Oh what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practice to deceive.
These well-known lines, often attributed to Shakespeare but actually written by Sir Walter Scott, came to my mind as I watched the Obama-Romney presidential debate last week.
Everyone has a different theory about why Obama did so poorly, but I want to focus here on whether Romney will pay a price for weaving an elaborate web of deceit.
Is there any accountability for one who insists that his 20% tax cut plus a $2 billion defense budget increase won’t add to the deficit? Who falsely claims that his plan meets the needs of uninsured people with preexisting conditions? Who pretends to be the soul of moderation even as he advocates draconian cuts to Medicaid and depriving 30 million Americans of the health insurance they will get under Obamacare? Who would turn back the clock on gay rights and abortion rights and immigration reform and efforts to combat climate change? Andrew Sullivan of The Daily Beast has talked about how Romney is a masterful businessman in that he’s willing to say anything to close a deal—the strategy worked on all of his primary opponents so why are we surprised to see it work on Obama?—but is there a cost?
The Walter Scott quote comes from the poetic epic Marmion, whose eponymous protagonist weaves tangled webs. The tale itself is pretty tangled. Marmion, the villain even though the poem bears his name, is a favorite of Henry VIII. Although he has a mistress (Constance de Beverley), he sets his sights on Clara de Clare, who is to be married to Sir Ralph De Wilton. Constance, hoping to regain Marmion’s favor, helps him frame Sir Ralph for treason, forcing Clara’s fiancé to flee. When Constance discovers that Marmion won’t return to her, she denounces him, Marmion is killed in a battle, and Sir Ralph has his name restored and marries Clara. Though no one reads the poem now, it was a bestseller in 1808 and Captain Benwick uses it to captivate Louisa Musgrove in Jane Austen’s Persuasion.
Just as everything goes well with Marmion for the longest time, things are looking up for Romney at the moment. But Romney’s current mistress, the extreme right, is willing to go along with his deceptions because she feels that he will return to her in the end. If Clara is the presidency, Marmion-Romney thinks that he can obtain her with Constance Tea Party’s help. Of course, to Clara he pretends to be honorable and gives no indication that he has had an affair with Constance. He’s really a moderate Rockefeller Republican, he says.
And let’s say that the strategy works. Maybe it causes Sir Ralph to flee (or at least lose a debate). Maybe Marmion Romney, unlike in the poem, will actually get Clara. If so, will all his deceit have been justified?
The problem is, if he tries to govern with this new moderation (which is what David Brooks and other centrist Republicans are hoping), he will end up with a very angry Constance. He will discover that, to quote another saying that has often mistakenly been attributed to Shakespeare, “Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned/ Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned” (William Congreve).
As an Obama enthusiast, I of course am rooting for a Sir Ralph-Clara happy ending, but I probably can’t count on Constance turning against Marmion before the election. That’s because, unlike in the poem, Constance does not love Marmion. Rather, she hates Sir Ralph. She and Marmion are using each other to bring him down.
Of course, if Marmion gets Clara, Constance will want (and here I can quote Shakespeare) her pound of flesh in return. And woe to Marmion if he doesn’t provide it to her. During his presidency, she would make sure he died in one of many fateful battles she would throw his way.
In a past post, at a time when Obama supporters were far more optimistic, I quoted a poem out of Marmion that was once recited by school children everywhere: the tale of “Lochinvar.” Partly tongue in cheek (but only partly), I compared Obama to the gallant young knight who “came out of the west,” rode into the hostile hall of a rival warlord, and galloped off with his daughter. The occasion for my post was the passage of Obamacare. We liberals felt so hopeful then:
So daring in love, and so dauntless in war,
Have ye e’er heard of gallant like young Lochinvar?
The tired and gaunt Obama that we saw in the debate did not resemble Lochinvar. But he’d better tap into his inner Lochinvar by the next debate or Marmion will permanently entrap him in his web of deceit.
To invoke another legendary web, Obama will become Merlin to Romney’s Vivian.