Was Mitt Romney “Juicing?”

In case you hadn’t noticed, American lefties have been having a bit of fun at Karl Rove’s expense. Their bête noire imploded on live TV Tuesday night; Fox’s Megyn Kelly had to talk him into admitting that President Obama had, in fact, won reelection. Conservatives are little happier with old TB. Rove blew hundreds of millions of sweet, sweet super PAC dollars…only for the GOP to wind up (mostly) empty-handed.

What did we learn about super PACs this year? What follows is an analogy that I hope might shed some light on their relationship with democracy.

This year’s sports news was dominated by the faux-dominant. Cycling (ex-?) legend Lance Armstrong joined baseball players Melky Cabrera and Bartolo Colon in the doghouse, their athletic accomplishments tarnished by their dependence upon banned substances. However, for all the hoopla surrounding Armstrong (et al), there’s a much bigger performance enhancement story brewing—in American campaign politics. That’s right. Today’s candidates are, um, juicing.

The United States may be politically divided. Our political system may be paralyzed by factions. But almost everyone—Right and Left alike—agrees that Mitt Romney was a pretty untalented presidential candidate. His opponents find him as unthreatening as his allies find him embarrassing. How did this guy survive this long? When did it get too late to make a call to the bullpen?

Here’s an easy way to think about Romney. Baseball scouts talk about so-called “five-tool” players; these are guys who can hit for average, hit for power, run the bases, field, and throw exceptionally well. It’s not hard to imagine a similar rating system for presidential hopefuls. Five-tool candidates stay on message, hit the rhetorical high notes, attack and counterpunch their opponent, empathize with voters, and (obviously) maintain an excellent hairstyle.[1] Sure, there are other relevant skills (just as there are in baseball) but these are among the most crucial. In both cases, these “tools” are the skills competitors traditionally need to excel in their field, whether it be on the diamond or campaign trail.

When most casual baseball fans think of steroids, they think about Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds smacking home run after home run—power hitters who went from musclebound to muscle-crazy. Not all performance enhancers fit that mold. While many famous steroid users took drugs to ramp up their existing strengths, many more took them to compensate for their weakest tools (Cf. Larry Bigbie, David Segui, Matt Lawton, Chris Donnels, Garry Bennett, et al). As it happens, political performance enhancement seems to follow the same pattern. Super PACs are better suited to candidates who lack some of the traditional American political tools—not the existing stars.[2]

For example: meet Mitt Romney, aspiring big leaguer and political performance enhancer.

Devoted politics fans will remember Romney in his original form: a handsome,  up-and-coming Senate prospect with dynastic connections and money to burn. Unfortunately, though he put some heat on canny veteran Ted Kennedy in 1994, Romney was left off the big league roster when the “tryouts” ended. Undeterred, he spent the next few years traveling and preparing to make a play for the Governorship. When the big leagues came calling in 2002, Romney was ready. Despite some stubborn weaknesses—his insistence on hot-button-issue-switch-hitting, his charisma-free (message) pitching, etc—Massachusetts voters (narrowly) gave Romney his first shot at the game. He served as Governor for four years and hung up his spikes in 2006. After a few years out of the Show, Romney decided to make a run at the presidency in 2008, only to find himself doomed by his persistent handicaps. Once again, a wily, politically-talented veteran (John McCain) edged Romney for the callup. His career was at a standstill.

And now, meet Paul Lo Duca, former major leaguer and athletic performance enhancer.

Lo Duca tore up college baseball as a great defender who reliably hit well over .400 with decent power. But after five years in the minors (1993-1998), the Brooklyn-born catcher still hadn’t gotten a chance at the big leagues. Undeterred, Lo Duca tried playing in the outfield, at third base, and even at first—and he was still only used as an occasional fill-in for injured starters. From 1998 until 2000, he batted .241 in the majors with little power. In sum, Lo Duca had about hit his ceiling.

But, as it happened, neither man’s story was over. Mitt Romney rose from the ashes of his 2008 loss to overcome a host of established conservative opponents on his march to the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. Paul Lo Duca became a regular starter, batted .288 over the next eight seasons, hit 75 home runs, and made the All-Star team four times.

What happened? New advances in performance enhancement. Romney returned in 2012 backed by many millions of dollars concentrated in a super PAC called “Restore Our Future” (among, erm, many others). Meanwhile, Lo Duca got his hands on enough human growth hormone to become a premier major league catcher.[3]

Remember the five-tools system: Paul Lo Duca was a great defensive catcher with or without performance enhancement—but he was nowhere near the same hitter. He needed human growth hormone to give him the offensive chops to excel in the major leagues. Indeed, it likely converted him from a one- or two-tool scuffler into a four-tool star.

