2012 Election Post-Mortem

So, first, I’ll get the obligatory crowing out of the way.  Barack Obama won re-election last night, and if the margin in Florida holds, I’ll have correctly predicted the outcome of every single state.  I’ll take some credit for this because I made the call back in May with the polls in Florida going against me, and stuck with it on Monday even though the polls hadn’t quite caught up to my prediction.  However, I obviously can’t take too much credit; I owe most of my prescience to the outstanding work of Nate Silver, whose model had a roaring success last night.  He was effusively praised on both MSNBC and Fox News last night, which leads me to believe we’ll only see him rise to greater and greater prominence in the mainstream media over the next two election cycles.  We’ll almost certainly never see him endure the kind of dismissal he got in the media over the past couple weeks.  Obviously, this is a positive development.

With that out of the way, what does President Obama’s re-election, and the margin of his re-election, mean?  The obvious story that everyone is going for today is that this will lead to a reckoning in the Republican Party, which will face a huge battle over where they go from here.  Unlike normal media nonsense, I think this question is absolutely appropriate, and I see no way the Republicans could or would avoid such a national argument.

That the GOP failed so spectacularly in defeating this president should be a matter of truly grave concern for conservatives everywhere.  President Obama has won re-election despite an unemployment rate of 7.9% and persistent trillion-dollar deficits.  President Obama’s signature legislative achievement, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, is truly despised by the right and regarded with only tepid enthusiasm by the left.  In the midterm elections of 2010, Obama’s party suffered one of the most stunning and crushing defeats in recent electoral memory.  If you had presented this election to me or most other political observers as a hypothetical, I would confidently reply that the incumbent was headed for a true wipeout defeat, something akin to the resounding rejections suffered by Jimmy Carter or Herbert Hoover.

This election shows that the GOP had two huge problems in this election.  The first is a long-term problem that Republicans must address if they wish to continue to be a viable national party: the changing demographics of the country.  Simply put, the Reagan Coalition is no longer a viable group for the purposes of winning nationwide elections.  Republicans can no longer afford to cater exclusively to suburban and rural white men, it just won’t work anymore.  Hispanics, African-Americans, and women are the biggest growth groups in the electorate, and they all lean hard Democratic.  Additionally, Republicans face the challenge of age: the incoming generation of voters is simply hostile to many of the GOP’s signature issues.  The American electorate is becoming more urban and more diverse in race, gender, and sexual orientation.  The changing demographics have been particularly important in turning formerly Republican Mountain West states – Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada – into a key part of Obama’s Electoral College “firewall.”  In my estimation, Arizona could well join those states in the blue column next time around, and there are even rumblings that Texas may become competitive in the near future.  This has to be extremely concerning to Republicans.

The second problem, of course, was Mitt Romney himself.  Rick Santorum famously said that Mitt Romney was the absolute worst person the Republicans could have chosen to prosecute the case against President Obama.  I think that’s a bit of hyperbole – for instance, Ron Paul or a similarly libertarian candidate would have been beaten even more soundly than Romney was – but it’s basically true.  Here’s what I said about Romney back in February,

I’ll start with why the cynic should like Mitt Romney: I just don’t see how he can win a general election under normal circumstances.   Romney’s “electability” argument has always been predicated on the idea that he can pull in independents the way no other Republican can.  That might be true (although recent polling has cast doubt on that assertion), but there must be a great deal of concern about Romney’s ability to drive conservative voters to the polls.  Romney’s team has consistently argued that antipathy toward President Obama will do their turnout work for them, but as Democrats who remember 2004 can attest, mere hatred of the President is not enough to unseat him.  You have to have a candidate who is generally inspiring, somebody that party loyalists are actually excited to go out there and work and organize for, not just an opposing candidate they want to vote against.  You would think that everyone would have learned this lesson in 2008, but apparently not.  As I’ve been noting since this blog began, GOP turnout in contests held in blue or battleground states has been significantly down this cycle, despite a competitive nomination race and professed loathing of President Obama.  Romney’s deficiencies in the eyes of conservatives must be considered a major part of this.

Furthermore, Romney is incredibly vulnerable to a host of populist arguments that President Obama has already begun making.  Romney is the consummate 1%er, the guy Mike Huckabee once famously said “looks like the guy who laid you off” and who, by his own admission, “likes firing people.”  He has consistently demonstrated a complete lack of any ability to relate to normal people.  And of course, there is the standard perception of Romney as the unprincipled, flip-flopping, twisting-in-the-wind career politician who stands for nothing besides his own election prospects.  The playbook against Romney is both obvious and obviously effective.

In retrospect, I hit this directly on the head.  Romney’s image as the guy who fired your dad, his “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” editorial, and especially his comments about the 47% doomed him in Ohio, the most important state in this election.  He was unable to hit Obama hard on Obamacare, one of the President’s most vulnerable areas.  And, perhaps most importantly, he failed to motivate conservative voters.

If I may engage in some more prognostication, I think Republicans are likely to spend more of their energy dissecting the problems of Mitt Romney rather than addressing the structural  demographic problems their party faces.  I think the voices that will say Mitt Romney’s problem was that he wasn’t conservative enough will win out, it’s simply a less painful path than acknowledging the reality that their party has drifted too far right and must turn left on a host of issues from immigration and health care to women’s rights, marriage equality, and the environment.  If I am right, the Republicans will have made a grave mistake, and the inevitable collapse of the Reagan coalition will be made all the worse.

