Peter asked for an homage to MItt Romney. I think I supplied one in the current Claremont Review of Books. Here is the link:
There are two kinds of insomniacs: the productive and the unproductive. The productive work all night, putting their fretful hours to good use. Some people ask: “How does he or she manage to accomplish all that in a twenty four hour day?” But they are being much too hard on themselves. The normal person does not have a twenty-four hour day, but a sixteen or seventeen hour one, the remainder being taken up by a boat ride on the river Lethe. Only the productive insomniac manages to cheat nature.
The unproductive insomniac is another species altogether. He spends his late night and early morning hours half dosing, as the time slowly slips by. Sad to say, the unproductive insomniac waits with eager anticipation for the dog to get up. It is a wonder how such persons ever remained sane, if they did, before the advent of cable TV. And what progress has been made over the past few years! From the days, I mean nights, of Australian football and Philippine badminton on ESPN, the modern insomniac now has a much greater choice. A conservative need no longer suffer through Hannity more than once or repeat in his mind every line of Lenny’s from Law and Order. Nowadays the early morning fare has been supplemented by a new and creative genre: the infomercial.
There has been a remarkable evolution in this genre. Take exercise. From the staid and rationalist pitch of Chuck Norris and Christie Brinkley for the “Total Gym,” we have graduated by stages to the intense “Insanity” infomercial. Our trainer Shaun—we are on a first-name basis—promises ripped abs in sixty days, but only to the truly devoted. No babying here: “How badly do you want it?,” a stern voice asks. At 4 am I can be tempted.
Let’s not ignore the infomercials for beauty and anti-aging products. I put it to you point blank: which unproductive insomniac is not fully familiar with Dr. Jean-Louis Sabagh, the genius who has managed to keep Cindy Crawford looking in her twenties as she slips into her forties? The Crawford-Sabagh infomercial, which is the most sophisticated of the genre yet produced, lets us have a close relation to Cindy, who in turn introduces Dr. Sabagh. The program then treats us to some lovely scenes from Provence, the birthplace of Dr. Sabagh and the region from which he extracts the secret ingredient that is the foundation of his miracle lotion. It comes from a certain kind of cantaloupe that grows only those environs.
It is the cleaning and kitchen equipment, however, that has long been the staple of the late-night infomercial. I have always been drawn to the programs in this area, if not for their cinematic qualities, then for their sound consumer advice. True, this genre started out in a crude and amateurish fashion, featuring Japanese ninja-style chefs who wielded knives capable of slicing thru all manner of things, from tomatoes and potatoes to counter tops and microwave ovens. These infomercials were also originally vulgar enough to add: “and wait, there is more,” as you were promised an additional mini version of the knife set at no extra charge, other than for shipping and handling. These infomercials also allowed you to purchase your product in three easy payments, a practice I never appreciated- not because I am a snob, but, on the contrary, because I always suspected that this was meant to take advantage of the little guy.
Yet as time went on, these kitchen infomercials began to blossom, adding layers of complexity and nuance. An important breakthrough was a “live” audience in a studio setting, with allowed for spontaneous reactions and applause. And over the years, the diversity of these audiences grew to keep pace with the changes in America’s population. Well in advance of the 2012 election, the best of the infomercials had figured out the current shibboleth that demography is destiny. In this genre, there was a wonderful series on blenders and juice extractors, each program more subtle and textured than the last. I have three or four juice extractors on a shelf in my basement that testify to the dramatic power of these sales pitches.
I have saved the best for last, which are the infomercials on cooking devices. We are long past the day of George Foreman grills and hot sandwich makers. I am talking about new kinds of ovens, all the way up to the nu-wave, an amazing device that cooks faster than a conventional oven and leaves a much smaller carbon footprint. The secret is found in a tri-partite cooking method, worthy of Hippodamus: conduction, convection, and infra-red. The device sits right on your countertop, and when you are done goes right into the dishwasher. I took mine on its inaugural voyage last evening , and enjoyed a sweet night of REM sleep dreaming of new recipes.
P.S. I am only accepting comments posted between 1 and 5:30 am.
From the weekly standard this week:
For the small school of political analysis that draws its inspiration from the great French 17th-century philosopher René Descartes, the cardinal methodological rule is to begin from what one can know “so clearly and distinctly as to exclude all ground of doubt.” The only important fact about the election contest today that meets this stringent threshold is that someone named either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney will be declared president, most likely on November 7.
Beginning from this point of certainty, Cartesians are already at work surveying the possible alternative post-November 7 political landscapes. “I prognosticate. Therefore I am.”
The election of Barack Obama or Mitt Romney may be either a larger victory or a narrower one. The resulting four scenarios are as follows:
1. The larger Obama victory, which can be called “Vindication,” refers to a result in which the president wins by a margin of some 3 percentage points or more, in which the Democrats gain more than 12 seats in the House, and in which the Democrats, while losing a seat or two in the Senate, retain control of that body.
