Opinion

The Great Debate

What women want is political key

No matter how artificial and canned the candidates can seem at a presidential debate, no matter how competent or ineffectual the moderator — the nominee’s true self will peak out at some point.

Thus did GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney tip his hand when it comes to the all-important female vote — which both he and President Barack Obama have been scrambling after. He didn’t make a huge gaffe or get ensnared in a tough debate about choice. Moving around the stage, he seemed a 1950s throwback who had wandered in from a different decade — one where men were men, women wore shirtwaist dresses (Ann Romney’s uniform) and marriage was between a man and a woman.

Of course what drove this home was Romney’s anecdote about trying to find talented women for his staff when he was governor of Massachusetts from 2003-2007. He said he actually went to a number of women’s groups “and they brought us whole binders full of women.” Though he apparently flipped this story: The groups came to him unsolicited.

However it happened, it was the telling moment, the one that has continued to dog him.

What? He couldn’t just look around and find qualified women? He couldn’t look through the ranks of his colleagues at Bain Capital or down the corridors of state power and pick out any number of terrific women? No, quite clearly he didn’t know such women because he was still operating in a world of men — the place he is comfortable.

Romney somersaults on to the middle ground

Do you recall just seven months ago when Romney campaign aide Eric Fehrnstrom let slip that having won the Republican primaries, his candidate would “shake it up and restart it all over again” as if wiping clean an Etch-a-Sketch screen? Romney did just that last night. From a standing start Romney executed a perfect backward somersault, landing with both feet slap-bang in front of a bemused president, who appeared quite taken aback that his rival should plant his feet firmly in the middle ground where elections are won and lost.

Take Romney’s view of regulating the market. In his personal manifesto No Apology, Romney trod a careful path, suggesting that, like his primary opponents who unwaveringly support the untrammeled free market, he was wary of overregulating business. “Excessive regulation slows the creation of new businesses and the expansion of existing businesses,” he wrote. On his website, he promises to “act swiftly to tear down the vast edifice of regulations the Obama administration has imposed on the economy.”

But in Denver last night, Romney changed his tune, suggesting that he had always been in favor of regulation, whatever impression he may have given in the past. “Regulation is essential,” he declared. “You can’t have a free market work if you don’t have regulation … Every free economy has good regulation.”

Tax reform does not guarantee growth

One of the few thin­gs that President Obama and Mitt Romney are likely to agree on when they debate next week is the need for tax reform. Both candidates have backed streamlining America’s crazy-quilt tax code, and both have said that reforms could boost economic growth. Meanwhile, two key congressional committees held a rare bipartisan hearing last week – with lawmakers from both parties saying that tax reform is needed to rev up the economy.

Yet exactly how and why tax reform would spur growth is far from clear. Many proponents of reform, including Romney, want to lower tax rates while retaining the same level of revenue. But doing that means reducing major individual tax breaks that subsidize key sectors of the economy – including housing and healthcare. Long term, there are good arguments for whacking such subsidies, which tilt heavily in favor of affluent households and distort our economy. But curbing these freebies doesn’t offer a short-term economic fix and, in fact, could hurt growth.

Let’s start with the best-known big tax break – the mortgage interest deduction, which will cost the U.S. Treasury about $100 billion next year, according to the Congressional Research Service. Shrinking this loophole is a good idea in principle, since it primarily benefits more affluent households who have big mortgages and itemize their taxes, but it would be a blow to a housing sector that is still struggling. Smaller subsidies for home buyers would mean weaker sales and less new construction and would keep home values depressed – not an outcome that anyone wants to see right now. Among other things, such reform could be another severe blow to construction workers, who now have the highest unemployment rate of any group.

It’s time for the candidates to offer a strong education strategy

In the late 1960s, a Stanford University psychologist began conducting his now famous “marshmallow test” to understand “delayed gratification” – the ability to wait.

He would place a 4-year-old alone in a room with a single delicious marshmallow, promising to give him two marshmallows after a short wait. Some children succumbed to temptation, while others held out for the bigger reward. The children who could control their impulses went on to become better, higher-achieving students.

Why do we bring up this iconic experiment now, in the midst of the 2012 election season?

