Mitt Romney's New Ad, 'The Mute Button,' and the Cult of the Presidency


The relationship between the executive branch and legislators ought to be hostile.

Mitt Romney's campaign has released a new ad calling President Obama a bad leader because one time, as he talked to Nancy Pelosi on the phone, she hit the mute button and stopped listening.

Seriously, that's the ad:

As you'll recall, Obama did in fact pass a stimulus bill, so the measure of leadership ostensibly suggested here is how rapt you can keep Pelosi in a phone conservation. Which is a weird measure! The ad also makes me think about how hilarious it would be to get a bunch of former Bain employees to confess what they did on mute during conference calls while Romney was speaking. It would especially please me if one guy eagerly recounted beating his high score on Minesweeper. 

But my warped sense of humor is neither here nor there.

What I want to point out about this ad is its inane Cult of the Presidency notion that the guy in the Oval Office should be the dear leader of awed legislators from his party who hang on his every syllable with respectful reverence. I mean, it didn't even work that way for St. Bartlett on The West Wing.

More to the point, the American system of government, as designed by the Founders whom everyone is always extolling, intended the executive and legislative branches to be deeply jealous of one another's power. Had Madison been able to envision telephones, mute buttons, and the sort of social dynamics explored by David Foster Wallace in his digression on the rise and fall of the video phone, he would've fervently hoped for legislators hitting the mute button and muttering about that long-winded president who'd better damn well remember that they run a co-equal branch.

Team Romney apparently thinks otherwise. 

They predictably invoke this bipartisan ideal of the puffed up POTUS who shows strong leadership by awing hack partisan minions in the legislature (with the gravitas of his telephone presence!). Even for an adherent of the Cult of the Presidency (which is basically every politician these days), that is a glaringly pathetic notion of what characterizes a strong head of state.

I know, I know, you just wanted to know how the ad might affect the horse race.

I give you David Weigel:

Romney wants swing voters, who still like Obama's nice family and dog and what have you, to think of him as a guy who tried hard but couldn't hack it. That's why we're starting to see ads featuring sad Obama voters admitting that they screwed up. This continues the theme: Obama's just not competent.

But does it make sense? First, we've got images of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, whom voters don't like (no offense), and we are told that Obama couldn't make them listen to him. Why separate Obama from the rest of the party? The anecdote itself, about the stimulus bill, refers to something that Obama signed into law. Why mention this story if it resulted in a win?

Good questions.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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