Vox Pop

The Prospect's politics blog

We're All Values Voters

(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

As recently as last month’s convention, Democrats were getting their narrative back. They were uniformly praised for their message discipline and for laying out an inspiring vision for the country, reflected in a string of rousing speeches that told a story and signaled (instead of concealed) their values. After last night’s debate, Dems risk falling back into the lost decades when the party could offer only a grab bag of policy goodies to its fragile coalition instead of a coherent governing philosophy. If Barack Obama’s debate performance is any indication, they seem poised to forget a key lesson from the last three elections: We’re all “values voters.”

David Brooks, the World's Most Gullible Man

Flickr/Newshour

A couple of weeks ago, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a scathing piece about Mitt Romney's "47 percent" video, saying "It suggests that Romney doesn't know much about the culture of America." But now that Romney has moved to the center, not only is Brooks back on board, he's here to testify that this new moderate Mitt is the "authentic" one. I kid you not:

But, on Wednesday night, Romney finally emerged from the fog. He broke with the stereotypes of his party and, at long last, began the process of offering a more authentic version of himself...

Most important, Romney did something no other mainstream Republican has had the guts to do. Either out of conviction or political desperation, he broke with Tea Party orthodoxy and began to redefine the Republican identity. And, having taken this step, he's broken the spell. Conservatives loved it! They loved that it was effective, and it was effective because Romney could more authentically be the man who (I think) he truly is.

And what do you know, the "authentic" Romney just happens to be the one who adopts a perfectly Brooksian version of conservatism, one in which you say nice things about bipartisanship and compassion, then pursue dogmatic right-wing policies.

Let me repeat what I've said before: There is no "authentic" or "real" Mitt Romney. Neither the moderate we saw in the debate, nor the Randian of the "47 percent" video spewing contempt on society's moochers, nor the "severely conservative" candidate (his own words) of the primaries is the real Romney, because there is no real Romney. He is whoever he believes the political requirements of the moment demand him to be. His persona is always in flux, changing as the political situation changes. And he obviously surmised—quite accurately, as it turned out—that with conservatives growing increasingly desperate over his campaign's prospects, he could unveil a newly moderate persona at the debate and they would silence their objections.

If there had ever been a single moment in his political career in which Romney took an unpopular stand, assuming a real political risk out of conviction, you might say that he had revealed the "authentic" Romney. But he never has. Yet David Brooks apparently believes that when Romney changes his identity once again, in a way that just happens to improve his political fortunes, that he has brought forth his true self. I suppose if Brooks were some kind of Hannityesque partisan hack, you could assume that he's only saying this because it helps Romney. But that's not who Brooks is. He actually believes it.

Fri, Oct. 05 Electoral Vote Predictor

Obama Approval Reaches 3-Year High

While President Obama turned in a lackluster debate performance that was panned by Republicans and Democrats alike, he got some good news yesterday: According to a new Gallup poll, his approval rating now stands at 54 percent—the highest it has been in three years. Historically, presidents with an approval rating above 50 percent have been re-elected while those under 50 percent have struggled and often lost.

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A Day Late, A Debate Short

Today in Denver, 13 hours after he slumped off stage in inglorious defeat while conservatives set off rhetorical bonfires of celebration across the land, President Obama finally decided it was time to begin debating his opponent. At a post-debate rally that was more of a postmortem, Obama told dispirited Democrats that the previous evening "I met this very spirited fellow who claimed to be Mitt Romney. But it couldn't have been Mitt Romney,” because the real one “has been running around the country for the last year promising $5 trillion in tax cuts that favor the wealthy.

B Is for Bad Moderator

(AP Photo/Matt Sayles, File)

All spinning aside—and if I read the term "rope-a-dope" one more time, I may lose it—Wednesday's debate was a bummer for Obama's partisans and a lift for Mitt Romney's. But let's not slight the night's one great contribution to American unity. Who among us can forget the thrill of realizing we were all fed up with Jim Lehrer? From blue, red, and even purple throats alike, a roar of "Put a sock in it, you dweeb" rang through the land.

Obama the Apologetic

Obama and Romney, yukking it up.

As I read over the transcript of the debate, a couple of things struck me. First, on the page it doesn't look nearly as bad for Obama as a lot of people are saying. Of course, the debate doesn't exist for most people on the page, but what I found frustrating wasn't so much that Obama said things that were bad in and of themselves, but that he let so many opportunities pass by.

