Friday, October 5, 2012

Modeling a Rational Romney

Sorry, I can’t help it.  Despite all my protestations, in my bones I must be an economist: if I see strategic behavior I have to consider how it could be represented as an outcome of rational calculation.  To be honest, however, I did not actually see the first Romney-Obama debate—I am willing to suffer for The Cause but only up to a point.  Instead, I am relying on hearsay.

What I gather is that Romney interrupted Obama repeatedly, employing an aggressive personal style and confronting his opponent with one egregious misrepresentation after another.  Obama responded with self-discipline to the point of distancing, acting as though he were conducting a calm seminar on politics; he allowed himself to be cut off, and he never confronted Romney with accusations of dishonesty.  Score one for Romney; apparently that’s what all the commentators did.

Now put yourself in the shoes of Romney and his advisers.  Given the political constraints both candidates face, what is the optimal strategy in the debate game?  I think Romney played his cards absolutely right: he provoked Obama to the maximum extent without going so far as to portray himself as a sociopath.  The debate moderator (and especially this particular moderator) was not in a position to challenge him.  The only resistance could come from Obama himself, and Obama faces the profound constraint of being a black man in America.

Look at it this way: what outcome from this debate would have been even better for Romney?  Answer: if Obama had lost his temper, showed personal anger toward Romney and called him a liar.  That would have proved to white America that, despite his post-racial stylings, underneath it all Obama is still the angry black militant that evokes a primal fear.  Romney can hope, of course: he can think up provocations that would really annoy Obama and make it difficult for him to stay on script.  But if Obama draws back from the challenge that’s OK too, as we’ve seen.

If I’m right, we are likely to see more of this in the future.  Can Obama fight back without invoking the racial stereotypes that would destroy him?  Can he be relaxed and smiling and still twist the knife?  That’s a thin line to walk, and if he gets it wrong there would be no recovery.  His whole political career has been based on avoiding white panic over aggressive, and therefore threatening, black males.  Perhaps his best move is to allow Romney to take all of these debates on points and trust that he has enough other resources to pull out a victory in November.  His TV ads can trash Romney without limit, of course, since the voices and images that express anger in them are not black.

None of this has anything to do with political substance, except insofar as racialized judgments regarding acceptable behavior still constitute an important part of American politics in our enlightened year of 2012.

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