Friday, September 28, 2012

Three Days In October

Barring an unforeseen “black swan” event, by 8:30 A.M. on Friday, October 5th, we should know who is going to be elected President in November. I know, polls right now show the President winning an almost identical victory as he did four years ago, the long knives are already out for the hapless Romney campaign and even journalists whose livelihood depends, in part, in the illusion of a competitive race (after all, what would they fill the cable airwaves with otherwise? Prison documentaries?), are admitting that the President is well ahead, but if you were to conduct a thought experiment on how the GOP could get back in the race for President, what would it look like?

Simple. Start with Wednesday, October 3rd in Denver, Colorado. The first Presidential debate is the last opportunity for the vaunted “reset” that Romney’s team has claimed would happen at various points during the race
[1]. The topic is domestic policy and the reporting indicates that Mitt has studied for this harder than the prospectus on any LBO he and his cronies at Bain ever negotiated. While it is impossible to know which Romney will show up in Denver, the one that toggles wildly to the extreme right or the one who realizes that secretly recorded video of him demeaning 47 percent of our country is not a smart political strategy, we do know the former Governor is not afraid to get his hands dirty in verbal combat. If you go back to the primary debates, he pummeled his opponents with falsehood and inaccuracy uttered through that polished veneer of businessman sobriety that was happily regurgitated, largely context-free, by the chattering class. Admittedly, the stakes are a bit higher now, and it is possible that reporters will call misstatements for what they are – lies – but, as a general matter, reporters expect candidates to stick up for themselves and call that stuff out. Today, journalists are far more comfortable in the role of analyst than referee.

On the other hand, a debate “win” by the President will reinforce the narrative that is quickly forming that this race is all over but the shouting.  That is why the following day, Thursday, October 4th, is so critical.  The debate ends at 10:30 P.M. and while there will be some wrap up on cable and network TV and the Internet will be ablaze on both sides of the partisan divide, it is that following morning when conventional wisdom will begin to set in. Journalists will have the overnight to digest the debate, newspaper writers and columnists will have their work read by many Americans who saw all, some or none of the contest and people like me will try to sway, to the extent our voices can, public opinion.

Thursday will be an all-day buffet of dissecting what happened the night before and in some ways, will be even more important than the debate itself. A perceived Romney “win” may not be seen in anything but “flash” polling, but to the extent it stymies talk of an inevitable loss, it will be quite helpful, allowing him to slingshot into the weekend, the following two debates (VP debate on 10/11 and second POTUS debate on 10/16) and perhaps, raise Republican hopes for a comeback. A “draw” may also be helpful if only because there is some inchoate benefit to being seen as on par with the President of the United States. An Obama “win” will have the fat lady humming some bars before she sings.

Friday is the closing part of this three-act play. At 8:30 A.M. the Department of Labor will release the monthly jobs report and unemployment rate. Recent data have been equivocal – net job growth is occurring but the unemployment rate has not moved much. The employment picture has been muddled enough that it offers ammunition to both sides but has not had a significant impact on either the news cycle or the overall state of the race. Based on recent months’ data, there are three possible scenarios: (1) tepid (50K-100K) net job growth that moves the unemployment needle a tenth of a percent or two in either direction but is a net neutral in the campaign narrative; (2) stronger (100K-200K) net job growth that will be favorable to Obama, regardless of what the underlying unemployment number is; or (3) weak/no (-50K-+50K) job growth that Romney will use to show the economy is slowing.

If job growth is tepid, it will slightly blunt whatever momentum Obama gains from the debate or give a little extra wind to a Romney triumph. Strong job growth combined with an Obama debate win would be the last nail in Romney’s campaign coffin or an immediate narrative change if the Governor somehow comes out on top in Denver. Poor or negative job growth is the best outcome Romney could hope for[2] as it would either add additional fuel to a good debate performance or quickly snuff out an Obama victory.

In other words, this shit matters. The fallout in the days afterward will be telling. GOP ad dollars moving out of states they acknowledge as unwinnable or toward Congressional candidates in hopes of protecting their House majority would have a massive deflating impact on the Romney camp. On the other hand, a shot in the arm debate performance and weak job numbers may not only rally the base but also move some swing state polls closer to parity, re-setting the race as a 4 week sprint to the finish. But know this, these three days in October will be Romney’s last chance to meaningfully change the storyline that is forming of his inevitable defeat. He may have two more bites at the debate apple, but by then, early voting will be underway, and, if he does poorly in the first debate, firm opinions will be cemented in place.  Romney cannot rely on the jobs report coming out the Friday before the election to change things because whatever the state of the economic recovery, one thing that will not happen is a monthly loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs, which might be the only hope Romney would have at that point of pulling off a huge upset. In short, at 8:30 next Friday morning, we’ll know if Democrats can book their Inaugural reservations or whether the Republicans can make a fight out of what right now looks like another embarrassing loss.  

[1]   If you’re scoring at home, the first reset was supposed to happen when he announced his running mate (that fizzled); then, it was going to be the Republican National Convention (“talk to the empty chair”). Now, we’re told it is the Presidential debates.
[2]   Nothing like pinning your hopes on the suffering of “you people” to neatly close the loop on your campaign strategy!

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Debating the Debates

A week and a day from now, President Obama and Governor Romney will meet in Denver for the first of their three debates. The constant stream of polls showing the President with solid leads nationally and in “swing states” and what seem to be daily errors by the Romney camp has elevated the importance of the October 3rd debate into an almost “do or die” scenario for the Republican nominee. To me, this raises two questions – first, whether Romney can “win” the debate and second, whether it matters (i.e., even if he “wins” the debate, is it likely to change the outcome of the race).

Winning and losing debates is, to a degree, a parlor game driven by political spin and journalistic self-selection.  If you watch D.A. Pennebaker’s seminal documentary on the 1992 Presidential campaign, The War Room, you will see a snippet of George Stephanopolous sprinting through the bowels of a debate location yelling out the “talking points” he wanted Clinton surrogates uttering as a debate ended. Needless to say, things have gotten a bit more sophisticated since then, with campaigns sending out press releases, opposition research and comments in real time, as the debate is happening, followed by post-debate wrap-up in the it-would-be-funny-if-it-was-not-a-perfectly-described “spin room.” Within a few hours, and reinforced a day or two later, the conventional wisdom of victor and vanquished, determined in part by political talking heads and then affirmed by whatever polling needle moves (or does not), is complete.