The ‘Yes We Can’ orphans: Obama’s missing constituency

By all accounts, the 2012 presidential election will be a squeaker – probably no more than a point or two in the popular vote will separate the candidates. Such close elections put a special premium on getting one’s base out to vote and targeting the small, yet important, group of “undecided voters”.

We already see both sides doing just this. On the one hand, the undecided voter – about 10 percent of the electorate – is most concerned about “jobs and the economy.” Both Romney and Obama have scrambled over the last month to try to establish credibility on this issue and, in turn, to undermine the credibility of their opponent.

Most analysts define undecideds as self-declared independents or those who have not expressed an opinion at the voting intention question (“unsure”, “refused” or “don’t know” responses). An often overlooked but much more precise way of thinking about this group is to understand them as alienated and disaffected voters – people who voted for one candidate in one election but do not plan to vote for that same candidate next time.

Republicans could join Obama on same-sex marriage

In finally evolving to support marriage equality, President Obama has not only placed himself firmly on the right side of history with respect to an issue of fundamental rights and justice but he has also thrown down the gauntlet for Republicans, especially his presumed challenger, Mitt Romney.

In his comments to ABC News, the president said his attitude toward gay marriage has been shaped over time by voters and members of his own staff “who are in incredibly committed monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together” – who are clearly in love. In other words, the president let the human reality around him shape his personal views and will now lead accordingly – a stark contrast, say, with Mitt Romney, who seems to have little grasp of the struggles and experiences of actual voters and instead rotates his political viewpoints as often as he rotates the cars on his vehicle elevator. In President Obama’s “evolution,” America saw a leader who is not afraid to be wrong and not afraid to change his mind. It’s refreshing.

And now it’s the Republicans’ turn. As Fox News anchor Shepard Smith suggested in reporting the president’s shift, Republicans are “on the wrong side of history.” Indeed. But they have plenty of time to make amends. Republicans should be ashamed enough that theirs is the party that stood in the way of interracial marriage and civil rights. Is that really a legacy the GOP wants to continue into the 21st century? It seems to me the GOP has a choice between courting the open-minded next generation of voters, or continuing to be marred by scandals in which anti-gay Republican after anti-gay Republican is embarrassingly outed and shamed. Apparently this is a tough choice for the GOP, which would rather keep implicitly firing up bigotry than stand firm for equality.

The real reason Romney is struggling with women voters

Back in February, things started to look dire for the Romney campaign’s ability to attract female voters. Every day brought another story about Republican attacks on reproductive rights: attacks on insurance coverage for contraception, transvaginal probes, all-male panels called in Congress to discuss contraception, attacks on Planned Parenthood’s funding, and the candidate himself increasingly afraid to say a positive word about contraception when asked directly in the debates. A gender gap opened up between the candidates in the polls, with Obama outpacing Romney with women by 19 points. The Romney campaign responded by trying to change the subject, to jobs and the economy. But if Romney wants to close the gender gap, he should rethink that strategy. After all, the polling data suggests that his stance on economic issues – specifically the size of the safety net and amount of economic support the government provides to citizens – is what’s really hurting him with female voters.

The real war between the sexes may not be over feminism or sex so much as whether or not our tax dollars should go to social spending. Research conducted by Pew in October 2011 showed women support a strong, activist government in much larger numbers than men. On the question of whether the government should offer more services, women said yes by 9 more percentage points than men. The gender gap on social spending remained when pollsters asked about specific interest groups. Women wanted more spending on the elderly than did men by 11 percentage points, more spending on children by 10 percentage points and more spending on the poor by 9 percentage points.

Female voters respond much more strongly than male voters to government providing pragmatic solutions and real-world support for ordinary citizens, which helps explain why women flock to Obama and to the Democrats in general. In fact, with college-educated white voters, the gender differences are nothing short of astounding. In this group, female voters prefer Obama 60 to 40, and male voters prefer Romney 57 to 39.

What happened to ‘Yes we can’?

At this pivotal moment in the presidential race, President Barack Obama and his re-election team need to focus on a key question that could influence the outcome of this year’s election:

How do they get the “we” back?

