This Campaign Has Gone To The Dogs
Last week, an absurd campaign became even more absurd.
Last week, for reasons that nobody appears to be able to explain, a one paragraph passage from Barack Obama’s 1995 book Dreams From My Father became a hot political topic among conservatives in the blogosphere and on Twitter:
It had taken me less than six months to learn Indonesia’s language, its customs, and its legends. I had survived chicken pox, measles and the sting of my teachers’ bamboo switches. The children of farmers, servants and low-level bureaucrats had become my best friends, and together we ran the streets morning and night, hustling odd jobs, catching crickets, battling swift kites with razor-sharp lines — the loser watched his kite soar off with the wind, and knew that somewhere other children had formed a long, wobbly train, their heads toward the sky, waiting for their prize to land. With Lolo, I learned how to eat small green chili peppers raw with dinner (plenty of rice), and, away from the dinner table, I was introduced to dog meat (tough), snake meat (tougher), and roasted grasshopper (crunchy).
The paragraph, obviously, relates to that part of Barack Obama’s life when he lived in Indonesia with his mother and her second husband Lolo Sotero, which roughly covers the time that Obama was between ages 6 and 10. For some reason, this paragraph was picked out of the blue by a Daily Caller columnist and it quickly turned into a massive Twitter hashtag called #ObamaDogRecipes. To some extent, it was understandable that conservatives would pick up on this story given the traction that the rather irrelevant story about Mitt Romney once putting the family dog Seamus in a dog carrier on the roof of the family station wagon during a trip from Boston to Ontario. Thanks to people like New York Times columnist Gail Collins and Obama adviser David Axelrod, that particular story has gotten far more media attention than it deserves, and perhaps many on the right felt that payback was fair game.
But they were wrong.
I’ve always thought that the proper way for campaigns to deal with idiotic stories that pop up during a campaign was to ignore them. If there is any more of a definition of an idiotic story than the Seamus story, I don’t know what it is and, for the most part, the Romney campaign has wisely avoided either commenting on it or responding to the occasional ribbing about it that comes from people like Collins and Axelrod. The only thing that responding to such a story does is elevate it’s importance and give the media reason to talk about it even more. Instead of learning that lesson, though, Romney’s supporters (assuming they’re really supporters) in the digital world decided that the best way to respond to a ridiculous story about a family road trip in the 80s was to bring up a even more ridiculous story about something that happened to Barack Obama in the 1960s.
So Barack Obama ate dog meat (not to mention snake and grasshopper apparently). So what? Yes, its something that a lot of us find distasteful mostly because we consider dogs to be members of our families rather than sources of nutrition, but that’s not how people in many other parts of the world see it. Consumption of dog meat is still regularly practiced in many parts of the world. Heck, that hamburger you ate the other day would be considered a travesty in the world’s second most populous nation. The world is a diverse place and what’s considered acceptable food in one country is considered verboten in another. More importantly, what in the world is the relevance of something that Barack Obama ate when he was a child of less than 10 to a political campaign in 2012? I posed that question to several conservatives on Twitter over this past week, and not surprisingly I never really got a coherent answer.
And, so Mitt Romney put Seamus in a dog carrier and secured it on the roof of a 1970s era station wagon? To be honest, I remember taking plenty of road trips with my family in our station wagon (no dog) and seeing the same thing on more than one car. Heck, just two weeks ago, I was traveling on a highway here in Virginia and saw a pickup truck pulling a trailer with a set of kennels that had dogs in them. Trust me, dogs are resilient creatures. And if the experiences I’ve had with dogs in cars are any indication, being in the open air traveling at a high rate of speed is about as close to heaven on earth as a dog can get. Again, though, most importantly, what in the world is the relevance of a family road trip in the 1970s to a political campaign in 2012? Absolutely none, I would submit.
This dog-on-dog meme war is only the latest example of the silliness that we’ve seen erupt in this campaign in just the past two months. There was the Etch-A-Sketch nonsense, the rather contrived outrage over Hilary Rosen’s alleged attack on stay-at-home mothers on CNN, and an admittedly stupid comment by Foster Freiss that he hoped Obama has “bulletproof teleprompters.” Living as we do in a 365/24/7 news cycle, the smallest dumb comment by a candidate or campaign surrogate ends up getting blown entirely out of proportion, creating an “issue” that is, in reality, entirely phony, while ignoring the issues that really matter.
Jason Pye at United Liberty puts it best:
With polls showing that social and cultural issues standing low on voters’ radar, you’d think that the economy would be the focus on both sides. But since Obama has no real record to run on, resorting instead to a blame game to explain away his failures and conservatives apparently still believe that wedge social issues are a winning formula; voters are almost assured that neither party is prepared to be open and honest with them in the upcoming election.
