September 10, 2012
The Day Mitt Romney Told The Truth

Mark it down: it was September 7, 2012.

The truth in question was an answer to the query, on that paragon of hard news, FOX, Why didn’t you talk about the troops in your nomination acceptance address? Romney’s answer was plain, real, and astonishing:

When you give a speech you don’t go through a laundry list, you talk about the things that you think are important and I described in my speech, my commitment to a strong military unlike the president’s decision to cut our military. And I didn’t use the word troops, I used the word military. I think they refer to the same thing.

Here’s the thing: “the troops” and “the military” are as different from each other as corporations are from actual people. That Romney thinks “the military” is the same as “the troops” betrays his vision that organizations are living beings that somehow or another work without worrying how the pieces of the institution function.

Let me illustrate my point this way. When one thinks of “the military,” one thinks of the jobs the military is designed to do. One thinks of making sure that “the military” has the equipment and money and training and personnel it needs to achieve its tasks. One thinks of making sure the military machine can function effectively as it does its work.

Don’t get me wrong: these are all important things to think about. As long as we have a military, we as a society have an obligation and an interest in making sure it is effective and efficient. This is a consequence of the choice to be a superpower.

But it’s not thinking about “the troops.”

When one thinks of “the troops,” one thinks of parents separated from spouses and children for multiple deployments. One thinks of physically and psychically wounded people struggling to make a new life for themselves. One thinks of the transition to civilian life and the need to support servicemen and women for the rest of their lives.

Here’s what you don’t think about if you really think about “the troops”:

  • You don’t complain that we got out of Iraq and threaten a war with Iran without considering the lives and capacities of the men and women you expect to go do those things, and without knowing how to win both the war and the peace.
  • You don’t cut subsidies for school districts in towns with military bases like George Bush did. (Since WWII, the US has provided additional funds to towns with military bases in them to subsidize the education of the soldiers’ kids whose parents live on base, and so don’t pay local property taxes, but whose kids are educated in the local community. Bush cut those funds out.)
  • You don’t charge soldiers for rooms with air conditioning when they are wounded, as George Bush’s administration did.
  • You don’t treat wounded National Guards men and women in substandard, lesser hospitals and facilities as happened in the Bush administration.
  • You don’t imagine endless wars and endless deployments in search of a “victory” you can never define, much less reach.

Romney told the truth to FOX News on September 7, 2012. Mark the day. He cares deeply about the military.

He just doesn’t think the troops are important.

September 1, 2012
The Break Up Strategy

After Mitt Romney’s acceptance speech Thursday night, it is clear what at least part of the Republican campaign message is going to be from here to the election:

"C’mon, friend. You had a nice try at a relationship, but it failed. Don’t throw good money after bad. Just go ahead and break up already!"

Think about it. Romney’s approach was both to criticize the weak parts of Obama’s record (jobs, economic concerns, healthcare’s unpopularity, etc.). and to compliment Obama the man. Romney reminded his audiences that it was fine to have voted for Obama in 2008; indeed, it was perfectly understandable what with the man’s charm and  wit and the hopey changey thing. But now, after four years of failure (Romney’s take, not necessarily mine), it is time to move on and cut your losses before they get worse.

As a strategy, I think this is wise. It offers those undecided independents who actually haven’t made up their mind who to vote for (all six of them by this point) an “out”: sure you might like Obama the man, and you might like that the United States somehow elected a black man as its president, but it’s not your fault he turned out not what he promised to be. It’s okay to move on.

Mind you, I don’t think it’s going to work. There just aren’t enough truly undecided voters out there for “switchers” to matter. (I think this is a turnout election, when what really matters is whether or not your supporters show up to vote.) Most people claiming not to have decided really have: they’re either going to vote for one candidate and won’t admit it, or they’re not going to vote and don’t want to admit it.

So it turns out that Mitt Romney may be a better dating counselor than a presidential candidate. It’s an approach … I’m just not sure what exactly it’s an approach to.

