Paul Waldman

The Limits of Incumbency and the Politics of Spectatorship

Flickr/Scout Tufankjian
At times, Barack Obama's speech last night felt like a State of the Union address—a lengthy recitation of issues, one after another, during which you could imagine pundits writing "Booooring!" in their notes, and then you'd find out the next day that the public loved it. But the limitations of the speech demonstrated the difficulty Obama has as an incumbent. The expectations are high any time he gives a major speech, but last night's was a reminder that a large part of what made Obama such an effective orator in 2008 was particular to the role of challenger, and something that simply can't be duplicated now. To put last night in context, we have to go back to 2008. In the last election, Obama's speeches had not just a second-person perspective but an active second-person perspective, talking not only about who you are but what you are doing. This was absolutely critical to giving his campaign that feeling of history in the making, and history as something participatory. It tapped into...

You Can Hide, But You Can't Run

Resistance is futile.
As exciting as it is to watch Olympic sprinters tear down the track, the truth is that running fast for short distances is just not really human beings' thing. Usain Bolt, the fastest human ever to walk the planet, has reached a top speed of 27.78 miles per hour, which is an amble to a cheetah or a gazelle. Heck, your dachshund can almost certainly outrun you, even with its stubby little legs. What gave our ancestors an evolutionary advantage was their stamina, the ability to chase down prey by running and running until the poor wildebeest ran out steam and dropped. The bright side of this story is that in the not-too-distant future, robots will be able to hunt and capture your slowpoke self without too much trouble, should the authorities determine that you have a suspicious bulge in your pocket or you need to be punished for jaywalking. Boston Dynamics, a robotics company that uses your tax dollars (in the form of grants from DARPA , the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) to...

Convention Sweeps and Blowouts

(AP Photo)
(AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian) Barack Obama tours the convention floor at the FleetCenter in Boston, Sunday, July 25, 2004, a day before the start of the Democratic National Convention and his big career-changing keynote address. A t this year's Republican convention, the speeches were largely competent but uninspiring. Do you remember anything Marco Rubio said? It was only a week ago. No, none of their speeches will stand for the ages. The Democrats seem to be faring better, with Michelle Obama's terrific speech on Tuesday night and former President Bill Clinton's wonktastic 90s throwback address on Wednesday. In advance of President Obama's speech tonight, here's a review of some of the most notable speeches (for better and, occasionally, for worse) of the last 80 years. FDR Until 1932, the nominee himself wouldn't come to the convention to formally accept his party's nomination. Franklin Roosevelt broke with that tradition, travelling to Chicago to tell the delegates, "I pledge you,...

America Loves Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton's approval ratings.
We don't yet know how many people watched Bill Clinton's speech last night, but since on the first night of the Democratic convention ratings were a bit higher than for the Republican convention, it's fair to assume we're talking about something in the vicinity of 30 million viewers. Which is fine, but it isn't anything close to a majority of the electorate. But even if most voters didn't actually see Clinton's speech, just the fact that everyone is aware that he's out there vouching for Barack Obama can have an impact. Because the basic question of the campaign—should we keep this guy and his people in charge, or turn it over to that other guy and his people?—will be answered in a context created by people's memories of recent history. Republicans may not like to be reminded, but after all the energy they spent trying to take down Bill Clinton, he left office with spectacular approval ratings. In the final Gallup poll of his presidency, he was at 66 percent approval, which was around...

The Media Whinefest Commences

Members of the news media arrive at RNC in Tampa, prepare to talk about nothing. (Flickr/NewsHour)
I have a lot of sympathy for campaign reporters. Their time on the trail can be exhausting, a weird combination of high stress and utter boredom. Every day they have to follow their candidate around to another event that was just like the last one, where he'll say exactly the same things and they have to figure out how to write a story that isn't precisely the same as what they wrote yesterday. And now that their news organizations want them to produce content for a wide array of platforms, it gets even harder. That being said, reporters can sometimes get seriously whiny. To wit, this story in Politico about how the members of the traveling press corps all think campaign 2012 is a total bummer: If there is one narrative to anchor what often feels like a plotless 2012 campaign, it is media disillusionment. Reporters feel like both campaigns have decided to run out the clock with limited press avails, distractions, and negative attacks, rather than run confident campaigns with bold...

