Monday, December 17, 2012

On the Second Amendment: Should We Fear Government or Ourselves?

The tragic shootings in Newtown, CT, have plunged the nation into the foundational debate of American politics.

Over at Foxnews, the focus as been on mourning, and the tragedy of what happened. As far as the search for solutions go, the focus has been on how to cope, what to say to children, and what to do about better mental health screening. It is consistent with the conservative view that when bad things happen, they happen because of errant individuals, not flawed societies. The focus on mourning indicates the view that when bad things happen, they are the inevitable costs of liberty.

At MSNBC, the focus has been on tragedy as a wake up call, not a thing in itself to simply mourn; on finding legislative and governmental solutions -- gun control. This is consistent with the liberal view that when bad things happen, they happen because of flawed societies, not just the result of errant individuals or evil as an abstract entity.

The question of which side is right is an imponderable. Conservatives believe that in the end, our vigilance against tyrannical government is our first civic duty. This, in the end, was the logic behind the Second Amendment. It comes form a long line of Radical Whig thinking that the Anti-Federalists inherited. That is why Second Amendment purists can reasonably argue that citizens should continue to have access to (even) semi-automatic guns. They will say that the Second Amendment is not just for hunting; it is for liberty against national armies. Liberals, on the other hand, believe that a government duly constituted by the people need not fear government; and it is citizen-on-citizen violence that we ought to try to prevent. This line of thinking began with Hobbes, who had theorized that we lay down our arms against each other, so that one amongst us alone wields the sword. Later, we called this sovereign the state. The Federalists leaned in this tradition.

Should we fear government more or fellow citizens who have access to guns? Should government or citizens enjoy the presumption of virtue? Who knows. There is no answer on earth that would permanently satisfy both political sides in America, because conservatives believe that most citizens most of the time are virtuous, and there is no need to take a legislative sledgehammer to restrict the liberty of a few errant individuals at the expanse of everybody else. Liberals, conversely, believe that government and regulatory activity are virtuous and necessary most of the time, and there is little practical cost to most citizens to restrict a liberty (to bear arms) that is rarely, if ever, invoked. Put another way: conservatives focus on the vertical dimension of tyranny; liberals fear most the horizontal effects of mutual self-destruction.

What is a President to do? It depends on which side of the debate he stands. Barack Obama believes that the danger we pose to ourselves exceeds the danger of tyrannical government (for which a right to bear arms was originally codified.) The winds of public opinion may be swaying in his direction, and Obama appeared to be ready to mould it when he asked: "Are we really prepared to say that we are powerless in the face of such carnage?"

Here is one neo-Federalist argument that Obama can use, should he take on modern Anti-Federalists. If the Constitution truly were of the people, then it is self-contradictory to speak of vigilance against it. In other words, the Second Amendment is anachronistic. It was written in an era of monarchy, as a bulwark against Kings. To those who claim to be constitutional conservatives, Obama may reasonably ask: either the federal government is not sanctioned by We the People, and therefore we must forever be jealous of it; or, the federal government represents the People and we need not treat it as a distant potentate and overstate our fear of it.

If this is to be the age of renewed faith in government, as it appears to be Obama's mission, then the President will be more likely to convince Americans to lay down our arms; he will persuade us that our vigilance against government by the people is counter-prouctive and anachronistic. But, to move "forward," he must first convince the NRA and its ideological compatriots that we can trust our government. Only the greatest of American presidents have succeeded in this most herculean of tasks, for our attachment to the spirit of '76 cannot be understated.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Case Against Marriage

The following is a transcript of the speech I gave at Wes Thinks Big on Dec 4, 2012 at Memorial Chapel, Middletown, CT.