August 28, 2012
The Fraternity Bit

So it turns out that when asked a question about being likable as a person, Mitt Romney answered by citing the fact that he had been elected president of his fraternity at BYU … which isn’t a fraternity but whatever.

This is a pretty obvious stretch. In college some guys at a sort of frat decided Mitt Romney, with a famous and wealthy father and likely really good organizational skills, would be a good president. Or, maybe no one else ran. (It happens all the time.) In either case — and lots of alternative ones — being elected a fraternity president is hardly a profound symbol of likability. Plus, given that Mitt Romney is 65 years old, it’s an example that’s about 45 years out of date.

The thing is, I actually feel for Mitt here. Romney strikes me as what might called a “resume” candidate. By this I mean that when you look at his resume he comes across as a talented, highly successful person who has had lots of experiences that might well shape one into being a successful president. He certainly has a broader range of experiences than Barack Obama did when Obama ran for President. On paper, Romney is a remarkably impressive person.

However, we don’t elect resumes. We elect people. And like lots of other highly successful people — Hillary Clinton pops to mind — Romney  struggles to excite or engage his audience. His resume cannot top his personality. Meanwhile, his opponent is Mr. Personality. Put Barack Obama on a big stage and give him a microphone and he can sell rocks in a gravel pit. He might not have had that many qualifications for President when he ran in 2008, but he seemed “presidential.”

Politcalprof empathizes. I have (I think) a really good university resume and (I hope) a good reputation around campus from my five years as Chair of our Senate. I believe (fingers crossed!) that if you asked people around campus, they’d say they thought that I was a good advocate for faculty and that I helped rather than hurt when push came to shove.

But I also imagine that if you asked those same people if they thought I should have a position of responsibility here, lots would say “no!” — and quickly. For whatever reasons — and I don’t know what they are, but I can guess — and despite the fact that they have actual experience with me doing a job that they think I did it well, there is something about me they can’t see in a given role. They may be making a mistake — that’s what I like to tell myself when this bothers me — but that’s not the point: it’s what they think. So it’s what they choose.

This is one of Mitt Romney’s biggest problems. He — unlike me — needs the votes of millions of Americans to win the job of President of the United States.  That he is running against one of the most charming and engaging persons in American history who is already the President of the United States*, and can’t think of any evidence of his popularity more recent than 45 years ago, suggests that he has some real hurdles to jump if he expects to win.

While I wasn’t president of a college fraternity — at least in part because I did not join a college fraternity — I do know something about the gap between talent and popularity. And Mitt, let me tell you: voters don’t need to like you in order for you to win. But it helps.


*As long time readers of this blog know, I met Barack Obama when he was running for the Senate. He is staggeringly charismatic in person.

July 25, 2012
Random Silly Political Analysis of the Day … #87

In 2000, when seeking to explain how and why George Bush seemed likely to win the election and Al Gore seemed likely to lose it (this was before the actual vote, mind you), one explanation offered was that while Gore was stiff and cold and distant, Bush seemed like the kind of guy people might like to have a beer with.

Begging the obvious question — is “beer buddyness” really a good measure to use in picking a president? — it does lead to a further question:

—anyone who might have voted for Bush for his beery nature in 2000 is almost certainly going to vote for Romney this time … and he neither drinks beer nor seems like someone who would be even vaguely interesting to have a beer with. Obama, meanwhile, had a beer summit and drank Guinness in Ireland.

So, why do political analysts offer such silly analyses for why people win and lose presidential elections?

Oh yeah: it’s the silly season. Silly is all they have.


July 17, 2012
On Mitt Romney’s Taxes and Real Tax Reform

Amidst all the buzz about Mitt Romney’s tax returns, I’ve been struck by an obvious — at least to me — gap in all the discussions:

—OF COURSE Mitt Romney played the tax code to enhance his wealth. That’s what all rich people do.

