The Cognitive Dissonance of Mitt Romney

On July 6, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the branch of the U.S. Department of Labor charged with calculating the unemployment rate and counting how many jobs are added to the U.S. economy every month before throwing these numbers into the maw of a rabid press corps desperate to fill a 24-hour news cycle, released its June 2012 jobs report. The Romney campaign then scrambled to schedule a public appearance within the hour for their candidate to bash President Obama for this latest perceived failure.

The report was tepid, showing a mere 84,000 net private sector jobs created in the month of June, and a loss of some 4,000 government jobs for a grand total of 80,000 new jobs. Investors had expected 95,000 and the conventional wisdom, as explained by Nate Silver, the Stephen Hawking of political polling analysis, was that 100,000 jobs a month was the baseline of an acceptable jobs report (in part because the economy is supposedly adding over 100,000 new workers a month – a nuance that Republicans should be howling from the rooftops, but curiously seem to barely mention).

The Romney campaign hadn’t scheduled a press appearance for the day. A campaign entirely hell-bent on discussing jobs and only jobs – to the exclusion of Afghanistan, Syria, contraception, abortion, gay marriage, onerous voter screening laws, financial industry scandals, and even the boxers vs. briefs debate – had deliberately failed to schedule a speech to react to the release of the monthly jobs report. Just as they had the month before.

This strategy is overlooked by all but the savviest political observers and goes unmentioned by the traditional purveyors of political analysis. By failing to schedule a press appearance, the campaign cannot be blamed if a good jobs report is met with silence from the Romney campaign. “Well, we never planned to respond to that report,” they’d explain, while casually shredding the 5-minute talk written overnight while sipping Yoohoo and hoping for the worst.

Another month of waiting to surface until he’s sure he can report bad news. Mitt Romney is the human avatar of Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog meteorologist employed to predict the end of winter by cowering in his burrow at the sight of its own shadow on Groundhog Day. Has this tradition contributed anything to American culture? It’s a farce that everyone outside Punxsutawney stops caring about around second grade graduation, yet the spectacle continues to fill our morning TV news coverage every damn year. Indeed, the film, Groundhog Day, the only arguable positive to come out of this charade, is set against the backdrop of a never-ending Groundhog Day celebration to drive home the pointlessness of the ever repeating cycle of nothing the holiday represents.

As it turned out, all was well in Romneyland this month. The jobs report showed the unemployment rate stuck at 8.2%. The GOP gleefully called the media to set up an “impromptu” speaking event – banking on the hope that no one will mention that the whole event was set up on the fly by a campaign so afraid of its own shadow that it hides its candidate from the public at even the hint that the news cycle is shifting in favor of Barack Obama.

But there would be no shadow today. No, today they needed to trot the candidate in front of the world to decry the “unacceptably high” unemployment rate.  But where to do put him? Mitt Romney remains ensconced in luxury at his personal lakeside compound, vacationing with his family. Placing Romney against that backdrop to discuss struggling American workers would just be taunting the public.

The backdrop of Mitt Romney’s jobs speech (AP photo)

The solution was to place the candidate in the stock room of Bradley’s Hardware in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire – the ultimate Ethos-driven decision for a stuffed-shirt candidacy.  The campaign surely felt that placing Mitt Romney against the backdrop of power tools would convey a gritty, blue-collar quality.  Romney needed to connect with blue-collar culture, and merely recounting the story of his father driving a hammer while holding nails in his mouth and trotting out Jeff Foxworthy to celebrate a fifth grade diploma as the height of academic achievement (as though “blue-collar” is synonymous with “illiterate”) can only take Romney so far.

But the gambit failed. In fact, the scene employed the same sort of artistic juxtaposition as Groundhog Day, placing Mitt Romney before a number of tools that he would only recognize in the hands of a gardener paid less than minimum wage while awaiting self-deportment. This faux blue-collar scene only exacerbated Romney’s innate out-of-touchness. I would have given $100 to any journalist prepared to ask Romney to identify a single power tool arrayed in the shot behind him.

The local character of the store also provided the antithesis of Mitt Romney’s business career. A local hardware store – a business entity aggressively driven to near extinction by Home Depot, a company that Mitt Romney’s company Bain Capital helped grow (though investing after Romney left active management). The irony dripped off the screen for anyone prepared to see it.