As we look to the future, it is only a matter of time that same-sex marriage will become the law of the land. The question is not whether, but when. Yet past this horizon a new one awaits. Advocates for same-sex marriage argue, correctly, that the civil privileges that the state grants to straight couples should not be held back for gay couples. Everyone agrees there. Yet not many advocates of gay marriage consider that if an existing institution, in this case, marriage, is unjust and flawed – there is another reform possibility. We can just abolish it. As crazy as this may sound, let me make a case for it today.

The problem begins precisely because the case for same-sex marriage is iron tight. Proponents of same-sex marriage have argued, I think correctly, that if two consenting adults choose to have a relationship with one another, that should be that, and the state has no business withholding the status of marriage to these two individuals. Usually, a secondary argument is presented alongside this primary argument, namely, that no one is harmed in this consensual relationship. Ergo, same-sex marriage should be legal. Remember these two arguments: A. consent, and B. no harm done.

The problem is that one can imagine many types of relationships that satisfy both these arguments, not just same-sex relationships. Arguments A and B appear to be over-inclusive. Social conservatives are right on this front. Let me demonstrate this with two examples.

Consider the case for incestuous same-sex marriage. Let's call this twincest. Wouldn’t both the primary, and the secondary reasons I have just presented for same-sex marriage apply to justify legalization of incestuous same-sex marriage? As long as there are A. two consenting adults, and B. as long as there are no negative procreative consequences, I see no reason to deny marriage to a pair of sisters or brothers.

What argument can we adduce to separate same-sex marriage from twincest. To make the former admissible, but the latter inadmissible? Let me right off the bat throw out the argument from procreation, since neither pairing is procreative. Let me suggest that the only remaining reason one can adduce for separating same sex marriage and twincest is an emotional reason: i.e. C. disgust or moral indignation. Same sex marriage doesn’t repulse us, incest does. Not so fast. This won’t work either, since revulsion or moral indignation is exactly the sentiment shared by opponents of same-sex marriage. If advocates for same-sex marriage want to deny incestuous marriage on the basis of moral indignation, they can hardly offer a reply to those who think that same-sex marriage is morally repugnant. This is the problem of legislating morality – one man’s virtue is another man’s vice.

Let me present a second example that highlights the same problem. Plural marriage. We want to say yes to same-sex marriage, but no to plural marriage. Plural marriage can come in the form of polygyny (one man many women) or polyandry (one woman many men.) Now, I will not recommend polygyny, that is marriage between several women and one man, since there are legitimate issues of gender inequality that such an arrangement implicates. It fails argument B. But I propose polyandry, that is marriage between one woman with several men. Again, the same reasons that permit same-sex marriage would also appear to legitimate polyandry. As long as A. consulting adults engage in activity in which B. they do no harm, they should be permitted to proceed as they please. Now, if you counter-argue that society will crumble, remember that this was the same reason that opponents of same-sex marriage had used years ago. As in the case of twincest, we have failed to find a reason to permit same-sex marriage, but disallow another type of relationship, in this case, polyandry.

Where do we go from here? I suggest that the reason why we cannot find a rule for permitting same-sex marriage but not twincest or polyandry is that the whole institution is arbitrary. There are no good answers because we haven’t asked the right question. And the question is: what reason could the state possibly have to elevate and privilege one type of human relationship over others? I can think of no reason. It is not that we haven’t found the elusive discriminatory criteria that would allow one relationship but not the other. It is that we cannot. My point is that neither we, nor the state, should be in the business of selectively endorsing and sanctifying one type of human relationship over another.

What the debate over same-sex marriage is going to do is to draw us to this inevitable conclusion. Once we realize that our reasons for establishing a cut-off point to a law or institution is arbitrary, the law or the institution must unravel. When it comes to traditional marriage, our society has defended an arbitrary cut-off point, determining for the longest time that marriage should only be limited to one man and one woman, bestowing the privileges and attendants benefits to those in such a relationship. The point I am trying to make is that shifting the cut-off point, as we are attempting to do today, draws attention to the arbitrariness of where we have historically set the cut-off point, and highlights the arbitrariness of our new cut-off point.

