Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Expectations Game and the Presidential Debates

"Have we been telling you that our guy's great? Well, actually, he kinda sucks."

Both sides play expectation games - better to be underestimated and have your middling performance seen as a victory (Sarah Palin vs. Joe Biden) than to be expected to dominate and stumble. But this could be a case study. Following up on Chris Christie's bluster,
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie says on CBS’ "Face the Nation" that Romney is going to do "extraordinarily well" in the debate and that after Wednesday night, "this whole race is going to be turned upside down."
Paul Ryan insists, in essence, "No, Romney's not a great debater, has never debated a single opponent, the President has been on a public stage for six years [don't ask what Ryan has been doing], and the debate's actually a pretty minor event."
The GOP vice presidential candidate calls President Barack Obama "a very gifted speaker" who’s been on the national stage for several years.1

Ryan also is making the point that Republican nominee Mitt Romney has never been in a one-on-one presidential debate.2

Ryan tells "Fox News Sunday" that the race is close and he expects it will stay that way until Election Day on Nov. 6.
I suspect that from Christie's perspective, Romney needs to excel in order to change the trajectory of his campaign, so he's expressing what he hopes to see. Ryan, on the other hand, wants an debate that isn't completely embarrassing to Romney (an outcome nobody expects to occur) to be taken as a draw, and anything better than that to be perceived as a victory.

Meanwhile, the President's campaign is advancing a less blustery version of Christie's message - Romney's a great debater who repeatedly beat his opponents in the primaries. (Compare and contrast, for example, the banter of boxers in a title match.)
1. And Romney has been doing exactly what for the last couple of decades of his life, starting with his Senate race against Kennedy? A shrinking wallflower, he.

2. A pretty thin distinction. He's been in one-on-one debates when seeking both state and national office.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Mitt Romney's Empathy Deficit

When I saw a recent blog post by Charles Pierce, "The Problem with Romney Is the Problem with Empathy", my first thought was "he noticed that too?" Then, upon reading Pierce's analysis I saw that I misinterpreted the headline. Pierce believes that Romney has too much empathy, as compared to his party:
It turns out the problem Republicans have with the program is not the ideological big-government aspect of it. The problem they have with it is the good it turned out to do for people. The problem with it is that it made people's lives a little easier. The problem is that cruelty has become an ideology in itself, and it is an implacable one....

The problem with the Romney campaign is not the alleged ideological incoherence of his political resume. The problem is that he's trying to appeal to a party full of moral monsters.
Elided from the middle of that quote from Pierce is his own quote of a Tea Party activist, and I have to say that it does support Pierce's thesis that a powerful faction of the Republican Party not only lacks empathy, it eschews the concept:
"The thing Romney needs to do to beat Obama is show up in this debate and not have another empathy comment. Those comments are really hurting him far more than any 47% comments," said Ryan Rhodes, a tea party activist from Iowa. "The government's not here for empathy, it's here for the law. If we use empathy for everything we want to do, that's how countries go bankrupt and bad policy is created."
Let's be blunt: the Southern strategy, and the subsequent evolution of the Southern strategy (welfare queens, "young bucks" buying "T-bone steaks" with "food stamps", John McCain's "black" daughter, the "food stamp President (who hates capitalism, wants to undermine capitalism and implement socialism, and is a secret Muslim who won't show us his birth certificate)", "voter fraud", "I don't want to help 'bleah' people"....) relies upon an us vs. them philosophy, with "them" being greedy and undeserving poor people - or perhaps greedy and undeserving people that have more than you - with the subtext that they probably also have dark skin and vote for Democrats.

That Tea Party activist's comments also highlight the cognitive dissonance you see among a lot of the Republican "base" - the "Keep your government hands of my Medicare" philosophy. One of the ways in which the Republicans ginned up opposition to the ACA was to tell seniors, "Obama's cutting your Medicare to help [undeserving poor people] get health insurance." It was inconsistent with the Romney team's then-stated economic plans (now they're promising only to slash and burn Medicare for future seniors - again relying upon a lack of empathy among their supporters - "As long as it doesn't affect me..."), but a great number of the beneficiaries of the ACA do have jobs but are nonetheless uninsured or underinsured. If you talk to enough Republicans at the low end of the wage pool, you'll find people who receive or have received housing subsidies, food assistance, unemployment insurance, the earned income tax credit, WIC, Medicaid, Medicare... but they'll insist that their receipt of public assistance is somehow different from the "takers", or that "I paid for it through my taxes" (never mind the actual math).

I'm also reminded of a Ted Nugent quote shared at Beat the Press,
As I’ve written before, for at least the past 50 years the Democratic Party has intentionally engineered a class of political “victims” who have been bamboozled into being dependent on the federal government for their subsistence, including food, housing and now health care. They get this without paying any federal income taxes, and that’s wrong.
I've mentioned many times the fact that it used to be Republican policy to get people off of the federal tax rolls - and by that I mean average, working people, not only the wealthiest among us - but now something Ronald Reagan used as a bragging point is used by people like The Nuge to bash almost half of all Americans. But... does Nugent actually know what the word "subsistence" means?

By now you're probably thinking, "I thought you disagreed with Pierce." I'm getting to that. First, let me say, a lack of empathy is not something that is unique to the Republican Party. It may be more manifest in Republican politics, and may be more likely to be vocalized by supporters of that party, but our society as a whole is not very empathetic. About the best way to get our society, at large, to turn on a group is to paint it as a greedy, undeserving, exploitative "other" that is getting rich off of our dime. As others have pointed out, that's why the Republican distortion of "You didn't build this" resonated with some businesspersons, even those who had built their businesses based upon SBA loans, government contracts and the like - they were uncomfortable with seeing themselves as takers, even if they could respond that on the balance they have given back far more than they received.

But the fact is, Mitt Romney does have an empathy problem. I found it grating when I heard George W. Bush speak of "compassionate conservatism" and "a hand up, not a handout", because I didn't believe he meant what he was saying. Like Romney he comes across as the proverbial guy who was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple. But he made the effort. His public persona was carefully constructed around trying to make people see him as "one of them". And for all of his bashing of welfare recipients, Ronald Reagan projected empathy. George H.W. Bush, who in retrospect may have had more actual empathy than his predecessor and his son put together, came across as more distant, more patrician. That didn't help him in either the election he won or the one that he lost.

In the current election cycle, one of the themes the Republicans are pushing about President Obama is that he's cold and prickly, doesn't like to glad hand, eats dinner with his family on most nights instead of going to parties, doesn't have close friends among other world leaders and the like. Nobody is going to mistake Obama for Clinton, but here's the thing: pointy headed, introverted family man or no, most people like Obama. In contrast, Romney comes across as a phony, and when you hear the "behind the scenes" stuff about Romney, which of course you have to take with a grain of salt, it's not a case of "to know him is to love him". Clearly the Republican operatives pushing that line about Obama are hoping that people don't do a "compare and contrast" with their own candidate.

If you look at Romney's personal history, it's difficult to find examples of empathy. He'll point to acts of charity, but an act of charity through financial contributions to your church, providing assistance to members of your church and the like does not prove empathy. When you see Romney actually try to connect on a one-to-one (or one-to-many) level with members of the public you see a consistent pattern, from this:

To this:

From "who let the dogs out", to a bucket full of "hardware stuff", to oversized bets with Rick Perry, Romney's pro forma efforts at humanization and humor tend not to resonate with voters - instead they reinforce the perspective that he's not just out-of-touch, but not even interested in them (save for wanting their vote). If you want to succeed in politics, you don't necessarily need to be sincere but at some level there will be times when you have to at least be able to fake sincerity. Romney's lack of connection with those outside of his stratospheric wealth and social class seems to be a product of an empathy vacuum.

Romney is capable of feeling and reacting to the crowd's energy directed at him, but he does not appear capable of giving anything back. He does not strike me as a narcissist, except at the level that anybody who gets to this point in a presidential campaign is apt to think very highly of himself, but he does strike me as somebody who, unless you can do something for him, simply doesn't care about anybody who is neither part of his inner circle. He can go from being a huge proponent of providing health insurance to the uninsured to sneering at them as takers because the former position was fakery. The 47% comment resonates because for once Romney seemed sincere.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Is the Problem a "Brain Drain" or a Lack of Sincerity

Richard Cohen is shocked that, in his opinion, the level of "talent" among the Republican candidates for the presidential nomination was lacking. His analysis reminds me a bit of how audiences react to Saturday Night Live - during most seasons, you'll hear people complain about how SNL was much funnier when [former cast member] was still on the show. If they're still watching the show three, five, eight years down the line, odds are that they'll be issuing the same lament but naming a member of the current cast. Call it nostalgia.

