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“The Real Referendum”: The Legacy Of The New Deal, The Great Society And Obamacare

Republicans came into this campaign believing that it would be a referendum on President Obama, and that still-high unemployment would hand them victory on a silver platter. But given the usual caveats — a month can be a long time in politics, it’s not over until the votes are actually counted, and so on — it doesn’t seem to be turning out that way.

Yet there is a sense in which the election is indeed a referendum, but of a different kind. Voters are, in effect, being asked to deliver a verdict on the legacy of the New Deal and the Great Society, on Social Security, Medicare and, yes, Obamacare, which represents an extension of that legacy. Will they vote for politicians who want to replace Medicare with Vouchercare, who denounce Social Security as “collectivist” (as Paul Ryan once did), who dismiss those who turn to social insurance programs as people unwilling to take responsibility for their lives?

If the polls are any indication, the result of that referendum will be a clear reassertion of support for the safety net, and a clear rejection of politicians who want to return us to the Gilded Age. But here’s the question: Will that election result be honored?

I ask that question because we already know what Mr. Obama will face if re-elected: a clamor from Beltway insiders demanding that he immediately return to his failed political strategy of 2011, in which he made a Grand Bargain over the budget deficit his overriding priority. Now is the time, he’ll be told, to fix America’s entitlement problem once and for all. There will be calls — as there were at the time of the Democratic National Convention — for him to officially endorse Simpson-Bowles, the budget proposal issued by the co-chairmen of his deficit commission (although never accepted by the commission as a whole).

And Mr. Obama should just say no, for three reasons.

First, despite years of dire warnings from people like, well, Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, we are not facing any kind of fiscal crisis. Indeed, U.S. borrowing costs are at historic lows, with investors actually willing to pay the government for the privilege of owning inflation-protected bonds. So reducing the budget deficit just isn’t the top priority for America at the moment; creating jobs is. For now, the administration’s political capital should be devoted to passing something like last year’s American Jobs Act and providing effective mortgage debt relief.

Second, contrary to Beltway conventional wisdom, America does not have an “entitlements problem.” Mainly, it has a health cost problem, private as well as public, which must be addressed (and which the Affordable Care Act at least starts to address). It’s true that there’s also, even aside from health care, a gap between the services we’re promising and the taxes we’re collecting — but to call that gap an “entitlements” issue is already to accept the very right-wing frame that voters appear to be in the process of rejecting.

Finally, despite the bizarre reverence it inspires in Beltway insiders — the same people, by the way, who assured us that Paul Ryan was a brave truth-teller — the fact is that Simpson-Bowles is a really bad plan, one that would undermine some key pieces of our safety net. And if a re-elected president were to endorse it, he would be betraying the trust of the voters who returned him to office.

Consider, in particular, the proposal to raise the Social Security retirement age, supposedly to reflect rising life expectancy. This is an idea Washington loves — but it’s also totally at odds with the reality of an America in which rising inequality is reflected not just in the quality of life but in its duration. For while average life expectancy has indeed risen, that increase is confined to the relatively well-off and well-educated — the very people who need Social Security least. Meanwhile, life expectancy is actually falling for a substantial part of the nation.

Now, there’s no mystery about why Simpson-Bowles looks the way it does. It was put together in a political environment in which progressives, and even supporters of the safety net as we know it, were very much on the defensive — an environment in which conservatives were presumed to be in the ascendant, and in which bipartisanship was effectively defined as the effort to broker deals between the center-right and the hard right.

Barring an upset, however, that environment will come to an end on Nov. 6. This election is, as I said, shaping up as a referendum on our social insurance system, and it looks as if Mr. Obama will emerge with a clear mandate for preserving and extending that system. It would be a terrible mistake, both politically and for the nation’s future, for him to let himself be talked into snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.