Of course, this is broadly speaking. There are certainly members of each party in Congress that are truly concerned about the economy, which polls indicate is the most pressing issue facing the country. But sadly, they are few and far between.
It’s hard to take any politician or talking head seriously over the cacophony of stupidity that comes to us on social media and in the news, and this isn’t limited to any one side. Most Americans don’t care about about the other side’s “war on [insert group here]” when unemployment and gas prices remain high.
If you’re a blogger, no matter your political or philosophical persuasion, and you’re keeping up with the “Meme of the Day,” kindly get back to what matters in this election and stop deviating to issues that otherwise don’t matter to voters.
I’d argue that doesn’t just apply to bloggers, but to political pundits, partisans, and anyone who really thinks that this election should be about the issues that truly matter in this election, and to this country’s future.
That brings up another thought that points out yet again why the “meme wars” and the silly season really are such a waste. When you spend your time reading, writing, talking, and watching television programs about politics you sometimes start to think that everyone in the country is just like you and that they pay as much attention to the daily nonsense of a political campaign as you do. As Ezra Klein noted in a recent column, that’s not true at all:
On Thursday, I spoke with Lynn Vavreck, a political scientist at UCLA, for a column I’m writing next week. She said something that I thought was very wise.
“Most people don’t care about politics,” she said. “They’re not running around with these preformed opinions in their head. They worry about what they’ll make for dinner and how to get their kids to bed. And that hasn’t changed. For us, that’s an alien world. We think about politics all the time. But we’re not normal. The 24-hour news cycle has not really affected the average American who isn’t into politics. And that’s really important to remember.”
I think most people in Washington believe voters would make better decisions if they spent more time following politics. But I spend a lot of time following politics, and quite often, I couldn’t be happier that voters are tuning out the inanities that obsess this town. Better that they worry about real mountains rather than hyped-up molehills.
Although I don’t do so very often, I’ve to agree with Klein here. In that strange place called the “real world,” I often get to interact with people who don’t spend their every waking hour paying attention to politics. They have real lives, kids, businesses to run, and payrolls to meet. They couldn’t care less if Obama ate dog meat when he was 7 or if Romney put Seamus on the roof in the 1970s. They’ll vote in the election, but they’ll do so based not on some stupid meme off the Internet, but based on who they think can best run the country. It strikes me that they are the sane ones.
Nothing more substantive to add Jim?
Lowest common denominator principle.
I enjoyed the “Mitt’s great-grandfather was a polygamist, and his grandfather grew up in a polygamist settlement!” story, pushed by backers of President Obama, whose father was also a polygamist.
It seems the old prediction about Obama was true… any criticism leveled against his rivals most often applies even more directly to him. “Romney negligently mistreated a dog? Well, Obama ATE one!”
It gets even funnier… apparently, eating dog hasn’t been common in Indonesia for well over 50 years…
@Doug Mataconis: Treacher hasn’t made a comment of substance since I’ve been visiting this blog. Maybe he stopped the day before.
Besides, the cognitive reasoning of a 10 year old boy is in no way comparable to the cognitive reasoning of a 38 year old married father…or does the right now believe that boy == man?
The economy may be the issue but neither one of them wants to really talk about it. Obama’s policy hasn’t worked as well as people like and Romney is advocating the same policy that got us into the problem to begin with – deregulation, tax cuts and more wars.
The significance of the Seamus story wasn’t the treatment dog per se, but the window it provided into the way Romney sees the world. Remember that this story was ellicted by a question about naming a situation where he had had to deal with a crisis and how this demonstrated his leadership abilities. This story is utterly bizarre as an answer in that: 1) very few people would consider a dog mess to qualify as a crisis, 2) Romney thought that hosing the car off at a gas station, rather than being a solution that would be obvious to anybody, was the sign of personal genius on his part, 3) To the extent that there was a problem, it was one that resulted entirely from his own poor planning, so it’s not exactly an example of good leadership, and 4) he’s so out of touch with the way normal people think and feel that he thought this anecdote would make him MORE likeable.
The dog story is what convinced me that Romney is probably a high functioning psychopath. The reason he has such trouble connecting with people is that he personally does not feel emotions and is thus unable to really understand anyone else, however hard he tries (and I do think he’s trying desperately).
You have to keep in mind that a lot of Obama’s more vocal critics think Branson MO, is an exotic travel destination. The concept that people in different parts of the world live differently than we do, and that there is nothing wrong with that probably exceeds their available system resources.
