With the first presidential debate coming on Wednesday, further details are emerging about how the two candidates have been preparing for the face-offs. The debates have a special importance for Mitt Romney, who trails President Obama by 4.3 points in both Real Clear Politics’s composite of national polls and their aggregation of polls in most swing states. Many politicos believe that the debates are Romney’s last chance to turn the race around. So what’s his secret weapon? Zingers.
This from Peter Baker and Ashley Parker in today’s New York Times:
Mr. Romney’s team has concluded that debates are about creating moments and has equipped him with a series of zingers that he has memorized and has been practicing on aides since August. His strategy includes luring the president into appearing smug or evasive about his responsibility for the economy.
This nicely illustrates one of the big problems that the Romney campaign has brought upon itself: They keep trying to find one magic moment on which they can turn around the race. They banked first on the vice presidential roll out and then on the GOP convention as instances where the American people would see and embrace a new Mitt Romney while finally turning on President Obama in the manner Republicans believe he deserves. That magic bullet instinct also explains the campaign’s jumping around from attack message to attack message (see: welfare attacks, “you didn’t build it,” “bumps in the road,” and so forth).
But as I argue in my column in U.S. News Weekly this week (subscription required), while we remember big moments in debates, they rarely if ever actually turn elections. The classic example is Gerald Ford’s declaration that the Soviet Union wasn’t dominating Eastern Europe—it’s remembered as a crippling gaffe, but he closed on Carter during the period of the debates that year. And while conventional wisdom (and, apparently, the Romney campaign) holds that Ronald Reagan only broke through after decisively besting Jimmy Carter with “there you go again” and “are you better off…?” in their late October debate, he was already leading in the polls at that point. It’s true that the polling trend line shows a Reagan surge after the debate, but he had been leading Carter since the late spring and had been creeping upward since late August. The Reagan-Carter debate accelerated an existing trend; it didn’t turn the election or change its dynamics.
And there’s another reason why the Romney campaign shouldn’t bank on zingers to turn around their flailing, failing effort. As The American Conservative’s Daniel Larison observes on Twitter today, “if people don’t like a candidate to start with, they aren’t going to be impressed when he uses one-liners and put-downs.” He goes on to wonder whether Team Romney realizes that candidates with high negatives (and Romney’s are so very high) shouldn’t be relying on zingers. People already find Romney unlikable, in other words; coming across as more of a smarmy smart-ass isn’t going to help him.
On a lighter note, the idea of Mitt Romney’s arsenal of prepared one-liners has given rise to a new Twitter meme: #MittZingers.
By: Robert Schlesinger, Washington Whispers, U. S. News and World Report, September 29, 2012
Tom Toles’s typically terrific editorial cartoon in today’s Post highlights a fundamental difference between today’s Democratic and Republican parties: The Democrats welcome their former presidents to their conventions; the Republicans don’t. The reason isn’t just that Bill Clinton is the best campaign speaker since World War II and George W. Bush is far less rhetorically compelling. It’s also that the Democrats are comfortable with their past while today’s Republicans repudiate theirs.
Clinton and Jimmy Carter have been fixtures at Democratic conventions since their presidencies ended, though Carter, whose presidency Democrats, like most Americans, don’t remember all that fondly, is usually trotted out nowhere near prime time. You have to go back all the way to Lyndon Johnson to find a Democratic ex-president who wasn’t included in convention proceedings: In 1972 (the only convention that occurred while Johnson was out of office and still alive), the debates over the Vietnam War, like the war itself, were still raging, and Johnson’s appearance would have proved hugely divisive at the convention that nominated George McGovern.
But what sins against Republicanism did today’s two Republican ex-presidents, George H.W. Bush and his son George W., commit? Both were mainstream Republicans of their times. Papa Bush presided over the death of Soviet Communism, and even if he wasn’t really responsible for its demise, you’d think that would be worth at least an appearance. But then, Papa Bush also raised taxes, which appears to have cast him into an ideological wasteland for today’s anti-tax Republicans.