The RNC Convention TV Ratings In Historical Perspective

This kid should clearly have been at home watching TV. (Flickr/NewsHour)
When Mitt Romney gave his convention speech on Thursday, as far as we can tell the collective response from the everyone in the country was, "Meh." I haven't seen any Democrats who said it was a disaster, but I also haven't seen any Republicans who said it was fantastic. And lo and behold, Gallup reports that 40 percent of respondents in their poll said Romney's speech made them more likely to vote for him, while 38 percent said it made them less likely to vote for him. That net positive of +2 makes Romney's the least effective speech since Gallup started asking this question in 1984. That's probably partly because the speech was nothing special, and partly because people are largely going to react along partisan lines no matter what it actually contained. But one thing that's weird about this is that 78 percent of people expressed an opinion about Romney's speech. And in a separate question, a nearly identical 76 percent said they had watched at least some of the Republican...

Friday Music Break

Tap.
I have to say that I really thought the Republican convention was going to have more hippie-bashing. After all, there's nothing a Republican loves more than telling a stupid hippie where to get off. But perhaps because the party decided that the culture war isn't going their way, they decided to leave that stuff behind and just focus on how much Democrats hate capitalism. So to honor what was missing from the RNC, this week's music break is "Listen to the Flower People," from This Is Spinal Tap , the funniest movie ever made.

A Convention of Bootstrap-Pullers

One day, his great-grandson would grow up to propose block-granting Medicaid. (photo by Jacob Riis)
Kevin Drum noticed something that I also found striking about the Republican convention, that it seemed like every speaker had to relate their hard-luck tale of a rise from poverty. And if they didn't actually have their own such story, then they told their parents' story, or their grandparents' story. Kevin laments that, like many of us, he has to go back a couple of generations in his family to find the inspiring tale of bootstrap-pulling. You'll also notice that most of these stories end with the teller exulting that "only in America" could someone like them, who had a parent or grandparent who was poor, today be standing in front of a crowd of people wearing elephant hats. I've complained before about the ridiculousness of "only in America," but oh boy was it repeated often over the last three days. We even heard it from Ann Romney, who told us how she and Mitt were so deprived when they were starting out that they lived in a basement apartment and used an ironing board for a...

What Romney's Speech Didn't Do

I am talking at you, America! (Flickr/NewsHour)
I often find it difficult to give an objective assessment of something like Mitt Romney's speech last night. For those of us who are immersed in politics and have strong opinions, setting aside one's prior judgments and beliefs is all but impossible, particularly when you're faced with a speech like this one that wasn't obviously great or obviously terrible. Having acknowledged my biases, my conclusion is that this speech isn't going to change too many minds. Like many people, I find Mitt Romney to be the most artificial of politicians. There are many things that go into that, some of which are more serious than others. The fact that he's awkward and stiff is completely forgivable; there have been awkward and stiff Democratic candidates (Kerry, Gore) whom I thought would make perfectly good presidents. As Jon Chait said , "Romney seems to lack a talent for faking sincerity," which is no crime in and of itself. On the other hand, the fact that he seems utterly devoid of principles (...

Fact-Checkers Are No Match For Romney and Ryan

Flickr/depone
In the vice-presidential debate in 1984, George H.W. Bush charged that Walter Mondale and his running mate Geraldine Ferraro had said that the Marines killed in their barracks the year before in Lebanon had "died in shame." It was a lie—neither Mondale nor Ferraro had said any such thing. The Democrats were outraged and demanded an apology, but Bush refused to even admit he hadn't told the truth. Asked about the controversy later, Bush's press secretary, Peter Teeley, made a stunning statement. "You can say anything you want during a debate, and 80 million people hear it." And what if reporters then wrote stories demonstrating that the candidate had lied? "So what?" Teeley responded. "'Maybe 200 people read it or 2,000 or 20,000.'' But things are different now, right? Now we have fact-checkers, so candidates can't get away with that kind of thing. Well ... maybe not. Last night, Paul Ryan delivered a speech that may have set a new standard for dishonesty in an already dishonest...

And the Nominees for Best Political Actor Are ...