In the GOP primary, debates had little long-term effect on the race. While Romney was sometimes unsteady ($10,000 bet anyone?), because his opponents were both underfunded and lacked the deep organizational infrastructure necessary to be competitive, any time Romney did slip and look vulnerable proved fleeting because his challengers could never capitalize on his errors (they lacked money) and he was able to bury bad news in a blizzard of negative advertising against his foes. He was also helped by an overall media narrative that framed him as somewhere between the “front runner” and “inevitable” nominee and the mediocrity of the field ended up confirming this view.

Of course, the general election cost of Romney’s primary election victory is seen in the well-to-the-right positions he took on issues like birth control and contraception (he came out in support of a “personhood” amendment, against requiring employers to provide birth control to women as part of their health coverage and for defunding Planned Parenthood), immigration (announced he would veto the DREAM Act and supported something called “self-deportation” which, as Rachel Maddow noted, traces its origins to a piece of 1994 satire against then-California Governor Pete Wilson and Proposition 187) and budget matters (he raised his hand when a moderator asked him if he would reject a 10:1 cuts/tax increase budget deal). All of those positions may have cheered the audiences that packed the GOP debate halls, but they have shown to be deeply unpopular with the broader electorate. Moreover, Romney’s gaffe-prone general election campaign has provided additional fodder for debate moderator Jim Lehrer. On everything from his “47 percent” comments to the flip-flop-flip shift on whether he would retain certain parts of Obamacare, one hopes Mr. Lehrer will pounce on the Governor’s attempts at obfuscation on the debate stage.

As for the debate itself, the format does not play to Romney’s strength.  Both the 1st and 3rd debates have the same structure – 90 minutes split into 15 minute blocks, 2 minutes for candidate answers and then discussion at the moderator’s discretion. The 1st debate is exclusively on domestic policy, the 3rd is exclusively on foreign policy. While the topics will be known to the candidates ahead of time, Romney is outside his comfort zone when the formalism of question and answer breaks down. He is good when delivering a canned answer, but when sparring with an opponent, he gets flustered, rude and sometimes, non-sensical. In the primary debates, he cut off Rick Perry several times, on another occasion put his hand on Perry’s shoulder and was dressed down by Newt Gingrich as a failed candidate for office who made a career outside politics only because he lost to Ted Kennedy in 1994. Further, Romney’s sparring with the likes of Ron Paul and Herman Cain is akin to taking batting practice against Double A pitching and then stepping into the batter’s box against a Major League All-Star. Obama is not a fringe primary candidate like Michelle Bachmann or a shameless narcissist like Gingrich; he is a well-briefed, articulate and go-for-the-jugular guy who happens to have the gravitas of the Presidency on his side.

Romney’s main hope may rest on the President’s rustiness in the debate format.  Unlike Romney, who participated in more than 20 debates earlier this year, the President has not shared a stage with an opponent in 4 years. That might matter, and I would expect Romney to come out aggressively to try and see if he can throw off the President’s rhythm or say something inflammatory to bait the President into responding. The only problem is that Obama has been tested under fire, whether by aggressive questioning at press conferences, elected officials (or faux members of the press corps!) interrupting his statements (You lie!) and the term-long attempt by “right-wing nut jobs” to cast him as something between a socialist and Stalin. If you watch Obama’s surgical take down of Donald Trump at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner or the stiletto he twisted into Republican dogma at the 2012 Democratic National Convention, you will see that he parries thrusts with wit, a touch of humor and a lack of rancor, three things Romney has not shown are in his tool box when speaking extemporaneously. Even as a relative green horn in 2008, Obama handily “beat” McCain by presenting himself as a calm, level headed politician who was ready to take on the mantle of leadership, an impressive feat considering McCain was more than 20 years Obama’s senior and had decades of experience on him.

In short, Romney’s far more likely to say something that will fit into a nice little sound bite of awkwardness and because he’s behind in the polls, needs to be aggressive, something that has not served him well in the past and tends to turn off the coveted “independent” voters who are more interested in cooperation and compromise.  Obama, on the other hand, tends to remain cool under pressure, will benefit from the longer response time provided in the debate format and is better on his feet when the question and answer devolves into dialogue between the two candidates. But even if Romney manages to “win” next Wednesday, does it really matter?

The short answer is, “probably not.” Since 1960, when Presidential debates became a part of the election cycle, only twice has the candidate trailing before the debates ended up being the winner of the general election – in 1960 and 1980[1]. In 1960, Kennedy eked out a razor-thin victory against then-Vice President Nixon at a time when Nixon was trying to carry his party to a third straight victory (something, FDR/Truman notwithstanding, rarely happens in modern politics) while receiving almost no support from his boss, President Eisenhower, who famously told reporters he would need a week to come up with something meaningful Nixon had achieved in his eight years at Ike’s side. In 1980, Reagan’s deficit against Carter was eight points going into their lone debate, but as Dave Weigel points out in Slate, some of the mythology of that polling has been debunked[2]. Even so, the Carter economy was in far worse shape than Obama’s, and Carter also had the Iranian hostage situation hanging over his head.

Romney better hope Denver goes well for him because the second debate is a “town hall” where his ability to connect with “average” voters is, well, limited to say the least. The final debate is exclusively on foreign policy, a subject about which Romney is not only out of his depth but has been a particularly nettlesome area, between his gaffe-laden trip to Europe and Israel to his “shoot first, aim later” response to the murder of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens. Meanwhile, Romney has done little to debunk the view that he is an out of touch plutocrat, while helpfully providing much to confirm that sentiment. Also, early voting will have started before the first debate, thus reducing the number of eligible voters any debate “victory” is likely to sway. But most importantly, Romney’s almost compulsive prevarication on every important policy issue means that whatever he says will contradict something he said in the past, which will only serve to reinforce the view that he will say anything to get elected while also increasing the chances that whatever flip-flop du jour he serves up will be honed in on by both the media and the Obama team. In other words, he’s screwed.

