Paul Waldman

Romney Versus the People

(AP Photo/Scott Applewhite)
(AP Photo/Pool, Charles Dharapak) Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain, wave to the audience after a presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., Wednesday, October 15, 2008. T here's no question that Mitt Romney did very well in his first debate with Barack Obama. Indeed, it couldn't have gone much better, so much so that almost any performance in their meeting next week will seem like a let-down. But the second debate poses real dangers for Romney, and an opportunity for Obama to wipe away the memory of his poor performance in the first. Next week's will be a "town hall"-style debate, and that format plays right into Romney's weaknesses. The town hall debate will be challenging for Romney for two reasons, both of which have to do with the fact that it will feature not journalists or a moderator asking questions, but ordinary people. Before I explain why, let's take a look at what town hall...

Friday Music Break

BoDeans, "Home"
Since today is the sacred monthly holiday known as Jobs Report Day, here are (is?) BoDeans, with "Good Work." And yes, this is one of those bands that should have a "the" in front of their names but apparently don't.

Why Can't Candidates Bring Notes to the Debates?

(AP/Charlie Neibergall)
(AP/Charlie Neibergall) No, there's nothing fishy going on here. Apparently, there are a few liberals out there concerned (or maybe just bored) that Mitt Romney brought some kind of a cheat sheet to the debate the other night, because he was seen taking something out of his pocket and putting it on his podium. The participants aren't supposed to bring any notes with them, but his campaign assures us that it was just a handkerchief. I'm not even going to get into the George W. Bush suit bulge affair, because I wouldn't want to encourage any tedious Zapruder-style analysis, but here's my question: Why the hell shouldn't they be allowed to bring notes? Presidential debates shouldn't be a memorization contest. I'm fairly sure that Mitt Romney would win that hands down; I marveled during the primaries at his ability to say things like, "The answer is yes, Jim, and there are eight reasons why," then rattle off exactly eight things. But that doesn't necessarily mean he'd make a better...

David Brooks, the World's Most Gullible Man

Flickr/Newshour
A couple of weeks ago, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a scathing piece about Mitt Romney's "47 percent" video, saying "It suggests that Romney doesn't know much about the culture of America." But now that Romney has moved to the center , not only is Brooks back on board, he's here to testify that this new moderate Mitt is the "authentic" one. I kid you not: But, on Wednesday night, Romney finally emerged from the fog. He broke with the stereotypes of his party and, at long last, began the process of offering a more authentic version of himself... Most important, Romney did something no other mainstream Republican has had the guts to do. Either out of conviction or political desperation, he broke with Tea Party orthodoxy and began to redefine the Republican identity. And, having taken this step, he's broken the spell. Conservatives loved it! They loved that it was effective, and it was effective because Romney could more authentically be the man who (I think) he truly is...

Obama the Apologetic

Obama and Romney, yukking it up.
As I read over the transcript of the debate, a couple of things struck me. First, on the page it doesn't look nearly as bad for Obama as a lot of people are saying. Of course, the debate doesn't exist for most people on the page, but what I found frustrating wasn't so much that Obama said things that were bad in and of themselves, but that he let so many opportunities pass by. And what a lot of it comes down to is his seeming inability to use direct language. We heard leading up to the debate that his advisers were encouraging him to make his answers shorter, but length isn't his problem. It's that he uses passive constructions and language that hedges when he should be speaking more clearly. To show what I mean, here are a few of the things he said during the debate when he was criticizing Romney, and how they might have been put more clearly. Here's something he said about Romney's tax plan: Now, Governor Romney's proposal that he has been promoting for 18 months calls for a $5...

At Long Last, Romney Shifts to the Center

(AP Photo/Eric Gay)
(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall) Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney answers a question during the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, Wednesday, October 3, 2012, in Denver. F or some time now, I've been wondering when Mitt Romney would finally make that "shift to the center" that candidates supposedly do after they win their party's nomination. The need was particularly acute for Romney, since his party is particularly unpopular with the public, and he spent the primaries working so hard to convince base Republican voters that he was, in his immortal phrase, "severely conservative." But it never seemed to happen. Until last night. There's no question that Romney performed better than Obama in most every way. But what was really striking to me was how different he sounded than he has up until now. If you hadn't paid any attention to politics over the last year and a half, you'd think this Mitt Romney guy must have been the most moderate Republican running this...

How Debates Matter

Flickr/Natalie Maynor
Yesterday, John Sides wrote about some interesting studies exploring the effect the media have on voter perceptions of presidential debates. One experiment showed that when you expose people to post-debate commentary, it significantly alters their perception of who won the debate. This is something researchers have known about at least since 1976, when the public at first didn't see Gerald Ford's "gaffe" about Eastern Europe not being under Soviet domination as any big deal (apparently, they realized he was speaking more aspirationally than anything else). Immediately after the debate polls showed the public evenly split on who had won, but after a few days of coverage of the "gaffe," the polls shifted dramatically, with many more people saying Carter had won. As I've pointed out many times, what persists in our memory about presidential debates are only those moments reporters choose to keep reminding us about (I wrote about it in this book —still relevant eight years later!). But...

You're Not in the Debate Minor Leagues Now, Mitt

Mitt Romney and friends, pledging.
In the year-long game of attrition that led to his nomination to the Republican presidential ticket, Mitt Romney participated in over 20 debates with his primary opponents. A look back at those debates demonstrates many of the things that will hold Romney in good stead during his debates with Barack Obama: his ability to construct lengthy yet coherent answers to questions, his disciplined repetition of talking points, and his delivery of practiced zingers, to name a few. One also sees a candidate with vulnerabilities, particularly his tendency to stumble when under attack and forced to improvise. Some of his worst mistakes—offering to bet Rick Perry $10,000 to settle a quibble about what was in the book Romney wrote, or explaining how he told his landscaper, "you can't have any illegals working on our property. I'm running for office, for Pete's sake, I can't have illegals"—came during those high-stress moments. But Romney's greatest challenge may lie in appreciating the difference...