2. A narrower Obama victory, labeled “Hanging On,” describes a scenario in which the president ekes out a win by under a point and perhaps captures an Electoral College victory while losing the popular vote, maybe even by a considerable margin. (This result is what many polls suggest would be the outcome if the election were held today.) Democrats pick up only a few seats in the House, under 10, while Republicans gain a tie in the Senate or, against all odds, capture a majority.
3. A narrower Romney win, “Reversal,” describes a victory margin of under 2 points, a modest loss of 6 to 10 seats for the GOP in the House, and a gain of a couple Senate seats, still leaving Republicans short of a tie or an outright majority.
4. A larger Romney victory, called “Game Change,” designates a scenario in which President Romney is elected by a significant margin, 3 percentage points or more, where Republicans suffer minimal losses in the House, and where the GOP captures the Senate (which, in the case of a Romney victory, requires only a tie). This result will also bring some real surprises, including victories in states that few expected and upset wins in some of the Senate contests. To put a cherry on top, the GOP could pick up a net three or four governorships.
Assessing the probabilities of these outcomes is a task for ordinary punditry. But what is striking about the campaign thus far is that the scenario that was most likely just a few weeks ago, Vindication, appears least likely today, while the scenario that was the least likely at that time, Game Change, is today within the range of plausibility.
The two Obama victory scenarios, while quite different, share key points. An Obama victory, no matter what kind, means that Barack Obama keeps what he has already achieved. From Obama’s perspective, isn’t that mostly what this election is about? President Obama could do almost nothing new in his next term — indeed, he has proposed very little by way of new programs during the campaign — and he will still have accomplished the most important goals of his presidency, which include Obama-care and creating a much larger welfare state. If Obama wins, liberals and conservatives will go on to contest new issues, but they will do so on a new terrain that accepts the core of Obama’s changes.
An Obama victory also secures his place in the pantheon of great progressive leaders. On that imaginary liberal Mount Rushmore — perhaps to be carved out as a shovel-ready project for a new stimulus package — the face of Barack Obama will appear alongside those of FDR and LBJ. These are the three liberal presidents who did something big, something irreversible, in expanding the role of the federal government and altering the relation between citizens and the state.
Of less historic moment but greater interest, Obama’s victory will also settle his ongoing rivalry with Bill Clinton. The theme of the Obama campaign of 2008, Hope and Change, was meant not just as a rejection of George Bush’s policies, but also those of Bill Clinton. Obama’s defeat of Hillary Clinton for the nomination added a personal -element to the rivalry, sending Bill for a time to his tent to brood like a postmodern Achilles. Now fast forward to August this year, when President Obama, sensing some vulnerability in his race, asked Bill Clinton to be a featured speaker at the Democratic convention. Appearing back-to-back on the last two nights, Clinton gave a far better defense of the Obama presidency than the president was able to give himself. In bestowing his blessing on Obama, Clinton did not fail to extract a small measure of revenge, stating that “no president, not [even] me . . . could have repaired all the damage” in four years. Still, whatever Clinton’s popularity, an Obama victory guarantees that he will overshadow Clinton in the history books. Obama took the big risk in his first term, refused to play it safe or back off, and he won.
It is fair to ask why a result in which a president loses political strength compared to his first election merits the name of Vindication. After all, other presidents — Reagan, Clinton, George W. Bush — increased their margin of victory between their first and second campaigns. But the “meaning” of an election is a political concept. It must be calculated not in absolute terms, but in how it is viewed at the time and plays in the current context. Given the state of the economy, this race began with the assumption, shared by political analysts and the public, that Obama could never equal his margin over John McCain in 2008. Obama’s campaign strategy has been to keep the core of his 2008 coalition, while allowing a drop off of a couple of points. It would be a slight retreat, but with the essential asset safeguarded.
More important, the terms defining the meaning of this election were set by mutual agreement of the two parties in the aftermath of the 2010 midterm elections. Republicans judged their stunning victory to be a repudiation of Barack Obama. Obama viewed it as a small setback to the great mandate of 2008, a proverbial “bump in the road.” Each side dug in — neither had the power to do more — and both accepted that the competing claims to represent the wishes of the American people could only be settled by another election. Politics over the past two years has been about marking time, getting ready for the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
Vindication means that this contest has been resolved. The understanding of relevant contemporary history — the so-called dominant narrative — has been decided in favor of 2008. A modest Obama victory negates the claim of 2010. Yes, the Republicans still have their majority in the House, but the Democrats, if not the president himself, will say that the 2010 elections were nothing more than a bunch of idiot Tea Partiers getting in the way of the forward movement of history. Vindication will also allow a broader and bolder articulation of the president’s foundational concepts. Obama’s intellectual supporters often played hide and seek during his first term, backing some very bold ideas akin to “we built it,” only to retreat in the face of public opposition to claim that, aw shucks, Obama is nothing more than a country pragmatist. Vindication will allow the president to state more openly his social democratic principles, bringing about the intellectual transformation of American politics that he has sought.
