Vox Pop

The Prospect's politics blog

In the Beginning Was the Word


I'm beginning to wonder whether Mitt Romney and all of his supporters weren't linguistics majors in college. After all, the thing you choose to study reflects what you think is important. If you major in physics, it's because the laws and operation of the universe are what you find most important. If you major in economics, it's because you find money to be the prime organizing force of human activity. And linguists, like the Republicans of 2012, believe that language is the key to understanding who we are as humans.

Here's what I mean. Let's say you wanted to indict not Barack Obama's handling of the economy but his beliefs about the economy to get at the very essence of who he is. How would you do it? Some of us would say, we can determine who he is by looking at his actions. If he's a committed Marxist undertaking the dismantling of capitalism, surely we could find the evidence in what he has done. Did he nationalize the steel industry? Well, no. He (and George W. Bush) kind of temporarily semi-nationalized the auto industry, but that worked out well for everyone and saved hundreds of thousands of jobs, so let's not talk about that. Did he make it impossible for wealthy "job creators" to prosper? Hard to make that case, since corporate profits and wealth concentration at the top are near all-time highs—there's never been a better time to be a capitalist overlord. How about that tsunami of initiative-crushing regulation? Well, you can throw out some names of laws that involve regulation—Dodd-Frank, the Affordable Care Act—but if you want to make a strong case that Obama hates capitalism, you'd have to talk about what's actually in those laws, and conservatives don't really like doing that, just as they might rail against the tyranny of the EPA but they don't want to talk much about what exactly it is they find so objectionable about making sure our air and water are clean.

So the linguists on the right say: Don't let the actions distract you. The key to understanding Obama is in the words.

Presidential Race Tightening in New Mexico

The presidential race appears to be tightening in New Mexico, where Obama's former lead of 15 points has dwindled to 5 points. Polls have shown that if Romney picks Governor Susana Martinez (R-NM) as his running mate, he has a decent shot at winning the state, not to mention gaining more votes among women and Latinos. Martinez has said she doesn't want the job because she has to care for her elderly father and ill sister, but couldn't Romney could offer to hire a team of registered nurses to take care of them full time? 


Wealthy Republican Senate Candidates Picking Up Steam

A number of self-funded Republicans embroiled in bitter primary fights for Senate nominations are getting traction. These include Wil Cardon in Arizona (running against Represenatative Jeff Flake), Eric Hovde in Wisconsin (running against former governor Tommy Thompson and Representative Mark Neumann), John Brunner in Missouri (running against former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman and Representative Todd Akin), and Linda McMahon in Connecticut (running against former representative Chris Shays). None of them have held elective office before, which means they have no record for opposition researchers to pick apart.

If Only They Knew

If only we could go back in time and get Barack Obama to write a candid book about his youth!

For a long time now, Mitt Romney and the people who work for him have seemed like the reasonable people in the Republican party. That isn't to say that Romney's policies or rhetoric were particularly reasonable, but we all accepted that when he started breathing fire, it was an act. Buffeted by the winds of extremism, he made a bargain with his party's base: I'll pretend to be as crazy as you, and you'll learn to live with me as your nominee.

But now, Barack Obama has finally opened the can of whoop-ass on Romney that many of us had long been expecting, and as McKay Coppins reports, both Romney himself and his people don't like it one bit. Their reaction indicates that maybe they were never that different from the Republican base after all.

Can Rick Perry's Playbook Work in the Texas Senate Race?

(Flickr/Gage Skidmore)

Texas Governor Rick Perry is famous for delivering negative ads that send his opponents' campaigns reeling; they tend to contain such wild, over-the-top accusations that responding to them is tricky business. In the 2002 gubernatorial race, when he was fending off Democratic billionaire Tony Sanchez, the governor pulled out a last-minute ad that basically accused the candidate of laundering money for drug cartels.

The Meaning of "That"

Barack Obama, out hating America. (White House/Pete Souza)

Mitt Romney is, without doubt, a representative of contemporary capitalism, a spectacularly rich financier who got his money not by making things but by buying and selling companies, exploiting leverage, and a whole bunch of other things folks like you and me will never have the privilege of understanding. So it isn't surprising that this campaign has featured a debate about the nature of our economic system. That debate could be a salutary and educational discussion that leaves us all more informed and aware. Or it could be an occasion for some of the most vile demagoguery you could imagine. Do you need to ask which course it will take?

By now, we can all agree that a large portion of the Republican party has created in their minds an imaginary Barack Obama, one who is either a literal or philosophical foreigner (Romney has begun dropping the word "foreign" in as often as he can when discussing Obama), who hates America (here's Rush Limbaugh on Monday: "I think it can now be said, without equivocation -- without equivocation -- that this man hates this country"), and one who hates success, hates rich people, and hates capitalism itself. And if you can't find any actual evidence for these propositions—if "Barack Obama hates job creators so much he actually wants to increase the top income tax rate by 4.6 percentage points!" doesn't have quite the ring you'd like—then it isn't hard to find words you can twist around to make your point.

