It has occurred to me that there is an inherent contradiction in the Obama campaign in terms of its attitude toward "defining" Romney. On the one hand, one of the major motivating psychological/emotional forces behind support for Obama in 2008 was that he was the "cool"/"hip" candidate, which only works if you paint your opponent as a "square." That worked with John McCain -- no one would dare paint the war hero as a corrupted or corruptible sort, but you could paint him as a square. And, on a certain level, that is how they've tried to play it with Romney. He's a square -- you know, white-bread, Mormon, married to the same girl for forty-plus years, five white-bread sons, never a hint of sexual scandal, doesn't even drink. You know: square. To be contrasted with the cool, hip, with-it Obama.
But they also recently have been trying to paint Romney, the square, the Dudley Do-Right, as somehow corrupt. He won't reveal his tax returns. What's he hiding? The breathless innuendo -- is he a felon? Why did he still sign Bain SEC filings after he said he left to go run the Olympics? Whispers, whispers, whispers.
The problem is that those two frames for the narrative don't really go together, do they? Romney can't be both a square and a scheming wheeler-dealer.
And, of course, neither narrative works very well anymore, because they both imply contrasts that either no longer obtain, or never did. Romney the square is only contrasting if we assume that the mass of Americans still thinks Obama is hip or cool or exciting. But they don't... he's an emperor-has-no-clothes bore. You can practically see the eye-rolling when he launches into his canned teleprompter speeches. People were once fainting. Now they are looking at their watches and wondering if they can make it home in time for "Breaking Bad."
And the contrast of Romney as corrupt or dishonest really doesn't work unless Obama has a reputation for incorruptibility and probity. But the mass of Americans don't think Obama is as clean as Caesar's wife; they think he's a typical Chicago pol. They don't think he's honest; they know he's a liar.
So there are reasons beyond simply being false that the Romney as corrupt or dishonest narrative the Obama campaign has tried in the past few weeks won't work. People may wonder about Bain. They may wonder about why Romney won't release his tax returns. But those things won't make them want to vote for Obama, because they won't make anyone conclude, against all evidence, that Obama is honest and selfless and good and true.
Anyway, the something that is happening in the title of this post is that nothing is happening in the polls. The latest CBS/New York Times poll shows that, after weeks of pounding Romney with negative ads and hounding him about Bain and his tax returns, Romney holds a 47-46 lead in a poll of registered voters with a Democratic sampling of plus-6 (meaning that Romney is really way out ahead among likely voters if the 2010 even partisan split holds). All that effort, and it hasn't moved anyone an inch.