Paul Waldman

Could the VP Debate Be a BFD?

(AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
(AP Photo/David Goldman) A banner made by a local middle school depicting Republican vice presidential candidate, Representative Paul Ryan, at left, and Vice President Joe Biden, at right, hangs on the wall inside the media center ahead of Thursday's vice presidential debate, Wednesday, October 10, 2012, at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky. I f you find yourself moved to prepare for tonight's debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan by watching the 2008 vice-presidential debate , your first response will be, "Holy cow, I'd almost forgotten what a nincompoop Sarah Palin is." But after that, you'll be reminded that before he became the shirtless, Trans Am-washing guy so hilariously lampooned in The Onion , Biden was known as one of the most eloquent speakers in his party. He was well prepared for his meeting with Palin; not only did he talk fluidly about a range of issues, but he came armed with an array of factoids that he parceled out effectively and he was ready with practiced...

Non-Religious Voters Getting Even More Democratic

Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life
The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released a new report on the increasing numbers of people who don't identify with any religion, and while the headline is that the number of such people has maintained its steady growth—now up to 20 percent of the population, and concentrated more heavily among younger adults—there's something else notable, about the political affiliations of this group. Some people have pointed out that only some of these "nones" will actually say they're atheist, while many define themselves as "spiritual but not religious," which could mean anything and nothing, from "I believe in God but organized religion is corrupt, to "I get a profound sense of our interconnectedness when I look up at the stars." We also shouldn't forget that there are many people who continue to identify with a religion but are actually non-believers. I know too many Jewish atheists to count, and nearly all of them would say their religion is "Jewish" if you asked; I'm sure there are...

Liberals Need to Get a Grip

Do not let these people make you anxious.
As a liberal who writes about politics for a living, I've spent the last few days talking to increasingly panicked Democrats, who have begun to overreact to the fact that President Obama had a poor debate performance, which then produced a movement in some polls toward Mitt Romney. I think David Weigel put it well yesterday: "The first presidential debate has come to remind me of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace . Democrats walked out of the theater/turned off the TV saying 'huh, well, I wanted it to be better.' After a few days of talking to friends, it changes from a disappointment into the worst piece of crap in human history." Andrew Sullivan kind of went nuclear after seeing the Pew poll I discussed yesterday, writing a post titled, "Did Obama Just Throw the Entire Election Away?" I can answer that: No. For many years, psychologists and sociologists have known that in small groups, a uniformity of opinion can push opinion to the extremes. For instance, if you get a group...

No, There's No Poll Trutherism On the Left

Ahhh! Panic panic panic!
Today, the Pew Research Center released a poll showing Mitt Romney rocketing ahead of Barack Obama to a four-point lead among likely voters. Needless to say, this is pretty remarkable. Is it true? Well ... maybe, maybe not. Just a few weeks ago Pew showed Obama ahead by eight points among likely voters, and I'm sure I wasn't the only one who found that unlikely. But referencing the recent "poll truther" insanity on the right, Slate tech writer Farhad Manjoo tweeted , "Watch for liberals to start questioning Pew's methodology/sampling/etc in 3, 2, 1...." Well, you can keep waiting. I have seen some liberals express the belief that these results may be inaccurate, particularly since they show the two candidates tied among women. I don't even think Ann Romney thinks her husband is going to be tied among women. But there aren't any liberals, as far as I can tell, questioning Pew's methodology or intentions. And that's the difference. Whenever any of us see a poll with results we don't...

Why Do the Sunday Shows Suck So Much?

I know you're dying to know what these two have to say.
In the American media landscape, there is no single forum more prestigious than the Sunday shows—particularly the three network programs, and to a slightly lesser extent "Fox News Sunday" and CNN's "State of the Union." The Sunday shows are where "newsmakers" face the music, where Washington's most important people are validated for their importance, where issues are probed in depth. So, why do they suck so much? I live and breathe politics, yet I find these programs absolutely unwatchable, and I can't be the only one. On a typical episode, there is nothing to learn, no insight to be gained, no interesting perspective on offer, nothing but an endless spew of talking points and squabbling. Let's take, for instance, yesterday's installment of "This Week With George Stephanopoulos." We start off with dueling interviews with Obama adviser Robert Gibbs and Romney adviser Ed Gillespie. Were you expecting some candid talk from these two political veterans? Of course you weren't. "If you're...

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...

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