The Seamus story came from an interview with one of Romney’s sons during the 2008 campaign in response to a question about what it was like growing up as a son of Mitt Romney or some such thing.
This I agree with. I don’t believe Romney is by any means a “bad” person. He just doesn’t have a theory of mind developed enough to really empathize with others.
@Jenos Idanian: Interestingly enough, if you subtract 50 from the present date you arrive at the time that Obama was there with his stepfather going to eat dog in some establishment or another.
Eating dog is no longer common in Korea either (in fact, it is “illegal”), yet the Korean Health Ministry as recently as two years ago conducted a health check of the 3,000 or so restaurants known to serve dog soup (boshintang) in Seoul. The government gave as it’s rationale that it wanted people who still eat dog to know that it was safe and wholesome–even if it is illegal
I am inclined to agree, my sense is that Romney means well. That being said, he is not someone I trust with real power, especially in light of the fact that he has no overall set of guiding principals that I can detect.
A couple things:
1) The “Obama ate dog” story is a twofer for the Romney campaign. First, it’s a way to balance out, as it were, the grief Romney gets over the Seamus story. Second, “Obama ate dog” is a sideways allusion to the ongoing right-wing drumbeat about Obama: He’s not really American. He’s not one of us. NOT ONE OF US!!!
2) Even if the average American doesn’t follow politics as closely as your average political junkie, the political junkies still have influence on their various friends who are not so politically aware. I would argue that political junkies are gatekeepers of sorts for their non-politically oriented friends and thus influence their opinions significantly.
3) Stories like this tend to take on a certain life. Not just among political hacks and wannabes Twittering to each other, but in the general zeitgeist … in the-late-night circuit, for example. For the last couple years, if you needed a quick Romney joke, your go-to punchlines were “Romney is a robot,” “Romney changes his mind all the time,” and “Romney one put a dog on his roof.” Things take root that way. Now the Obama punchlines include “Obama has low approval ratings” and “Obama ate a dog.”
Hmmm, I have a clear memory of the crisis management question, although I can’t locate a reference to where the story originally came from, so I can’t verify that.
A dog is a fine meal.
Doug keeps saying the Etch-a-Sketch thing is silly.
But Grinnell scrubbing the inter-tubes seems very similar to shaking the toy.
But Doug is right…dogs are very risilent and stand up well to abuse…so don’t hesitate.
False equivalence stuff is really fun, isn’t it?
Also, I enjoy a good kielbasa or ‘Louisiana hot’ at Top Dog anytime
I quite agree. These sorts of story’s are for political junkies to lap up. People who sit up and beg for more and more outrage. Going to be a rough campaign season.
@anjin-san: I’m not sure that I agree with you about overriding principles. I think his overriding principle is “you can never be too rich, too thin. or pay too few taxes.” Beyond that, he goes the route of current objectivist philosophy in that he believes by making the safety net rickety, we increase the desire for people to provide for themselves and that the desire to do something equates to the ability to accomplish it.
So, cutting Pell Grants doesn’t mean that poor kids won’t go to college, only that they will do it on their own–much as he probably believes his kids (and most of the kids of rich people believed when I was in college) have done. They did all the work–all he did was provide the tuition money, housing, insurance, and a secure place to come back to if they failed. When you look at it as he probably does, his contribution is really small.
I’d love to eat Mitt Rowney’s dog.
It is the ‘fun factor’…both side had a lot of giggles over this dog business BUT anyone taking either story seriously is lite some kibbles in their dog bowl, if you know what I mean *woof*
This is an important point. I think this, and the fact that they still refuse to admit the mistake, are the heart of the matter.
Putting the dog on the roof was unnecessary, and quite a blunder. This Chevy Caprice station wagon almost certainly had eight seats (and was apparently carrying only two adults and five kids), which means there was a spare seat for the dog inside the car (the crate could have been filled with luggage, if that’s what was on the 8th seat). They also certainly had the means to buy, rent or borrow a larger vehicle (e.g., a full-size van with 8-12 seats). They also could have used two cars, or paid someone to transport Seamus, or they could have left Seamus with a friend, house-sitter or dog-boarding facility. (A few years later they gave Seamus away, so it’s not as if the dog and family were inseparable.)
A few other things are worth noticing. Swidey called it a 12-hour trip, but it almost certainly took longer (probably 13-15 hours). It’s 650 miles. The maximum speed limit at the time was 55 mph. The trip involves lots of climbing (total elevation gain over 10,000 feet). The vehicle was underpowered, heavily loaded and had poor aerodynamics. Do the math and you realize that 12 hours is unrealistic.
The point is that no dog should ever be in a crate for 12-15 hours, even if the crate is sitting in a quiet room. This is aside from the problem of the crate being on top of the car.