By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, October 1, 2012



October 1, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Giving Specifics Would “Take Me Too Long”: Paul Ryan Is Not In The Mood For Truth Telling

On Fox News Sunday, Rep. Paul Ryan claimed that Americans don’t know enough about what a Romney-Ryan presidency would do, which explains the campaign’s current troubles. But when Chris Wallace pressed Ryan to discuss the specifics of the Romney-Ryan tax plan, the mathematics of which have confounded non-partisan experts, he refused even to say how much the tax cuts the ticket has proposed would cost.

Everyone expects Mitt Romney to bob and weave around basic questions he doesn’t want to answer. But Ryan makes such a show about telling hard truths. Turns out Ryan’s self-righteousness has mainly served to make it more insulting when he bobs and weaves himself.

“It would take me too long to go through all of the math,” Ryan explained Sunday morning. But Wallace wasn’t asking for “all” of the math, just basic numbers. As usual with the GOP ticket, the only specific figure Ryan wanted to discuss was how much he and Romney want to drop tax rates. Wallace repeatedly asked Ryan whether Romney’s proposed tax cuts would cost $5 trillion, a question meant to establish one side of the budget equation before moving to a discussion of how Romney would pay for the cuts. But Ryan repeatedly refused to go through the addition and subtraction, instead insisting that the numbers eventually come out in his favor — Romney’s proposed tax cuts would cost nothing, he said, because Romney would offset them by cutting loopholes, primarily for upper incomes.

But which loopholes, and where does Romney draw the line between middle- and upper-income Americans? Ryan had nothing too specific there, either. The best he could do was repeat the nice-sounding logic of the Romney-Ryan plan:

You can lower tax rates 20 percent across the board by closing loopholes and still have preferences for the middle class for things like charitable deductions, home purchases, for health care. What we’re saying is people are going to get lower tax rates and therefore they will not send as much money to Washington.

Wallace went on to ask Ryan what Romney’s highest priority would be if the GOP ticket’s tax plan didn’t turn out to be revenue-neutral. Ryan answered that “keeping tax rates down” is “more important than anything.” Since Ryan kept insisting that he and Romney need not make a choice between tax cuts and, say, controlling the deficit, he probably didn’t mean for his statement to sound ominous. But since he merely said — and did not show — that Romney’s math could add up, ominous his statement was.

Wallace should have followed up with a question about how, even if Romney and Ryan managed to cut taxes and kept federal revenue where it is, they could then plausibly fix America’s long-term budget mess without additional money. Then again, Ryan didn’t seem to be in the mood for any hard truth-telling.


By: Steven Stromberg, The Washington Post, September 30, 2012


October 1, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“A Strategic Conundrum”: Defining The Presidential Debate Game

In this week’s debate, Mitt Romney has too much to do. President Obama has a great deal to lose. Romney’s is the most difficult position. Obama’s is the most dangerous.

Romney needs to use the Denver encounter to reverse the slide he has found himself in since the party conventions. While Republican partisans claim that many of the public polls survey too many Democrats and are thus casting Romney as further behind than he is, the behavior of the Romney campaign suggests it does not believe this. Many of its recent strategic moves have smacked of damage control and appear to reflect an understanding that if the campaign stays on its current trajectory, Obama will prevail.

The most dramatic evidence was the decision to air a 60-second spot touting Romney’s compassion, clearly an effort to counter the disastrous impact of the leaked video showing the Republican nominee writing off 47 percent of the electorate. The former Massachusetts governor’s private words only reinforced months of advertising by Obama and allied groups portraying Romney as a wealthy, out-of-touch champion of the interests of the very rich. Recent polling in swing states has shown that this attack has stuck.

Most striking of all, a campaign that has been relentless in assailing Obama abandoned this approach for a moment in the compassion ad by having Romney declare that “President Obama and I both care about poor and middle-class families.” Challengers are always in a weak position when they have to hug their opponent for validation. This is a defensive move, a sign of how worried Romney is about Obama’s lead in the surveys as a friend of the middle class and the needy.

