Mitt Romney has a problem.
And, I don't just mean all those Republican primary voters, thus far, who have been happy to vote for other people.
The problem he can't shake is David Letterman.
In his senior years (he will be 65 on April 12) Letterman has taken to repeating gags and ideas nightly and doing it unashamedly. He is a longtime admirer of radio personalities -- Howard Stern, for instance -- and his approach as he gets older is less that of a stand-up comic in permanent search of fresh material than that of a shock jock hammering away at a couple of subjects until, to audience delight, he's pounded them into the floor.
One favorite subject these days is Mitt Romney, the man who admitted that he put a pet carrier containing the family dog on the (potentially) hot roof of his car in 1983 for a 12-hour family drive to Toronto.
An outraged Letterman won't let us forget it. He has actually said that no man who did that to a dog has any business being president of the United States.
People laughed, but I don't think he was joking -- at all.
While it's true that Letterman is a late-night comedian and can, therefore, always hide behind a curtain of feigned ineffectuality, he's also a guy who has said, only half-kidding (if that), that the road to the White House runs through his guest chair.
I've been writing for decades now that many Americans have been getting a whopping percentage of their daily news diet from late-night comedy monologues and bits. While journalism has relied on formalized and orthodox techniques, late-night humor and satire has been happy to use everything pols do as fodder. Too many among us have become comfortable with the idea that our entire political sphere is a joke. (Neil Postman, famously, titled a book "Amusing Ourselves to Death.")
We laughed at Bill Clinton's zipper follies. And at "W's" shocking lack of verbal dexterity. That was a hallmark of America's bipolar culture during the Bush years, as well as of everything that made the radical, quantum leap into optimism that greeted the onset of the Obama years.
And in late 2011 and 2012, we've laughed at Republican debates when they became supermarkets for jokes, ready-made for the writers of Letterman, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien. (Facebook joke from brilliant comedy writer Andy Borowitz: "Sometimes I think the actual Republican candidates are tied up in an abandoned Scooby-Doo warehouse somewhere.")
The candidates who quickly dropped by the wayside from those very debates were no surprise, considering their prominence in the gagosphere. They were the stars of the jokes -- Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Rick Perry. (Jon Huntsman faded for almost the opposite reason -- he was simply too respectable to maintain an absurd presence in the gagosphere.)
What we have had in the TV debates is what our new electronic, digital world has repeatedly brought us, which is a neo-frontier culture, wild and woolly and verbally irresponsible, and more than a little chaotic -- when it doesn't border on the downright dangerous.
In an earlier era of backroom deal-making, what scheming behind-the-scenes Svengali would have given us a Republican field as vulnerable to the gagosphere as the one that pitted Romney against Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul and the latest surgemeister, Rick Santorum?
In contrast, President Obama still seems almost impossible to joke about, except by people whose unabashed racism is arrested in development at the 1936 level. That is, there's almost nothing in the president's life or family or personality that can be safely burlesqued for a mass audience. (They dutifully try on "Saturday Night Live," but it never has an ounce of the satiric traction of, say, Tina Fey's locked and loaded impersonation of Sarah Palin.)
While Obama sings at White House concerts and then shoves the microphone in front of B.B. King, Letterman is pounding away on his nightly TV show at Romney's dubious treatment of a family pet.
One explanation of all this from dittoheads and the Fox News Amen Chorus is that the liberal bias of American media has certified and sanctified certain satiric targets and decertified others.
It's a hard contention to argue with, except to say that the entire Obama family seems to find new ways to posterize itself every week while each new Republican candidate debate seems to provide ammunition for editorial cartoonists.
Even the first lady's occasional unintentional forays into self-righteousness (in dietary and exercise matters, for instance) are so palpably benevolent in intention that the worst that can ever be made of her is that she seems like the burstingly healthy high school phys ed teacher who just wouldn't leave you alone.
Of this, I'm reasonably sure: the writers and researchers most responsible for the current gagosphere have been combing inexhaustibly and futilely through Obama-world to find equal-time follies.
Liberals, after all, are renowned for their insistence on being, well, liberal about presenting ideas from "the other side."
It's just that so far, they can't seem to find anything that begins to match the dog on the roof of the Romney family car.