Another point on the need of Republicans to come back to the political middle:  ever since the whipping the Democratic Party took in the 2010 midterms, political observers (including the authors have this blog) have been convinced that the Democratic party would likely lose control of the Senate, regardless of the outcome of the Presidential election.  Instead, with the re-election of Jon Tester in Montana and the election of Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota, Democrats have actually increased the size of their caucus from 53 to 55.  Additionally, with the election of Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts, Chris Murphy in Connecticut, and Angus King in Maine, the liberal wing of the US Senate will be as strong as it has been in quite some time.  In particular, trading Joe Lieberman for Chris Murphy in Connecticut is a huge upgrade for party unity.  By far, the most important factor in Democrats keeping their majority has been the inability of Tea Party-backed candidates to win state-wide Senate elections in any but the reddest of states.

There’s one more point I’d like to make about last night.  Four states – Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, and Washington – delivered victories for marriage equality, the first time in history that gay marriage has been validated in statewide popular votes.  Elsewhere, Massachusetts joined the 17 states before them who had authorized medical marijuana, a similar measure failed in Arkansas by just 2%, and Washington and Colorado voted to legalize marijuana for recreational use.  Maryland voted to legalize gambling.  To me, these results indicate that the old “culture wars” are close to being over, and liberals have won.

Final Prediction Series: inuyesta

Just over five months ago, when Wiesman and I published our initial predictions for the outcome of this election, the only thing we differed on was whether the President would win Florida.  Today, we still differ only on whether the President would win Florida.  My official map:

332 Electoral Votes for Barack Obama

Five months ago, I gave the following rationale for giving Florida to Obama:

1. I predict Obama’s popularity will continue to improve as election season wears on.  The economy will continue to improve (barring some natural or man-made catastrophe), and it will become increasingly clear that there is only one adult in this race and he’s not from Massachusetts.  In particular, I think the debates are going to be particularly kind to President Obama.  Furthermore, if the Ron Paul devotees have anything to say about it, Mitt Romney won’t be enjoying the post-convention bump that Republicans typically experience.  Add all this together, and I think Obama can pencil in an extra 1-3% on top of his current poll numbers in all the swing states.

2. Florida is not Mitt Romney’s sort of state.  If you’ll remember, Romney won the incredibly important Florida primary by flooding the state with a torrent of negative attacks on Newt Gingrich.  Romney enjoyed a 5:1 spending advantage over Gingrich in that race and though he won by 15 points, turnout was down by over 300,000 voters, a 15% decrease in turnout in a state whose population has grown by nearly 3% in the same period. As the exit poll data showed that night, this is not a state in which the conservative base is particularly enamored of Mitt Romney and presidential elections are all about turning out your base.

3. Demographics.  I suppose this could be folded into “Florida is not Mitt Romney’s sort of state,” but it’s important enough to get its own header.   Florida has the largest population (17.3%) of elderly citizens in the United States, which is significant both because older voters have higher turnout than other age cohorts and because Republicans in Congress have been lining up behind Paul Ryan’s budget plan, which would slash Social Security and Medicare.  Obama has already been hammering this plan as “social Darwinism,” and we can expect his attacks on the Ryan budget to intensify as Election Day draws nearer.  I expect senior citizens to be highly mobilized in this election, which can only bode poorly for Romney in Florida.  It is also worth noting that Florida has large Hispanic, African-American, and Jewish populations that should also be in Obama’s camp, although Wiesman was correct to note that GOP voter suppression acts of late may be successful in limiting the effect of those groups.

4. I’m just a homer.  Goes without saying.

Certain of the predictions underlying my call of Florida have gone better than others.  As I expected, economy has continued to improve, Romney did not get very much of a post-convention bounce (although this may have had more to do with Clint Eastwood’s chair than disruption by the Paulites), and the President is generally more popular than he was back in May, to the tune of an extra 1.8% in the RealClearPolitics average of his approval rating.

What I did not count on, however, was the dominating performance Romney put on in the first debate, which really set back a lot of the progress I anticipated.  On October 3rd, the night of the first debate, Obama was riding high: 538 was giving him an 86.1% chance of winning and giving him an average of 319.3 electoral votes.  I don’t see a way to look at old projections for individual states, but I distinctly remember mocking Wiesman as Obama took the lead in the Florida polls (a 2 point lead, according to RCP) and even started to trend toward taking back North Carolina.  Nine days later, that lead had almost completely disappeared, Romney had his biggest polling average lead of the campaign in Florida, and Obama has been scrambling back ever since.

So, that’s where we are.  As Wiesman said in his post, 538 is putting Obama’s chances in Florida at 45%.  I am less confident now than I was in May, but I still believe that 45% shot will come through and Obama will prevail in Florida.  Here are my reasons:

1. Florida is trending Obama’s direction.  Obama’s peak in Florida came in the wake of the Democratic convention, with the president capturing a lead of 3.2 points in the RCP average.  Nine days after the first debate, he hit his nadir, with Romney ahead by 3.2 points in the same measurement.  Since then, Obama has closed the gap to 1.8 points, with increasingly favorable polls coming in all the time.  I think this reflects Florida’s fundamental identity as a 50/50 state that shifts with the political winds.  The winds are pushing in Obama’s direction, and I believe that bodes well for him there.

