Friday, September 30, 2011

No Longer Loveable, the White House Presents a Fiesty Candidate

Republicans waited and they waited for Sarah Palin, but all she is is a tease. They tried Michelle Bachmann, and she had the day in the sun (or on Newsweek's cover). They tried Rick Perry, and he had his day in the polls until his debate performances revealed certain holes (he would say "heart") in his conservative armor. And now people are asking if Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey might be the last ("portly") standing man between Romney and the Republican presidential nomination.

All of this is good news for Romney, but mixed news for the Republican party. He is the Prince of Wales now -- the runner-up to the nomination in the last contest, and presumptive front-runner for the next. But like Prince Charles, he is barely likeable, and the Republican has gone around the country desperately looking for a candidate with the X-factor that would enthuse them the way Obama enthused Democrats in 2008.

The difference between 2008 and 2012 is that people were crazy about Obama. Democrats couldn't wait to get Bush of the White House, to be sure. But they loved Obama. He even gave Chris Matthew a tingle up his legs.

The one thing that unites the Republican and the Tea party is their intense hatred of Obama and Obamacare - some would say, the same thing, under the banner of "socialism." This is certainly a potent political force, and it will get the voters out next November. But what is curious is that this negative affect does not translate to any equivalent positive affect on any of the candidates in the field now. Ron Paul has won a few straw polls here and there, but his anti-war position disqualifies from the get-go. Perry's position on immigration is now earning him heckles on the stump. And if Chris Christie jumps in the race, it is unlikely that he will get a pass on his moderate positions on immigration and gun control.

Enter Barack Obama's campaign, jump-started very recently with a new sense of purpose and fury, ready to rumble. Obama will never be loved as he had been loved before -- the campaign gurus must know that by now. But, if there is one thing that will resuscitate the Progressive vote, it is that they want someone who would stand up to the Tea Party ranting, to deal a fist to their fury. The White House hopes that this might just be enough to overcome the forbidding reality that a bad economy always works against an incumbent president up for re-election. With no love on either side for their respective candidates, the next election is shaping up to be a slugfest between the Obama-haters and the Tea-party haters. We are en route to a very negative campaign in 2012.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Perry v. Romney

The two front-runners in the Republican nomination contest, Rick Perry and Mitt Romney, narrowed the distance between them in the last debate in Florida sponsored by Fox and Google. This is a debate that showcased both their Achilles’ heels.

Perry's problem is not the "ponzi scheme" comment about Social Security. Most conservatives agree with him, and the consistent conservative would actually agree with him that Social Security is a matter that should be sent back to the states to handle. Perry's problem is his record and position on immigration -- this is the weak spot in his armor that the other candidates will jump on in the days to come. What Perry should have said during the debate is that it is a state's prerogative to decide on what counts as legal residency in a state and the benefits, such as an in-state tuition subsidy, that accrue to it; and then follow up to say that as a national policy, he would respect the country's majority's opinion against any "magnet" policy that could encourage illegal immigration. What Perry should not have done, was wax poetic about children of illegal immigrants who did nothing wrong because this runs consistent with the charge that if his heart is soft for the children of illegals in Texas, it would be equally soft when it comes to national immigration policy. Oops.

All this then is also to say that Perry isn't as quick on his feet as he needs to be. When Chris Wallace asked Michelle Bachmann if she stood by her comments that the HPV vaccine causing "mental retardation," she made a politician's pivot and attacked Perry for his executive order which would have mandated the use of the vaccine on Texas children. What Perry should have done was not to accept the redirected premise of Bachmann's charge, but to direct Chris Wallace's fire back at her. Perry certainly knows how to attack -- he did some of that when he accused Romney of flip-flopping -- but he does not (yet) know how to direct his fire when under fire.

Romney's problem is that he isn't sure of himself. People say he is slick and he is opportunistic -- and that is correct. But the reason why is that he lacks a solid sense of his core identity, a certain confidence that allows the best politicians to be able to change their public personas at will and according to circumstance -- most ignominiously like Bill Clinton -- and still know what they truly believe in their heart of hearts. Romney, unlike Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, does not have a heart of hearts. And that is why when he pretends, as all politicians sometimes must, it is painfully obvious. That is why he appears like a shell of a person to the Tea Partiers who want are looking for a live, throbbing, indignant champion who can take on Obama without flinching. This would be his Achilles’ heel.

Looking ahead, it is unlikely that Romney will find himself in the next couple of months, but it is unlikely that Perry would learn to be become a much better candidate in time for the start of the primary season early next year. In the end, Republican primary voters will have to choose between a better but inauthentic candidate as Romney is and a clumsier but more authentic Perry.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Nation Divided, A President Chastened

On 9/11 each year, the media reenacts the trauma the American people experienced in 2001. Images already burnished in our minds are replayed. Memorials services are held, moments of silence are observed, and the national anthem is sung. National myth-making occurs at the very site where national disaster occurs, so that a new birth of freedom rises phoenix-like from the ashes of ruin.

Or so it seems. What is poignant about the memorial services this year is that they are occurring against a backdrop of a nation so divided that the unity and fellow-feeling that the media is drumming up on 9/11 appears almost to be a parody of reality. The moment of silence we observe on 9/11 would not last a day, especially on cable television. Just a week before, we heard a presidential candidate repeat his characterization of Social Security as a "ponzi scheme" in a nationally televised debate, followed by a didactic presidential speech to a joint session of congress where some members did not deign to attend.

Osama Bin Laden is dead, and the Arab Spring has arrived; but America is still reeling from three summers of discontent. The juxtaposition of a relative national consensus on foreign policy and a national dissensus on domestic policy reveal that Americans love their nation, but they also hate their state. This is the paradox that Barack Obama's message of hope and change in 2008 tried to defuse; yet it has been the cold reality doused on his domestic agenda from this first day in office. If Barack Obama electrified a nation and rose to prominence when he declared that we are neither the red states of America nor the blue states of America; he has come full circle to the reality that we are still, if not even more so than before, both. Worse still, he must take some responsibility for the outcome.

In no other area has Obama done more harm to his credibility with the political Right than in the perception that he has broken the first commandment of fiscal conservatism: that government should do no harm; but the national debt is the surest proof that it has. Where there was once hope, many now look back and see hubris in the bank bailouts, the stimulus spending, and "clash for clunkers."

Fourteen months from the next election, it has dawned on his team that even Obama, Camelot incarnate, cannot reconcile Americans' patriotism and our deep distrust of the federal government. If it is now a foregone conclusion that there is going to be a huge enthusiasm gap between supporters of the Republican nominee and Obama groupies in 2012, then the president's best bet is to do no more harm. If the economy is not likely to rebound anytime soon, there is little point picking yet another fight with small chances of victory, and even fewer guarantees of economic consequence. Obama's jobs speech to Congress last week, then, was a fiery opening volley intended to disguise the new campaign logic for 2012: slow and steady wins the race. No more big ideas, just tried and tested formulas. 

The day has come when even the USPS is no longer spared the vilification due to another perceived beneficiary of federal largesse. In such a day, Rick Perry has burst into the national scene, ready to take on the paradox that Americans are patriotic and anti-statist. Obama has lost the credibility needed to reconcile the tension in that paradox, so his best bet is to lie low, and hope for a Republican nominee to propose something crazier than Obamacare.