[1]   Yes, I am aware that some polls showed Bush trailing Gore before their debates in 2000, but you will never convince me Bush won the election both because he lost the popular vote and the myriad shenanigans in Florida (the least of which was Pat Buchanan’s 35,000+ vote total in elderly, Jewish rich Palm Beach County), without even getting into the recount.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Book Review: The Gospel According To The Fix

Washington Post blogger Chris Cillizza (a/k/a "The Fix") has just published one of the least illuminating books on politics this news junkie has ever read.  In The Gospel According To The Fix, Cillizza lightly fills 212 pages with insipid prose that reads like a frat boy's thesis scratched out after an all-night bender. The fun starts on the front cover, where the reader is presented with the image of what appears to be a politician (though it's Cillizza's "gospel" so perhaps it is him? Draw your own conclusion) with horns and a tail. Adorable! We are told the book will present "an insider's guide to a less than holy world of politics," but I was not aware there was any other politics in our country.  The more proper definite article would have been "the," but usage selections aside, Cillizza utterly fails to pull back the curtain on this purported den of thieves, instead opting for encomiums to the chicken tenders at some random hole in the wall in New Hampshire that a lot of politicos eat at before the Granite State primary, an "Endorsement Hierarchy" (a self-admitted rip-off of Bill Simmons' "Levels of Losing") and lowest common denominator chapters on things like "The Ten Issues You Won't Hear About This Fall" (the "Top Ten" device is used not once but twice). 

One assumes this type of information was included to boost Cillizza's "insider" status, but his obvious passion for politics does not translate into substance sufficient to fill a book.  Instead, he leans on filler, devoting almost 10% of his book to listing good political blogs (10 pages) and recommending good fictional and non-fictional works about politics (7 pages). Cillizza's habit of referring to himself as "The Fix" may be loose and informal in the context of a blog, but in a book, it comes off as sophomoric; his prose is sprinkled with unfunny parentheticals in an effort to sound hip and contemporary, but comes off as amateurish. To take two examples: Cillizza writes about waiting to see who the Des Moines Register was going to endorse in the 2008 Iowa Caucus: "immediately upon my arrival, [I] sequestered myself in the bedroom, hitting refresh over and over again on the [Des Moines] Register home page, waiting for their pick to pop up. (It's kind of like trying to get concert tickets except way less cool.)" (Parentheses in original). Or this bon mot about surviving a sex scandal: "How do you survive? Do what surfers do: wait. Don't panic. The wave and its aftermath will pass. The path to the surface will present itself. (Everything I needed to learn about politics, I learned from watching Point Break.)" <Crickets>

Other parts of the book read like a random assortment of slightly punched up Wikipedia pages. Late in his modest tome, "The Fix" unveils his "Political Hall of Fame," providing page length bios of Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and others that would not be out of place in a 10th grade history book. His chapter on effective campaign ads is as flimsy as it is brief, offering some mild snark but little else and in another feat of recycling bits, an "all star" team of up and coming politicos to watch for in 2016 provides tissue-thin background on names like Rubio, O'Malley and Thune. 

And even in those chapters, few that they are, where Cillizza attempts to import some meaningful analysis, the effort is either weak or wanting.  For example, a section on Jennifer Crider, a top aide to former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, had the potential to provide some behind the scenes information about how politics is "done" at the highest levels of government. After all, Crider had been at Pelosi's side during the two busiest years in Congress since LBJ's Great Society. Instead, Cillizza offers the vaguest of biographical sketches sprinkled with the most milquetoast of quotes from Crider herself ("She [Pelosi] really taught me the value at the beginning of a debate of having an idea of where you want to end."). You don't say. 

Similarly, in writing about "October Surprises," Cillizza omits the leaking of Bill Clinton's passport file from when he was a student at Oxford, which occurred, wait for it … in OCTOBER 1992. In the very same chapter, Cillizza undermines his own claim that a President's party suffers losses in the sixth year of his Presidency when mentioning Democratic Congressional gains in 1998 (the 6th year of Clinton's presidency). Apparently, even The Gospel has exceptions or someone did not take the time to fact check Cillizza before the book went to print. As icing on the cake, Cillizza posits some potential "October Surprises" for 2012 and, regrettably, dredges up the foul stain of "birtherism" by putting the odds of the President's birth certificate being deemed a fake at 10 million to 1. Why even go there?  

And the one time Cillizza offers a policy prescription - allowing unlimited campaign donations with immediate disclosure of those over $10,000 - he manages to contradict that idea within the span of a few pages. Cillizza argues that requiring immediate disclosure of large campaign donations might act as a disincentive to wealthy donors who may not want their names publicized. Makes sense, until a few pages later, when Cillizza talks about how Sheldon Adelson single-handedly kept Newt Gingrich's campaign alive by pumping more than $10 million into Gingrich's Super PAC. So, if you're scoring at home, disclosure is disinfectant, except when it comes to super wealthy casino magnets, who obviously could not give a shit that his millions of dollars in donations were known to the American public.

Ultimately, serious students of politics will find little in the way of new information in The Gospel and casual followers can save their money and browse the Internet (or wait a month or two, I'm guessing used copies of the book will be selling on Amazon for less than a dollar). Instead, take the one bit of good information in The Gospel and fish out a copy of Richard Ben Cramer's What It Takes for a graduate-level exegesis on Presidential politics. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Mitt Romney Is Bad At Running For President