Meanwhile, Romney didn’t need super PACs to help him to improve his hair or bolster his debating skills. He needed them to smooth over his gaffes with on-message ads. He needed them to level the gulf between the president’s considerable empathetic and rhetorical talents and his own—by painting Obama as an effete, out-of-touch celebrity, for example. He needed them to make him at least vaguely likable—if not inspiring. He needed them to keep Americans thinking about his jobs message instead of his tantalizingly mysterious tax returns/proposals.

In other words, Lo Duca and Romney needed performance enhancement to make them viable competitors at the top of their respective games. Without it, they both lacked the tools that are traditionally requisite for success. Without it, they were scrubs—not stars.

Obviously athletic and political performance enhancers come in multiple forms. Some users depend upon enhancement just to make it into the game, while others use it to become dominant. After all, President Obama had a couple of super PACs backing him as well.

Here’s the key difference between these and Romney’s super PACs: Romney needed them to stay in the race, while it’s not clear that Obama did. If Romney resembles a scrappy minor leaguer who uses performance enhancers to make it into the big leagues, Obama may be more like a three- or four-tool slugger who needs performance enhancers to become a once-in-a-generation superstar (if Romney’s the political version of Paul Lo Duca, perhaps Obama’s akin to Sammy Sosa or Rafael Palmeiro?). Put simply, Obama was a viable candidate with or without super PAC backing because he actually possesses most of the traditional political tools.

But that’s precisely the point. Super PACs still make mediocre one- or two-tool candidates newly feasible. They make it possible for boring, awkward, and gaffe-prone candidates to appear compelling, empathetic, and reasonable. Romney was every bit as inconsistent on core political issues in 2012 as he was in 1994. His rhetoric was no less wooden. His sense of humor was no less robotic. In sum, he didn’t address the very problems that hamstrung his previous campaigns. He simply papered them over (with greenbacks). His super PACs made it unnecessary to put in the work necessary to develop these skills.

“But wait!” you’re thinking, “How are super PACs any different from other huge sums of cash in politics? Isn’t all political dough created equal?” And that’s certainly true, as far as it goes. Yes, money is money is money, when it comes to funding a campaign. Always has been. Remember William Henry Harrison? “Old Tippecanoe” came from a reasonably wealthy background—it took a coordinated campaign to refashion him as a log-cabin-dwelling man of the people (and his opponents actually started the rumor that he was a hick!).

But super PACs are different because of the secrecy and flexibility that they make possible. Unlike traditional campaign money, super PAC donations are easier to keep hidden. They give their users an advantage from behind a shroud of secrecy. They’re also (ostensibly, at least) disconnected from the official campaign. That allows them (and the candidate’s campaign) organizational flexibility. Super PACs can act with a greater degree of impunity, since the official campaign can always feign mock horror and disavow any knowledge of ads that provoke a blowback. This gives a candidate a new political tool: with help from their super PACs, they can simultaneously speak multiple—even contradictory—messages to different audiences all at once. Indeed, these support organizations give them multiple “mouths.” They can give Romney credit for passing a statewide health care reform bill while he simultaneously decries that policy for varied  reasons (one example among many).

In both cases, secrecy is key. Super PAC and steroid users admit as much by the way they talk about their performance enhancers. They try to keep their dependence at arm’s length. In 2002, Lo Duca told Sports Illustrated: “If you’re battling for a job, and the guy you’re battling with is using steroids, then maybe you say, ‘Hey, to compete, I need to use steroids because he’s using them…Don’t get me wrong. I don’t condone it. But it’s a very tough situation. It’s really all about survival for some guys.’” This—as it was actually “all about survival” for Lo Duca himself!

Similarly, when Romney’s 2012 (primary and general election) opponents pointed out Restore Our Future’s seeming allergy to facts, Romney acted as though he’d hardly heard of the group. Hardly a gracious gesture to his former aides running the organization. Hardly a celebration of the super PACs that kept his campaign afloat after a bruising primary campaign. Like steroids, super PACs work best when they’re hidden away, unacknowledged by their dependents.

I’m no nostalgist. I’m well aware that super PACs aren’t the first innovation to change the way American politics is practiced. The same goes for steroids in baseball. If the direct election of senators and the advent of television changed politics, then adjustments in the height of the pitcher’s mound and the advent of Astroturf certainly changed baseball. The difference is that these are all changes to the structure of the competition—they adjust the very arena in which the competition takes place. Change the pitchers mound or introduce television and it applies to everyone. In contrast, performance enhancement dramatically, artificially, and illicitly changes the capacities of specific participants in these competitions. Super PAC users have a unique advantage over non-users.

