The Imaginary Campaign

Romney is running against notions of a President and the economy that are at odds with reality

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Illustration by Oliver Munday for TIME

On Aug. 31, the night after the Clint Eastwood empty-chair colloquy at the Republican Convention, Jon Stewart identified the radioactive ingredient that would provide the fuel for Mitt Romney's September meltdown. The Republicans, he noted on The Daily Show, were suffering from "cognitive dissonance." Like Eastwood, they were campaigning against a Barack Obama who was a figment of their imagination. "There is a President Obama that only Republicans can see," he said. That Obama--the Muslim socialist foreigner--was "bent on our wholesale destruction." The mad fact is, Stewart was only scratching the surface. We now know that Romney has been running not only against an imaginary President but against an imaginary electorate as well. This is an electorate in which 47% are looking for handouts, don't pay income taxes and won't "take responsibility...for their lives."

How utterly insulting to the legions of hospital workers, restaurant (and country club) employees and security guards who work their butts off servicing the plutocrats Romney was addressing at his now infamous fundraiser in Boca Raton, Fla. These workers barely get by, but they are helped a bit by benefits--like the earned-income and child tax credits invented by Republicans--that limit their exposure to income taxes (although they continue to kick in payroll taxes and pay a host of state and local levies). The great irony is that the vast majority of Romney's 47% would be shocked to learn that they're among the freeloaders, which is why this incident might not, in the end, have all that much impact on the presidential campaign. Romney was right about the larger picture in Boca: this election will be decided by a sliver of middle-class independents, the 6% who can't decide which of these candidates they disdain more.

The conservative commentariat and fat-cat contributors are mystified by Obama's buoyancy. This election should have been a rout, they believe, even for a candidate as lame as Romney. The President is weak, inept, a job killer leading the economy off a cliff. Ah, but there's that cognitive dissonance again: the Romney campaign is running against a phantom economy as well.

Indeed, the Republicans--and the press--have latched onto the one economic statistic that Democrats usually emphasize and that has traditionally led Democrats astray: unemployment. Members of the public certainly are worried about the inability of the economy to create jobs and especially about the employment problems their children will confront. But let's face it: if you add up all the unemployed, underemployed and those who've abandoned the workforce, you're still looking at maybe 15% of the labor market.

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