Mitt Romney is running for president. And I guess it can be hard, when you're running for president and your focus every day is convincing the American voter that you're a great guy and your opponent is awful, not to approach every new development in the world by seeing it as yet another opportunity to tell everyone that your opponent is awful. But when the only question you ask yourself is, "How can I use this to make my opponent look bad?" you run the risk of making yourself look like a jerk. Sometimes during a campaign, a candidate will be asked, "Is there anything your opponent has done that you agree with?" or "Is there anything good you can say about him?" Usually they say, "He has a lovely family," as though the thought that he might have done a single thing right is just impossible to contemplate. To say otherwise would be passing up an opportunity to "score points."
And this, I think, is the root of why Romney did what he did yesterday and came out looking like such an asshole. American civil servants had died in the line of duty, and the only thing he could think to do was use it as the occasion for a weak, unpersuasive attack on Barack Obama, delivered at an appallingly inappropriate moment. All he wanted was to "score points."
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.
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...
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.
We're going historical for the music break today. Fifty years ago on this day, the #1 song on the Billboard 100 was "Sheila," by Tommy Roe. It didn't survive quite as well as some other songs on the chart that week—I have to admit I'd never heard of the song, or Roe himself, before looking it up. But he seems like a nice enough fella.
And by the way, 30 years ago on this day the #1 song was "Abracadabra" by the Steve Miller Band, which is at a minimum one of the three or four most dreadful songs ever written (I say that as someone who wore through his LP of "Book of Dreams" as a kid).
The Institute of Medicine just came out with a report showing that the American health care system wastes an astonishing $750 billion dollars a year, one out of every three health care dollars spent. As Sarah Kliff explains, "So much wasteful spending leaves a lot of space for fixes. The Institute of Medicine recommends a number of solutions and many boil down to a pretty simple idea: Health care should be better-coordinated." There are a lot of ways to do that, but one particularly thorny problem is that doctors don't want anyone telling them what to do.
At times, Barack Obama's speech last night felt like a State of the Union address—a lengthy recitation of issues, one after another, during which you could imagine pundits writing "Booooring!" in their notes, and then you'd find out the next day that the public loved it. But the limitations of the speech demonstrated the difficulty Obama has as an incumbent. The expectations are high any time he gives a major speech, but last night's was a reminder that a large part of what made Obama such an effective orator in 2008 was particular to the role of challenger, and something that simply can't be duplicated now.
To put last night in context, we have to go back to 2008. In the last election, Obama's speeches had not just a second-person perspective but an active second-person perspective, talking not only about who you are but what you are doing. This was absolutely critical to giving his campaign that feeling of history in the making, and history as something participatory. It tapped into a deep yearning among all Americans but particularly among liberals. Here's something I wrote about it at the time...
As exciting as it is to watch Olympic sprinters tear down the track, the truth is that running fast for short distances is just not really human beings' thing. Usain Bolt, the fastest human ever to walk the planet, has reached a top speed of 27.78 miles per hour, which is an amble to a cheetah or a gazelle. Heck, your dachshund can almost certainly outrun you, even with its stubby little legs. What gave our ancestors an evolutionary advantage was their stamina, the ability to chase down prey by running and running until the poor wildebeest ran out steam and dropped.
The bright side of this story is that in the not-too-distant future, robots will be able to hunt and capture your slowpoke self without too much trouble, should the authorities determine that you have a suspicious bulge in your pocket or you need to be punished for jaywalking. Boston Dynamics, a robotics company that uses your tax dollars (in the form of grants from DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) to make crazy advanced robots that mimic animals in all kinds of interesting ways, just announced that their Cheetah robot has reached a speed of 28.3 miles per hour, faster than any human. What's different about it is that it has legs, not wheels, potentially making it (and robots like it) highly maneuverable. Gaze upon it and tremble:
At this year's Republican convention, the speeches were largely competent but uninspiring. Do you remember anything Marco Rubio said? It was only a week ago. No, none of their speeches will stand for the ages. The Democrats seem to be faring better, with Michelle Obama's terrific speech on Tuesday night and former President Bill Clinton's wonktastic 90s throwback address on Wednesday. In advance of President Obama's speech tonight, here's a review of some of the most notable speeches (for better and, occasionally, for worse) of the last 80 years.
We don't yet know how many people watched Bill Clinton's speech last night, but since on the first night of the Democratic convention ratings were a bit higher than for the Republican convention, it's fair to assume we're talking about something in the vicinity of 30 million viewers. Which is fine, but it isn't anything close to a majority of the electorate. But even if most voters didn't actually see Clinton's speech, just the fact that everyone is aware that he's out there vouching for Barack Obama can have an impact. Because the basic question of the campaign—should we keep this guy and his people in charge, or turn it over to that other guy and his people?—will be answered in a context created by people's memories of recent history.
Members of the news media arrive at RNC in Tampa, prepare to talk about nothing. (Flickr/NewsHour)
I have a lot of sympathy for campaign reporters. Their time on the trail can be exhausting, a weird combination of high stress and utter boredom. Every day they have to follow their candidate around to another event that was just like the last one, where he'll say exactly the same things, and they have to figure out how to write a story that isn't precisely the same as what they wrote yesterday. And now that their news organizations want them to produce content for a wide array of platforms, it gets even harder.
That being said, reporters can sometimes get seriously whiny. To wit, this story in Politico about how the members of the traveling press corps all think campaign 2012 is a total bummer:
This kid should clearly have been at home watching TV. (Flickr/NewsHour)
When Mitt Romney gave his convention speech on Thursday, as far as we can tell the collective response from the everyone in the country was, "Meh." I haven't seen any Democrats who said it was a disaster, but I also haven't seen any Republicans who said it was fantastic. And lo and behold, Gallup reports that 40 percent of respondents in their poll said Romney's speech made them more likely to vote for him, while 38 percent said it made them less likely to vote for him. That net positive of +2 makes Romney's the least effective speech since Gallup started asking this question in 1984. That's probably partly because the speech was nothing special, and partly because people are largely going to react along partisan lines no matter what it actually contained.
But one thing that's weird about this is that 78 percent of people expressed an opinion about Romney's speech. And in a separate question, a nearly identical 76 percent said they had watched at least some of the Republican convention. If that were actually true, it would have been the highest-rated convention in history. But of course, it isn't.
I have to say that I really thought the Republican convention was going to have more hippie-bashing. After all, there's nothing a Republican loves more than telling a stupid hippie where to get off. But perhaps because the party decided that the culture war isn't going their way, they decided to leave that stuff behind and just focus on how much Democrats hate capitalism.
So to honor what was missing from the RNC, this week's music break is "Listen to the Flower People," from This Is Spinal Tap, the funniest movie ever made.