When Cohen complains about the lack of Republican talent, declaring that Ronald Reagan beat "a future president,... two future Senate majority leaders... and two lesser-known congressmen", he's judging the cast of characters based upon their future résumés, not their qualifications at the time, and is also expressing a degree of nostalgia for a campaign that didn't seem all that impressive at the time.

Cohen's comment reminds me of the critique of the 1988 Democratic Party candidates, "Gary Hart and the seven dwarfs", a list that included a future House Majority Leader and a future Vice President and a number of others who were fundamentally decent men. But easy to make fun of at the time. And hey, why didn't people like Mario Cuomo, Ted Kennedy or Bill Bradley throw their hats in the ring? And let's not overlook the "you gotta be kidding me" candidates like David Duke and Lyndon Larouche. Michele Bachmann's not looking so bad now, is she?

Cohen also seems to want to have it both ways, criticizing candidates for being foolish enough to run after engaging in bipartisanship, dismissing Jon Huntsman as "a former appointee of the Obama administration", and in almost the next breath complaining that candidates felt that they had to cater to the right. Cohen complains, "The list of Republicans who looked at Iowa’s daunting demographics and did not run is more distinguished than those who did", without naming any of the candidates he believes would have been better. He laments "None of these candidates were remotely qualified for the highest office in the land", but doesn't state what he believes to be sufficient qualification, let alone explaining if and how they fail to measure up to past presidential nominees.

He's also convinced that Mitt Romney "espouses extreme positions he does not for a moment believe", but does not provide any evidence that Romney does not in fact believe his present positions. The courtroom cliché, "Were you lying then or are you lying now," comes to mind? How are we supposed to know what Romney believes, and why dos Cohen believe he holds the answers. A column in which Cohen lays out Romney's actual beliefs and presents a convincing case for why the beliefs he describes are the ones Romney actually holds? That would be worth reading.

The focus on personality and presentation reminds me of Cohen's principal criticism of President Obama - that "he's dreadful as a schmoozer". Part of the problem we're seeing is the product of a modern class of commentators who love the horse race aspect of elections, who love being given special access to politicians, being flattered, but treat policy as an afterthought. If you have a national platform and are truly concerned, you can complain about the vapidity of a slate of candidates while the primary is underway. You don't have to wait until large numbers of your fellow commentators are (prematurely) dancing on the casket of the nominee produced by that primary process.

I don't want to dismiss an important element of Cohen's argument, that after decades of holding itself out as the champion of religion and social conservatism, the Republican Party has reached a point where... well, not quite where the inmates run the asylum, but where the groups to whom that pitch is appealing are both demanding results and turning out in force in primaries. It is difficult to pander to those groups while giving a wink to the business community, "we don't really care about that stuff, but we'll take good care of you," while not turning off large numbers of voters who find that level of extremism to be disturbing or those who no longer believe the wink - who believe that if elected you'll cater to the social extremists because they've gained so much power within the party.

At the same time, I can't help but wonder how George Romney would have fared. A man whose credentials were a lot like his son's, but who would likely have approached the race with a sense of humility instead of entitlement, of candor instead of obfuscation. To look at it another way, Mitt Romney is unlikely to carry Michigan, but Michigan twice elected his father as governor, and recently elected a Republican governor who ran on his success in business. But for Romney's past positions on a number of Republican litmus test issues, I think he could have run a far more moderate campaign and prevailed while retaining greater appeal to moderates and swing voters. I may be wrong - and unfortunately it's impossible to test my hypothesis - but I think Romney's biggest problem has nothing to do with a perception that he is not qualified to be President, but is instead the fact that he's widely perceived as a phony.

In four years, assuming Romney loses, Jeb Bush is likely to be running for the nomination. He's likely to be taking a more moderate position on social issues, and to be endorsing a mixture of spending cuts and modest tax increases to balance the budget. I'm not sure that Bush represents some form of secret Republican brain trust, and I see no reason to believe that he has any meaningful qualification for the White House that the better candidates of this year's Republican primaries lacked. But if he's perceived as sincere, and people can sufficiently distance him in their minds from his brother, he has a real shot. Even if he takes a moderate approach on immigration.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

A Swing and a Miss With Ross Douthat

Ross Douthat gives himself a set-up that's a bit like T-ball - he's targeting the excesses of lobbying, politicians as pigs at the trough, how can he go wrong? Here's the swing:
Whence comes this wealth? Mostly from Washington’s one major industry: the federal government. Not from direct federal employment, which has risen only modestly of late, but from the growing armies of lobbyists and lawyers, contractors and consultants, who make their living advising and influencing and facilitating the public sector’s work.

This growth is a bipartisan affair. It’s been driven by the contracting-out of government services under both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush....

If you don’t mind congested roads and insanely competitive child rearing, all this growth is good news for those of us inside the Beltway bubble. But is it good for America? After all, like the ruthless Capital in “The Hunger Games,” the wealth of Washington is ultimately extracted from taxpayers more than it is earned. And over the last five years especially, D.C.’s gains have coincided with the country’s losses.
Strike one:
The state of life inside the Beltway also points to the broader story of our spending problem, which has less to do with how much we spend on the poor than how much we lavish on subsidies for highly inefficient economic sectors, from health care to higher education, and on entitlements for people who aren’t supposed to need a safety net — affluent retirees, well-heeled homeowners, agribusiness owners, and so on.
Let's take a look at actual expenditures on lobbying by sector. As Dean Baker points out, an incredible amount of lobbying expenditure is directed not at increased government spending, but (in my words, not Baker's) at creating barriers to competition and rent seeking.

Douthat implicitly brings up Social Security and Medicare ("entitlements for... affluent retirees"), presumably because they fit with his thesis about out-of-control spending, but makes no effort to argue that an appreciable portion of the massive investment in lobbying is directed at maintaining those programs. If he looks at his political party of choice, he will find that a tremendous amount of lobbyist money is directed at weakening those programs through privatization, voucherization and the like.

It's true that Social Security pays out without regard to whether a recipient can get by without the money, but that was the design of the program. It's true that Medicare also provides benefits to seniors who can afford to pay for more of their own care, but darn few seniors can afford to go without health insurance and Medicare came into being in no small part because of a private sector failure. If Douthat believes those programs should be means tested, as he knows, there are special interests who agree with him, and who are presently trying to convince Congress to do exactly that.

Strike two:
There’s a case that this president’s policies have made these problems worse, sluicing more borrowed dollars into programs that need structural reform, and privileging favored industries and constituencies over the common good.

But this story is one that Romney and his party seem incapable of telling. Instead, many conservatives prefer to refight the welfare battles of the 1990s, and insist that our spending problem is all about an excess of “dependency” among the non-income-tax-paying 47 percent.
Yes, the fact that business carries on as usual is a story that the Republican Party could tell if it were not, in fact, intent upon stuffing it snout right back in the trough. Mitt Romney standing up to the billionaires who are funding his campaign? Who own the back yard golf courses he adores, the NASCAR teams he doesn't watch? Are you kidding me?

Does Douthat understand that without the successful lobbying for and exploitation of tax loopholes, many of the investments made by Bain Capital would not have occurred - they would have lost money? Does he understand that Romney's exceedingly low tax rate results from the same type of lobbying for and exploitation of tax loopholes? Perhaps he hopes that Romney, if elected, will pull the ladder up after himself - close the loopholes that made him phenomenally rich and continue to expand his fortune in his present state of "unemployment". But, no, that's not going to happen.

Strike three:
In reality, our government isn’t running trillion-dollar deficits because we’re letting the working class get away with not paying its fair share. We’re running those deficits because too many powerful interest groups have a stake in making sure the party doesn’t stop.
During the brief period when we had a budget surplus, no doubt many lobbyists saw green, and no doubt (as Douthat puts it) they love a good party - but they were indifferent to the budget deficit then, just as they are now. Baker argues that the roots of the deficit lie in the collapse of the housing bubble - true in no small part, but let's not forget two unfunded wars, the Bush tax cuts, Medicare Part D.... Take away the bubble and we would still have a deficit.