“But Conor!” you say. “Romney lost!”

Indeed. In politics, as in baseball, performance enhancement doesn’t guarantee victory—it simply gives weak candidates unexpected viability. Over time, super PAC donors and their hired consultants will get better at distilling the maximum effect out of their dollars. Candidates will get decreasingly competent at traditional democratic skills…since there may be no reason to continue cultivating them.

That’s not all. Things stand to get interesting if (really “when”) performance enhancement starts to change the fundamental structure of American politics—just as it did for baseball. Super PACs and steroids adjust the relative importance of various skills and start to systematically rebalance the competition’s incentives.

Let me put this another way. A particular brand of offense dominated the steroid era in baseball—the various elements of “small ball” fell out of favor and fashion. Who needs great baserunners when home run power is just a few injections away? It doesn’t take much skill to trot home in front of your team’s bashers. Something similar could happen in politics: the balance of tools that was once non-negotiable for aspiring star politicians is shifting. What sort of candidates will excel in the brave new electoral world now emerging?

It’s still early days for predictions, but Mitt Romney could be the archetypal candidate of the future. The best candidates in the super PAC era might be those who are blandest and most pliable—these characteristics could become the new political “tools.” Like light-hitting catchers who need steroids to beef up their offensive skills, these dullards outsource their efforts to be compelling, substantive, and likable to their wealthy allies. (Incidentally, this goes a long way toward explaining why Mitt Romney’s rhetoric was so different when he thinks that the cameras aren’t rolling. As Mother Jones’ 47% exposé showed, his pitch to his donors is considerably starker than his public pitch.)

Think about it. In an era where charisma can be manufactured by means of a blanket advertising buy with a catchy, patriotic soundtrack, it’s no longer requisite for candidates to actually be appealing. Super PAC money insulates them from their deficiencies. Same goes for raw intelligence, policy awareness, and basic political competence. When all of these things can be artificially replicated by means of (expensive) message control, there’s no longer any need to actually be smart, up to speed, or savvy.

Finally, while this has been going on for some time, super PACs elevate it to a level of enormous sophistication. Political image management may be as old as Athens, but super PACs represent a sea change in the resources available to candidates. And it might be tired and trite and hand-wringingly banal to say it, but the increasing gulf between candidates’ image and the actual content of their campaigns (and character) will also erode the quality of American political discourse. Like most banal claims, this is pretty straightforward: it’s difficult to have substantive arguments about politics when the conversation is being so consciously manipulated. Worse still, it’s downright impossible to get that conversation off the ground when even our view of the participants is being obscured by super-PAC-funded distractions.


Conor P. Williams is just about done with 2012 election posts. More on Facebook, Twitter, and his website. Also email.
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[1] Please don’t dwell on the specific political tools I’ve proposed. They’re mostly placeholders for the point I’m making. Tweak them a bit and it doesn’t change the argument.

[2] MSNBC’s Martin Bashir has marked the superficial similarity between super PACs and athletic performance enhancers. I’m focusing on the specifics.

[3] Human growth hormone (HGH) is not technically a steroid, but it is an athletic performance enhancer. The biochemical distinction between HGH and steroids isn’t especially relevant to my argument.

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27 thoughts on “Was Mitt Romney “Juicing?”

  1. Only the need to be picture perfect and super appealing is a relatively recent thing in American Politics. It is mostly a product of the 24 hr news cycle. Contrast with JFK who was wheelchair bound and had numerous affairs. He would never be elected president in today’s media environment.

    God knows what most 20th century pols (even the ones who we thought were the most progressive of the lot) said to their different constituents. Would aspiring democratic politicians say one thing to white working class unionised workers, but something else to african americans?

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  2. Doesn’t this apply even more to the Republican primaries? Santorum, Gingrich, and others wouldn’t have even made it out of the bullpen had they not had bottomless (almost) pits of superPAC money….

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  3. I think it’s interesting that in some ways the SuperPACs wound up hurting the GOP.

    If not for those constant infusions of huge sums, the primary wouldn’t have been so damaging or dragged on for so long because the worst candidates (like Gingrich) would have had to drop out earlier. Instead it turned into the political version of The Hunger Games, but with more rich sponsors dropping more gifts.