So I’ve used two apparently odious examples but I don’t need them to make the same point about the boundaries of state regulatory activity of which marriage laws is only a subset: the state should not have the authority, ever, to sanction and elevate particular conceptions of the good life over others. We already acknowledge this principle generally, outside of the realm of intimate relations, in the principle of liberal neutrality. For example, should I choose to spend the rest of my life watching endless reruns of Family Guy trying to determine the proper pronunciation of “cool whip,” I should be free to do so, without fear that the law will penalize me for what would appear to be a waste of my time.

Even though my argument appears controversial, I think most of you already implicitly agree with me. There are a whole host of other equally important and gratifying relationships that marriage laws today do not endorse. The sexual love between a man and a man, the platonic affection between a man and a woman, the bond between a man and his dog, the friendship between a girl and her grandmother. Don’t we all get a little miffed when our best friend finds a new girlfriend and they fall off the face of the earth (until they break up)? Who’s to say that these other types of relationships do not deserve public sanction, or at least a title equal to the privileged status of those who are traditionally married?  Indeed these relationships can also go under or beyond two persons. Consider self-love, Narcissus’s love for himself. Who’s to say someone who chooses to remain single has chosen a lesser path? Or, we can go up in numbers for more complex kinds of relationships: kinships in extended families, membership in fraternal organizations can be as rewarding as monogamous long-term relationships between two people. All of these relationships produce human flourishing. Yet I ask: why is it that we place the romantic, oftentimes sexual relationship between two people (homosexual or heterosexual) on a pedestal above all others? There has got to be a reason if we are to keep the institution of marriage. The state should only act when there are plausible, publicly defensible reasons. Institutions should exist only if the state can articulate reasons for their existence. Tradition or the warm feeling of romance isn’t enough, precisely because we have already chosen to unravel the traditional meaning of marriage in our support for same-sex marriage. (And by the way, Plato privileged platonic love over sexual love, so whatever I’m saying isn’t really new.)

I am not seeking to invalidate the choices of those who are already married. If you want to get into a long term monogamous and romantic relationship, go for it. But do not assume that this relationship is more deserving of state sanction than a host of other important intimate, caregiving relationships. Don’t do it because you want a public badge of honor. Do it in spite of the institution of marriage, not because of it. You will be perceived as weird, even Wesleyan weird, but you will be right.

Those who are trying to do the good work to modernize marriage need to consider the other possibility of reform and challenge the assumption that the institution itself is worth saving. By all means fight for equality. But don’t just fight for gays and lesbians. Fight for everyone, fight for anyone who wishes to live by an unconventional standard of love.

Let me conclude. If you think about it, marriage appears to do the exact opposite of that which it has traditionally been supposed to do. Marriage doesn’t encourage love; it restrains it. With the infinite variety of human interactions, is there really a need for the state to establish the gold standard of human relationships? (If liberty requires that we should each be free to love as we please, equality demands that the state remains neutral as to whom and how we love, or indeed, whether or not we love at all.) Marriage purports to be an institution that celebrates love; yet history shows us that marriage has served only to control and restrain the possibilities of human love. Civil marriage, however defined, will always and arbitrarily confer social meaning and hierarchies. Perhaps we should simply abolish it.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Era of Partisan Polling

It is tempting now that the election returns are in for us to want to plow forward and forget the spectacular silliness we just traversed. But before we move on, it is critical that we call out those who had predicted a huge Romney victory, among them Dick MorrisMichael Barone, and Karl Rove. Ours is the era of partisan polling, and it is intellectually dishonest and bad for democracy. When Karl Rove held out in disbelief that his predictions were entirely off on Foxnews last night, and Megyn Kelley had to make the awkward walk backstage to the Decision Desk to "verify" their decision, it became abundantly clear that wishful thinking cannot be a substitute for objective reasoning.

