Every president plays a symbolic, almost mythological role that’s hard to talk about, much less quantify—it’s like trying to grab a ball of mercury. I’m not referring to using the bully pulpit to shape the national agenda but to the way that the president, as America’s most inescapably powerful figure, colors the emotional climate of the country. John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan did this affirmatively, expressing ideals that shaped the whole culture. Setting a buoyant tone, they didn’t just change movies, music, and television; they changed attitudes. Other presidents did the same, only unpleasantly. Richard Nixon created a mood of angry paranoia, Jimmy Carter one of dreary defeatism, and George W.
Not what will determine the outcome of this election.
Making clear (if it wasn't already) that he'll be running for president in 2016, New York governor Andrew Cuomo has decided to write a book, in which he'll lay out his vision for America. America no doubt awaits with bated breath. Which got me wondering: When was the last time a sitting politician actually wrote a book worth reading? We'll have to consult the historians on whether the answer is "never," but it certainly hasn't happened in a long, long time.
Did you hear? The Republican former governor—long anointed as the presumed candidate—officially gained the party's nomination over the weekend. No, I'm not talking about Mitt Romney. Come November, former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson will be on the ballot in all 50 states under the banner of the Libertarian Party. Johnson spent last year running in the Republican primary, but he abandoned his dream of securing the nomination after only making in into two debates and barely registering in the polls.
Few people truly believe Barack Obama when he claims his position on same-sex marriage is "evolving." He first publicly endorsed marriage equality in 1996 while running for the Illinois state senate. At the time, just 27 percent of the population shared his views, according to a Gallup poll. Now, Gallup's tracking numbers from last year have 53 percent of the country favoring SSM. It might have been politically expedient for Obama to position himself against same-sex unions in 2008, but it's impossible to imagine anyone at the vanguard of LGBT civil rights like that young Illinois legislator truly changing his mind.
Karl Rove's signature contribution to campaign politics was the insight that the most effective way to defeat an opponent was not to attack his greatest weakness, but to attack his greatest strength. (There's some vivid detail from Joshua Green's classic 2004 article on Rove's history as a campaigner. Sample: Your client's opponent volunteers to help abused children? Spread rumors that he's a pedophile!) There's no doubt that at the moment, Mitt Romney's greatest strength is the idea that as a successful businessman, he will do a good job stewarding the American economy. In fact, that may be his only strength. He's stiff and awkward, he has a well-earned reputation for changing his stated beliefs to suit the political moment, he just went through a primary campaign in which he took numerous unpopular positions in order to please an extremist party base, the severe unpopularity of his party in Congress will drag him down, he has nothing particularly compelling to say about foreign policy—you get the picture.
For a while, Democrats believed that if the economy kept improving, that would leave Romney with no rationale for his candidacy. But at the moment, the economy looks like it will continue to shamble forward, moving in the right direction but not with enough momentum to make everyone feel things are going really well (though there will be six more monthly job numbers released between now and election day, and anything could happen). That means that it will be necessary for the Obama campaign to go after Romney on the economy...
Oh, good old Joe. The vice president just can’t help himself sometimes, getting juiced up and spouting off whatever comes to his mind rather than staying on message like the Obama campaign would prefer. On yesterday’s Meet the Press, Biden was questioned about his stance on same-sex marriage and seemingly went a step further than the official White House line, perhaps not endorsing marriage equality directly but coming pretty close:
David Gregory: You’re comfortable with same-sex marriage now?
Yesterday, on Meet the Press, Vice President Joe Biden was unusually candid about his feelings on same-sex marriage:
“And you’re comfortable with same-sex marriage now,” NBC’s David Gregory asked Biden on Meet the Press.
“I am vice president of the United States of America. The president sets the policy,” Biden said by way of a disclaimer, then continued, “I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women, and heterosexual men and women marrying another are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties. And quite frankly, I don’t see much of a distinction—beyond that.”