Good question. We all remember how Obama broke new ground in the 2008 campaign by using social media as a powerful political tool. Obama’s campaign created an expansive Internet platform, MyBarackObama.com, that gave supporters tools to organize themselves, create communities, raise money and induce people not only to vote but to actively support the Obama campaign. What emerged was an unprecedented force, 13 million supporters connected to one another over the Internet, all driving toward one goal, the election of Obama.

When they chanted “Yes we can,” it wasn’t just a message of hope for the future – it was a confirmation statement of collective power. They weren’t waiting to be told what to do; they were actively engaged, calling friends to come to events, learn what was at stake, contribute ideas, and help out in some way. The power of “we” was awesome to behold. The “we” not only raised hope for people but also unprecedented sums of money for the old-fashioned campaign on the ground.

Larry Summers is playing economic Jeopardy

Editor’s note: This op-ed was originally published at the Financial Times in response to the recent piece by Lawrence Summers for Reuters. It has been republished, verbatim, with the FT‘s permission.

Larry Summers’ considerable intellect suggests that he would be an excellent contestant on the popular game show Jeopardy. Of course, on the show, the question offered by the contestant must match the answer on the board. Summers and I disagree on the answer that matches the question “What is President Obama’s budget?” Let’s see why.

I asked two questions in an op-ed in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal. (Neither question was addressed by Mr Summers, or in the simultaneous parallel critiques offered on the airwaves by US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and former Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Austan Goolsbee). The first question was whether the tax increases on high-income individuals proposed by President Obama (the Buffett rule, higher taxes on dividends and capital gains, a higher top marginal rate, and so on) raised enough revenue to materially offset the country’s large budget gap or higher federal spending under President Obama. The answer, using revenue estimates from the Treasury Department and spending estimates from the President’s budget is ‘No’. The second question was what that spending growth implied for future tax rates. That is, if federal spending as a share of gross domestic product was to increase permanently as the president proposes, by how much would taxes need to rise? Answer: a lot and for everyone. This simple thought experiment presumes that we will not ratify permanently larger deficits.

Obama’s power grab at the Pentagon

President Barack Obama’s decision last week to cut the defense budget by $487 billion over the next 10 years was met with cries of derision from his critics (“inexcusable,” said GOP front-runner Mitt Romney) and shrugs of acceptance from his supporters. The reduction’s two headlines: 1. One hundred thousand troops are being chopped from the Marine Corps and Army; 2. The entire U.S. foreign policy focus will begin to shift from the Near East to the Far East (anxieties about China having replaced—or at least settled alongside—our permanently ingrained fears of Middle Eastern terror). The cuts themselves, though, are less significant as fiscal policy than as a statement about President Obama’s relationship with the Pentagon: Barack is taking it over.

That President Obama wasn’t really in charge of the Defense Department might come as something of a shock. He is, after all, the commander in chief. But considering the size of the nation’s defense apparatus, it shouldn’t. The Pentagon has become the 51st state—America’s largest bureaucracy, employing three times more people than the population of Vermont and Wyoming combined. Its capital is the Five-Sided Puzzle Palace, as my journalist friends fondly call it, where 23,000 work daily. Its other residents are the 3.2 million military, intelligence and civilian personnel who live inside its borderless confines around the globe. And since the attacks of September 11th, the influence of the Pentagon’s constituency has grown exponentially, its budget increasing from $295 billion to $549 billion, sucking up some 54 percent of federal tax dollars.

The Pentagon has found plenty of ways to spend all that cash. In 2011, the DoD blew $20.2 billion on air conditioning in Iraq and Afghanistan, equivalent to the entire NASA budget. There are more members of the U.S. military bands—and more sailors on a single aircraft carrier—than in the State Department’s entire foreign service. Up close, the largesse of the Pentagon is hard to miss as well: When top generals visit a country overseas, they often travel in their own private jets, with an entourage of dozens. Top diplomats fly commercial, business–or first-class, if they’re lucky. (Meanwhile, in Foggy Bottom, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton forbade business-class travel for State officials traveling to Afghanistan in 2010, citing budgetary concerns, department officials have told me privately.)

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