There’s something tragically comic about a campaign carefully orchestrating political theater and only managing to obliterate its own core political philosophy in the process. Such is the fate of the Romney campaign after spending a day trying to grab media attention for their counter-strategy of private charity and volunteerism.
Political rhetoric is not limited to what a candidate “says” but includes the indelible images that campaigns create. A savvy campaign strives to create images that advance the message. A picture is worth a thousand words after all.
After a superstorm devastated the East Coast of the United States, Mitt Romney responded by canceling campaign events — for one day — to concentrate on doing what he could to help the relief effort. During that day off from campaigning, Romney pitched in by holding a campaign event (wait, what?) where he asked supporters to bring canned goods. Never mind that the Red Cross explicitly asks people not to donate canned goods because it takes valuable time and energy away from relief work.
Conservatives feel that government aid for the disadvantaged is a waste. When confronted with scorn for their lack of compassion, conservatives usually hail private charity and volunteerism. If government would only step aside, people would rise up to contribute to the cause.
Why is charity zero-sum with the government? How would a loose conglomeration of private individuals provide an efficient, coherent response? Pesky questions we should never ask.
Here Mitt Romney attempted to showcase this “do it yourself” spirit by packing supporter donations with rolled up sleeves. And what did we learn? We learned that as the federal government prepared to spend billions coordinating relief efforts with state and local first responders and moved military personnel to the area to assist, Mitt Romney managed to convince less than a high school gym full of supporters to “donate” about $5,000 worth of canned goods.
“Donate” is in quotation marks because it appears as though the Romney campaign bought most of the canned goods itself because it knew that it could not garner even close to a significant donation without buying the goods itself.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with disguising the source of the charitable goods — whether the campaign or the supporters bought the goods does not change the fact that they will be donated.
But what it does is provide another glimpse into the folly of the conservative “do it yourself” model of society and the deeply cynical nature of the Romney campaign. The conservative counter-strategy was on full display, and not only did this episode showcase Romney offering only the most meager and tokenistic of responses to a crisis, but the revelation that the campaign had to purchase the goods exacerbates the damage by showing the woeful inadequacy of relying upon private giving. Even with massive personal wealth, Romney still couldn’t construct an impressive spread to vindicate his chosen social program.
It’s a positive campaign image gone horridly wrong as more and more details leak out. It’s a rerun of the “You Didn’t Wash That!” controversy where VP nominee Paul Ryan washed clean dishes at a soup kitchen to convey an image of giving without actually interacting with the “poors.”
People are generally decent folk in this country and don’t generally cotton to the Ayn Rand worldview that the disadvantaged should be cast on the side of the road like the weakest of the buffalo herd. To capture votes from these decent folks, conservatives rely on the argument that private giving can replace, if not improve upon, government aid. Romney and Ryan are working to sell that to just enough voters to squeak by next week. But these images have only tarnished their already tenuous credentials as members of the human race.