Substance-free Republicans default to lazy mendacity

Romney's criticisms of Obama -- on full display during the debates -- don't even make sense. Does it matter?

Published October 12, 2012 8:30PM (EDT)

The hallmark of Republican thinking these days, especially as expressed in Romney/Ryan rhetoric, is just the sheer laziness of it. That’s presumably a consequence of having developed an amazingly efficient partisan press. There’s just very little incentive remaining to develop actual policies or even a real critique of Barack Obama’s administration. After all, if the president is a Kenyan socialist intent on destroying the United States, it’s hardly necessary to explain exactly where his policies are going wrong or why.

That often shows up in the way that Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan dissemble. Every presidential campaign lies, but what distinguishes this crowd is a lazy mendacity in which there’s not even an attempt to make their falsehoods plausible (here’s another recent, excellent example).

But it also shows up in their basic rhetoric. Why put together a critique of Barack Obama’s foreign policy when they can just refer to unspecified disasters and know that anyone watching Fox News will nod in agreement? And thus we get Paul Ryan’s astonishingly substance-free line that “What we are witnessing, as we turn on our television screens these days, is the absolute unraveling of the Obama foreign policy.”

Ryan trotted out “unraveling” three times in the vice-presidential debate.

The first one was at the end of a scattershot answer that was mostly about Libya:

And with respect to Afghanistan and the 2014 deadline, we agree with a 2014 transition. But what we also want to do is make sure that we’re not projecting weakness abroad, and that’s what’s happening here. This Benghazi issue would be a tragedy in and of itself. But unfortunately it’s indicative of a broader problem, and that is what we are watching on our TV screens is the unraveling of the Obama foreign policy, which is making the world more -- more chaotic and us less safe.

Apparently something is happening “on our TV screens” that’s self-evident to Ryan. Now, I have no doubt that on certain TV screens – the ones permanently set to Fox News – all sorts of terrible things are happening as a direct result of Obama's incompetence. Or, perhaps, Obama’s deliberate preference for those horrible outcomes. But it would be nice for Ryan to give us some sort of clue about it. His critique is that the U.S. is “projecting weakness abroad” (how?), and that’s resulting in … something. What? No idea.

So that’s one try. Next:

Look, this was the anniversary of 9/11. It was Libya, a country we knew we had al-Qaeda cells there. As we know, al-Qaeda and its affiliates are on the rise in northern Africa. And we did not give our ambassador in Benghazi a Marine detachment? Of course there is an investigation so we can make sure that this never happens again. But when it comes to speaking up for our values, we should not apologize for those.

Here is the problem. Look at all the various issues out there and that’s unraveling before our eyes. The vice president talks about sanctions on Iran.

At which point he was asked a question about Iran and answered it. “Unraveling”? There’s surely plenty of room for criticizing Barack Obama’s Iran policy, either that it’s too hawkish or not hawkish enough, but it’s really hard to understand an argument that Iran policy is “unraveling before our eyes.” Unwise? Perhaps. Short-sighted? Maybe. Unraveling before our eyes? How? The only obvious news out of Iran is the collapse of their currency, which, for better or worse, is awfully hard to cast as an unraveling of a tough sanctions policy. Indeed, it seems suspiciously like the consequences of a successful tough sanctions policy! Again, one can criticize the policy, but how is it unraveling before our eyes?

Otherwise, all we get here is a vague reference to “the various issues out there,” as if we all knew what they were. Presumably because they’re on our TV screens. And therefore not worth mentioning.

That’s two strikes. The third? It’s in response to a question about staying in Afghanistan beyond 2014:

We want to make sure that 2014 is successful. That’s why we want to make sure that we give our commanders what they say they need to make it successful. We don’t want to extend beyond 2014. That’s the point we’re making.

You know, if it was just this, I feel like we would -- we would be able to call this a success, but it’s not. What we are witnessing as we turn on our television screens these days, is the absolute unraveling of the Obama foreign policy. Problems are growing at home, but jobs -- problems are growing abroad, but jobs aren’t growing here at home.

So Afghanistan would be a success, but it’s not for some unspecified reason, which goes back to that “absolute unraveling of the Obama foreign policy” that we can see “on our television screens.” The best example of which appears to be something about jobs.

Strike three.

It’s easy to spin this as an example of Paul Ryan’s inexperience with foreign policy and national security issues, but I think that’s wrong. The truth is that he’s merely reciting a standard Republican talking point here. And why not? On the Rush Limbaugh program or any of the other Republican-aligned talk shows, it’s obviously true that Obama’s foreign policy is a total failure. That’s good enough for the hosts, and it appears to be good enough for the audiences. So why bother developing anything more?

A minor problem with all of this is that it leaves Republicans ill-equipped to convince anyone of anything unless they’re already within the conservative closed-information feedback loop. Minor, because most voting decisions are more about retrospective evaluations of incumbents than about careful examination of the logic in campaign statements, to the sheer laziness of the critique probably doesn’t matter very much at that point. The major problem, however, is that all of this lazy thinking leaves Republicans ill-equipped to govern – as seen in the problems encountered by the Gingrich Congress, the George W. Bush administration and now the Boehner/Ryan House. And that matters a lot.

By Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein writes at a Plain Blog About Politics. Follow him at @jbplainblog

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2012 Vice Presidential Debate Foreign Policy Libya Mitt Romney Paul Ryan