Which brings us to the word "that."

New Study Finds Voter-ID Laws Burdensome


Ten states have recently passed laws requiring voters to present government-issued photo identification before they can vote. Ostensibly, these laws are to prevent voter fraud. However, a study by nonpartisan university researchers at NYU's Brennan Center for Justice has shown that voter fraud is microscopic (e.g., 0.00004% of the votes in the 2004 Ohio election were fraudulent); the penalty for getting caught is so large (5 years in prison), and the effect of one vote so small, that nobody risks it. The very occasional fraudulent vote is invariably from an ex-felon or green-card holder who mistakenly thought he had the right to vote.

The Romney Death Star Is Not Operational

It’s still too early to tell, but if the Washington Examiner’s Byron York is right, the vaunted “Romney Death Star” has an unshielded thermal exhaust port at the center of its super-structure:

Mitt's Troubles Never End

I'm comin' fer ya, Mitt! (Flickr/akseabird)

It's looking like Mitt Romney might name his VP pick pretty soon, which is probably a good idea given that the release of the pick will result in a few days of positive coverage when the news media is consumed with something other than what Bain Capital did when, or what juicy nuggets might be contained within Romney's hidden tax returns. But there's a downside: once we do get to the Republican convention, the VP nominee will be old news, so the media can pay much more attention to intra-party squabbling. And nobody likes a good squabble more than Sarah Palin. Remember her?

With High Unemployment, Why Is Obama Ahead?

Nate Silver has an excellent post this morning on the Romney campaign’s reaction to the attacks on Bain Capital. The short story is that Romney might be overreacting to the controversy; he continues to equivocate and go on the defensive, despite the thin evidence that these attacks are having an effect on the race. Both Obama and Romney are roughly where they were three months ago, when the general election began in earnest, and polls taken since the attacks began have been inconclusive on the effect of anti-Bain ads.

Good Ads and Bad Ads

Vivid evidence of the Romney campaign's skill.

By now you've probably seen the Obama ad that uses Mitt Romney's tender rendition of "America the Beautiful" juxtaposed against information about Romney's extra-national financial activities, including Bain Capital's involvement in outsourcing and the worldwide distribution of Romney's personal accounts. The ad has been praised for its skillful sound design and powerful message, so in attempt to hit back, the Romney campaign countered with its own ad featuring Barack Obama singing.

Unfortunately, the Romney ad is no longer viewable—it has been taken down because of a copyright claim, since Obama is seen singing a line from Al Green's "Let's Stay Together." But it's pretty simple—it shows Obama singing that line, then displays information about Obama allegedly rewarding his political contributors and cronies with government contracts and such, while ignoring the middle class. They obviously put it together quickly, but nevertheless, the difference between the two ads provides an excellent demonstration of what makes some political ads effective and others complete duds. Let's look at some of the differences:

Why "Knowing How the Economy Works" Is Not Enough

George W. Bush has the answers.

This week will see the release of The 4% Solution: Unleashing the Economic Growth America Needs, a collection of essays from the George W. Bush Institute with a forward by the former president himself. It's true that annual GDP growth never actually reached 4 percent during Bush's two terms in office and averaged only 2.4 percent even if we generously exclude the disastrous year of 2008. But look at it this way: Who knows more about what the president ought to do about the economy than Dubya does? After all, there's only one living American (Bill Clinton) with as much experience being president, so Bush must have the answers we need.

A ridiculous argument? Of course. That's because experience only gets you so far. It's obviously a good thing, all else being equal, for the president to know a lot about the economy, just as it's a good thing for him to know a lot about foreign affairs or domestic policy. But the truth is that although the government has to solve many practical problems and it's important to have smart, knowledgeable people in government to work on them, the presidency is not a technocratic position.

How Bain Undercuts Romney's Narrative

Is Bain a problem for Mitt Romney’s narrative? Andrew Sullivan says yes:

Romney, in other words, doesn’t have a leg to stand on. He has been running a campaign against the “Obama economy” insisting that the president own every single month he has been in office in order to condemn his economic management all the more - despite at least a first year in which Obama cannot really be held responsible for the fallout of an economic collapse he inherited. So Romney insists on maximal responsibility for Obama and the economy.

Mitt Romney Is Not a Weak Candidate

Former Bush official and conservative pundit David Frum has a harsh and critical take on Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign:

The hope for many of us was that a Republican president could do a better job constraining them than Barack Obama has been able to do - especially if (as I personally also hoped) the very act of electing such a president would deflate the radicalism of the congressional GOP and revive a more constructive spirit.

Romney's Swing-State Dilemma

(Flickr / Gage Skidmore)

Before Mitt Romney's Bain Capital problems seized everyone's attention, we were hearing about a different political minefield the candidate had to maneuver: While his campaign is based largely on the country's economic woes, several GOP governors in swing states were claiming economic success and recovery. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker spent his recall campaign pointing to the state's recovery, while Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell launched his own ads showing his state's progress.