2. The demographics in Florida remain in Obama’s favor.  Just as I said back in May, Florida has large populations of elderly and minority voters that should be highly motivated to turn out for Obama.   In May, I reasoned that the Ryan budget would be a big factor in this motivation.  I think that still holds, but the leaked video of Romney’s comments about “the 47%” is even more powerful with those groups.  Obama has been running ads invoking those remarks incessantly, and it has proven a powerful political weapon.

3. I’m a homer.  As true as ever.

Despite the above, I’ll not be surprised if Florida does go the other way.  As Wiesman said, there’s no telling what effect all the voter suppression tactics pushed by the Republican leadership in Tallahassee will have, and it’s certainly possible that Romney could win “legitimately” too.

Where I disagree with Wiesman is in his assessment of the “worst-case scenario.”  If Wiesman’s read of the situation is to be believed, the worst Obama can do tomorrow night is winning with 281 electoral votes.  Though I applaud Wiesman’s optimism – and would invite him to extend that optimism to the president’s chances in Florida – the fact of the matter is that the worst-case scenario is much worse than that.  Here is the worst-case scenario, as I see it.

This is my nightmare

Here’s what this map represents: Romney wins Florida, wins the close races in Virginia, Colorado, and Ohio, rides a recent uptick in the polls in New Hampshire, and pulls out an almost unthinkable comeback in Pennsylvania.  In order for this map to come to fruition, two things would have to be true: the polls would have to be severely missing in their likely voter models, and the GOP’s voter suppression tactics would have to be more effective than most people are giving credit for.

I don’t think that this is at all a likely state of affairs, but I don’t think Wiesman has the right of it in saying that Obama cannot lose.  The polls and expectations of neutral observers are in Obama’s favor, but we don’t have to go far to find examples of the polls and expectations being wrong: Harry Reid keeping his Senate race in 2010, Obama’s victory in Indiana in the 2008 general election, Hillary Clinton’s shocking comeback in the 2008 New Hampshire primary…the list goes on.  As Nate Silver said in a post this weekend,

We’ve about reached the point where if Mr. Romney wins, it can only be because the polls have been biased against him. Almost all of the chance that Mr. Romney has in the FiveThirtyEight forecast, about 16 percent to win the Electoral College, reflects this possibility.

The state polls may not be right. They could be biased. Based on the historical reliability of polls, we put the chance that they will be biased enough to elect Mr. Romney at 16 percent.

Now, 16 percent – or 13.7%, as the 538 model now pegs Romney’s chances – is not much.  To analogize to poker, it’s about the chance that a pair of Aces will be beaten by King-Queen offsuit if those hands go all-in before the flop.  But as a poker player himself, Wiesman should understand that King-Queen will sometimes crack those Aces, and sometimes it will happen at the worst possible time.

About Last Night

Ugh.

I mean, seriously: ugh.  There’s just no other word for what happened last night in the first presidential debate.

Let’s start this post with a little review of history.  While I was at GW, I actually took an entire class on presidential debate, and in the course of that class, I watched nearly every presidential debate that has ever occurred.  President Obama was not doomed by any one zinger from Romney as was Carter in 1980, nor did he doom himself with any one gaffe or poor moment as did the elder Bush in 1992.  Actually, either of those famous debates could correctly be characterized as more even in both style and substance than this one.

In Wiesman’s recap, he analogized Obama’s strategy a “prevent defense,” which was certainly a popular characterization last night, and I imagine remains so today (Note: I haven’t seen any of today’s mediation of the debate yet).  However, I don’t think that’s the idea the Obama campaign had going into last night.  Based on what we’ve seen from Obama – over the course of both of his campaigns as well as his presidency in general – I think the strategy going into last night was to have Obama remain on the mantle of the Presidency, to try to avoid elevating Romney to equal footing with the President by refusing to directly engage with him.  I believe this explains why we saw Obama spending the majority of his speaking time discussing himself rather than drawing attention to the numerous lies, exaggerations, and hypocrisies spewing forth from Romney’s mouth; why the contrasts Obama did draw tended to either come briefly at the end of his remarks or be subtle, indirect digs.  The strategy was to make Romney look like the desperate challenger that he was: an enraged tsetse fly fecklessly buzzing about the head of a larger animal too large and too focused on where it’s going to notice.  This has been a successful strategy for Obama up to this point in his presidency: his refusal to engage on the level of Congressional Republicans is one of the primary reasons his personal popularity has always remained high, independent of his approval rating.

Because there is so much out there about how Romney won already, I feel compelled to point out that this strategy nearly worked.  There were several occasions last night in which Romney looked like he was on the verge of completely losing his cool, and still more occasions where Obama looked poised to deliver the one, killer putdown that would just end things.  But when those opportunities came, either Obama failed to deliver the line convincingly or Romney, sensing danger, jumped in to get another speaking segment and moot the impact of what the president had said.

