Posts Tagged ‘Mitt Romney’

The Thinker

Unwinding the crazy (or why Obama and Mitt Romney need to talk)

So my daughter has been chatting with me on Skype. She wants to know: “Dad, have politics ever this crazy?” She would actually take some comfort in knowing that demagogues like Donald Trump have actually arisen before and have had a stake put through their hearts.

I had to tell her no, not in my lifetime anyhow and not within the United States. There are plenty of demagogues out there all the time, but few come around as Donald Trump has to create cyclones of ill will all for the purpose of acquiring something close to the pinnacle of political power in the world: being president of the United States. I see him getting the Republican nomination; hopes of a brokered convention are just fantasies. There have been deeply evil politicians and presidents. Richard Nixon comes to mind but at least he was trapped by a political system of checks and balances. It’s not clear if Trump becomes president whether the system still has the backbone to deal with someone like him. I’d like to think so, but I am skeptical.

Over the years this blog has been around, I’ve made something of a second career cataloguing these demagogues. Democrats are not entirely clean, with John Edwards leaping to mind. Both sides of the party can be pandered to and inflamed. Mostly though these demagogues have limited appeal. Some of the many I have blogged about include Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck. I have read enough history though to know that Donald Trump is not quite unprecedented. Early in our history we had a president arguably as bad as Trump: Andrew Jackson whose portrait mysteriously adorns our ten-dollar bill.

We’ve also had our share of bad presidents but who were not demagogues. Woodrow Wilson was a racist who purged blacks from the government. President Harding dropped his pants for more than one woman not his wife and got embroiled in the Teapot Dome oil scandal. Herbert Hoover and a top-heavy Republican congress ushered in the Great Depression. Lyndon Johnson made the Vietnam debacle much worse. And I’ve shown 12 years ago that Ronald Reagan was pretty much a disaster of a president. Then of course there is George W. Bush. Still with the possible exception of Jackson none of these presidents rise to Trump’s level. None had the mentality that the ends justified the means. Trump’s success makes him a singular danger to our democracy.

So sorry daughter, we are living the Chinese curse of living in interesting times. Polls suggest a Trump election win will be quite a stretch, but if anyone could pull it off Trump is demonstrating he has the skills and oratory to do it. Trump though is not unique, but simply the most articulate spokesman for the Republican brand. It’s a brand full of chest thumping, racism, classism and staking out unequivocal positions that have devolved into concerns about the size of Trump’s hands and penis. They are all doing it without qualification, except possibly John Kasich. These candidates will denounce Trump on the one hand but won’t take the next obvious step: saying they will not support him if he wins his party’s nomination.

This is because for all their claims of principle they really don’t have any. It’s not principle that drives them; it’s the lust for power. This puts them ever further on the extreme right as well as makes them back down from taking principled stands like saying they won’t support Trump if he wins their party’s nomination. They are all jockeying for power as best they can by keeping their options open. I was puzzling through Chris Christie’s endorsement of Donald Trump shortly after dropping out. Why was he doing this? The easy rationalization is that both are bullies and he identifies with a fellow bully. But the same can be said for most of the Republican candidates. I think Christie is hoping to be nominated as his running mate. I think he is further expecting that if Trump wins office he will eventually be impeached and removed, leaving him as president. It’s a tactic worthy of Frank Underwood; he was just the first to go there. While Christie may admire Trump for being a master bully, I think his real motivation is simply a lust for power.

The larger question is how do you undo something like this? It’s not like we are at the precipice. Lots of people are already jumping off the cliff into the political unknown. It’s time for the grownups not just to speak up but also to take real action. Mitt Romney says he won’t vote for Trump but did not suggest an alternative, which is hardly helpful. Establishment Republicans are trying to persuade voters in keystone states like Florida and Ohio to vote for someone else, but they appear too late to the game to change the dynamics. President Obama recently spoke out, but it was at a fundraiser. Changing the dynamics here though is pretty much impossible when the other party will refuse to even listen to you. Just for starters Republicans in Congress won’t even allow Obama’s budget director to present his budget, the first time this has ever been done. A Republican Senate also refuses to entertain a nominee for the Supreme Court.

We need an elder statesman with mojo and credibility to bring the parties together to tone down the rhetoric and is some marginal way change the conversation and up the civility factor. There is no one such person, unfortunately. Jimmy Carter comes to mind but Republicans would dismiss him.

We urgently need a national timeout. All these key muckrakers need to have a private conclave and hash this out. If I were President Obama I’d be on the phone with Mitt Romney. I’d be penciling in a date in a couple weeks at a private retreat like Camp David and use the power of shame (if it works) to bring all these blowhards together in one place to hash this out. This would include Republican and Democratic leadership in Congress and all the presidential candidates on both sides. It would also include chairs of the Democratic and Republican national committees. I’d include trained facilitators and psychologists to help ensure the meeting moves forward productively The topics would include: setting baselines for acceptable political behavior and setting up a process involving some compromise so that Congress and the President can work together in some minimal fashion through the election.

Would it work? The odds are against my proposal but someone needs to step forward and we need two brave people on both sides of the aisle. I don’t see any others who can play this role.

Sadly, nothing like this is likely to happen, but it needs to happen. Is there a grownup in the room?

The Thinker

How to truly value labor

Paul Ryan, former Republican vice presidential nominee and House Budget Committee chairman, has a new concern about Obamacare. It comes from a very selective reading of a new Congressional Budget Office report. The report noted that because Obamacare helps decouple health insurance from employment, some people who are working only because of their employer’s health insurance will quit and get their health insurance through a public exchange instead.

The CBO estimates that the equivalent of more than two million jobs will disappear over the next few years from employees who can now make this choice. Ryan said this means that Americans will “not to get on the ladder of life, to begin working, getting the dignity of work, getting more opportunities, rising the income, joining the middle class”. This is because, apparently, they will prefer sloth instead because they have the option of getting subsidized health insurance from the government instead.