As for the speech itself, well…for a campaign focused on jobs and the unemployment rate, this was a woefully sloppy speech on the subject. He said that he would create jobs by cutting corporate tax rates – even though President Obama has called on Congress to do the same; to pass a Latin American Free Trade Agreement – even though President Obama has passed two; and generally accused the President of having no plan for economic growth while the President’s “American Jobs Act” remains hopelessly stalled in Congress. If the Romney campaign wasn’t so convinced that the media would let these inaccuracies slide, outright lies like these would be devastating.

Finally, Romney made his own humble pitch for the presidency, citing his “59-point plan” for saving the economy, a tedious 156 page Neoconservative Necronomicon that boils down to slashing taxes primarily for corporations and wealthy individuals in the hope that these “job creators” will pass their savings along to the rest of America.

Little known fact: Romney’s 59-point plan is bound with human flesh.

Trickle down economics has a certain elegant logic if you think businesses are aggressively stupid. Republicans posture themselves as the party that understands business, but the central premise of their tax scheme is that a company would forgo profitable expansion to avoid a 3-10% tax bill. If you had the option of making an extra $1 million in profit, would you hold off because it’s just not worth it if you can only keep $950,000? If businesses really operated in the manner the Republicans surmise, the American economy would be much worse off than the June jobs report suggests.

The 59-point plan is also an interesting read for its constant deflection of responsibility for the recession.

“The causes of the downturn are complex and multifarious. Economists will be debating them for generations to come, just as they continue to debate the origins of the Great Depression.”

This is, of course, bullshit. No one outside the halls of conservative think tanks continues to debate the causes of the Great Depression. It’s an area of academic inquiry reserved for hacks seeking to collect a paycheck from the Koch brothers for publishing a comfortable revision of history that explains that the massive collapse of the entire financial industry was the fault of the Roosevelt administration. Who cares if FDR took office 2 years after the fact.

But I digress.

In politics, I welcome complexity and nuance over sloganeering, but the 59-point plan provides only the illusion of substance. Romney points with 59 fingers to a novella of an economic plan in the hope that no one but political junkies will ever read, much less digest for the rest of the country. Distraction through density.

Nonetheless, the 59-point plan provides a clear vision of a Mitt Romney presidency. Once you look at the document in the context of Romney’s experience, it crystallizes as less a policy proposal than a business memo plotting the course of a leveraged buyout – the financial strategy that made Romney a multi-millionaire.

It opens with flowery language, informing you that he’s here to help your country/company after all. There are friendly graphs that would be at home flashed against a screen as part of a boardroom PowerPoint presentation. But this is all a ruse set against the guts of the proposal, where the truth of the leveraged buyout of the American Dream is unveiled.

The country is a sick business, doomed to long-term failure according to the logic of the report, and those invested in the country must squeeze as much profit out of it while there’s still time. Rather than invest in infrastructure or build human capital, pocket more profit, in this case through massive tax cuts. Spending cuts are needed, not to balance the budget and save the business (Romney’s plan would balloon the deficit to unheard of levels), but to keep the gravy train running for as long as possible. No leveraged buyout is complete without invalidating promises to workers and targeting long-standing pensions, and therefore social security and Medicare should be sacrificed to fund the cash grab at the top.

This is why the attacks on Mitt Romney’s stewardship of Bain Capital resonate. The damage is not done on the conscious level by inciting sympathy for laid off workers, but on the subconscious level, poisoning every effort of Romney to explain that every deal he managed was “profitable.”

It’s statistically unlikely to have 5 boys and no girls. In case you’re wondering what happened to the Romney daughter

Mitt Romney’s argument for the presidency is his Midas touch, an appropriate analogy because Midas touched his daughter and created a lot of gold but killing her in the process. Romney’s swath of devastation through business after business while collecting millions has become a familiar tale to anyone living in a battleground state. The cognitive dissonance between forcing a company into bankruptcy and celebrating a profit sticks with voters even if they cannot place the source of their unease.

Such is the state of the Romney campaign. This cognitive dissonance permeates every move they make from lambasting an economy for adding jobs to juxtaposing an awkward multi-millionaire and a hardware store stock room. For the paradigmatic example of this malaise afflicting Mitt Romney, look no further than when the “220 Million Dollar Man” told a room of people that he too was unemployed!

And next month, we will do it all again. The monthly jobs report will reveal if Romney emerge from his burrow to put together a last minute presser declaring another 4 weeks of economic misery. Where will he be clumsily placed next month? I wager a homeless shelter.

Over and over this will go like Groundhog Day until this campaign ends. Perhaps the surest way to improve the unemployment figure would be to keep Romney from capturing the White House. At 65, Romney would likely enter retirement, leaving the work force and as we all know the unemployment rate declines when people stop seeking work.

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