As for the son, he promoted and signed into law massive tax cuts for the rich and did nothing to rein in the banks even as they did everything they could to magnify the risk they posed to themselves and everybody else. In other words, he followed Republican economic doctrine to the letter. He chose to wage a war of choice in Iraq, a war also sought by his party’s neo-conservatives. You might think that the fact that each of these policies ended in disaster would be reason enough for the Republicans not to invite W., but for the fact that these are still the policies that the party embraces (tax cuts for the rich, repeal of Dodd-Frank and attacking Obama for not doing more in Syria).
Bush’s banishing looks more like a case of ideological deviation than real-world catastrophe. He supported a path to legalization for illegal immigrants. He expanded Medicare to include a prescription drug benefit. (Obamacare, which the Republicans universally vow to repeal, provided more funding for that benefit.)
In other words, what’s wrong with the Bushes is the same thing that was wrong with Senators Richard Lugar and Robert Bennett, longtime party stalwarts whose routine bids for renomination were denied by Republican primary and caucus voters: they haven’t kept up with the party’s race to the right. The GOP base has banished the previous generation of Republican leaders for their lack of revolutionary zeal.
The tea partyization of the GOP has a lot in common with a sustained revolution, such as, to cite the paradigmatic example, that in France, where the Marats and Dantons, yesterday’s leaders, were cast aside for and by the even more zealous Robespierre and his ilk. The Republicans are Jacobins, and Jacobins don’t invite their old presidents back. When you’ve moved as far to the extremes as today’s GOP, even your own former leaders are the ancien regime.
By: Harold Meyerson, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, September 6, 2012
Martin O’Malley, Maryland’s very ambitious Democratic governor, stepped in it a bit on Sunday when he said that Americans aren’t better off today than they were four years ago.
It was a dream sound bite for Republicans, who seem convinced that swing voters will ultimately turn on President Obama if they feel the same way. Not surprisingly, Obama’s team moved quickly to provide a different answer, and O’Malley has since said that he thinks Americans are “clearly better off” now.
This illustrates the tricky spot Obama is in. He obviously can’t run the kind of feel good reelection campaign that every incumbent president dreams of, and he risks seeming like he’s trying to spin away the very real anxiety millions of Americans still feel whenever he claims his policies are working or highlights an encouraging economic statistic. But staying mute is hardly an option; doing so would concede the point and make it that much easier for Romney’s team to argue that Obama is a failed president.
And so, O’Malley’s comment aside, Democrats have settled on a message similar to what Brad Woodhouse, the DNC’s communications director, said on CNN this morning:
The truth is though is that the American people know. I mean, we were literally a plane that was heading — the trajectory was towards the ground when the president took over. He got the stick, he’s pulled us up out of that decline.
We were losing 800,000 jobs a month. Lost 3.5 millions, Americans I know have not forgotten, we lost 3.5 million jobs in the last six months of the Bush administration. We gained 4.5 million jobs over the past two and a half years.
So if you just put those side by side, clearly we’re better off. However, we have a long way to go.
Context isn’t an easy sell in politics, especially since there’s usually little room for collective memory or foresight in mass opinion. But Obama’s argument may be an exception, because polls consistently show that Americans do remember what happened four years ago – who was president when the economy melted down, how severe and terrifying the fallout was, and how impossible the situation that Obama inherited was. There is evidence that memories of George W. Bush have translated into a benefit-of-the-doubt effect for Obama, leaving him in better political shape than in incumbent president in this economic climate should be.
This is why, as Greg Sargent argued Sunday, Romney’s team may be miscalculating in depending so much on economic anxiety to push swing voters into their camp. They have the examples of 1992 and 1980, the last two times incumbent presidents were defeated for reelection, in mind, but those situations were different. The “Are you better off?” question, in fact, was basically invented in ’80, when Ronald Reagan employed it to devastating effect in his debate with Jimmy Carter. The line worked so well because inflation had nearly tripled on Carter’s watch, and unemployment had climbed nearly two points in the 18 months before the election. To the casual voter, the answer to Reagan’s question was simple and obvious. There was no room for context.
It was the same in 1992. The unemployment rate had been around 5 percent when George H.W. Bush took office, but by the summer of his reelection year it had spiked to nearly 8 percent. The fall brought some signs of improvement, but it was too late for the incumbent. It sure seemed like something had happened on Bush’s watch to hurt an economy that had been working pretty well when he came to power.