Political campaigns are primarily about devising strategies to win elections. But campaigns have another dimension: They affect the general standing or acceptability of a candidate in the eyes of the American people. Some campaigns add to, or at least do not detract from, a candidate’s general standing. Even members of the losing party, though disappointed, recognize something positive about the victor. Other campaigns burn up a candidate’s standing and spend his moral capital. Obama’s campaign of 2008 was of the positive kind, while his campaign this year, based on personal assaults on his opponent and divisive appeals, has drawn down his stature. The audacity of hope has given way to the defense of Big Bird. Yet his followers under the scenario of Vindication will find something new in him to admire. Liberals have a moralistic side, waxing poetic about feelings of goodness coursing through them, but they also admire the cool calculator and the tough street fighter. While costing the president among Americans generally, victory will bring him encomiums. There will surely be a new biography, published in 2013, entitled Obama: The Messiah and the Fox.
The Republicans’ position under this scenario is not a pretty one. In terms of institutional power, Republicans will have lost nothing and may even have gained some in the Senate. Yet six months ago Republicans were supposed to have carried the Senate, so a small gain looks more like a loss. Numbers aside, how will they think of themselves? Yes, Republicans can take solace in their strength in many states and in their stable of impressive young leaders. But at the national level, in the short term, it is hard to imagine how they will avoid splitting apart. Will Republicans stop talking about repealing Obama-care? Many will, while others will carry on and blame defeat on Mitt Romney as yet another example of a moderate who lost for a lack of true conviction. Will Republicans resist completely the president’s deficit reduction plan, including a tax increase on the wealthy? Some will stay the course, but others will conclude they must give way. One thing is certain about the scenario of Vindication. If there is one person no one would want to be, it is John Boehner.
Under a scenario of Hanging On, President Obama will gain little or no credit from the 2012 election. If the president should suffer a defeat in the popular vote, it would be a stunning rebuke — a president who has governed for four years and who is rejected by a majority of the American people. Democrats would still hold their victory parties, but the mood would be subdued. The emails and tweets would go out from David Plouffe: smile.
One of the meanings of this outcome is that President Obama will not easily be able to reclaim control of the political narrative. Who owns the majority will remain contested. Still, the president will hold onto his real estate at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and there will be no foreclosures. As time goes on, the public will forget about the election results and focus on his record of accomplishment in office.
How much difference will there be in the conduct of politics if Hanging On is the scenario rather than Vindication? Obama will still be able to protect what he has done, but Republicans, especially if they achieve the long shot of winning the Senate, will have more confidence to fight. The public will demand an accommodation of some kind on budgetary matters — this time there will be no waiting for another election — but Republicans can enter these negotiations, supposing that they reach a consensus, on a strong and even superior footing. After all, Congress is still “the first branch of government.” One thing certain to change is the degree of resistance to Obama’s announced plan of working around Congress by administrative means to accomplish certain ends. If Republicans capture the Senate, look for Congress to draw a bright line and strongly defend constitutional principles that limit this new form of presidential usurpation of powers.
A Mitt Romney victory, even by a slim margin, will count for much more than the numbers might suggest. Romney will not only have defeated a sitting president, no small feat, but triumphed over a leader whom Democrats have celebrated as the very best they could offer and the greatest figure of the age. Furthermore, Romney’s win will have all the drama of coming from behind, of an improbable fourth-quarter drive reminiscent of those engineered by John Elway or Eli Manning. Everyone loves a victory, but how much sweeter an upset!
A Romney victory will mean that the people have spoken, definitively. Americans will have said not just that they wish to go in a new direction, but that they want to undo much of what has been done in the past four years. A Romney win provides warrant to erase much of Obama’s program. It also changes the narrative of current political history, according to which 2008 marked a new beginning for modern American politics, akin to Year One of the French Revolution. Suddenly, 2008 appears as the odd election out. It is the aberration. If there is a trend in current political history, it begins in 2010. The cumulative effect of 2010 and 2012 supplies the key for interpreting current -American politics. The implications of this new narrative will likely be pushed back even before 2010. The nation will be reminded that Obama-care, while technically legal, was never legitimate in the first place. It was a product of corrupt buyoffs—remember the Cornhusker Kickback? — and the false prosecution of Senator Ted Stevens. The core of the Obama agenda will be subject to relitigation.
A Romney victory also changes the stature of the central figure in current political history: Barack Obama. It is unlikely that Democrats will openly blame him for defeat, given how much they have invested in him. To condemn Obama would be to indict themselves. But many will begin to kill him softly with faint praise. Having already slipped from an exalted status to that of an ordinary mortal, he will be brought further down, condemned as a person of nothing more than unusual talent and great intellect. As much as Barack Obama has been lionized by his supporters in Washington, few really like him very much, in part because he doesn’t like them very much. Outside of a narrow circle, Obama has few friends in Washington.