On reflection, there's enough substance there, that I'll call it a foul and keep Douthat's count at two strikes. He is correct that the size of the deficit is not the result of insufficient taxation of the working class. (Even if he's too young to remember there was an age when taking people off of the tax rolls made Republicans proud.) Also, as Baker reminds us, it's fair to describe Washingtion as an "economy of exploitation [where] highly paid lobbyists thrive on efforts to manipulate government policy to advance their interests".

Two strikes, sure, but it remains an easy set-up.... Here's to hoping he does better in his next column.

Monday, September 24, 2012

It's Hard to Fight Poverty....

So why try?

If you define the American Dream as the Horatio Alger myth, no doubt, its exaggerated and unrealistic. But if you define it more modestly as,
...a “social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are.”
Sure, that may be a somewhat utopian ideal, but why not strive for it? Why is Robert Samuelson so quick to discard the idea that we can, as a nation, aspire to achieve a level of equity in which children aren't discarded based upon their parents' economic circumstances, but are instead given an opportunity to achieve consistent with their abilities?

Samuelson complains that people were urged to pursue college degrees that did not return economic reward, and that people were encouraged (even facilitated) into buying homes that they could not afford. But the fact that a minority of college students and homeowners have bad experiences, in no small part due to overreaching, doesn't lend any support to the argument that they, or the much larger number of people who don't overreach, should not have the opportunity to reach in the first place.

Samuelson confuses equality of opportunity and equality of outcome. Can he truly not see the difference?

William Kristol Loves Driving in the Ditch

Remember how, eight years ago, William Kristol admitted that George W. Bush had driven the nation into a ditch? He then backpedaled furiously, and argued that the guy who drove us into the ditch was the best guy to drive us out? And how, his having received his wish, we got an outcome that resembles the conclusion of Thelma and Louise?

Kristol has now assessed Barack Obama's performance as President:
If this election’s just about the last four years, that’s a muddy verdict. Bush was president during the financial meltdown. The Obama team has turned that around pretty well.
Kristol appears to find terrifying the prospect of reelecting a president who can actually drive.

William Kristol and Mitt Romney

Muddy, indeed.

Yet Another Weak Argument Against Gay Marriage

Doug Mainwaring, "co-founder of the National Capital Tea Party Patriots", has decided that he doesn't support gay marriage. For some reason, the Washington Post decided that this was a sufficiently newsworthy development that Mainwaring should be given space to publish an editorial explaining his views. And thus we find one of the weakest arguments against gay marriage that I have seen presented in a major publication.

Mainwaring opens by describing an anti-gay marriage petition in Maryland, and describes how some proponents of gay marriage were surprised to see people they knew signing a petition in opposition. He then recites,
While only 56,650 certified signatures were necessary to get the measure on the ballot, more than 160,000 signatures were collected and delivered to the Maryland Secretary of State.
There are what? Close to 6 million people in Maryland? Why is Mainwaring's reaction tot the "160,000" figure, "Why are there so many," instead of "Why are there so few?" Mainwaring proceeds to give a breakdown by party alignment of the people who signed and, although noting that a majority were Republican, proclaiming, "It’s not just Republicans who object to this legislation. This is a common, mainstream concern."

Later, Mainwaring makes the implicit admission that his argument is weak: "A signature on a petition actually says very little". If it says so little, why is Mainwaring opening with an argument he implicitly concedes to be a house of cards?

What is Mainwaring actually trying to argue? That if support for or opposition to an issue breaks down along partisan lines we can dismiss it as "uncommon" or "outside of the mainstream"? If so, he's probably the only Tea Party leader in the nation who holds that position. Would we have found him arguing at his Tea Party meetings over the past few years, "Opposition to the President's agenda is breaking down along partisan lines, so we can only conclude that the opponents are unprincipled partisans whose positions should not be considered"?

Mainwaring complains that advocates of gay marriage should have pushed for something less than full marriage equality. Why? Because in 2010 it appeared that the push might backfire, and prevent the passage of any form of bill establishing marriage rights for gay couples. He insists that the argument remains correct, even though history proved it wrong with the passage of a marriage equality law.

Mainwaring argues,
I am certain that the vast majority are others who, like me, simply view “marriage” as an immutable term that can only apply to heterosexuals.
If it needs to be said, that is not a logical argument. Mainwaring could as easily argue on behalf of people who believe that the word "gay" should only apply to feelings of "happiness". More than that, his argument is self-refuting. If the petition he is supporting were merely to keep things exactly as they are, with full marriage rights given to gay couples but substituting a different term for "marriage", he might plausibly be able to argue that people were concerned only about the word "marriage". But he's supporting an initiative that is intended to strip gay couples of any right to marry - he would have to be obtuse to believe that most people supporting the initiative care only about semantics.

Mainwaring continues,
It’s undeniable that, from age to age, marriage has been humanity’s greatest success and source of prosperity, crossing all cultures and religions. We shouldn’t mess with it.
Dare I say, even without straying from the sphere of heterosexuality, over the course of human history we have "messed with" the concept of marriage in a considerable number of ways? "From King Solomon's 700 wives and 300 concubines, to the eleven or so wives of Muhammad, to the 27 wives of Joseph Smith, the same basic concept of marriage has crossed all cultures and religions...." Or, "When Jerry Lee Lewis married his 13-year-old cousin, he was supporting a tradition of marriage that dates back to Isaac and Jacob."

Similarly, would Mainwaring have applied the same argument to anti-miscegenation laws? If not, why not, and if so, how is it that making dramatic changes to the number of wives you can legally have, the age at which you can marry, or the race of your prospective spouse don't constitute "messing with" marriage in any meaningful sense? For that matter, would Mainwaring see a law permitting polygamy, permitting marriage to children and first cousins, allowing fathers to compel their daughters to marry designated husbands, or re-implementing anti-miscegenation laws as no big deal, because they're consistent with most of human and religious history?

More to the point, declaring that marriage is "marriage has been humanity’s greatest success" does not make it so. Insisting that it is "humanity’s greatest... source of prosperity" does not make it so. (By way of example, I personally would have a lot more money in the bank had I remained single).

Just as the concept of marriage has evolved over time while remaining viable, even within religions, there's no reason to believe that its further evolution through legal gay marriage will have any material impact on other married couples. Having examined every bit of evidence I can find, I feel quite comfortable asserting that gay marriages have absolutely no impact on my marriage - none at all. They are irrelevant to my marriage. What magical power does Mainwaring believe gay marriages hold that will weaken my marriage and others like it, and why haven't we seen the impact of that dark magic in any state or nation that permits gay marriage?

Then, of course, the kicker:
Full disclosure: I am gay.
Was that supposed to be an appeal to authority - "I am gay, and so my argument must be presumed to be carefully considered and selfless"? My reaction to the disclosure is less charitable: Had Mainwaring believed his argument to hold water, he would have allowed it to stand on its own. His declaration of his homosexuality is irrelevant - it does not make his argument any stronger or weaker - so if he believes he has made his case why present it as if it's some sort of trump card?
Same-sex relationships are different from heterosexual relationships, and gay men and lesbians need to accept that and design their own tradition.
I found a video of Mainwaring explaining the logic behind that assertion:

Okay, that wasn't actually Mainwaring, but his implied "square pegs and round holes' argument is right at the kindergarten level. When (if ever) can we expect more from Mainwaring than platitudes?
A few years ago, I was on the other side of the fence on this topic. But the more I read, thought, investigated and attempted to defend my position, the more I realized that I couldn’t.
I can't say that I'm surprised that Mainwaring had difficulty defending his former position, given his demonstrated inability to articulate a logical defense of his present position. I would like to read Mainwaring's old arguments, if they're available anywhere, because I suspect that I would find considerable amusement in an argument he made in earnest that's weaker than the one he presents in his current opinion piece.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Republican Base Didn't Make Romney What He Is

Stop me if you've heard this one before.
A scorpion asks a turtle to carry him across a river....
Yeah, you got it, the scorpion stings turtle even though he's dooming himself to drown, and gives the excuse, "it's in my nature".