The warm-up act to the most important speech of your campaign was an 82 year old actor who talked to an empty chair, your press shop leaked a negative press release on 9/11 (but embargoed it until 12:01 on 9/12, only to unembargo it so it went out on 9/11), your craven attempt at politicizing the murder of a U.S. Ambassador was roundly panned, even by members of your own party, and a leaked video of a speech you gave at a fundraiser shows you think nearly half of the people you are running to serve are freeloading layabouts who suckle at the government teat and think they are entitled to basic services like health care.  You are Mitt Romney and you are bad at running for President.
While the last two weeks have provided the chattering class with day after day of content to fill column space, cable TV segments, tweets and blogs, on a deeper level, all of the sturm und drag that Governor Romney has created simply exposed what anyone paying attention to politics realized a long time ago – Romney is simply not ready for prime time and the longer he is in the public eye, the more unlikeable and out of touch he is proven to be. I know, this seems ridiculous to say about someone who is only 1 of 2 people with a chance to be elected President of the United States seven weeks from now, but the same could have been said for George McGovern, Bob Dole or Barry Goldwater. In reality, Romney’s only chance of seeing the inside of the Oval Office will be a post-defeat invitation from the newly re-elected President to come and visit.
So what is it that makes Governor Romney such a clumsy campaigner who seems pre-programmed to validate every stereotype used of him as a soulless corporate raider andΓΌber wealthy plutocrat with little care for “you people?” Facts are always a good place to start and the most glaring one for me is the Governor’s record as a candidate for public office. He was ground into powder in 1994, arguably the best year to run as a Republican in the entire 20th century, by a man who epitomized liberalism in a year when that word was radioactive. His Senate race against Ted Kennedy was also Romney’s best chance to frame who he was and yet, he failed. Miserably.  
Eight years later, and with the enormous gust of wind that the 2002 Olympics provided to his credibility, he did defeat a weak Democrat to become Governor of Massachusetts, but even that victory was pyrrhic (about which, in a moment) and he did not run for re-election in 2006 (his approval rating as Governor bottomed out in the mid-30s). By 2008, he was a front-runner for the GOP nomination for President, only to be embarrassed by a candidate with a sliver of his fundraising (Mike Huckabee) and another who had been written off months earlier as an also-ran (John McCain). This year, against a field of challengers that included a pizza executive with no prior elective office experience and a former Senator who lost his last race by 18 points, Romney came within a state or two of losing the nomination to what most considered the weakest Republican field of their lifetimes. He was prone to making odd statements on the campaign trail like "corporations are people,” and weird one-offs in debates (offering to bet Governor Rick Perry $10,000). The GOP base searched in vain for an alternative to him (at one point, every single one of the other challengers to him led in national polling) and, had even one of them run what passed for a competent campaign, likely would have prevailed. In the end, the field’s incompetence weighed just as heavily in helping Romney secure the nomination as his own efforts.
The initial months of the general election did nothing to suggest Romney had learned much from these prior experiences.  His transition from primary candidate to general election candidate was flaccid, the roll out of his running mate was sloppy and error prone and his “pretend POTUS” trip abroad was enshrined thusly by the British tabloids: “Mitt the Twit.” Owing to Romney’s spotty record as a candidate, it should be unsurprising that he stumbled out of the gate, but these errors have morphed into a full fledged implosion since the completion of each party’s nominating convention.
The fact that Romney is now in such trouble is unsurprising. The three-legged stool that any successful politician relies on is his personal biography, record as an elected official and, if applicable, record outside of government. On all three fronts, Romney’s inability to connect those dots into a compelling narrative is his greatest shortcoming, but the failure is entirely his own.  As a candidate, Romney rarely if ever speaks about his Mormon faith and what personal shading was offered at the Republican Convention had far more to do with his father (a touching story about giving his wife a rose each day of their marriage) than anything about the Governor.
As for policy ideas, the Internet is ugly with video evidence of Romney’s prevarications. He has portrayed himself as everything from a “moderate” to “severely conservative,” a supporter of a woman’s right to choose to someone who supports a “personhood amendment,” for stimulus spending to speed economic recovery, but now against it, in favor of letting “Detroit Go Bankrupt” but now taking credit for the auto industry’s revival and on and on. Hours could be spent trolling YouTube watching Mitt’s flip flops over the years, and that his campaign didn’t account for this speaks either to its naivete or arrogance.  Either way, those flip flops are haunting him because they reinforce the notion that Romney will say anything to get elected President.
In government, his one achievement was a health care law that he never talks about for fear of pissing off his conservative base, and at the vaguest whiff of supporting any elements of the federal model, the blowback from the right wing of his party has been so massive he immediately backtracked. Romney’s slavish devotion to capturing the affection of the right wing was evident throughout the primary season, but the extreme stances he took on issues like immigration and abortion are now biting him in the ass. Unlike the amateur hour level talent Romney ran against during the primaries, Obama’s team has skillfully and relentlessly skewered Romney not only as a venal corporate raider, but as someone who lacks a moral compass or interest in community, an enemy to women who value their reproductive rights and filled in the blanks in Romney’s vacuous policies to cement the public’s view that Romney will protect the rich at the cost of everyone else.
As for Romney’s private sector experience, he and his team should have seen the avalanche of opposition research done on Bain Capital coming a mile away, but Romney’s own fecklessness has been his undoing. His lawyerly hair-splitting on when he left Bain only added fuel to the fire when tax and other official filings contradicted him (he was left to distinguish between when he left “day-to-day control of Bain to when he “officially” retired) and the stories of those fired or laid off from companies Bain acquired while he was in charge harken back to Kennedy’s dissection of him in 1994. And because Romney refuses to release his income tax returns for any year before 2010, what little has been revealed about his wealth has only served to confirm his image as “Thurston Howell Romney” – a guy who somehow squeezed more than $100 million into his IRA and pays less than 14% in taxes even though he earns close to $20 million a year from his investments.
The fundraising video that was released by Mother Jones is just another (the final?) nail in his electoral coffin. On that tape, Romney writes off nearly half of our country as government dependents uninterested in doing for themselves. Naturally, fact checking quickly sussed out that many people who pay no income taxes are elderly, active duty military personnel and the working poor, and, on the other hand that many wealthy people use tax loopholes to pay low marginal rates, but the facts are less important than the affirmation this video (shot in the home of a hedge fund manager) provides that Romney cares little for all Americans, just those who can donate large sums of money to his campaign.
At the end of the day, Romney has shown himself to be ill-equipped for the rigors of Presidential politics.  His entire biography speaks to a man who has never had to explain himself to others. He grew up the scion of an auto industry CEO, was educated at elite private schools and university, morphed into a business executive unaccustomed to having his word questioned, and engaged in a Nixonian level of secrecy as Massachusetts’ chief executive that suggests he does not like leaving a paper trail (his underlings purchased their government hard drives on their way out the door, depriving the public of critical information about his time in office).  His refusal to share information about his personal finances, dismissiveness toward the media that cover him and people without money to bankroll him and opacity about his policy prescriptions speaks to an arrogant man’s belief that the only entitlement he supports is his own ascension to the Presidency.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Mitt's McCain Moment

