The Fool and the Straight Man

ABC posted a story yesterday with the intriguing headline “Why Obama’s ‘Best Looking’ Comment Failed to Ignite Furor.” Granted there was some discussion and mild condemnation of the comments on left wing blogs, enough that Jay Carney expressed the President’s apology a day later. But as ABC correctly points out “imagine if a President Mitt Romney had said Florida’s Pam Bondi was the ‘best looking’ state attorney general. Binders full of the ‘best looking’ women?”

In other words, Obama’s statement was treated like a minor faux pas compared to the peals of laughter that greeted Romney’s comment last year. So what explains the difference? ABC’s explanation is that Romney’s statement could be connected to the Democrats’ pre-existing, but by that point in the campaign mostly defunct, war on women narrative. There may be some truth to this but in retrospect it wasn’t what drove the reaction.

Unlike Obama’s comments about AG Harris, Romney’s “binders” comment was merely a slip of the tongue. His answer came during a Townhall style presidential debate in which he was asked about pay equality for women. This question was probably intended to highlight President Obama’s support for the Lily Ledbetter Act. Romney took his answer in a slightly different direction by talking about his efforts as governor to promote women in his cabinet, “I went to a number of women’s groups and said, ‘Can you help us find folks,’ and they brought us whole binders full of women.”

Romney should have said “binders full of resumes” or perhaps even “binders full of women candidates.” But as Huffington Post noted at the time, his slip of the tongue went viral immediately largely because people on the left found it amusing:

Twitter users immediately latched onto the comment, with “binders”
and “binders full of women” being mentioned at one point in the evening more than 40,000 times in one minute, according to data from Topsy, a social web analytics tool.

The former Massachusetts governor’s comment also spawned a “Binders Full Of Women” Tumblr account, and, just after the debate, a “Binders Full Of Women” Facebook page had more than 100,000 likes.

Remember back in 2010 when the right and left had dueling marches on Washington D.C. Glenn Beck held a serious effort with spiritual overtones called the Restoring Honor Rally. A few weeks later Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert held the March to Restore Sanity/Fear which as a comedic counter-rally. You could say the two parties have become a classic double act, the fool and the straight-man. Often, though not always, the fool is more likely to amuse the audience.

So why didn’t Obama’s comments go viral the way Romney’s did? It wasn’t because of the “war on women” meme. By October, Sandra Fluke was making appearances to groups of 10 people. Romney’s misstatement went viral because the left is primed to view the right as a straight man feeding them lines. They profit tremendously with the American audience by playing the fool. But the right is not primed or often inclined to do the same. We’ve gotten to used to playing the straight man in this duo.