Last night, an armed mob—angry over an American-made video denigrating the Prophet Muhammad—attacked the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, killing Ambassador Christopher Stevens, along with three of his staff members. This came after a similar uprising in Egypt, where protesters climbed the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and tore down the American flag. Initial reports on the situation—which revealed the death of a U.S. official—were followed by this statement from the Romney campaign:
“Character” is a word that Republicans used a lot in the 1990s, by which they meant President Bill Clinton’s sexual behavior. “At least,” my Republican mother said pointedly upon the election of George W. Bush, “he’s a man of character,” unlike the previous guy getting blow jobs from interns in the Oval Office. If their candidate for president this year should lose in November, it will be interesting to see to what extent Republicans understand that character is one of the reasons. As Governor Mitt Romney’s prospects grow more daunting, a view has emerged from the right that the problem is the political flaws and tactical missteps of the candidate and his campaign, in what Republicans insist to themselves should otherwise be a “gimme” election (to quote radio talk-show host Laura Ingraham). But the Romney Problem is more profound, and it’s one of character, not tactics.
Time was when the political woods were full of Joe Bidens—super-gregarious retail politicians who could yell themselves hoarse at one campaign stop about how the rich and powerful are screwing everybody over, then in the next town go all quiet and sincere and wring tears from even the toughest characters in the crowd. Those old-style pols lived to campaign, and they campaigned for their lives—especially back in the way-old days when political speechifying was a major form of entertainment in many parts of the country.
If there’s anything anyone remembers about the 2004 election, it’s the Bush campaign’s vicious attacks on John Kerry’s foreign policy record. From his Iraq War vote to his decorated service in Vietnam, the Bush campaign worked to tarnish Kerry’s bona fides and present him as someone unfit to lead the country during a time of war. By the end of the election, when the polls were still close, Team Bush was openly floating the idea that the United States would face a terrorist attack if Kerry was elected president.
We’ve heard a lot about debates over strict voter-ID legislation this cycle, but there’s an even more pressing problem in some parts of the country: intimidation at the ballot box. In addition to pushing for these voter-ID laws—which require citizens to show a government-issued ID before casting their ballot—conservative groups like True the Vote have alleged widespread voter fraud, recruiting volunteers to act as poll watchers and look for any signs of illegality from voters. True the Vote has also pushed volunteers to comb through the voter rolls for signs of fraud. It's left many worried about the likelihood of scaring voters away from the polls.
It all begs the question: What laws are on the books to protect the right to vote?
If there’s one must-read on the anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, it’s Kurt Eichenwald’s op-ed in the New York Times, in which he illustrates the extent to which intelligence agencies had warned the Bush administration of Osama bin Laden’s activities on American soil. The most striking detail is the fact that the infamous August 6 memo—“Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.”—was preceded by a series of documents, stretching back to the spring of 2001. For example:
The big story late last week, after the Democratic National Convention ended, was that President Obama had received a monster bump—Nate Silver put it at almost eight points—made all the more dramatic when compared to Republican challenger Mitt Romney's measley plus one. But Obama isn't the only one leaving the party in Charlotte on an upward path: a new poll today shows Elizabeth Warren pulling even with Scott Brown, the Massachusetts Republican who she wants to replace in the Senate.
Mitt Romney is pro-baby, and he doesn't care who knows it! (Flickr/tvnewsbadge)
Every candidate confronts the question of how detailed they should be in their policy plans, and the basic calculation goes as follows: I want to seem substantive and serious, so it's good to have detailed plans, but I don't want the plans to be so detailed that they give my opponent something to use against me and allow voters to find things they don't like. So usually they find some middling level of specificity, and tolerate whatever criticism they get from one end for not being detailed enough, and from the other end for specific ideas people don't like. But rarely does the question of how specific you're being become a story in and of itself.
Mitt Romney has arrived at that moment, when his unwillingness to reveal exactly what he wants to do in a variety of policy areas is becoming a story in its own right. Here's Steve Kornacki writing about it in Salon. Here's the Wall Street Journal editorial page criticizing him for not being specific. Here's a TPM report on other conservatives scolding Romney for his vagueness. Here's an L.A. Times editorial asking for specifics on Romney's tax plan (which we'll get to in a moment. Here's an NPR story about the specificity question. And President Obama is picking up the issue and using it as an attack, which helps propel the story forward.
It's one thing to be vague because you think getting bogged down in a discussion of details will distract from your broader message, but it's another thing to be vague because a discussion of details will reveal that you're promising things you can't possibly deliver.
The Washington Postdescribes its latest poll as “virtually unchanged” from the one taken just before the Republican and Democratic national conventions. Among registered voters, in late August, the Post and ABC News found Mitt Romney with a slight lead over President Obama, 47% to 46%. In its post-convention poll, among likely voters, it finds an equally tight race with Obama slightly ahead, at 49% support to Romney’s 48%.
I don't think even the staunchest Republican would try to tell you that Mitt Romney's convention was more successful than Barack Obama's, and coming out of the two, it now looks like Obama has moved ahead of Romney by a few points. Whether this lead will solidify or the two will move back to being tied is impossible to know yet, but the most interesting question may be how the two campaigns react. I can predict pretty confidently that the answer for the Obama campaign is: they won't. As I discussed yesterday, if you're in the lead you have no reason to change anything you're doing, while if you're behind there's a powerful temptation to start casting about for something new to turn things around.
And one other part of this dynamic is that when you're behind, everybody in your party starts bellowing, both privately and publicly, that you have to immediately shift from the strategy you're employing to the strategy they are advising...
