Mudslinging by proxy
It's downright entertaining - and very timely, since we're entering the warm-weather silly season - to have Donald Trump back on the political scene, spewing birther bilge (yet again) in his new role as a Mitt Romney surrogate.
Mittens and The Donald, surely the most unlikely pairing since Oscar and Felix shared an apartment in The Odd Couple, are scheduled to party together at a Vegas event today. The Mitt team has even set up a fundraising raffle; the winner will break bread with the birther and the candidate. (The Romney campaign flier says, "Dine with the Donald.") Hey, as the old saying goes, politics makes strange bedfellows. Romney will presumably resist the temptation to seize Trump and scissor away his offending golden locks.
The big question is: Why in the world is Romney seeking close proximity with Trump?
What's the possible upside of hunkering down with such a clown? One year after Trump smeared President Obama by repeatedly playing the phony Kenya card, one year after Obama hilariously eviscerated him at the White House Correspondents Dinner and left him sitting there without a residual shred of credibility, he's still doing the birther thing - this time in a Daily Beast interview. I refuse to type his quotes on my keyboard, lest I lower the ambient IQ of this post; check them out if you wish. I much prefer this quote, uttered on one of the Sunday shows, by conservative columnist George Will:
"I do not understand the cost benefit (for Romney)....The cost of appearing with this bloviating ignoramus is obvious, it seems to me. Donald Trump is redundant evidence that if your net worth is high enough, your IQ can be very low and you can still intrude into American politics. Again, I don't understand the benefit. What is Romney seeking?"
An anchor from Fox Business network, Liz Claman, concurred on Sunday: "It's a dangerous game that Mitt Romney is playing here because Donald Trump doesn't have a lot to lose by keeping this birther conversation alive....Romney and his people have to decide whether standing next to Donald Trump means more votes or fewer votes."
But clearly the cautious, methodical folks at Romney HQ have already decided that associating with the "bloviating ignoramus" is a net benefit. (How far we've come from the spring of '11, when Trump attacked Romney's tenure at Bain Capital: "He'd buy companies, he'd close companies, he'd get rid of jobs.") I can suggest three theories that may help explain the seemingly inexplicable Romney decision. In reverse order of likelihood:
3. Perhaps Romney wants to keep Trump close, because it's supposedly easier to control a surrogate than a loose cannon. As Lyndon Johnson famously said, he'd rather have a dangerous character inside the tent urinating out, than outside the tent urinating in. But that doesn't make much sense, given Trump's Friday salvo in the Daily Beast. When has Trump ever been controllable?
2. Perhaps stolid, buttoned-down Romney wants to demonstrate that he's cool, that he's in sync with popular culture, that he too can be a downmarket swinger. Trump may well be his idea of hip.
1. Perhaps Romney finds it politically useful to play wink-wink with the millions of willfully ignorant people who still persist in believing that Obama is not American-born.
Ah, now we're getting somewhere.
Step one is to tell the independent swing voters that of course Obama is red, white, and blue; as Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom told CNN last Friday, "Mitt Romney accepts that President Obama was born in the United States" (you've got to love that weak verb, "accepts"). And step two is to service the sizable lunatic cohort within the conservative base by trotting out Trump.
Remember, Romney spent the primary season trying in vain to unite the base behind his candidacy. He still apparently lives in fear that the most unhinged folks on the Republican right will stay home on election day, having convinced themselves that he's too sensible to vote for. Which is why Romney has tried on occasion to show that he too can be unhinged. It's pander politics 101. For instance, he keeps claiming that Obama has circled the globe apologizing for America, even though fact-checkers have long exposed that assertion to be a lie. And he has refused to rebuke Rush Limbaugh for calling birth control supporter Sandra Fluke "a slut."
This is the terrain where Trump becomes useful, because Trump speaks the language of the unhinged. If Romney seems OK with Trump's birther talk (Romney yesterday: "I don't agree with all the people who support me"), then the message to the unhinged is that Romney must be OK too.
But here's the moral problem: Trump isn't just a garden-variety supporter with garden-variety policy disagreements. He's a celebrity fundraiser who still insists, despite all proof to the contrary, that the president of the United States is an illegal occupant of the office, an alien foreigner who conspired to successfully defraud the state of Hawaii and the American public.
This is not a disagreement over, say, Medicare funding. This is about a mainstream Republican candidate who stays on the high road while a high-profile surrogate works the lowest of low roads.
Entertaining as it may be to imagine what the discourse would be like at a Romney-Trump dinner table, this political partnership should not be dismissed as a mere freak show. Romney is mudslinging by proxy, and he should be pressed to explain why he has agreed to that arrangement. After all, if Obama celebrity fundraiser George Clooney was out there talking idiocies a la Trump - insisting, say, that Romney's Mormon underwear rendered him unfit for the presidency - Obama would be compelled to denounce the guy. Romney should be held to the same standard.
Colin Powell has finally penned a mea culpa about how he aided and abetted the Bush administration's march to war in Iraq. But, as I contended in my Sunday newspaper column, key questions remain unanswered.
Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1