The total result was that instead of appearing above engagement with Romney, Obama simply seemed disengaged.  Standing in contrast with Romney’s clear passion, Obama didn’t seem calm, in command, and presidential; he seemed like he wanted to be somewhere else.  Nowhere was this more evident than in the split screen shots the networks showed during much of the debate.  While Obama spoke, Romney stood straight, with his chin high, looking directly at Obama with something of a defiant glare.  While Romney spoke, the president looked down to take notes, which had the unfortunate effect of making it look like Obama was either shamefacedly trying to hide from Romney’s attacks, or else that he was asleep.

Wiesman disdains body language analysis, but this stuff matters.  To the undecided voter, probably more than half of the things each candidate said were total gibberish, making very little impact other than “this sounds good,” or “this sounds bad.”  Thus, they are making their evaluations about what’s going on based on cues from the candidates: When Romney is confidently telling the President that his policies are failing and having disastrous unintended consequences, and the President is looking at the floor, Romney’s attacks gain greater impact.  When Obama is stumbling through a vague explanation of why Romney’s budget plan must call for higher taxes, and Romney is standing strong, looking at Obama in defiance, and immediately jumps in with “that’s not the facts,” as soon as he finishes speaking, Obama’s attacks lose their power.

Similarly, watch the tape again.  For much of the time that Obama spoke, he was directing his speech toward the moderator or the in-person audience. Romney, on the other hand, engaged the camera, recognizing that the true audience was in living rooms across America, not in the room.  This is the sort of stupid thing that a hack on TV would say, but I’ll say it anyway: Obama looked like a lawyer making a case to a judge – in this case, Lehrer – while Romney looked like a salesman pitching the people.

The other huge factors working in Romney’s favor were the looseness of the format and the moderator’s utter failure to exercise any control over the debate.  As bad as Obama was, his failure was nowhere near as complete or as shocking as that of Jim Lehrer, who has literally been moderating presidential debates since before I was born.  Both candidates ran roughshod over his feeble attempts to curtail their answers, but Romney was particularly effective.  As soon as he successfully bullied Lehrer into giving him the last word at the end of the first segment, Romney seemed to realize that he could not be stopped, and successfully claimed the last word on nearly every topic.  In many cases, this meant that he got a gigantic block of virtually uninterrupted speaking time, as he claimed the last response to one question and then was favored with the first response to the next question.

It was clear that Obama was completely unprepared for this format.  In the split screen, you could often see him gesturing multiple times at Lehrer in a clear attempt to try and make the moderator cut off an over-the-time-limit Romney, unaware until the end that Lehrer was unwilling or unable to curtail either of them.  Of course, it’s unclear what would have happened if Obama had reacted appropriately to this development and verbally fought for his share of time the way Romney did; if this had happened, Lehrer might have been totally obviated from the proceedings and something like the totally unstructured Santos-Vinick debate from Season 7 of The West Wing might have broken out.  Instead, Obama graciously allowed Lehrer to move on to other topics, perhaps hoping that Romney would look bad for running over his time limits so brazenly.  Instead, this only served to underscore the confident, impassioned impression that Romney cultivated the whole night, as well Obama’s disengaged, passive affect.

It should be noted that the night was not an unqualified success for Romney, however.  In particular, his “zingers” mostly fell flat, particularly the line about Obama’s plan being “trickle-down government,” which was delivered without conviction and really only served to reinforce Obama’s message that trickle-down economics are a bad thing.  Further, Romney is surely being thoroughly excoriated by the fact-checkers today, and his repeated insistence that he doesn’t want a $5 trillion tax cut was a truly bizarre departure from his record, even for Mr. Etch-a-Sketch himself.  There was much in this debate that Obama will be able to use in attack ads against Romney, and some of the president’s lines – once they’re cleaned up in an editing booth – will work well in positive ads too.  But for the purposes of last night alone, Romney was the clear winner, and he at last has the game-changing moment he so desperately needed if he is to come back in this race.

So, where do we go from here?  Obama should come out ahead in both of the next two debates, as either the format (the next debate is in a town-hall setting) or the topic (the final debate is on foreign policy, Obama’s strongest issue area in this election) should favor him.  And I have not wavered from my conviction that this election remains Obama’s to lose, particularly given the low number of “persuadable” voters found by polls thus far.  But the President missed a big opportunity to put the nails in Romney’s coffin last night.  Hopefully he won’t do so again.

Class Warfare in the NFL

Unless you’re living under a rock today, you’ve surely already heard about the debacle at the end of last night’s Packers-Seahawks game.  Replacement referees – already affecting the outcomes of games with regular old terrible calls – finally directly changed the winner of a game with a single blown call.

Or, actually, it was two blown calls.  The aspect of this play that’s been getting the most coverage is the disputed interception/touchdown, partially because that’s the most dramatic part, partially because it’s so shocking that this call was blown even after video replay, and partially because this .gif of two officials seeing the same play and making conflicting calls has become the enduring symbol of the officiating clusterfuck this season.