That’s why the debate is a strategic conundrum for Romney. On the one hand, he has to use it to change his image, particularly among women and the blue-collar white voters he needs to counter Obama’s overwhelming margins among African-Americans and Latinos. This sort of repair work takes debate time and energy away from Romney’s primary task, which is to put Obama on his heels about his record.

Romney will have to pull off this two-step at a moment when his campaign has been forced into a course correction. The polls suggest Romney is losing what he once thought were his biggest assets against Obama: Swing-state voters, albeit narrowly, now favor Obama as a future steward of the economy and are in a somewhat better mood about its condition. With Romney not certain he can count on the economy as the issue to power him through the campaign’s final weeks, he is scrambling to find other themes. This very process undermines the focus of his efforts and gives his argument a scattershot feel.

Paradoxically, Obama’s advantages over Romney create the president’s biggest debate challenge. He does not want to take great risks because he doesn’t have to. Above all, he wants to avoid a major blunder that would dominate the post-debate news and replace Romney’s problems and mistakes as the principal elements in the media’s narrative.

Yet concentrating too much on avoiding mistakes could itself prove perilous. An excessively cautious performance could give Romney an opening to take over the debate and make the president look reactive. If Romney showed one thing in the primaries, it is that he can be ferocious when faced with the need to dispatch an opponent. Recall the pummeling Romney gave Newt Gingrich in a Jan. 26 debate before the Florida primary.

And while guarding against any hint of passivity, Obama will have to avoid intimations of arrogance or overconfidence. Al Gore marred an otherwise strong night with his rather dismissive sighs during a 2000 debate with George W. Bush. If a comparable moment from Obama is what Romney will hope for from the debate, Obama’s aspiration is for a showdown in which he calmly, perhaps even amiably, maintains focus on the subjects that have consistently given Romney such trouble. Every mention of the number 47 will be a victory for Obama.

One of the shortcomings of the contemporary media environment is that while debates are supposed to be occasions when candidates thrash out matters of consequence thoughtfully and in detail, the outcomes are often judged by snippets that are more about personal character than issues or problems. Journalists, to invoke the most promiscuously deployed phrases, are forever in search of “defining moments” and “game-changers.”

By this standard, Romney very much needs that game-changer. Obama can live quite happily without one.


By: E, J. Dionne, Jr., Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, September 30, 2012


October 1, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“The Chosen One”: Mitt Romney’s Peculiarly Mormon Elitism

At first blush, it’s difficult to equate Mitt Romney’s faith with his recent comments that he’s powerless to convince America’s victim class–that 47% of the country he says are dependent on government entitlements–to vote for him. Isn’t Mormomism predicated upon the missionary effort to convert complete strangers (not to mention redistribution of wealth, through tithing)? Indeed, when the 47% video surfaced, many simply assumed the candidate was just pandering to the crowd of $50k/plate donors. The Real Romney was back somewhere in 2006.

But in his excellent piece on Romney’s work as Mormon state leader in Massachusetts, New York’s Benjamin Wallace-Wells makes a convincing case that Romney’s faith and his elitism are in fact closely linked. Wallace-Wells reports that Romney’s missionary work in Lynn, Massachusetts, during which he oversaw a mostly failed attempt to convert a Cambodian community, never discouraged him. While others in his Church grew frustrated at their fruitless efforts, Romney seemed satisfied with their minimal progress, telling a colleague that “if you only get a handful of members, that’s still a good result.”

Romney’s missionary efforts were guided by the belief that if one was able to correctly follow Church guidelines, he would achieve salvation. If not, oh well. As Wallace-Wells put it: “What he offered was salvation via a rule book, a recipe for getting ahead in America that had less to offer the doubters, the uncommitted, the foreign.” Romney, perhaps swayed by the influence of party elites and his running mate Paul Ryan, has now lumped 47% of America into that same category.

