Obama: Romney suffering from ‘romnesia’
Barack Obama tells a Virginia college crowd that over women’s health and jobs issues, Mitt Romney is forgetting his past stance and suffers from a case of “romnesia”.
BEFORE an array of long, sleek vintage Caddys and Chevrolets, their hoods up revealing gleaming engines, Rob Abraham, convener of the Springfield Fall Festival in New Jersey, is supervising the set-up for the hot dog eating competition. A dozen contestants line up, three or four of them lean, the rest mildly to morbidly obese.
Plastic ”big gulp” cups are placed before them and then, making a tunnel through the crowd, come kids in Rotary Club T-shirts bearing the steaming hot dogs in buns, piled five to a paper plate.
Rob consults Joe, the Rotary point man, squeaky Jersey accents more Ray Romano than Soprano. ”Yeah, uh, how many do you think we’re gonna need?”
Conspicuous consumption: Joey Chestnut (second competitor from left) wins Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest in Coney Island in July. Photo: AFP
”I dunno, ’bout 20 each?”
”OK, 20 each!” he booms.
But there’s a problem. Two of the contestants are talking quietly to one of the organisers. Given the allotted time, they say, they will need more than 20 dogs each. A hurried conference – this is the first time they have run a competitive eating competition here. It’s a bit of fun, but there is also three-grand in prize money, so it has to be got right. There is furious discussion as the sausages curl in the sun. Eventually, Rob announces: ”OK, we’re gonna, we’re gonna … 30 dogs each. Give ’em 30 dogs each!”
‘Yeah, I’m really thinking of giving Romeny a shot’ says Martha, a former factory nurse. Photo: AP
Finally the crowd goes quiet, Rob holds up an airhorn, and they’re off, cramming in the dogs, soaking the buns in Gatorade and piling them in on after. The leanest man in the competition, a ring-in from Connecticut, leaps ahead of the locals. Before they have finished their first dog, he is already pulling the second plate closer, pinkish moist bun leaking from the corners of his mouth.
You could not get something more 21st century American than competitive eating. With thousands of competitions a year, broadcast on ESPN, big eats even has a couple of genuine stars, hot dog champions Joey Chestnut and Kobayashi, who are locked in a bitter rivalry far beyond the imaginative powers of a Will Ferrell movie.
Supercharged by brand sponsorship, competitive eating has become more than a freak show. The eventual winner of the Springfield competition, Jamie McDonald, will chalk up 39 hotdogs in these few minutes.
‘Solid Obama. I don’t like the kind of guy Romney is’ said Jamie McDonald, a competitive eater. Photo: AFP
Amid the usual clutter of a street fair, the stalls and balloons and performances by the local dance school, the competition takes on a darker air, and at least some of the crowd can feel it. Surrounded by a calendar Americana scene, some ritual of surplus and excess is taking place. The compulsion to consume is being enacted for our benefit – as what? As celebration? Catharsis seems more likely. The food becomes anti-food, its pleasures turned deliberately to disgust. Some social dilemma is being worked out here, or at least performed, some problem that cannot be got past.
In America today, this question is asked in the field of culture – from 39 hotdogs to Fifty Shades of Grey by way of Jersey Shore – because it makes no appearance in social or political discourse proper. A few days after Jamie MacDonald demolishes most of a cow wrapped in most of a bakery, President Barack Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney meet a few miles away, in Long Island, for their second debate.
Four years after an economic crisis created by open-ended lending for open-ended consumption, few Americans feel their country has returned to prosperity, and their intuition is borne out by the figures.
Though many are willing to agree to Obama’s version of events – that he inherited an economy roaring towards depression, needed a year to slow and stop it, and a larger stimulus than Congress gave him to restore it to life – many, including many who voted for him, remain sceptical.
The argument is a messy and wonkish one, and there’s no simple, mythical story with which to convey it. The absence of such has allowed Romney to position himself as the guy who understands America, and by doing so can make it whole again.
In rally after rally, from airport hangars in Florida to obscure Ohio colleges, Mitt pops up, impeccably groomed, like an ageing Max Headroom with his soft-focus wife, Ann, by his side, and his five sons, interchangeable as a set of spanners, behind him, and tells the crowd: ”I have a plan.”