Mitt Romney's widely panned response to the killing of our Ambassador to Libya and three others in Benghazi has been compared to John McCain's reaction to the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers almost four years ago to the day and during the height of our last Presidential campaign. Back then, McCain's response was called erratic, as he toggled between "the fundamentals of our economy are strong" to suspending his campaign and musing about whether he would show up to the first Presidential debate. He called for a summit at the White House with leaders of both parties and then, by all accounts, remained largely quiet as then-Senator Obama dominated the meeting.  The end result was damning. The supposedly inexperienced 47 year old Obama looked calm, responsible and reassuring. McCain, 72, who had served in Congress since 1983, came off as unsteady, uncertain and not in command of the facts.  

Pundits often look to the Lehman crisis as the turning point in 2008 that led to Obama's victory; however, they tend to focus on the bankruptcy and not McCain's response as the reason the electorate shifted.  This is a mistake. The Lehman experience was a "3 A.M. phone call" that allowed voters to gauge each party's candidate in real time during an actual crisis. What is happening in Libya and Egypt right now is that same phone call, and it is yielding the same result for the GOP's standard bearer. The big difference this year is that the American people have been led for the past four years by Obama, have seen him exercise grace under pressure, whether it was clipping four Somali pirates just weeks into his Presidency, navigating the treacherous waters of economic recovery, or ordering the killing of Osama Bin Laden. The President is cool under fire, keeps his wits about him and doesn't go off half-cocked. 

Given the opportunity to audition for the role of Commander-in-Chief, Mitt Romney appears not to have even dusted off Foreign Policy For Dummies (h/t @donjuanw). His first attempt, a cream puff tour of major U.S. allies this summer was a complete disaster (see my earlier entry, "Mitt's Not So Excellent Adventure: but not dangerous to American interests. Sure, he said some intemperate things to the Olympic hosts in England and suggested Israelis were in some way superior to Palestinians and his traveling press aide told a reporter to "kiss his ass," but these tempests in tea pots were, for better or worse, quickly forgotten in the sturm und drag of the Presidential campaign. 

Not so his reaction to the murder of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three others during an attack on our consulate in Benghazi.  First, the Romney campaign issued a scathing press release on 9/11 but "embargoed" it until 12:01 A.M. so as not to appear to be politicizing the commemoration of one of the darkest days in our nation's history. If that was not craven enough, they then lifted the embargo so the release actually went out on 9/11 but suffered the flaw of being wholly inaccurate, missing the timing of a press release issued by our Embassy in Egypt so as to make it appear that it had been issued after, not before, anything had occurred in Libya (that the press release was also done to try and cool tempers was lost entirely). 

By the following morning, when more facts, including the death of Ambassador Stevens, were available, the Romney team not only failed to correct its error, it sent its candidate out before the President of the United States, to "double down" on his falsehood, smirk his way through non-answers to reporters questions and absorb the ridicule and approbation of foreign policy experts from both parties at his ill-timed gestures and saber rattling response. All of this action  underscored the cheap politicization of what is now a legitimate foreign policy crisis. Romney's conduct was quickly processed through the lens of prior campaigns, where, for example, candidates from Reagan to Obama, when faced with similar incidents during their runs in 1980 and 2008, issued restrained, "there is only one President at a time" type comments that showed solidarity and support for our then commanders-in-chief.  

By the end of the day, Romney had been left out on a limb by his own party, notably the GOP leaders of the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, "establishment" Republicans like Nicholas Burns and the mainstream media.  While he did garner some favorable press from the right wing rabble rousers who had been crushing his campaign just days before this incident occurred, the image Romney portrayed to the American people was bald faced political opportunism mixed with a "shoot first, aim later" strategy of making inflammatory statements without appreciating their consequences and an amateur's attempt at showing forcefulness when the end result was just the opposite. Instead of acting in a responsible and restrained manner that might have inspired confidence in a man with no foreign policy experience, the Romney folks tore a page out of McCain's 2008 playbook and got the same result - widespread ridicule and an electorate's fear that their man does not have the temperament to be President. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Chasing Monsters