Other Republicans leapt to inferences the CBO never said. The typical talking point became, “Obamacare will destroy more than two million jobs.” As if when people leave their job, employers won’t try to fill those jobs. By this logic anyone who quits their job is destroying jobs. Moreover, last I heard if you quit your job you won’t get free health care. You may be entitled to a subsidy if your income is low enough and if truly destitute and devoid of assets you could go on Medicaid. But that is hardly new. Moreover, employers may be entitled to government subsidies to provide health insurance to their employees. That’s part of Obamacare too. I guess a business could decide not to take these subsidies, but almost all that can will, because they like profits. I don’t see any Republicans referring to businesses that take these subsidies as freeloaders. But people who quit a soul sucking job apparently have no appreciation for the dignity of work and want to be bums.

Personally, I think it’s great when people quit their jobs. People don’t quit jobs they like. They quit jobs they hate. So Ryan could not be more wrong. People who quit a job generally expect to find a better and more fulfilling work somewhere else. If they thought otherwise they would stay in their current job. Obamacare increases personal freedom. Most likely everyone will be better off. Employers will get more productive employees that are more vested in their work and those who quit will be (or expect to be) in a happier situation.

As for the dignity of work being a personal value, it’s a curious argument for a Republican to make. Right now the situation is reversed. Government gives you incentive not to work, not through health insurance subsidies, but by allowing those with cash to invest their money and tax it at rates far less than the tax rates of labor. Capital gains mean nothing to most of us that are working. We may have retirement accounts with six or seven digits of value, and we still don’t care about capital gains. That’s because capital gains do not apply to our retirement accounts. When, in your geezerhood, you do take withdrawals from your Keogh or 401K, you won’t get a capital gains tax rate of 15% like those moneyed Wall Street types get for their non-retirement investments. That money will be taxed as if you worked to acquire them, i.e. earned income. Only those with liquid assets available for investing outside of retirement accounts can take advantage of those low capital gains tax rates. Others like me are taxed at a considerably higher rate because we work and make a good wage. In my case, I am in the 25% tax bracket. As I noted before, others like Mitt Romney don’t work at all, are filthy rich and are in the 15% tax bracket because their income is almost all from capital gains.

If the dignity of work is now an important Republican value, then how about making work pay? People working at Wal-Mart or McDonalds apparently cannot survive on their wages. Many of these people would be malnourished or homeless if they were not getting food stamps or in some cases public housing. If they could survive without government handouts and actually be able to acquire some modest savings and live in their own place, maybe they would feel dignity and value. But many employers don’t care about their dignity or value because they won’t pay them a living wage. What does that say about how employers value labor? Government could set a living wage floor that actually was a living wage. Low income workers would have more money in their pockets and would likely spend most of it, increasing economic activity. Having dignity in your work implies that you can be self-sufficient from your labor. Low wage jobs appear to have the opposite effect.

And if work should be valued, shouldn’t it be valued at least as much as investment income? Unless you inherit wealth, it takes a heap of high-paid labor to acquire surplus funds to invest outside of your retirement. The argument for low capital gains tax rates was to spur economic growth. That doesn’t seem to be working so well, as evidenced by our anemic economy and the high unemployment rate.

So this argument about the dignity of work is one of two things: rhetoric or, if sincere, it should be a call to action for society to put its money where its mouth is. This can be done by requiring employers to pay a living wage and by increasing capital gains tax rates to at least be at parity with income tax rates. Arguably, capital gains and dividends should be taxed at rates higher than labor. It would demonstrate that we truly value labor.

But you already know the answer to the argument: it’s rhetoric. Republicans like Paul Ryan don’t give a damn about the dignity of work or pretty much anyone not in their socioeconomic class and who does not share their values. For those of us in the working class, there is only one appropriate response and it involves lifting your middle finger to these hypocritical assholes.

The Thinker

Hurricane Sandy reminds us why we need government

With the arrival of Hurricane Sandy here on the east coast yesterday, you got a timely reminder of why we need government. Yesterday was a day when you wanted to batten down the hatches and if you lived in certain areas also pray like hell. Unless you own a boat or ship you probably didn’t have to literally batten down any hatches, although I have to wonder if failure to do so lead to the sinking of the HMS Bounty during the storm.

For most of us storm preparation meant cleaning out gutters, removing chairs from our decks, testing the sump pump, stocking up on batteries, toilet paper and bottled water, and finding places for our automobiles away from trees. It worked for us here in Oak Hill, Virginia. Sandy dumped more rain than wind on us. Nearby Washington Dulles International Airport reported 5.4 inches of rain during the event, with peak sustained winds of 39 miles an hour, with gusts to 54 miles an hour. We also had a day of record low pressure, something I attribute to climate change. As hurricanes go this was a bizarre one. No tropical air and foggy windows this time, but cold air fed by a cold front on the other side of the Appalachians, driving rain for more than a day, and blustery winds yesterday afternoon and evening. Our house, windows and floorboards rattled from time to time, but the power and heat stayed on and we never lost Internet.

News reports indicated that millions of others are still without power. Sandy left much of New Jersey and lower Manhattan destroyed and/or underwater. I am monitoring my hometown of Binghamton, which likely has not seen the worst of Sandy yet. The area suffered two devastating floods in 2005 and 2010. This may be yet another one for that suffering area to endure. But its impact will be softened, thanks to local, state and federal emergency managers. Thanks should also be given to President Obama, who declared areas disaster areas before the storm hit, to speed aid and supplies.

The list of people and organizations to thank are immense. There is the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which coordinates disaster relief and works intimately with the states to stage disaster relief supplies. There is the National Weather Service and the National Hurricane Center, which effectively tracked the storm and issued the correct warnings. There is the Coast Guard, various governors, state and local emergency responders, power crews, ambulance drivers and cops on the beat.

Some of the best results were things that did not happen. My roof did not blow off or collapse. This did not happen by magic, but was the result of building codes and building inspections. In 1985 when my house was constructed, Fairfax County sent out inspectors to make sure my house was constructed to a code that would allow it to endure major storms like Sandy. In 1999 we replaced our deck and enclosed it. “Big government” building inspectors took a look at the roof of our new deck and told the contractors it was not up to code. They were forced to add additional beams to support the roof.

