One of the things that has struck me about the coverage of the debates—not so much the debates themselves, but the way they have been covered by the punditry—has been the remarkable amount of apparent outrage at, yet significant focus on, the harsh tone and macho behavior that has been evident in both debates, but was particularly obvious last night.
What has struck me is what I have to believe is merely faux shock expressed about such behavior.
I mean: let’s be serious. Politics is in significant part a profession in which some one or group forces another person or group to comply with one’s will. Moreover, at the top levels politics involves people who have gotten to the top only because they have been exceptionally skilled at getting people around them to bend to their will. They are the active definition of alphas. In fact, they are the alphaest alphas of them all.
Put another way, presidential elections are inevitably contests among alphas seeking dominance in their communities. Alphas, unsurprisingly, behave as alphas do, using threats of aggression, displays of strength and intelligence, and flashing just enough temper to make it clear that there is a real risk in challenging the dominant actor of the moment.
Indeed, if you think about it much of the criticism of President Obama’s performance in the first debate was informed by the notion that he was too passive, too deferential, too cool … that he wasn’t enough of an alpha. (If anything, the criticism of Vice President Biden’s debate performance last week insisted that he was too alpha.) We want our presidents to be the top shark in an ocean filled only with other sharks, and Obama didn’t seem to meet the test.
So of course Obama and Romney circled each other last night, interrupted each other, bared their teeth and used humor and sarcasm to undercut the other guy. They’re engaged in an all-or-nothing, zero sum, winner-take-all contest for the supreme symbol of cultural dominance: the presidency of the United States. They did what alphas do.
And please note that while such behavior is typically associated with males, it doesn’t necessarily only involve males. Just as we don’t actually let our alpha personalities engage in physical combat on stage to establish true dominance, we don’t exclude women from the mix. There is no question, however, that the notion — and expectation — that political leaders will act like alphas has hindered women’s progress in politics: the gendered notion of an “alpha” has worked to undermine our ability to perceive of women in those kinds of leadership roles.
If you want presidents to act like hosts of a party, well, throw a party. But if you’re going to select only one person as President of the United States, only once every four years, through democratic elections involving one on one confrontations between the people contesting for the job, you have to expect fur and feathers to fly. It’s what alphas do.
In light of my post yesterday, about Mitt Romney’s campaign slogan, “Believe in America,” a few thoughts on Barack Obama’s famous “Hope” campaign of 2008—itself a successor to Bill Clinton’s 1992 offering themed around the town of his birth, “I still believe in a place called Hope.”
Both Clinton’s 1992 campaign and Obama’s 2008 campaign were brilliant. They were evocative, powerful, and were energized by two of the three most charismatic people to become president in the last 30 years. (Ronald Reagan is the third.) They evoked the mythic America we all want to believe in and made us imagine we could make the dream real.
More, they were tactically effective. As I have noted before, if a candidate can convince lots of different people that the candidate believes what they believe, the candidate can build a winning coalition. And what’s easier to believe in than hope? After all, what’s the alternative? Despair?
The thing is, hope is an empty word. It’s like cotton candy: you may think it tastes good (I don’t like the stuff at all), but as soon as you put it in your mouth it disappears. It has no food value. It’s as insubstantial as foam.
Both 1992 and 2008 offered campaigns that, at least in part, promised a re-invigoration of America garnished with a rhetorical flourish that made lots of Americans believe that hope — Hope — would make America strong. And while both presidents achieved notable things — things like healthcare are substantial achievements — both struggled in their reelections to explain exactly what, if anything they would do with a second term. (Both, it should be noted, also benefited from weak Republican opponents in their reelection campaigns. Clinton had the double advantage of strong third party candidates who pulled votes from the Republican candidate.)
This doesn’t mean that there are no differences between the Obama and Romney campaigns. There are. It just means that, in the end, the terms of Obama’s success in 2008 have framed his struggles in 2012. When you offer “hope,” you are subject to the criticism that hope didn’t translate into tangible outcomes — or that the tangible outcomes that happened weren’t the ones that were expected. (Since, after all, saving the banks and jump starting — albeit slowly — the economy is not exactly the same thing as creating a post-racial politics in a new, post-partisan era.)
So it turns out the 2012 campaign is offering a renewal of hope (Obama) or belief in belief (Romney). One can, I suppose, believe in hope or hope for belief or hope for hope or believe in belief. Whichever one chooses, you’re not being offered the New Deal or anything like that.