Think about it. The tax code is riven with loopholes, the vast majority of which benefit businesses and better off people. Whether it’s depreciation allowances for purchases, or treating investment income as “capital gains” rather than ordinary income, or allowing you to write off the costs of maintaining a horse declared to be an investment (to the tune of $77,000 one year in Ann Romney’s case), the simple truth is that these kinds of loopholes (or incentives, if you wish) are only available to people who make enough money for them to matter. The rest of us simply can’t take advantage of them because we don’t make enough money.

Now don’t get me wrong: this is legal. It’s not someone’s “fault” they used the rules to their advantage. While it is certainly true that people like Mitt Romney have worked hard to infuse the tax code with loopholes (or incentives) that benefit them, it is also true that it is legal for Mitt Romney to do what he has done…. Even if it seems he is now embarrassed by his machinations, or doesn’t want to explain his taxes.

But here’s the thing: THE TAX CODE HAS LOTS OF BENEFITS FOR MIDDLE CLASS PEOPLE, TOO. I get to write off my mortgage interest and property taxes. Employers get to write off the cost of providing us with insurance off their taxes, thus subsidizing employer-sponsored healthcare. Middle class persons are far more likely to take road trips across public roads and send their children to public universities — which are still, although to a lessening extent — supported by tax dollars. I get to write off miles and expenses for business trips. For example, when I lived in London while on sabbatical, it turned out the federal tax code allowed me to write off $91 A DAY for living expenses as well as the whole cost ($3200 a month! of my St. John’s Wood flat (just behind Abbey Road Studios). (Thanks, by the way: had I known that in advance of my trip I might have not lived like a graduate student.)

Really, the only people in society the tax code doesn’t subsidize is the poor — basically because they don’t have enough money to do any of the things that one can get a subsidy for. Poor people receive benefits, of course, or at least they can, but these rarely add up to much. And since sales and sin taxes are wildly regressive, they really get screwed by the tax code, not subsidized by it — a few tax credits notwithstanding.

Basically, you need to think of it this way: the rich get VAST subsidies in the tax code. The middle class gets SOME subsidies in the tax code. The poor get basically NO subsidies in the tax code. 

Which is why if you’re serious about tax reform, you need to do three things: 1) set a minimum below which no one/family will ever pay income taxes, adjusted over time for inflation; 2) eliminate ALL exemptions and exceptions from the tax code, from capital gains to mortgage interest to health care to depreciation; and 3) set graduated, simple rates so the tax code remains progressive. 

Everything else is nibbling at the edges. You should stop worrying about the obvious: that Mitt Romney played the tax code and got richer doing it. Instead, you need to focus on the problem: a tax code that is fundamentally rigged in favor of Mitt Romney and his fellow wealthy people first, the middle class second, and the poor last of all.

May 29, 2012

I knew I said I was gone, and I intended to be. BUT GOD ALL FREAKIN’ MIGHTY!

Now, we’re trying to make a birther story for Mitt Romney???

C’mon, people: George Romney (Mitt’s father) was eligible to be elected President of the United States (had he won the nomination) despite having been born in Mexico for the same reason John McCain was eligible to have been elected President of the United States despite having been born in Panama: their parents were citizens of the United States when they were born. Which made them natural born citizens of the United States.

Which is why Barack Obama is legitimately able to serve as President of the United States no matter where he was born (which was in Hawaii): his mother was a citizen of the United States when he was born.

Get over it.

May 12, 2012
A Presidential Pop Quiz

In the last 100 years, more or less the time of the so-called “modern Presidency,” how many Presidents have we elected whose primary claim to being qualified for the office was that they were something other than a politician? That is, how many people have we elected whose central message, in the course of their campaign, was: “my experience in “not politics” will make me a good President?”

Spoiler space and thinking time ….

How about … one: Dwight Eisenhower. Indeed, Eisenhower is the only President in the modern era who had never been elected to any office prior to becoming President … although as the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe during WWII he had LOTS of practical political experience.

