Paul Waldman

White Democrats Disappear from the Deep South

"These are my guns now, and ain't nobody gon' take 'em away."

John Barrow is fighting for his life. The Georgia congressman is that most politically endangered of species, a white Democrat in the Deep South. When the state's Republicans redrew the district lines, they not only made his district more Republican, they also made sure his own home was outside his new district, just to stick it to him. Barrow was always conservative—the National Journal rates him as the eighth-most conservative Democrat in the House—but in this election, he's got to really turn on the juice if he's going to survive. And what better way than with some belligerent paranoia on guns? After proudly showing off his father's and grandfather's guns (and snapping the bolt back and forth on the latter to provide the very sound of freedom), Barrow says in this ad, "I approved this message because these are my guns now. And ain't nobody gon' take 'em away." Well that's a relief.

Free Speech Weirdness from Overseas

The Bill of Rights, nothing but trouble.

Today, Philip Bump at Grist passed along this interesting story about a shock jock in Australia who, after spewing some false nonsense about climate change on the air, "has been ordered to undergo 'factual accuracy' training, and to use fact-checkers." Obviously, the government has no such powers here in America, but it's a good reminder that America's particular version of free speech wasn't handed down from above, or even by the Founders. The words in the First Amendment ("Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press") are very general; the contours and details of that freedom have been given shape over the decades by a succession of Supreme Court cases. James Madison didn't have an opinion about whether it was OK for Rush Limbaugh to go on the air and call Sandra Fluke a "slut" and a "prostitute," so we had to figure out later how to handle that, and we chose, for some good reasons, to let it slide (legally speaking).

Salad Days for the Gun Industry

Time to stock up! (Flickr/ElCapitanBSC)

This week's town hall debate featured only one really surprising question, on gun violence. In any other election one might have expected a question about this topic, but both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have been completely silent on the issue, so in all likelihood neither one of them expected it. And they gave answers that should have warmed the heart of any gun advocate. Obama, whose action on guns has consisted of signing two laws expanding gun rights (you can now take your guns into national parks and on Amtrak), said that "what I'm trying to do is to get a broader conversation about how do we reduce the violence generally." When his turn came, Romney gave his nod to the standard pro-gun line, "I'm not in favor of new pieces of legislation on guns," and went on to say that the real problem is single-parent homes.

And On to the Next Pseudo-Issue We Go

He's ready to deliver. (Flickr/Just a Prarie Boy)

So remember how the question of whether Barack Obama said the right words at the right time about the Benghazi attack was the most important thing happening in the world and a burgeoning scandal that we absolutely had to get to the bottom of lest Americans' faith in our democratic system be destroyed? Eh, not so much:

What Mitt Romney Will Actually Do On Abortion

Flickr/OZinOh

During Tuesday's debate, Mitt Romney did a sneaky little pivot on the issue of contraception coverage that surely went over the head of most of the people watching. What Romney supports is a Republican bill, the Blunt amendment, that would allow any employer to refuse to include coverage for contraception in employees' health insurance. For many women, that would mean they would be shut out of getting contraception through the plans that, we should note, they paid for themselves (insurance coverage isn't a favor your employer does for you, it's part of your compensation that you get in return for your labor, which means you paid for it). But when it came up in the debate, Romney said this:

"I don't believe that bureaucrats in Washington should tell someone whether they can use contraceptives or not. And I don't believe employers should tell someone whether they could have contraceptive care of not. Every woman in America should have access to contraceptives. And -- and the -- and the president's statement of my policy is completely and totally wrong."

See what he did there? Instead of answering the actual question of whether your boss should be able to take your coverage for contraception away, he answered a question nobody ever asked, which is whether the government should ban contraception, or whether your boss should be able to literally come to your doctor's office during your appointment and grab the prescription for birth control pills out of your hand. In other words, Romney thinks your boss should be able to cancel your coverage for contraception, but he generously acknowledges that your boss shouldn't actually tell you whether you can use contraception or not. You're welcome, ladies.

