There was a time not long ago when Democrats feared the culture war. They'd try to make campaigns about things like economic fairness, and just when things seemed to be going their way, Republicans would jump out from behind a bush and shout "God! Guns! Gays!" Voters would scream in alarm and pull the lever for the GOP. But here we are today, with Republicans desperately trying to change the subject away from gay marriage and back to the economy. Whodathunkit?
Any speechwriter knows that in constructing persuasive rhetoric it's important to take big, abstract ideas and communicate them through the stories of people. It isn't always easy, and you can't make every speech one long story about your Aunt Gladys, but if your speeches are nothing but facts and figures then they make it very hard for your audience to connect to what you're saying on an emotional level. From what I've seen, Mitt Romney doesn't do this very often when he's on the stump. When he does touch on individuals, it's often vague and brief, the "I met a guy the other day..." who illustrates a point and then is quickly abandoned.
This is notable because the whole connecting-with-people thing is something Romney has a bit of a political problem with. And it's certainly something the Obama campaign is emphasizing. Look at this ad the campaign just released discussing the auto bailout:
The presidential campaign story of the day is Jason Horowitz's lengthy portrait of Mitt Romney's days as a student at the elite Cranbrook prep school in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. While the story contains a lot of detail that paints the picture of who the youthful Mitt Romney was and what kind of environments he grew up in, the headline-grabbing part is Romney's leading role, corroborated by several witnesses, in a vicious assault on a classmate whom everyone thought was gay. Partisan Democrats are certainly going to use this to make the case that the incident gives us important insight into Romney's character.
If you were Mitt Romney right now, you'd probably feel like you're the victim of a double-standard. When you have changed your position on an issue in the past, everyone took it as proof that you have no core of beliefs and you'll flip-flop whenever the situation demands. But when Barack Obama does the same thing, he gets to say he has "evolved" and nobody takes it as proof of a character flaw. Surely, Mitt might be saying to himself, Americans will see this for the craven, politically motivated flip-flop it is and punish Obama for it, no matter what they think about gay marriage.
I'm afraid Mitt is going to be out of luck on this one. Obama's evolution will be treated differently than Romney's changes in position, for one important reason: because millions of people have gone through a similar evolution in the last few years...
A candidate delivers some baloney to a group of teenagers, who are appropriately unimpressed.
Massachusetts senator Scott Brown has released his first ad of the fall campaign, and it's a fairly anodyne message about how Brown is independent, since Republicans aren't too popular in the Bay State. But there is something highly objectionable in the ad (it's at the bottom of this post if you want to watch it), which is when we see Brown telling a bunch of teenagers, "There's absolutely nothing in this world that you can't get if you work hard at it." There may be no single piece of advice that politicians deliver to young people more often than this. Democrats, Republicans, Whigs, Tories, no matter who they are, you stick 'em in a room with a bunch of kids and before long they'll deliver the sage insight that anything is possible if you put your mind to it. Well, I'm here to say: bullshit.
I'll spare you the disquisition on rising inequality and the imperfections of capitalism. But just as a message delivered from a grown person to a young person, is there anything more meaningless than this?
So I open up my dead-tree edition of the New York Times today, and see an article entitled "Liberal Donors' Plan Worries Top Democrats," about how the fact that some rich Democratic donors have decided to put their money into grassroots organizing instead of the kind of superPAC Republicans have, where nearly every penny goes to fund television ads, has got some Democrats fuming. The article quotes exactly one complainer, Harry Reid's chief of staff, who says, "Why go off and build a redundant grass-roots and get-out-the-vote organization that the Obama campaign is clearly invested in?...Why would they rule out this tried-and-true medium?" The Republicans will be investing so much on TV, and Democrats will be outgunned!
Right below that story, on the same page of the Times, is a profile of Obama campaign ad guru Jim Margolis, discussing all the groovy ads he's going to create for the Obama campaign to destroy Mitt Romney with. Which is a good reminder that Democrats fretting about their outside money should chill out...
The current controversy over the state of President Obama's "evolution" on same-sex marriage is one of those things that once it happens seems inevitable. After all, most everyone, both conservative and liberal, assumes that in his heart Obama does believe everyone ought to have the same marriage rights, but he thinks it's too risky to make that step before this fall's election. It's not exactly a profile in courage to say that you're in the process of changing your mind, but you haven't quite changed it yet. Perhaps he thought that the same answers he's been giving up until now would be sufficient to put off the time when he'd have to confront the issue more directly, but now that his Vice President has put him on the spot and every cabinet secretary is going to get asked for his or her opinion at every interview, he really can't hold out much longer. All of which made me wonder, how does this look from the vantage point of the right?
Dick Lugar hanging out with some Hollywood liberal. (Flickr/Talk Radio News Service)
Today in Indiana, Senator Richard Lugar will probably be defeated in a Republican primary by Richard Mourdock, the state treasurer, 3-time failed congressional candidate, and Tea Party favorite. Lugar might be the single most respected member of the Senate, a guy who has been in office for 35 years, has carved out areas of interest and expertise that don't bring with them anything in the way of contributions or votes (foreign affairs, nuclear proliferation), and finds areas where he can work with Democrats. And that, of course, was his undoing. Perhaps Lugar's greatest sin in their eyes was that he maintained a good relationship with Barack Obama (horrors!). The Tea Party may be fading, but it had enough left in its tank to knock Lugar out.
