The Only Difference Between Genius and Insanity is Success

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Although I’ve heard that statement throughout my life, I associate it most with Donnie D’Amato, whom I first became aware of through his amazing dance game performances when I got into dance games about nine years ago. (His new site, schema.tc, is really worth checking out.) In a way the statement embodies American pragmatism, but it’s also kind of a sad statement to me, because I think when you consider that it implies that anything that doesn’t succeed must therefore be insane, it shows the uneasy relationship our culture has with risk-taking. Most Americans, regardless of ideology, point to our country’s legacy of innovation as one of our most positive attributes, and to be sure those who succeed in creating something new in America are usually rewarded handsomely for their efforts. At the same time, though, those who do not succeed often don’t even any kind of positive acknowledgement of their attempts, and sometimes wind up being held up to public ridicule, something that ultimately works to discourage risk-taking in our country.

I’ve been thinking about this particular statement and how it pertains to this year’s presidential election. Long before I was born, Republicans began shoring up their base and making sure that many states, at least as far as presidential elections go, stay red for generations to come. From Richard Nixon and the “southern strategy,” to Ronald Reagan’s courting of southern religious conservatives, to Karl Rove and his “fifty percent plus one” divisions, Republicans have created an electoral map in this country where they could run a small grey lump of putty for president and still be assured of at least 150 electoral votes in any year. This year, with all the negatives President Obama is facing, that number should probably be somewhere around 200, and yet if the election had been held yesterday, Mitt Romney wouldn’t have gotten much more than that. These past few weeks the Romney campaign has committed gaffe after gaffe, and despite the huge financial advantage it enjoys (particularly taking into account all the conservative PACs throwing huge amounts of money into this election), Romney seems to be slipping in the polls.

Now, the election is still three months away, and obviously a lot can happen in that time (like European economies collapsing and quickly plunging America into even more economic trouble), but we’re starting to enter that horizon where the polls start becoming somewhat relevant to November. I’m sure there will be a huge conservative blitz of advertising over the next three months to try to turn voters off of Obama, since I honestly haven’t been subjected to that much pro-Romney advertising quite yet (which is surprising given what a battleground Ohio is supposed to be this year). There’s still a world of time for Republicans to turn this election around, and they certainly have the resources to do so, but for all the self-assuredness they project in public (as well they should), I find it hard to believe that internally they’re not desperately trying to figure out why an election that should be well within their grasp seems to keep slipping out of their fingers.

Rupert Murdoch may have hit the nail on the head earlier this year when he tweeted that the Romney campaign needed to hire political professionals to deal with the experienced politicos in the Obama camp, and not just let his business friends manage so many important campaign positions. Say what you will about Karl Rove (I certainly have), but the man knew how to work the American political system and get his candidates elected; when Bush 43 ran for president and later for re-election, even though there was a strong emphasis on his business background, he still came off as a politician, someone who knew how to campaign and govern. The way the Romney campaign has acted so far this election, it almost feels like there’s an presumption that they will win. The kind way to look at this would be to say that they assume the election will be solely a referendum on President Obama’s first term and thus there’s no real need to campaign since most voters will believe that Obama has done a lousy job as president so far. The unkind way to look at this would be to say that the Romney campaign may assume that their huge monetary advantage means that they will essentially buy the presidency, using their money to flood the airwaves with all sorts of nastiness about President Obama that will almost be encoded into voters’ DNA by the sixth of November by sheer repetition.

Having said that, I’m not so sure that any of this will matter, because if you look at the elections of my lifetime, the strategy the Romney campaign is following right now most closely resembles that of the most wildly successful presidential candidate of my lifetime: Ronald Reagan.

In his thought-provoking book The Man Who Sold the World: Ronald Reagan and the Betrayal of Main Street America, William Kleinknecht points out how Reagan’s 1980 election team were themselves outsiders, and many in the Republican party worried that Reagan couldn’t get elected without people in charge of his campaign who “knew” how to run a national political campaign. Perhaps the most obvious example of this was the leadup to the one debate Reagan had with President Jimmy Carter in the week before the election. Republican “insiders” wanted Reagan, in his debate preparations, to focus more on hard numbers and facts, the kinds of things they thought voters would want to hear as an indictment of the Carter presidency. Reagan and his team, however, spent more time perfecting the delivery of one line, a rejoinder Reagan could use to anything Carter said, and when the time came, the veteran actor Reagan delivered the line — “Well, there you go again” — perfectly. Combined with Jimmy Carter shooting himself in the foot in that debate so many times it’s a miracle he’s been able to walk since, Reagan turned what had been a close election up to that point — polls were mixed heading into the debate — into one of the biggest routs of modern presidential elections.

When Reagan took office in 1981, the team that got him elected assumed a lot of important executive positions, as happens with all successful presidential campaigns. Reagan’s “outsiders” became the ones who called the shots, and for good or for bad, Reagan’s presidency was easily the most transformative of my lifetime, at least as far as the way national politics is conducted. If Mitt Romney manages to win this upcoming election, I have little doubt that his presidency will prove to be just as transformative, as the people running his campaign now will change the way “business” is conducted in Washington. (This doesn’t even touch on how the Citizens United decision has already impacted our politics; the transformations Romney would make as president would likely build on the increasing influence of corporate money in our country, a thought that terrifies me.)

To do that, though, first Mitt Romney has to get elected, and if he’s following the Reagan template for getting elected, he’s really not the right candidate for it. To start with, Barack Obama is no Jimmy Carter; President Obama is a master orator who knows better than to recite anything that might possibly be labeled as a “malaise speech,” and he’s certainly not going to commit multiple major flubs in a debate like Carter did. More importantly, in an age even more media-driven than the one of Reagan’s campaigns, Obama wins the infamous “which candidate would you rather have a beer with” contest handily; even when his job approval rating was at its nadir, his personal likability rating was still pretty darn high, and right now Romney’s likability rating is at a net -15%. If the Occupy movement has succeeded in introducing the concept of “the 1%” into popular culture, then Romney and his team are doing a fine job of portraying themselves as being in that 1%. Ronald Reagan had charm in spades, especially when held up against Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale, but Romney would have a hard enough time looking more charming than Barack Obama even without his campaign repeatedly referring to those they disagree with as “you people.”

Three months is a lifetime in American political terms, though, and a lot could happen between now and election day. For all the analysis that some of us like to engage in, the presidency will not be decided by who runs the most artful campaign; it will be decided by who wins the most votes in the electoral college. No matter how many gaffes the Romney campaign commits, no matter how much his team bucks the advice of Republican politicos, if he wins the White House then, at least for most Americans, it won’t matter how insane his campaign seems now. All that will matter is that it was a success.

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