There is more evidence of big government across the street from my house. There a large dry pond sits awaiting events like Hurricane Sandy. It safely collects backwater then funnels it into the nearby creek in a measured manner, minimizing flood damage. Even in the event that it overfilled the dry pond, the codes required the road to be graded in a certain way to keep the water flowing gently downhill, never leaving a spot on the road for water to accumulate. Before the community was even constructed, an engineering study was ordered to make sure no part of our community was in a flood zone. Had these safeguards not been in place, it is likely that we would have experienced some storm damage last night. Possibly me and some of my neighbors would be dislocated, injured or dead. Big government could not eliminate these risks, but through a planning and an impartial inspection process it minimized these risks. One of the reasons our power never went out is because power lines are underground in our neighborhood, another outcome of big government. Doubtless it would have been cheaper to plant telephone polls instead.

Much of the wheels of government work this way. It’s the things that you don’t see and take for granted that minimize losses and deaths during these natural events. All these services cost money, but they cost less because their costs are borne generally through taxes. The cost per capita for the National Weather Service is a couple of dollars per year.

FEMA is an example of the services that Mitt Romney plans to drastically cut if he is elected president. And yet many of these services are already chronically underfunded and if anything need more funds. Moreover, the cost of funding these arguably essential areas of government are a pittance compared to the cost of entitlements and defense. At least now Romney claims says he won’t cut FEMA. But clearly you cannot balance a budget and not raise taxes if you don’t cut something. If you won’t do much to cut entitlements and keep bloating the Defense Department’s budget, these essential government services must be drastically cut.

You can say, as many conservatives do, it is better to leave it to the states to handle these things. But hurricanes do not respect state boundaries. It makes no sense for each state to have a redundant weather service when it can be done nationally. The whole point of having a United States is to ensure that if some states have to deal with disaster, we can pick up their slack by everyone contributing aid through federal taxes. We need these services because we are all in this together. These services are not nice to have; they are essential. We are bigger than the sum of our parts because we are united and federated.

Also essential is the infrastructure that makes all this possible. We need the National Science Foundation to stimulate research in national areas of interest. We need my agency, the U.S. Geological Survey, to do seismological research, biodiversity estimates and to monitor the nation’s streams and groundwater, so the National Weather Service can make flood and drought forecasts. We need the FDA to make sure our drugs are safe, agricultural inspectors to make sure our food is safe, ICE to handle illegal and legal immigrants, and the FBI to investigate intrastate crimes. Maybe if push came to shove we can do without funding Big Bird or sending probes to Mars. These costs are mere pocket change in the federal budget.

As I have noted before, taxes are the price of civilization. If this is not clear to you, then elect Republicans and watch as our highways and bridges deteriorate, our children become unable to afford college, watch our food become impure, our drugs become adulterated and see legions of poor and starving people living on the streets because no one will house them or feed them. Expect that when some future Hurricane Sandy arrives, the size of the problem will needlessly mushroom simply because we as a society have decided we have stopped caring for anyone but ourselves.

It’s your choice. I understand if your ideology tells you to vote Republican regardless, but the next Hurricane Sandy won’t care about your philosophy and you and your family may be needless victims. God gave us brains. Let’s use them.

The Thinker

The last debate

It’s probably a good thing that most Americans are geography impaired. Many Americans cannot tell you what their neighboring states are, let alone pick out Iran or Syria on a globe. Mitt Romney seems to fall into this category as well, since during yesterday’s presidential debate he came up with the preposterous claim that Iran needed to help Syria so it could have access to the world’s oceans. Maybe he confused the landlocked Afghanistan with Iran. In any event, Iran has plenty of access to the world’s oceans as the southern part of Iran presses up against the Persian Gulf, and it depends on access to it to export most of its oil.

Overall, yesterday’s debate with President Obama did not reflect well on Romney’s grasp of foreign policy. Worse, he could not draw clear distinctions between how his policies would vary from Obama’s. He either tacitly or explicitly agreed with most of Obama’s policies, the inescapable implication being that Obama was doing a good job as commander in chief. Moreover, he drew a lot of false conclusions. For example, he criticized the president for turmoil in the Middle East, as if it was his fault. Even the casual observer of the Middle East understands that revolution, particularly in that part of the world, requires turmoil. It’s an area where democracy is virtually unknown and despots are aplenty. His reasoning is also suspect because it suggests that we can actually control the political process underway across the Middle East. All we can really do is attempt to influence policy by reaching out to leaders, the opposition, and by working with other countries to affect jointly desirable outcomes, such as ending Iran’s nuclear program.

We have tried using force to get our way and it didn’t work in Iraq, although we did squander hundreds of billions of dollars before a wiser president than Bush got us out of Iraq. Sadly, I predict the same will be true in Afghanistan as proved true in Iraq. Yes, we will be out by the end of 2014. Even Romney wants that to occur. But Afghan troops will be no more ready to take control of their country than Iraqi troops were. Afghanistan is likely to look a lot like Iraq in 2015, likely with no clear winner but with a heavy and destabilizing Talibani influence but the government retaining control in most major cities. But we’ll be out of there and most importantly al Qaeda will not be coming back. They will wisely stay out of Afghanistan. The Taliban will not let them back in, as they lost power the last time they let them in. The Taliban knows that as long as they make mischief only within their borders that we will leave them alone. That’s the bottom line in Afghanistan that both sides know we will accept, just not state publicly.

President Obama demonstrated a firm grasp of these nuances, and rightly called Romney out on some of his more absurd statements, like his fretting that our navy had fewer ships than at any time since World War One. Aircraft carriers did not even exist then. One aircraft carrier today is the equivalent of dozens if not hundreds of navy ships in the World War One era. It’s actually much more than that since it allows us to project a large concentration of air power at trouble spots across the world.

Both Obama and Romney found plenty of reasons to talk about domestic policy, since most Americans yawn at foreign policy. As usual, the moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS Newswas caught in the middle and had trouble bringing their focus back to foreign policy. By this point in the campaign there was really nothing that either candidate could state that Americans had not heard before. Instead, the casual listener could only go with gut assessments of the candidate. Obama looked the image of the sober commander in chief he has been. Romney looked again like he was trying to imitate Ronald Reagan, not succeeding very well and seemed a bit trigger happy as well.