But really, whether or not Golden Tate achieved enough possession of this ball to be awarded the touchdown should have been completely irrelevant.  Just a second before the action of that .gif, Tate took both hands and shoved Green Bay defensive back Sam Shields out of the way, a clear case of offensive pass interference that would have negated the touchdown catch and ended the game even if it had been made cleanly.

What we are seeing in this replacement referee fiasco is the most public demonstration yet of the perils of the union-busting ethos that has taken over the top rungs of corporate America and bled over into the sports world.  In the case of labor disputes with the players, as we saw in both the NFL and NBA last season, there was a certain recognition from ownership that the players were important and they could not be locked out indefinitely without consequence.  This recognition kept the bargaining table open, and both the NBA and NFL lockouts were resolved before the season was lost.

In the case of the referees, however, it is clear that Roger Goodell and the owners feel no impetus to bargain, and perhaps not even after this fiasco on the sport’s biggest stage.  From the perspective of the owners, unless the popularity of the sport goes down, why should they care?  As Steve Young has repeated constantly on ESPN, demand for the NFL is inelastic.  No matter what the refs do, people will still buy tickets, still buy jerseys, still watch the game on TV and buy the things that get advertised.

In other words, the position of the owners can be summarized thus: We know this lockout is making our product shitty, but you dummies are still gonna buy it anyway.  And really, what could be a more appropriate attitude for this moment in American history?

In fairness to the owners, though, I don’t think that when they locked out the referees, they were intending to make the product shitty.  I think instead they simply completely discounted the fact that being an NFL referee is a job that requires a high level of skill to be done competently.  Instead of viewing the referees as valuable partners essential to quality, all the owners saw was base human capital.  “Referee?  How hard can that be.  Throw some Division III guys in there, we’ll be fine.”

And that, more than “you dummies are gonna buy it anyway,” is the truly apt attitude.  In today’s culture – in which millionaires are hard-working job-creating Atlases who have deigned to grace us with their munificence, while poor people and the middle class are just schmucks who should have tried harder to get ahead; in which Mitt Romney says 47% of the country will never vote for him because they are lazy scumbags bought off by Democrats with the proffer of government’s teat – what could be more appropriate than treating referees, the lowest branch on professional football’s money tree, as interchangeable and disposable?  Why not squeeze the refs for an extra $100,000 per teamIt’s not a lot of money but fuck them, they’re just refs, why would I ever pay them more than I absolutely have to?

There is class warfare in this country, but it’s not found in President Obama calling on the wealthy to “pay their fair share” by raising the top marginal tax rate slightly.  It’s this right here in the NFL, this thing where the rich make themselves richer by squeezing every last red cent out of their middle class and poor workers, and just close down shop if those workers show the slightest bit of backbone. Whether its corporations busting unions on their factory floors or corporate allies in government trying to ban collective bargaining rights for public employees and slashing government benefits and services for the poor and middle class while cutting taxes for the rich, the face of today’s class warfare is more Crassus than Robespierre.

If I could just weigh in quickly…

As Wiesman mentioned in his 9/11 post, the anniversaries of great national tragedies these days do nothing so much as give professional writers occasion to hand-wring about whether or not those tragedies should be used to make political points.  If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to throw in my two cents on that question.

It is a reflection of just how broken our political culture is that discussing politics on days of national mourning seems so unsavory.  Politics in 21st Century America are petty and cynical, a game of empty soundbites and oneupmanship rather than any sort of noble calling to public service, and to introduce that smallness into the discussion on a such a day rightly strikes many as cheap.  I think the primary lesson we should take away from this discussion is that it is incumbent on all of us to do our part to detoxify and make sane political discourse.

But, with that said, no right-thinking person can “separate” national tragedies from politics, because tragedies are inherently political.  You cannot think intelligently about the attacks of 9/11 without also thinking about all of the political choices and realities that led to it: America’s dependence on Middle Eastern oil and the decades of U.S. military and covert intervention in the Middle East to protect our oil interests; the arming and financing of the mujahideen; post-Cold War national security priorities; airport and airplane security regulations; and on and on and on.   Similarly, you cannot think intelligently about 9/11 without also thinking about the political response to the disaster: the decision to reclassify counter-terrorism as a military, rather than law enforcement, task; the decision to frame the War on Terror as a war against “Islamists” or “radical Islam” rather than isolated sociopaths; bills like the Patriot Act and their impact on civil liberties; the broad assertion of executive power in fighting the War on Terror and the persnickety question of how to define the wartime powers of a President in the course of a war with no apparent end; and of course, the two wars and subsequent nation-building operations that 9/11 spawned.  You don’t have to come to the same conclusions about the political environment surrounding 9/11 that I have, but you do have to think about it, because it is all connected.

There are more issues that the memory of 9/11 forces us to consider as well.  Do you think that FDNY, NYPD, and a host of other first-response emergency services acted heroically on 9/11?  Maybe you should keep that in mind when a presidential candidate says “we don’t need more fireman (or) more policemen” and proposes budgets that would invariably result in thousands of cops and firefighters nationwide losing their jobs.  Did 9/11 make you think that non-state actors like al-Qaeda pose a more immediate threat than nation-states against which we have a strong military deterrent?  Maybe you should keep that in mind when a presidential candidate calls Russia our greatest “geopolitical foe.”  Did you support the war in Afghanistan initially, but then turn sour on it as it stretched into the longest military conflict in American history?  Maybe you should keep that in mind when a presidential candidate constantly rattles sabers with Iran.