So as I was walking to my office through my older, close-to-campus (and therefore thoroughly Democratic-leaning) neighborhood in my otherwise Republican-leaning town, I was struck by the occasional pro-Romney signs in people’s yards. They stood out like sore thumbs—just as pro-Obama signs stand out in the newer, east side neighborhoods filled with State Farm employees and their families. (State Farm is headquartered here.)
One Romney sign hit me in particular: “Mitt Romney,” it said. “Believe in America.”
So, apparently, if I vote for Romney I “believe in America.” By extension, then, were I to vote for Obama, I apparently would not “believe in America.”
Of course, America isn’t really a mythic concept. One doesn’t have to “believe” in it. It exists. And I have proof! I have gotten on airplanes in foreign countries and landed in some place calling itself the “United States” into which I was allowed entrance only after showing a blue passport stamped “United States of America.” I pay taxes and display an “American” flag on the appropriate holidays (or whenever the hell I want to, like Bastille Day). I have an American accent with a Southern tinge and am a sucker for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s A Wonderful Life and Star Trek. London and the UK began to annoy me with their damned nanny state … I’ve never so felt the pull of being “American” as I did living elsewhere for an extended period. “Just leave me alone!,” I wanted to scream. America is real.
I know, of course, that that’s not what the Romney sign is about. Romney is trying to evoke the notion that to vote Romney is to reinvigorate a once-great America now being eroded by Obama’s statist repression. To vote Romney is to imagine a future better than the now … to believe in the mythical America where Congress, and the filibuster, and interest groups, and political and social divisions don’t really exist and everyone cooperates to “do the right thing.”
Then again, maybe Romney just means what he once said: ”I believe in an America where millions of Americans believe in an America that’s the America millions of Americans believe in. That’s the America I love.” Belief is the alpha and the omega.
Who knows? It could work. All ya gotta do is believe.
I think the difference is telling. In Romney’s presentation, America’s military power is its greatest power. It is our ability to use coercion to achieve our ends that defines our significance. The American capacity to deploy military forces across huge swaths of the world has, Romney clearly believes, made the US the dominant global power, and will keep the US there for the forseeable future.
The thing is, Romney is utterly, entirely, absolutely wrong about this. Military power is a part of the US story, but it’s the secondary part. What really matters, the real key to US success, has been its cultural power … its cultural story.
Please don’t get me wrong. I know that the kindergarten history of America is ignorant, thoughtless, and hides much dirt behind its shiny exterior. But in a world filled with hate and violence and repression, lots of people have imagined that the United States was a place they could come to escape these evils. And if the escape was imperfect, well, what was the alternative? America became great because people were attracted to the idea of America—even if real America fell short of that ideal.
It is this appeal that scared the Soviet Union and led it to try to prevent its citizens from experiencing US products, entertainments and social practices. It is this appeal that scares the bejeezus out of China today as it tries to integrate 800,000,000 more Chinese people into the global economy without expanding political freedoms at home. And it is this appeal that worries—for perfectly understandable reasons—lots of less powerful, less global cultures afraid they will be overwhelmed and wiped out by globalization.
The thing that always gripes me about conservatives is that, in the end, they’re scaredy cat blowhards. They insist—as Romney did yesterday—that the United States is an exceptional nation blessed by God for its special role in the world, and then they insist that the only way to enact this role is to be ready to kill everyone who dares to disagree with us.
But that attitude completely misunderstands the nature of the United States’ power. It’s not guns—or only guns—that have made America powerful. The appeal of a society in which people are free to think and create and experiment, even if it is a dream that is achieved imperfectly, is a dream that isn’t going anywhere.
Quick, instapundits: tell me who won last night’s debate!
The seemingly universal answer is: Mitt Romney. Republicans are ecstatic, Democrats despondent. Conservatives smell a comeback; liberals fear a collapse. And the commentariat is running wild with discussions and speculations and fantastical formulations of might bes, can bes, and ought to haves. It’s quite a thing.
So why did Mitt win? Well, the answer here has focused more on style than substance. Romney was seen to be on the attack, Obama on the defensive. Romney seemed confident, Obama passive. Romney got to go after Obama’s record, which Obama, given that the debate was ostensibly about the economy, had a hard time defending. Whatever the reason, Obama is seen to have been off his game, while Romney was on his.
