Opinion

The Great Debate

It’s not the economy, stupid!

Tonight’s debate could be the most negative presidential debate ever. That’s because the best thing each candidate has going for him is negative opinion of the other guy.

This election was supposed to be a referendum on President Barack Obama. That’s what usually happens when an incumbent is running for re-election. Sometimes the incumbent is popular enough to win re-election (Ronald Reagan in 1984, Bill Clinton in 1996). Sometimes he’s not (Jimmy Carter in 1980, George H.W. Bush in 1992).

The biggest single factor determining the incumbent’s popularity is the economy: good in 1984 and 1996, terrible in 1980 and 1992. By that standard, Obama should be in deep trouble. That’s the big surprise this year. He’s not.

If Obama were running against himself this year, he would lose. But he’s running against Mitt Romney – and that is a race he can win.

He can win because Democrats have managed to frame the election as a choice – not a referendum. It’s not just “keep Obama or fire him”. It’s “keep Obama or hire Romney”. And the simple fact is, most voters don’t want to hire Romney.

The ‘Hollywood Test’ for president

If you think of the current presidential campaign as a movie, the economy, by all rights, should have pre-empted most of the drama and handed the lead role to the lantern-jawed financier. The movie would have told of a decent man, so unflappable that he never broke a sweat, who tried his best but couldn’t work his will on the world and make things right. Into that void, walked Republican nominee Mitt Romney, who vowed that he had the experience and strength to turn things around.

Here was a simple plot pitting weakness against strength, a well-meaning amateur against a tough-minded business titan – essentially, the professor against the industrialist.

But that’s not the way it seems to be turning out. And the reason why may have as much to do with movies as politics. We love the idea of civic responsibility, of an informed citizenry boning up on the issues. But what we really do when we vote nowadays is cast our preference for the candidate who proposes the better movie – who seems to make the better protagonist in the national drama.

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.

Romney is powerless against Murdoch’s lash

Mitt Romney must be wondering where it all went wrong. With the president presiding over a jobless, barely perceptible recovery, with most Americans thinking Obama is on the wrong track, and with his healthcare legislation widely derided, the Republican champion should be coasting by now. Yet Romney has been languishing in the head-to-head polls for almost a year, and prominent conservative commentators are complaining.

It is rare to hear such a concerted chorus of disapproval, not least with the election just six weeks away. Rupert Murdoch, at least, can say to Romney, “I told you so!” In July, he warned on Twitter: “Tough O Chicago pros will be hard to beat unless he drops old friends from team and hires some real pros. Doubtful.” It was advice Romney could afford neither to accept nor refuse. To fire his staff at the behest of the media boss who controls the nation’s most unforgiving conservative news outlets would be to follow successive weak British leaders who bent to  Murdoch’s will, with tragic results. Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron, to name just three prime ministers, are still trying to rid themselves of the taint.

So Romney did nothing. Better, perhaps, to die as a lion than live as a sheep. Romney is hardly the sort of man Murdoch admires. He is too smooth, too well turned out, too prissy, too financially independent to pay homage to the likes of Murdoch. Romney has about him many of the characteristics Murdoch despises in what he calls the “old toffs” in England who refused to kowtow to the publisher of “family” tabloids with expletives on the cover and bare breasts inside.

Why doesn’t Mitt Romney contribute to his own campaign?

Lately, Mitt Romney has been so consumed with fundraising that his aides have had to defend his absence from the stump. Like his foe, the Republican nominee is in the midst of a frenzied financial arms race. But one hugely wealthy individual has not yet been persuaded to part with much cash to support the Republican cause: Mitt Romney himself.

Mitt Romney is hardly the first wealthy individual to seek the White House. John F. Kennedy once quipped he had received a telegram from his father: “Don’t buy another vote. I won’t pay for a landslide.” But Romney, for whatever reason, has failed to use his personal wealth to pay his campaign’s bills. His refusal to self-finance is one of the mysteries of this campaign.

After all, if Romney were to help fund his own bid, he would have ample company. In 1976, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it would violate the First Amendment to limit what candidates can spend on their own behalf. Ever since, wealthy office-seekers commonly have ponied up. John Kerry lent more than $6 million to fund his Iowa caucus drive in 2003. Hillary Clinton lent her campaign over $11 million four years later. Steve Forbes gave his 1996 campaign $32 million, and spent nearly $37 million four years after that. Ross Perot spent $63 million to finish strongly in 1992, back when that was real money.