The sad fact for Republicans was that the debate was a sure loser for them. Americans overwhelmingly approve of Obama’s foreign policy. We are out of Iraq, and are getting out of Afghanistan. We are war weary, so Romney’s saber rattling fell flat. It was not surprising then that Romney was happy to turn the conversation to domestic policy, where he holds better cards. Overall, Americans see no compelling reason to spend lavishly on defense at this time, particularly when we are entering an era of austerity and the obvious foreign threats against us are diminishing. Moreover, it is astonishing to most of us who pay attention to foreign policy that Russia is our biggest national security threat, as Romney recently asserted. The Cold War is long over. Russia retains an impressive nuclear arsenal but does not appear to have any imperialistic desires at the moment. It has its hands full controlling its own population.

In short, Romney got pwned last night. By the end of the debate it seemed that Romney knew it as well.

The Thinker

The second debate

As a political junkie, I confess that I watch presidential debates not so much to learn what candidates believe on a variety of issues (which, of course, I already know) but for their pure entertainment value. Arguably, presidential debates are primarily theater. Unlike theater these debates can have real world consequences: the acquisition of power. So they tend to excite me much more than a good movie, in part because they are so rare.

In the first debate I felt cheated and a bit angry because to the extent that President Obama was acting, he was playing the role of Mr. Spock, where he is most comfortable. That left Mitt Romney to own the debate because he seemed to be the only one participating. The vice presidential debate was more theatrical than the first presidential debate, but with Biden’s many childish actions it was overall disappointing.

As theater, last night’s debate did not disappoint and proved to be hugely entertaining, as President Obama and Mitt Romney engaged in an elaborate fistfight, albeit without using real fists. If they were horses, they would have been both chomping at the bits. Unlike the first debate, President Obama largely owned this debate. However, Mitt Romney made a respectable showing. If it were a horserace, he would not have been more than two lengths behind the President at the finish line.

Since innumerable pundits have picked so much about the debate apart I won’t go into many of these already stated points. Romney’s remarks about women and binders went right over me, not because I am a man, but because I knew what he meant to say. On this issue (which was really a question about equal pay for women) what struck me is that Romney really never answered the question, leaving the implication that unequal pay based on sex doesn’t bother him.

I expected Obama to mention Romney’s often stated 47% statement (that 47% of Americans will vote for Obama because they are dependents of the government) at the start of the debate. Yet it would not have come up at all had not Romney raised it himself indirectly in the final question. He said one of the misunderstood things about him is that he is for 100% of Americans. What a stupid thing to say because it let Obama remind Americans of Romney’s 47% remark right at the close of a debate. Romney had a number of missteps like this but Obama’s more agile (and younger) mind kept him virtually gaffe free as well as at the peak of eloquence.

Both candidates were inventing new ways to command an open stage and appear domineering without actually touching each other or moving into each other’s personal space (a mistake Al Gore made in the 2000 debates). Of the two, Obama proved more agile with the assertive body language. He found ways to hunch forward while sitting on his stool as if anxious to lunge forward with a response at the soonest millisecond possible. He even had a way of holding his microphone that looked assertive. Both candidates had all sorts of assertive arm gestures, and fast walking motions that almost looked like prances. Obama is the master of the elevated, superior looking head, but his smile often bordered on smirky. Romney must have studied the last debate videos and had his smirks pointed out to him. In that sense he learned something: smirking is counterproductive and sends the wrong message. Thankfully, I did not have that distraction last night.

It got more entertaining of course when they interrupted one another, or when one candidate pleaded with moderator Candy Crowley for more time, or would not take “shut up” instructions from Ms. Crowley. Mostly though Obama proved a master of framing, often taking “sure to lose” questions like the terrorist assault on our consulate in Libya and turning them into wins instead. When he said he called the incident a terrorist incident the day after it occurred, and he was challenged by Romney, Crowley corrected Romney (she had clearly done her homework), even Romney must have felt the bat to the side of his head.

But what about the debate’s substance? For a debate, it was not bereft of substance but the constant posturing without really addressing the root problems was often maddening on both sides. From Romney, there was more obfuscation on how he could possibly cut taxes and still close the deficit. From Obama, there was no mention at all that increasing taxes on those making more than $250,000 a year (fine by me) won’t begin to seriously cut the deficit. At least Obama was correct to point out that real wealth does not trickle down, but is primarily a consequence of income growth in the middle class. It should not be rocket science that when the majority of people have more money to spend, and actually spend it, that it will cause broad economic growth. Nor should it be rocket science that the rich by themselves cannot save the economy. There is only so much money that rich people can spend to improve their lifestyles, and there simply aren’t enough of them no matter how lavishly they spend their money for it to have real impact on the economic growth of the country.

The debate succeeded in being a contrast in values between Republicans and Democrats. Those still on the political fence at least have these differences to chaw over, assuming they have been politically asleep the last few years. Still, so many real issues were not discussed. There were no questions about the catastrophic consequences of ignoring global warming. There were no questions on the wisdom of the Citizens United ruling, or whether gays should marry, or if we really need to spend $700 billion a year on defense while laying off teachers. Instead it was more about gas prices, “clean” coal, how wonderful the middle class is and the benefits of capitalism, families and apple pie.

The debate made for good theater, but felt much like a glazed donut. It felt great going down. It was not until it was all over that you realized it was only 30 percent substance and 70 percent prancing, and its thrill was quite ephemeral. I enjoyed all the theatrical prancing, but arguably the American people could have used a full diet of substance instead.

The Thinker

The vice presidential debate

I don’t know whether to applaud or feel appalled. Maybe it’s okay to do both.

I spent much of this debate with my jaw agape as Vice President Joe Biden did everything to get attention but take off his shoe and bang it on his desk, a la Nikita Khrushchev. Whereas Barack Obama was unfailingly civil and understated in his first presidential debate, Biden went out of his way to be just the opposite with Mitt Romney’s vice presidential choice, Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan. Because of Joe, the debate was more carnival than debate. Biden managed to speak more than Ryan and felt few constraints to let Ryan finish sentences. If Obama could have an evil alter ego, Biden emulated it. The result was that he dominated the debate and dominated the clock as well. He was often rude, frequently dismissive, interruptive and sneering, as well as often wide-eyed when Ryan spoke and chortling, always flashing his impressive set of pearly white teeth.

