There he goes! (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

The Romney campaign has been giving President Obama grief for a while now on his remark that “You can’t change Washington from the inside.”

The trouble with the Romney campaign (and the Obama campaign, when you come down to it) is that it has a pronounced tendency to engage in close reading.

As an English major, I have long experience with the art of close reading. You choose a passage to over-analyze — the fewer words, the better — and you extract every possible ounce of meaning from that passage. You tie that passage up to a chair and whack it with your keyboard until it confesses everything it knows, sometimes revealing hidden Nietzschean resonances that would be totally invisible to any sensible human who examined it in context. Smite it long enough and you can become convinced that it is the key to the entire work, the author’s whole philosophy, and furthermore, to Life Itself.

Close reading is great if you have not read the entire work.

It will save your life every time. You don’t need to finish “Lord Jim” if the meaning of the entire work is clearly encapsulated in the third paragraph of the 32nd page of the Penguin edition, a paragraph you admittedly selected at random, moments before class began. “It’s ALL IN THERE!” you maintain, with increasing fervor, glancing periodically at the clock to see how many more minutes you have to carry on with this charade before you can slink away to your scheduled Tuesday drinking. Nothing can stop you. You are invincible. Unless someone who’s actually read the whole book starts to speak.

I would leave this sort of scurrilous behavior in the university setting where it belongs, but it’s in vogue on the trail. They never met a quote they couldn’t over-analyze. Just let the president say “You can’t change Washington from the inside”once, and the Romney campaign goes galloping off a million miles an hour with the quote emblazoned on a banner and waving above it.

Obama’s full quote read: “I’ve learned some lessons. Most important is you can’t change Washington from inside, only from the outside. That’s how some of our biggest accomplishments like health care got done — mobilizing the American people.”

Nope! Mitt Romney was already headed out to a rally in Sarasota, Fla., to announce that “The president today threw in the white flag of surrender again. He said he can’t change Washington from inside. He can only change it from outside. Well, we’re going to give him that chance in November. He’s going outside.  I can change Washington. I will change Washington. We’ll get the job done from the inside.” 

Both campaigns keep doing this. Make one remark that can be gleefully dismantled out of context, and dozens of essays spring up proclaiming that this is the One Key to All Obama’s Thinking or Really the Paragraph That Gives You Romney’s True Philosophy. Smite one and dozens grow in its place.

There are many advantages to the close reading. Sometimes, you are right. Sometimes, the sentence you latch onto really does hold the key to the whole work. But it can be a tremendously lazy exercise. Thus far, this season, it’s proving the latter.