Tod Kelly's comments on the Republican base brought that allegory to mind:
When the smoke clears, will the Republican base recognize their hand in sabotaging Romney’s chances? Or will they put all the blame on Mitt himself, and decide that alienating even more of the center is the key to future victories?
The thing is, the base didn't sabotage Romney. They chose Romney. To the extent that Romney's unforced errors can be deemed the consequence of his "working his ass off to make sure that the base of his own party is willing to vote for him in November", that's what they choice over candidates who were more consistent in their beliefs and less inclined to profess heartfelt changes of mind every time the polls suggested that their former views were unpopular with the base.

You can blame the voters for choosing a candidate like Mitt Romney, but you can't blame them for his being what he is: The cipher who takes every side of pretty much every issue. Romney has deliberately made himself a cipher, a guy who has both sides explaining away his more radical positions, past and present, as his "saying what he has (or had) to say to get elected," and applying that rationalization by ignoring his actual statements and ascribing to him positions much more in line with their own. Mitt Romney did not suddenly become that person over the course of the past year. That's the person he's always been.

It's true that if Mitt Romney weren't that person, he almost certainly would not have been nominated. But compare Jeb Bush who is, by all appearances, laying the groundwork for a White House bid in 2016. The voters chose Romney but, at least in this sense, he's a self-made man.

Update: Paul Waldman observes,
As I've maintained for some time, for all intents and purposes there is no "real" Mitt Romney. His political beliefs are the equivalent of Schrodinger's cat. They exist in every state at once until you open the box to observe them. If the one opening the box is a Tea Partier, they instantly lock into place as a set of Tea Party beliefs; if it's a bunch of GOP plutocrats staring down, that's whose beliefs he'll mirror. Romney has spent the last five years in an intensive period of study, with his subject the contemporary American conservative mind in all its permutations. He's well aware that the misleading talking point about 47 percent of Americans not paying taxes gets repeated all the time on the right, in private and public. What he was telling the people in that room is what he tells any group of people he speaks to. His message was, in Christine O'Donnell's immortal words, "I'm you."
Waldman challenges his readers, "show me an instance in which Mitt Romney tells a group of people something they don't want to hear".

Mitt Romney, the Poor Little Rich Boy

As they say, born on third base, thinks he hit a triple.

Mitt Romney and the New Southern Strategy

Remember when Romney bragged after his NAACP speech,
By the way, I had the privilege of speaking today at the NAACP convention in Houston and I gave them the same speech I am giving you. I don't give different speeches to different audiences alright. I gave them the same speech.
We knew even then that Romney wsn't telling the truth - you don't have to work so hard to stay "off the record" at every single private fund raising events and meeting if you're saying the same thing in every venue.

I'm reminded of Santorum's comments, his expression that he didn't want to make the lives of bleah people better by giving them "somebody else's money". We know who the "bleah" people are, even if we're pretending that Santorum didn't catch himself half-way through a moment of honesty.

When Romney rails against people who don't pay federal income tax, he's not actually speaking about people who don't pay federal income tax. That's simply the latest shorthand for "bleah people" - the undeserving poor. He's taking advantage of the fact that most people don't differentiate between FICA and income tax, or even between federal income tax and state and local taxes, and that a lot of retirees, disabled workers, disabled veterans, people who collect unemployment, and similar groups of people who pay no federal income tax don't see themselves as falling into that category. They, unlike the undeserving poor, earned their benefits. (Never mind that Romney would put most or all of those benefits on the chopping block for reduction or elimination.)

If you look at the 47% you'll find a lot of Republican voters, and Romney knows that. You'll even find irrational voters - an acquaintance of my wife's supports her family through her husband's SSI (he lacks enough work credits for SSD, she has never worked), Medicare, food stamps, housing subsidies and the like, but is very concerned that Obama is going to take away her benefits and give them to somebody undeserving, presumably a "bleah person", and always votes Republican. Perhaps if people within the 47% had a better sense of who they are, the Republicans would have to change the code. But up to now it has worked, with Republican voters in that 47% "knowing" that the rhetoric is about somebody else.

The problem for Romney is less that he's using the code, and more that he refuses to admit that he was speaking in code. As long as he doubles down on the, "Yes, I really meant that my job as President would not involve worrying about anybody who doesn't pay federal income tax," he'll subject himself to questions about the classes of Republican voters who fall into that class. And if he starts qualifying his statement along the lines of, "Retirees who depend on Social Security? Disabled veterans? People who have worked their whole lives but can't find a job? I actually do care about them," sooner or later he'll be talking about a number far less than 47%. And that could put a very different complexion on things.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Kathleen Parker Introduces Romney to the Horrors of the Comfy Chair

If this is what it's like to be pilloried, I expect most politicians who have made significant non-forced errors will happily sign up.

Kathleen Parker attempts something of a David Brooks act, presenting herself as detached and offering what she would claim is a serious criticism of Romney's mendacious comments about the attack on the Cairo embassy:
His comments condemning President Obama’s “apologist” foreign policy were premature, inappropriate and too politically motivated to be effective either as proper criticism or as a campaign maneuver.
The word "false" isn't in her vocabulary? The problem was not one of timing - it was that Romney's attack had no basis in fact.

It's telling that the first half of Parker's column is devoted to describing anti-U.S. protesters in the Muslim world, along with the filmmaker whose anti-Islamic film ostensibly triggered the protests, as "imbeciles". Never mind the fact that the protests are a symptom of a larger problem. Never mind that the assumption that the "imbeciles" who "killed perhaps their bravest advocate in the Western world" don't necessarily share Ambassador Stevens' goals. Parker disregards those in Libya who have publicly deplored the attack and murder, as her case depends largely upon her painting with the broadest possible brush.

Parker knows that the suggestion that the protests and killing were a reaction to the film may be false:
The storming of the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi on the anniversary of 9/11 may have been a planned attack, possibly orchestrated by al-Qaeda and possibly having nothing to do with the movie.
If that's the case, then Parker's lament about how demonstrators are overreacting to a movie, or that the attackers were undermining their own interests, is misplaced.

But internal inconsistency is not her worst sin. Parker's "critique" of Romney is offered, it seems, to prop up the larger structure of Romney's narrative. Parker claims,
First, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo issued what amounted to an apology to the mobs for any hurt feelings they may have suffered because of the film in question.
Parker knows that is not true.
The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims — as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions. Today, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans are honoring our patriots and those who serve our nation as the fitting response to the enemies of democracy. Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.
Nothing in that statement can be construed as an apology. It does not "amount[] to an apology" - it apologizes for nothing. Parker continues her prevarication,
The film was idiotic and not worth the attention of our president or secretary of state. The response has made clear that an apology doesn’t work, which is why both the White House and the State Department initially distanced themselves from the embassy’s statement.
First, it was not the film that drew the attention of the President and Secretary of State, it was the protests that the film inspired, the attack on a U.S. embassy and murder of an ambassador, and serious security issues at the Cairo embassy, that inspired their reaction. Even in Parker's world, those events should be sufficient. Second, note how Parker doubles down on her false that the Cairo Embassy's statement "amounted to an apology" to now say that it was an apology. Third, the distancing came from the false suggestion that the Cairo embassy had apologized for something - less the statement itself and more the false spin that opportunists like Romney and partisans like Parker advance in lieu of the facts.

Having completed her effort to buttress Romney's latest fabricated claim of an "apology" by the Obama Administration, Parker argues,
Obama critics have long held that his post-exceptionalist, lead-from-behind model invites only contempt in the Middle East.
Does Parker consider herself to be an Obama critic? If so, I would like to hear her explanation of what she means by "post-exceptionalist". I expect she is implicating Tea Party rhetoric that the President does not view this country as exceptional - who cares what the President actually says on the subject - that she's rebranding her "he's not a whole-blooded American" argument of years gone by.

Parker then alludes to "leading from behind", a poorly chosen phrase that (allegedly) originated with one of Obama's advisers in relation to Libya, as an explanation for how the U.S. might avoid taking the lead role in every minor conflict in which it becomes involved - of how the U.S. might support NATO and assist its allies, advancing its goals at a lower cost - both financial and human. The adviser who allegedly made the statement has never been identified. Parker knows that the President has never expressed that he "leads from behind", nor does she offer any substantive criticism of the intent behind those words. Instead she simply repeats a right-wing talking point without any concern for the facts.

It's fair to ask - what about the Obama Administration's actions in Libya does Parker believe "invites... contempt in the Middle East"? What would she and her fellow critics have done, instead? Parker's best answer,
Since no policy thus far seems to have been very effective, we’ll have to rely on history for more information.
No, really, if you're going to regurgitate that sort of innuendo you need to do better than, "But who knows what might work?"