The contrast made Paul Ryan appear entirely reasonable, unless you tried to parse what he was saying, which rarely made a lot of sense. While Biden dominated the debate, I found Ryan far more telegenic. In particular a feature of his I had never noticed before struck me: his hair, particularly a part of his hairline that uncharacteristically falls down the center of his forehead in a point. It was mesmerizing, even more so that Biden’s antics. His pointy forehead hairstyle is bizarrely uncommon and curiously makes him look like Satan himself.

The Devil in Paul Ryan's hair

The Devil in Paul Ryan’s hair

Biden is known to be flamboyant, but clearly he pulled out all the stops during this debate. It’s unclear who “won” the debate although most polls give Biden a narrow win. No one will deny that Biden was not forceful. His tactics, strangely enough, came right out of the Republican playbook. Those of us following the many Republican debates saw it time and again as candidates tried to break out of the pack. Bizarre, rude and loud behavior usually worked, at least for a while, in getting attention. It did not succeed in producing a nominee with these qualities. In the end Republicans chose Mitt Romney, overall a milquetoast candidate. But that’s the point. Biden is the sideshow and he knows it. He is not being elected president; the choice is between Obama and Romney. His job was to shake up the dynamic moving against the president. His tactics may have made you want to put the kids to bed early, but they probably were rather effective.

Biden actually did something very unusual for a Democrat: he talked backed emotionally more than logically. This approach makes most Democrats uncomfortable. It certainly made me uncomfortable. But generally it works as a strategy. Biden was championing the strategies that made Democrats such as Molly Ivins and Ann Richards so effective, and which I argued in May that Democrats needed to adopt if they want to win elections. Most partisan Democrats were ecstatic with Biden’s performance. Finally here was a man unafraid to say to Republicans exactly why Republicans were so full of shit, and to do so in unambiguously emotional ways.

That’s how you break through the noise and change expectations, and breaking through the noise right now is essential. So in this sense Biden’s performance reflected genius. Take, for example, the so-called Romney-Ryan plan to balance the budget. There is no plan. They won’t articulate one that we can actually study. It’s just more of the same: cutting tax rates, assuming it will lead to huge economic growth, closing unspecified “loopholes”, pumping up the Defense Department’s already bloated budget, cutting the size and scope of the rest of government somehow without impacting Social Security and Medicare for anyone currently over 55, and somehow it will all magically work. It didn’t work in the 1980s under Reagan or in the 2000s under George W. Bush, but this is what they are promoting with almost no details about how it will work. It’s an entirely faith-based economic plan, based on a faith that has repeatedly proven misplaced.

Such an approach to governing should be dismissed; consequently Biden’s behavior certainly was merited based on Romney and Ryan’s faith-based economic plan. Romney recently castigated Obama for substituting hope for a strategy. Yet he is hoping that the magic of supply side economics will substitute for a real strategy and plan to reduce unemployment and grow the economy. No one running for president should be peddling this kind of crap and expect to be taken seriously.

Let’s see a Romney-Ryan detailed economic plan instead of a hope-filled campaign web page. Let economists weigh in on it. They won’t give us one. Until they do, they deserve all the contempt and scorn that Democrats can deliver. Joe Biden did voters a favor by making it clear that they are full of crap. The message was heard loud and clear because his body language told people unambiguously Republicans were full of crap. Message received. Perhaps it will motivate some voters still on the fence to take a look. If so they will realize that if any party is substituting hope for a strategy, it is the Republican Party. And any party that does this deserves the contempt that Biden unleashed on Thursday night.

The Thinker

The first debate

It’s not October in a presidential election year without a number of presidential debates. Therein we largely–already-decided-voters get to watch the candidates jostle and parry with each other on national TV. The talking heads go into overdrive. Who won? Who lost? Why? What does it mean? What it mostly means is not a whole lot. Presidential debates rarely change the outcome of the election and these series of debates probably will not either.

On points most analysts give Romney a solid win, and I have to say the analysts are probably right for whatever it is worth. President Obama was in full Mr. Spock mode acting eminently logical and civil and when necessary flashing his proprietary toothy grin. The surprise was that, at least for ninety minutes, Mitt Romney emerged from his green eyeshades mode and resembled something animated and human. Moreover, his arguments sort of made sense, as long as you were ignorant of how he constantly contradicted his positions during the rest of the campaign. This matters little to most of the debate viewers, who could care less about previous statements and campaign minutia, and most of who were tuning into Mitt Romney for the first time.

I watched the debate on where the screen was split between Obama and Romney, allowing us to watch the reaction of one candidate while the other blathered. Obama took a lot of hits for seeming disinterested. He was not quite the eloquent debater we saw four years ago when he was debating Hillary Clinton. Obama looked mostly tired and like he wished to be elsewhere. No doubt spending the evening romancing his wife of exactly twenty years was far more appealing than trying to focus on Mitt and his frequently meandering arguments. Obama would have been wise to simply say that Mitt was having many “Etch-a-sketch” moments. Unexplainably, Obama mostly let these many moments pass.

Like his infamous dog Seamus forced to endure much of a family vacation in a pet carrier strapped to the roof of the family sedan, Mitt really looked like he was a dog straining at the leash. He wore a half smirk, half phony smile and the longer it went on the more I was looking for things to throw at my monitor. Toward the end it became nearly unendurable. I shudder to think of him as president. How can we be expected to endure that “I am more superior than you” smirk for at least four years? And yet the press gave him a pass, and concentrated on Obama’s dispassionate and civil performance, which at least is standard behavior from him. Mitt looked the epitome of someone of high school age desperately wanting to be class president, not president of the United States. Gosh, he wanted to be popular! He wanted to sell himself, like a box of detergent.

