Opinion

Nicholas Wapshott

Has Chris Christie swung the election for Obama?

Nicholas Wapshott
Oct 31, 2012 20:49 UTC

The 2012 election’s October Surprise arrived when Hurricane Sandy made landfall and brought the campaign to a halt. The real surprise, however, is how the narrative was so radically altered by the tropical storm’s progress through New Jersey and how Governor Chris Christie so quickly changed his mind about the president. Until the heavens opened, no Mitt Romney surrogate was more scathing and personally disrespectful toward the president than Christie, whose down-to-earth appeal to blue collar voters was considered so important by GOP strategists he was awarded the keynote address at the convention that crowned Romney the party’s candidate.

In a withering assault in Tampa, Christie called for clear, decisive leadership. “Leadership delivers. Leadership counts. Leadership matters,” he said. “It’s time to end this era of absentee leadership in the Oval Office and send real leaders to the White House.” Christie was back on the attack in Richmond, Virginia, last week, making fun of Obama’s failure to lead. Addressing the president’s complaint that Washington politics-as-usual had hampered his ability to govern, Christie taunted him, saying, “You’ve been living inside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for the last four years. If you don’t think you can change Washington from inside the White House, let’s give you the plane ticket back to Chicago you’ve earned.”

Few other Romney surrogates, and certainly not the mechanical Romney himself, could batter the president with such effect. Christie went on to describe Obama as “like a man wandering around a dark room, hands up against the wall, clutching for the light switch of leadership and he just can’t find it” and “blindly walking around the White House looking for a clue.” Then on Monday came Sandy’s 90 miles-an-hour gusts hosing millions of gallons of salt water on the sentimental Christie’s beloved Jersey Shore, the place where the governor grew up and went to high school.

Thanks to Sandy, Christie the governor engaged with Obama the chief executive and the election turned on a dime. Everywhere you looked on TV Tuesday morning, Christie was extolling the president’s leadership skills. On CBS’s “Good Morning” he said the president’s response had been “excellent” and he “can’t thank the president enough” for coming to Jersey’s aid. That afternoon, Christie told the press, “We appreciate the president’s efforts,” adding, “I appreciate that type of leadership.” Christie let slip he had spoken to Obama a number of times on the president’s private line. He plainly liked what he heard. Christie Tweeted, “I want to thank the president personally for all his assistance.”

Most devastating to the Romney campaign, impotently standing by as Obama took charge of events, Christie appeared on the Fox News breakfast show with its audience of 1.5 million overwhelmingly Republican-voters. Asked whether Romney would be visiting Jersey to see the devastation for himself, Christie snapped, “I have no idea, nor am I the least bit concerned or interested. I have got a job to do here in New Jersey that is much bigger than presidential politics. And I could care less about any of that stuff.” You could almost hear the Romney camp spew out their cups of morning Joe.

The Benghazi booby trap

Nicholas Wapshott
Oct 30, 2012 13:50 UTC

The murder by Islamist terrorists of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in Libya on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks has become one of the most contentious issues in the election. The administration has been flailing around, unsure of its facts, offering statements that turned out to be misleading. Republicans, led by Senator John McCain, have jumped on the errors by the State Department and the CIA that contributed to the confusion over our understanding of the slaughter in Benghazi, and backed an unrelenting press campaign attempting to show Barack Obama as either incompetent, a liar, or both.

Yet, despite six weeks of heavy pounding on Obama’s approach to terrorism and national security, an issue that in the past has occupied Americans as a top priority, the president’s reputation remains largely unscathed and, according to polls, voters still consider him more suited than Mitt Romney to run America’s foreign and security policies. Why has such a virulent campaign to discredit Obama’s record as commander-in-chief so conspicuously failed?