Parker closes by reinforcing her fabrication of an "apology", her pretense that the Administration was reacting to a film as opposed to riots, the burning of an embassy and the murder of an ambassador, and suggests that the response "lent unnecessary gravity and impetus to the conduct of imbeciles" - the people she pretends are motivated to protest only by this one movie, and whom she admits may not have had anything to do with the murder.

Ask yourself, had the Secretary of State and President issued no statement in response to the attack, would Parker be congratulating them for refusing to acknowledge the "imbeciles" or condemning them for their incompetence? I would hope she would be doing the latter, as it's beyond obvious that any nation must condemn attacks against their embassies and diplomats, but if so... talk about wanting to have it both ways. Now ask yourself, had the President issued a statement that deported the attack but omitted any mention of its context, would Parker be congratulating the President for refusing to acknowledge the "imbeclies"? Perhaps, she would, but if so she would be betraying something of a tin ear for diplomacy. (Romney for President and John Bolton for Secretary of State, a Kathleen Parker dream team?)

Nicholas Kristof on Public Schools and Teachers' Unions

Kristof is one of those guys about whom you can often say, "His heart is in the right place." (And you know what word comes next.)

Kristof attempts to compare today's inner city schools to the era of "separate but equal", premising that argument on the fact that the inner cities (and thus their schools) are dominated by minorities. There are only a few differences... such as the fact that the schools are not actually segregated, there's no parallel set of schools for non-minority children, and for all of their faults many inner city school districts are now generously funded, but why let the facts get in the way of perfectly good hyperbole. In fact, why not kick it up a notch?
America’s education system has become less a ladder of opportunity than a structure to transmit inequity from one generation to the next.
Really? Well, no, not really.
In fairness, it’s true that the main reason inner-city schools do poorly isn’t teachers’ unions, but poverty. Southern states without strong teachers’ unions have schools at least as lousy as those in union states. The single most important step we could take has nothing to do with unions and everything to do with providing early-childhood education to at-risk kids.
So Kristof understands that schools are not "a structure to transmit inequity from one generation to the next", but are an inadequate tool for consistently breaking children out of a cycle of poverty. (Nor is "providing early-childhood education to at-risk kids" the solution it has at times been hyped to be, at least not as implemented to date, but it sounds good.)

Kristof complains,
I’d be sympathetic if the union focused solely on higher compensation. Teachers need to be much better paid to attract the best college graduates to the nation’s worst schools. But, instead, the Chicago union seems to be using its political capital primarily to protect weak performers....

Unfortunately, the union in Chicago is insisting that teachers who are laid off — often for being ineffective — should get priority in new hiring.
That would be a concern if it were true. Except when I follow either of Kristof's links I find that the union's actual concern relates to rehiring teachers who are laid off for reasons outside of their control ("because of school closings, consolidations and turnarounds"). The union's position is not about protecting "weak performers". If Kristof wants to make the case that most or all teachers who are laid off are "weak performers", he is free to try - but it seems reasonable to infer that if he could substantiate his claim he would provide a relevant link.

At the heart of his argument, it appears that Kristof is fundamentally disturbed by the idea that unions would negotiate contracts that benefit workers not only in terms of wages, but also in terms of their working conditions. He wants to get rid of the weakest teachers, spinning glorious outcomes that might be achieved if inner city schools got rid of the bottom 1% or bottom 5% of teachers. I don't think that anybody would deny that job protections negotiated by unions do help some number of people stay in jobs that they're not fit to perform. Within the context of public schools, if administrators are disinterested or are incompetent, teachers who should be terminated instead end up getting tenure and, at that point, it becomes difficult to fire them for their job performance.

Alas, a purge of the type Kristof proposes is not likely to have a significant impact on the performance of schools or students. Even if we get past what Kristof describes as the challenge of figuring out "who is a weak teacher", avoid administrators gaming the system to get rid of teachers they don't like, and overlook the fact that Kristof just told us that ""the main" problem is "poverty", the numbers are too small to have a significant impact.

Fire one teacher in 100 and most kids will proceed through school with the same set of teachers to whom they would have been assigned without the "purge". Eliminate 5%, and you're still having little to no impact on the overall school experience of most children. In early elementary, K-6, most kids have seven teachers. In middle school and high school they may have an aggregate 50 or so teachers. So they're not going to see a huge change in personnel, even if we assume that a teacher at the 94th or 98th percentile of effectiveness is materially superior to the ones who are purged.

Further, if you fire a teacher you need to replace that teacher. While it may be that if you correctly identify the worst teachers, somebody fresh out of a teacher's college who is willing to work in the inner city will be no worse, some will be no better - teachers learn a lot during their first few years on the job, and you're all-but-guaranteeing that you'll have an increased number of new teachers in the system.

It's fair to note also that purging teachers will have no impact on the racial composition of inner city schools. Although Kristof actually repeats the "separate but equal" hyperbole in his conclusion, he does so to be emotionally provocative.

While Kristof opines, "Teaching is so important that it should be like other professions, with high pay and good working conditions", he ignores the push in the opposite direction - to demean teaching as a profession, to strip away benefits, to put downward pressure on compensation. He ignores trends that make teaching less and less attractive to high performing college students, and for that matter less and less attractive to school teachers who have options outside of the profession. When you make teaching less attractive to the best teachers, guess who remains when they leave?

One of the reasons that inner city schools, or the "lousy" schools in "Southern states without strong teachers’ unions" (Kristof should be clear that some of those states have no teachers' unions) seem to have more problem teachers is that they attract a weaker candidate pool. Yes, there are teachers who want to make a difference and, despite strong credentials, seek education jobs in the inner city, but most teachers with options choose not to apply. Alas, those who try to make a difference may find that their efforts are unappreciated, if not impeded by structural problems, inadequate resources and incompetent administrators.

Perhaps Kristof should approach these issues from a slightly different angle. If the problems of the inner cities also exist in impoverished schools in states that offer teachers no job protections, the problem cannot be job protections - unless you presuppose that school administrators in the non-union states are either incompetent or indifferent to the quality of their schools. Also, most schools in this nation manage to do pretty well despite teachers' job protections - if the problem does not lie with the pool of candidates, why are those districts so much better than the inner cities and non-union states at identifying and hiring competent teachers? And if the problem is with the pool of candidates, isn't it fair to assume that the schools are already hiring the best candidates they can identify? why does Kristof believe that purges will result in those schools hiring better teachers?

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Come On, Mr. Ignatius, You're Not Puzzled

David Ignatius claims to be puzzled by the demands Binyamin Netanyahu is making of the Obama Administration:
As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues his almost daily demands that the United States announce its “red line” for going to war with Iran, the question puzzling the White House is what he wants beyond what President Obama has already stated.
Ignatius points out that President Obama has made clear statements about Iran, and has described "a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon." He describes a potential response, previously articulated by others, that Israel itself has not articulated a clear "red line" beyond which it will attack Iran. He questions the logic behind Netanyahu's proposed "red line", a point at which Iran would have the capacity to "produce enough highly enriched fuel for a bomb". He points out that the measure of capacity is subjective and that the U.S. could continue to act even after that capacity was arguably reached.

Is he deliberately missing the point?

Netanyahu does not define for his own nation the "red line" he asks of the United States, and has deliberately chosen a measure that turns on estimates and assumptions, because he is attempting to corner the U.S. - to get the U.S. government to tie itself to a threshold measure that he can declare Iran to have crossed, and then call upon the U.S. to live up to its commitment by engaging in what would be a large-scale, costly adventure in Iran, and also commit itself to cleaning up the mess that is likely to result.

Right now it appears that pretty much every military and intelligence leader in Israel believes that an attack on Iran would be a terrible idea, likely to cause Iran to redouble its nuclear efforts while consolidating the current regime's power, and potentially opening up a proxy war through Lebanon and putting Israelis at risk of attack throughout the world. Netanyahu's response is described as condescending to them that they're worried about international reactions and the reports of human rights commissions, and are choosing to put Israel at risk instead of getting behind an attack.

The only person who is routinely described as firmly in Netanyahu's corner is Ehud Barak, and that firmness may be wavering. Meanwhile Netanyahu's actions are raising concerns about the extent to which a nation as dependent on the U.S. as Israel should be attempting to meddle in and influence the outcome of a U.S. presidential election.