It's All In the Words

Flickr/Pierre Metivier

When Barack Obama and Mitt Romney got into their little back-and-forth over Benghazi last night, I tweeted that it would probably going to get more press attention than anything that happened in the debate, yet of all the topics they addressed, it may be the least relevant to which of these two would make a better president. And here we are. Think about this: the argument isn't about what sort of policy we should be pursuing toward Libya, or how we can address anti-Americanism or terrorism, or what sort of security our embassies and consulates should have. Instead, it's about which words Obama said on which day. Seriously. And you wonder why people are cynical about politics.

All along, Republicans have been acting as though within hours of the attack, had Obama said, "This was a terroristic terror attack, full of terrorizing terror," then...what, exactly? The perpetrators would have turned themselves in? Potential al-Qaeda recruits would have said, "Hold on—this is a terrorist organization you want me to join? No thanks, buddy"?

And now that we've all been reminded that Obama did indeed use the word "terror" the day after the attacks, are we any closer to understanding what happened and what should have been done differently? Of course not.

No, Candy Crowley Did Not Show Any Favoritism

Candy Crowley questions President Obama during last night's debate

Before last night's debate, both the Obama and Romney camps expressed their concern that moderator Candy Crowley might go rogue and act like something resembling a journalist, not merely keeping time and introducing questioners but interjecting to get clarifications and ask follow-ups. Once the debate was over, it was only conservatives complaining about her. Some found her biased from start to finish, but all criticized her for her intervention on the somewhat absurd question of what words President Obama used and when to describe the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. But a close look at what went on in the debate reveals that Crowley was actually judiciously even-handed, and if anything, may have done more favors for Romney. Before we discuss how, here are some of the reactions from the right:

In Defense of Paul Ryan's Fake Dishwashing

(AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

In case you haven't heard the story, the other day Paul Ryan's team thought it would be a good idea to show his compassionate side, so they had him show up at a soup kitchen in Youngstown, Ohio to help out. The only problem was that lunch had already been served, the patrons were all gone, and everything had been cleaned up. Undeterred, Ryan and his wife donned aprons and proceeded to wash pots for the cameras, despite the fact that the pots they were washing appeared to have already been washed. The head of the charity that runs the soup kitchen was a bit perturbed about the whole thing, saying later, "Had they asked for permission, it wouldn't have been granted. … But I certainly wouldn't have let him wash clean pans, and then take a picture."

Yes, this came in for plenty of ridicule. But let me rise to Ryan's defense. The fact that the pots did not actually need washing doesn't make this much more phony than the typical candidate photo op, where the candidate pretends to be "helping" for a few minutes but actually does little but create trouble for everyone; as they say on "Free to Be You And Me," some kind of help is the kind of help we all can do without. Everything candidates do, particularly this close to an election, is manufactured and artificial, undertaken only for the purpose of being photographed and written about. If tomorrow Paul Ryan goes to paint a Habitat for Humanity house or deliver Meals on Wheels, it won't be any more genuine. And the truth is, by coming when nobody was there, he did that soup kitchen a favor.

All Due Respect

Find out what it means to me.

As I was going through old presidential debates in writing this piece, I came across a moment in the 2004 town hall debate in which John Kerry got asked by a woman in the audience what he would tell someone who thought abortion was murder and wanted reassurance that their tax money wouldn't be going to abortion. He began his answer in the way we have come to expect Democratic politicians to: "First of all, I cannot tell you how deeply I respect the belief about life and when it begins." He then went on to explain how he was an altar boy, religion is very important to him, but he won't impose his personal beliefs on others. At the end of it, he wrapped up with a discussion of the importance of family planning, and said, "You'll actually do a better job, I think, of passing on the moral responsibility that is expressed in your question. And I truly respect it."

Which got me thinking: When was the last time you heard a Republican express their deep, deep respect for the moral perspective that informs the views of Americans who are pro-choice? The answer is, pretty much never.

Five Fool-Proof Tips for Winning a Town Hall Debate

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Tuesday night, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will meet in a "town hall" debate, which doesn't actually much resemble a town hall, but does provide an opportunity for ordinary voters to ask the candidates questions. So does this kind of forum actually give us any better idea of which candidate would be the superior president? As I noted last week, town hall debates are less predictable and tend to cover a wider range of topics than the format of a moderator and candidates standing behind podiums. That does mean that we could get a bit more insight into the operation of these two men's minds, but it also means that slightly different of skills and preparation are required. A review of past town hall debates—there has been one in every presidential election since 1992—shows what Obama and Romney will have to do in order to succeed. Obama and Romney have, we assume, looked back at how their predecessors handled these events. Here's some of what they might have learned.