This was madness the electorate should not have had to bear. The election was never as close as many had suggested. Barack Obama was ahead in the electoral college most of the last year, and there was never a moment when he possessed less paths to victory than did Romney.  Rove cashed in all his credibility from his previous predictions by cooking up a cockamamie story about how all the polls were wrong because they assume a 2008 turnout rate and demographic. However, one of two candidates remained the same between 2008 and 2012 -- this basic logic of historical induction was enough to convince most posters that 2008 was a useful baseline to make predictions.  And they were right. If anything, pollsters had underestimated the turnout and size of the latino vote.

Then we had the claims about how Barack Obama was underperforming in early voting returns. Well, he won by 53 percent last time. He had 3 percentage points to play with! Denial is one thing, reporting wishful thinking in the name of fairness and balance is another.

Piercing through this wishful thinking is a necessary epistemological step Republicans must take before they even begin to soul-search and rebuild the party. We all make the assumption, often wrongly, that everyone thinks like us. But to operate in the world we must constantly check this instinct, surveying the alternative data and opinions around us. A personal intuition is not a collective summation. Yet already, some Tea Partiers are doubling down on their insistence that the Republicans should have picked a more orthodox candidate. Fortunately, there are voices of reason amidst them.

Obama has won a second term, with an electoral college victory larger than both of the ones his predecessor earned. Obamacare will not be repealed and it will be implemented, and so "greatness" is now within Obama's reach. He has shown that he is not shy about taking on big problems. The national debt and immigration reform are two of them. "Tonight, you voted for action, not politics as usual," Obama said on election night. He will be true to his word, though not everyone will like his actions.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

A Second Term for Obama?

So it looks like Obama is going to win a second term. It doesn't look like Romney is going to take Ohio, and his backup plan, Pennsylvania, doesn't look like it would pan out either.

After all the campaigning and all the ads and over a billion dollars spent, the partisan balance in Washington will likely remain exactly the same. The  House will remain Republican, the Senate will remain Democratic, and the White House will most likely remain Democratic.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Who did Sandy Help?

Everything is political at this time of the electoral calendar, so there is no use pretending that Hurricane Sandy will not have an effect on the presidential race.

President Obama has been given a new life line. Forced to take politics out of his campaign, he can take a break from defending his record for two days. When an incumbent president is forced by emergency events to stop talking politics, he always enjoys the glow emanating form the Oval Office. This is especially so for a candidate who appears, to some undecided voters, to have lost his luster from 2008, so campaigning has limited marginal returns for him anyway. It's a difficult balancing act for an incumbent president campaigning to keep his job, because he must both be president and a politician. For two days, Barack Obama can be the latter by being the former.

If any candidate was enjoying any momentum in this last week of the campaign, it was probably Romney; and the news stories about Sandy has put a pause on that. Romney was out today collecting canned food and donations, and he will benefit from the humanizing pictures of his campaign's outreach. However, the challenger always does better when he can be in unfettered, attack mode.

This leaves us with two days before the weekend before Election Day, when voters will weigh the closing arguments of both campaigns. The Republicans have been successfully pushing a narrative of chaos, uncertainty, and an America in decline -- this has hurt the president's numbers. The critical question for the next two days is if the Romney campaign can congeal this declension narrative with the post-Sandy chaos. This is a high-risk thing to attempt - not least because Governor Chris Christie has praised Barack Obama's handling of this crisis and declared it out of bounds.

The Obama campaign also has an opportunity here. Americans have a love-hate relationship with the welfare state, but in war and emergency situations, most embrace the federal government without reservation. The Obama campaign will likely recognize an opportunity here to showcase what the government can do for us, when individuals and states are incapacitated by acts of God.

One thing we do not yet know, however, is how Sandy may have affected early voting in Ohio. Obama has been up in almost every poll in the last month in Michigan (16), Nevada (6), Pennsylvania (20), and Wisconsin (10), which gives Obama 252 electoral college votes. If he wins Ohio's 18, he wins, that is why Sandy's impact matters. (If he wins Florida, he also wins.)

