Romney’s Debate Strategy: Beavis and Butt-head Meet Charlie Brown

When I was a child, “Zingers” were a kind of packaged pastry made by Dolly Madison.  They weren’t very good, but because they sponsored Peanuts specials, they had Charlie Brown, or Snoopy, or Lucy, or (my favorite) Linus on them.  I desperately wanted to eat them more often.

Mom was smarter than that.  “They really aren’t all that good even a dessert,” she told me.  And I realized she was right: they weren’t very good, they gave me a sugar rush, and of course had no nutritional value at all.

So when the New York Times reports that Romney’s debate team has concluded that “debates are about creating moments and has equipped him with a series of zingers that he has memorized and has been practicing on aides since August,” it just couldn’t be more appropos.

Quite literally, there is no there there: it’s policy as empty calories.  That’s the entire Republican strategy: avoid all substance and just work on perfecting your put-downs.  It’s the Beavis and Butt-head version of politics. 

It shows something about the clown show in Boston that, faced with a candidate that the public has concluded is a jerk, devises a strategy to make him look like a jerk, and then announces to the media that its strategy is to make their candidate look like a jerk.

Basically, this is an attempt by the Romney campaign to replay 2000, which was essentially this strategy.  Avoid specifics, lie about what you try to do, insult the opponent, and pretend that you are tough.  That’s what happened 12 years ago, and to some extent, that’s what happened in 2004 as well.  But it isn’t working this time, for the three reasons:

1)  Mitt Romney isn’t nearly as good of a candidate as was George W. Bush;

2)  Barack Obama isn’t nearly as bad of a candidate as was Al Gore; and most importantly;

3)  The public has seen the results of eight years of Republican mis-rule.  The GOP strategy is predicated upon the voters being idiots, but the electorate is not playing by the script.  (This is why, of course, Republicans from Pennsylvania to Ohio to Florida are trying to replace it with another one, as Bertold Brecht suggested).

Better try yet another re-re-re-re-boot.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

14 thoughts on “Romney’s Debate Strategy: Beavis and Butt-head Meet Charlie Brown”

  1. Ezra Klein takes this insight one step further and concludes the whole “zingers” storyline is disinformation put out by the Romney campaign. Can’t decide whether this is very clever or evidence of campaign fatigue on Klein’s part.

  2. …he has memorized and has been practicing on aides since August…

    There’s a Saturday Night Live sketch in there somewhere….

  3. It’s the bitch-slap theory again. Or perhaps reality creation. If the New York Times announces that the Romney staff is proud of this strategy, then by golly they must be right to be proud, and anyone who questions them must be some kind of wimp or pointy-headed intellectual or gay atheist or something else that’s not really American.

    The idea that there’s now a plurality of people standing outside the GOP reality-creation field is, of course, one that must not ever be allowed consideration.

  4. The only time zingers work is when they are, or appear to be, spontaneous. The thing is Romney is particularly bad at this sort of thing. He couldn’t have a spontaneous moment if he planned one.

    1. Right! “The secret to success in salesmanship is sincerity. Once you learn to fake that, you can sell anything.”

      Think of “Well there you go again!” Reagan was a master at selling the scripted “spontaneous” response. Romney hasn’t a snowball’s chance of matching that talent.

    1. Lord Birkenhead, who knew Churchill well, once described him as having spent the best years of his life preparing impromptu remarks. The difference is, that was a private *off-stage* insight.

  5. What I want to know is this: if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would Barack Obama favor the death penalty for the killer?

    1. Side note:
      Why is it always “raped and murdered”?
      Can’t I want the death penalty if it was ‘mere’ murder?

      1. You can as a matter of policy, but if you want to trigger an equally strong emotional response, then the answer is no.

        Think of the recently departed Griselda Blanco. Were there more than a handful of Americans who mourned her passing, or who felt outrage directed at her killer? Now suppose it had been reported that, before she was executed, the 69 year old woman was brutally and repeatedly raped. There might be few of us who felt outrage at her dispatch, but many would have been shocked and incensed by the manner.

  6. “That’s the entire Republican strategy: avoid all substance and just work on perfecting your put-downs. It’s the Beavis and Butt-head version of politics. ”

    I remember having this exact reaction to a pair of post-election press conferences I saw on C-Span in late 2006. It was Rahm Emanuel and his Republican counterpart talking about their work as DCCC and RCCC chairs and commenting on their parties’ results that year. Rahm bragged about his great successes (arguably due to Howard Dean more than Rahm) and the other R guy just talked sheepishly about how “we failed to disqualify our opponents”.

    “We failed to disqualify our opponents.” Just belt-way code for “we didn’t do a good enough job perfecting our put-downs” (both live and via TV ads)

  7. … [S]aid Mr. Bennet, ” … [I]t is happy for you that you possess the talent of flattering with delicacy. May I ask whether these pleasing attentions proceed from the impulse of the moment, or are the result of previous study?”

    “They arise chiefly from what is passing at the time, and though I sometimes amuse myself with suggesting and arranging such little elegant compliments as may be adapted to ordinary occasions, I always wish to give them as unstudied an air as possible.”

    Mr. Bennet’s expectations were fully answered. His cousin was as absurd as he had hoped, and he listened to him with the keenest enjoyment, maintaining at the same time the most resolute composure of countenance, and, except in an occasional glance at Elizabeth, requiring no partner in his pleasure.

Comments are closed.