Romney’s campaign into oblivion

Willard Mitt Romney was born with a silver foot in his mouth.

It is possible to forgive it as a congenital trait. After all, his Dad, the genial George Romney, successful head of the American Motor Corp and governor of Michigan (1963-69), lost his bid for the Republican nomination for the presidency in 1968 by setting a world record for the mass manufacture of gaffes. He had such a penchant for saying one thing and then retracting it, the reporter Jack Germond announced he was fixing his keyboard so that one keystroke produced “Romney later explained…” It was charming for a time to hear what George had said lately, but when he came back from a look at the Vietnam War, he announced he’d had “the greatest brainwashing anyone could get.” His rival Eugene McCarthy cracked that a light rinse would have been enough to relieve George’s neurological condition, but this time George had gone a gaffe too far. Some American prisoners released by the Chinese had renounced their U.S. citizenship, saying they’d been brainwashed, and primary voters had no enthusiasm for electing a president who might turn out to have been the Manchurian candidate. So we got Nixon and Agnew instead. Thanks, George.

Mitt was on a similar jag through the nomination process. “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me… My wife drives a couple of Cadillacs… I’m not concerned about the very poor, we have a safety net…” Men and women who’ve been looking for work for a year are supposed to appreciate the irony when he opens up: “I should tell my story. I’m also unemployed.”

It’s tough getting through the Great Recession when your net worth is just a few hundred million. Mitt doesn’t understand why there should be an intake of breath across the continent when in a televised debate argument about a healthcare detail with Republican Governor Rick Perry he says: “I’ll tell you what, ten thousand bucks? $10,000 bet?” His attempt to cozy up to followers of Nascar races is: “I have some friends who are Nascar owners.” Arriving in Britain for the Olympics, of course, his tin ear wins a tin medal for finding the organization “disconcerting.”

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.

Paul Ryan: a VP with a mandate

The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza rightly called Mitt Romney’s bold selection of Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) as his running mate, “the most daring decision of his political career.”

Until this weekend, most observers expected Romney to proceed cautiously by selecting a vice-presidential nominee who would neither shake up the race nor introduce new risk into the campaign.

Mitt Romney, we hardly knew ye.

This is the most consequential presidential election in a generation. It deserves a campaign on big ideas and contrasting visions, not petty personal attacks, small ball and obfuscation.

Will Romney’s convention be Palin and Paul’s insurrection?

Barely three weeks before the Republican convention opens in Tampa, Florida, the party is deep in the throes of a barely disguised civil war. This is nothing new. The struggle for the soul of the GOP between conservative traditionalists and libertarian radicals has been going on now for more than 40 years, since Barry Goldwater briefly (and disastrously) wrested the presidential nomination from the corporatist Northeastern fat cats who ran the party for their own benefit. Ronald Reagan’s presidency was a breakthrough for the Goldwater stalwart, though now even Reaganites are finding it uncomfortable as they fend off the Tea Party’s nihilistic insurgency.

The shock defeat in Texas of Rick Perry sidekick David Dewhurst at the hands of Tea Party candidate Ted Cruz was chilling for the Republican establishment. And there in the background, celebrating Cruz’s Senate primary victory with hockey mom gusto, was Sarah Palin, queen by acclamation of the Tea Party. If even ultraconservative Perry’s pick is now considered too traditional, too establishment, too safe, too left-wing for the Tea Party acolytes purging old-guard and dead-wood incumbents, which old-school Republicans can consider themselves safe? Cruz’s surprise success has proved to the GOP establishment that its days are numbered. Denial is futile. The Tea Party mob is coming for them.

Despite a lackluster economy, 23 million unemployed, unpopular healthcare legislation and a president portrayed as an elitist Kenyan Muslim socialist, Romney is still only neck and neck with Obama. And in the battleground states, Obama has a clear lead. Romney’s campaign managers know they must somehow enthuse the GOP base, but between them and the Republican grass roots are two gatekeepers who have maintained a studied insouciance about their official champion: Palin and libertarian-in-chief Ron Paul. Neither can bring themselves to unreservedly endorse Romney, a man who in the eyes of their supporters is not only part of the Republican Party’s problem but the nation’s problem, too. He is a privileged, ultrarich, blue-blood dilettante without any burning convictions who has decided to forgo a life of moneyed leisure to dabble in a White House run. In brief, he is not one of them.

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