When John McCain first commented on the death of his friend Ambassador Stevens, he was careful with his words. After a wild accusation by Mitt Romney condemning the U.S. embassy in Cairo for blaming anti-western mob violence across the Arab world on a video that made fun of the prophet Mohammad, the senator from Arizona was reluctant to apportion blame for the American deaths. Asked on Sept. 13 about the administration’s response to the killings, he said: “I think it was fine. By the way, Secretary of State Clinton gave a marvelous statement today.” By last weekend, however, he was accusing the administration of “either cover-up or gross — the worst kind of incompetence, which doesn’t qualify the president as commander in chief.”

Economic recovery may come too late for Obama

Nicholas Wapshott
Oct 26, 2012 20:20 UTC

The green shoots of recovery are growing a little taller. Newly released gross domestic product estimates   measuring consumer and government spending, investments and net exports   show the economy growing at 2 percent in the third quarter, up from 1.3 percent in the second. In normal times, this would be nothing to get excited about; average GDP growth between 1947 and 2012 was 3.25 percent. But we are recovering from a systemic financial crisis, not a routine dip of the business cycle, and in such cases recovery is noticeably more sluggish. Don’t believe Cassandras who suggest the good news is a chimera. We are in  an “L”-shaped recovery rather than a “V”-shaped one, and the fact that GDP is steadily rising is in itself encouraging.

What effect will this figure have on the election? A single statistic, like a single opinion poll, is just a snapshot. As with polls, to understand what is going on, you have to look at the moving pictures rather than a single frame. And growth figures, like polls, are open to revision. There is a predictable margin of error. Within a month the 2 percent GDP estimate will be revised; historically it has moved within a range of 0.5 percent up or down. So we may be looking at GDP growth of 2.5 percent or 1.5 percent, but we won’t know which before Nov. 6. With the general election near, any evidence, however small, is going to be closely scrutinized. On its own, the 2 percent figure does not tell us much, so we should not be distracted by those who make big claims about it one way or the other. What is significant is that it is part of a growing trend suggesting that the economy is slowly emerging from its slumber.

Take housing. The latest figures, for September, show a surge in new homes, up 15 percent in a single month, the fastest growth in four years. As the current financial crisis was founded on a housing bubble, the fact that builders are speeding up their housing starts suggests the economy in general is steadily recovering. The housing figures are good news for employment, too. For every new house built, at least three jobs are created. Sales of new homes are also on the rise, and inventory has fallen “to the lowest level on record.

The strange disappearance of Paul Ryan

Nicholas Wapshott
Oct 24, 2012 14:52 UTC

Whatever happened to Paul Ryan? Before he was made Romney’s running mate in early August, he was billed by commentators as a free-thinking firebrand who would invigorate the campaign with his keen intellect and forensic argumentative skills. Evidence for Ryan’s game-changing capacity was based on his sweeping but failed budget reform measures, the “Roadmap for America’s Future” and “The Path to Prosperity,” on his reputation as the Republicans’ most gifted intellectual, and on his boast that his political inspirations were Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” and Friedrich Hayek’s “Road to Serfdom.”

Dan Balz summed up Ryan’s appeal in the Washington Post. He would “energize a conservative base that has been slow to warm to Romney” and “make the case for economic prescriptions that include sharp cuts in spending along with tax cuts and entitlement reform more passionately than anyone else.” By picking Ryan, Balz argued, Romney would sharpen the race by drawing “bright lines with the president.” For months Romney had coasted along on the assumption Obama would lose simply because unemployment is high and the economy is in the tank, but by midsummer the president remained firmly ahead. “We can’t just win by default, by beating up on Obama,” Ryan confided to Balz. What was needed was for voters to be offered a clear choice: Romney’s highway or Obama’s byway.

