Sunday, August 12, 2012

Mitt Hits The Reset Button

After a whole one day of analysis regarding Mitt Romney's selection of Paul Ryan as his Vice Presidential running mate, opinion has toggled between greatest thing since sliced bread to foolish gamble that unnecessarily handed the Democrats an easy tool (the "Ryan Budget") with which to beat Romney, Ryan and any Republican running for Congress about the head for its harsh cuts to the social safety net. So, while the mainstream media basks in an almost posti-coital glow over what passes for one of the most important events in any Presidential race, consider the following:

Give it a week, ok, make it a month. The bloom of "Romney-Ryan" will be short-lived and I say that not because I have any particular animus toward the Republicans (though I do), but rather, because the bounce, bump or whatever you'd like to call it from any VP pick is temporary. Today, the ticket is a shiny new object for the media to obsess over.  Tomorrow, something shinier and newer will come along. Don't be surprised if Romney sees an uptick in his numbers, but like the over the top media coverage, it will be temporary.  Already, Ryan's votes for TARP, Medicare D and the Bush tax cuts are undercutting his image as a fiscal hawk and his myriad public appearances, speeches and statements will now be subject to meaningful scrutiny (not to mention advertising by Obama and the Democrats). 

Speaking of Ryan's voting record, although he's only 42, Ryan has been in Congress for 15 years and has voted for thousands of bills, not just the high profile stuff like TARP or Medicare D, but smaller stuff that affects everyone from military veterans to college students. Undoubtedly, there are a few in there that he will now wish he had not cast. In fact, one of Romney's most successful ploys during the primaries was to cherry pick a few of Rick Santorum's votes while in Congress to undercut his conservative credentials. Expect much the same from the Democrats with Ryan. Talk to me a month from now, after both conventions and after the media (and the public) learn more about who Paul Ryan is before drawing any conclusions about whether he changed the direction of the race. 

A True Etch A Sketch Moment. While Eric Fehrnstrom uttered a now-memorable gaffe about Governor Romney shaking the Etch A Sketch once the general election started, it turned out he was half right. As the more insightful pundits have observed, by picking Ryan, Romney has conceded that the entire foundation upon which he was running - Obama economy bad, me fix it - was not being accepted by the American people.  This is significant because what the GOP is attempting to do is reframe this campaign less than 90 days before Election Day. Until yesterday, Romney wanted voters' first concern to be jobs and the economy, but by picking Ryan, he's shifted his message to shakier terrain while admitting, albeit tacitly, that his "message" was not working. For all the hand wringing we do about "low information" voters, what is now clear is that no matter how many millions the GOP and its affiliated Super PACs spent, the American people do not "blame" President Obama for the mediocre economy and more so, the Obama team has effectively pigeon holed Romney as part of the "1%" who put profit over people. That Romney has refused to release his tax returns handed Democrats a convenient amplifier for their case. In short, by picking Ryan, Romney admitted the entire raison d'ĂȘtre for his campaign was null and void, a HUGE concession so close to Election Day.

Further, the Ryan pick spoke to the fact that Romney was losing the support of thought leaders on the right.  In the days before the Ryan selection, Romney was pilloried on conservative talk radio and FOX News over the amateurishness of his campaign, polls were showing Obama's national lead moving firmly past the margin of error and the media was coalescing around a narrative that Romney had "lost" the summer.  No matter what the Romney camp spins, the reality is that there was a temporal connection between right wing hand wringing about his campaign (and their encouragement for him to pick Ryan) and his selection of Ryan. Consider that Ryan was announced more than two weeks before the Republican National Convention, whereas both Obama and McCain made their announcements within days of their conventions (two and four days, respectively.) Just another sign that Romney made a cold calculation that he needed to "change the narrative" in the campaign. 

A Debate Republicans Cannot Win. So now, instead of trying to pin the economy on Obama, Romney has now outsourced fiscal policy to his VP pick, whose budget was so radical in its cuts to Medicaid, fundamental change of Medicare to a vouchered, private insurance company run health plan and partial privatization of Social Security, that a whopping nine Congresspeople co-sponsored it in 2010.  Now? It's mainstream GOP orthodoxy. The problem is, and the dirty little secret of "inside the Beltway" politics, is that the American people LOVE entitlement programs- they love their Social Security (just ask George W. Bush how well privatizing the program polls), Medicare (talk to Kathy Hochul, who was the first Democrat to win New York's 26th Congressional district in 40 years by campaigning against Ryan's budget) and are not crazy about heartlessly cutting more than $750 billion from health coverage for the poor and infirm (Medicaid) when the rich are paying a lower percentage of their income in taxes in decades (not to mention that 14% rate Romney coughed up in 2010). 

But more than our love of the social safety net (and for good reason, it has reduced poverty among the elderly to a level lower than the general population), is our belief in fairness.  And while an off year election like 2010 can convince Republicans that the general electorate wants cuts to these programs and is willing to make "sacrifices" in the name of fiscal sanity, the same error was made by Republicans after the 1994 election and Bill Clinton coasted to re-election.  But more than a policy overreach, Republicans fundamentally misread the mood of the public- for example, there is HUGE public support for higher taxes on the rich, yet Republicans refuse to entertain this idea and as long as they do, making cuts to programs that aid the poor and middle class will not wash and now Romney OWNS these ideas lock, stock and barrel. There is a reason John Boehner and the leadership of the GOP ran AWAY from Ryan in 2010- even in a low turnout year, they knew too much focus on cutting or fundamentally altering entitlement programs would be unpopular.  But now? Every Republican in the House running for re-election has endorsed (by vote) Ryan's priorities and he is now on the national ticket. 

Until now, I was willing to go along with the idea that this race was shaping up much like the 2004 election, with an incumbent the other side desperately wanted to get rid of deftly parrying their thrusts by making the other guy unpalatable. Now, I'm thinking the Ryan pick smells more like 1996. Romney is as wooden as Bob Dole, who, like Romney, was mired in the polls and had little to offer in terms of vision until he threw a "hail mary" and selected supply side hero Jack Kemp, believing that the country was prepared to double down on precisely the type of supply side economics that blew apart our budget in the 1980s (and came back for an encore in the 2000s!).  When the initial euphoria in right wing circles died down and the sane center understood the differences between the visions of President Clinton and Senator Dole, the race was a joke. I suspect a similar thing will happen in 2012 and 90 days from now, we will look back at this weekend as the time when Romney made a desperate reach that back fired, in a feeble attempt to (forgive me) change the game. 

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