Of all election outcomes, state legislative races are the likeliest to have a direct impact on the lives of voters. But you wouldn’t know it from the national press. The morning after the 2010 elections, Americans woke up to headlines about a Republican landslide; most of those stories focused on Congress, where a new GOP House majority promised to fight President Barack Obama tooth and nail. What didn’t make so many front pages were Republicans’ historic victories at the state level, as the party wrested control of 21 house and senate chambers from the Democrats. North Carolina had its first Republican senate since 1870; Alabama hadn’t seen a Republican legislature since Reconstruction.
Practice makes perfect" is usually quite a dependable adage, but Mitt Romney seems to have made proving it false his political life's mission. The map of his second presidential campaign can be plotted from one amateurish move to the next. Flip-flops, flubbed lines, and flimsy arguments have rendered his candidacy a tower of questionable campaign tactics toppling under the weight of their own tangly deception.
JH: Obama is an unusual politician. There are very few people in American politics who achieve something — not to mention the Presidency — in which the following two conditions are true: one, they don’t like people. And two, they don’t like politics.
KC: Obama doesn’t like people?
JH: I don’t think he doesn’t like people. I know he doesn’t like people. He’s not an extrovert; he’s an introvert. I’ve known the guy since 1988. He’s not someone who has a wide circle of friends. He’s not a backslapper and he’s not an arm-twister. He’s a more or less solitary figure who has extraordinary communicative capacities. He’s incredibly intelligent, but he’s not a guy who’s ever had a Bill Clinton-like network around him. He’s not the guy up late at night working the speed dial calling mayors, calling governors, calling CEOs.
Despite the phrase "doesn't like people," Heilmann isn't saying that Obama is some kind of misanthrope; there's a whole spectrum of introversion and extroversion. But let's assume this is a reasonably accurate assessment. Does it matter? You can look at Clinton and say his appetite for schmoozing is in part what made him successful. On the other hand, George W. Bush is a people person too. There's a famous story about him from when he was pledging DKE in college, and one day they asked the pledges to name as many of their group as they could. Most could only come up with five or six names, but George named all 55 pledges. But you know who else didn't really like people? Ronald Reagan. He was dynamite in front of an audience, but had few friends and was estranged from some of his own kids. And come to think of it, an unusual number of people who have lost presidential campaigns in recent years (Kerry, Gore, Dole, Dukakis) were skilled at some aspects of politics but obviously tolerated the endless fundraisers and handshaking without actually enjoying it.
Mitt Romney, interestingly enough, doesn't really like people but tries to pretend that he's more like Clinton than like Obama. I think this is part of what's so grating about Romney. It isn't just that he's awkward at all the glad-handing politicians have to do. Lots of us (myself included) wouldn't be any good at that. It's that he's awkward at it but thinks he's convincing us that he loves it. Just can't wait to get to the next fish fry to sit down and shoot the breeze with the folks. This is probably my favorite Romney video of all time, from his 1994 run for Senate. He comes into a restaurant, looks around at a rather grim group of elderly diners just trying to have a meal, and says loudly to no one in particular, "My goodness! What's going on here today? Look at this! This is terrific!" It's beyond painful:
It does seem that a love of people can be very helpful in becoming president, but it's far less important once you get to be president. As Heilmann notes, members of Congress were used to getting massaged by Clinton, and they don't get that treatment from Obama. But would anything in his term have gone better if he had spent more time on that? Legislatively, Obama has been pretty darn successful. He succeeded in one big area where Clinton failed (health care reform). And even Clinton couldn't have convinced today's Republicans to be any less obstructionist than they have been.
Maybe this shows the danger of looking at past presidents' personalities and extrapolating to general principles about what makes for a successful presidency.
You may have noticed that the Romney campaign has gone through a couple of different core critiques of President Obama. First, they said he was a nice guy who was in over his head. Then they decided that they don't actually think he's a nice guy after all, but instead he's a crypto-communist who despises free enterprise and hates entrepreneurs. Now they may be reverting to the old message again. The Obama campaign looks much different. Very early on, they decided—presumably because their polling and focus groups told them this was the right approach—that they were not going to attack Mitt Romney as a flip-flopper, despite the fact that this attack has been effective against other politicians in the past, and Romney is without question the flippy-floppiest party nominee in American political history. Instead, they argue that Romney believes the things he says and only cares about helping the wealthy. While every once in a while you hear an insufficiently prepared Obama surrogate call Romney a flip-flopper, for the most part they stick to the plutocrat attack. That's message discipline, and all winning campaigns demonstrate it.
But David Karpf makes an interesting point about this. He argues that it isn't that message discipline wins campaigns, but that if you're winning, you can afford to have message discipline:
This weekend featured a strange event on the campaign trail. With Pat Robertson seated behind him at a speech in Viginia—that's the guy who says God personally warns him about upcoming world events, believes the September 11 attacks were divine punishment for homosexuality, and thinks feminism leads to witchcraft—Mitt Romney got his culture war on. Romney recited the Pledge of Allegiance and thundered, "The pledge says 'under God.' I will not take God out of the name of our platform. I will not take God off our coins and I will not take God out of my heart." So fear not, America: As long as Mitt Romney becomes president, your pennies and nickels will be safe from creeping atheism.
This may tell us more about Romney's strategy for winning Virginia—a state divided between a conservative, rural southern part and a liberal, suburban northern part—than it does about his strategy for winning the country as a whole. But when Romney makes such an appeal, it only serves to remind us how rare it is. Of course Romney's primary focus on the economy is dictated by conditions in the country, and the fact that an incumbent president struggling with unemployment over 8 percent really ought to be doomed. But it's also true that if there were potential customers for fist-shaking attacks about "God, guns, and gays," as the old Republican playbook had it, Romney would be moving much more aggressively to exploit that market. But he isn't, for one big reason: Liberals have won the culture war.