(Flickr/NewsHour)
Before Mitt Romney takes the stage today to deliver his acceptance speech, we'll probably get to see a biographical video explaining who Romney is, where he comes from, what he believes, and why he's right for America. The convention film has become one of the centerpieces of these gatherings, so we thought we'd take a little tour of some of the best films from the past to see what makes a good convention film and we might be in for. The convention film may not seem like such a big deal when the campaigns put out videos of some kind or another nearly every day, but it's their only chance to have a highly produced ten minutes or so viewed by tens of millions of voters, all at the same time. The best convention films have managed to unite the candidate's story with our own stories—how we see ourselves and how we see our country. But it took a while for them to become really effective pieces of propaganda, even though campaign films have existed in one form or another nearly as long as...

Quest for Immortality Suffers Setback

Now try not to overstuff yourself. (Flickr/whologwhy)
Ever since the 1930s, researchers have known that calorie restriction could dramatically extend life in some organisms. Radically reduce the calories an organism gets–say by 40 percent or more–and the organism will often live longer than you would have thought possible. This effect was seen in worms, mice, and some other species, with the attendant hope that it might work in humans as well. While the precise mechanism hasn't been understood completely, essentially it seemed that when it's getting less nutrition, the body goes into some kind of survival mode that allows it to forestall the ravages of age. The joke about calorie restriction is this: If you eat nothing but lettuce and millet for the rest of your days, you may not live forever, but it'll sure seem like forever. Nevertheless, there are some hardy souls who are trying ( see here , for example), subsisting on meager meals and poking new holes in their belts while they contemplate what things will be like when 100 is the new...

When Mitt Romney Stops Being Polite ... And Starts Getting Real

You won't be seeing this at the RNC.
Assuming the Republican convention doesn't get cancelled altogether, the GOP will be trying to "humanize" Mitt Romney, so that American voters will come to realize that he is, in fact, a human. And apparently, Republican bigwigs are concerned that the Romney campaign hasn't yet, and may not ever, put the proper effort into this task. According to Politico , they're grumbling about Romney's inability to respond effectively to attacks on him for not releasing his taxes, and are worried that the convention won't be enough about Romney the man. As for Mitt himself, he seems to be attempting a kind of jiu-jitsu on this question. Here's my favorite part: In a Saturday interview with POLITICO, Romney rejected what he suggested was a sort of political cosmetic surgery advocated by political or media commentators who say he needs to overhaul his image. Paraphrasing Popeye, Romney said, "I am who I am." It was a line that suggested a kind of genial freedom from artifice — an impression that was...

The Hidden GOP Convention

(AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
Illustrations by DonkeyHotey (Flickr) If you tune in to the networks' prime-time coverage of the Republican National Convention, you'll see the big speeches, learn what Karl Rove thinks about Mitt Romney's chances (prediction: Rove is bullish), and hear a lot of people extoll Romney's can-do spirit and well-groomed family. But there's another side to the gathering, beyond the silly hats, arguments over arcane convention rules, and general whoopin' and hollerin'. After extensive reporting, placing of hidden listening devices, and a greased palm or two, we have assembled this guide to the hidden RNC, to give you a window into the convention only the insiders know about. Though the official story had it that Monday's events were cancelled due to the imminent arrival of Tropical Storm Isaac, we have it on good authority that the problem was actually the delayed arrival of Iggy. In every Republican convention since 1980, official activities cannot commence until a bull is sacrificed to...

Fear Not the Bump

Don't let this worry you.
Since I write about politics for a living, my family and friends often ask me for my opinions about matters political, and in recent days these queries have taken on an edge—not quite panic, but let's call it worry. "Romney doesn't really have a chance, does he?" one person asked me yesterday with a quaver in her voice. Well, sure he has a chance, I replied. I'm still fairly confident that Obama is going to win in the end, but Romney does have a chance. Which brings us to this week and the Republican convention. Right now, the race is essentially tied. If you look at averages of the polls, you see anything from an Obama advantage of about a point (that's what the Pollster.com average has, as does the Real Clear Politics average ) to a Romney advantage of half a point (that's what the TPM average has). On the other hand, everybody sees a substantial advantage for Obama in the electoral college. But this is a good time for liberals to prepare themselves for something: at the end of this...

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