Nowhere to Go

Things are looking so bleak, all the color has left Mitt Romney's face. (Flickr/mnassal)
I'm sure that right about now Mitt Romney is drowning in unsolicited advice. That's what happens when you're behind—everybody from the consultants you weren't wise enough to employ to the donors funding your campaign to the guy who delivers your mail fancies themselves a political genius, and will be happy to tell you that all your problems would be solved if only you'd follow their advice. But I wonder: Is there anything all these people are telling Romney and the people who work for him that might help? Because I don't know what it might be. Sure, we can all agree that the Romney campaign hasn't exactly been deft, but their biggest problem isn't one of strategy or message, it's that their candidate is unskilled and unappealing. In a long article out today, the National Journal explains that people's expectations of the economy have just been lowered, and the Romney campaign's belief that eventually voters would come around to blaming Obama for the country's troubles just hasn't...

Zing!

Flickr/webjones
The other day, The New York Times reported that in their debate preparations, "Mr. Romney's team has concluded that debates are about creating moments and has equipped him with a series of zingers that he has memorized and has been practicing on aides since August." This then became the subject of predictable ridicule (check out #romneyzingers or #mittzingers on Twitter), but it actually does give us a window into the unfortunate state of the Romney campaign. I'm sure they're feeling pretty tense up in Boston right now. Barack Obama has a small but stubborn lead in every poll, there's only a month left, and these debates are the best chance the campaign has at doing something dramatic. So if you were involved in Romney's debate prep, you probably wouldn't think that just showing your candidate to be smart and likeable will be enough to change the campaign's direction. Hence the pressure for zingers. But it's tempting to learn the lessons of past debates a little too well, and that may...

To the Spin Room!

A primary debate spin room, only a fraction as busy as what we'll see in Denver. (Flickr/WEBN-TV)
Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will be debating on Wednesday night, and as Michael Calderone tells us , an absolutely incredible 3,000 journalists will be trooping out to Denver to be there when it happens. They won't actually be in the hall, though. They'll be in a nearby gym, watching it on TV like everyone else. But after the debate ends, they'll decamp to the "spin room, where partisans will dispense utterly predictable remarks on what just happened. "Governor Romney hit it out of the park, while President Obama couldn't justify his failures," a Romney staffer will say. "President Obama hit it out of the park, while Mitt Romney only reinforced the doubts the American people have about him," an Obama staffer will say. "Ooo, that's fascinating—give me more of your interpretation of what I just saw, campaign staffer," no one in the world will say. Calderone asks one relevant question—Should they bother? (Answer: No)—but I'd like to address another couple: Why do they do it in the first...

Foreign Policy Is Hard

"If this Romney is elected, we will obviously have to shut down the nuclear program. He is so strong and resolute!" (Aslan Media)
In today's Wall Street Journal , Mitt Romney takes to the op-ed page to offer his vision for a new American policy in the Middle East. Apparently, the tragic recent events in Benghazi have convinced Romney and his advisors that something is going on over there, and though they aren't sure exactly what, it's definitely something, and therefore Romney ought to come and say something about it, to show everyone how wrong Barack Obama is. If you thought Romney was being vague about his domestic policy, that's nothing compared to what he has to say about foreign policy. The first half of the piece is the standard criticism of the Obama administration (he's weak!), and here's the part where Romney lays out in specific detail exactly what he'd do differently: In this period of uncertainty, we need to apply a coherent strategy of supporting our partners in the Middle East—that is, both governments and individuals who share our values. This means restoring our credibility with Iran. When we say...

Friday Music Break

XTC, Skylarking
For today's edition of Catchy Yet Blasphemous 80s Pop Tunes, we have XTC, with "Dear God." Have a good weekend, everybody.

Who's to Blame for Mitt Romney?

Old white conservative guys pretending to be excited about Mitt Romney. (Flickr/Newshour)
Who's to blame for Mitt Romney? That seems to be the question of the day out there on the interwebs. Politico tells us that the answer conservatives give when you ask them is, Mitt Romney is to blame: "Slowly and reluctantly, Republicans who love and work for Romney are concluding that for all his gifts as a leader, businessman and role model, he's just not a good political candidate in this era." Steve Kornacki counters that the problem isn't so much Mitt himself, it's the Republican party, which "never actually bothered to create a comprehensive post-Bush blueprint." Jonathan Chait notes that although some conservatives are now claiming Romney was foisted upon them by the establishment, nobody within the GOP really wanted Romney: "He won by default." So who's right? They all are! Every factor has worked against a Republican victory this fall. Terribly unlikeable candidate? Check. Paucity of plausible primary alternatives? Check. Absurdly unpopular party dominated by crazy people?...

"You Didn't Build That" vs. the 47 Percent

Remember when "you didn't build that" was going to be the ticket to the White House for Mitt Romney? Seems like a long time ago, but for a while there the entire Romney campaign reoriented itself around this alleged gaffe that Barack Obama had committed. They printed banners about it, they organized events about it, they made TV ads about it, they made it the theme of their convention. And what happened? It just didn't work. The contrast with the Obama's campaign's favorite Romney gaffe, the secretly recorded "47 percent" video, is so striking it sums up everything that has gone wrong for the Romney campaign and right for the Obama campaign. Let's start with "you didn't build that." The first reason the attack failed was that it relied on ripping Obama's words from their context and giving them a reading that was so tendentious it bordered on the absurd. Could anyone who didn't already think Obama is a socialist believe that he said to himself, "I'm going to go out and say that people...

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