I encourage you to consider these issues because the number one lesson from the tragedy of 9/11 is that elections have consequences.  Elections lead to the policies that either prevent or promote tragedies.  Elections can change not only what the response to a tragedy is, but also the general consensus of what a given tragedy even means.  I cannot say for sure  how 9/11 would have been handled by a President Gore, but I can say with supreme confidence that the response would have been different, and that by itself is worthy of consideration.

Elections have consequences.  Never forget.

On the First Night of the Republican National Convention

It’s convention season!  Wiesman was too busy blissfully ignoring the fact that 90%+ of  fantasy football outcomes are determined by blind luck to even watch the speeches last night, so it seems the task of recapping and analyzing what those crazy Republicans got up to last night falls to me.

The GOP actually had an incredible number of speakers on their schedule last night (click here for the full lineup), but since I was watching on MSNBC rather than C-SPAN, I can only give commentary on the following speakers: Ohio governor John Kasich, Virginia governor Bob McDonnell, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, First Lady hopeful Ann Romney, and the convention’s keynote speaker, New Jersey governor Chris Christie.

The predominant theme for the early speakers was clear: Republicans are better than Democrats at creating jobs and balancing budgets.  John Kasich talked enthusiastically about the economic turnaround in Ohio; Scott Walker went on ceaselessly about how business owners are more confident in Wisconsin; Bob McDonnell treated us to a litany of statistics both about his own state of Virginia, but successful Republican governorships across the land; and everyone touted how they had balanced their budgets.

I don’t really want to wade too much into the substance, or lack thereof, in these speeches.  You can read pretty much any other liberal blog on the internet to hear about how Kasich cheerfully ignored the fact that much of Ohio’s good economic fortune can be attributed to the auto bailout Kasich opposed, or how Wisconsin has actually been bucking the national trend and losing jobs, or any of the myriad reasons Virginia has become recession-proof thanks to federal spending.  Republicans have trouble with facts and intellectual honesty, nothing new.

Instead, I’d like to focus on whether or not these early Republican governors speeches were successful or not.  If we accept the premise  that the primary purpose of a modern nominating convention is to serve as three days of free, prime-time advertising for the nominee, then each speech should serve at least one of two goals: promoting the nominee and bringing down his rival.  Were the governors successful in that?

A common criticism coming out of the first day of the convention is that the Republicans on display seemed far more interested in self-promotion than in helping Romney.  Indeed, at times the convention seemed like a series of auditions for the 2016 nomination, with Bob McDonnell in particular reminding me of how terrified I am that Republicans will be smart enough to nominate him one day.  The majority of the speeches were dedicated to the speaker’s own accomplishments, with the only connection to Romney being “Imagine what we could do with an advocate in the White House!”  I suppose this message is OK, but if the states are already doing well, why should I care who the President is?

As for attacks on Obama, there was nothing that made me stop and go “woah,” as I did during Paul Ryan’s speech two weeks ago.  It was rote stuff that honestly could have been levied against any Democratic nominee ever.  Probably the best attacks came from Nikki Haley, who used the federal government’s various lawsuits against her state as fodder for the now-standard “Obama hates success” line of attack.  If you didn’t know what she was talking about, it was an effective conceit.

However, I’d like to entertain a different idea.   What if this convention is not so much about promoting Mitt Romney specifically as it is about promoting Republicans and Republicanism generally, in hopes that Romney would get swept up in that wave?  I can’t help but think of the polls from the primary season that found “generic Republican” would defeat Obama by a couple points.  I also can’t help but remember Rick Santorum’s attacks on Romney, when he called Romney “uniquely unqualified” to prosecute the case against Barack Obama, a view I happen to wholeheartedly agree with.  The strength of the modern Republican Party has never really been in its individual leaders, but in its collective discipline and unity.  Mitt Romney has lots of problems as an individual candidate, but if they can turn this into an election of Obama vs. Republican rather than Obama vs. Romney, they may stand a better chance.

Viewed from that perspective, I think a case can be made that last night was a reasonably good one for the Republicans.  With no exceptions that I saw, these were rousing speeches from solid performers.  If I had no prior information, I would have come away from those speeches feeling good about Republicans, confident in their competence at governing, and with the impression that they had a definite – if not specifically articulated – vision for what they wanted the country to be.  Rick Santorum, of course, put the capper on this with a speech made dynamic by his apparent earnestness, passion, and particular brand of conservative populism.