Some of you are probably thinking, “but what about Ronald Reagan?” Reagan is interesting here precisely because when he ran for President, Reagan touted his time as Governor of California. He emphasized his role in putting down the social protests at places like UC-Berkeley (thereby assuaging conservatives) but also emphasized that he had real governing experience (thereby reassuring independents and moderates that he wasn’t just a flaming conservative who didn’t know how to get things done). Reagan ran as an outsider against DC, not against politics itself. He would never have been elected President had he never been Governor of California.

Mitt Romney, of course, has elected political experience, but seems never to discuss it — at least not by choice. It is striking the degree to which he is hanging his presidential campaign on his business experience not his elected experience.

There is much about Mitt Romney’s campaign I have found confusing. But the simple fact is that Americans do not hire presidents unless those candidates are seen as effective politicians FIRST. We have NEVER elected a pure businessman to office.

And I really don’t think we’re going to this year, either.

May 11, 2012
On Mitt Romney and High School Cruelty

So it turns out Mitt Romney might have been an ass in high school — or, at least, that he might have been an ass some of the time in high school. For example, he engaged in an act of cruelty that led to a schoolmate’s hair being cut … perhaps because the student was gay (or was perceived to be gay). There are other “pranks” on record.

Much is being made of this out there in progressive-land, and I have a profound sense that much of what is being said is just dead wrong. It is emphasizing the wrong thing and missing the important thing.

Much is being made of “privileged Mitt” picking on a weaker, perhaps gay, fellow student. People are interpreting this as revelatory about all kinds of things about Mitt Romney: his sense of superiority, his attitude about gay people, etc.

But this, it seems to me, is the wrong thing. My guess is that you are not the same person you were in high school (unless, I guess, you are in high school as you are reading this). I certainly am not. I am not at all sure that one could have known me at 17 and understood that I would become the man I am now, 31 years later.

No, what matters is not who we were but who we become: how we mature; what uses we make of the mistakes we make.

I mean, let’s face it: pretty much everybody has something about high school that they regret. Pretty much everyone has memories of moments of cruelty — both that they suffered, and that they committed.

To use myself as an example, I certainly suffered more teasing and shunning and in some cases physical bullying than I committed. (This was particularly true in junior high school when I was very tall, very skinny and very socially isolated.) But even so, as is the way of things, I managed to make shit roll down hill and be mean to at least a few people even more vulnerable than I. And I had an acid tongue I wielded as a weapon of both defense and offense. I hope I remember rightly that I didn’t do really nasty things too often or too viciously, but those are the memories of the person committing the act, not the person receiving it. So how would I know?

Believe me: there are any number of places in my life I’d like to be able to rewind the tape to and choose a different way.

The thing is, I regret these acts. In some cases I am ashamed of them.

More, I’ve tried hard not to make these mistakes again. I’ve tried hard to try to see the world from other people’s points of view and to imagine how, under similar circumstances, I might have the beliefs they have or have done the things they have done. I’ve traveled and engaged and lost the sense that my way is the only right way even as I remain committed to the ideals and values I hold dear. I am, I hope, more humane. And more human.

Which brings me to what I think is the important thing in the Mitt Romney story: I don’t sense the same evolution in him. He dumped a gay adviser not because the guy was a poor adviser, but because the guy’s homosexuality was a political issue. He has told college students not to expect help paying off loans and has noted that the extremely poor in America aren’t to be worried about because they have a social safety net. His stands on contraception and privacy have alienated him from women … and he seems utterly baffled as to why, claiming that his wife is his adviser on women’s issues and that she says all women are concerned by is jobs, not birth control. He jokes with NASCAR fans about knowing team owners, not fans and drivers.

In other words, I don’t sense that Mitt Romney has made much effort in his life to understand or even empathize with people who aren’t like him. Which suggests that he remains the privileged high schooler who is casually indifferent to the feelings of weaker, vulnerable people. Which is not, it seems to me, a good thing in a President of the United States.