Stephen F. Hayes and William Kristol, of the Weekly Standard, urged Romney on. “Go bold, Mitt!” they yelled. “Pick Paul Ryan, the Republican party’s intellectual leader, the man who’s laid out the core of the post-Obama policy agenda . . .” The National Review’s Rich Lowry agreed. “It’s been a cardinal rule of Republican politics that it’s OK to talk about balancing the budget, so long as no one talks about touching the entitlements that drive the long-term debt,” he wrote. “Romney needs to make the case for his program, and perhaps no one is better suited to contribute to this effort than Ryan.” When Romney picked Ryan on Aug. 11, the Wall Street Journal celebrated. “Nearly everyone had expected Mitt Romney, the cautious technocrat and political calculator, to make the ‘safe’ pick,” its editorial board wrote. “In choosing Mr. Ryan, the Governor showed both a political daring as a candidate and a seriousness about governing if he wins.”

Romney’s auto bailout dodge strains credulity

Nicholas Wapshott
Oct 17, 2012 21:05 UTC

There is the truth. Then there is the whole truth. Mitt Romney is still lagging behind the president in Ohio, the weather-vane state that has voted for every president since Abraham Lincoln and where Barack Obama is credited with saving millions of jobs in the auto industry. But the governor’s insistence in the second debate that Obama’s rescue of General Motors and Chrysler was the same as his plan was only half the story.

When Romney said “[W]hen you say that I wanted to take the auto industry bankrupt, you actually did. … That was precisely what I recommended and ultimately what happened,” he was leading voters to believe there was little difference between restructuring by the federal government car czar Steve Rattner and his own prescription: to let the firms go bust, let the markets clear, then reassemble the broken parts.

Romney’s surrogates blame a headline in The New York Times, “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt”, over an op-ed by Romney in October 2008 for fueling confusion over where their candidate really stands. The opening lines appear to contradict their version. “If General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler get the bailout that their chief executives asked for,” he wrote, “you can kiss the American automotive industry goodbye. It won’t go overnight, but its demise will be virtually guaranteed.” He went on to argue for a managed bankruptcy, but was vague about the role federal officials should play.

from The Great Debate:

Biden changes 2016 race as well as 2012

Nicholas Wapshott
Oct 16, 2012 21:34 UTC

Whoever wins on November 6, and however the president is thought to have done in the remaining debates, the only sure winner of the debate season is Joe Biden.

He has moved from the nearly man to the coming man, from also-ran to man-to-watch. Why so? Biden attracted a great deal of criticism from conservatives for his grimacing in the veep debate in Danville, Kentucky, for laughing in the face of GOP vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, for shamelessly grabbing all the attention so that even when Ryan was speaking, everyone was watching Biden’s scoffing antics on the split screen. The Democratic base loved every second.

In a practical lesson on how to hug the limelight and dominate the conversation, Biden showed President Barack Obama how he should have torn into GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney in Denver -- and how he will have to make up lost ground in the few remaining weeks.

A campaign without passion or alternatives

Nicholas Wapshott
Oct 11, 2012 17:04 UTC

We are in the midst of a presidential race lacking in passion. After four years, with the economy languishing, the optimism Obama appeared to represent last time is absent. Democrats will go to the polls without a spring in their step, to keep Romney out rather than save Obama’s neck. Even the president himself, if his hangdog look in the first debate is any guide, has lost his mojo. Obama has achieved what Romney could not: He has angered his own supporters for not fighting hard enough for the ideas they cherish.

On the Republican side, conservatives and libertarians will vote for Romney more out of duty than in the belief he will represent their views in government. They feel the Republican establishment has foisted Romney upon them because he seemed likely to appeal to middle-ground voters who decide elections. They think his lack of genuine commitment to conservative ideology means he will win the White House, then ignore their wishes, just as the Bushes, father and son, did before him. Conservatives will be voting as much to prevent Obama’s second term as to elect Romney.

These seem the perfect circumstances for a third-party candidate. In fact there are others offering themselves as president, though you may be excused for not knowing their names. They include Gary Johnson of the Libertarians, Jill Stein of the Greens, even the comedienne Roseanne Bar, who promises to legalize marijuana, forgive student debt and end all wars. But none of the above, or a further seven nobodies on the ballot, stand a chance. Without billions to spend and a popular head of steam, they are ignored by the press and cannot penetrate the public consciousness.

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