Paul Waldman

We Never Liked You, Anyway

(AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

As often as not, parties nominate candidates for president that pretty much all their own partisans acknowledge are less than inspiring. Democrats were so excited about Barack Obama in 2008 partly because their previous two nominees, John Kerry and Al Gore, rode to the nomination on a stirring sentiment of "Well, OK, I guess." The same happened to Republicans, who adored the easygoing George W. Bush after the grim candidacies of Bob Dole and Bush's father.

The Republicans' Foreign Policy Problem

textsfromhillaryclinton.tumbler.com

Pop quiz: if you had to describe the Obama foreign policy in one sentence, what would you say? Not easy, is it? Back in 2008, it was pretty simple: "Not Bush." Now back then, there was something called the "Bush doctrine," which may have had a subtle meaning to those working in the administration, but as far as the public was concerned mostly meant "invading lots of countries and making everyone in the world hate us." So it was easy to imagine Obama as a breath of foreign policy fresh air. He'd use a less-bumbling combination of diplomacy, "soft power," and carefully restrained force. He'd get us out of Iraq. Things would change for the better.

But now that Obama has been president for four years, "Not Bush" has lost its relevance. Obama's actual foreign policy is too complicated to sum up easily, and probably therefore too complicated for most voters to understand. We did get out of Iraq, but things don't seem to be going too well in Afghanistan; Obama has dramatically increased the use of drone strikes, which have solved some problems and created others; though opinions of America are somewhat better, lots of people still don't like us. It's a complex picture, and in the context of an election, the Obama campaign is going to react to most foreign policy questions with, "Remember that guy Osama bin Laden? He's dead."

True enough, but this complexity has left Republicans seemingly unable to critique the Obama foreign policy.

Getting to Know You, Getting to Know All About You

She's getting a bit displeased. (Flickr/Josh Janssen)

Seven months ago, I wrote a column explaining that my increasing irritation with Mitt Romney had made me understand how Republicans probably felt about Al Gore twelve years ago. The politician with the "authenticity" problem whose goals you share just seems awkward—undesirable from a strategic perspective, but hardly morally blameworthy—while the one from the other party seems irredeemably phony and dishonest. But I'm guessing lots of liberals, maybe most, feel the way I do, which is that is seems I like this guy less and less every day.

This has happened before. Before John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign, he seemed like a fairly reasonable person for a Republican, extremely conservative to be sure, but with an admirable willingness to buck his party every now and again and a refreshing honesty. But by the end of the race, I couldn't stand him, and I'm sure most liberals felt the same way. He had revealed himself to be unprincipled, petty, mean, and a whole bunch of other things. I concluded, with the help of copious evidence, that whatever positive feelings I had about him before were terribly mistaken. These days when I see him pop up on TV, my visceral reaction is, "Why do we care what you think, jerk?" So did John McCain change during the campaign? Or was it just that we got a better look at him? And is that what's happening with Romney?

Nine Is the Loneliest Number

(Flickr/Paul Downey)

I try to resist the temptation to argue that any particular statement a candidate makes represents his "true" self, revealing what he wants to conceal the rest of the time. This is something that campaigns say whenever their opponent makes a "gaffe," but in general what matters isn't what someone says once off the cuff, but what they repeat multiple times. That's why I have pointed to something Mitt Romney said repeatedly when asked about his taxes, that "I don't pay more than are legally due and frankly if I had paid more than are legally due I don't think I'd be qualified to become president." He really seemed to be saying that if you don't game the system as much as you can, then you're a sucker, a chump, and you wouldn't want a chump to be president.

This quote—and he said variations of it on more than one occasion, remember—is now coming back to haunt him, because Romney is releasing his 2011 tax returns, and his team of accountants and tax lawyers has fashioned them in a very particular way:

Could Romney Have Been a Different Candidate?

Flickr/Donkey Hotey

Mitt Romney has made a lot of mistakes in this campaign, not all of which came in the last couple of weeks. Now that we've moved into the "Is he doomed?" phase of campaign coverage, the always thoughtful Ron Brownstein wonders if Romney sowed the seeds of his own undoing by the way he ran his primary campaign:

Romney's biggest general-election problem is that he did not believe he could beat a GOP primary field with no competitor more formidable than Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, or Newt Gingrich without tacking sharply right on key issues. Romney repeatedly took policy positions that minimized his risks during the spring but have multiplied his challenges in the fall. His fate isn't sealed, but the choices he made in the primaries have left him with a path to victory so narrow that it might daunt IndianaJones. "To secure the nomination, they made … decisions about immigration, tax cuts, and a whole host of other issues that had no strategic vision," said John Weaver, a senior strategist for John McCain's 2008 campaign. "So he's now trapped demographically and doesn't even seem to understand it."