And what a lot of it comes down to is his seeming inability to use direct language. We heard leading up to the debate that his advisers were encouraging him to make his answers shorter, but length isn't his problem. It's that he uses passive constructions and language that hedges when he should be speaking more clearly. To show what I mean, here are a few of the things he said during the debate when he was criticizing Romney, and how they might have been put more clearly.

At Long Last, Romney Shifts to the Center

(AP Photo/Eric Gay)

For some time now, I've been wondering when Mitt Romney would finally make that "shift to the center" that candidates supposedly do after they win their party's nomination. The need was particularly acute for Romney, since his party is particularly unpopular with the public, and he spent the primaries working so hard to convince base Republican voters that he was, in his immortal phrase, "severely conservative." But it never seemed to happen. Until last night.

There's no question that Romney performed better than Obama in most every way. But what was really striking to me was how different he sounded than he has up until now. If you hadn't paid any attention to politics over the last year and a half, you'd think this Mitt Romney guy must have been the most moderate Republican running this year, and not (as was actually the case) one of the most conservative.

"And Now Begins the Overreaction."

Opening Remarks

 

The Debate in 17 GIFs

Obama Shouts Out to Michelle for Their Anniversary

 

Mitt Says He Loves Coal

 

Obama Nods.

 

Mitt Offers Some Simplistic Platitudes.

 

Obama Nods.

 

Obama Name-Checks Bill Clinton. Twice.

 

Romney Wins ... and It Won't Matter

(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

For the last two weeks, I have argued—consistently—that the debates don’t matter for the outcome of the presidential election. And now that we’ve had the first debate, I still think that’s true.

Which is not to say that this wasn’t interesting. For the first time since he began running for the Republican nomination, Mitt Romney looked comfortable. During his debate with President Obama, he took command, clearly explained his points of disagreement, and offered a little humanity with stories of the unemployed and suffering.

Obama: Game Off

(AP/David Goldman)

Not since George H.W. Bush’s “I’m so bored I’m looking at my watch” turn in the town-hall debate against Bill Clinton and Ross Perot in 1992 has a sitting president performed as lethargically as Barack Obama did in Denver. The juice that the Democratic Convention injected into his re-election effort was leeched out, in the span of 90 minutes, by his faltering, small-ball effort. The president didn’t just play it safe; he didn’t play at all.

That was not merely the reason Obama lost; it was also the reason Mitt Romney gave him a good old-fashioned stomping. The Mittster came across as a man who can’t wait to be president. Sure, he was overeager at times. Yes, he was unappealingly aggressive at times, especially as he mercilessly steamrolled the hapless and foggy Jim Lehrer. And of course, his “plans” made no sense whatsoever, as the president limply tried to point out. But what Romney projected, in contrast to the droopy incumbent, was an electric energy—the thing that comes across most strongly on TV. Also, in another bright contrast with the president, he did more than drone on about policy particulars; he framed several of his answers by referencing larger principles, as when he talked about not leaving a huge national debt to future generations as a “moral issue.”

The First Presidential Debate

In Wednesday night’s debate, Romney won on style while Obama won on substance. Romney sounded as if he had conviction, which means he’s either convinced himself that the lies he tells are true or he’s a fabulous actor.

First Round to Romney

(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

How could Barack Obama have been so feeble a debater? Mitt Romney gave him one opening after another, but Obama stuck closely to prescripted talking points.

Romney’s strategy, as it has been throughout the campaign, was to lie, and for the most part Obama failed to call him on it. Romney essentially disavowed the tax and budget plan he has been running on for eighteen months, claiming that it was possible to cut tax rates and make up the difference by closing loopholes. Obama correctly pointed out that the arithmetic didn’t work. But Obama failed to challenge Romney to identify just which loopholes he would close.

On Social Security and Medicare, Romney gave Obama another opening that the president failed to maximize. Romney said that nobody at or near retirement age needed to fear any changes. The obvious implication is Social Security and Medicare cuts for younger people. Obama had a nice one-liner—"If you are 54 or 55, you might want to pay attention."—but he failed to drive the point home.

Black and Right

So much of politics can be described as an elaborate game of “I know you are, but what am I?” One side makes an attack, and the other side tries to mirror or echo it. For a prime example of this, look no further than yesterday’s attempt by conservative bloggers to turn a five-year-old Barack Obama speech into a campaign scandal, following the “47 percent” video that has inflicted huge damage on Mitt Romney’s campaign.

Debate Prep, the Domestic Policy Round

(AP Photos)

The first of three presidential debates will take place today at the University of Colorado in Denver and focus on domestic policy. Here's a list of the best pieces we've published about each candidate's domestic-policy agenda.

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