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Does the dog story matter?

By Amanda Marcotte
Monday, December 26, 2011 13:41 EDT
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Does the Mitt Romney dog story matter? To refresh, here's the story from a 2007 Boston Globe profile that Gail Collins revived in a recent NY Times column:

The white Chevy station wagon with the wood paneling was overstuffed with suitcases, supplies, and sons when Mitt Romney climbed behind the wheel to begin the annual 12-hour family trek from Boston to Ontario……

Before beginning the drive, Mitt Romney put Seamus, the family's hulking Irish setter, in a dog carrier and attached it to the station wagon's roof rack. He'd built a windshield for the carrier, to make the ride more comfortable for the dog.

The ride was largely what you'd expect with five brothers, ages 13 and under, packed into a wagon they called the ''white whale.''

I want to pause to note the various details that make it clear that this car was a large station wagon, and not a compact car that might make packing a large dog in it truly impossible.

As the oldest son, Tagg Romney commandeered the way-back of the wagon, keeping his eyes fixed out the rear window, where he glimpsed the first sign of trouble. ''Dad!'' he yelled. ''Gross!'' A brown liquid was dripping down the back window, payback from an Irish setter who'd been riding on the roof in the wind for hours.

As the rest of the boys joined in the howls of disgust, Romney coolly pulled off the highway and into a service station. There, he borrowed a hose, washed down Seamus and the car, then hopped back onto the highway. It was a tiny preview of a trait he would grow famous for in business: emotion-free crisis management.

It's always tough to know how to take these stories. On one hand, they feed the cult of personality built up around politics that has become rather toxic in the past few decades. On the other hand, behavior like this can also be a remarkable, easy-to-understand symbol for a candidate's larger worldview and approach to the world. True, there's a number of examples of people who were great liberals, policy-wise, but absolute monsters in private. It doesn't always follow that someone who is an unempathetic asshole will automatically be a bad leader. But as a symbol of the conservative worldview, strapping a dog to a car roof for 12 hours, and then simply hosing him down when he shits himself, but then pointing to a "windshield" as evidence that you're not a total monster? If it were a novel, you'd be indicating that the character was an irredeemable monster, with no self-awareness to boot. In real life, it works well to encapsulate the way the strict hierarchies of conservatism play out. When talking to voters, making it clear that Romney is the kind of guy who thinks dogs should be strapped to cars and then basically ignored until it's time to take them out and play with them again could help boil a complex message down to a simple one. 

Look, I have a pet who shits herself in terror at basically nothing. Whenever she goes into her (soft, comforting, towel-lined) cat carrier, there's about a 50% chance that she's going to shit herself in terror. She's just a scaredy cat. I think it's kind of funny from a distance, but when you're actually in the thick of it, it's actually not that funny. You feel sorry for her. You try to prevent it by calming her down beforehand and trying to get her to go before the trip to the vet. You stuff the carrier with towels so if it does happen, you can pull one out and throw it away. If it does happen, you clean her up while petting her to calm her. You certainly don't turn the hose on her and then go along your merry way. Or, that's what I do, because I'm a liberal, and I emphasize with this cat's suffering. I don't see her as merely an object that I have to keep up so I can play with her, but who can be shoved aside when it's inconvenient for me. 

What really makes this story interesting is how Romney responded recently when confronted with this story.

"Uh…," Romney said, clearly caught off guard by the question. "Love my dog."

"That’s all I’ve got for ya."

Asked about the idea that his treatment of the animal had been cruel, Romney replied, "Oh please. I’ve had a lot of dogs and love them and care for them very deeply."

With that, an aide abruptly ended the interview.

This story resonates because it neatly captures the cruelty at the heart of the paternalistic conservative worldview. Now some conservatives are just openly hateful, thus the whooping and hollering from the crowd at the idea of just letting uninsured people die at a Republican debate. But then there's the "compassionate conservatism" mentality, where arguments about depriving people of legal protections, rights, and a social safety net are framed as somehow loving and compassionate. You see it everywhere, from arguments that taking away the social safety net toughnes people up, or taking their Medicare somehow gives them "choice", or that taking abortion rights is somehow good for women because it keeps them from "regretting" an abortion. (As though regretting a child isn't much worse!) All this strongly resembles Romney arguing that he "loves" his dog. It's about viewing others as objects to be manipulated and used for your ends, not as people (or dogs) in their own right. In Romney's mind, what's good for him—to have a 12 hour drive without a slobbering dog in the car—is just good for the dog, and evidence that it's not is dismissed out of hand with a few noises about how he doesn't intend to hurt anyone. You see the same thing in play, in an even uglier way, with Ron Paul's defenders trying the "he's not racist in his heart; he just signed off and probably wrote a bunch of unbelievably racist rants" number. It's this imperious demand that we take them at their word when they say they care about and love others, and ignore their actions. 

I'm not trying to equate dogs and people here. Obviously, there are huge differences. But this story about Romney resonates because his treatment of his dog perfectly encapsulates how he's likely to treat the people he wishes to govern. He'll swear up and down that he loves this country and loves Americans, but if it's in his best interest—and the interest of his rich friends—he'll strap us to a car roof and when we shit ourselves in terror, he'll hose us off and leave us wet and shivering as he takes us back into the unforgiving winds. 

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
 
 
 
 
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