Of all Romney's primary-season decisions, the most damaging was his choice to repel the challenges from Perry and Gingrich by attacking them from the right—and using immigration as his cudgel. That process led Romney to embrace a succession of edgy, conservative positions anathema to many Hispanics, including denouncing Texas for providing in-state tuition to the children of illegal immigrants; praising Arizona's immigration-enforcement law; and, above all, promising to make life so difficult for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants that they would "self-deport." Although Romney this week tried to soften his tone, polls show Obama attracting at least the 67 percent of Latinos that he attracted in 2008, despite Hispanics' double-digit unemployment. Weaver, like other GOP strategists, worries that Romney has placed the GOP "on the precipice" of losing Hispanics for a generation.

There are really two questions this raises. The first is whether, if Mitt had run as more of a moderate, he would have been able to win the nomination. The second is whether, if he had, he'd be in a better position than he is now. Although Brownstein doesn't say so outright, the implication of his piece is that the answer to the first question is possibly no, while the answer to the second question is probably yes. My own view is exactly the opposite.

Friday Music Break

Virginia Coaltion, "Home This Year"

For today's Music Break, we're doing kind of a swaying-back-and-forth-with-gentle-head-bob thing. This is Virginia Coalition, doing "Home This Year" in somebody's back yard. The guy in the back is the keyboard player, who having no keyboards decides to make the most out of that tambourine.

Our Bipartisan Future?

Is that Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid? No. Definitely not. (Flickr/Go Splat)

Pretty much every presidential candidate in the last couple of decades has said that he was going to bring Republicans and Democrats together and end the partisan bickering in Washington that Americans so dislike. Bill Clinton said he would. George W. Bush said he would. Barack Obama said he would. All of them failed, and the one that tried hardest to do it—Obama—had a harder time than any of them. Despite the partisanship of their eras, both Clinton and Bush had significant pieces of legislation they passed with cross-party support, like Clinton's welfare reform and Bush's No Child Left Behind. But everything important Obama did was accomplished despite unified resistance from Republicans.

Conservatives might argue that the reason is that Obama is a uniquely partisan and vicious president, so cruel to Republicans that he's impossible to work with. But the real reason, as anyone who has been paying attention the last four years knows, is that Republicans made a decision upon his election that they would oppose anything and everything he wanted to do, and they've worked hard to make sure that their opposition is unanimous. After the 2010 election, in which a passel of Tea Party extremists was elected, whether or not to oppose Obama ceased to even be a question; the only question was whether they'd burn down the government to do so.

One unusual feature of this campaign has been that Mitt Romney hasn't said he's going to bring everybody together. Maybe it's because he thinks nobody would buy it if he did, or maybe it's because it's just not something he's interested in. But now he is saying it:

The Debates Won't Save Romney

Not gonna happen this year.

If you're a Romney partisan, and you've seen Barack Obama move ahead in the polls over the last couple of weeks, you may be saying to yourself, "Maybe the debates can save him." After all, the four debates (three presidential, one VP) are the the only planned events between now and election day. Though you never know what kind of unexpected events might occur, tens of millions of voters will be watching. And so many times in the past, the race has been transformed by a dramatic debate moment.

Except that's actually not true. As John Sides lays out quite well, after all the sound and fury, debates almost never change the trajectory of the race. Of course, something never happens up until the moment that it happens, but there's strong reason to believe that the debates will change nothing this year in particular. But before I get to that, here's Sides:

Voters Getting Mixed Signals from the Market

(AP Photo/Richard Drew)

Until not long ago, there was a widespread assumption that the economy could well be Barack Obama's undoing. After all, no president since Franklin Roosevelt had been re-elected with unemployment as high as it is now, so if Obama were to prevail, it would take an unusual combination of factors that usually matter only on the margins—the skills of the respective candidates, a foreign crisis or two—to allow him to win.

Talking to Themselves

Fox with a thoughtful exploration of the topic, featuring Donald Trump.

Mitt Romney and his Republican allies thought they had a way to diffuse the fallout from his now-legendary secretly recorded fundraising video when somebody unearthed a tape of President Obama saying he favored "redistribution." Sure, the tape is 14 years old. And sure, as Jamelle pointed out yesterday, pretty much everybody favors redistribution in some form, even Mitt Romney (if he didn't, he'd be advocating removing all progressivity from the tax code). Romney is bringing it up whenever he can, as is Paul Ryan, and the Obama tape has been shown on Fox News approximately three million times in the last 24 hours. Are they a little desperate? Of course. But the fact that they think such a thing will have even the remotest impact on what people think of Barack Obama shows that they are existing within an ideological cocoon that makes it almost impossible for them to figure out what they're doing wrong.

It isn't just that the tape is 14 years old (and man, has Obama aged in that time), or that what he's saying is pretty innocuous. It's that they think there's any statement of Obama's that they can unearth that will change how voters think of him. As though some significant number of voters are going to say, "I've been watching this guy on television every day for the last four years, but this 14-year-old videotape that contains the word "redistribution" has finally made me realize that he's a dangerous socialist. I was undecided before, but now you've got my vote, Mitt."