Time to Try the "Romney Is Lying" Debate Strategy

You're getting sleepy...

One of the triumphs of Mitt Romney's performance in the first debate was that he told an enormous number of outright falsehoods (see here) with virtually no response from Obama, or at least no effective response. So one of Obama's challenges tomorrow night—perhaps the key challenge—is how to handle it when Romney says things that aren't true. What he can't do is what he did in the first debate, offer a muttering response filled with details and failing to emphasize his central point.

I realize there's at least some chance that the President is too busy to be reading this blog today. But just in case, let me offer a suggestion. What Obama needs is a set of responses that cover the topic at hand, but that all follow a single theme. He needs, to put it bluntly, a single phrase that he will repeat every time he's refuting a Romney falsehood. It could be something slogan-y, like "That's another Romney Reinvention," or could be something simple, like "Once again, Governor Romney thinks he can fool you and get away with it." It almost doesn't matter what it is, so long as he repeats it every time. The repetition acts as a signal to the viewers, linking that particular part of the debate to what they've already heard. This would not only make Romney's deceptions the headline of post-debate analyses, it would also probably freak Romney out a bit during the debate. As long as Romney knows that Obama's reaction to anything he says is going to be some weak, "Well, I'm going to take issue with you there," Romney can forge confidently on ahead, since people watching will have no idea who's telling the truth. But if he's wondering whether what he had planned to say on a particular topic is going to play right into Obama's hands and send him deeper down a hole Obama has dug for him, he won't be nearly so bold.

Friday Music Break

Today's Friday Music Break is for my friends in AC15. Message being: You're old. It's the Talking Heads, with "Psycho Killer." Stop Making Sense came out a remarkable 28 years ago.

Does Mitt Romney Want to Raise Taxes on the Wealthy?

Mitt Romney, not sharing with job creators what he's really proposing to do to them.

At last night's debate, the mathematical impossibility of the Romney tax plan came up, just as it did during the first Obama-Romney debate, and just as it surely will in the second Obama-Romney debate on Tuesday. The real problem with Romney's proposal, though, isn't just that it's mathematically impossible, but that it's logically strange in one important way nobody seems to have noticed yet, namely that Romney seems to be proposing big tax increases for the wealthy. I'll get to why that is in a minute, but before I do let's review the problem. Since Kevin Drum gave a nice explanation, I'll just steal it:

Phew!

Keep talking, buddy. I'm coming for you.

We all know that vice-presidential debates don't matter, or at least that's what we knew until last night. This one, however, may turn out to matter quite a bit, even if it doesn't produce any major movement in the polls, for two reasons. The first is the obvious one: it has already made despondent Democrats feel a lot better. They wanted to see their guy aggressively take on the other side, and that's exactly what they got. Markos Moulitsas of DailyKos probably spokr for most Democrats when he wrote, "Tonight felt great, didn't it?...we base liberals are happy again, which means we'll be productive bees because no matter what some of you claim, no one likes to work hard for the team that is 10 points down (or feels that way)."

Conservatives, on the other hand, are unanimous in their judgment that Biden was overbearing and mean. Last night on Fox, Brit Hume called him "a cranky old man." "Biden Bombed," reads the Fred Barnes piece on the Weekly Standard. "Classless Joe," says the National Review. They aren't completely wrong—Biden certainly interrupted Ryan more than was necessary, and could have dialed back the smiling and head-shaking a bit. But his unrelenting aggressiveness was just what Democrats wanted to see, and will no doubt spur President Obama to try to avoid looking somnolent by comparison.

The second reason the VP debate matters is that it sets the stage for the final two presidential debates in an important substantive way.

White House High Rollers

(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

When George W. Bush ran for president in 2000, he assembled a fundraising effort more effective than any the country had ever seen. During the primary campaign, Bush's fundraising approached $100 million, an unprecedented total many at the time found utterly mind-boggling. Yet just eight years later, Barack Obama's campaign raised $191 million in the month of September alone. This year's September haul for Obama was $181 million.

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