Obama’s defeat poses a delicate problem: What do you do with a retired messiah? Resuming a career as a law professor and sitting on boards of progressive foundations just won’t cut it. Something much bigger, such as the presidency of a prestigious university, might come closer to the mark. University presidents do not have that much to do, other than to raise money and deliver high-toned and empty speeches, tasks at which Obama has excelled. Most fitting might be a position at a university in California, where he would be greatly esteemed by the local population and close to his investments in Solyndra and Fisker.
Setting his political agenda aside, President Romney appears as a different kind of political leader. His victory ends the melodrama of the “great leader” who raises politics to a pseudo-religious level. It restores normalcy to the relationship between the public and the presidency. When historians write the account of Mitt Romney’s comeback, they will discover Americans’ latent wish for a steady hand and a more calibrated and businesslike view of what a president should be, and they will take note of Americans’ longing for more self-restraint and greater modesty in presidential conduct. The election will mark an end of charisma and a rebirth of constitutionalism.
A Romney victory will also punch above its weight because of the character of his campaign. Though it was not “elevating” or emotional — that was the point — it was relatively enhancing. Romney did not vilify or impugn his opponent. At most, Democrats accused the Romney campaign of misrepresenting the president, but even here their objection was that he misrepresented himself. He was guilty of vagueness and “Romnesia,” hardly the most serious of all campaign crimes. Most important, however, Romney will escape charges that he bought the election, because the Obama camp spent more.
Democrats facing a Romney presidency confront a grim reality. Who will be put forward as the new face of their party on November 7? It will not be a young and dynamic vice president, nor can it be the governor of the nation’s largest state (Jerry Brown). The current head of the DNC, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and the minority leader of the House, Nancy Pelosi, are improbable choices. It is difficult, in fact, to imagine what Democratic senator or congressman has the stature at this point to serve as a credible spokesperson. For Democrats it will be a time for regrouping and searching for a new generation of leaders.
The difference between the two Romney victory scenarios for what the election means is not that great. But the differing implications for governance will be substantial. Under the scenario of Reversal, President Romney will face a situation of divided government, with the Senate in the hands of the Democrats. As an interesting “first” in American politics, the two most important leaders in the nation will be Mitt Romney and Harry Reid, both Mormons. But their common faith has never led to a warm working relationship. Democrats under Harry Reid will have to decide what strategy to adopt toward the new president. Having derided theRepublicans over the past four years for being the “party of no,” Democrats might find that they wish to adopt that role with a vengeance. But it is unclear whether all Democrats in the Senate would follow this path. They have their own careers to consider, and the Democratic party without any strong national leader in charge will be a different beast altogether. If some Democratic senators are pushed too far, they might not only resist, but consider defecting to the other party.
Divided government would not be the worst situation for a cautious President Romney. If this arrangement allowed him to succeed with his core agenda on economics and tax plans, it might provide a reason for putting off some of the more contentious issues. Divided government allows a president to avoid taking all of the responsibility. The president would have no choice but to honor the easiest of all campaign slogans and work across the aisle.
The Game Change scenario, on the other hand, would raise the Republican party to its highest point since before the Depression. True, Republicans controlled the presidency and both houses of Congress after the election of Eisenhower in 1952, and then again after the elections of 2000 and 2004. But in the first case much of the voters’ support for the party was due to the popularity of Ike; in the second, Bush had lost a popular majority; and in the third, Bush was mired in a war and had no goodwill from his adversaries. Romney’s victory would be more advantageous, and it would be backed by support from a huge majority of Republican governors. The scenario of Game Change would represent a remarkable comeback from 2008, when Democrats spoke of the exhaustion — both political and intellectual — of the Republican party and boasted of a massive realignment and a new era of Democratic governance.
No one on the Republican side today will make similar claims. The notions of grandiose leaders and realignments are the fantasies of another age. In any case, such is not the kind of leadership that Mitt Romney will seek to offer. The three breakthrough moments of the last century when plenary power was vested in one party (during the New Deal, the Great Society, and after the election of Obama), are aberrations, caused respectively by the Depression, the assassination of John Kennedy, and a series of accidents in a few Senate races. Republicans will never achieve this kind of majority, and it is best that they do not. A leading characteristic of a Romney presidency will be a return to a more constitutional form of rule, but with a strong popular injunction for a change of course.
Still, such a change of course would be a potential Game Change—opening up the prospect of a period of successful Republican governance in the wake of a failed one-term Democratic presidency. In the final presidential debate, Obama derided Romney’s wish to revive the “policies of the 1980s.” It would be ironic if Obama’s defeat makes possible in the next decade the kind of political dominance by a reenergized conservatism last seen in the . . . 1980s.
