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If Mitt Romney loses the election in November, he lost it over the weekend. The Democrats followed a lackluster Republican National Convention with a festival of unity in Charlotte, in which the frequently bickering party celebrated not just their candidate but their “We’re all in this together” theme. President Obama got the convention bounce Romney did not, but Republicans still hoped a disappointing jobs report might slow his momentum. It didn’t; in fact, GOP incompetence since Charlotte turned Obama’s small bounce into a leap forward, with Gallup today showing the president 6 points ahead of Mitt Romney; a week ago, they were tied.
I want to take a moment to make sure we fully appreciate Romney-Ryan’s disastrous weekend. I focused on Romney’s own stunning flip-flop-flipping on Obamacare, in which he promised to keep the law’s ban on discrimination against people with preexisting medical conditions and a provision that lets young adults stay on their parents’ insurance plans – and then his campaign said he didn’t really mean it. But Paul Ryan’s performance on ABC’s “This Week” and CBS’s “Face the Nation” may have been more devastating, because it underscored the cost of the Romney campaign’s dishonest insistence on obscuring all facts about how he would govern. Pretending he doesn’t believe what we know he believes, Ryan looked like Sarah Palin during her Katie Couric interview, unable to point to policy specifics a Romney-Ryan administration would pursue.
Republicans from Rupert Murdoch to Laura Ingraham are squawking about Romney’s empty suit strategy. But so are voters. In the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll, 63 percent of those polled say Romney hasn’t given enough information about what he’d do as president (only 31 percent said he’s revealed enough). And 48 percent believe he’s intentionally misleading people, compared with 43 percent who say he’s not.
When Romney picked Ryan, some people (myself included) thought it might herald a clear ideological battle throughout the fall. The architect of the Ryan budget is a right-wing economic and culture warrior; he can turn from budget slashing to antiabortion extremism on a dime (hopefully, one that still says “In God We Trust.) Now, I’ve never bought the line that Ryan was a Serious Intellectual. That’s the fiction spun by a Beltway media elite determined to ignore that the Republican Party has gone full-tilt crazy and obstructionist. They need Ryan to be a man of conservative principle and bold ideas, even if he’s not.
Yet while Ryan may not be the Wise Man of his Beltway reputation, I’m quite sure he can handle an interview. But when confronted by CBS’s Norah O’Donnell and ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, he seemed shady and incompetent. When Stephanopoulos grilled Ryan on the details of Romney’s tax plans, he insisted now isn’t the time to get into details. He gulped. He blinked. He sighed. He gulped some more. He looked too small for his suit.
O’Donnell deserves particular credit for grilling Ryan on attacking Obama over defense cuts he voted for. “You’re criticizing the president for those same defense cuts that you actually voted for and called a victory,” she said. Ryan tried to deny it, with a condescending, “No, no, I have to correct you on this, Norah.” He claimed he merely voted for a “mechanism” that was designed to force the president to cut domestic spending, and accused the CBS anchor of getting hung up on “nomenclature.” After O’Donnell pushed back repeatedly, telling him “you voted for it,” Ryan shot back, “Norah, you’re mistaken.” He looked like a liar and a bully at the same time.
The editorial pages of both the New York Times and the conservative Wall Street Journal are lamenting the fact-free campaign of Romney and Ryan. Rupert Murdoch took to Twitter to declare: “Election: Romney must draw clear line: offer specific path to restore American dream versus ugly Obama class war with jobs disappearing.” Now we know voters want more detail, too.
The latest round of polling looks devastating for Romney and Ryan. In the Washington Post, ABC News poll, when voters were asked who will do a better job on a variety of concerns, from handling the economy to taxes to terrorism to women’s issues, they gave Obama higher marks on every single issue except the deficit, where Romney got the edge. On the economy, on taxes, on national security, on social issues and on who will protect the middle class; those polled gave Obama higher marks. On likability, the gulf between the two men is widening – 61 percent say Obama is likable compared with only 27 percent for Romney. They’d rather have Obama take care of them if they were sick, be the captain of their ship, and they believe he’d be a more loyal friend.
The latest CNN poll had other intriguing details. Obama picked up more support from men after the convention. (Gallup presidential approval tracking found he gained 7 points with men, 4 points with white voters and 10 points with non-college educated voters, all key GOP constituencies, in the last week). And Charlotte reenergized the base, with more Democrats than Republicans now saying they are enthusiastic about voting (a week ago, Republicans were 6 points ahead in the enthusiasm race.) Fully 51 percent of likely voters told CNN Obama’s vision for the future is more optimistic than Romney’s; last week, that figure was only 43 percent.
I’ve never been a fan of choosing a president based on who you’d like to have a beer with, as the media did in 2000 with George W. Bush. And Ronald Reagan’s famous optimism seduced voters into backing an economic agenda that eroded the foundations of the middle class. But Obama’s trustworthiness and likability is proving to be a powerful advantage in a time when many voters are still worried about the economy and haven’t yet seen recovery. They don’t trust Romney and Ryan, and their fact-free, post-truth campaign is increasing their doubts, not reassuring them.
Joan Walsh is Salon's editor at large and the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."More Joan Walsh.