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    • The overarching problem was the impact of the SuperPAC donors on the candidates’ positions. Had Romney been at liberty to represent himself as the Moderate Hero who Gets Things Done, he could have won this election walking away. When he was governor, Tom Sternberg, the Staples guy, sat down and talked about health care reform as the best way to help the people of Massachusetts. There’s Romney’s portrait hanging on the wall, with a little embedded picture of his wife and his health care legislation with a caduceus symbol on it.

      That guy could have won, folks. But the Big Money Types and the Folx at Fox and the hard-core jackasses made sure he didn’t. Though money buys ads, the people got sick of them. Obama wasn’t a monster. And yes, ACA probably does need some fixing. And who better than Mitt Romney to do a deal with Wall Street, instituting sensible reforms which wouldn’t damage the markets and keep us from another 2008-esque implosion?

      Those whom the gods would destroy, to them do they grant wishes. They fought like hell for Citizens United only to find their Midas Touch destroyed their objectives.

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      • I agree with all this Blaise but I think you stop short at the logical conclusion: Romney is ultimately the one responsible for (at the very least) acquiescing in the public image of himself that was presented in the campaign. People were asked to respect his achievements over the past thirty years – and then received relatively little information about those achievements.

        Mormon elder and bishop? Off the table, too potentially dangerous? Chairman of the Olympics? Too much likelihood that his success at getting government money would come up. Governor of Massachusetts? Oh good Flying Spaghetti Monster no! That would mean addressing Romneycare and being pro-choice and bipartisanship and…and…and… Nope. Nope. Nope. Let’s not go there. (And then let’s not have any real comebacks when other people did go there.)

        We got a preview of this in 2008 with the notorious Seamus-rooftop-car episode. What I always thought was weird about it was that the anecdote was offered as an example of a time when Romney had handled an unexpected emergency situation successfully. And I remember thinking, “Huh? He was a state governor, he chaired the Olympics, both situations when he’d have faced lots of unexpected situations and this is what they offer?”

        It was like someone standing in front of you holding up a steno pad and flipping through it quickly while saying, here are my accomplisments, yet not slowing down so you could actually read it for yourself. Somehow made all the real achievements seem ephemeral.

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      • The only difficulty I see in that analysis is that, even w/o SuperPAC influence, I doubt the GOP base would’ve let Romney run as the ‘Moderate Hero who Gets Things Done’. Even without the big money club, being moderate is simply not acceptable anymore. Look how many reasonable, admirable Republicans have retired or lost primary challenges to extremist tea party hacks.

        The Super PACs just made the fight longer, uglier and more obvious to the general public – all things that made etch-a-sketching after getting the nomination nearly impossible.

        Worse, the reaction in the rightwing bubble seems to be that they lost because Romney wasn’t hardcore conservative enough. Yet another view completely at odds with reality since his one bounce toward electability came after playing Moderate Mitt in the first debate.

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        • I believe I said all that. Big Money warps politics like Big Gravity warps spacetime. I believe Romney was a moderate sort of guy, before he started in with the denials of everything. What didn’t he deny? His pro-life positions went overboard first, then his health care initiative, the list gets pretty long on this front.

          Big Money did that. I don’t believe Romney was all that bad a candidate. He turned into Plastic Man, they pulled the strings and he danced. But Big Money didn’t represent the ordinary Republican Joe (and Jane) who would have voted him into office if he’d run on his record.

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            • So there’s Mitt Romney, shuckin’ and jivin’, in front of a gathering of Big Money Types, saying exactly what they want to hear. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to one of those things. I’m not a large donor to the Democratic Party and I’ve given up political donations, what with better things to do with my money, but when I gave a substantial amount of money, they gave me a discreet little cloisonné pin for my coat lapel. He who wears that pin the staffers know from the tourists.

              Not only does it square with the PACs, it is a direct representation of what goes down at such soirées. You get the pin before you turn up.

              Fact is, that 47% number is damningly accurate. It’s disgraceful that about half this country pays no taxes. But they’re not moochers, they’re just poor people. The disgraceful aspect to their predicament is the fact that they’re reduced to government assistance through no fault of their own. This economy sucks. If this country was properly run, more people would pay taxes because they’d have goddamn jobs because they’d have decent educations for the many positions that require such an education. While they’re unemployed their kids have health insurance: if they go to work, they lose that insurance. And Mitt Romney knew it. He was pandering to those sick bastards where he didn’t pander to them as governor.

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  4. This is a reasonable enough analogy.