Moreover, he looked and sounded like a bad imitation of Ronald Reagan. From the slicked back hair to the thick eyebrows, you could almost mistake him for Reagan, except he had none of his gravitas or his sincerity. He also looked Reagan-old. He looked more like the Ta-la-la-la guy than a human being, with a smile that seemed due to a surgical wire under his cheeks and wrinkles around the eyes that looked Botoxed. I found him to be more Martian than human, but at least he was animated. Obama looked like he was on sedatives.

For all the hoopla, there was little of substance exchanged, which was probably by design. Maybe it’s good that Romney’s spouse Ann is into horse dressage. Romney looked like he was competing in a human dressage contest. The debate for Romney was more about pomp and circumstance, gestures and body posture, tone of voice and arm pumping and reused zingers (“you are not entitled to your own facts”) than it was about substance. In that sense, regardless of who won the debate on technical points, the American people lost, since so little policy was actually discussed.

So Obama loses points for being cerebral and disengaged. He is smart enough though not to make the same mistake twice, and will learn how to exploit Romney’s weaknesses in subsequent debates. While Romney “won” the debate, what people are remembering is not so much his quirky animation, but some of his surreal comments. Two nights later what is really making the rounds is not Romney’s animation, but his remarks about firing Big Bird. Fire Big Bird, Cookie Monster, Count von Count, Elmo and all the other Sesame Street characters, not to mention PBS and NPR? This has garnered a huge amount of attention on line, and it’s not good attention. It says more about the real Mitt Romney than any eloquence he managed during the debate. I expect that by the next debate he will be walking those statements back. Actually, I expect before the weekend is over he will have walked the statements back.

I hope the next debate will at least have some substance in it.

The Thinker

Why Obama is winning

Pollsters keep telling us that President Obama is statistically tied in the presidential race with his challenger Mitt Romney. “It’s within the margin of error,” they say, and if elections were won based on the popular vote, it would be. It is much harder to make the claim that the candidates are tied if you look at state polls, particularly at swing state polls. It’s beginning to look like check and mate for Mitt Romney.

Can things change? Of course they can. There is plenty of history sixty days out from Election Day showing that polls in early September don’t accurately predict the eventual winner. In this election though, the number of undecided voters is tiny. Moreover, the only undecided voters that matter are those in swing states. In most states, all the undecided voters could vote for one candidate over the other and it won’t change how the state’s electoral votes will go. With a few exceptions, states award all of their electoral votes to the candidate with the majority of votes in the state. Both campaigns know this, of course. There is no point wasting money trying to persuade voters in Texas to vote for Obama, or in Massachusetts trying to convince voters to vote for Romney. It’s only in swing states like, ironically, my state of Virginia where overbearing political ads seem to run nonstop.

State by state polls show that Obama has many realistic paths to the 270 electoral votes he needs for reelection, while few of Romney’s paths are viable. Most importantly, Romney looks like he is not going to win in Ohio, at least not without a lot of ballot stuffing or voter suppression. Polls show Obama with a consistent lead of about six points. Ohio’s Republican legislature has been working hard on the latter, but is getting some resistance from the courts. In recent times no candidate has won the presidency without winning Ohio. It is possible that Romney could win in a bunch of other states to make up the difference, but that path looks impossible.

Romney’s hope lies not in third parties that will spend enormous amounts of money to try to change the difference. His affiliated PACs have been doing that for months and it has been mostly wasted money. The recent Republican National Convention gave Romney no bounce at all in the polls. The more recent Democratic National Convention appears to have given Obama a bounce of at least a few points. History suggests any bounces will be short lived. So the race is likely to settle back to where it was before the conventions, showing the candidates close to tied with Obama generally shown marginally ahead.

Romney has only two real paths to victory. First, he can hope for some sort of cataclysmic financial event such as happened before the last election, or a sharply negative jobs report. This certainly is possible, but is unlikely. Second, he can hope that he so shines in the presidential debates that significant number of voters change their mind because they see a different and better candidate that they did not expect. Republican state legislators are hoping that Democrats can be restrained from voting through toughened voter identification laws, thus flipping the state into the red column. At best this strategy will work in only a couple of states.

Voter enthusiasm also makes a big difference in who wins, as Republicans demonstrated in 2010 when Democrats stayed home. There will be no problem turning out Republicans, unless polls make them feel disheartened. Democrats are also expected to turn out in large numbers, but perhaps not in as large numbers as in 2008.

So if Romney is checkmated, as it looks like he will be, how will it have happened? There are of course many factors, but I think the most important factor is that voters sense that Obama really cares about the middle class, and are not convinced that Romney does. Ohio actually makes a great case in point. It was ravaged by the recession, as it is nearly as dominated by the auto industry as Michigan. Obama and his brief Democratic congress rescued the auto industry when no one else would. The American auto industry came back as a direct result of our investment in it. This is the value of actions over beliefs. In this case, it is obvious that these were correct decisions, and probably explains why Obama leads in Ohio by a consistent six percent.

Moreover, voters remain distrustful of Republicans. While they may be unhappy that the recovery has not be broader, faster and more sustained, they do know who got us into this economic mess and they know it was not Obama. Having had their hand recently burned on the stove, they are reticent to put their hand back on the stove. Republicans need to demonstrate political competence. Instead, they are demonstrating obstruction, extremism and intransigence, which may thrill their political base but does not endear them to independents, no matter how desperate they may feel about their job prospects.

It’s not sexy but Democrats and President Obama have spent most of the last four years trying to keep the bottom from falling out of the economy. This Houdini trick became exponentially more difficult after the 2010 election when Tea Party Republicans took control of the House.

In addition, Obama framed Romney very effectively in June and July when voters were just beginning to pay attention to him. The frame, which was not hard to apply, was that Romney was someone with no empathy for the middle class and who understood only profits and losses, not the real issues that Americans face. Obama understands the needs of the middle class from experience, an experience that Romney never tasted. Romney’s own bungling and inconsistency since then helped cement the frame. He seems incapable of any empathy for other than the rich, and cannot even seem to speak in a language that middle America understands.

Smart Republicans have already largely written off a Romney win, and are concentrating money where it matters: on obtaining a Senate majority (which is looking increasingly problematic) and maintaining their House majority (which looks likely). Losses in this election might foment some earnest soul searching from Republicans. The sooner they realize that they need to moderate positions the more likely they are to achieve lasting political power. Republicans are going to eventually realize that they must govern from the center to maintain political power, and this means their extreme positions will need to be moderated or they risk obsolescence as a party.