Ignatius states what should be obvious:
Netanyahu should understand that no country can allow another to impose the conditions under which it will go to war. The Israeli leader wants a tripwire that would trigger military action. But presidents don’t turn over that power of war and peace, even to their best friends. Indeed, it’s precisely because Obama means what he says about going to war that he wants maximum flexibility in how and when he takes action.
But there are two balls in play - President Obama and Mitt Romney. Ignatius is looking at President Obama and asking, "How could Netanyahu expect his stunts to persuade the President of anything." But what if Netanyahu is doubling down on the notion that Mitt Romney will win the election? If you follow Romney's dangerously incompetent foreign policy rhetoric, you'll find lots of support for the idea that he'll engage in military adventurism. And given Romney's desire to bash Obama on foreign policy issues, no matter what the facts or circumstances, Netanyahu can reasonably be assumed to be inviting Romney to declare the "red line" that, as Ignatius has said, no responsible President would accept? Mitt Romney, as usual, is trying to have it every possible way, but it's reasonable to infer that Netanyahu's hope is that the campaign now sticks with Dan Senor's position, or edges even closer to the line proposed by Netanyahu.

Frankly, Netanyahu seems to accept that his stunts, demands, refusal to cooperate with peace initiatives and interference in the election have destroyed any chance he has of having a constructive working relationship with President Obama - a type of relationship that, to Netanyahu, would appear to involve having the President doing everything he wants, when he wants it. So what's another cup of poison or two between friends?

If Obama is reelected, the present situation will continue - a cool relationship, but with the U.S. refraining from punishing Israel for the intransigence of its Prime Minister. If not, he may have a pre-election commitment from Romney that he can use, along with his latest "intelligence estimates", to call upon the U.S. to "keep its word" and attack Iran. It's not a winning strategy if Obama is reelected, but either way he can't lose.

Ignatius suggests, "Obama should help the Israeli leader to climb down from his unwise rhetoric." The problem is, from Netanyahu's perspective the rhetoric represents sound strategy. He's already been warned by many of his fellow countrymen, political, military and intelligence, that his strategy is unsound, and that it's unwise to antagonize the President. He's rejected all of that advice, so what possesses Ignatius to believe he'll be receptive to correction by Obama?

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Truth is, Romney Could Have Done Worse

I recently elicited a comment on my description of Paul Ryan as an example of how"the media and party can sometimes elevate mediocre people to undeserved heights".
Just curious what you think....calling Paul Ryan mediocre and seeing him become the VP nominee.
Never mind that Ryan's continued rise exemplifies my point.

However, recent events suggest that Ryan could offer something important to the ticket, assuming Romney is willing to listen: an ear for politics. Ryan has, at this point, build himself a national reputation as an idea man and budget whiz based upon little more than spin. You can't do that unless you pay careful attention to the direction of the political winds. Romney seems perfectly willing to blow whichever way the polls tell him to go, but he appears to lack any instinct of when to stand against the wind, or when he's going too far. That is to say, he seems to have a proverbial tin ear for politics.

Right now, it's Romney who is pulling the Sarah Palin act (while she literally cheers him on from the sidelines), pushing the latest iteration of her "Obama pals around with terrorists" calumny, while Paul Ryan - the guy who gave up a good chunk of his reputation by "taking one for the team" with his ridiculous, mendacious convention speech - is playing the part of McCain. Sure, he's being politically opportunistic, and after a reasonable initial statement has reverted to platitudes, but he has chosen to leave it to clowns and hacks like Sarah Palin and Reince Priebus to look ridiculous.

Romney, alas, was one of the first out of the clown car.

Likability is a Factor, but You Won't be Dating the President

One of the conceptions pushed in recent election campaigns, most notably in the Bush-Gore race, was that people should vote for the candidate they would most like to drink a beer with. Never mind that you were projecting a fantasy onto a candidate who was unlikely to ever be in a position to actually drink a beer with you. Never mind that Bush didn't even drink alcohol. I recently read somebody ask whether, in the current race, the media perspective on which candidate would be the winner of that contest, the one you most want to drink with, would be another non-drinker.

The simpler spin on this issue came from a friend who, after we discussed the closeness of the race, responded to my invitation for a prediction with, "Which candidate is the most likable." I responded that most people seem to identify President Obama as most likable. "Then he's going to win." The reasoning: people who really haven't made up their minds about which candidate they prefer are going to end up voting for the candidate they like. There's an element of projection here as well - that the candidate you like would like you back. Despite the stories of Mitt Romney as a gracious host, it's difficult to imagine relating to him as a friend.

The Republicans, in no small part due to the conceit of the 2008 election that people only supported Obama because they liked him, or were voting for social reasons, recently ran a campaign ad in which a Republican staffer pretended to be a disillusioned Obama voter, "breaking up" with Obama. It's belittling to voters, but I guess the ad worked with focus groups. Another version of the argument was presented in this editorial, in which a career political commentator describes his wife as an irrational voter, looking to vote not based upon the issues but instead likely to vote for whichever candidate she likes the most.

I saw a "man crush" version of this argument on a Fox News website, in which the author purported that he was disillusioned with Obama, because Obama is more into policy than politics, more into family than schmoozing.
President Obama is said to abhor the daily machinations of Washington politics. He refuses to miss more than two dinners a week with his daughters. He prefers not to meet with senators, congressmen or significant donors, yet he still expects to reap the benefits normally provided by those circumstances.
Wait a minute.... the guy likes Obama less because he has strong family values and eschews glad handing at cocktail parties?
Obama snubbed the advice of George Soros (perhaps his wealthiest and most influential donor) and has alienated many other important supporters.
That appears to translate into "Obama hasn't sold out to the billionaire that the right has attempted to depict as something akin to Satan incarnate". What message would the author have us draw? That Romney knows how to sell out to billionaires? That if Soros writes checks to Romney's campaign, Romney will be calling him up for advice? One second the author is ranting about how Obama doesn't get into politics the way he wants, the next he's raving that Obama's ads are too mean. Ah, yes... Fox News. One would not expect coherence.

I think Gail Collins was trying to be humorous, but her latest column on Mitt Romney draws on the "boyfriend" theme.
Mitt Romney broke our deal.

Perhaps he didn’t know he’d made it, although, really, I thought it was pretty clear.

He could do anything he wanted during this campaign as long as he sent out signals that once he got in the White House he was not likely to be truly crazy.
The then describes Romney's factually incorrect, over-the-top demagoguery on the Lebanon embassy tragedy as the deal-breaker. But Collins has to know that this was not exceptional behavior on Romney's part - it's been his approach from day one.

If we're going to stick with the romantic relationship theme, it's akin to having an affair with a married person and, when he finally divorces his spouse and marries you, being shocked that he has another affair. You may think you're "that special", but you're not - if you marry a cheater, you'll find yourself married to a cheater. The Romney you are now able to recognize is the Romney you've been looking at the whole time - you're just seeing him more clearly.
Update: Kathleen Parker wrote a column to the effect of, "It's not important that we like the person we elect as President", a statement that is true but... in the context of a Parker column strikes me as an admission of the problem mentioned above - people find Obama more likable, and that's a problem for backers of the Republican candidate. Let's recall the type of argument Parker makes when she perceives a likability advantage on the part of the Republican candidate.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Washington Post's Self-Satirist Strikes Again

Marc Thiessen lays it on thick:
The Government Accountability Institute, a new conservative investigative research organization, examined President Obama’s schedule from the day he took office until mid-June 2012, to see how often he attended his Presidential Daily Brief (PDB) — the meeting at which he is briefed on the most critical intelligence threats to the country. During his first 1,225 days in office, Obama attended his PDB just 536 times — or 43.8 percent of the time. During 2011 and the first half of 2012, his attendance became even less frequent — falling to just over 38 percent. By contrast, Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush almost never missed his daily intelligence meeting.
Thiessen then shares a response he received, dismissing his argument as complete bunk:
Vietor did not dispute the numbers, but said the fact that the president, during a time of war, does not attend his daily intelligence meeting on a daily basis is “not particularly interesting or useful.” He says that the president reads his PDB every day, and he disagreed with the suggestion that there is any difference whatsoever between simply reading the briefing book and having an interactive discussion of its contents with top national security and intelligence officials where the president can probe assumptions and ask questions. “I actually don’t agree at all,” Vietor told me in an e-mail, “The president gets the information he needs from the intelligence community each day.”
And yet Thiessen's whinge goes on, "When Obama forgoes this daily intelligence meeting, he is consciously placing other priorities ahead of national security." Because if you don't do things the way Bush did things, well, you may make far fewer mistakes, need far fewer apologists trying to whitewash your record, and the like, but... no, there's really not a valid point you can pull out of that comparison.