This is a much different election. The economy was in a freefall that hadn’t been seen since FDR’s days as Obama was taking the oath of office. If the Wall Street meltdown had played out in September 2009, Obama probably wouldn’t be getting much benefit of the doubt now. But it played out in September 2008, at the end of a presidency that the overwhelming majority of voters had decided was a disaster. This doesn’t mean Obama is in the clear; the polls are close, and even if he wins, it will probably be by a narrow margin. But “Are you better off?” doesn’t automatically undermine him the way it did with Carter and Bush 41.
By: Steve Kornacki, Salon, September 3, 2012
“Romney’s Carter Delusion”: Mitt’s Acceptance Speech Perfectly Tailored For An Opponent He’s Not Running Against
There’ve been indications lately that Mitt Romney’s campaign no longer believes it will be enough to depend on widespread economic anxiety for a November victory – that too many swing voters like Barack Obama too much and are too willing to give him the benefit of the doubt because of the catastrophe he inherited.
If this is the Romney team’s new thinking, the speech the GOP nominee delivered last night didn’t reflect it. It was perfectly scripted for a candidate who is confident that the basic dynamics of the race favor him and who sees boldness, specificity and unforced errors as his main obstacles on the road to the White House.
I’ve written before about Romney’s desire to function as a generic candidate, someone likable and competent enough to swing voters who are inclined to vote out President Obama and who lacks any sharp edges that might give them pause. His acceptance speech was as broad and formulaic as this strategy. As Jonathan Bernstein put it:
Everything in it was perfunctory: the biographical section (which was weirdly interrupted by a digression into Neil Armstrong and the space race and by a call-out to every elected Republican woman they could scrape up — the whole thing seemed to have a case of attention deficit disorder); the five-point economic program; the foreign policy section; the stirring rhetoric at the end; and, certainly, the delivery.
Probably the most telling passage came when Romney invoked Ronald Reagan’s famous “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” line:
That is why every president since the Great Depression who came before the American people asking for a second term could look back at the last four years and say with satisfaction: “you are better off today than you were four years ago.” Except Jimmy Carter. And except this president.
This president can ask us to be patient. This president can tell us it was someone else’s fault. This president can tell us that the next four years he’ll get it right. But this president cannot tell us that YOU are better off today than when he took office.
Let’s give Romney a pass for not mentioning George H.W. Bush, who flunked the “better off” test in 1992 and was drummed out of office with the lowest share of the popular vote of any president since Taft. This was a Republican convention, after all, and Romney has a warm personal friendship with the 41st president. But in calling attention to Carter’s defeat, Romney seemed to indicate that he shares a common view among Republicans about the 2012 race: that it’s a repeat of 1980.
Optimistic Republican voices have been making the claim a lot lately that, just as they were 32 years ago, swing voters are fed up with the incumbent and itching to fire him, and that’s needed from the opposition party is a modicum of reassurance. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made this case to National Journal just a few hours before Romney’s speech:
“I’m not predicting a blowout like we ended up having in ’80,” McConnell said in an interview. But the mood strikes him as similar. It’s an atmosphere “in which people really don’t think the guy’s done a very good job, and the Democrats are betting on our candidate being inadequate.”
The speech Romney delivered is the speech that a candidate who believes he’s running against another Carter would deliver. The problem for Romney and Republicans is that the 2012-as-1980 model doesn’t hold up well to scrutiny.
The first problem is that Obama is much more popular as he seeks a second term than Carter was. At this point in 1980, it was common for polls to show Carter with an approval rating in the low 30s, or even in the 20s. And his party was bitterly divided. His initial victory in 1976 had been something of a fluke – he’d understood the ramifications of the Democrats’ radically expanded primary calendar better than anyone else and snuck to the nomination without the support of many of the party’s traditional leaders and interest groups – and he’d alienated huge chunks of the Democratic coalition by governing from the center-right on many domestic issues. This gave rise to Ted Kennedy’s primary challenge, which likely would have succeeded had it not been for the sudden Iran hostage crisis at the end of 1979. As it was, Carter limped to renomination with a majority of his own party saying they disapproved of his presidency.