Ann Romney sort of threw a wrench into these works.  I thought hers was a good speech, and it seemed clear that the crowd received her with great enthusiasm.  But I fear that Ann may have been sent on a fool’s errand.  I’m sorry, but her stories about how she and Mitt used to live in a basement apartment with an ironing board for a kitchen table fell completely flat in my opinion, and I don’t see how she can achieve any real resonance with that kind of message.  At this point, I think the image of Romney the born-rich plutocrat is too firmly entrenched to be dispelled with tales of the only tight 4 years in either of their lives.  Rather than incessantly trying to pretend that they are normal people, Ann and Mitt would be better served to embrace their 1%edness and project an aspirational image, as the Kennedys did.  They have tried to do some of this, but every time Mitt awkwardly goes through an interview pretending that he “loves Costco” and buys dress shirts there, or does a bizarre photo op at a grocery store (skip to 2:31 to avoid the obnoxious douches that open this video), the image of him as the hyper-competent executive who’s going to sweep into Washington and Get Things Done is severely undercut.  Part of the reason the Obama campaign was so successful four years ago was that Obama was not afraid to appear “above” normal people; people idealized him and he threw himself wholeheartedly into that embrace. If Romney weren’t so fixated on trying to be something that he’s not, I think things would be going much better for him.

Finally, Chris Christie.  There’s a lot of commentary out there today criticizing Christie’s speech as being too aggressive, too mean, too ego-driven, and too stiff in comparison with Christie’s normal performance.  I hear these criticisms, and I understand them, but I have to disagree; as I was watching the speech – and I do try to just watch speeches as they air, I don’t like to try and intellectualize them until after I’ve formed initial impressions – I found myself liking what was going on.  Christie may not have been quite his usual self, but he was still energetic, emphatic, and triumphant in his delivery.  As Chris Matthews said afterward, it was a barn-burner of a speech.  It certainly didn’t make me think very much about Mitt Romney – an interesting analysis being frequently repeated on MSNBC finds that Christie mentioned himself 62 times and Mitt Romney only 8 times, and that it took 1800 of the speech’s 2600 words before the first of those Romney mentions – but it did make me think good things about Christie and, by extension, Republicans.  It was the perfect distillation of everything that went on on the first night of the Republican National Convention.  The only question, I suppose, is whether this strategy can work.

On Paul Ryan, the Republican VP Nominee

So. Paul Ryan will be Mitt Romney’s Vice-Presidential nominee. What do we make of this?

To be honest, I don’t like this move at all, and not just because Paul Ryan is one of those god-awful Republicans who pretends to care about the deficit and freedom but is really only interested in using government to redistribute wealth upward and give wealthy businessmen even more control over the serfs. In my mind, this move just makes absolutely no good political sense.

I’ll start with the obvious stuff:

Foreign Policy. Quick quiz: when was the last time neither candidate on the Republican ticket had any significant military or foreign policy experience? Answer: NEVER. This is literally the first time in the history of the Republican Party that this has occurred. I’m really struggling to put into words the magnitude of this occasion; foreign policy has been the signature issue of the Republican Party ever since Eisenhower. Two generations of Cold War Republicans got themselves elected on the theory that only they – not the wimpy pinko Democrats – could protect America from the Red Menace. George W. Bush’s re-election was premised entirely on the idea that only he – not those wimpy, terrorist-apologizing Democrats – could protect America from al-Qaeda. Obama’s supposed lack of foreign policy acumen was perhaps the most successful attack against him in the 2008 campaign. Legions of political scientists, strategists, operatives, and laymen have echoed the old formulation that Republicans are the strong “father” party to the Democrats’ “mommy.” But now, in 2012, Romney and the Republicans have completely ceded the issue of foreign policy to President Obama. Unbelievable.

In fairness, this election is unlikely to hinge on foreign policy, and it may have been a losing issue for Republicans this cycle anyway; Obama has polled better on the issue and may have had a significant foreign policy victory one or two of you might have noticed last year. Still, a complete abdication of the issue on which Republicans have the biggest natural advantage is shocking.

Budget horribleness. As everyone has pointed out this weekend, the Obama campaign has been trying to hang the extremism of Ryan’s budget proposals on Romney’s neck for this entire campaign. You know the drill with this by now: Ryan’s budgets would completely gut every part of the federal government not devoted to defense and fundamentally alter if not totally destroy the social safety net. Ryan’s budgets would drastically cut taxes for the wealthy – including reducing Romney’s personal tax burden to 0.82% – while raising rates on the bottom 30 percent of earners. Lots of wonks out there have put out detailed takedowns of the inadvisability, impracticability, and actual impossibility of Ryan’s budget plans (Ezra Klein has been particularly active on this topic), but I’m interested in how easy it is to say “Paul Ryan wants to gut Medicare.” It’s one of the most popular government programs in history, it is vitally important to the voters of a number of swing states, and Mitt Romney chose a Vice-Presidential nominee who is best known for wanting to dismantle it. It defies reason.

Swing states. Traditionally, one of the most important jobs of a Vice Presidential candidate is to “deliver” his home state to the top of his ticket. There are a few problems with Ryan attempting to fill this role, however. First and foremost, Wisconsin does not seem to be a winnable state for Romney; though his campaign identified it early as a state they’d like to put in play, polls have consistently given Obama a sizable lead there. Wisconsin (like Missouri or Arizona on the other side of the aisle) is a state that will only be in play in the event of a major wave in Romney’s favor that would carry him to the White House with or without the Badger State by his side, not the sort of state that would be the deciding factor in a nail-biter election. Secondly, Ryan does not have the kind of profile that would help very much even if Wisconsin were in play. As a Representative, he has never run for statewide office., meaning he isn’t particularly well-known at home; Nate Silver found that fully 29% of Wisconsinites didn’t know his name well enough to give a simple favorable/unfavorable impression. The upshot of all this is that Silver projects that adding Ryan to the ticket only helps Romney’s chances of winning Wisconsin by 2.5%, which translates to 0.1% added probability of Romney’s capturing the Electoral College. This is what we in the business call “weak sauce.”