Except … well, what, exactly, was that debate about? I heard endless strings of claims and counterclaims, statements of specific points disconnected from any context in which to make sense of them. Numbers, policy proposals, assertions about the other guy flew out of the candidates’ mouths yesterday, with nary a piece of a discussion to back them up or flesh them out. Basically, you already had to know a great deal about each candidate’s proposals to have the slightest idea what either of them was talking about.
It was like visiting a foreign country where you know something like six words of the local language. You can figure it out, but you’re often just guessing.
In part, this was a consequence of the debate format. The supposedly 15 minute blocks of time encouraged lots of talking past each other as each candidate tried to make their canned speeches at every opportunity. Such behavior was virtually guaranteed by the debate’s format. But it was a hot mess.
But another part of the reason the debate was so chaotic lay in the moderator’s hands. While there is only so much any moderator can do to rein in presidential candidates’ egos, Lehrer’s obsessive focus on identifying the specific differences in the candidates’ plans made it easy for them to make their talking points while plucking out tiny little examples and amplifying their importance. This, in turn, made it easy for each candidate to play “do so!” “do not!” games with each other. Which they did, all night long.
In the end, I don’t think much changed last night. Obama did not crush Romney, and the next week or so should be good Romney’s poll numbers. However, my guess is that once the debate turns from the economy to foreign policy and domestic policy, Obama will be on surer ground, while Romney will be weaker. In any case, this debate will not likely change the outcome in November. Now, if Obama stumbles in the future debates, all bets are off. But if he “recovers,” he, like Reagan and Clinton before him, will be the comeback kid.
Which is why I’ll watch even though I probably won’t enjoy it.
So George Will, the bow tie-wearing conservative, baseball loving columnist for The Washington Post and ABC News, has offered an analysis of the state of the presidential campaign today that is simply silly.
Will opines that if, in October 2011 someone had told Romney and his campaign that the Obama administration would be in shambles, the Romney people would predict they’d be winning the campaign. To which I agree: if the Obama administration were in shambles, Romney would be ahead.
The problem is with the evidence Will adduces to make his point. He focuses on three events/facts as proof of Obama’s failures:
the Libyan consulate conflagration in which the US ambassador to Libya was killed. This is, Will, tells us, a disaster for the Obama administration because it changed its story about what happened: having first claimed it was a spontaneous attack, the administration later admitted it wasn’t. So, because the administration was wrong in the immediate aftermath of a chaotic event, the Obama administration is in shambles.
Unemployment remains high, especially among people 25-55. This is, of course, true, and terrible. But it doesn’t in any way explain why the Obama administration is in shambles.
Finally, Will reminds us that the Department of Energy doled out some stimulus money to Solyndra, a failed solar power company, and Tesla, an electric car company that has not lived up to expectations. Umm … shambles?
And that’s it. Those three things prove the Obama administration is in shambles and that Romney should be winning. To which all I can respond is: wow. That’s the best you’ve got in 3 1/2 years?
I have said many times before that there are good reasons to think Obama is not a great President. But when you run a MItt Romney against a Barack Obama, you better have more to say than “Obama didn’t fix the economy, his administration changed its mind about what happened in Libya, and Tesla sucks.”
It is true, as Will says, that there are no five run home runs and you have to score when you can if you’re trying to win from behind. But it’s also true that you likely can’t stage a comeback with 15 consecutive bunts.
You’d think someone who loves baseball as much as George Will does would know that.
As the three presidential and one vice presidential debates near, it is a good time to ask, “do the debates matter”? That is, do they shape the outcome of the race?
In general, political scientists have an answer to this: no. There are some exceptions (tbd), but in general, political science research does not find the debates to be particularly important in helping one candidate win—or lose the election, barring some exceptional circumstances.
Regular readers of this blog should not find this conclusion all that surprising. In general, political scientists rarely find that any single event has all that much to do with the outcome of an election. After all, most people come to the voting booth with a raft of assumptions, values and experiences that shape their vote in lots of ways. It would take quite an event to make most Democrats vote for the Republican candidate in most elections … or vice versa. The debates are just another single event in the political universe, and so are usually relegated to the status of “ehhh” in political science analyses of politics.
There are, it is fair to say, exceptions to this rule. The first televised debate, between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, is thought to have solidified Kennedy’s image as a youthful vigorous leader among those who watched it. Nixon, by contrast, was suffering from the flu and refused to wear TV makeup and looked poorly. Similarly, the only 1980 debate between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter is understood to have cemented Reagan’s win by showing Reagan to be a competent, commanding leader while Carter looked hapless. Finally, in 1988, Michael Dukakis’ robotic answer to a vile question about his likely reaction to his own wife’s rape and murder is seen to have encouraged a shift in support from Dukakis to George H.W. Bush … although that shift was already well underway by the time that debate occurred.
