Mark has proposed (and, for a second time practiced) calling Mitt Romney “Willard” from here on in. Harold disagrees. I’ll start by saying I’m on Harold’s side. But the reasons for that are, on reflection, kind of complicated.
First, let’s dispose of a piece of silliness: the idea that it’s respectful to call him Willard because it’s his “real” first name. With due respect to Joel Hanes, who put forth this argument in a comment, J. Michael Neal has it right: “To treat someone with respect, you cal[l] them what they wish to be called, whether it is their first name, their middle name or something that doesn’t appear on their birth certificate at all.” My birth-certificate first name, like Ross Perot’s, is “Henry,” and there’s nothing objectively wrong with it. But since neither of us likes that name, it would be disrespectful to hang it on either one of us. Nor does anyone think that one would have shown maximal respect for Tip O’Neill or Woodrow Wilson by calling either one of them “Thomas.”
But that doesn’t settle the issue. As Mark explicitly said, the point of calling Romney Willard would be “to needle him”: i.e. to show him deliberate disrespect. The hope would be to weaken him politically by making others disrespect him too. (James’ comment, learned as usual, noted the long history of doing that.) This isn’t inherently absurd, but it goes to the question of what kind of politics we favor and what kind of blog we’re trying to be. And it’s not just a matter of “respectable” vs. “populist” or similar labels.
First off, I don’t think Mark literally means his object is to needle Romney. Taken literally, that would mean that constantly calling him Willard in our blog posts and other partisan forums would cause him to lose his cool. That seems very unlikely. He’s capable of losing his cool in debates, but I doubt anybody will call him Willard in a debate—and if anyone did, he’d shrug it off, just as Pete DuPont shrugged it off when George Bush called him “Pierre.” Rather, the “Willard” moniker would be meant to do one of two things: sow doubts in the minds of swing voters, or rally Democratic troops.
Swing voters, at this point, are likely to be low information. (One hears them all the time in newspaper stories asking why Obama doesn’t just “do something” about the recession, presumably by spending money that Congress hasn’t appropriated. Or something.) I strongly doubt that they’d even notice if every progressive blogger and journalist called Romney “Willard” until the end of time–just as I doubt they notice the Republican use of “Democrat Party.”
That leaves rallying the troops. Mocking one’s opponent can be a very effective way of doing that: just look at the Daily Kos, or at any email solicitation from a party committee, though Obama/Organizing for America tends to steer clear of the method. Too much name-calling can make the caller seem petty, but the usual separation of official candidates from surrogate attack dogs tends to ensure that the pettiness—and partisan glee—sticks to the latter. John McCain didn’t use Obama’s middle name. But Sarah Palin did, and RedState (on the grounds that “[d]oing so makes all the right people irrationally mad”), and I’m sure any number of mailings for conservative groups. As an exception to this division of labor, George H.W. Bush was fond of calling Al Gore “Ozone” in his own stump speeches. But this was ineffective, I think, and bad strategy; it reflected desperation, not calculation.
I agree that calling Romney Willard will strike partisan Democrats as a lot of fun and may well bear some real fruit: a few million more dollars donated, a few thousand more volunteers. Notice I say “will” and “may,” not “would” and “might.” This is not a mere application of Sabl’s Law but a prediction: I think that the Willard train has left the station and that Kos et al. will use it incessantly from now on.
But the reason I’m not going to join is that I don’t want to be a partisan blogger. (When I temporarily lay down my blogger’s sword and shield a few years back, my reason was fear of becoming one.) While my overall political sympathies are no secret, I think that the point of this blog, and what makes it more interesting than Kos or RedState, is independent commentary on political and policy issues: independent not in the sense of opinion-free or immune to ideology (I pity people who think themselves that) but in the sense of having an intellectual life that doesn’t merely track a partisan or ideological allegiance, though certainly strongly influenced by both. As much as possible, I want my posts—as opposed to my political donations, my volunteering, or anything else I do as a citizen—to reflect my sharpest, most considered judgment of how events are going or ought to go, not a psychic need to express factional solidarity and not an intention to strengthen the morale of my political team or weaken that of the other one. True, some of my posts explicitly recommend political strategies. But even then, they tend to do so in the mode of analysis, and always with the proviso that what I counsel Democrats or progressives to say must precisely reflect what I think to be true. That’s the only way I can have real influence in any case. When it comes to plain old cheerleading, others who do it for a living, and who occupy roles that get them widely listened to when they do it, will be much more effective.
I know that Keith is, controlling for nuance, with me on this. I’m convinced that Mark is too (which is why he invited Keith, and Amy, and others onto the blog), when it comes to policy. But I suspect that one reason for the difference between Mark and me on this is that his intellectual vocation is policy and mine is politics. I think he tends to see politics as a nasty, savage, necessary business that one engages in so as to put good people in a position to enact policy. Having five senses, of course I agree that politics contains a lot of that; when it comes to schools of political theory, I’m on record as plumping for “Realist.” But if I thought that’s all it contained, I’d have to pack up my books and take up something useful for a living.
In any case, I hope Mark steps back from the Kossite brink. There are plenty of ways of showing that Mitt Romney would be a worse President than Barack Obama. Let’s not pretend that noting the relative merits of “Willard” and “Hussein” is among those ways.