A more detailed response from another source:
The White House dismissed the comparison as a difference without substance, with Press Secretary Jay Carney calling the report “hilarious.”

“The President is among the most sophisticated consumers of intelligence on the planet,” National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor wrote in an e-mail. “He receives and reads his [Presidential Daily Brief] every day, and most days when he’s at the White House receives a briefing in person. When necessary he probes the arguments, requests more information or seeks alternate analysis. Sometimes that’s via a written assessment and other times it’s in person.”

The president also has frequent national security meetings beyond the daily briefing, and would also be briefed on the latest intelligence before meeting with a foreign leader, for example.

“Marc basically wrote a story culled from our public schedule that shows how Marc’s old boss, President Bush, structured his day differently than President Obama,” Vietor wrote. “Not exactly breaking news to anyone who has covered this place for the last few years.”
It seems reasonable to ask, also, when we can expect to see similar faux analysis based upon number-crunching of the daily schedules of Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan. Let's recall also, George W. Bush blundered his way into one foreign policy disaster after another - so frequent attendance doesn't save you from being misled or making mistakes.

Having been put firmly in his place, what else can Thiessen do but... double down! Citing the same right-wing outfit that produced the meaningless "skipping" figure, Thiessen extrapolates,
So Obama has spent roughly 600 hours on the golf course, and roughly 536 hours discussing the PDB with his intelligence and national security advisors. White House spokesman Jay Carney said my report was “hilarious.” Really? There’s nothing funny about a president who has more time for golf than he does for his daily intelligence brief.
And, OMG, look how much time he spends eating. And brushing his teeth. And sleeping!

It's fascinating, isn't it, that Thiessen completely ignores the substance of the response he admits, up front, having received - that the President gets his information on a daily basis, simply in a manner different from that preferred by G.W. Bush. Perhaps Thiessen is confused by the notion that a President might read something, but it's interesting to note that Thiessen assumes that it took the President a cumulative zero minutes to read the 500 or so PDB's from the meetings he, in Thiessen's parlance, "skipped". Let's not forget also that you can do business on the golf course. Here's Thiessen's former employer in action:

I wonder when we can expect Thiessen to declare that his former boss's litany of errors ban be explained by the claims that he spent about a third of his presidency on vacation. What was that? You mean, when it's his ox being gored the picture becomes nuanced, the President has lots of duties even when on "vacation", a lot of presidential vacations are "working vacations".... You can't simply sum up the days and draw the conclusion that the President wasn't doing his duties in a manner not reflected by that simply tally? Well, go figure.

But you're still left with the fact that Bush's attendance record didn't prevent him from making catastrophic foreign policy decisions that continue to haunt this country and drain its treasury. Thiessen used to try to rehabilitate the reputation of his ex-boss, but apparently there's no longer any profit in that?

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

And You Know That Because....

Thomas Friedman says,
I know Romney doesn’t believe a word he’s saying on foreign policy and that its all aimed at ginning up votes: there’s some China-bashing to help in the Midwest, some Arab-bashing to win over the Jews, some Russia-bashing (our “No. 1 geopolitical foe”) to bring in the Polish vote, plus a dash of testosterone to keep the neocons off his back.
Wow. Friedman not only knows that Romney doesn't mean what he is saying, he knows why Romney is saying something other than what he truly believes. Darn shame, then, that Friedman has told us neither how he gained his special insight into what Romney believes, nor what Romney actually believes.

Now, Romney is a politician, the creature that spawned the joke, "How do you know when a politician is lying" ("His lips are moving"), so it's not entirely unfair for Friedman to listen to Romney and think, "That's a load of hooey meant to get him votes from people who don't see things as clearly as I do." I personally don't believe a word the man says on any subject over which he has reversed his position - which, to date, means his views on privilege for people of wealth, his belief in private equity investment, and that he should not have to disclose additional tax returns and... I'm not sure that there's anything else. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt on the listed subjects because of his consistency and, frankly, because if you look at his positions in unvarnished terms it's hard to believe he would adopt them thinking that they would help him win an election - and with everything else he has followed the polls. I suspect he's sincere in his religion, as well, but he has spent little time talking about it.

What to make of the fact that Romney has largely avoided contradicting himself on international issues. My sense is that Romney has no interest in foreign affairs and more or less echoes his advisers on the subjects Friedman lists. If I'm wrong, Romney has terrible judgment on foreign policy. If I'm correct, Romney has terrible judgment in picking advisers. It's ugly either way. The claims he's making don't seem designed to help him win - they seem like the sort of things his advisers believe, with there being little concern about disclosure because so few people follow or care about these issues.

It may be that Romney doesn't believe what he's saying - that he and his advisers decided on a series of foreign policy lines that they believe will appeal to a certain element of the Republican base but not alienate other voters. But I see no evidence that would support Friedman's assumption that Romney does not believe what he's saying.

By the end of the column I was left with the impression that I was looking at a lot of projection and wishful thinking. "Romney say's he believes X, Y and Z, but those positions are terrible, so I refuse to accept that he believes them. I think he secretly holds my views on those matters."

I won't believe that Romney share's Friedman's views until I hear them from Romney's lips. No, that won't work - that would be a flip-flop. So let's instead say... until I see convincing evidence that Romney holds those views. For now, how about any evidence? Perhaps in Friedman's next column?

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

What a Surprise

When you skip the droning, Richard Cohen tells us his fundamental problem with President Obama: Obama doesn't spend enough time flattering Cohen and making him feel important.
Here is a man who is supremely gifted as an orator but dreadful as a schmoozer.
Another President Cohen likes,
But Lincoln’s other talent was talking, telling stories, sharing tales — and listening and listening and listening.
Politicians cannot ignore politics, and an ideal politician will be able to work a room as well as Clinton, write a speech as well as Lincoln, and form policy as well as... how far do I have to go back? I have sympathy for the President - I don't have Clinton's gift for glad handing, nor Lincoln's for listening to the endless droning of somebody who has access to me not by virtue of merit, but by virtue of wealth or position, and find that type of encounter to be wearying.

It's great that Cohen wants to feel important, but it's problematic that he does not appear to care about whether or not a President forms good policy as long as the President makes him feel important, returns his calls, and avoids looking bored when listening, and listening, and listening to whatever it is that Cohen wants to say.

Can You Win Elections With Easy to Understand Policy Proposals

My daughter was recently in a summer camp that concluded with the campers performing a clever little musical comprises of songs from Schoolhouse Rock. Those songs demonstrate how you can present concepts, some of which are rather complicated, in a cute and catchy manner and... well, leave most of the listeners able to sing along with various parts of the songs but still, by way of example, unclear on how bills become laws.

In his latest column, Roger Cohen1 shares a fair observation about the President. President Obama has given a huge number of speeches, some of which have received considerable praise for their substance, but he rarely includes a take-away. Cohen brings up Bill Clinton, and refers to a simple homily Clinton used in conversation to explain why you need to explain policy in understandable terms ("You’ve got to put the corn where the hogs can get to it").

Like Brooks, Cohen argues that the President needs to explain why we should reelect him:
[T]he big opportunity that has opened up for the president as the Democratic National Convention begins is to do something he has not been very good at: explain in plain language how the United States came to its present pass and how he plans to set the country on a path to growth and jobs again. That in turn will explain why a second term would differ from the first.
Cohen offers an unflattering reaction to the President's budget policy, "Obama’s plan is so long-winded nobody really gets it", but... if I were to call that unfair it would be because it's difficult to find something that I would actually describe as a "plan". Cohen is also fair in observing that many of Obama's stated policies need to be translated into "ideas that pass the policy-wonk test", with the concept being, "If only a policy wonk can understand, forget it."