More commonly, debates solidify trends already in place. Even if a candidate get knocked back a bit in a debate—as happened in 1984 when Reagan looked confused and elderly in his first debate with Walter Mondale—leaders have time to recover in later debates. Most of the time, the person understood to be leading the race by this time in the election goes on to win it, suggesting that the debates do little to change the outcome. Notably, this is true even in one glaring exception: the election of 2000, in which George Bush was expected to win the popular vote but didn’t. The debates with Al Gore did not change the dynamics of that race appreciably.
So why watch? Well, two reasons really pop to mind. First, while candidates practice hard and work to make sure this doesn’t happen, there could always be a Carter/Dukakis moment when voters’ concerns about a candidate are seemingly confirmed. One can imagine Romney freezing on a human interest/sympathy question, or Obama suddenly admitting he believes in socialism … however unlikely that is.
Second, and really more importantly, in these debates it is at least possible that one or more of the moderators will push the candidate—Romney in particular—to flesh out what are otherwise vague answers. Romney/Ryan claim their tax proposal is revenue neutral, for example, because they will cut deductions to match losses in revenue due to rate cuts. But they have resisted telling us what deductions they would seek to eliminate … probably because the deductions they want to cut are popular ones like the home interest/property tax deductions enjoyed by millions of homeowners in the US. (Politicalprof among them.) Getting Romney to admit this would be an important piece of information for voters, even those who, like Politicalprof, like the home interest/property tax deduction but can understand why it might need to be eliminated in a tax reform plan.
Most of the rest of what you’ll hear about the debates is noise. People will recount the zingers, the one liners and the pithy comments. Tumblr will produce gifs at breakneck speed. The media will fervently declare “winners” and “losers” as they amp up excitement—and their ratings—for the next “clash of the titans” that isn’t. But at the end of the day, little will likely change in the arc of the race.
So do debates “matter”? Let me channel my inner political scientist and agree with my colleagues: “eehhh. maybe. sometimes.”
But I’ll watch any way. And so should you. You just never know.
So let me offer some general ruminations on why Mitt Romney is losing his race for the presidency despite the structural problems, like long-term high unemployment rates, with President Obama’s re-election bid.
1. Incumbency. The simple fact is that most presidents who seek reelection win reelection. Since 1900, only five presidents who who sought reelection lost in their reelection bids: Taft, Hoover, Ford, Carter and Bush I. The other twelve won.
Incumbency is a powerful advantage. Presidents get Air Force One and “Hail to the Chief” and the ability to shape the media narrative on a daily basis. Challengers don’t. That doesn’t mean challengers can’t win. It just means it’s hard.
2. Radical ideology. One ironic side effect of the 2010 Congressional elections was that they further deepened the national Republican party’s shift to the conservative and ultraconservative wings of their party. This strategy worked in 2010, when it was easier to convince voters that Obama was a radical lefty and things were getting worse … and when turnout was quite low, favoring motivated radicals (e.g., the tea party). Presidential elections, however, are elections with much bigger turnout, which tends to mitigate the power of radicals.
In taking the ideological stands he took to win the nomination, Romney alienated himself from lots of more moderate voters—an alienation he has not been able to overcome (see point 3 below). The irony is that “Massachusetts Mitt” might have had a much easier time beating Obama … but would have had a harder time winning the nomination.
3. The flip flop problem. Conventional wisdom says that candidates move to the center in the general election campaign. However, Romney has changed positions so many times in the past that, in a desperate effort to both appeal to conservatives and moderates, his campaign has tried to say … well, nothing more than “I’m not Obama.” “I’m not Obama” does not require firm statements that would either reinforce Romney’s conservatism (and thereby alienate moderates) or appeal to moderates (thus reinforcing his image as a flip flopper).
This strategy is failing. It might have worked against “empty chair Obama,” the socialist leading America over a fiscal cliff into an Islamist future, but it doesn’t work against real Obama, who is president over a slowly recovering America and who regularly flexes US military muscle (often in violation of international law) to achieve American foreign policy goals. “I’m not Obama” isn’t enough when people don’t hate Obama … but it’s all Romney can offer since otherwise he alienates one wing of his party or the other.