The Thinker

Between an economic rock and a hard place

Truth seems to be a precious commodity these days. Truth is not always easy to handle, but it does has the virtue of being true. Given the truth, you at least have a chance of working your way out of a problem. Unfortunately, there are many vested interests out there willing to lie or give us only partial truths purely to advance their agendas at the expense of the nation as a whole.

The current presidential campaign needs a whole lot of truth from both President Obama and future Republican nominee Mitt Romney. Of the two, Obama at least is closer to telling us the truth, but he is shielding Americans from harder truths. I wish that Obama could simply dump his posturing and nuancing and simply tell us the truth. It would be especially welcome to hear some truth about the economy, particularly yesterday when our unemployment rate crept up from 8.1 percent to 8.2 percent, while we actually very modestly increased hiring.

Republicans are all over the report, of course, pointing it as more evidence of a failed presidency. No question about it, 8.2 percent unemployment is not great, particularly if you are unemployed and don’t wish to be unemployed. Is it Obama’s fault? Shouldn’t he be held accountable because he is president?

Obama at least has a net increase in jobs during his administration and twenty-seven months of consecutive job growth, which is more than you can say about the George W. Bush administration. I think Obama has done a remarkable job dealing with an economy that at the start of his term looked like it was heading into a new depression. At least we are heading in the right direction.

Yet the reality is that neither Obama nor a President Romney can work miracles on this economy by himself. This is because the president has limited powers. The alchemy of presidential power happens at the edges, if it happens at all. Mostly it occurs when the president is successful in persuading Congress. This was hard for Obama even when Democrats were in charge, and virtually impossible now. Moreover, there are systemic problems that are at work that are likely to cause relatively high unemployment rates for years to come. Some of these can be ameliorated; some cannot. There are some short-term strategies that will improve the situation, but fixing the long-term problems is tough and cannot be solved by doing more of the same.

Here are some truths about our economy I wish I would hear from anyone running for public office:

  • We are in a hell of an economic mess mostly of our own making. Yes, it is partially the result of lots of things outside of our control, such as the closely connected international economy. It is also due to our inability to come to a political consensus. This, more than anything else, is the root of our problem, and our problems will likely linger until broad consensus is reached.
  • Europe matters. It is going into another recession. It has and will continue to affect our economy, and is probably the reason our job growth is slowing. Austerity in Europe is leaving people there poorer, and thus they cannot buy as many of our products and services, plus it adds uncertainty to the whole world economy. To some extent, our economy will be impacted until Europe itself achieves political consensus and its economy rebounds. And that is something neither Obama nor a new president can fix.
  • The economy is not going to improve by cutting public spending. Doing so will only cause the economy in the short term to get worse. This is because, no matter how inefficiently, spending money employs people. And when people are employed they mostly spend the money, which stimulates the economy.
  • Sustainable growth happens when we make new products or services that other people broadly want. And that does not happen through inertia but through a lot of research, investment and through having a highly skilled work force. It happens to some extent through government investments. The Internet, the key to our modern economy, was not a result of entrepreneurial behavior, but a result of a government research product.
  • Wealth does not trickle down. It grows as a result of a burgeoning middle class. The one percent already have virtually all they need and are not going to spend enough of their capital to grow the economy for the rest of us.
  • Growth requires infrastructure. The surest way to cripple our economy in the long term is to neglect infrastructure spending. Austerity will do just this.
  • We are all going to have to pay more taxes. If we are stupid enough to delude ourselves that we don’t have to, we will move our country down the economic ladder, eventually moving us into a second world status. Governments don’t exist to redistribute all wealth, but do need to redistribute some wealth; otherwise you don’t have a government. If it doesn’t, bridges don’t get built, roads don’t get paved, power grids deteriorate, children don’t get educations, shoddy medicines end up on the market and unsafe food ends up on our shelves and in our bodies. Our economy, including our national defense, depends on having our infrastructure in place.
  • The education of our citizens is a critical, if not the most critical, of all the factors underpinning our long-term economy. The free market cannot solve this problem. If it were possible, there would have been no reason to create public schools in the first place. True sustainable growth comes from maximizing the educational potential of all our children and applying it to products and services the world needs. That means we want all children capable of it to go to college, if possible. We want to inculcate a curiosity in our children and provide an environment that rewards creative thinking. We must invest in our children’s education, if for no other reason so they can sustain us in our old age.

In short, we are in a huge economic mess and the choices we are making or not making are making it worse. We need a national strategy that fundamentally addresses these issues. Tax cuts won’t solve the problem. Corporate welfare won’t do it either. We can start with spending heavily on infrastructure, through deficit spending if necessary. Perhaps we need a national infrastructure bank. Such a bank would serve to depolarize the issue of spending money on infrastructure. And it would certainly stimulate job growth, as well as better position us in a competitive world.

The Thinker

Dealing with political bullies

In April I discussed how Republicans win through intimidation. I said in a future post that I would give my thoughts on how to deal with their bullying. Today I finally get around providing my thoughts on the question.

This is a tough problem for Democrats because, with a few exceptions like Howard Dean, we haven’t learned to fight in a way that sways. Thus, Republicans have a natural advantage. They are used to having their way and they generally get their way through a lot of intimidation, bullying and money, which they have aplenty. Meanwhile, Democrats tend to be civilized people. We think it is impolite to shout and figure everyone has the right to be heard. We like to believe, against all evidence to the contrary, that Republicans have a better and pluralistic nature. And so pretty much every time we debate, we avoid going for the jugular. We don’t want to be seen as one of them, which in our minds is worse than winning.

All bullies understand one thing very well: to wield power over someone, you must connect with someone emotionally, not logically. Chances were that when you encountered a bully in school, one encounter was enough. The bully never tried to reason with you. Instead, he went straight for the jugular and used every weapon is his well-stocked arsenal: physical, emotional and mental. You quickly learned to avoid the bully because man, this dude is a loose cannon. If encountered, you found it pragmatic to give them what they wanted to avoid retribution. Why does this work? It is because for most people it takes about ten logical propositions (or more) to overwhelm one emotional proposition.