A plan that will create 12 million jobs in four years, and balance the budget! That will cut taxes for the middle class but add $2 trillion to military spending, to make sure America is respected again! To crack down on the ”unfair competition” by the Chinese, and ensure that full employment returns. Taken together with his promises not to touch key programs such as social security and Medicare (the socialised medicine program for the over-65s), the proposal is nonsense, reliant on deep cuts, and as likely to reverse recovery by lowering demand as it is to stimulate the dozens of new Apples and Microsofts that will somehow replace vanished manufacturing.
But as visions go, it’s a beguiling one, the future as the past, the economy of the 1950s, the mores of the 1960s, and all the cool stuff that started coming in the ’70s. Even in Springfield, a Democratic stronghold, the Romney vision tempts.
”Yeah, I’m really thinking of giving Romney a shot,” says Martha, a former factory nurse, from the days when there was health and safety, and factories. She’ll be voting in Pennsylvania, a state that could come into play should Obama’s campaign falter further.
Adds her husband, Steve, an electrician: ”Y’know, we gotta stop buying cheap stuff from China.”
This rather imperfect understanding of the Republicans’ position on outsourcing and trade is widespread. But Romney’s vision of a renewed industrial America tempts long-time Democrats, largely because Obama has presented neither an alternative vision nor a Clinton-style admonition that the old jobs are not coming back.
After 9/11, America was gripped by delusional triumphalism, and in the wake of that, Obama’s task was to present the country with a message far beyond anything that Bill Clinton had to say – that whatever a future America would look like, it will be something other than Romney’s vision of a past but with more.
In 2008, Obama was willing to gesture to it, but the 2010 loss of Congress pushed it to the background. Now, at rallies, large as ever, backed by huge sky-blue banners saying ”Forward”, Obama, seen on a distant stage, vanishingly small in a crisp white shirt, talks vaguely of education and smart jobs and repeats the mantra now required of all US politicians – that the country is the greatest in the world and the richest, each by virtue of the other. Given that it won’t be for much longer, what could replace such self-conception? Where could an alternative idea be found?
‘YOU know, my wife and I always pray about how much we’ll donate, and then we’ll compare numbers, and this time when I prayed the Lord said ‘everything’, and I went to my wife and she said, ‘What number did you get?’ and I said, ‘You first’.”
In the centre of the New Life Church, Colorado Springs, a vast hexagonal tabernacle, designed to suggest a desert tent, Pastor Jimmy Evans has the congregation enthralled. The 12-piece rock band, a snow white Earth, Wind & Fire-alike group, has played a half-dozen of the easy-listening style hymns that essentially paint God as a romantic partner in the Michael Bolton mould.
The congregation of 3000 grooved along as best they could. It’s the third of four services for the day. Outside the brushed-concrete auditorium, the cafes and bookstores of this complex are doing a roaring trade, the youth group Desperation High School has hundreds of attendees, and the creche has mothers and children doing charismatic dancing.
The place is entire of itself, the city on a hill. No wonder the sermon begins with a veiled ad. But it would be a mistake to see the place as pure hucksterism. The full car park outside attests to the role of the megachurch in US society. In a country where neighbourhood has decayed or been destroyed by miles of malls, exurbs and expressways, community is weekly reconstituted here.
The bookstore is full of tracts against liberalism, evolution and Copernicus – the ”new creationism” is to denounce the Big Bang as the work of the devil, a view subscribed to by at least one Republican Congressman, Georgia’s Paul Broun, who sits on the Congressional committee of science.
But inside, the sermon is about life on earth, about the negotiation of marriage and the meaning of a relationship, surprisingly light on the Jesus talk. The admonitions to a collective and modest life are clear.
Leaving aside where the donations go, if all Americans lived like this, the US economy, dependent as it is on iPhone sales and Red Bull, would collapse immediately. Thousands of such churches are filled across the country every Sunday, and though their numbers have been exaggerated, active evangelicals number in the tens of millions.
Beneath the rigid and literal content of their beliefs, the form of their life constitutes the only mass cultural movement that cuts against the grain of everyday American life, as laid out by monopoly capital. Generally, they tend to be modest and engaging people.