Paul Waldman's post about the uselessness of motives in evaluating politicians reminds me of a question a student asked me this week when assessing the Johnson administration. To paraphrase, my student said that his impression was that while LBJ may have signed two important civil rights bills, his motives for doing so were far from altruistic. My answer was that 1) this is right, but 2) I don't mean that as a criticism of LBJ.
The questioning of motives is one of the most common and most pernicious of rhetorical habits in political debate. It's pernicious because it encourages people to conclude not that your opponents are wrong about whatever matter it is we're discussing, but that they're bad people. When you question someone's motives you're automatically calling them a liar (since they will have offered an entirely different justification for why they are advocating what they're advocating), and you're also saying they're untrustworthy, cynical, and driven by some nefarious goal.
We see this all the time, and I'm not saying I've never questioned anyone's motives, because from time to time I have. But we have to acknowledge that someone can take a different position from the one we do without the disagreement coming from some place of evil. To see what I'm talking about, here's today's column by Charles Krauthammer, probably the most admired columnist on the right. Appalled that President Obama is now running for re-election and disagreeing with his opponents on matters of policy after saying he would try to unite the country, Krauthammer says this:
As far as April is concerned, the jobs report is disappointing; 115,000 new jobs, just enough to keep pace with population growth. Unemployment dropped to 8.1 percent, but labor force participation also declined, which means that joblessness is lower because fewer people are searching for jobs.
What’s interesting is that this runs counter to a host of other economic indicators, all of which point to a brighter picture. According to Gallup, for example, economic confidence is a four-year high, consumer spending has edged up, and small-business optimism has risen to its highest levels since the summer of 2008.
The departure of Ric Grenell from the Romney campaign is something that approximately zero undecided voters know or care anything about, but does it tell us anything interesting or useful about Mitt Romney himself? In case you haven't heard, Grenell is a longtime Republican communications professional who was hired by the Romney campaign to be a spokesperson on foreign policy; then liberals started criticizing Grenell for some nasty tweets he had sent, while social conservatives started criticizing him for being gay. The Romney campaign didn't care much about the liberals' criticism, but was apparently quite unnerved by the conservatives' criticism.
The kickoff of the general-election season has been marked by a series of inconsequential flaps—think caterpillars and hot mics, or the latest outrage over the fictional Julia (see the Daily Meme below). One might prefer more substance, but there's one issue that, thankfully, will be pushed off until after the election: raising the debt ceiling.
The existence of the Republican Party has been marked by five incarnations in its century and a half, peaking early with its first president and the country’s greatest, Abraham Lincoln. The second Republican age culminated at the outset of the last century with Theodore Roosevelt; the third age with Dwight Eisenhower; the fourth with Ronald Reagan—whose harbingers were Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon—and whose coda was George H. W. Bush. The fifth that ultimately would coalesce around the presidency of Bush’s son was inaugurated by Newton Leroy Gingrich of Georgia, and not even W. has better represented the party’s style and substance these past 20 years.
Imagine that you called a carpenter to come repair your deck, and after looking at the rotted timbers and split rails, he said, "Well, I can fix this deck. But the one thing I'm not going to do is come over here and engage in a bunch of carpentry. That would be wrong."
You'd probably suspect that the carpenter was insane. Yet politicians and their campaign advisers–people for whom politics is a profession no less than carpentry is the carpenter's profession–are constantly complaining that their opponents are engaged in "politics," or are committing the horrible sin of "politicizing" something that shouldn't be political.
So it was when Barack Obama's re-election campaign took the opportunity of the one-year anniversary of the killing of Osama Bin Laden to remind voters who was president when it happened...
Are you already sick of the endless series of articles extolling the virtues of various potential Mitt Romney running mates? Are you also sick of the posturing—TV ads, major foreign policy speeches—of wannabe VP candidates? Too bad. If Romney follows precedent it will be quite some time before he selects his partner on the Republican ticket.