Assuming that Romney takes Colorado (9), North Carolina (15), Virginia (13), and Florida (29), he will have 257 votes in the electoral college. If he takes New Hampshire (4) and/or Iowa (6) he still needs to peel one of the industrial mid-west states to his column. But if Romney takes Ohio, he wins. That is why there is a tremendous spin war going on about who is winning the early vote in Ohio.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

With Final Debate Over, Ground Game Intensifies

Mitt Romney barely passed the bar on Monday night's debate. He was tentative and guarded, not just because he was being strategic, but because he wasn't, understandably, in command of the facts of foreign policy as a sitting president would be. Barack Obama "won" the debate, but it will have minimal impact on altering the fundamental dynamics of the race.

A number of polls now find Romney's momentum continuing at the national level. Romney's team has been playing a national strategy because he needs to swing nearly all the battleground states in his direction, whereas Obama has played a state-by-state strategy because he has a couple of paths to 270. The upshot of this is that Romney is intensifying his lead at the national level, but this movement at the aggregate level has not translated as well to the battleground states. Most importantly, Obama still leads by a razor's edge in Ohio.

The Obama campaign is making a bet: that in these last two weeks, it is the ground game that matters most, because there are more registered Democrats than they are registered Republicans, and the key for Obama is turnout, not ideological conversion (as it has been for Romney). This is why Obama leads in field offices in key battleground states. Both campaigns acknowledge that the Democrats will dominate in this ground game.

And so, in this final stretch, it will be two great partisan armies getting the vote out in the battleground states that will determine the final outcome. The artificial high that Obama was riding through the summer, as Mitt Romney was still battling his compatriots during the primaries, was vitiated as soon as Romney took the national stage and glided back to the ideological center. On the other hand, whatever momentum Romney has today will not easily pierce the Democratic firewall in Michigan and Pennsylvania.

This means that silly season in American elections is in full swing. To get the vote, both sides must claim that Armageddon would arrive if one or the other candidate wins. Scare tactics, mud-slinging, and even a Donald Trump surprise are intended to rile people up and get them to the ballot box, or make them so disillusioned that they fail to turn out for their candidate. It is a quadrennial irony we face that everything that is wrong about American democracy is on full, unvarnished display at the same time that citizens prepare to perform one of their greatest acts in a democracy. The good news is this will all be over in two weeks.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

On the Second Presidential Debate

The second presidential debate tells us about the candidates' readings of their own campaigns. Both Romney and Obama were fighting for air time, trying to break out of the impasse of "he-said-she-said."

Women were mentioned about 30 times in the debate, because Romney knew that he had to close the gender hap. Obama joined in on the China bashing, because Romney has started to gain traction with workers in Ohio with his attacks on China's trade violations.

Obama knew that he had to deflate the Libya story, so he took full responsibility for what happened in Benghazi, even though Secretary Clinton had given him an out. Obama's taking offense at Romney's charges would not have gained him any Republican converts, but they are likely to have a net positive impact on undecided voters, who are usually willing to give the benefit of the doubt to the Commander-in-Chief, because nobody has access to intelligence information the way the president does. The good news for Obama is that the next debate, on foreign policy, will shield him from his weakest link, the economy.

Where Romney will continue to have the benefit of the doubt is his proposed handling of the economy. His strongest moment in the second debate was when he pulled up statistics on the number of people unemployed, on food stamps, the size of the national debt, etc. This was Republican version of Bill Clinton's "arithmetic" speech. Obama tried to characterize Romney's economic plan as a "sketchy deal." The problem is that he doesn't exactly start off with a whole lot of credibility.

Emboldened by his last debate performance, Romney might have been too enthusiastic in the second debate. At times, he may have been snarkier than he should have been. Undecided voters, who already don't like negativity, would not have liked Romney's smack-down of Obama. ("That wasn't a question; that was a statement.")

