In a state as red as Texas, general elections are mostly formalities; GOP primaries are the main events. That’s one explanation for the national focus on Tuesday’s U.S. Senate primary, where Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst faces a field led by former Solicitor General Ted Cruz in a quest to replace retiring Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. As the name indicates, Cruz is far from a traditional Republican candidate—which is the main reason the right has been buzzing about this race for months. He’s not only the son of a Cuban-American father, he’s also a darling of the Tea Party, with Sarah Palin and Rick Santorum’s stamps of approval.
For political junkies, it’s easy to think that campaign tussles make a difference in presidential elections. Washington was consumed with the story of Mitt Romney the high school bully, but voters could care less—in a recent poll from ABC News and TheWashington Post, 90 percent said that it wouldn’t be a factor in their view of the GOP nominee. Likewise, the massive controversy over Elizabeth Warren’s Native American heritage has had zero effect on Massachusetts voters—69 percent say they simply don’t care.
Congress is deadlocked on a host of issues that will need to be solved before the end of the year lest the country plunge off a fiscal cliff at the start of 2013. If no action is taken, all of the Bush tax cuts will expire, the payroll tax will return to higher rates, and the full-sequester spending cuts will go into effect, with the debt ceiling hitting its limit shortly thereafter. Estimates from the Congressional Budget Office released early this week paint a horror story for the start of 2013, with the economy contracting by 1.3 percent.
The President, engaged in a vulgar activity. (White House photo by Pete Souza)
As I mentioned the other day, reporters are both repulsed by and attracted to negative campaigning, and I think that probably goes for most of us as well. On one hand, we want to say, "Tut, tut, you shouldn't be doing that." On the other hand, not only can't we look away, but we desperately want our own favored candidate to go negative, so we can get the visceral satisfaction from watching our disfavored candidate get assaulted. It's analogous to the way we feel when watching a movie or reading a story: if the bad guy doesn't get killed in the end, we're left feeling unsatisfied.
But we also have a series of campaign conventions regarding what kind of behavior is acceptable that have little or nothing to justify them. One that has always mystified me is the idea that it's impolite to mention your opponent by name. Instead, you're supposed to say "my opponent" and speak of "the other party," as if to make clear whom you're talking about is somehow rude. This is supposed to be doubly true for the president, for whom it is perfectly acceptable to criticize the guy running to take his job, but unseemly to do so by saying the man's name.
Beneath the skirmish over whether President Obama should use Bain Capital against Mitt Romney (simple answer: duh), you could detect a deeper—and far more edifying—theme that’s starting to define the presidential campaign. Obama’s ringing response in Chicago to critics of his Bain criticisms made the plainest logical sense: If Romney’s going to claim his business experience as his main qualification for the presidency, then of course that business experience is part of the debate.
Perhaps Newt Gingrich's presidential campaign wasn't meaningless after all. During the Florida primary, I tracked Gingrich and his ludicrousproposals to overhaul the entire federal government so quickly upon taking office that he would barely have time to change into a tux for the inauguration parties. His extensive list of promises for day one was absurd, yet it seems to have influenced Mitt Romney. Romney's first general-election ad was titled "Day One," and now the Republican nominee revisits the same idea in a new ad, unimaginatively called "Day One, Part Two."
Marco Rubio spent much of the past year denying his ambitions to attain higher office. He would shoot down reporters every time they questioned his desire to join the 2012 Republican ticket as vice president, claiming his intent was solely to learn the ins and outs of the Senate. "I don't want to be the vice president right now, or maybe ever. I really want to do a good job in the Senate," he said in an interview last month.
But now that the veepstakes has kicked, off Rubio's adopted a far different tone. From a speech in D.C. yesterday:
Despite what the average voter probably thinks, presidential candidates keep the overwhelming majority of the promises they make. And most of the ones they don't keep aren't because they were just lying, but because circumstances changed or they tried to keep the promise and failed. But that's in the big, broad strokes, while the details are another matter. It's easy to put out a plan for, say, tax reform, but even if you achieve tax reform, it's Congress that has to pass it, and they will inevitably shape it to their own ends. This happened to a degree with President Obama's health care reform: it largely resembles what he proposed during the 2008 campaign, but not entirely. He had said he wanted a public option, for instance, but eventually jettisoned that, and had rejected an individual mandate, but eventually embraced it as unavoidable.