April 14, 2012
A Quick Note on Ronald Reagan’s tax plan …

Since Republicans are back in the “St. Ronald” mode, hoping that Mitt Romney can channel the Gipper’s path to victory, a quick thought:

in the Reagan tax reform of 1986, all income, whether earned in salary or earned from investments, was taxed the same: as income. Today, capital gains (investment income) are taxed at 15%, while “real” income is taxed at a much higher rate.

So once again: no, Republicans, Mitt Romney (who derives almost all of his income from capital gains, on which he pays quite low taxes), cannot be Ronald Reagan. Reagan was way, way more liberal.

April 11, 2012
Diagnosing Mitt’s Win

So with Rick Santorum dropping out, and Newt Gingrich fading to irrelevance, perhaps it is time to think about the question: why did Mitt Romney prevail?

Several things pop to mind here in answer to this question. Notably, each has been a consistent part of Romney’s campaign—which is why people like me have been pretty consistent in stating we thought Romney would win the nomination even as the sturm and drang of the race unfolded.

1. Republicans have a tendency to choose “next.” What this means is that Republicans tend to choose whatever credible candidate finished second in the last primary, or a prominent Republican who gets into the race in the current election cycle. Thus Reagan followed Ford, Bush followed Reagan, McCain followed Bush II and Romney followed McCain. I don’t think this means Santorum will rise in 2016 if Romney fails in 2012—I imagine a Governor or somesuch will jump in. But in general, Republicans don’t choose protest candidates or newcomers.

2. Romney stood in the center of the ideological heart of the Republican Party. That Mitt Romney has twisted himself into a pretzel in order to stand at the conservative heart of the Republican Party is absolutely true. It is also true that he is standing there, unlike the even more conservative evangelical candidates. If you are a conservative Republican who is not evangelical, it’s Romney or … ? So Romney it is.

3. The evangelical candidates divided the Christian conservative vote. Much like 2008, the presence of several candidates all seeking to please the Christian conservative wing of the party divided that active and aggressively noisy group … leaving everyone else to vote for Romney. No Republican campaigning in a competitive primary since 1980 has won by being the most conservative candidate in the pool. Romney is much more conservative than most Americans, but not as conservative as most of the other Republican candidates. He got the votes of the non-evangelicals in the party.

4. Organization, organization, organization. People like me kept screaming about this one, and kept being ignored. But the fact is that presidential primaries are held in states—states that have lots of different laws about campaign organization, fund-raising, delegate selection, and much more. Candidates require vast organizations to overcome these disparate rules and to maximize their chances. Romney had such an organization. The others didn’t. And since I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: no candidate in the modern era of campaigns (1972-present) has ever won a primary with a made-up-as-you-go organization. Nor did one do so this year.

5. Money. Money is crucial to every part of a campaign. Romney got more of it. The others got quite a bit less. As is typical of Republican primaries, the money went to the “next” candidate. Citizens United let the sugar daddies, Sherman Adelson and Foster Friese, keep Gingrich and Santorum in the game much longer than otherwise would likely have been the case. But they weren’t willing to spend as much as Romney was able to raise, and they had weak candidates to support.

6. Candidate quality. Sometimes in life you benefit from weak opponents. Romney did. A pizza executive with no political experience. A flame-throwing member of Congress. A staggeringly uncharismatic governor. A telegenic ex-governor who had, god help him, worked for Obama. A disgraced, thrice-married and known serial adulterer ex-Speaker of the House. A charismatic ex-Senator who seemed to specialize in making outrageous comments. And a (mostly) libertarian who didn’t really attack Romney in a party that has no interest in libertarians. Reagan v Bush or Bush v McCain it wasn’t.  It was a good year for Romney to run. Rick Perry should have been formidable by institutional position. But he wasn’t in real life.

So now we shift to the general election. Let me introduce one theme I will come to again and again (I imagine): Presidents are elected in 51 state-by-state (with DC) elections, not by national vote. You will see lots of national polls. Ignore them. Look for the state-level information. That’s what matters in electing the President of the United States.

Game on!