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Why Obama vs. Romney is becoming a dogfight

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
April 29, 2012 -- Updated 1405 GMT (2205 HKT)
President Barack Obama runs with family dog Bo on the south lawn of the White House on April 14, 2009.
President Barack Obama runs with family dog Bo on the south lawn of the White House on April 14, 2009.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Frum: Romney has been criticized over transporting his dog on car roof
  • Now some are making an issue of President Obama eating dog meat as a child
  • Frum says these ridiculous charges are a sign of the candidates' weakness
  • He says each side is trying to energize a disillusioned base

Editor's note: David Frum, a CNN contributor, is a contributing editor at Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He was a special assistant to President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2002 and is the author of six books, including "Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again."

(CNN) -- Just in case you had any lingering illusions that politics deals with substantial issues, here's the issue that last week filled our media chatter: 

Which is worse - to put a dog on the roof of a fast-moving car or to eat dog-meat as food?

As you probably know, the Romney campaign has been battered for months by a story about a family vacation in the 1980s. Mitt Romney, driving his family of five boys to summer vacation in Canada, had improvised a dog cage atop the family car. He wrapped the dog cage in plexiglass to form a windbreak. The idea did not work.  The dog fouled its cage and later ran away. One of Romney's sons laughingly repeated the story to a reporter years later, and ever since it has become Exhibit A in the case against Mitt Romney. 

David Frum
David Frum

Weary of this ridiculous line of attack, somebody on the Romney campaign dug out an extract from Barack Obama's memoir, "Dreams From My Father", published in 1995.

In that book, Obama recalls that his Indonesian stepfather introduced him as a boy to the local cuisine, which included dog, snake and grasshoppers. This fact, in print for almost two decades, was dusted off last week as a new revelation in the Daily Caller website. Talk radio and conservative blogs seized on the theme. Twitter memes proliferated: #ObamaDogRecipes, #ObamaEatsDog, etc.

The line between journalism and gossip is always thin and poorly marked. When journalists cross that line, as they so often do, they invoke "larger meanings" exposed by the titillating story of the moment.

Thus, the "larger meaning" supposedly exposed by the dog-on-the-roof story: Romney is a heartless technocrat, ready to conduct brutal experiments on unsuspecting people or beasts and who only laughs if the experiment does not go well for the subject/victim.

And thus too the "larger meaning" seen by partisans inside the Obama-eats-dog story: Obama is an alien, raised in alienation from basic American values, and protected by a complicit news media that refuses to report embarrassing facts about him - like dog-eating.

As the scare quotes above suggest, I don't buy either of these supposed "larger meanings." Romney's biography shows many, many examples of decency, compassion, and human concern. Many are told in the outstanding biography by Michael Kranish and Scott Helman, including the most notable: In 1996, the teenage daughter of one of Romney's Bain Capital partners went missing after sneaking out to a rave party in New York City and ingesting the drug Ecstasy. Romney closed the firm and led every member in a search for the girl, finding and rescuing her.

Likewise, you wouldn't think there'd be much scope to doubt the Americanism of one who bets his presidency on a mission to kill Osama bin Laden face to face rather than by the less risky means of a drone strike. Anyway, a lot of 100% Americans have eaten exotic foods. Teddy Roosevelt favorably compared the flesh of young bears to the taste of pork.

My friend in the Special Forces boasts proudly:

"'Snake Eaters' is a military slang term for Army Special Force (aka "Green Berets"), and YES we DO eat snakes. This is part of our survival training, although I have slayed and eaten snake in the field to supplement the rations, and because basically, snake tastes good.

"I have encountered snakes (and eaten them) throughout my career. I have eaten cobra in Thailand (and drank the blood mixed with Mekhong whiskey), Eastern Diamondback in Mississippi and copperhead North Carolina. For what it's worth, I prefer rattlesnake; tastes like chicken."

Yet I think there actually is a "larger meaning" inherent in these dog stories - just not the meanings that the partisans want us to see.

The true larger meaning is that 2012 will be a contest between two candidates with weak grips on their base voters. The hard right suspects Romney values competence more than ideology. The Democratic left is unhappy that Barack Obama won't propose massive New Deal-style job creation and wealth redistribution.

To corral unexcited base voters, both campaigns must rely less on positive messaging (what can they say?) and much more on galvanizing dislike and antipathy of "the other side." The dueling dog stories do that job perfectly. Which is why you'll keep hearing about them through the long weeks of electioneering ahead. 

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Frum.

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