Overall, Obama did much better in this debate than in the last, but he did not do enough to make up the ground he lost, in part because of the town hall format. A victory when a candidate is standing beside his opponent and sparring with him directly is more compelling than a (possible) victory when both are directing their comments to a small group of voters. The town hall format is just less interesting to watch, and I won't be surprised that audiences were bored and were channel surfing during the second debate.

As far as the horse race goes, Obama still has more paths to 270. Romney is looking good in Florida, but Obama leads in Virginia and Ohio. The Romney team knows that their campaign needs to put Pennsylvania, Michigan, or Wisconsin in play in case they lose Ohio. Watch for a re-nationalized campaign strategy from Team Romney if they see movement in these previously leaning-Democrat states.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Looking Ahead to the Second Debate

Paul Ryan did a good job at the vice-presidential debate; but Joe Biden did a little better. Biden came off condescending in the initial part of the debate with his laughter, but he mellowed out toward the end. He was aided in part by the fact that Martha Raddatz, the moderator, was somewhat tougher on Ryan than on Biden.

Ryan's best line was his rebuttal to Biden's discussion of Romney's "47 percent remark," when he noted that Biden has had his own foot-in-mouth moments. Biden's best moment during the debate was when he informed the audience that the Congressman had sent him two letters asking for federal aid to stimulate job growth in Wisconsin. Ouch on both counts.

But this debate did not change the dynamics of the race. Independents care more about the top of the ticket, so Obama will still have to come back swinging in the next presidential debate if he wants to regain the lead he had two weeks ago.

The Romney bump from the first debate comes from one thing more than any other: it was the first time since the primaries that he had the freedom to come back to the political center. Before, he was hemmed in and awkward because he was trying to out-flank his competitors on the right. Now, by moving back to the center, Romney was able to tap into the reserve of undecided voters, while his critics on the right have no choice but to bite their tongue when they watch him take new positions, such as accepting parts of Obamacare, because they would rather Romney wins than Obama.

Knowing this, the best way forward for Obama on Tuesday is to draw out the Romney from the primaries. He will try to remind Americans of the Romney who was polling so poorly most of summer while the Obama team was bombarding the airwaves trying to define Romney as the guy with the offshore bank accounts who doesn't quite get middle America. To remind voters of himself back in 2008, Obama needs to recall the language of community, mutual obligations, and the promise of "a more perfect Union."

Obama should also be prepared to answer questions about the security situation at Benghazi. The best defense is an offense for him. Even if the administration had beefed up security in Benghazi -- and most of the requests were for extending the tours of security guards in Tripoli, 400 miles away -- there is no evidence to think that the embassy assault on Sep 11 could have been prevented or repelled.

Polls seem to indicate that the Romney bump from the last debate has tapered out. Both candidates will have to fight harder every day, as the number of persuadable voters decline as we approach November 6. After the second presidential debate, the ground game (as opposed to the air war) is going to become increasingly important -- and here is where Romney could be at a disadvantage, which is why he needs to ace this debate more than Obama.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Obama Out of Practice for First Debate

President Obama had a bad night. The key to succeeding in a presidential debate is recognizing that it is not a parliamentary debate. The rules, the moderator, and even the immediate audience (since they are not permitted to applaud) do not matter. Instead, candidates should bare their souls to the camera lenses. There, magic is made.

Like a legislator used to addressing the president of the chamber and not the audience, Obama was too formal last night. Obama was looking down on his notes too often when Romney was speaking. Silent moments matter too -- because candidates can still connect with the audience with their eyes. Even when he was not looking down, Obama was looking at Jim Lehrer rather than at the camera most of the time.