Newsweek: Is Asking Inane Questions the Future of Journalism?

Was Mussolini Right?

"He made the trains run on time," they said about Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, and it was more than just a cliché. It was a statement about a government that works, a government that means what it says and does what it wants. Sure, there were some problems with the treatment of dissidents. But some very smart political analysts are asking a question that would have been surprising just a few years ago: Is it time to give fascism another try?

What Mitt Romney Was Really Saying

Whenever we get a glimpse of a candidate speaking in a place where he didn't know he was being recorded, there's a powerful temptation to conclude that the "real" person has been revealed. After all, campaigning is almost all artifice, and every other moment at which we see the candidate, he's acutely aware that he is on stage, with people watching his every expression and listening to his every word. This is how many people are interpreting Mitt Romney's "47 percent" comments we learned about yesterday, even though Mitt was certainly on stage, even if he didn't know he was being recorded.

What Romney Left Behind

Flickr/Gage Skidmore

One of the common misconceptions about the presidential candidate version of Mitt Romney is that he disavowed his greatest achievement in public office, health care reform, in an attempt to appeal to his party's base. The truth is that he never actually disavowed it or said it was a failure or a mistake. What he did was tell primary voters that Romneycare was really nothing at all like Obamacare, and anyway Romneycare shouldn't be tried in any other state. His comments were utterly unconvincing, but since they were always accompanied by a thunderous denunciation of Obamacare, Republican voters were assuaged enough to let it slide.

Which means that had he wanted to, Romney probably could have entered the general election making a positive case on health care beyond "Repeal Obamacare!" By continuing to maintain that Romneycare was in fact a good thing when he was challenged on it (even if he didn't want to talk about it all that much), he gave himself enough rhetorical room that he could now be using the issue to show voters that he's both competent and compassionate, that he successfully tackled a difficult policy problem in a way that improved people's lives. Instead, his entire case for competence is that he got really rich in private equity, and his entire case for compassion is that his wife seems nice.

Two-Faced on Taxes

Chart of economic growth from New York Times.

A lot of the debate we have in America about economics (like many issues) ends up being statements of principle masquerading as analysis of empirical reality. And maybe this is my bias talking, but it seems like most of this comes from the conservative side. For example, it's now become disturbingly common to hear conservatives say that when you cut taxes, total tax revenues actually go up, since the tax cutting creates an explosion of economic growth that brings in lots of new revenue. This idea has zero empirical support. It isn't that cutting taxes can't increase growth somewhat, it's just that it doesn't increase it enough to make up for the lost revenue. Yet no matter how many times economists demonstrate that cutting taxes doesn't actually increase revenue, Republican politicians continue to claim that it does. This is widely known as the "Tax Fairy," since believing in it makes about as much sense as believing in the Tooth Fairy. But conservatives would certainly like it to be true. Their belief in low taxes, particularly for the wealthy, is really a moral position more than anything else. And if cutting taxes actually increased revenue and enabled us to cut the deficit, then that would be great too. But their moral belief is where things originate, and why empirical evidence that their preferred policy produces problems doesn't make them change their position.

I thought about this when I read this article in yesterday's New York Times by David Leonhardt, in which he relates a conversation he had with Paul Ryan about taxes. He gave Ryan a chart showing economic growth over the last few decades, to initiate a discussion about the efficacy of tax cuts. As you might remember, Bill Clinton raised taxes in 1993, and what ensued was a period of spectacular economic growth, with 23 million jobs created overall during Clinton's two terms. Then George W. Bush came in and cut taxes repeatedly, and what ensued was a decade of economic stagnation. How does Ryan explain the fact that in the real world, things worked out exactly the opposite of what conservative dogma predicts? His answer reveals the core contradiction at the heart of Republican beliefs about taxes:

The Simple Question That Never Gets Asked

Flickr/Alexander Drachmann

Yesterday, conservatives got all outraged because a microphone picked up a few journalists discussing with each other what questions they would ask Mitt Romney at what turned out to be his disastrous press conference on the events in Cairo and Benghazi. Aha! they shouted; Michelle Malkin told the Mensa convention that is "Fox & Friends" that "If it looks, sounds, talks like journo-tools for Obama, it is what it is." As Erik Wemple patiently carefully explained, in contexts like press conferences—by both Democratic and Republican politicians!—reporters often plan out what questions they'll ask. And you know what? They ought to do it more often. Maybe they wouldn't ask so many dumb questions.

It's certainly a problem that politicians are so sneaky and evade the questions journalists do ask. And the reporters don't really have time to sit down and engage in a process of deliberation so they can use their collective knowledge and wisdom to arrive at the questions that will prove the most edifying for the public. (And I should say that the problem isn't exclusive to political reporters. If I hear one more sports reporter who can't think of anything more interesting to ask an athlete than "What does this victory mean to you?" I'm going to scream.) But more often than not, what sounds on the surface like a zinger of a question doesn't actually amount to much more than an invitation for the politician to repeat his talking points.

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