They are also, of course, a little nuts, not only addicted to a literal idea of providence, seeing God in each lottery win or self-healed minor rash, but also tending to an unstinting support of the Republican vision. ”The worst thing about Obamacare is it removes the need for charity,” says another Jim as we talk outside afterwards. He triple-tithes (i.e. gives 30 per cent of his income), works as a financial adviser, and dresses straight outta Walmart, $9 jeans that look like a denim sack with three holes cut in.
He and others like him appear not to have noticed that their party has become the plaything of an individualist cult, which celebrates selfishness and promulgates a harsh Nietzschean vision of disdain for, well, the meek.
”When Ron Paul’s supporters cheered the idea of people without health insurance dying, what did you think?”
”Did they do that? That is terrible.”
”So you’re in favour of healthcare?”
”Government healthcare? No.”
Round and round it goes, a familiar direction when speaking with Republicans. He asks me to lunch, offers accommodation. I have to say no, conscious that if this goes on, I might end up engaged to one of his daughters.
What could Obama say to such people, who may well push Colorado one way or the other and decide the election? Whatever would be possible, he did not say it at the second debate on Thursday, though by common consent his performance got him back in the game. The first question at the debate was from a student, who asked what sort of America he would be graduating into.
That gave Romney an opportunity to offer his fantasy of America restored – and Obama ducked the tougher answer, the FDR answer, that the country, the world, is changing, the shift is epochal, and life will, must, be different, in that meaning and consumption must be uncoupled, that need (for healthcare, for housing, for work) must trump desire, that people will have to choose.
I watched the debate in New York, from an artspace in DUMBO (Directly Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass), an old warehouse area of Brooklyn that went from poor-artist to hipster in a matter of months in the 2000s, and the crowd, well, they don’t have much time for Jesus, and I don’t think they eat a lot of hot dogs, either.
Thinner, sharper, sexier than most, they are Obama’s small core – the 10 per cent or so of digerati, professional-managerialists, from which his support radiates outward.
They are in a feisty mood. Megan, a visual arts grad, drawls over a peach margarita: ”I think in college Romney was the kid with the best car, but Obama drove the bomb and was on the maths team.”
They are pretty confident, both of Obama’s chances and abilities, and in themselves. ”We don’t watch baseball. We’re the kind of people who would watch The Daily Show on their computers in bed with their cats.” Everyone laughs. They are not uninterested in jobs and the economy, but they give the biggest cheers for same-sex marriage and ”don’t ask don’t tell”.
They would be as critical as the Christians of the country’s out-of-control addiction to, well, everything, as long as it doesn’t apply to Apple products – yet they would be horrified to think they had anything in common with the New Life church.
What they will do should Romney win is difficult to know. For a black, liberal President to fall as ignominiously as the still-living, but half-forgotten George H. W. Bush, would be crushing, all the more given that he would have been brought low by a mess left behind by the Republicans.
What happens then depends on which Mitt Romney turns up to work – the hard-right primary candidate or the centre-right governor of Massachusetts.
His promised, protectionist crackdown on China has little chance of going through, but his corporate backers would present their bill for their billion-dollar campaign support. The greatest impact of a President Romney may be the opportunity to appoint one or even two Supreme Court judges and swing the court decisively to the right.
None of that is uppermost in anyone’s mind at the Springfield hot dog triumph. Following the contest, I speak to the winner, Jamie McDonald.
An aerospace engineer by day, he has gone semi-pro, earning 25 grand in six months. Huffing down candy floss to get rid of the hot dog taste, he had done a comp the day before, taking down half a 7.5-kilogram pizza with a three-kilogram dessert. What does his family think? ”My son thinks I’m cool, my daughter thinks it’s gross.” Voting intention? ”Solid Obama. I don’t like the sort of guy Romney is.”
Jamie is a likeable guy, devoted to his art, yet approachable, that uniquely American creature, a Puritan sybarite, working through excess to higher things. By now other people are shouting: ”Do you keep it all down.”
”Hell, no, all the sodium in these things, it’d kill ya.” And with that, and abjuring the vomit pails provided by a local hardware store, he goes off to find a restroom in the gathering Jersey dusk. With NAOMI LIM
■Guy Rundle is the author of The Shellacking: Obama, the 2010 Midterms and the Rise of the Tea Party.