With all the important issues at stake in the presidential and vice presidential debates, it takes a small and pettifogging disposition to be concerned with a matter of fairness. But since John Rawls talks so much about procedural justice, and since no enlightened professor today would dare label John Rawls a pettifogger, I am not embarrassed to raise a procedure question in the conduct of these debates.
There is one scarce resource in these debates which is both measureable and important: time. No wonder that the participants fight over it. Give one of the participants more time, and he gets an unfair procedural advantage.
I had the feeling while watching the three debates so far (I include the Vice-presidential debate) that Romney and Ryan had taken more time than Obama and Biden. But I was surprised in each case, after checking the data, to discover that my impressions were in error. In the first debate, Obama had almost five minutes more time than Romney, Biden (excluding his smiles) had a minute more than Ryan (even subtracting for his H2O intake), and in the debate last night Obama had about three minutes more than Romney. I will let the fact checker dig up the exact figures and then run the percentages, but by any measure it adds up overall to a very considerable advantage for the Democrats. One could even “price” it: how much would someone have to pay for a minute of airtime with an audience of over 50 million viewers?
The facts speak for themselves. So why the initial impression, at least on my part, that the Republicans had taken more time? The reason, I think, is that Mitt Romney had to ask or fight for the time from the moderators. This was a double disadvantage for Romney, who got less time but appeared a bit forward in having to demand it.
The imbalance here is the fault, if anyone, of the moderators—doesn’t the buck stop with them? But contrary to a likely conservative suspicion, I am guessing that it had less to do with any political bias, if there is one, on the part of Jim or Candy, than with the understandable dilemma that it is harder to cut off or interrupt the President of the United States than a challenger. There is that old thing of the aura of the office, and it probably operates unconsciously. (As or Joe Biden, the “aura” dimension admittedly rubs off pretty quickly; but there is no human force I can imagine that could ever stop him from getting his say in, and then some.)
So what to do about this problem? There is a simple solution, and the folks who run the debates ought to adopt it immediately. And with apologies to some of my conservative readers, this solution comes from France, where it was used in their presidential debate. Here it is: You have a digital clock visible to the participants and the audience that gives a running total of the minutes used by each candidate. The candidate who has fallen behind in minutes used can take the time—I will add not by interrupting–to bring himself up to something close to equality. No need to plead with or to fight the moderator. It’s an obvious instance, to which all who operated behind a veil of ignorance would readily consent, of exercising one’s right to justice as fairness. Rawlsians of the world unite!
Are we all racists now? Ever since Barack Obama made his appearance in national politics, some of the good souls who have supported him have drawn red lines to remind any possible critics where their opposition veers into racism. Bill Maher, Chris Matthews, The New Yorker, E. J. Dionne, Michael Tomasky, Lawrence O’Donnell, Nancy Pelosi—to mention only a few—have all leveled the race charge, aiming, it among others, at Mitt Romney, Clint Eastwood, Donald Trump, the Tea Party, and anyone who refers to Obama as a “Chicago politician.” Yet many of the supporters now seem to be joining ranks with the purveyors of hate. Take a look at this week’s New Yorker cover featuring Mitt Romney looking over at an empty chair during the first debate. Doesn’t this sketch express the same disdain for the President shown by Clint Eastwood, the same reference to Ralph Ellison’s “invisible man”? And what about Bill Maher’s quip that Obama was “stoned on weed” in the debate? This comment might just invoke the crude image of a drug user. Or what about Chris Matthews asking “Where was Obama.” Was he playing off a stereotype of a welfare king?
I am beginning to wonder who will guard the guardians.
here is an article i did for the standard on the debate. and i have added a question at the end.
The highly anticipated debate in Denver was the rarest of all things in American politics: an unspinnable event. Almost all who watched the contest concluded that there was one president on the stage, and it was Mitt Romney. Obama sympathizers took the measure of the situation and decided that the best thing to do was to hoist the white flag and get out of Dodge. Chris Matthews asked, “Where was Obama tonight?” James Carville observed that it “looked like . . . President Obama didn’t want to be there.” A few half-hearted attempts to deflect the result by arguing that Mitt Romney had bullied Jim Lehrer collapsed under the revelation that Barack Obama had held onto the microphone for four minutes longer than his opponent.
Yet before the milk bottles are opened at Romney headquarters in Boston, his advisers will have to consider whether a victory in a debate by itself can change the trend of a presidential campaign. After all, President Obama committed no decisive blunder, nor was there anything like the perfect “gotcha” moment to replay time and again for the next month. Experience has shown that a defeat for an incumbent in an early debate, like the one George Bush experienced at the hands of John Kerry in 2004, can turn out to be just one of those “bumps in the road.” The only way for the Romney camp to transform this impressive win on debate points into a political advantage is to find the compelling themes that can be integrated into a fuller campaign strategy.
