Despite being the least naturally gifted politician nominated by a major party in a generation, Mitt Romney’s cosmic awkwardness is only a part of his problem. The GOP candidate’s biggest liabilities are a Republican predecessor who can’t be named, and a “Socialist Hottentot” opponent, as Stephen Colbert jokes, who’s largely a product of Rush Limbaugh’s fevered imagination.
Also of Glenn Beck’s and Ann Coulter’s, along with scores of talk radio shouters and the Fox News Channel’s handsomely coiffed imagineers. When it comes to President Obama, the most influential minds in the Republican Party have gone so far around the bend that there’s no coming back.
MediaMatters.com recently documented Fox’s Megyn Kelly comparing the red stripes on an Obama campaign poster to blood smeared on a wall at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. Where a healthy mind would have seen an abstractly rendered American flag, Kelly found “the smearing of the red stripes is eerily reminiscent of a terrible picture we’ve all seen ... which is the bloody handprints outside of our Libyan consulate.”
Fox broadcast the offending images side by side.
Similar crackpot imaginings have become common on the Republican right, aimed at depicting Obama as a subversive, alien presence.
Except that the alien’s leading in the polls, and appears to be pulling away.
Hence growing hysteria. Limbaugh has descended into self-parody. During the GOP convention, he accused the National Weather Service of altering the forecast track of Hurricane Isaac to disrupt the Tampa festivities. Next, he surmised that al-Qaida had betrayed Osama bin Laden to enhance Obama’s re-election chances.
More recently, Limbaugh was heard blaming men’s smaller penises (as measured in an Italian study) on feminist harpies — all Democrats, of course. I suppose it’s possible he was joking. But his description of Obama’s secret plan to confiscate your deer rifle and my shotguns is deadly serious.
Except that it’s purely imaginary, too.
Elsewhere in GOP Cloud Cuckoo Land, “birthers” have been usurped by an even more preposterous conspiracy theory. No longer is President Obama a Kenya-born usurper. According to a lurid DVD entitled “Dreams from My Real Father,” he’s actually the illegitimate spawn of a black American communist.
Featuring crudely doctored photos of Obama’s mother in a dominatrix costume, the fool thing’s supposedly being mailed to millions of swing-state voters — an apt successor, the blogger Digby points out, to the “Clinton Chronicles,” the late evangelist Jerry Falwell’s smear of Bill Clinton as a drug smuggler and a murderer. I wonder who’s paying for it.
Ah, but here’s the thing. Just as Clinton emerged from an avalanche of smears as the most popular politician in the United States, so the half-mad, frenzied quality of Republican opposition has mainly succeeded in making Obama look statesmanlike in comparison.
Apart from a gullible fraction of the GOP “base” across the Deep South and the nation’s rural midsection -- where dislike of the president has grown to cult-like proportions -- Americans simply aren’t buying. Politics aside, they mostly like Obama personally, and they’re leery of his detractors’ zeal.
Then there’s Romney’s even more damaging handicap — the all-too-real legacy of the Man Who Wasn’t There: George W. Bush.
Purely as a thought experiment, how do you suppose the national political press would be playing the story if Bill Clinton had been persona non grata at the Democratic convention? If his name was never mentioned? If he failed to appear with President Obama at a single political rally?
Truthfully, we’d hear of nothing else. Yet Clinton left office a dozen years ago; Bush, only four.
But Bush has gone down the memory hole, excised like one of those Soviet apparatchiks airbrushed out of ceremonial photos with Comrade Stalin. Winston Smith, contact the Ministry of Truth.
Polls, however, show that people haven’t forgotten. Asked who’s to blame for the nation’s shaky economy, more than 2/3 of Americans in a 2012 Gallup poll found Bush largely responsible for digging the hole that Obama hasn’t yet dug the country out of.
Parsing a number of recent surveys, it looks as if pretty much everybody who’s immune to the alien usurper version of Obama peddled to the GOP base is inclined to cut him some slack.
Greg Sargent recently summarized the evidence on his Washington Post blog: “Eight recent national polls, and several polls in the key swing states, show that Obama has now pulled into a tie with Romney on handling the economy.
“National Journal’s recent poll found that a solid majority of people who have not seen their own economic lot improve still prefer Obama, because they believe Obama has made the country overall better off.”
Even 50 percent of likely voters in a recent Fox News poll say they’d see an Obama win as evidence that “the country’s improving and I look forward to another four years.”
Sorry, Mitt. It’s beginning to look as if simply not being a Socialist Hottentot won’t be enough.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at email@example.com.