Last year, the New York Times ran a story on the phenomenon of good actors taking silly roles in bad movies. Fans generally assume the actors take those roles for the paycheck, but the story offered a different defense: it can actually help prove the skill of the actor: “The more preposterous the situation, the more impressive the feat of seeming to take it utterly seriously. There are other measures of excellence of course — emotional subtlety, psychological acuity, wit — but this kind of unwavering, fanatical commitment is surely a sign of greatness.”
Alas, despite his gift for triangulation and spin and near cameo in “The Hangover 2,” former President Bill Clinton fails this test. Handed a script too far from reality by the Obama campaign, Clinton just couldn’t go through with it. So he told CNN that Mitt Romney’s business career was “sterling,” that the folks at Bain do good work, and that Romney clearly “crosses the qualification threshold.” Then yesterday he declared his support for extending the Bush tax cuts (though he later said he meant only some of the Bush tax cuts). Some roles are just too preposterous–even for Bill Clinton.
But Clinton isn’t the exception in the case of the Obama campaign’s attacks on Romney’s career. He is only the most high-profile Obama surrogate to improvise on the set. This morning, Larry Summers, who worked for both Clinton and Obama, also threw his (unqualified, as of yet) support for extending the tax cuts. After Cory Booker couldn’t go through with the Bain attacks either, and subsequently was asked by the Obama campaign to record the infamous “hostage video,” the Obama campaign sent out Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, Romney’s successor, to sully his predecessor’s reputation as an executive. Patrick couldn’t do it either, singing Bain’s praises and admitting that Romney left the state with low unemployment.
The popular theory about Clinton’s behavior is that he doesn’t want Obama to win a second term. That might be the case, but I doubt that’s true of Booker, Patrick, or Summers. Other explanations seem closer to the mark: the sitting politicians, like Booker and Patrick, don’t want to burn bridges with Wall Street, and Summers, unlike his former boss, knows a thing or two about economics, and therefore cannot bring himself to attach his own name to the Obama campaign’s economic illiteracy.
In other words, the script is the problem. This may be “silly season,” but the Obama campaign’s rhetoric is too silly even for his allies.