“For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?” Mark 8:36 (King James Bible – Cambridge Ed.)
After a signature montage featuring the 60s pop hit “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” itself a wink to the mythical “blue” methamphetamine that Walter White has produced for the past year and a half (give or take), his estranged wife Skylar asks Walt to take a drive. Their destination? A non-descript facility where Skylar has hidden Walt’s ill gotten drug gains. When she unlocks the rolling door and enters the storage unit, she reveals a pile of money so dense and heavy its value cannot be calculated. These are the wages her husband has earned, these are the wages that a pile of bodies from toddlers to senior citizens has left in its wake, these are the wages a man who never received the acknowledgement for being the brilliant chemist he is, felt it necessary to earn to soothe his wounded pride.
At its core, Breaking Bad is a morality tale. A good and decent man is brought low by his desire to care for his family.  At many points along the way, Walter White could have walked away from his decision to be a manufacturer of a highly profitable form of methamphetamine and nowhere was that option made more available to him than in the immediate aftermath of last season’s finale, when his boss (and nemesis), Gustavo Fring was snuffed out.  His enemy vanquished, and his life still his own, Walt could have been grateful for surviving many near misses on his life; instead, Gus’s murder merely served to feed Walt’s desire to assume his mantle.
As a piece of meta storytelling, Season “5A” leaves behind the frenetic pace of its immediate predecessor, where chaos and mayhem were always present and all the characters were on a knife’s edge, for a story about fallout - Skylar’s repulsion over Ted’s paralysis, Jesse’s ambivalence about his criminal lifestyle, Mike’s yearning to expel a deep sigh, pack up his bag and disappear, and Walt’s unabashed desire to gain the recognition that has always eluded him. But the profit Walt accumulates comes at the price of his family, the metastisizing cancer that his presence represents provides the starkest and most deeply painful scenes of the season, culminating in a luminous, almost hallucinatory cry for help when Skylar walks into the backyard pool fully clothed while Walt recounts her support of him in cancer treatment to Marie and Hank.  When she cannot rid the house of Walt, she removes the children from it, sacrificing her own well being to protect the children Walt claims to value above all else. Absent his children, Walt’s lone source of pride is his singular talent as a drug producer, and that, he attacks with great zeal.
Having not only “won” by killing Gus, but making a decision to continue producing meth, the most immediate fallout from Gus’s killing is two-fold, the evidence seized at Gus’s restaurant and how to continue producing meth now that Walt’s state of the art lab has been destroyed. The laptop computer Gus managed his criminal enterprise from contains all sorts of information that could be devastating to Walt, Jesse, Mike and anyone else associated with the now-deceased Pollo Hermano. In a fit of MacGyver-esque ingenuity, the crew is able to magnetize the computer, erasing its contents; however, a photo of Gus and his former partner Max shatters and reveals an off shore bank account, allowing law enforcement to quickly pick up nine of Fring’s men, any of whom could blow up the entire criminal enterprise.
To keep the peace (not to mention closed jail house mouths), Walt and Jesse come up with a clever way to produce their meth under the guise of a pest control company that chemical bombs people’s homes. And while yet another MacGyver caper results in a cool 1,000 gallons of needed methylamine, a civilian, a young boy on a bike, is shot during the robbery, souring Jesse on the criminal lifestyle and sending a clear message to Mike that it is time to cut bait. He negotiates a deal with another regional distributor to sell his and Jesse’s shares of methylamine, but Walt deftly offers a better deal – production of his ‘blue’ in exchange for a more generous cut of the proceeds of the manufactured product.  Mike becomes compromised when the lawyer he has retained to pay off Gus’s imprisoned lackeys (and feather the nest for his granddaughter) is arrested, and Walt kills Mike, along with all of Fring’s henchmen, in a perverted homage to The Godfather, as Neo-Nazis snuff out all the prisoners in merciless fashion to the precision timing of a Tag Heuer chronograph.  The operatic ending to Fring’s gang leaves Hank bitter and angry. In a ruminative exchange with Walt, he reminisces about a summer job clearing timber and how he did not value it then, but after “chasing monsters” for so long, he does now.
Walt lends a sympathetic ear, but cannot help but twist the knife, “I liked camping” he observes, before the camera quickly cuts to the aforementioned montage. With Gus, Mike and all remaining links to the Fring criminal enterprise now severed, Walt puts his foot on the gas and produces, in three months, that mountain of money, but after he’s squeezed the last drop out of his methylamine reserve, his manner is brooding and pensive, the money he has accumulated, that, as Skylar notes, they could not spend in ten lifetimes, is silent testament to his unrivaled skill, but leaves him emotionally wanting. He has lost the love of his wife, his moral bearing and ordered the killing of people with ruthless indifference. “I’m out” he says with a note of resignation.
If it were only that easy.  Walt suffers the sin of pride, both in his need for validation (“say my name”) and in his belief that he is just a little smarter than everyone else. So, he thinks nothing of keeping a copy of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, inscribed fondly by his former lab assistant Gale Boetticher, in plain view, just as he does the pricey watch Jesse buys him for his 51st birthday. While the watch can be explained away to Hank (who has only been promoted to Special Agent in Charge of the Albuquerque field office of the DEA!), when Agent Schrader stumbles on Whitman’s book of poetry while on the toilet, Gale’s homage to his “other W.W.” awakens Hank in a flash to what had been in front of his face the whole time but he could never quite figure out – that the man married to his wife’s sister was the elusive “Heisenberg.” And in that moment, it all made sense – a trained chemist with a sudden run of good fortune, money enough to buy a car wash and two new cars, whose wife had suddenly grown distant and remote and handed their children off to Hank and Marie, was also New Mexico’s “blue meth” producer.  
Of course, Vince Gilligan’s storytelling has never been entirely linear, so an Easter egg of sorts, a flash forward in time to Walt’s 52nd birthday, launched the first half of the final season and foretold Walt’s downfall.  In that scene, a now bearded Walt, with a full head of hair but a homeless person’s affect, has slipped back into Albuquerque under an assumed name driving a beat up Volvo with New Hampshire plates for a reason that requires the use of a high caliber machine gun. As the rest of the entire eight episode run unfolds, those 2 minutes looms ominously in the background, a foreshadowing of events to come, the steps by which we get there, entirely unknown.  Hank’s accidental discovery of Walt’s secret is both bookend to that scene and the first domino to fall, until we reach Walt’s inevitable demise.  

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Barack Obama - Closet Conservative

I have good news for my Republican friends!  I want to tell you about a candidate for President who I think you might be interested in.  First of all, he's got a GREAT personal story.  When his dad ran out on him, his single mom raised him.  She got a college degree, but also had her son spend meaningful time with his grandparents when he was growing up. This showed the importance of family to the young man, who, after some fits and starts, got a college degree AND a law degree from Ivy League schools. 

Pretty impressive, right? Wanna hear more? 

Ok, so get this, after law school, he helped the poor and disadvantaged, married a smart and well educated woman, with whom he had two children and became a state legislator. After being elected to the U.S. Senate he ran for and won the Presidency with more of the popular vote than anyone since 1988 and a larger percentage of the total vote than anyone from his party since 1964. More than 2 million people watched him get sworn into office and he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize less than a year into office.

Amazing, right? But wait ..there's more:

Within a month of taking office, he passed an ENORMOUS tax cut that benefitted 95% of all Americans. On top of that tax cut, less than 2 years later, he extended ALL of George W. Bush's tax cuts for two more years and exempted all estates smaller than $3.5 million (roughly 99.8%) from ANY federal taxation.  Small business owners have also done quite well, receiving no less than 18 separate tax cuts in less than four years. In fact, as a percentage of our Gross Domestic Product, our tax rate is lower than it has been since 1950.  

