing Street had phoned to complain about working conditions in the prime minister’s office. Nevertheless the connection between this and his throwaway remarks about a “bigoted” lady on his campaign trail were tenuous. But, knowing there were real questions hovering over Brown’s temperament as a leader, the British media couldn’t resist making the most of this slip-up during his campaign. Something similar seems to be taking place in the current US coverage of the presidential campaigns.
If anything important can be gleaned from Romney and Obama’s private candour, it may be their attitudes to campaigning itself. Faced with a freeloading 47% (who do, of course, pay federal taxes other than income taxes), Romney concludes that his job is “not to worry about those people.” Obama, by contrast, seems – or, at least, seemed – to want to make his case to “bitter” voters who cherish guns and religion. One candidate abandons his sceptics, the other courts them, even at long odds. The gap between those views may originate in the candidates’ individual temperaments, but in their current circumstances it also amounts to a difference in political visions.