Mitt Romney and the Coming Buzzdeath Presidency

by Reihan Salam

A new Buzzfeed article by McKay Coppins observes that Mitt Romney is traffic poison:

The well-starched Republican’s traffic poison has been felt this year at websites across the political spectrum — including at BuzzFeed — and it’s left many editors, publishers, and bloggers yearning for the days of the unpredictable Sarah Palin, the maverick John McCain, and the Obama-Clinton blood feud. Bloggers and editors are left to decipher its causes — is it Romney’s discipline, his blameless personal life, or the simple fact that his supporters are less likely to be trolling the web?

In a recent post, Mickey Kaus introduced his readers to Richard Rushfield’s notion that “no buzz is good buzz.” Rushfield argues that the speed of backlash in the Twitter age means that it is better to avoid the limelight entirely: 

A poll today revealed that Mitt Romney’s favorable ratings have risen over the past few weeks, during a time when he’s largely been off center stage. There’s been the Bain brouhaha, but Romney himself has mostly let others take on the fight, with Pres. Obama and Romney surrogates occupying the foreground, while he’s taken a step or two back. Compared to the primary battles when he was standing in the floodlights every day.

Likewise, I’ve seen it demonstrated before that Obama’s approval rating tends to go up when he was out of the limelight, during the Republican primaries or when he’s been on vacation for instance.

Looking at this it seems very clear that there is no such thing as positive attention in the Twitter age; that anyone who sticks their head up is going to just have it picked apart by 100,000,000 gnats. The internet has largely become a roving lynch mob and you can’t stop a lynch mob with comedy GIF’s.

What might perhaps be true in politics at this point absolutely holds true in entertainment, that any attention you receive only serves to inspire an even greater backlash. (e.g. Girls). I dont think its possible any more to have hype without inspiring a greater reaction. Unless your hype is ironic to start with like Betty White’s.

Rushfield goes on to apply this logic to entertainment in a surprisingly convincing manner. Rushfield’s thesis could help explain a curious phenomenon that Ross Douthat identifies in his latest Campaign Stops column:

In effect, the challenger and the incumbent have reversed the traditional roles: Romney is running a kind of Rose Garden strategy, trying to stay above the fray and coast to victory, while the president bobs and weaves like an insurgent, trying to throw his Republican rival off his game.

Every week, it seems, Obama has a new narrative, a new gambit, a new stratagem, or a new “game changing” speech. In Romneyland, by contrast, the keel is even and the message is always essentially the same. While the president has been reversing himself on hot-button issues and responding to bad unemployment figures by taking repeatedly to the bully pulpit, the riskiest move the presumptive Republican nominee has made in the last two months was his decision to attend a fund-raiser with Donald Trump – a bad call, in my view, but not nearly as significant as the president’s repositioning on immigration or gay marriage.

Perhaps the Romney campaign wants to be seen as more presidential than the president — to make the current occupant of the White House seem callow and attention-seeking while the challenger seems self-assured and, well, boring.

One wonders if Romney could carry this through if he is elected president. Looking back at the presidency of George H.W. Bush, it is striking to see how liberals of that era tried to demonize a temperamentally moderate chief executive. Since the late Clinton era, we’ve grown accustomed to an apocalyptic political climate defined by demonization and counter-demonization. President Obama promised to lower the temperature, but he often seems to have raised it, whether through his own doing or that of his political rivals or both. If, and it’s a big if, Mitt Romney is elected president and he presides over an economic expansion, it would be interesting to see if he could actually succeed in lowering the temperature by being less of a lightning rod.

Many of President Obama’s allies and admirers believe that he has only been a lightning rod because of right-wing antipathy grounded in racial anxieties. Conservatives, in contrast, generally believe that the president has been highly ideological. What we can all agree on, however, is that President Obama is a charismatic, larger-than-life figure who attracts considerable attention, and who has had an outsized impact on the national consciousness. Indeed, this was part of the case for him in 2008, when some argued that he could single-handedly help turn the page on the baby boom era, etc. In the Rushfieldian framework, this has proven a huge problem.

So what happens to viral media in a buzzdeath era? I assume we’ll see more cute animals and less politics, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.