I know, very conservative, but you're thinking, ok, Scary Lawyer Guy, what about the size of government? What's this mythical President you're telling us about done about the big, bad guv'mint?

Funny you should ask, gentle reader because the 1950s plays into this part of the story too. The annualized growth of federal spending under our current President is lower than at any point since the hero of World War II was padding around the White House ( He's appointed two Supreme Court justices, one of whom was originally put on the bench by George Herbert Walker Bush and FROZE the salaries for all federal government employees. His most recent budget included a 2% across the board cut to all his cabinet agencies but exempted the Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Defense.  

Wow. Not even Ronald Reagan did that. But what about the military? How's this guy done with our troops?

Another funny thing about this President, he deployed tens of thousands of additional troops to Afghanistan, has sent more drones into Pakistan than President Bush, directed an attack inside Pakistan that killed Osama Bin Laden, has taken out more Al Qaeda and Taliban senior leaders than his predecessor and brought our troops home from Iraq. Meanwhile, no one who tortured prisoners under the former Administration will be prosecuted for their actions. For veterans, he's expanded funding to the Veterans' Administration from $88 billion to $130 billion, which has provided generous salary increases, broadly expanded access to mental health counseling, and helped thousands of homeless veterans find permanent homes. He also signed a bill that provides employers with incentives to hire veterans who come back from war. 

Hmmm. And other areas of foreign policy?

Well, he helped midwife the "Arab Spring," an organic democratic uprising in places like Tunisia and Egypt that advanced George W. Bush's "freedom agenda," led a multi-national coalition that ousted Gaddhafi (who died along the way), and has placed, along with Europe, strong sanctions on Iran in an effort to deter them from pursuing nuclear arms. He also mended fences with allies and has signed free trade agreements to expand our economic opportunities abroad. 

I'm intrigued. What else can you tell me?

There is one thing that some conservatives think is pretty liberal - he passed a health care law that will expand coverage to roughly 30 million Americans. 

Ok …

But here's the thing - the law was modeled on something called "the individual mandate" - the idea that able bodied adults should be required to purchase health insurance so that the risk pool is broader, thereby reducing costs for everyone.  

Sounds like this is based on sound, free market principles. Where did this idea originate?

Some place called the Heritage Foundation.

THE Heritage Foundation? The conservative think tank funded by some of the biggest right wing philanthropists in the country?


Anything else?

Yeah.  I forgot to mention, the model for this health care plan was the one signed by Mitt Romney when he was Governor of Massachusetts. Oh, and thanks to the law, health insurers are going to get millions of new customers without the threat of the government entering the market as a competitor. Their stocks are up big since the bill passed. 

Oh right. What about the stock market? 

The Dow Jones is up 60% since this guy was sworn into office. Corporations are sitting on trillions of dollars thanks to increased worker productivity and because banks were able to dilute the financial regulation law that passed a few years ago, they have been able to operate as if their responsibility for the economic meltdown never happened. In other sectors, corporations have never had it so good - petroleum corporations continue to generate billions in quarterly profits, Apple is now the world's biggest company (based on stock valuation) and employee 401(K) plans have come roaring back. 

Holy shit. So you're telling me the guy who has been President since January 2009 has, in no particular order: (1) lowered our tax burden to its 1950 level; (2) killed the mastermind of 9/11; (3) passed a health care plan that was cooked up at one of the oldest, most prominent conservative think tanks and handed health insurers tens of millions of new customers; and (4) corporations have earned piles of money so high they would go from the earth to the moon many times over if taped end to end? 

Yes. That is what I am telling you, and every right wing nut job who thinks Obama is some combination of an anti-colonialist, socialist, secret Marxist, not born in America imposter. The next time someone at the country club, a John Birch meeting or Tea Party rally asks who to vote for, tell them to pick up a used Shepard Fairey "HOPE" poster on Ebay and re-elect Barack Hussein Obama. 

Saturday, September 8, 2012

A Tale of Two Cities

During the past two weeks, our two political parties held their nominating conventions. One was abound in encomiums to our military, muscular in its promotion of the killing of the world's most hated terrorist, firm in its values and beliefs and staged impeccably. The other one was the Republican National Convention.  For those old enough to remember (or young, but REALLY into politics), it was hard to watch Democrats in Charlotte and think that this was the same party that nominated its 1972 standard bearer at the ungodly hour of 2:30 in the morning or had its 1984 candidate make a central part of his acceptance speech how he was going to raise taxes. The same party whose 1988 nominee will forever be etched in the nation's memory with his helmeted head popping up from a Army tank is now downright competent when it comes to stagecraft and messaging while the enduring visual of the Republicans' confab in Tampa will be a doddering 82 year old man talking to an empty chair. 

While Democrats celebrated their diversity on the floor and in the stands in Charlotte, Republicans manufactured it by cherry picking its speakers.  The Democrats happily defended not just the ideals of social justice, fairness and community, but argued for a "rising tide that lifts all boats" mantra that harkened all the way back to John F. Kennedy. Republicans, unable to capitalize on the jingoism of the George W. Bush years, muted their typical flag waving viz a viz the military and exchanged it for a full throttled defense of small business and predictable chants of U-S-A. And while Republicans made a facile attempt to highlight the nation's debt burden while neglecting to mention its own Presidents' responsibility for its accumulation, Bill Clinton conducted a graduate level seminar that all Americans could easily understand about the Democrats' superior record on job creation, wealth accumulation and long-term investment that grows our middle class, provides opportunity for the poor and STILL makes rich people richer. 

While both parties sought to humanize their nominees through speeches delivered by their spouses, Ann Romney's odd "I LOOOOVE WOMEN" moment sounded as forced and fake as Michelle Obama's reference to reaching back and pulling others through the door of opportunity was eloquent. Mrs. Romney may have bragged about her husband's parenting abilities, the First Lady leveled a sophisticated attack on naked greed and capitalism without once mentioning Mr. Romney by name but rather, suffusing her critique of the "me first" mentality he represents throughout her remarks, which, even conservative commentators lauded as one of the best they had ever heard. 

Most surprising was the full throttled attack Democrats eagerly leveled at Mitt Romney and the Republicans on everything from supporting the troops to appropriating the aforementioned U-S-A chant from them. John Kerry shish kebobed Romney for his gaffe heavy trip to Europe and the President zinged him for claiming Russia, and not Al-Qaeda, is our greatest threat. This Democratic party aggressively pushed the narrative that the Affordable Care Act was a GOOD idea, humanizing its impact by the moving testimonial of a mom whose daughter was directly impacted by the law's removal of lifetime caps on health coverage. 

Ultimately, what the two conventions revealed was what many of us already knew. The Republican relationship to Mitt Romney is purely transactional. They are prepared to build him up right up until the time his candidacy is untenable, at which point they will drop him in favor of saving down ballot candidates to ensure at least one chamber of Congress remains in their grasp. Democrats, on the other hand, have genuine love and affection for the President and are prepared to do the hard work of phone banking, door knocking and getting out the vote that is necessary for his reelection or go down with the ship. A parade of Republican rising stars spent most of their time in Tampa trumpeting their own bona fides as a collective hedge against a Romney loss. A similar group of Democrats offered a spirited (did you see Jennifer Granholm?) defense of the President and justification for his re-election. 

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick said it was time for the Democratic party to grow a backbone and defend its record, and in Charlotte the party heeded his words. Republicans, on the other hand, hid their most recent standard bearer, did not invite his running mate to address the crowd and avoided any reference to their last President at all costs. In the end, one party shrouded its record in secrecy, the other embraced it. With less than two months to go until Election Day, the Democratic Party came out of this latest phase of the election season with a clear upper hand. The President and his team must continue to press his advantage from now until November, and I think they will. 

Saturday, September 1, 2012

RIP, My Sense of Moral Outrage

If you read my blog or follow me on Twitter (what? you aren't following me on Twitter - start, right away: @scarylawyerguy) you know I'm passionate about politics.  I write about politics, I watch shows about politics, I read books about politics. Basically, politics is like air to me. However, I think it might be time to crimp the oxygen tank because the post-truth politics of 2012 make me too angry. Post-truth politics is a fancy name for the "truthiness" meme created by Stephen Colbert where each side is entitled not just to its own opinions, but its own facts. It is aided and abetted by a mainstream media that falls back on tropes that assign equal blame to both sides for political shortcomings in an effort to be even handed and outsources its "fact checking" to third parties instead of by the journalists doing the reporting.  

My sense of moral outrage was gravely wounded in 2000 when the Supreme Court issued its 5-4 ruling in Bush v. Gore. It wasn't enough that the vote was so close, or that Sandra Day O'Connor had been overheard on election night bemoaning the fact that it appeared Gore would win, because she would have to stay on the bench to deny him the right to replace her, it was that the majority (1) didn't have the courage to put its individual names on the opinion (it was issued per curium); (2) explicitly spelled out the fact that the case was to carry no precedential value (unheard of); and (3) perverted the 14th Amendment, which had been passed in the wake of the Civil War to expand equal protection, and was, over decades, applied to the states and used to address civil rights in the 1960s, by claiming, perversely, that the equal protection of laws somehow mandated that votes not be counted. 

As a lawyer, that was a lot to take. For the highest court in the land to issue a ruling that put the political before the legal, was akin to the five member majority soiling the Constitution.  Of course, I was not prepared for what would come - cherry picking intelligence to manipulate the country into Iraq, White House Chief of Staff Andy Card talking about rolling a war out like a marketing campaign, warrantless wiretapping, telecommunications companies turning over records to the NSA, and on and on, but if that court ruling showed anything, it is that when people are not called on their bullshit, they will keep pushing it until they are. 

President Obama's election in 2008 seemed to be that moment - a broad rejection of Bush's term in office, which was capped by an historic economic meltdown that simply underscored his failure as President.  What we did not know then, but do now, is that Republicans were lying in wait to do everything they could to ensure his (and, not incidentally, the country's) failure. Lockstep opposition to anything and everything Obama proposed drained away much of the vaunted "hope and change" he ran on, the complexity of the issues facing the country left little time for politics and Obama and his team spun their wheels seeking middle ground where none was to be had. 

In 2012, a President who passed a health care bill originally championed by the conservative Heritage Foundation, signed massive tax cuts (including an extension of the estate tax cut and broad cuts for the wealthy), directed the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden, raised the budgets of the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense, agreed to freeze the salaries of federal employees, reduced spending in the federal budget, and presided over a 40% increase in the Dow Jones Industrial Average is being portrayed as some sort of wild eyed socialist presiding over an America in sharp decline.  

Some of this is garden variety political rhetoric, but Republicans have made an affirmative decision that facts no longer matter in politics, that, as a Romney advisor put it, "we're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers." In other words, we will lie with impunity because we do not care about the truth, we will rely on journalists to fall back on the false equivalency that 'both sides do it' and the house organ that is the right wing media (Fox News, N.Y. Post, an entire slice of the Internet, etc.) to act as our message amplifier, no matter how bogus our statements. In the unlikely event Republicans do get called out on their lies, as Paul Ryan was for statements he made during his acceptance speech, the GOP can rest assured people like Wolf Blitzer and Erin Burnett (CNN) will acknowledge the lies but spin the reaction of the crowd, because, after all, that is far more important than factual accuracy by someone who may be a heartbeat away from the Presidency. 

In a year when voting has morphed from a right to privilege, where elected officials utter dangerous comments about rape and pregnancy, Republicans can stage a convention that mocks its lack of diversity by rolling out Latino and African-American leaders, and a quarter billionaire can blow a racial dog whistle to every Tea Party crackpot, right wing nut job and Obama hater in the country while attempting to portray himself as a champion of the middle class, my moral outrage finally gave out. If Romney wins (and I do not think he will) we will get to jump in the way back machine to before the Great Society, before the New Deal, when the social safety net was whatever states offered and whatever charities supported. The consolidation of wealth at the top will become even greater and ours will be a society that would not have looked out of place in pre-revolutionary France.  Hope y'all like cake ….