Romney’s greatest success in Denver came from his threading of two needles.
First, he projected himself as a leader who was at the same time bolder yet warmer, stronger yet more human, than most had viewed him until now. Romney was on the offensive throughout—he was more “aggressive” than Obama (Tom Bevan said he “manhandled” the president), but he also -managed to make himself appear more likable, charming, and compassionate.
Romney discovered a formula that had eluded him throughout the past year, and it is a remarkable feat of alchemy. Up until this point, the two qualities of political strength and personal warmth were, perhaps reasonably, thought to be opposites. One of them could be pursued only at the expense of the other: hence the decision at the Republican convention to give an acceptance speech that avoided strong policy statements in an effort to reveal to America the personal Mitt, hitherto buried somewhere deep inside a stiff public persona. The personal anecdote of his father giving his mother a rose every day was touching, but was it a pathway to the presidency?
There is no doubt that Mitt Romney has suffered from a failure to display warmth and empathy. The poll results on this point are striking. On the question who seems more likable and friendly, Barack Obama—hardly the cuddly and fuzzy type himself—bests Mitt Romney better than two to one (61 percent to 27 percent) and is deemed far more in touch with the problems of the middle class -(57 percent to 37 percent). Political analyst Bill Schneider has argued that these qualities are decisive: “The only way that the president can get reelected in this difficult economic environment is by exploiting his personal appeal.”
Romney used the debate to show that his deficiency in “connecting”—his lack of a political gene—can best be overcome by pressing his political case. His concern for the middle class and the unemployed, as he explained, is demonstrated not just in his profession of caring, but also in his policy of resisting a tax increase and lowering tax rates. It was the argument for these positions, advanced with passion and conviction, that helped make the case for Romney’s warmth and showed his sincerity. Mitt Romney in public is always going to be primarily a public person; for him, this is the best way to sell his private side.
The second needle Romney managed to thread in Denver was even more unexpected. Romney was able to appear at one and the same time more conservative and more postpartisan than he has till now.
For weeks within the Republican party, the Romney campaign has been criticized for adopting a strategy of “referendum” over “choice.” “Referendum” refers to the theory that this election will be won by voters deciding that they do not want to reelect Barack Obama. The challenger’s job is to make himself acceptable, a credible alternative, so that voters dissatisfied with the president can easily choose a safe option. “Choice” refers to the theory that the public also needs compelling reasons to vote for the challenger.
Referendum is naturally associated with lying low and trying to target independents piecemeal (women in particular). From this point of view, articulating big, bold plans at this stage represents nothing more than intellectual chest-thumping that is disconnected from politics on the ground. The independents want a more conciliatory candidate who can work with the other side. The choice school contends that it is only by laying out a big, bold alternative program that a challenger can persuade and motivate voters, including the independents and undecideds who hold the balance.
Romney found the sweet spot here. He did make big appeals in the debate, moving far more to the choice position than he had in recent weeks. Yet when the opportunity was presented to embrace the logic of the referendum position, he took it too.
The plain fact is that many of the voters who are undecided at this point are the very ones who are sick of deadlock and partisan conflict. Partisans and “big idea” people may think what they will, but this feeling in the electorate was a significant reason for Obama’s appeal in 2008. Romney captured the postpartisan mantle from Obama at the point where the president brought out what he thought was his trump card, commending Mitt Romney for initiating Romneycare. Romney took the compliment, insisted on some of the differences with Obama-care, and then showed how he had passed his program in Massachusetts working with a legislature that was 87 percent Democratic. The Frank Luntz focus group of independents found this to be one of the most appealing moments in the debate. Romney’s supposed Achilles’ heel, after his political ACL surgery, has turned into one of his greatest strengths.
These two themes—a leader whose empathy comes from strength and conviction and a person whose bold plans are not in tension with a temperament conducive to bipartisanship—are the “takeaways” from last week that can put Mitt Romney on the path to victory.
i also want to ask, why did obama agree to–indeed approve–Romney’s use of Obamacare. I have been to many a conference where I have seen supporters of Obama object to it. Obama could have put R on the defensive by demanding that he call the act by its real name.. Was it Obama’s narcissism that led him to welcome it? And how many apologies are now owed to the conferees who were slapped down by the use of the term? For those who did the slapping, you are under the bus.
Partisanship, even in this highly partisan age, should have its limits. This proposition is one that all Americans would endorse. There are certain fundamental values that we all share, like protecting our security and promoting certain basic principles. Compromising these values to gain a momentary partisan advantage is a breach of good citizenship. And the threshold of the limits should be even stricter for those who hold an office designated or understood to be non-partisan, like a judge or chairman of the Federal Reserve. Partisan behavior should never be accepted, even if the matter involved is small.