But none of the above reasons represents why I’m truly so perplexed by this Ryan pick. Allow me to explain below.

In my opinion, the GOP had three significant advantages going into this election season: (1) The poor state of the economy; (2) widespread dislike of “Obamacare;” and (3) the so-called enthusiasm gap built by the right’s seething hatred of President Obama. The first of these advantages seems to have been squandered: though both the economy and the perception of the economy remain poor, the Obama team(with a large assist from Romney that I’ll get to shortly) has been very successful in keeping the campaign narrative away from the economy and focused on more peripheral issues. The second advantage has also disappeared; Romney was never the right guy to wage war on Obamacare, and the general public – admittedly still not wholly supportive of the law – seems to have moved on after the Supreme Court upheld it in June. Thus, the only natural advantage remaining to the Republicans was the enthusiasm gap. However, I believe the selection of Paul Ryan will ultimately ruin that advantage too.

This argument may seem counter-intuitive. Every pundit has been talking all weekend about how choosing Ryan is meant to energize the conservative base of the party and quell any doubts about Romney’s commitment to the conservative cause. Ryan is a superstar in the Tea Party-affiliated right; the wonkish budget-slashing true believer who blunts Democratic attacks about Republicans not advancing their own solutions to America’s problems and gives his staffers copies of Atlas Shrugged.

But that frame misses the point. The Republican advantage came not because they were merely enthusiastic; it came because there was an enthusiasm gap. Conservatives were agitated and infectious in their hatred of Obama, while Obama’s supporters were disillusioned, let down, and frustrated by three years of a sluggish recovery and Obama’s rather centrist governance.

But with the prospect of Ryan’s radical budgets gaining a foothold in the White House and potentially becoming law, progressives have a real reason to organize and do their absolute best to keep Obama in office. This election is no longer about who made the latest gaffe or how much Mitt Romney pays in taxes. Now its about saving everything progressives have built over the past 100 years. It’s about preserving the very idea of government as a powerful force for good. The stakes in this election were always high, but now precisely how high those stakes are is laid bare for everyone to see. I think Ryan, more than almost any other candidate Romney could have chosen, will force Democrats into action. Meanwhile, the sort of Republican that gets really excited about Paul Ryan was probably going to turn out against President Obama anyways. Thus, though we will likely see a (slight, in my opinion) uptick in enthusiasm on the right, I expect Ryan’s selection to precipitate an even larger enthusiasm bump on the left, with the overall effect of shrinking the gap between the two sides.

In his speech accepting Romney’s nomination, Paul Ryan had a line that made me stop and reconsider my position that his selection was a bad idea. He said,

Let me say a word about the man Mitt Romney will replace. No one disputes President Obama inherited a difficult situation. And, in his first 2 years, with his party in complete control of Washington, he passed nearly every item on his agenda. But that didn’t make things better.

Whatever the explanations, whatever the excuses, this is a record of failure.

It was a stunningly good line and for a moment, I thought “We’re doomed.”

But then I realized that the line is effective no matter who says it. Rob Portman could have delivered that line. Marco Rubio could have delivered that line. Any Republican in the entire world could have delivered that line. But when those candidates deliver that line, they don’t bring the same baggage that distracts from the line. From the beginning, Mitt Romney’s best strategy has been to sit back, hammer the economy, and hope that economic news stays poor enough to swing things in his direction. Anything, anything, that distracts voters from the fact that the unemployment rate is stubbornly remaining above 8% is a loser for Mitt Romney. Even time spent on foreign policy, the traditional Republican stronghold that I was incredulous about earlier, would have severe opportunity cost. But when the distraction is Ryan’s budget plans, which Republicans all over the country are running away from screaming, the damage to Roney’s message is incalculable.

Basically, the Ryan pick looks like a panic move. It’s been a bad month for Romney in the public polls, and the outlook is even worse if Nate Silver’s data is to be believed. (For the record, the authors of SomeDisagree put full faith in Nate Silver, and have been doing so for a long time). They almost certainly thought that they needed a game changing pick to dramatically shake up the race. I think Paul Ryan will do that, but not in the way Romney wants.

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So, who would I have picked, were I Romney? I think I would have gone with Rob Portman of Ohio. He has virtually no national profile, which isn’t great, but also no nationally-known baggage, which means he couldn’t possibly distract from Romney’s message. He won his statewide election in Ohio by 18 points in 2010…and in case you haven’t heard, Ohio figures to be mildly important to Romney’s chances this time around. Nate Silver estimates that Portman’s home state effect would have translated into a 1.9% better chance of Romney becoming President; in my opinion, his ability to keep the campaign on message would have been worth a great deal more than that.

UPDATE: Public Policy Polling just released favorability numbers for independents in Ohio. Romney does poorly with that group, coming in at 34% favorable…but Ryan does even worse, polling at just 32%. Really think Portman would have been the right choice.