Also, everyone realizes that he put the dog back on the roof, post-diarrhea, but no one talks about the trip home. As far we know, they did the same wrong thing coming home: put the dog on the roof for another 12-15 hours.
The story is getting a lot of attention because it’s so outlandish. Who else has ever transported a dog this way, for even a few hours, let alone 12-15 hours? I’d like to see someone present an example, from today or from 30 years ago. And no, riding loose in the back of a pickup is not comparable, even if it were to last 12-15 hours. (On the other hand, it was not at all outlandish fifty years ago for a person in Indonesia to eat dog meat. That’s why this comparison that has given Treacher his 15 minutes of fame is deeply stupid.)
So it was a bizarre and cruel thing to do, and what amazes me is that Mitt missed his chance to defuse the matter by simply admitting the mistake. He could easily have made a simple statement like this: ‘for various reasons it seemed like a good idea at the time, but later on I realized that it was a mistake.’
A simple statement like that would largely neutralize the story, in an instant. It would also help him do what everyone knows he needs to do: appear human. But he called his book “No Apology,” and that seems to be his philosophy. Trouble is, the inability to admit error is a serious character flaw. And it’s a character flaw with a lot of immediate political relevance, because everyone outside the GOP knows that the GOP under Bush made a big mess and still refuses to admit that they did so.
Swidey said the Seamus story is interesting because of “the light it sheds on Romney.” That’s true. And we can learn important things about Mitt not just by observing his bad judgment in 1983, but just as importantly by observing the way he’s handling this story right now.
If you think there’s nothing “seriously” wrong about putting a dog in a crate for 12-15 hours (aside from it being on top of a car on a highway) then I “seriously” hope you are never responsible for taking care of a dog.
Roger that. Let me ask the Republicans out there – if you had a friend, and treated their pet that badly, would you want to remain friends with them?
Doug you dirty moral relativist ;P.
(I tried to post this earlier but the links somehow got it stuck in moderation and then apparently lost.)
The original article is here. Also helpful is a follow-up article here by the same reporter (Swidey).
That’s not how the story was elicited, but it’s sort of how the story was first framed by Swidey. In his original article he said this:
That original article doesn’t state who told the story to Swidey, so I think that statement by him encourages your interpretation: that Mitt told the story and was bragging about his crisis management skills. But in his later article Swidey explains that he first heard the story from a family friend, and that prompted him to investigate the story via Tagg.
That’s partially right. The part that’s right is that Swidey got the details via Tagg. The part that’s wrong is you implying that Tagg mentioned the story spontaneously. No, it was a family friend (unnamed) who first mentioned the story to Swidey, and this motivated Swidey to specifically question Tagg about this. Tagg was somewhat reluctant. Swidey (in the second article) said this:
So the point is that even though Mitt (and his family, I bet) are pretty tone-deaf about various things, they nevertheless understand that this story is not helpful to them, and therefore were never in a hurry to tell it publicly. We only know the story because a family friend let the cat out of the bag (sorry, I couldn’t help it) talking with a savvy reporter who then dug details out of Tagg.
In an article by another reporter Swidey explains what happened:
Another interesting comment by Swidey is here:
As soon as the question came up, Tagg was in a bind. If he had stonewalled, the story could have been printed with the incorrect (and much worse) “carwash” detail.
My speculation is that when the “family friend” originally blabbed to Swidey, that friend was thinking that the story ‘humanizes’ Romney. And it indeed would have had that effect if Mitt had reacted to the story the way a normal mature human would: by admitting that it was a youthful mistake that he regrets.
GWB was an alcoholic for many years. That’s roughly as offensive as what Mitt did. But we readily forgave GWB’s drinking, because he admitted the mistake and repented. Apology/repentance is a powerful thing, and it’s idiotic and self-destructive for Mitt to not grasp that. (Speaking of GWB: his history of torturing frogs never got much traction because frogs aren’t pets.)
Seamus will probably have his ultimate revenge. A likely outcome is that Mitt loses by a small margin, and history will rightly observe that Seamus was a factor in that loss. That’s why both sides are taking this issue seriously (although for one side, this means seriously attempting to pretend that it’s all just a joke, even though there are millions of non-D Americans who realize that there’s nothing funny about being cruel to your dog, and who also realize that you can learn a lot about a person by watching the way they treat animals).
This reminds me of a bumper sticker I like: “My karma ran over my dogma.” Mitt’s karma is going to run over his dogma.
By the way, one of the unobserved problems with what he did is that he was not only practicing animal cruelty but also teaching it to his kids (his five boys were ages 2-13 at the time). Being cruel to an animal in front of five little boys is even more irresponsible than just being cruel to an animal.
