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“Horse Race Journalism”: Dear Ben Carson, Remember Herman Cain?

Far be it from me to spoil the pleasure of others. Goodness knows, in this vale of tears, enjoyment should be derived wherever it can be found. So please don’t take what follows as the musings of a party pooper.

According to a CBS News/New York Times poll, Ben Carson has unseated Donald Trump from the top spot in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. I feel compelled to offer this unsolicited advice to Carson and his supporters: Don’t start dancing in the end zone, at least not before the opening-game kickoff.

The CBS/NYT poll conjures ghosts of past presidential primaries.

Let’s take a trip down memory lane to years 2011 and 2007.

In the fall of 2011, with the Iowa caucuses set for January 2012, the country was treated to these headlines:

NBC/WSJ poll: Cain now leads GOP pack,”, Oct. 13, 2011.

Herman Cain tops Mitt Romney in latest CBS/NYT poll,” CBS News, Oct. 25, 2011.

Herman Cain Surges in the Polls as More Republicans Get to Know Him,” Huffington Post, Oct. 26, 2011.

Herman Cain leads as top GOP contender, edges out Mitt Romney, but needs to focus: pundits ,” New York Daily News, Nov. 12, 2011.

On Dec. 3, 2011, GOP front-runner Cain suspended his campaign amid charges of sexual misconduct, which he denied.

The road to the White House is filled with potholes.

In 2007, leading up to the Jan. 3, 2008, Iowa caucuses, the news was all about Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York.

Poll Shows Clinton With Solid Lead Among Democrats,” The Post, July 23, 2007.

Clinton Sustains Huge Lead in Democratic Nomination Race,” Gallup, Nov. 16, 2007. “48% of Democrats say they are most likely to support Clinton for the party’s presidential nomination in 2008, followed by Obama at 21%,” Gallup reported.

We know how that story ended.

This presidential campaign is unfolding the same old, same old way.

Once again, we in the news media, with the help of the campaigns, are hyping the hell out of an election that is many months away from producing results.

Our journalism is shaped by the need to (cliche coming) “fill air time and column inches.” Clueless about the final outcome, we, the media, focus instead on the horse-race aspect of the contest: “Who’s ahead? Who’s behind? Who’s catching up? Who’s falling back?”

Greg Marx, an editor with the Columbia Journalism Review, and John Sides, a George Washington University professor who writes for The Post’s Monkey Cage blog, have done incisive work on “horse-race journalism” and early campaign polling, respectively.

They would agree, I believe, that the combination of the news media’s horse-race mentality and the fixation on polls conducted months out from an election may add suspense and keep the public’s juices flowing, but they tell us little about how voters will behave on Election Day.

Nonetheless, we press on with our efforts to build excitement and (confession coming) our own reputations.

Then there’s the added attraction of the presidential debates, where the candidates get to audition for the roles of presidential nominee and media critic, and moderators try out as prosecutors hired to match wits with candidates suspected of having some degree of darkness in their pasts. Case in point: Wednesday night’s CNBC Republican debate.

Candidates unlikely to ever reach the Oval Office, except as invited guests — to wit: Carson, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, Lindsey Graham, Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee, John Kasich, Rand Paul, Rick Santorum and George Pataki, along with Democratic candidate Martin O’Malley — thrive on debates, as they’re the only way for them to attract media attention.

For many in the viewing public, however, it’s all a great show, sort of like watching the lions vs. the Christians.

At this stage in the campaign season, the question of electability takes a back seat to a curiosity that borders on morbid.

Which brings us back to Carson. He will be repeating Cain’s mistake if he believes the polls suggest that he is being taken seriously. The results say no such thing.

Carson, like Cain, is a novelty candidate, someone unusual: he, a soft-spoken, self-effacing African American retired neurosurgeon and reactionary to the core; Cain, a gregarious African American former Burger King and Godfather’s Pizza executive and a 9-9-9 devotee.

Carson’s newness to Republican politics adds to his standing vis-à-vis a GOP field that is ideologically the same, mainly predictable and, in the case of several second-tier candidates, downright dull.

Today’s polls do not, and cannot, predict how the Republican electorate will vote in next year’s primaries and caucuses.

And that brings into play the old adage, “in politics, overnight is a lifetime.”

Carsonites, keep that in mind.


By: Colbert I. King, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, October 30, 2015

November 9, 2015 Posted by | Ben Carson, GOP Presidential Candidates, Herman Cain | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“So Much For Republican Rebranding”: The Mike Huckabee Boomlet Betrays The GOP’s Lack Of Seriousness

Since Mike Huckabee delivered his anti-contraception “Uncle Sugar” speech to the RNC two weeks ago, he has catapulted to the top of two GOP presidential primary polls.

Yes, that is what it takes to become the Republican frontrunner these days. Not innovative policy solutions. Not an impressive legislative record. No, what you need is to let loose a politically incorrect swipe at a liberal caricature, stir up a bunch of media outrage, and Republican primary voters will want to give you the nuclear codes.

The Republican Party is suffering record low favorability and struggling to be seen as capable of governing. And the Huckabee boomlet provides the latest evidence that the party’s rank-and-file are still allergic to seriousness.

With the first 2016 primary contests two years away, Republicans have already begun replicating the dynamic of the 2012 primaries. Last time around, primary voters fleetingly embraced anyone, regardless of their plausibility, so long as they tossed out fresh “cable catnip” to make liberal heads explode. Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum… The revolving door of unpresidential wingnuts reduced the Republican primary to a traveling circus, hamstringing eventual nominee Mitt Romney as he struggled to keep up in the pander parade.

Another circus is not what party poo-bahs have in mind. Indeed, they’re already moving to condense the primary schedule and wrest some control of the debates away from the media in hopes of dialing down the nuttiness.

Wipe the dust off of the RNC’s year-old “autopsy” of its 2012 debacle, and you’ll find a forgotten plan to “Promote Our Governors” because they “have campaigned and governed in a manner that is inclusive and appealing. They point the way forward … working successfully with their legislatures to enact meaningful changes in people’s lives.” In other words, the governors were supposed to be the ones with the ideas to make the party look serious again.

But over the course of 2013, the only governor that got widely promoted — or, more accurately, promoted himself — was New Jersey’s Chris Christie, and we know how that turned out. Other governors touted in the autopsy have had their own struggles, be it Virginia’s Bob McDonnell, who was recently indicted for corruption, Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal ,who flopped trying scrap his state’s income tax, or Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, who is polling below 50 percent in his re-election campaign this year.

There are other low-key Republican governors who are doing just fine. In particular, Nevada’s Brian Sandoval is hugely popular, and is a swing state Latino to boot. Unlike the controversial Walker, Sandoval doesn’t even have a serious opponent to his re-election this year. But he’s popular because he is governing pragmatically, implementing ObamaCare in good faith and forging budget compromises that raise some tax revenue. And so he is completely ignored by Republican primary voters.

The upshot is this: No Republican governor begins the race as a top-tier presidential candidate. No Republican governor’s ideas are reshaping and rebranding the party. And a joke candidate like Huckabee can waltz into the lead, however briefly, with a low-rent crack.

Why are Republicans insistent on setting themselves up for more mockery? Because conservative obsession with fighting political correctness clouds their political thinking, compelling them to repeatedly alienate the moderate voters they need to get back in the game.

Many conservative Republicans seem to believe that political correctness is such a societal scourge, silencing ideas and warping debate, that it must be fought at all costs — even at the cost of forgoing new ideas.

This is why RNC Chair Reince Priebus was engaging in folly last week when he dropped everything to demand MSNBC apologize for a tweet suggesting the “right wing” is racist (after the network had already apologized). He was scratching the Republicans’ politically incorrect itch, instead of finding the ointment.

Priebus can cram the primary schedule down to two weeks and turn every debate into an infomercial. But until he can clamp down on the victimhood and crank up the idea machine, 2016 will be another cacophonous GOP circus.


By: Bill Scher, The Week, February 4, 2014

February 5, 2014 Posted by | GOP Presidential Candidates, Mike Huckabee | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Please Proceed, Governor”: A Clear Win For Obama–He Punched Hard, And He Punched With Facts

Not a close call. President Obama won the second presidential debate as clearly and decisively as he lost the first. For anyone who disagrees, three simple words: “Please proceed, Governor.”

This icy invitation to Mitt Romney came amid an exchange about the killings of State Department officials in Libya. Obama noted that in his initial Rose Garden remarks, he classified the attack as an act of terror. Romney, perhaps misinformed by the right-wing propaganda machine, tried to insist that the president waited weeks to call the incident terrorism. “Get the transcript,” Obama said.

Moderator Candy Crowley stepped in and noted that Obama was correct. (Indeed, according to the transcript, Obama classified the attack as among “acts of terror” that would not deter or deflect U.S. foreign policy.) Having embarrassed himself, Romney had the good sense to move on.

It was a moment that encapsulated what Obama accomplished Tuesday night: He punched hard, and he punched with facts.

In these debates, superficialities can be important. Downcast and mopey in the first encounter, this time Obama was sharp and combative throughout. He went after Romney directly and personally; I lost track of the number of times Obama charged that some Romney assertion or another was flatly untrue. He quoted Romney’s past statements that directly contradict what Romney is saying now. All evening, he was in Romney’s face.

It’s not that Romney had an awful night and certainly not that he was some kind of shrinking violet. But in the first debate, Obama’s passivity allowed Romney to interrupt, interject and generally control the flow of the conversation in a way that seemed merely forceful, not obnoxious. Tuesday night, with Obama playing offense, Romney had to dial his own performance up a notch. At times he seemed a little cranky, a little flustered.

The town hall format — and Crowley’s firm hand — ensured that the debate covered quite a lot of ground. Obama got to fight on favorable political terrain. A question about equal pay for women, for example, allowed him to question Romney’s position on women’s reproductive rights and whether health insurance should have to pay for contraception. A question about immigration let Obama note that Romney has vowed to veto the Dream Act for those brought here without papers as children.

Allowing Obama to make direct appeals to women and Latinos was probably not in the Romney game plan.

Romney did get to make his pitch, however. He made clear that the central theme of his candidacy is a promise to create jobs. Given the state of the economy, it would be stunning if people didn’t at least give him a hearing.

“I understand that I can get this country on track again,” Romney said. “We don’t have to settle for what we’re going through. We don’t have to settle for gasoline at four bucks. We don’t have to settle for unemployment at a chronically high level. We don’t have to settle for 47 million people on food stamps. We don’t have to settle for 50 percent of kids coming out of college not able to get work. We don’t have to settle for 23 million people struggling to find a good job. If I become president, I’ll get America working again.”

Obama sought to demonstrate that Romney’s bold words are backed up by nonsensical policies. He wanted to make Romney sound more like a salesman than a statesman. We won’t know until new polls come in whether he succeeded.

But all in all, not Romney’s best outing. Responding to the final question, he said he cared for “100 percent of the American people.” He never should have opened that door, because it invited Obama to give his best speech of the evening:

“I believe Governor Romney is a good man. Loves his family, cares about his faith. But I also believe that when he said behind closed doors that 47 percent of the country considered themselves victims who refuse personal responsibility, think about who he was talking about.

“Folks on Social Security who’ve worked all their lives. Veterans who’ve sacrificed for this country. Students who are out there trying to hopefully advance their own dreams, but also this country’s dreams. Soldiers who are overseas fighting for us right now. People who are working hard every day, paying payroll tax, gas taxes, but don’t make enough income. And I want to fight for them.”

Romney won’t get to respond until the final debate on Monday. The tiebreaker.


By: Eugene Robinson, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, October 17, 2012

October 18, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“The L-Word Fits”: Whenever Truth, Integrity, And Honesty Are No More Than Collateral Damage

Officials with the Obama campaign have been a little less reluctant in recent weeks to accuse Mitt Romney and his campaign of “lying.” In each instance, folks like David Plouffe, David Axelrod, and even Stephanie Cutter just last night talking to Rachel, were referring to obvious falsehoods that the Republican campaign surely knew to be untrue.

Today, however, Daniel Henninger has a provocative piece in the Wall Street Journal today, raising concerns about the “sleazy political pedigree” of “the L-word.”

The Obama campaign’s resurrection of “liar” as a political tool is odious because it has such a repellent pedigree. It dates to the sleazy world of fascist and totalitarian propaganda in the 1930s. It was part of the milieu of stooges, show trials and dupes. These were people willing to say anything to defeat their opposition. Denouncing people as liars was at the center of it. The idea was never to elevate political debate but to debauch it.

The purpose of calling someone a liar then was not merely to refute their ideas or arguments. It was to nullify them, to eliminate them from participation in politics…. This Obama campaign is saying, We don’t want to compete with Mitt Romney. We want to obliterate him.

Henninger goes on to blame Paul Krugman’s influence on the discourse, at least in part, for the unsettling turn of events.

It’s worth noting that Henninger’s piece is a little over the top. OK, more than a little. I’ll gladly concede that “the L-word” is harsh, and isn’t too common at the presidential level, but those who haven’t heard it used in national politics since “fascist and totalitarian propaganda in the 1930s” need to get out more.

For that matter, Team Obama has begun using the word more, not to “obliterate” Romney or “eliminate” him from political participation, but for more mundane reasons — they see Romney lying, repeatedly, and have decided to call him on it.

Media professionals watching the campaign have a choice: they can either (a) be outraged by a candidate basing much of his campaign on ugly, demonstrable falsehoods; or (b) be offended by a rival campaign calling lies “lies.” Henninger prefers the latter; I think that’s backwards.

Indeed, what I’d encourage observers to consider is the larger system of incentives. Imagine you’re a candidate desperate to win, and you’re prepared to do just about anything to advance your ambitions. You’ve decided the truth, integrity, and honesty are little more than collateral damage — the ends justify the means.

You’ve also noticed that lying is easy to get away with, since the political establishment deems “the L-word” too harsh for polite discourse. You can repeat obvious falsehoods, but the media will be expected to stick to “he said, she said” reporting, and your opponents will be asked to stick to contemporary norms, steering clear of accusations that seem shrill.

Under this scenario, what incentives are there? If a candidate doesn’t respect the electorate enough to be honest, and he or she cares more about votes than character, what’s to stop that candidate from lying constantly?

The problem here isn’t the Obama campaign’s use of a word Daniel Henninger finds “unsettling”; the problem here is Mitt’s Mendacity.


By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, October 11, 2012

October 12, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Danger Will Romney, Danger”: Mitt Versus The People And The Unpredictable Moment

There’s no question that Mitt Romney did very well in his first debate with Barack Obama. Indeed, it couldn’t have gone much better, so much so that almost any performance in their meeting next week will seem like a let-down. But the second debate poses real dangers for Romney, and an opportunity for Obama to wipe away the memory of his poor performance in the first. Next week’s will be a “town hall”-style debate, and that format plays right into Romney’s weaknesses. The town hall debate will be challenging for Romney for two reasons, both of which have to do with the fact that it will feature not journalists or a moderator asking questions, but ordinary people.

Before I explain why, let’s take a look at what town hall debates involve and how they have played out in the past. The first of these events took place in 1992, and it was a welcome change from prior debates in which a panel of journalists did their best to come up with “gotcha” questions to trip up the candidates. A group of undecided voters was assembled to ask the candidates questions, and it was quickly apparent that these voters had a different set of priorities. They asked about a wider variety of issues than one typically finds in a debate, and avoided the kind of poll-based, strategy-obsessed questions journalists so often ask (“Why aren’t you having more success connecting with voters?”). The most memorable moment of the debate highlighted a novel characteristic of the town hall debate: that viewers were seeing candidates not only talk about policy, but interact with voters. When George H.W. Bush struggled (perhaps understandably) to answer a question a woman posed about how the national debt had personally affected him, he looked defensive and disconnected; when it came his turn to respond, Bill Clinton walked over to the woman, locked eyes with her, and said, “Tell me how it’s affected you again? You know people who have lost their jobs, lost their homes?” He felt her pain, and it was the interaction between him and her that made an impression, more than the substance of what he said.

Each presidential election since has featured one town hall debate. Instead of standing behind a podium, the candidates perch on stools, then get up and walk around as they answer questions. Unlike in some similar debates during the primaries, the assembled undecided voters are close to them, close enough that camera shots will contain both the candidate and the voter he’s speaking to. That creates a much more personal dynamic than the quasi-town hall debates that took place during the primaries, which featured people sitting far away in the audience of a theater and the candidates on stage. You can’t dodge a voter’s question or interrupt them, and you’ll be judged in no small part on whether you seem to have persuaded that one individual. This dynamic upended Bush in 1992; the question about the national debt was one he obviously hadn’t prepared for, but Clinton understood intuitively how to handle it. And that is what makes the town hall debate a threat to Mitt Romney: it’s unpredictable, both in what will be discussed and how it will be discussed.

As James Fallows explained in The Atlantic before the debates began, Romney assiduously prepares for debates, and as long as the questions that arise are those he has practiced answers for, he performs extremely well. “No one I spoke with,” Fallows wrote, “challenged the view that Romney well prepared is a debater who can do real damage. All his team has to do is anticipate every subject that might possibly come up.” In the first debate that was easy. Beforehand, both sides were informed of the agenda, that the debate would center on the economy, with a detour into health care and the rather vague topic of “governing.” There were no curveballs, nothing unexpected, and everything Romney said was most likely an answer he had rehearsed dozens of times. But in the town hall debate, voters could ask about anything, including any of the important issues that haven’t come up at all during the campaign. There might be a question about climate change, or the War on Drugs, or the drone war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, or gun violence, or something no one has considered. Some questions will be abstract, but others may be intensely personal—voters in town hall debates have often posed questions in terms of their own lives—and Romney will have to show that he cares not just about “the middle class” or “the 100 percent,” but about that specific individual he’s looking at. And as we know, it’s when he interacts with voters that Romney is prone to looking awkward and uncomfortable and saying things that come back to haunt him.

It’s entirely possible, of course, that Romney will do just fine. The questions might stay on familiar ground, and Romney’s preparation for this debate could serve him as well as it did in the first one. As Politico reported about the first debate, “The more likable version of Romney was no accident—he worked hours on his smile, his posture and the delivery of his words.” Now Romney is no doubt practicing his empathy in his mock debates, interacting with campaign staffers standing in for the regular people he’ll encounter at the town hall debate.

And what about Obama? I went back and watched the 2008 town hall debate between Obama and John McCain, and the contrast between the two men was vivid. Unlike in last week’s debate, Obama was smooth, assured, and engaged. McCain, on the other hand, seemed perturbed and uncomfortable. There was a stark physical contrast between the two men: Obama glided easily from one questioner to another, and did a terrific job of focusing on the person who asked each question, keeping his attention on them and explaining his positions in a way that was substantive but still plain-spoken. McCain would start with the questioner, but then pace around the stage awkwardly as though he couldn’t decide where to stand or whom to look at.

There are some things we can confidently predict about the town hall debate. Obama will almost certainly arrive more awake and aggressive than he was in the first debate. When Romney gets a question he has anticipated, he will deliver a confident, well-rehearsed response. But it’s the unpredictable moment—the oddly phrased question, the out-of-left-field topic, the voter’s personal story—that will likely define the debate. And that could be Romney’s real test.


By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, October 8, 2012

October 9, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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