If there's one thing the media won't tolerate for long, it's an unchanging media narrative. So the current story of the presidential campaign -- Obama sits on a lead that is modest but increasingly comfortable, thanks to a hapless Romney and a hapless Romney campaign -- should be yielding any moment to something fresher.
The essential property of the new narrative is that it inject new drama into the race, which means it has to be in some sense pro-Romney. This can in turn mean finding previously unappreciated assets in Romney or his campaign, previously undetected vulnerabilities in the Obama campaign, etc. The big question is whether the new narrative then becomes self-fulfilling, altering the focus of coverage in a way that actually increases Romney's chances of a victory. And that depends on the narrative's exact ingredients. Here are some candidate memes:
1. Romney has a previously undiscovered sense of humor! Here apologies are due to my Atlantic colleague Molly Ball, who, actually, discovered Romney's sense of humor some time ago. Sorry, Molly, but I'm afraid your discovery will have to be shrouded in obscurity, because the meta-narrative governing new narratives dictates that their ingredients be fresh and surprising. Man must bite dog! There has to be a new Mitt, an unexpected Mitt, so that suddenly all bets are off. For example, a little joke Romney makes at the Clinton Global Initiative has to seem so refreshingly unexpected that it makes headlines.
2. Sudden and unexpected foreign policy switcheroo! Whereas Obama had seemed to have an edge in the realm of national security and foreign policy over Romney (who, you may recall, has never ever killed Osama bin Laden), suddenly the tables turn! Actually, this narrative is already starting to take shape. After being widely panned for his too-early exploitation of the uprising over "Innocence of Muslims," a chastened Romney did some not-too-early exploitation of it that was received more warmly. And, helpfully, Obama has been far from sure-footed. Asking YouTube whether the video in question complies with its standards played into Romney's "apology" trope; calling Israel "one of our closest allies in the region" was a pre-packaged Romney Florida ad; "bumps in the road" was an unfortunate turn of phrase; and so on. Speaking of bumps in the road:
3. Suddenly it's Obama who seems off balance and gaffe-prone! In theory this should be a dog-bites-man story. The truth is that Obama has never been an especially deft off-the-cuff speaker -- he's about average, as recent presidents go -- and has always been a bit gaffe-prone. It's just that the media has never had an incentive to characterize him that way. But when the media gropes for a new narrative, its incentive structure changes, and Obama is likely to provide enough poor turns of phrase to fit into the new structure.
I'm guessing that one or more of the above three "new narrative" memes will have taken firm root before long. And I'm sure there are others I haven't anticipated. And, of course, there's always this fallback:
4. Romney surprisingly good in presidential debates! This meme, like the previous one, should by all rights be DOA. The truth is that Obama is not a great debater. Four years ago Hillary was on balance more impressive than he was in the primary debates, and then in the fall debates he had the good fortune to go up against a dim and crabby John McCain. Romney, though erratic, is a much better debater than McCain and on any given night has a good chance of outshining Obama. And since Obama enters the debates overrated, and Romney enters them underrated, a tie will go to Romney, who will have "exceeded expectations."
Of these four possible ingredients of the new narrative, I think the one that has the most potential to change the race is the first one. Romney's basic problem is that lots of people find him unlikable, and it's hard to dislike someone who (intentionally) makes you laugh. The foreign-policy switcheroo could also have legs, but only if abetted by new revelations (re. Libyan consulate security and other things) or ongoing, even growing, global turmoil.
And who knows? Maybe the new narrative will kick up the perfect storm: "A new Mitt Romney -- sporting a previously hidden sense of humor, showing a new sure-footedness in foreign policy, and facing a surprisingly gaffe-prone President Obama who seemed thrown off balance by growing global chaos -- exceeded expectations at last night's debate ...."
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