4. The likability problem. I’ve posted before on this point, but it is simply the case that Romney is not a natural politician. He is an immensely talented man in his field, but he is stiff and comes across badly on TV … which is the means through which we learn about candidates these days. It is his misfortune to be running against one of the most telegenic and charismatic politicians of the recent past (with Reagan and Clinton as Obama’s obvious competitors for the title). Hence even people who don’t think Obama is all that great a president (Politicalprof among them) still prefer Obama as a person to Romney.
All of this is hard to overcome: an okay candidate who is likable, appealing, fairly temperate and President of the United States is at a marked advantage in any contest with a not particularly likable, indecipherable person associated with lots of radicals who is NOT the president.
Romney could have won this election. There’s a route or two available by which he may yet win. But the path is getting narrower, and I see no reason to believe that Romney has the skill set to recognize the appropriate track and maneuver onto it. The Romney campaign is indeed very bad, as Peggy Noonan has recently noted. Me, I’d call it epically bad.
By now, pretty much everybody knows about Mitt Romney’s thoughtless, mean, and utterly misbegotten comments about the 47% of Americans who are apparently dependent on government handouts for survival, and the rest of Americans, who pay income taxes and carry the freeloaders. This statement is twaddle, as many others — including NY Times columnist and semi-conservative David Brooks — have pointed out. I don’t have much to add to the good work they’ve done in taking Mitt Romney’s statement apart.
What has gotten much less attention is Mitt Romney’s explanation of his comments. This explanation, I think, is actually much, much worse than the original statement itself.
In a late night news conference—the kind likely to be missed by almost everybody—Romney explained his 47% comment this way: “It’s not elegantly stated, let me put it that way. I was speaking off the cuff in response to a question. And I’m sure I could state it more clearly in a more effective way than I did in a setting like that.”
Pay attention here. Much like his statement on Sandra Fluke, that he wouldn’t have used Rush Limbaugh’s vile words in criticizing her, all Mitt Romney has done here is said he could have worded his comments better. He is basically saying that he believes every word he said. It’s just that since he was in a fundraiser and was in the question and answer period, he wasn’t scripted and obfuscatory as he would have been on the campaign trail.
In other words, it’s what he believes. It’s just not something he would have said had he thought about it more clearly.
One is, of course, entitled to vote for Mitt Romney if you share this belief. One is entitled to vote against him if one doesn’t. But you ought to know that it’s what he believes.
In this play, the role of the sharks are taken by the conservative punditocracy—those commentators who have pushed the Republican Party to be ever-more vigilant in expressing and defending conservative principles. “AMERICA IS A CONSERVATIVE COUNTRY!” they regularly intone. “BE CONSERVATIVE OR GO HOME.”
Now, however, they seem less sure. As Ross Douthat noted in his NY Times column today, many conservative talking heads are beginning to complain about what they see as an impending Romney loss. George Will, for example, stated: “If the Republican Party cannot win in this environment, it has to get out of politics.” FOX talking head Laura Ingraham commented, “If you can’t beat Barack Obama with this record, then shut down the party.” The American right’s pet academic Britisher, Niall Ferguson, insisted that Obama’s success and Romney’s failure meant “the law of political gravity has been suspended.”
There’s something important going on here: the pundits are working hard to shift the blame for Romney’s seeming inevitable loss.
In the pundits’ growing narrative, their side’s probable loss in 2012 is a result of Romney’s flaws and the party’s incompetence. It’s the result of the failure to be conservative enough. It’s the result of the American people being taken in by Obama’s hypnotic spell.
In other words, IT’S NOT THEIR FAULT.
There’s much wrong in the pundits’ narrative, of course. As it happens, they’re wrong on the nature of American public opinion: Americans are indeed conservative on taxes, but they love government programs like Social Security and Medicare and the military. They’re wrong on Obama’s record, which is much stronger than they imagine it to be.
More, the pundits have conveniently forgotten that the party tossed up an array of nominees to challenge Romney, each seeming more flawed than the one before: the politically damaged Newt Gingrich; the personality challenged Tim Pawlenty; the anti-Republican Ron Paul; the high flying but inexperienced businessman Herman Cain; the right wing red meat of Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann and even befuddled Rick Perry. Romney was the only one with the organization and the money to stagger through—with little help from a punditocracy that didn’t really like him.
Still and all, one of the advantages of buying news ink by the barrel (or driving hits to your website) is that once the campaign ends, the pundits will “explain” the loss—and, magically, it won’t be their fault.