I have to say that I like Cohen's proposal - to encourage the candidates to lay out their policies in clear, simple terms. Sure, you would have to have a lot of footnotes, more detailed versions for the wonks and analysts, etc., but give the voters something that they can reasonably understand and compare to the other party's proposals. It appeals to my preference to focus on policy, not politics. And, alas, it's not going to happen. At least not directly from the candidates or their campaigns. And if a third party were to scrupulously analyze the candidates' statements, prepare a careful and accurate, understandable point-by-point summary, and publish it, the candidates would probably take issue with at least half of the clarified points - because obfuscation can help you win elections. You can't be everything to everyone if your positions are easily located and easily understood.

Clinton, as Cohen notes, can help, but Clinton's more apt to help with homilies and take-aways than with the translation of complicated issues into simple policy points. One of the most famous lines associated with Clinton? James Carville's "[It's t]he economy, stupid." The line resonated and worked for him, but it did not illuminate.

That said, President Obama's speech at the Democratic Convention provides him with an opportunity to do more than lay out applause lines. He can heed Cohen's advice, and can attempt some amount of public education on the economy. Not just "The other side's ideas are garbage," but a bit of "This is why we're still struggling, this is why Romney's budget ideas are harmful, this is my plan to improve things, and this is why I think it will work." I think Cohen is also correct that the failure of Romney and Ryan to discuss foreign policy - something that they, alas correctly, have determined that most voters don't care about - gives Obama the opportunity to speak clearly of the role of our nation and military in the world, to honor the military, and to articulate a vision for America's future role.

The Republican campaign still largely boils down to, "Vote for us because we're not Obama". If the President makes a strong case for his reelection, Romney will face pressure to do the same thing - and assuming it's not too late, I'm not sure that he has much more to say than, "I'm not Obama".

Update: Dean Baker writes,
[I]t's hard to those who write for major news outlets to notice an $8 trillion housing bubble. This is the story of the downturn and the current "fiscal woes."... In reality, the U.S. has no fiscal woes right now (the interest rate remains near post-war lows), we just have inadequate demand.
I am more sympathetic to Cohen's argument because I did not read it as situational, but as a commentary upon what he would like to see from government in general, much less a "we need austerity in a recession" and much more, "if the government implements sound fiscal policy, we will be better off in good times and bad." The fact that we can presently easily borrow money at a negative effective interest rate is a basis for arguing against forming policy based upon confidence fairies and bond vigilantes, but it's not an excuse for ignoring the long-term. Borrowing will become less affordable, the debt will still need to be serviced, and Medicare is on an unsustainable path.

A comment adds, "he's flat wrong about the necessity of a decade to recover." The comment is true in the sense that it might have been possible to foster a speedier recovery, or that the recovery might accelerate, but given the "facts on the ground", putting a ten year recovery period on the 2008 recession does not, to me, seem unrealistic. The hole Bush's policies dug for the nation made us fall farther and harder than necessary - Cohen seems to be arguing, "Government shouldn't dig us into holes like that, and an illusion of prosperity driven by a bubble is no excuse for bad policy."
1. A brief note about Roger Cohen - when I saw that I had an unusual amount of traffic going to my last post, in which I was very critical of a Cohen column, I tracked it back to a Blogrunner link on Cohen's page on the Times website. As of this moment, it's still there. I don't want to read too much into automatically generated links but I do know that the Times can manually pull the plug on any link or site that they don't want to include in that section - and the fact that I haven't seen that type of traffic to a link critical of the Times' right-wing columnists suggests (not proves, but suggests) that Cohen has a much higher tolerance for criticism than a lot of his peers. That he's interested in ideas and in being challenged, even by us mean old bloggers. If so, good for him.

David Brooks, True to Form

I had a discussion with somebody about David Brooks this morning. He was asking me what I thought of various newspaper columnists, and couldn't quite remember the name, but "David" was enough. He mentioned that he thought Brooks was a pretty clever guy who put his own spin on things. I agreed. I asserted that whatever the spin was, Brooks should be recognized as the partisan he is - reiterating a point that I've made here that when he gives advice to Democrats on what they need to do to win elections it's consistently bad (for Democrats) - whether he's advising Democrats or Republicans on strategy they should adopt, he's in fact giving advice that he believes will help the Republicans win the next election. My friend agreed, but expressed in essence that Brooks is a breath of fresh air as compared to other partisan columnists (his example was Peggy Noonan).1

When I followed a link to his latest piece, I thought for a moment, "Perhaps David Brooks is going to prove me wrong." He starts out with a valid point: It's time for President Obama to tell us what he plans to do in his second term, and why he deserves a second term. Sure, he puts a light Republican spin on Obama's history, and gives undeserved praise to Paul Ryan2, but underneath that, in relation to the President, how can you argue with this:
It’s not clear what he is passionate to do if he is elected for another four years.
But from there, pure reversion to form.
First, global warming. President Obama has occasionally said he’d like to do something about climate change if he gets a second term. Given the country’s immediate economic and fiscal problems, this seems obtuse to me. But if this is really where Obama’s passion lies, he should go for it.
In other words, even Brooks can't hold a straight face when telling Obama to focus his second term agenda on global warming - yet it's his number one suggestion. When you read Brooks' specific proposals, you can't help but wonder if he's already viewed the attack ads the Republicans hope to be able to run on the issue.3

Brooks' next idea is that the President should attack capitalism. Seriously - Brooks is claiming that a President whom the Republicans have bashed based upon zero evidence of not understanding capitalism, of hating capitalism, of being a socialist (if not a communist), of hating rich people... all that nonsense... should make an attack on capitalism the centerpiece of his reelection campaign. The attack ads would write themselves.4 Again, Brooks can't help but smirk,
This agenda wouldn’t appeal to moderates, or people like me, but it’s huge, it’s serious and it would highlight a real problem.
It's a serious problem that David Brooks can describe but... doesn't care about? Brooks is mostly correct that his ideas "wouldn’t appeal to moderates, or [Republicans]", which translates into an admission that Brooks expects that such an approach would cost the President votes.

Brooks then suggests that the President should embrace wholeheartedly the report of the chairs of the failed Bowles-Simpson Commission, and finally bring to this country the sort of bad policy and austerity measures that have caused Great Britain to have a double-dip recession. After admitting that even the Republicans at most pay "lip service" to Bowles-Simpson - having apparently forgotten that Paul Ryan served on the commission and voted against the final report - he proposes that Obama could endorse a witches brew of ideas from Simpson-Bowles that even the Republicans view as toxic.

At first blush you might respond, "Well, at least the Republicans wouldn't be able to run attack ads against a plan that's to the right of Paul Ryan's deficit-increasing proposals," but nope. The ads will be running the next day, "See? We told you that Obama was taking away your Medicare and now he's also going to slash your Social Security benefit!" It's also amazingly transparent, "You really want to win this election? Well, first thing you gotta do is give the Republicans everything they want, and don't ask for anything in return." I realize that's not far from how beltway pundits define "bipartisanship" on Social Security and Medicare, but by this point does anybody still believe Brooks is sincere?5

1. This is more than damning Brooks with faint praise. As tiresome as his faux-centrism can be, unlike with many of his peers you often have to read more than the headline in order to know what Brooks is arguing and the conclusion he's going to reach.

2. Brooks wrote,
During this time, you knew what Barack Obama was about, where his priorities lay. But, since 2010, that has not been the case. Since then, Representative Paul Ryan has been driving the Washington policy debate with his plan to cut spending and restructure entitlements.
If we define "Washington policy debate" as "the issues over which beltway pundits" obsess, perhaps that's fair. But (a) Ryan's budget is junk - cowardly junk - and the debate has been anything but policy-oriented. Ryan's budget is a political statement, not a policy statement, and those who advocate its merits either do not understand it or share Ryan's political goals.

Ryan has scurried away from certain elements of his budget, particularly the manner in which he proposed privatizing and voucherizing Medicare, without any explanation for how his new voucher program is superior as a matter of policy - but it's pretty obvious how it's superior as a matter of politics.

3. First up, "He could vow to double down on green energy and green technology." Republican Ad: "Soyndra, Soyndra, Soyndra, Soyndra. Soyndra! Soyndra, Soyndra. I'm Mitt Romney and I approve this message."

4. First up, "He could vow to strengthen unions". No mention of how that might work, save in Republican attack ads.

5. Brooks laments,
I wish he’d rise above the petty tactical considerations that have shrunk him over the past two years.
Now what was it that happened two years ago that made things in Washington so petty... We had an election and then something happened that let the Republican agenda dominate in the House of Representatives and (further) stymie Obama's agenda... oh, what could it be....