Not what will determine the outcome of this election.
Making clear (if it wasn't already) that he'll be running for president in 2016, New York governor Andrew Cuomo has decided to write a book, in which he'll lay out his vision for America. America no doubt awaits with bated breath. Which got me wondering: When was the last time a sitting politician actually wrote a book worth reading? We'll have to consult the historians on whether the answer is "never," but it certainly hasn't happened in a long, long time.
Having never worked on Wall Street, I don't know much about the psychology of the typical stock analyst or bond trader. So I've been as bewildered as anyone when I see stories quoting denizens of the Street complaining about the Obama administration. Not about, say, the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau—that's not surprising, since it's an agency created to rein in their abuses, and so it directly impinges on their financial interests—but about how their feelings have been hurt. After Wall Street gave more money to Obama than to John McCain, these days those masters of the universe feel put upon. As former Prospect writer Nicholas Confessore wrotein the New York Times Magazine about a discussion an Obama representative had with some of them not long ago, "They felt unfairly demonized for being wealthy. They felt scapegoated for the recession. It was a few weeks into the Occupy Wall Street movement, with mass protests against the 1 percent springing up all around the country, and they blamed the president and his party for the public’s nasty mood. The administration, some suggested, had created a hostile environment for job creators."
The natural response one has to this, of course, is "Cry me a frickin' river." You destroyed the American economy then got bailed out by the taxpayers, and your feelings are hurt because Barack Obama once used the term "fat cats" in an interview? You're shocked that all American's don't understand that every time a derivatives trader buys a Ferrari, an angel gets her wings? And you expected Obama to help the public understand that? Please. As Noam Scheiber points out, these guys may be very clever when it comes to creating intricate webs of collateralized debt obligations, but they don't understand the first thing about politics...
Karl Rove's signature contribution to campaign politics was the insight that the most effective way to defeat an opponent was not to attack his greatest weakness, but to attack his greatest strength. (There's some vivid detail from Joshua Green's classic 2004 article on Rove's history as a campaigner. Sample: Your client's opponent volunteers to help abused children? Spread rumors that he's a pedophile!) There's no doubt that at the moment, Mitt Romney's greatest strength is the idea that as a successful businessman, he will do a good job stewarding the American economy. In fact, that may be his only strength. He's stiff and awkward, he has a well-earned reputation for changing his stated beliefs to suit the political moment, he just went through a primary campaign in which he took numerous unpopular positions in order to please an extremist party base, the severe unpopularity of his party in Congress will drag him down, he has nothing particularly compelling to say about foreign policy—you get the picture.
For a while, Democrats believed that if the economy kept improving, that would leave Romney with no rationale for his candidacy. But at the moment, the economy looks like it will continue to shamble forward, moving in the right direction but not with enough momentum to make everyone feel things are going really well (though there will be six more monthly job numbers released between now and election day, and anything could happen). That means that it will be necessary for the Obama campaign to go after Romney on the economy...
The questioning of motives is one of the most common and most pernicious of rhetorical habits in political debate. It's pernicious because it encourages people to conclude not that your opponents are wrong about whatever matter it is we're discussing, but that they're bad people. When you question someone's motives you're automatically calling them a liar (since they will have offered an entirely different justification for why they are advocating what they're advocating), and you're also saying they're untrustworthy, cynical, and driven by some nefarious goal.
We see this all the time, and I'm not saying I've never questioned anyone's motives, because from time to time I have. But we have to acknowledge that someone can take a different position from the one we do without the disagreement coming from some place of evil. To see what I'm talking about, here's today's column by Charles Krauthammer, probably the most admired columnist on the right. Appalled that President Obama is now running for re-election and disagreeing with his opponents on matters of policy after saying he would try to unite the country, Krauthammer says this:
Since Tuesday was May Day, I thought I'd give you a little Billy Bragg, with "World Turned Upside Down" from 1985. It sounds like he's singing about Occupy Wall Street, but the song is actually about a seventeenth-century agrarian socialist movement in England, which I'm guessing wasn't embraced by the economic leaders of that day, either.
Atilla the Hun, who would probably have believed in climate change.
In 2007, amid intense debates about the war in Iraq, MoveOn.org placed an ad in the New York Times criticizing General David Petraeus for some of the arguments he was making about the war. In a not-so-clever bit of punning, they referred to him as "General Betray Us." The response was furious. The controversy dominated the news for days, and both houses of Congress passed resolutions condemning the ad, with many Democrats joining Republicans to express their outrage at MoveOn's action (there's a good summary here, if you want to remind yourself of the details).
I raise the MoveOn ad because of a new billboard campaign from the Heartland Institute, one of the foremost climate change denial outfits in existence. Behold:
The departure of Ric Grenell from the Romney campaign is something that approximately zero undecided voters know or care anything about, but does it tell us anything interesting or useful about Mitt Romney himself? In case you haven't heard, Grenell is a longtime Republican communications professional who was hired by the Romney campaign to be a spokesperson on foreign policy; then liberals started criticizing Grenell for some nasty tweets he had sent, while social conservatives started criticizing him for being gay. The Romney campaign didn't care much about the liberals' criticism, but was apparently quite unnerved by the conservatives' criticism.