This just isn’t the case for Obama, whose average approval ratings sits at 47.7 percent in the Real Clear Politics average. That’s hardly enough to guarantee him a second term, or even to make him the clear favorite, but it gives him a fighting chance and puts Obama more in the category of George W. Bush in 2004 – not Carter in 1980. Moreover, Obama’s own party is squarely united behind him. He’s never had a serious problem with his own base, and his approval rating among Democrats consistently clocks in over 80 percent.
The other problem with the ’80 comparison, as John Sides detailed earlier this month, is that Carter actually trailed Reagan throughout that year, sometimes by significant margins. Yes, Carter managed to tighten the race after his party’s August convention, when the Kennedy challenge was extinguished once and for all and many (but not all) of his supporters reluctantly returned to the Carter fold, but Reagan led in the vast majority of polls conducted in 1980. The reason the race isn’t generally remembered that way is that there was a strong sense at the time among the political class that Reagan was far too extreme to win a national election – that his Goldwater-style conservatism would somehow catch up with him and erode his lead before Election Day. But it never did.
Again, Obama is in demonstrably better shape on this front than Carter was. In the wake of the debt ceiling debacle last year, Romney briefly pulled ahead of Obama in polling, but since last October, the president has consistently led in the Real Clear Politics polling average.
The speech Romney gave last night would probably be more than enough to topple a president as weak as Carter. But he’s not running against Carter.
By: Steve Kornacki, Salon, August 31, 2012
The former defense secretary says he prefers Mitt Romney because the Republican has more executive experience. Did he miss the top line on Obama’s resume?
Appearing on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show, Donald Rumsfeld made two comments of note about President Obama and the upcoming election.
HUGH HEWITT: You’ve been involved in government for a long time, Mr. Secretary. Is President Obama the weakest president of your lifetime?
DONALD RUMSFELD: He may very well be. I suppose the other one that stands out is President Jimmy Carter as a person who had a somewhat different attitude about America and its role in the world, and felt that we needed to kind of be in decline and withdrawal, and not contribute to the peace and stability that exists in the world.
What’s striking here is the emphasis on the alleged attitudes and feelings of Carter and Obama. It would be easy enough to cite actions that they took or policies that they implemented, and to say, “This hastened America’s decline,” or “That did not contribute to peace or stability.” Instead Rumsfeld plays armchair psychologist, guessing at inner thoughts that none of us can know, and that contradict the avowed motivations of the two men he is discussing.
Note too that Rumsfeld served under a president on whose watch Al Qaeda successfully attacked us, and who launched wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And here he is complaining that the Obama Administration’s policies “do not contribute to the peace and stability that exists in the world.” Is Rumsfeld suggesting that he was prioritizing “peace and stability” as defense secretary?
But it’s actually this second exchange that most seriously calls into question Rumsfeld’s analysis.
HUGH HEWITT: And a last question, what do you make of Mitt Romney’s qualifications to be president?
DONALD RUMSFELD: Well, I must say, I do feel that a person who’s been in an executive position has an advantage. A lot of legislators run for the presidency and for governor positions, and I think someone who has that background of having to be an executive would come into that office with a head start. I would add that I think that it is, I’m told, I’ve read articles, I assume they’re correct, to the effect that today in the White House, we have the smallest percentage of people who have any background in business whatsoever. And I think that people who think that this country is about government are wrong.
I think this country is about the private sector. It’s about risk taking and investment and initiative, and industriousness and the values that built this country. And I think someone who’s been in business, as Governor Romney has, brings to it that nice mixture of executive experience and government as well as a business background, which is a stark contrast to a community organizer, and a person who served in the United States Senate for about fifteen minutes. (emphasis added)
Yes, aside from the four years Obama has spent as commander in chief and head of the executive branch, what possible experience does he have that would prepare him to be commander in chief and head of the executive branch? Rumsfeld’s analysis would make a lot of sense if it were 2008, and Romney was running against Senator Obama. In 2012, if you think the person with more experience relevant to the presidency should win the election, it’s bizarre to conclude that the candidate who has never actually been president is that more experienced person.
By: Conor Friedersdorf, The Atlantic, June 5, 2012