The obvious “problem” with this proposition is where and how it applies. In the extreme case—such as an attack on the homeland—everyone would know. But in matters short of this, it can be difficult to say whether an action is simply partisan. To make things worse, even the proposition itself (“Partisanship must have its limits”) is subject to partisan manipulation.
Consider events over the past couple of weeks. Mitt Romney issued a hard-hitting statement on the night of the assault on the embassy in Cairo: “It’s disgraceful that the Obama administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.” Was this fair criticism or beyond the limit? Many harshly criticized Romney for exploiting a delicate foreign policy situation for his partisan advantage, a charge that gained more traction (for its truth, or for its own partisan utility?) in the aftermath of the killings of four Americans in Libya in the next hours.
Now turn the spotlight on President Obama and his administration for the “message” they delivered on Libya. Following the massacre, the administration fpr days downplayed—virtually denied—the possibility that the attack was a result of pre-arranged terrorism. Adopting this position seemed to be a way of protecting the President’s political standing. An admission of terrorism could have called into question the efficacy of Obama’s whole foreign policy of winning over Muslims by his outreach and rhetoric; or it could have raised questions of whether the administration had adequately provided for the Americans’ security. In any case, many criticized the Administration for deploying its spokespersons to put out a line to promote the President’s political interests in a matter of national security. This criticism gained traction as the Administration’s position, which always seemed to lack credibility, had to be withdrawn.
Readers will wish to consider these two incidents and judge whether partisanship was carried too far, or whether the real partisanship was in the claim that it was carried too far. I want to bring up a third case, in the other category mentioned, which applies to the persons charged to act without regard to partisan consideration. The particular instance I have in mind concerns the recent move by the Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke to launch “QE3,” the technical name for the printing of massive new amounts of money. Before coming to the main point about partisanship, I will add an aside about this policy. Like most in political science, I recognize the policy significance of such moves without exactly understanding the economic reasoning involved. It makes me feel slightly better that many economists don’t seem to understand the economics of such matters, either. They do seem, however, to know that the models on which these decisions are based—like our own models on election outcomes–have limited reliability. This fact is enough to make one wonder whether a prudent actor, except in some kind of emergency, should initiate major policies on such grounds. Doesn’t a reasonable person know enough to know when he does not know enough? Given his own record, Mr. Bernanke, who had no inkling before of the financial crash of September 08, should above everyone else be reasonable. But he is not. His current policies seem to be the height of imprudence. The last bubble resulted in part from people (and government agencies) engaging in massive and reckless speculation. While some of the government policies since then have been designed, wisely or not, to control such speculation in the private sphere, Bernanke’s own monetary policy represents one of the largest and most reckless speculative gambits ever undertaken. It is “socialized” speculation. What moral sense is there in a government engaging in uncontrolled speculation, while seeking to teach private individuals to avoid doing the same thing? The government is doing for the stock market today exactly what it helped to do for the housing market in the decade before September 2008. It is encouraging overinvestment in equities, on the hope that this speculation will re-start the economy.
But all this is background to the main point of this post. As I said, I know little about economics. But one thing is certain, whatever one thinks of the ultimate merits of Mr. Bernanke’s economic policies, QE3 is calculated to boost (temporarily) the stock market. It is therefore a policy with huge political implications: it aids the reelection chances of President Obama. Mr. Bernanke claims that his actions were taken without regard to partisan motives, which makes him either a fool or a deceiver (and for all our sakes, we should prefer the latter). If he wanted to pursue this policy, he should have done so two months ago or two months from now. A decision of this magnitude taken in the last two months of an election campaign is by definition political; it affects, maybe dramatically, the political climate. As someone entrusted with an important position of power, Mr. Bernanke’s behavior transgresses the proposition that partisanship, even in this highly partisan age, should have limits.
Here is something for summer, which appears in this week’s Standard:
In a mid-June ritual equivalent to a New Year’s resolution, I annually peruse THE WEEKLY STANDARD’s Summer Reading issue, listing the alluring books I promise to read while tucked away on some remote beach. There is only one rule I impose on this exercise: No book may have anything to do with my own field of politics. In obedience to an earnest but now fading aspiration of becoming a Renaissance man, the selections must be historical, or literary, or artistic—the sorts of works reviewed by Joseph Bottum or Algis Valiunas. Of course, all this being part of a resolution, it is rare that a book order ever gets placed or, if it does, a box opened. And oh yes, I never get to the beach.
Until this summer. With a few days having carefully been blocked out, I arrive at North Carolina’s Outer Banks with my stack of “books,” hastily downloaded at the last minute on a Kindle. At the appointed hour, I make my way over the dune, and take in the azure sky and undulating surf. Leaving my cell phone at the lifeguard chair—no interruptions, please!—I station myself equidistant between two pairs of responsible-looking adults and begin to remove the Kindle from its case.
