Who Let the Dogs Out?

Wading through the nontroversies of Campaign 2012

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Photo-Illustration by Wes Duvall for TIME; Getty Images (3)

Who Let the Dogs Out? Wading through the nontroversies of Campaign 2012.

If you follow politics, you've heard that this presidential election is the most important since 1980, or 1932, or 1860. And it's easy to see why. Just look at the issues we've debated in the past few weeks.

Mitt Romney strapped his dog to the roof of his car almost 30 years ago. Barack Obama ate dog in Indonesia over 40 years ago. Somebody who supports Obama said something mean about Romney's wife. The guy who sang "Cat Scratch Fever" said something mean about Obama. Romney refused to eat a locally baked cookie at a photo op, assuming it had come from a "7-Eleven bakery." Hillary Clinton drank a beer in Colombia. Someone called Romney an Etch A Sketch.

Political news has become full of these trumped-up, social-media- and cable-news-fanned brouhahas over quotes, anecdotes and associations. We're coming off a decade of war and financial ruin, yet our politics have gone from Israeli settlements to Irish setters, from 9/11 to 7-Eleven. This is the year of the nontroversy.

Let's start with the dogs. On a drive from Boston to Canada in 1983, Romney put his dog Seamus into a carrier on his family car's roof rack, the drive interrupted when the roof-riding pooch had an attack of diarrhea. The Boston Globe reported the anecdote in 2007, and through two election cycles, Seamus' trip became the most recounted Massachusetts ride since Paul Revere's. Obama campaign adviser David Axelrod tweeted a picture of Obama with his dog Bo in the presidential limo, saying this was "how loving owners transport their dogs."

On April 17, the conservative website Daily Caller barked back, quoting a passage from Obama's memoir Dreams from My Father recalling his childhood in Indonesia, where he lived from ages 6 to 10 and was exposed to local delicacies, including snake, grasshopper--and dog. Soon the Romney campaign was razzing the President and supporters were trending the hashtag #ObamaDogRecipes on Twitter, and within a day it was national news.

Now, the fact that each side can raise a nontroversy does not make the two equal. You could argue that it is not as bad for a child to eat food given to him as for a grown man to put an animal on top of a car or that said animal would much rather be roof luggage than dinner.

But either way, you are judging two presidential candidates' merits by their records on dogs. Nontroversies were not invented in 2012 (see: Al Gore, earth tones; see also: Sarah Palin, vice-presidential candidacy of). But social-media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook have greased the path from blip to blog post to headline, helping campaigns paint opponents as alien, callous or out of touch--or just change the subject and win the news cycle.

Thus a weeks-long policy debate over Republicans' stances on women and health care was countered with the Romney camp's studiously outraged nontroversy over a Democratic strategist's saying stay-at-home mom Ann Romney "never worked a day in her life." Which in turn was rejoined by Obamaists' counter-nontroversial demand that Romney denounce rocker Ted Nugent for urging an NRA crowd to "chop [Democrats'] heads off in November."

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