Which brings us to Mitt Romney's health care plan...
Mitt Romney is unsettled by your questions. (Flickr/Gage Skidmore)
I've been on a long crusade, which began before this campaign and will probably continue after it, to get everyone to think more clearly about what it means when a politician says "I'm not a politician, I'm a businessman." It's particularly important this year, of course, because one of the major party candidates is putting forward his business experience as the primary rationale for his candidacy. I don't know if that's ever happened before, and it certainly hasn't happened in the modern era. We're still waiting to hear what stunning business insights Mitt Romney will bring to the White House that no other person could possibly have. And yesterday, Time's Mark Halperin — himself the target of a lot of well-deserved derision over the years — made an admirable effort to try to pin Romney down on this question in an interview. Unsurprisingly, he failed. Let's read an excerpt:
There’s been a growing sense over the last month that Barack Obama is winning battles but losing the war—until this past week, when he lost the battle too. Governor Mitt Romney, repudiating an effort by the former chairman of a major online brokerage firm to underwrite a $10 million advertisement that raises anew questions about the president’s former minister, equated the tactic to the “character assassination” represented by questions about Romney’s experience with the private-equity company Bain Capital.
The debate over Mitt Romney's tenure at Bain Capital has moved through a number of phases, from "Did Mitt Romney do awful things at Bain Capital?" to "Should the Obama campaign be criticizing Mitt Romney for what he did at Bain Capital?", and now, "Is private equity a good thing or a bad thing?" Shockingly, people in the private equity business think the answer to the last is that it's quite good. The predominant opinion from other people is that it's sometimes good and sometimes bad, which from what I can tell is a pretty good summation of Romney's PE career. At times, he helped start companies that went on to thrive, or helped companies perform better and survive. And at other times, he acted as what Rick Perry called a "vulture capitalist."
But while it may be an interesting discussion for economists and economic writers to mull over, "Is private equity good or bad?" really isn't a question we need to answer in the context of this presidential campaign. The question we need to answer is, "Does running a successful private equity firm mean you'll be a successful president?"
Campaign reporters are often conflicted. You could say hypocritical, but that might be unnecessarily judgmental. For instance, they condemn rigorous adherence to talking points, but any display of candor is severely punished with the kind of coverage that makes what are widely known as "Kinsley gaffes" (i.e. inadvertently telling the truth) far less likely. They despise the culture of the political consultant, with its emphasis on style over substance and perception over reality, but simultaneously embrace that culture as their own, focusing relentlessly on appearances and how things are going to play with the public, acting like theater critics evaluating the show of politics. And they condemn negative campaigning, while at the same time they hunger for negativity, since nothing is more boring than a campaign in which the contestants are polite to each other.
One of the ways this is apparent is in how any bare-knuckled move by Barack Obama is greeted by tut-tutting that he has turned his back on that hopey-changey, above-partisanship guy he used to be...
Polls remain essentially tied between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney as the campaign heads into the pre-convention summer slog. That gives pundits plenty of time to chew over various scenarios for how each candidate could reconfigure their campaigns before the general election. The veepstakes is already the dominant story on Romney's side, but some have also begun speculating about Obama's running mate.
A month and a half ago, we learned that in contrast to what usually happens to a not-entirely-unsuccesful presidential contender, the candidacy of one Newton Leroy Gingrich had seriously hampered the former Speaker's ability to get people to give him money for doing very little other than spout off his opinion on things. You see, Newt had carefully constructed a network of organizations whose main purpose was getting people to give him money for being Newt. In the course of the campaign, however, the world learned just how much people gave him, and how little they got for it, most notably in the case of Freddie Mac, which paid Newt $1.6 million for "strategic consulting" that consisted of little more than giving a couple of speeches and having a couple of meetings. It'll now be awfully hard for Newt to run that scam on anyone again, and as a result, GloboNewtCorp is well and truly disintegrating. The Center for Health Transformation, one arm of GloboNewtCorp, went bankrupt, and the other tendrils of the network are falling away like dust through Newt's stubby fingers. Here are some excerpts from a Reuters article on the proceedings: