I must apologize for having been a little unavailable last week, but this week should be less crazy for me. I wanted to share my thoughts on two aspects of the campaign. First, the news that new polling shows Republicans pulling a draw on the Medicare issue. Benen:
Last week, a New York Times poll showed overwhelming opposition to the Romney/Ryan plan, which would effectively privatize Medicare out of existence. Great news for Democrats, right? Wrong — most Americans have no idea what Romney/Ryan has in mind for Medicare, and as a result, a plurality of seniors in Florida and Ohio believe the Republican ticket would do a better job protecting Medicare than Obama/Biden. […]
When Romney launched his Medicare offensive, it struck me as absurd — people are easily fooled, but there’s no way the American mainstream could be this confused. The notion that voters would want to protect Medicare and then trust the ticket that wants to eliminate Medicare was simply too ridiculous to believe.
And yet, here we are. Candidates lie in ads because people will believe them.
Here’s what I think. Romney/Ryan managed to pull off a reset of sorts, and they timed it well. They got the public (and especially seniors) to believe that their Medicare plans are based around restoring the Affordable Care Act’s Medicare cuts, while skillfully avoiding discussion of vouchers and what not. Why wouldn’t seniors like that “plan”? And seniors lean Republican and they’re willing to give these guys the benefit of the doubt. It was slick, I’ll give them that. But the facts still remain: Ryan (and now the GOP platform) supports Medicare vouchers. What this news shows is that Democrats were at something of a disadvantage, since Romney and Ryan rather deftly used the press attention during the VP rollout to try to defuse the Medicare bomb underneath them. Only it’s still there. Dems need to step up and launch a fresh offensive after the conventions–the GOP won’t likely have another moment like that rollout again, and the original attack should still work if pressed hard enough. What I still wonder about is whether Republicans really would move to implement the Ryan Plan if they win–I’m assuming Romney doesn’t really care about it, just about winning. Running on vouchercare would provide something of a mandate (or a dramatic electoral loss), but trying to implement it without campaigning on it smacks of Bush’s Social Security plan.
And then there’s this article about Romney’s racebaiting:
Edsall sees the Romney campaign using race in two ways. Most overtly, the Romney campaign is accusing President Obama by of gutting welfare reform by dropping the work requirement—a gross distortion of an unexceptional waiver Obama granted several states allowing them to experiment with alternative ways to meet the work requirement. Two of the five governors requesting the waivers were Republicans, and among those who have denounced the workfare accusation as flat-out untrue is the Republican former congressman and current talk-show host Joe Scarborough. The second way Edsall sees the Romney campaign using race is more subtle. According to Edsall, Romney is conveying a racially-charged message in accusing Obama of taking money away from (mainly white recipients of) Medicare to fund (majority non-white recipients of) Obamacare.
Can we all just now admit that Mitt Romney is not a very good person? Fuck the wife and kids, Tony Soprano had those too. I’m well aware that campaigns, especially presidential campaigns, have a lot of grey area. I expect candidates to do whatever they can to win, since after all, there’s a lot invested in them, and they’ll likely never have this chance again. But even in campaigns there should be limits, and pumping deceptive sludge into the electorate simply because it would be too hard to win otherwise has to be considered over the line for anyone who has an interest in maintaining some semblance of civil society. Especially when you compare this to Obama’s conscientiously healing and reconciliation-centric 2008 campaign, it’s so ugly and gauche, and the contrast speaks volumes. Romney, as I have said before, has no limits and an insatiable appetite for power. If he wins the presidency, I can’t imagine any significant portion of Americans will be happy about it in four years.
I typically react viscerally against titles like, “The Republican Party is more pragmatic than you might think,” but there’s actually not that much to object to in the actual piece:
Over the past few years, it has hardened into something approaching conventional wisdom that the conservative/Tea Party wing is in the process of taking over the GOP. But while the right has certainly asserted itself – particularly in the 2010 midterm elections, with mixed results – the reality is that the Republican Party is now in the process of nominating an establishment figure with a moderate reputation for president. Again.
And just like in 2008, when Sen. John McCain was the nominee, there has not been a significant conservative revolt to the pending nomination of Mitt Romney. Indeed, this week brought an endorsement for Romney from self-anointed Tea Party champion Michele Bachmann, as well as a semi-endorsement from Newt Gingrich, who spent the primary season thundering that Romney does not represent his party. Conservative journalists and commentators, meanwhile, held an off-the-record confab with Romney, and while he reportedly didn’t win them over completely, they certainly don’t seem to be in the process of mutiny.
Pragmatism is one of those words that can be used in different ways, and means different things to different people. To me, it means emphasizing practicality, argument, evidence and reason over abstraction, ideology, overfixation on process and pie-in-the-skyism. It’s not a term I would associate with Republicans in general, but when it comes to matters of gaining and holding power the GOP has often proven to be very pragmatic. Sure, occasionally they shoot themselves in the foot in pursuit of purity, but it’s not as often as is commonly believed. Policy is another matter entirely–Republicans during the debt ceiling drama were so obsessed with process and with not compromising at all that they let the chance of a very sweet deal (from their perspective) slip through their hands, one which could have obliterated Barack Obama’s presidency had it been enacted by causing a deep split between the Administration and progressive supporters. It would have been a masterful stroke, but Republicans were too rigid to do it. This here is the opposite of pragmatism.
Why has Romney been accepted by the right wing, despite his past? It’s not because of his popularity. It’s not because of his “steadfastness”. Many people have derisively compared him to John Kerry, but I sort of wonder if that isn’t working for him. Romney does indeed recall Kerry, who most Republicans simply saw as weak, lacking conviction, unable to lead. But among Republicans, that’s a feature, not a bug. The true leader of the GOP at this point in time is Paul Ryan, as we’ve discussed. Romney has signaled repeatedly that he supports Ryan’s plan, and some of the right’s biggest powerbrokers have argued that this essentially makes Romney beside the point, a means to an end (case in point). This is, to be sure, some pretty stiff pragmatism.
But there is reason to believe that Norquist and others do not get the dynamics at play here. Sure, Paul Ryan is the Republicans’ informal leader now and has been for the past year and change, but that’s really because the party’s formal leadership isn’t all that strong. John Boehner is a largely powerless and unpopular figure, Mitch McConnell isn’t all that likable and is a cynical pol who tends to be strangely honest about his cynicism. Neither one possesses the recognition, charisma or authority to become the de facto Republican leader, and in our system of government there is no formal Leader of the Opposition. Ryan has been able to lead despite not possessing any formal post of leadership, but what happens when the GOP gets a formal leader? Norquist and like-minded conservatives underestimate the authority and prestige of the office and its ability to set the parameters of the discussion. It’s worth noting that President Obama was able to alter the discussion after the debt ceiling drama last year back toward jobs and economic growth, despite the fact that his popularity was at extremely diminished levels at that point.
The simple fact is that presidents set the agenda in American politics, not committee chairmen from the lower house of Congress. Ryan’s agenda is honey to men like Norquist, who relish the idea of gutting pretty much every function of government, with the possible exceptions of the military and the border patrol. But are Republicans following Ryan’s banner because they truly identify with his cause, or because nobody else is providing leadership? Norquist’s reasoning has a certain sort of counterintuitive flair to it, just like the best (and worst) Washington arguments, and it’s certainly possible that Romney would make a push to enact the Ryan Budget. But the notion that Romney is too weak and shifty to stand up to intramural pressure, and that this will trump his being too weak and shifty to stand up to pressure from the national electorate, should be regarded as a risky gamble. Certainly, it’s not an especially pragmatic one. But Romney’s presidential bid has been backed by conservatives with these sorts of arguments from the start on the one hand, and has mostly been backed by more moderate voters who don’t believe Mitt is half the radical he says he is on the other hand. If he wins, at least one of these groups is going to look awfully foolish.
The Times has an interesting piece, which argues that elite Republicans strongly want Mitt Romney to stop attacking Obama so much, and spend at least some time outlining a positive vision:
“Mitt Romney has to come up with a plan and policy and principles that people can rally around,” said Gov. Gary R. Herbert of Utah, a strong supporter of Mr. Romney who said it was “fair game” to point out differences with the president. “It can’t just be negativity.”
Calls for Mr. Romney to adjust his approach, which the campaign has so far resisted, carry special weight because they come from many of his best-known supporters, like Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, and Mitch Daniels, the governor of Indiana.
In interviews, Republican leaders said they agree with Mr. Romney’s attacks and understand that he is trying to harness the anger of the Republican base. But they said he has not yet struck the right balance between explaining what is wrong with his opponent’s record and what is admirable about his own.
Let’s set a few things down in advance. Mitt Romney is a smart guy. He has decent instincts for what he needs to do in order to win any given election, the problem is always that he’s less than graceful as a public figure. I find it easy to believe that these Republicans are entirely correct that nonstop bombthrowing from now until November is going to be a suboptimal strategy, after a point the attacks will be easy to tune out and dismiss. It would be better, strategically speaking, for Romney to offer a contrast with Obama, rather than just hammering away endlessly at differences that, in a lot of cases, most people don’t care about.
But there’s one problem with this advice, one which I would be seriously pissed off about if I were Romney: these elites want to have their cake and eat it too. After all, it was people like these who made the Ryan Budget a non-negotiable position for GOP candidates. Remember how Newt Gingrich was flayed after denouncing it? In politics, that sort of ritual slaughter sends a message: don’t mess with us on this. The message was duly received by Romney, who went from being on the fence to supporting the plan outright. Ryan’s Plan is electoral poison, and we’re only beginning to see just how bad it’s going to be for the party: it’s just beginning to become a factor in House races and Republicans are being dragged down by it. Romney wisely decided to downplay the Ryan Plan and has focused solely on saying that Barack Obama is the worst human being in history, and now these same geniuses insist that he be more positive? About what? That’s a bad joke, almost. But keep in mind that a lot of these folks live in a bubble where Paul Ryan would be an enormously helpful addition to a national ticket. I’m sure if you asked Mitch Daniels, he’d say that all he needs to do is to explain what the Ryan Budget does and they’ll win the argument. Problem is, as the Political Wire post shows, only 41% of swing state voters support the plan when presented to them in Ryan’s own language. And that’s not the only side they’re going to hear on the topic. Even if Romney were inclined to fight this fight, there’s just no way he can win it starting at those numbers. That’s not the path down which the presidency lies and Romney fucking knows it. If Republicans wanted someone who was going to fight their ideological crusades they should have nominated Rick Santorum, and not the most self-oriented politician in a generation. This is what “electability” looks like, folks. If they’re surprised, they’re fools.
Really, while Romney’s current strategy is far from the best imaginable, it’s probably the best he can do considering the constraints the right forced him to accept. Though I almost want to see him take this advice, mentioned later in the NYT piece:
Mr. Herbert, the Utah governor, said that he wanted to hear Mr. Romney discuss a topic he routinely skirts, for fear of reminding voters of his prodigious wealth: his successful career.
Mr. Romney, he said, should frame his financial success as a totem of the America he is fighting to restore — a free-market economy, unburdened by overregulation and big government, in which entrepreneurs thrive and, in turn, employment grows.
“He has been way too timid about talking about his successes in the private sector,” Mr. Herbert said. “It’s what’s great about America. I can be the next Bill Gates or Mitt Romney.”
This is…incredibly stupid advice. It would be one thing if Mitt Romney had a rags-to-riches story. But his story is accurately described as riches-to-more riches, which is quite a bit less inspiring. I don’t think reminding the public of the opportunity gap between them and the Romneys of the world is going to go over so well. And the Gates comparison is oh so flawed: Romney didn’t invent anything, he restructured companies to keep them from failing. I’ll readily admit that private equity firms like Bain Capital have their niche in the financial ecosystem. But the simple fact is that Mitt Romney is a lot closer to Gordon Gekko than to Bill Gates, and the difference between Romney and Gekko is a question of degree, not one of kind. And unless you’re a rich Wall Street trader, Gekko is not an inspiring figure.
And, after respondents hear one additional paragraph description linking Ryan to the Republican leadership in Congress and describing his authorship of the House budget plan, his support falls below 50% and his favorable rating becomes like Obama’s and Walker’s—dead even at 46% positive and 46% negative. And… Rob Zerban trails Ryan by only six points after this very brief exposition of Ryan’s signature idea, 49-43%, with undecideds holding nearly unanimously negative views of Congress in general and more than 80% saying they have either a negative or neutral feeling toward Ryan at the end of the poll.
Wait, you mean that being a prominent member of the despised House Leadership, the author of an ill-advised budget billed as a necessary cutting of spending to reduce the deficit (that actually increases the deficit), and plumbing new depths of dishonesty and bad faith somehow makes you less popular? Shocking.
I admit that I had neutral-to-vaguely positive feelings toward Ryan before this year. Seemed like a thoughtful sort, so far as Republicans go. But since getting power he’s proven himself to be almost comically hackish and dishonest. People like that don’t deserve to serve the public, and that’s not even getting into the substance of his big plan. Rob Zerban seems like a pretty credible candidate to take the guy on, maybe kick him a couple of bucks here.
The two big announcements out of Team Romney today that together–as I’m certain was the intention–neatly form a question/answer set for Republican primary voters on whether to support him over Newt Gingrich. Today’s early-morning oppo-drop on Newt was meant to call into question Gingrich’s conservative bona fides and highlight his sketchy personal life. This was expected and leaked long in advance. The more stunning (and unleaked) news is that Romney has now endorsed Paul Ryan’s extreme, heavily unpopular, and possibly politically suicidal budget plan. This wasn’t leaked at all, and together the two actions present a fairly powerful message to conservative activists. Newt famously panned the Ryan Plan at its outset, of course, before artlessly flipping on the subject. Romney is trying to retake control of the contest, and he’s keeping it simple. You want someone with a squeaky-clean home life? Vote Mitt. You want someone who gets it right on entitlements? Vote Mitt. If neither matters to you, vote Newt. Simple.
This is Romney finally reacting to seeing his frontrunner status erode, and trying to take on the seemingly soft target that is Newt Gingrich. I will admit that there’s some compelling logic to these moves, and I was surprised that Romney has gone there. For one thing, his timing is just not good. To endorse the Ryan Plan months after it has ceased to be any part of the conversation might highlight one of Newt’s biggest campaign missteps, but it also reintroduces a subject that caused Republicans no end of political headaches during the summer, including being arguably responsible for a special election defeat in a safe GOP seat. Reorienting the discussion away from jobs and the economy and toward entitlement reform strikes me as a poor choice for Republicans–it ignores their strongest issues in the general election for one that’s divisive even in their own camp. And as Gingrich draws beaucoup support from seniors, one wonders if this is the strongest angle Romney’s team could come up with to splinter the pro-Newt folks. I suppose it’s better than ignoring the guy, and hoping he’ll fall apart quick enough to matter.
Additionally, I’m just not quite sure that Mitt’s got the right assumptions in mind here. Mitt Romney–characteristically–has taken a substantive stand here to appeal to conservatives. This is how Romney operates–he identifies an objective, figures out how to get it, and takes whatever public stances are necessary to achieve it. But while Romney might be conservative in terms of his current issue profile, he doesn’t think like a conservative and doesn’t understand how their minds work. After all, if right-wingers made decisions solely off of tangible things like issue statements and past records, Mitt would have been disqualified right off the bat for having started the program that inspired the dread Obamacare. Nate Silver, however, has a great opinion piece that explains Gingrich’s trump card:
I have seen a lot of other commentators bring up versions of this point, but there is a reason why Republicans, especially conservative Republicans, see Newt Gingrich as by far their most qualified nominee and why they have been willing so far to excuse his periodic lapses from conservative orthodoxy.
The reason is simply that under Mr. Gingrich’s Congressional leadership, the Republican Party finally broke the New Deal coalition that had dominated American politics for more than a half-century, moving policy substantially to the right. That is a pretty impressive credential. […]
Mr. Gingrich resigned under the cloud of an ethics scandal in 1999. But there was no backlash to speak of; instead, the Republicans’ score card since then has looked pretty good. […] It is hard to say how much of this shift is because of Mr. Gingrich. Like the quarterback for a winning football team, he is probably given somewhat more responsibility for his party’s wins and losses than he truly deserves. Nevertheless, no other Republican candidate can come close to matching his record. It is also one that older voters in particular — with whom Mr. Gingrich performs extremely well — may be inclined to appreciate. Those older voters may have a keener sense of history and would have remembered that the House of Representatives had been dominated by Democrats for their entire adult lifetimes until Mr. Gingrich came into power.
This matters. Romney is a hostage of his corporate mindset–the customer is always right, and you say or do anything to make them happy. Gingrich is an experienced activist who understands that an appealing narrative, rousing rhetoric and picking the right targets matters a lot more than picking this or that policy. And, increasingly, I’m beginning to think that this mismatch accounts for most of Romney’s shortcomings in 2008 and this year. As Romney’s electability argument becomes less credible (at least according to the polls), all he has left to fight back with is attack fodder to bring Newt’s numbers down, a strategy which has never had the 100% effectiveness that many people believe–just revisit Clinton vs. Obama in 2008 if you doubt it. Oh, and a theory of politics that doesn’t match the environment he’s in. Romney may well win–there are dozens of reasons why it should happen–but it won’t be because of anything he did today.
“The only way our country can win the future is by engaging our fellow citizens in serious discussions about major reform–not by avoiding hard choices,” the e-mail reads. “Congressman Ryan has made a key contribution to entitlement reform, courageously starting the conversation about how to save and improve Medicare. And that’s exactly the kind of national conversation I want our campaign to be about!”Yeah, I don’t even know what to say at this point. Gingrich has been a practitioner of outright, baldfaced lying for so long that he must not feel comfortable doing anything else. Can anyone possibly believe this? Apparently not, as Republicans are really starting to turn on Gingrich’s sorry ass. Long overdue.
Assuming that Brian Beutler’s interpretation of McConnell’s remarks is accurate (and it could be, though I think it’s a bit more ambiguous than he does, he could just be talking about his own personal vote), I don’t see why “making Democrats vote for Medicare cuts” is such a brilliant strategy for overcoming the public’s hatred of the Ryan Plan for a few simple reasons:
- Privatization/phaseout is substantively more extreme than making cuts. If a Republican who supports Ryan were to attack the Democrat he/she were running against for making cuts to Medicare, the obvious rejoinder is, “Well, I voted to cut some wasteful spending to corporations out of it. But my opponent voted to end it!” Which is exactly what happened in NY-26 anyway, and the Republicans lost that one, as you know.
- The Republican coalition has more seniors in it than the Democratic coalition, and those seniors are going to be pissed off about any cuts. If they both take it out on their parties, the Republicans will get the worst of it simply by having more seniors. I just don’t see how you solidify your advantage among seniors by attacking programs they like, this is Beltway counterintuition ad absurdum, and nobody’s falling for it.
- The House Democrats that survived 2010 were already able to survive an election where Republicans attacked them for cutting Medicare, and in a much worse political environment than exists now, or likely will exist in 2012. They’ve seen this game already and know how to play it.
- On the other hand, the people really at risk from the Ryan Plan are the Class of ’10 Republicans in the House. You know, the ones that won on “Mediscare” tactics. They’re still going to have the Ryan vote hanging over their heads, and their 2012 opponents are not the ones currently serving in Congress and won’t have to answer to charges of cutting Medicare because they won’t have to vote on the bill. Which is to say that Republicans will still have to defend their Ryan votes against challengers who will largely be able to co-opt the Hochul Doctrine wholesale. The only exceptions are representatives who are going to be redistricted into a district with an incumbent Republican representing it, but that won’t amount to many, and they’ll probably vote no anyway.
- It will not be hard to make the case that Republicans forced Democrats into doing this on pain of default and economic destruction, making them shoulder the blame for unpopular cuts. If they need help, surely the comments of Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader, would help make that case. In fact, if they insist on unpopular cuts, expect Democrats to run on restoring those cuts, blaming Republicans all the while. Which is to say, the issue won’t go away, and things won’t really be all that different next year. Bill Clinton, after all, signed a welfare reform bill that many Democrats found too stingy and then campaigned for a second term as president on the grounds that he would reverse some of the cuts that Republicans forced upon him. And it worked! He got a second term and reduced those cuts. It’s not too complicated of an argument to get across to the electorate, and it’s worked before.
What this shows, ultimately, is how desperate Republicans really are. This hostage situation they’re now proposing isn’t really one that helps them out in any way I can see. They say you make more mistakes when you’re angry or afraid, which is the only explanation for a mistake of this magnitude. But given their support of the Ryan Plan, Republicans only have bad alternatives to choose from anyway. I have to think that stunts like this are the reason why House Republicans’ unpopularity is surging at an incredible rate. Intense disapproval of Republicans outnumbers intense approval by 3-to-1 now, wouldn’t you know? Do you really think that forcing benefit cuts in Medicare is going to make people like Republicans more? If so, please show your math.
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