But to my great surprise, I discover that I am being watched. On the cusp of a small hole a few feet in front of me, a mid-sized crab, his two black eyes like jewels of onyx mounted on little posts, has me directly in his sights. Intent on holding my ground, I stare him down. After a few seconds, he raises his body like a platform on hydraulic stilts, executes a full pirouette, and slides into his underground fortress. Relieved, I return to unpacking my apparatus.
Only that’s not the end of it. A half a minute or so later he reappears. Now he is at work, oblivious to me, excavating from his hole a full scoop of sand, which he carries in his larger claw and deposits, with the action of a back hoe, on a little mound that he is forming at the edges. Nor is he alone. My eye spots a yard or so down to my left another redoubt, with another crab at work, and likewise in the opposite direction.
The Kindle back in its zipped case, I am by now fully absorbed in another world, privy to all of its operations. Continued observation reveals new details. These fellows are not exactly the same. And why should they be? One, closer to the moms who have been discussing their kids’ college preferences, is more energetic than the others, disappearing and reappearing more frequently. But his mound hardly seems to grow. Another, nearer to the stockbrokers, is more deliberate, but his wall gets higher and higher.
If ever there was a time for what one German philosopher called Gelassenheit (or letting things be), this should be it. Yet unable to control my scientific impulse to master and control, I wait until Mr. Efficiency is down under, and with a small piece of paper shave off a tiny portion of his mound, what he has built in the last hour, which I estimate to weigh two ounces. I scurry back to the lifeguard chair and pick up my cell for some calculations. In my little area of 27 square feet, there are three crabs moving (roughly) 6 ounces of sand in a single hour. With the Outer Banks being 200 miles in length, and if we assume the same density of crab populations, then in a single month . . . the number begins to approach the national debt.
And just when you think nature is in harmony and these creatures content with their lot—each crab in his hole, all’s right with the world—you find you are in for some further surprises. After some time, one of the crabs abruptly ceases his labor and goes on the move. I am distressed, the old complaint of Carole King—doesn’t anybody stay in one place anymore?—coming to mind. But oh how they move, up on tipclaws, sliding with equal ease, without breaking stride, from right to left and then left to right. Whither? There are empty holes, tough times, no doubt—say I from my perch on the beach—of foreclosures and abandonments.
And then the drama. OMG, one goes down the same hole as another. I wait for what seems like an eternity. Suddenly, they are both above ground, staring menacingly at one another from opposite sides of the hole. A few seconds, and one—the intruder—goes sliding off, past the stockbrokers.
It’s getting windy now, folks are packing up ready to return to their other world. I call my wife, who has been spending time with friends a couple of towns up the beach, afford- ing me the time to pursue (supposedly) those long-talked-about literary and aesthetic refinements. The subject now is dinner. I think I hear her say something about Dirty Dick’s Crab House. “Ready to go?” she asks. “Funny thing,” I said, “I had my heart set on that little steakhouse around the corner.”
Thursday’s Supreme Court decision on Obamacare is a tragic setback to the nascent movement of “political constitutionalism.” For three years, beginning with the emergence of the Tea Party, millions of citizens joined together in trying to settle the broad meaning of the Constitution through political means, by public debate and by efforts to elect public officials committed to a certain understanding of the purposes of the nation’s governing document. Courts should not be the sole arbiters of certain constitutional questions, especially those dealing with the extent and limits of government power. The political process has its own role to play in constitutional decision-making.
The conflict over Obamacare has been the “test case” of political constitutionalism. Both political parties began to speak of the ends and purposes of constitutional government, and political leaders have increasingly discussed not only the policy implications of health care, but its constitutional status. Of course, the constitutionality of Obamacare has also been tested in the courts, where the legal question of the meaning of the commerce clause has been the central issue at stake. But the legal track, until yesterday, had not short-circuited the political track. The worst thing about yesterday’s decision was not its result, but that it was decided at all before the 2012 election. The ink was hardly dry on the decision before the President’s allies were claiming that the constitutionality of Obamacare had now been definitively determined. The Supreme Court had spoken and it was time to move on. To use legal language, public and political leaders should “cease and desist” further discussion of the constitutionality of the law and retreat to their proper role of discussing good or bad policy.
This position, if accepted, would amount to a gag order on constitutional discussion and a full surrender to the doctrine that the Court alone judges the meaning of the Constitution. There is more at stake in this decision than the question of Obamacare itself. Republicans should continue to oppose this law not only because it is bad law and bad economics, but also because it is unconstitutional. The Court plays its role and it is owed its proper measure of respect. But Americans need to be reminded that the people too, operating through their elected representatives, have a vital role to play in deciding great constitutional questions.
PS For a fuller discussion of “political constitutionalism” I invite any readers to go to the current (Spring) edition of the CRB, where I have a fairly long article that tries to explain the idea.
For pomoconites who are interested in the Constitution, and who have some time, I invite you to read (and comment on) an article I wrote for the CRB, which just appeared. It can be found at (and if I knew how to link it I would):