The challenge of reaching out from inside a bubble

Jonathan Chait has paid a lot of attention to Rep. Paul Ryan. So he finds it amusing that the rest of the world should only now, in the wake of Ryan's convention speech, be figuring out that Ryan's image as a congenitally sincere, unusually honest legislator is out of step with the reality of Paul Ryan the successful career politician. Chait writes today about the sudden shift in the man's reputation:

Heres what has not happened: Paul Ryan did not begin telling an unprecedented series of lies that suddenly exposed a predilection for shading the truth....Ryans Tampa speech, while pretty dishonest, was not especially so by Ryans standards. Here you can see why Ryan must view the sudden attack of the truth squad so bewilderingly. Ryan has been saying things like this, and worse, all along. The bit where he sadly shakes his head and blames President Obama for the failure of the Bowles-Simpson deficit commission that Ryan killed himself has been a staple of the Ryan shtick for two years. Reporters usually bat their eyes and coo sympathetically. Now it has become evidence of his duplicity.

That second link leads to a Feb. 2011 post from Chait's old blog at the New Republic, which concluded: "Why do the media not only fail to question his sincerity at all, but give him an uncritical platform to question the sincerity of others? It's bizarre." Chait believes the media has finally, belatedly turned critical because the Romney campaign all but forced it to. "Well beyond the usual exaggerations of a national campaign, Romney has built its entire message around two accusations 'you didnt build that' and 'just send them a check' that are obviously false." And the campaign has continued to push those accusations despite widespread acknowledgment of their falseness, even professing disdain for the work of "fact-checkers." That the political media must finally respond was predictable, Chait says, though perhaps not to Ryan himself:

The thing about Ryan is that he has always resided in a counter-factual universe. He is a product of the hermetically sealed right-wing subculture.

This year's Republican convention strained consciously to appeal to undecided voters, hoping disillusionment with Obama could be converted to enthusiasm for Romney. Thus the dearth of references to the Republican platform, and the lip-service paid to Democratic goals and ideals. Tim Pawlenty laid out a tortured metaphor describing Obama as "the tattoo president," a decision made with enthusiasm in the foolishness of youth and regretted with the passage of time. Clearly that line was not meant to describe the emotions of the committed Republicans in the room. Romney claimed that he had longed to see Obama succeed. This does not square with my memory of Republican sentiment at the time (see Chait, again). But it was clear the Romney campaign had decided to try to win over erstwhile Obama supporters by assuring them that their values were all right, and the disappointment they felt was the fault of the man they'd entrusted to enact them. Hence Ryan's speech and its a-factual appeal to liberal values betrayed, and his shifting rhetoric -- he used to talk about how the "safety net" had become "a hammock"; now he pleges to "make the safety net safe again."What struck me again and again as I checked in on the Republican convention was how the speakers attempted to make this pitch to the undecided voter at the same time as they assailed President Obama on terms that would make sense only to those inside the right-wing bubble. Pawlenty's speech began with a painful standup routine full of jokes about how President Obama takes too many vacations, about how Joe Biden is a huge embarrassment, about how the presidency was Obama's "first job." All in sport, sure -- but a joke has to have some basis in truth to hit home, and viewers with access to any source of information other than right-wing propaganda could only find all this baffling. Obama really does not vacation all that much, especially compared with his predecessor; Joe Biden is pretty well-liked, and saying "when Paul Ryan speaks, Joe will finally get to hear what a real vice president sounds like!" sounds more like a knock on Sarah Palin; and even if He has no experience! were still an effective line of attack (which it isn't), Obama's personal employment history is pretty well known (who can forget the hilarious japery regarding "community organizers" at the 2008 RNC convention?). Yes, there is a demographic that will respond positively to a nonsense line about how that dumb Obama never had a job, haw haw (it got a big laugh in the convention hall). But it is not the demographic that is considering voting Republican for the first time this year. And if you're hoping to narrow a "gender gap" among voters, bringing out Susana Martinez to tell her inspiring personal story is a good move. However, you might consider how Mike Huckabee's completely unprovoked "joke" about how Debbie Wasserman Schultz is loud and screechy will sound to voters, and women voters in particular, who don't already know that "Debbie Wasserman Schultz" is Fox News shorthand for "everything wrong with liberals."Dismissing Obama's appeal as an illusion, or a delusion, has not worked for the GOP thus far, so it makes sense that the Romney campaign would instead try flattering Obama's former admirers for their good taste. But to succeed at catching "undecideds" on the rebound, they will have to remember that the voters they're hoping to reach weren't born yesterday. The very jokes and jabs that fire up the base are likely to turn off those wandering in the disillusioned wilderness. Disappointed Obama voters will want to feel that their new candidate is at least trying to tell them the truth. Otherwise, why not stick with the devil they know?At their convention this week, the Democrats won't be forced to deal with as radical a disjunction between their base and the voters on the fence. Their main task will be to make a better pitch to the undecideds than the GOP did. It isn't an easy job. But I think the GOP could have made it a whole lot harder.

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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