In this way, Romney conceived of himself as a member of a series of overlapping elite clubs–Mormons, businessmen, suburban family men–who have played by the rules, and justly reaped the benefits. Quoting the Mormon scholar Claudia Bushman, Wallace-Wells writes that Romney seems to abide by the traditional Mormon perspective that he is something of a chosen one, inhabiting “an island of morality in a sea of moral decay.”

But the idea of elite membership–of exalted status–goes beyond this. Mormon faith holds that men don’t only wish to please God, they can eventually join him, be him. As Harold Bloom–that sometimes scholar of Mormonism–wrote last fall in the New York Times, “Mormons earn godhead though their own efforts…the Mormon patriarch, secure in his marriage and large family, is promised by his faith a final ascension to godhead, with a planet all his own separate from the earth and nation where he now dwells.”

This is not to say Romney thinks Mormonism represents the only path toward material success. Rather, Romney’s own Mormonism–and his success by it–simply reinforces the merits of the “No Apology” elitism he’s adopted on the campaign trail.


By: Simin van Zuylen-Wood, Washington Monthly Political Animal, September 30, 2012

October 1, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“A Non-Existent Era”: David Gregory’s Tim Russert Problem

Mark Leibovich, in his 2008 profile of Chris Matthews, reported that the MSNBC talking head lived under the constant shadow of then-Meet the Press host Tim Russert.

Russert, the inquisitive jackhammer host of “Meet the Press” — is a particular obsession of Matthews’s. Matthews craves Russert’s approval like that of an older brother.

Following Russert’s death several months after that profile was written, David Gregory took over Russert’s seat. And since then, it’s always seemed to me that Gregory, much more so than Matthews, has suffered from attempts to live up to Russert. While Matthews wears his liberalism on his sleeve, Gregory feels he must maintain a tough-talking ‘pox on both houses’ approach that has become increasingly difficult as the Republican party has veered rightward. Take, for example, today’s Meet the Press.

Earlier this morning, Gregory asked New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to explain why Romney rarely gets specific about his proposed policies. Christie dodged the question, responding that it was Obama who needed to explain why, among other things, he rejected the recommendations of the 2010 Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan. (He likely rejected it, by the way, because Congress wasn’t adopting it either, so doing so would needlessly hurt him with the base, which wasn’t happy with the entitlement reductions enumerated in the plan.) And why didn’t Congress adopt the plan? Because Mitt Romney’s running mate Paul Ryan almost single-handedly derailed it.

Ryan [was] “clearly was the leader” of House Republicans in setting the terms of a grand debt bargain, said Andy Stern, a panel member and Democrat….Ryan’s support would have likely drawn votes from (David) Camp and possibly (Jeb) Hensarling and made it all but impossible for the president to reject a plan created by his own self- appointed commission.

But rather than push back agianst Christie, Gregory shifted gears and asked him about his RNC speech. Gregory’s reluctance to mention Ryan’s complicity in the failure of Simpson-Bowles–not to mention the President’s 2011 commitment to a ‘grand bargain,’ or the general fiscal absurdity of the Romney/Ryan budgets–is borne out of his crippling obsession with impartiality. More specifically, I’d argue it stems from his instinct to honor ‘Meet the Press’s’ reputation for being ‘tough on both sides’, a trademark the late Tim Russert helped cement. Here, however, the admittedly tame Gregory’s attempts to live up to Russert’s attack-dog style serves him badly.

In Russert’s seventeen years at Meet the Press, Republicans and Democrats feared his acerbic approach equally. But it’s unclear that Russert would have remained equally balanced were he alive today. He never covered a House so radical and a Senate so obstructionist as the current models. He never encountered a Republican Party platform as extreme as this year’s. He never even got to interview Vice-Presidential nominee Sarah Palin, depriving us of the thorough grilling he might have unleashed upon her. In that way, Gregory who’s made it something of a trademark to exchange nuance for balance, has foolishly tried to live up to the Russert model in an era that doesn’t allow for it.

By: Simon van Zuylen-Wood, Washington Monthly Political Animal, September 30, 2012

October 1, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012, Journalism | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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