Actually, most of them will probably vote for whomever has an R or a D in front of their name. The next most important factor will likely be some amalgamation of characteristics garnered from the media (whether rightly or wrongly). That’s why Al Gore “invented the Internet” and GW was a person you wanted to have a beer with; it’s why Bob Dole always spoke in 3rd person and Bill Clinton was a sax-playing womanizer. These public personas matter a lot more than whether a person is fit to run the country. Any one meme may not have a major impact, but you can’t ignore the cumulative effect that turns a house with a bunch of small fires into a house fire.
The more Mitt Romney can be painted as an emotionless and principle-free candidate, the more he’s perceived that way by the media — and, therefore, by the public; at the end of the campaign season, that’s all Team Obama cares about. They couldn’t care less about the Seamus story, or about the Etch-a-Sketch story, or about any individual meme surviving that long. They want the collection to dictate perception.
Likewise, the more Barack Obama can be shown as an outsider and un-American, the more he’ll be perceived that way by the media. Unfortunately for Romney, this is one of the biggest reasons that incumbents have an easier time of it: it’s hard to move major media discussion enough to start claiming new, negative traits for the guy already in the seat. Barring something that can’t be ignored (for example, GHW’s “No New Taxes” turning into taxes, or the continued faltering economy under Carter), the incumbent will already have a ready-made media bio. And that’s almost always what will drive the votes at the end of the cycle. The guy running against the incumbent either has to show that the incumbent is incompetent to lead or that the new guy is dreamy enough that we can just forget all about the current president. In this election cycle, that second one just isn’t going to happen.
And yet, somehow, Diane Sawyer felt it necessary to question the Romneys about the Seamus story during her big interview last week. I look forward to her questioning the President on his favorite dog grilling recipes.
Yes, the whole thing is stupid, as is Mommy-gate, Slut-gate, remarks on family histories of polygamy (which both candidates have) and any other stupid “gates” that the press can dream up over the next six months or so.
The one thing I think that people are noticing is that the Romney campaign is going to be quite different from the McCain campaign. Romney surrogates will sling mud with just as much gusto as the Obama campaign. I’m pretty sure we will hit new lows in electoral politics in this election.
Show of hands….. Who cried when Ol’ Yaller fried.
Weird thing with me is that part of Old Yeller that always makes me cry isn’t the shooting itself, but the scene after when his father returns home and comes to talk to him about it.
Damnit, I picked up a fake memory about this issue somwhere in the last five years. I HATE when that happens.
That’s a fairly thorough refutation there, jukeboxgrad.
It’s understandable, because of what Swidey said about “crisis management.” Many other writers have referenced that statement in various ways.
Anyway, this is another indication that you’re not a Republican: unlike Mitt and other Rs, you’re willing to admit that you made a mistake.
Tillman, thanks for the compliment.
It’s time to get serious here, in line with the commentary so far. I agree the story was ridiculous, although I do admit reading several articles about it while enjoying my morning coffee with beagles and cream cheese.
I agree that Mitt could have defused this by saying “Man, that was dumb. I feel so embarrassed.” And I also agree personally that it was a mistake. That said, I could see how it could happen. You say to yourself “dogs love sticking their heads out the window, they love riding in the back of a pickup, he’ll love it up there.” And then once you are 6-8 hours into a journey and you have a car full of people, what do you do? I hope that, having made the stupid mistake, I would have cleaned the dog off and then found some way to squeeze him into the car. Or, given that I was as rich as Romney, rented another car and had Ann drive that one. But… I have also doubled down on stupid mistakes.
And on another front, I have also tasted dog, twenty years ago, in Africa. And just came back from a rural province here in China where there were an awful lot of the generic yellow dogs running around and they didn’t seem to be pets, if you catch my drift. Unlike the local Shanghai dogs which tend to be wearing cute little sweaters and footies that look like running shoes.
For goodness sake Doug, you are not really this dense. For weeks (and months, and years) people have been hammering Romney for transporting his dog on the roof of his car. This is merely pay-back for trying to foist a stupid meme. As so many others have observed, this blowback is revealing. Banking on the story of Mitt putting his dog in a cage atop his car, your side can not counter the equally silly meme that Barack willingly ate dog in his youth. And it is just now that you want to stop this silly narrative?
Seems JournoList is still alive and well…
@bains: You do realize that pigs are much smarter then dogs and much more emotionally developed right? Other then intelligence there is no difference between eating a dog and eating a pig.
There’s a big difference between eating an animal and forcing it to suffer for +12 hours straight…