To really beat a political bully, it helps to have cut a few of them down to size. This come from standing up to bullies, which few of us have tried. Oddly enough, most bullies, when confronted by an opponent with determination, will give way. This will happen particularly if they sense from those around them that by standing up, many others will find the courage to stand up as well. This is because a crowd against you has more power than any bully by himself.

One way bullies deal with this uncomfortable fact is to have more bullies stand up with them. This way you become something of a gang, and a gang is more powerful than a single person. Yet the powerful bully actually walks a fine line. He must be seen as powerful and intimidating, but not so powerful that it behooves those they are intimidating to join ranks. Success often comes from being very loud, carrying a big stick but wielding it selectively.

In fact, this is pretty much how the Confederates managed to dominate the first half of The Civil War. It helped that Union generals tended to be wimps and ineffectual while Confederate generals like Stonewall Jackson were brilliant tacticians. (The Union started winning when soldiers like Grant proved they would not allow their armies to be intimidated.) The “rebel yell” was very effective for the Confederate Army, and involved them forming a line, pointing rifles and sabers forward then running forward en masse, often in sync, yelling and whooping the whole time. Union soldiers found the rebel yell unnerving because it was, well, crazy, and often gave way. It was a great tactic while it worked, and it stopped working when the Union Army found its courage. Today’s Republican bullies may be channeling the spirit of their rebellious forefathers. Using sabers against political opponents is not a good idea, but yelling is still politically acceptable, as is charging en masse, which today means honing a finely tuned and simple message and broadcasting it repeatedly everywhere.

See these tactics at work with attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. It’s amazing that they get away with it. The Affordable Care Act, after all, is the law of the land. Civilized people of course respect the law, even when they disagree with it. If they don’t like it, they will work to repeal the law. That’s not good enough for these new Confederates. The law must be killed through all means, fair and unfair. This includes deliberate foot dragging from red states, outright refusal to begin the process of setting up health care exchanges (despite The Supremacy Clause), and filing endless legal challenges, mostly with friendly courts. Some of their tactics give new meaning to the word chutzpah, such as refusing to fund the law that was already enacted. Make it a law in name only. Whatever works, fair or foul, is okay. Civilized people, of course, retch at these tactics, but if you are a bully it is just one item in your bag of tricks.

Curiously, the very best Democrats at fighting Republican bullies come from deeply red states, in particular Texas. This becomes less curious when you consider this behavior forms part of the culture of the state. Former (now deceased) Texas Governor Ann Richards had mastered the art, as has Jim Hightower. Many of these luminaries worked for The Texas Observer, a monthly magazine principally about Texas politics with a Democratic bent that was widely read. The late Molly Ivins and Jim Hightower both worked for or contributed to The Texas Observer, as did Larry L. King, who is perhaps best known as the author of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Democrats trying to counter these Republican bullies would be wise to study and emulate their tactics.

Their success comes down to two main factors. First, they learned the art of mean-mouthing other politicians in a way that called into question their lack of character. Barack Obama, responding to one of Mitt Romney’s crazier talking points, will give a polite and academic reply, maybe with a hint of sarcasm. Molly Ivins, if she were still alive, would not only lampoon the argument with innumerable logical holes, but would not be afraid, after providing many examples, to publicly state the logical conclusion in personal and emotional terms. If she were alive, I imagine her response to Romney’s proposal to keep cutting taxes for the rich as a solution for reducing the deficit would include a colorful metaphor. (“He wants to take money out of his little daughter’s piggy bank so he can go binge drinking at the saloon down the street.”) Metaphors like this are hard to excise from your head, particularly when they ring true. It’s even harder when it defies common sense and you can tie the allusion to an ordinary experience.

The truth, if it can be turned to an issue that a common person finds of concern, can be devastatingly effective politically, provided it is given with the right emotional punch. If is doesn’t move you, then it won’t work. A political ad on Haiti policy, for example, might concern the one percent of voters who care about Haiti, but most don’t, so the money on such advertisements is largely wasted.

Perhaps the most devastating political ad of all time was the Daisy ad that Lyndon Johnson used against Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election. Why did it work? It worked because it combined a powerful truth with the inescapably devastating emotional consequences for everyone. Johnson portrayed himself as the sane person in the room who would avoid nuclear war. He didn’t even have to reference Barry Goldwater because the implication was obvious. Goldwater was on record as being trigger happy with the nation’s nuclear weapons.

What do people really care about most today? Principally they want a good paying job, but also a hopeful future. Issues like gay marriage animates a fringe, but only a fringe of the electorate. What will make independent voters’ spines shiver will be simple and concrete ads showing Mitt Romney’s disdain for the working class. There is plenty of material on the record to work with, including his statements that he hoped General Motors would go bankrupt. His work while leading Bain Capital is also rife with examples of working people being laid off or having their wages cut, such as at Staples, to line his pockets. Find a couple of indisputable examples, tie them to working people who experienced the wrath of his decisions, and such an ad is bound to hit the double whammy of both logical and have strong emotional impact.

Ultimately, bullies only hold power as long as the crowd lets them wield it. Political bullies are rendered powerless when they are ignored. It happened to Glenn Beck, it is happening to Rush Limbaugh and it happened most recently to Newt Gingrich, in most cases because they traversed a serious line or became a parody of themselves. Mitt Romney will use mostly surrogates for his bullying of President Obama. He will likely disclaim actions of surrogates when politically dangerous, such as a recent attempt by a PAC to resurrect the Jeremiah Wright controversy.

Democrats should concentrate forces on a half dozen or less key distinguishing issues that are emotionally charged and that appeal to swing voters. The Republican War on Woman, one of the few frames Democrats created that actually stuck, is one example. Why did it stick? It stuck because it was so obviously true and it is also helpful because the majority of voters in this country are female. The frames that will be effective must connect a candidate with a concern or fear that Middle America will find deeply disturbing and undeniably true.

Do this and the bully is rendered harmless.


Switch to our mobile site