    Two quibbles: even without SuperPACs, Romney would have won the nomination, as Seth Masket pointed out around December 2011: “Romney and Perry are splitting in terms of gubernatorial endorsements, but the former is walking away with all the other categories. Remember, as The Party Decides reminds us, endorsements do a much better job predicting presidential nominations than polls do”. Yes, Romney was a weak candidate; but he was the best possible candidate for a weak party. Elsewhere, Masket pointed out that “No one taking the stances Romney needed to take to win this year could have had the sort of résumé needed to be a typical major party nominee. … Rapid polarization makes flip-flopping a necessity.” So the GOP had a choice of an artful flip-flopper like Romney, a less artful flip-flopper like Perry or Santorum or Gingrich (or Paul Ryan or John Thune), or a guns-blazing ignoramus outsider like Bachmann or Cain or Trump.

    Related, if everyone is on performance-enhancing SuperPACs, then the analogy breaks down. Paul Lo Duca vs. Replacement-Level Catcher X doesn’t mean as much if Replacement-Level Catcher X is doing the exact same things as Lo Duca.

    The performance-enhancers analogy in the GOP always seemed to me to be their cultivation, or at least accommodation, of racial resentment. Conor Friedersdorf sets out the reasons why in this post.

    Pres. Bush was “one of us”, so transgressions against small-government conservatism, fiscal conservatism, and federalist conservatism like Medicare Part D, No Child Left Behind, Raich v. Gonzales, the occupation of Iraq, and his surplus-destroying fiscal policies earned him over 80% approval from self-described “conservative Republicans” for almost his entire presidency. Those same conservative Republicans, rebranded as the “Tea Party” turned out in force in 2010, ostensibly because they were concerned about the deficit and federal & executive power. But they were Pres. Bush’s most loyal supporters, so we know they don’t care about those things.

    As it turns out, the GOP’s 2010 was Mark McGwire’s 1998, and the GOP’s 2012 presidential race was McGwire’s “not here to talk about the past” moment before Congress in 2005.

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  5. In an era where charisma can be manufactured by means of a blanket advertising buy with a catchy, patriotic soundtrack, it’s no longer requisite for candidates to actually be appealing. Super PAC money insulates them from their deficiencies. Same goes for raw intelligence, policy awareness, and basic political competence. When all of these things can be artificially replicated by means of (expensive) message control, there’s no longer any need to actually be smart, up to speed, or savvy.

    I’m not really buying this conclusion, nor your assertion that the best candidates for office in the Super PAC era are the blankest, most flexible slates. First off, you either have charisma or you don’t. It cannot be manufactured. Reagan had it. Palin, bless her narcissistic little soul, has it. Clinton has it. Romney doesn’t and no neatly packaged, well-managed campaign strategy was going to give it to him. On the stump and in debates, he’d still come off as a somewhat unctuous used car salesman, completely lacking in humor. Unless you kept him totally off the campaign trail and away from the press, there was no way to cover up the more android elements of his personality.

    Romney was, however, amazingly flexible. There was no policy position he couldn’t renounce or finesse. This quality turned people off. What did the guy stand for, after all? His unwillingness to define himself left him open to characterization by his primary opponents and by the Obama campaign. There wasn’t much there there.

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  6. Re: the irony of how conservatives rejoiced over Cutizens United only to have the implementation part of the Master Plan bite them in the ass…

    … I think there’s a lot of correct analysis in what you say here. It might be my imagination or the logical conclusion of my inherent reality-based liberal bias, but it seems to me that the biggest problem – a perhaps fatal one, but we’ll see – conservative operatives have is that they still think they can manufacture reality. They seemed to accept as an unchallenged assumption that a sufficiently aggressive media-blitz could define the electorates reality for them. Against all evidence.

    So the real problem isn’t that conservatives juiced the election (or however the analogy runs at that point), but that they continue to deny the reality of how the public perceives their policy proposals. It’s a vicious circle, really. The more conservatives deny reality, the more they believe people aren’t seeing reality correctly (be it blacks, the poor, women, hispanics … Nate Silver!!!), the more they think a sufficient level of propaganda will change people’s views to the right ones … because from their pov, “reality” is on their side!!!

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  7. With apologies to Homer Simpson, there is the right way, the wrong way and the SuperPac way.

    Isn’t the SuperPac way just like the wrong way?

    Yes, but louder and dumber.

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  8. It seems to me that a better use of the money would have been to bribe Todd Akin to withdraw from his campaign for personal reasons to pursue opportunities elsewhere (or, if all else failed, to accidentally hit him with a truck two or three times.)

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