The big news today wasn’t Mitt Romney’s continued fumbling over foreign policy (for which Team Romney is surely grateful). It was the Federal Reserve’s decision to embark on a new round of quantatative easing. For the uninitated, quantatative easing—or QE to the cool kids—is a strategy for generating growth in the economy. Right now, the problem in the economy is a lack of demand. Consumers aren’t spending, and so businesses aren’t hiring, and so banks are not lending, and so on. One way to deal with this is to provide income to people, throw out benefits, tax cuts, or public works—i.e., stimulus.
Do reporters dislike Mitt Romney? And if so, what kind of a difference might that make? I'm prompted to ask by this post from Andrew Gelman at the Monkey Cage, in which he expresses doubt that back in 2000, reporters disliked Al Gore and liked George W. Bush. I won't spend time on that question—it has been extensively reported over the years, with not only quantitative analyses of the press coverage the two received, but plenty of on-the-record comments from reporters who were there at the time testifying that they and their colleagues found Bush to be a friendly fellow and thought Gore was a pedantic, phony liar. (In his post, Gelman confesses to not owning a television, which obviously calls into question his standing as a true American.) But the more interesting question now is the one about Romney.
This is sometimes difficult to assess clearly, since we all have a tendency to see press coverage that reinforces our beliefs as fair and objective, and coverage that contradicts our beliefs as unfair and biased. Liberals and conservatives both do this, although only conservatives created an entire industry out of crying "liberal bias!" and succeeded in getting virtually everyone on their side to weave that belief into their opinions and rhetoric on every single issue. If you're trying to assess it systematically, "bias" is extremely difficult to measure, particularly on the grounds people usually argue about. Researchers have come up with a variety of measures, but they almost inevitably leave important questions unanswered, in part because we usually have an implicit standard of objectivity we're referencing, and that standard raises questions that are hard to answer.
Eight years ago, innumerable commentators said "values voters"—in other words, voters with conservative values—were responsible for George W. Bush's re-election (liberal voters, apparently, don't have values, they just have opinions). They noticed a correlation between religiosity and the propensity to vote Republican, and in the most religious of all industrialized countries, this "God gap" was routinely characterized as a problem that Democrats had to solve if they were to avoid electoral doom. In fact, today the "God gap" is more of a wash for the two parties, and in the future it could become the Republicans' problem.
"I would point out that we have one president at a time and one administration at a time," President Obama said in June, responding to a critical op-ed by a Romney adviser in a German newspaper. "And I think traditionally, the notion has been that America’s political differences end at the water’s edge.” The president was merely restating one of the nation's oldest remaining traditions of bipartisan comity. The op-ed kerfuffle was, of course, absolutely nothing compared to the Romney campaign's latest break from that tradition.
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:
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.
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.
No reasonable observer could question that the Democratic National Convention outclassed the Republicans’ out-of-tune, mishmashy effort in Tampa. (Christie and Clint, need we say more?) Leaving aside poor dear Martin O’Malley, the Maryland governor who fumbled a prime-time opportunity to elevate his 2016 prospects, the headliners were sharp, message-coordinated, and (we’re talking about you, Michelle and Bill) sometimes flat-out brilliant. Maybe the Dems will end up with a bit more of a bounce than the Republicans.
The third and final night of this week’s Democratic Convention may have lacked the fireworks we saw on the first two. Michelle Obama and Bill Clinton were eloquent in different ways, and weren’t matched by Barack Obama or Joe Biden on the convention’s closing night. That’s not to say that the closing night wasn’t effective, however. By focusing above all on two of Obama’s decisions – to save General Motors and Chrysler and to send in the Seals to take out Osama bin Laden – Obama and Biden emphasized the two most politically potent contrasts, especially on the latter point, they could draw with Mitt Romney and used those contrasts to make their most telling attacks on Romney yet.
CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA—When the economy is poor, an incumbent president has few options for reelection. If he looks back, he reminds voters of hardship. If he looks forward, he seems like he’s ignoring the problem. His only choice is to defend his record, and hit the other side for unfair attacks. It’s not an effective approach—voters don’t like it when the president pleads for fairness. Challengers have an easier task. As long as they can identify hardship and propose a plan that looks effective, voters will join their cause.
CHARLOTTE—Since 1980, three Massachusettians have run for president—Mitt Romney, John Kerry and Michael Dukakis. Romney is not at the Democratic National Convention, obviously, and Kerry is somewhere away from the main floor. But Dukakis was mulling around the downstairs press area, talking to reporters and prepping for a radio show.
CHARLOTTE—For the last month, Team Romney has been playing a dangerous game with the Democratic Party. With its false attacks on the administration’s welfare waivers and its constant invocation of his policies, Team Romney has tried to present their candidate as the true heir to Bill Clinton.
Did you watch it last night? It was an amazing night of TV, of Twitter (that instant snark convo), and of politics. My twitter feed was full of journos saying to each other: Wow, there’s a lot of energy here! Don’t you feel more buzz than in Tampa? I thought this was supposed to be the dispirited convention, but these folks are excited. You could see that in every breakaway shot of the convention floor: Folks were cheering, nodding, yelling back in witness. Over and over again, the Dems boasted proudly about standing up for health care, equal pay, LGBT rights (including the freedom to marry), and yes, reproductive rights, without apology.