The above ad, Mitt Romney’s first of the campaign, has mainly received attention for quoting 2008 presidential candidate Obama deceptively. In my view that particular kerfuffle has been overblown, while other much more disturbing aspects of the ad have received much less attention, at least so far.
I think the problem is that ads like these work on multiple logical and aesthetic levels simultaneously, but are received mainly with a certain set of assumptions, chiefly that voters in general are a mass of uninformed dullards who only infrequently can be raised to any level of interest at all. So, in regard to the pseudo-quote, the thinking seems to go, some number of moronic swing voters might hear then-candidate Obama saying “if we talk about the economy, we lose” and process the words as “something Obama has said,” and care…The real function is to reinforce the idea that “the economy is Obama’s fault and Obama knows or should know it” -- in any event that it would be fair to hold him responsible.
The critics may be right that the ploy is underhanded and manipulative, but I’m not sure that it’s precisely a violation of the 9th Commandment, as Lawrence O’Donnell melodramatically insisted on TV last night. Rick Perry’s “Lazy” ad, which twisted innocuous remarks of the President’s into a “pathetic” attack on all Americans, was much more dishonest (not to mention typically stupid).
There’s another aspect of the Romney ad, however, that is much more striking to me. It was pointed out by Democrat campaign professional Tad Devine, first on Twitter, then as quoted in The Hill today. Talking heads, like The Hill‘s headline writers, will likely focus on a hotter but flimsier notion of Devine’s -- that Romney is specifically playing the Jeremiah Wright card -- but it’s not that Romney or his operatives are specifically seeking to “bring up Wright.” They are openly bringing up what they think, and what they hope others think, Wright stood for.
What’s indelible in the ad is the presentation of two Americas: A dreary African American America brought to power through the African American president, versus a (ca. 99%) White America everywhere associated with Mitt Romney. Watch the ad: The first half is the usual Montage of Lies and Misery (our opponent’s America), and the second half is the usual Ode to Truth and Joy (America under our guy). As Devine points out, that first part includes a couple of shots that have no clear logical relationship to the main theme, but happen to depict African Americans -- walking through some unidentified public place, and in the pews of a church. Then check the Ode to Joy scenes: Romney backed by white people, close-ups on white people, groups of white workers, white, white, white. Nearly invisible exceptions that prove the rule appear in the form of a couple of non-white people buried in the whiteout Romney-plus-crowd shot that appears as the video’s “splash” image, and in the form of one worker in one group scene who isn’t Caucasian.
At a certain point, it makes no difference whether the use of this contrast is intentional, though we can safely presume that every single cut and shot is exhaustively audited for messaging by Romney’s handsomely well-paid political media team. To some extent, the result is simply what Romney is and what his campaign and his movement represent.
And, no, Herman Cain’s presence in the Republican field and his brief flirtation with near-credibility are not counterevidence. We all know what and who Herman Cain is, what role he plays in this traditional race drama. Because no one serious has ever taken his candidacy seriously, no one has had to spell it out explicitly.