Obama's advisors must have, rightly, warned Obama not to lose his presidential poise. But they forgot to add that in a two-person setup, a basic modicum of aggressiveness was required. Given that Obama's countenance is naturally already cool, he would have benefitted from a reminder that he's back on the campaign trail, president or not. Advisors should tailor-make advice for their candidate. Next round, they should tell Obama to forget that he is president. He should look into the camera at every moment, when he is talking and when he is silent, pleading for the vote. Obama should also keep an internal clock, knowing that Jim Lehrer did him no favors last debate by allowing him to ramble longer than the pre-allotted two-minute segments.

Obama tried too hard to take Romney to task on the specific numbers of his tax plan. But there are no scorers in presidential debates. It doesn't actually matter who won the logical argument; but it does matter who passed the plausibility threshold. Mitt Romney did last night. He kept repeating the $716 billion cut from Medicare and in American politics, saying it is so, makes it so. Nobody cares about what the fact-checkers are saying today. Or about Dodd-Frank or Simpson-Bowles. Or whether rebuttals come the day after. Over 10 million tweets were shared as the debate proceeded last night, many about Big Bird, and most declaring Romney victorious.

Obama's biggest missed opportunity was on the discussion about the role of the federal government, when Obama normally would have excelled. Romney rightly reached to the sacred scripture of the Republican Party, the Declaration of Independence, referring to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Obama failed to counter. The sacred scripture of the Democratic Party is the Preamble of the Constitution. Life, liberty and happiness matter, but so do justice, a more perfect Union, and the general welfare. Bill Clinton knew this when he gave his spectacular speech at the DNC Convention. Obama forgot his roots last night.

In terms of the horse race, this was not a game-changer; it certainly would not change the ground game in the electoral map. There were no forced errors on Obama's part, just missed opportunities. He should be advised, however, not to go overboard the other way in the next debate, as Al Gore had done in 2000. Obama was wise not to mention the 47 percent comment or offshore bank accounts. That information is already out there and there is no need for the President of the United States to do the dirty work that his surrogates can.

Obama is a quick rebounder. He will be back in the game in the next debate, and we will have a showdown.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Obama is Surging

The Obama campaign, by fortune or by wit, has peaked at the right moment. Early voting has already started in Virginia, and starts in Iowa and Ohio next week. This means that the polls telling a uniform story of an Obama surge in crucial swing states aren't just snap-shots; they are predictive of how voters -- about 35 percent of total voters -- are actually starting to vote as we speak.

Republicans like Karl Rove are saying that the CBS/NYT/Quinnipiac polls are wrong because they are using the turnout model of 2008. But Gallup found similar results. So did Bloomberg. So did the Washington Post. Obama's numbers are moving up, and it is intellectually dishonest and ultimately self-defeating for some Republicans to spin a story about over-sampling Democrats to deny the plausible reality that a triangulation of polls are pointing to.  (And by the way, the over-sampling spin is rather more complicated even than what its wonkish advocates say on tv, if only because no one knows what turnout is going to be.)

So right now, it is not looking good for Romney, who has to wait until October 5 to stand toe-to-toe with Obama, and demonstrate his presidential stature. It may be too late by then, which is why the Romney campaign has finally shifted from a national strategy to a state-by-state strategy, starting in Ohio. Whether or not it was wise to wait this late to start the ground game, we will know in six weeks. The Obama campaign has 96 offices in Ohio, nearly three times as many as Romney does -- a strategic bet by the Democrats that the ground game matters more than the battle over the airwaves. The Republicans are expecting, in the post-Citizens United world, that the superPACS will step up to seal the deal for Romney.

Every fumbling campaign has at least one correctable problem -- the candidate. Romney and Ryan need to stop complaining about how bad it is, or at least spend as much time telling us how good we could have it in the next four years. Even independent voters don't want to hire a doomsayer for president, and this is especially important because the alternative, Obama, is a positive, likable guy. Even if Americans do not feel better off today than they were in 2008, the real question is whether they would be better off in 2016 under Obama or under Romney. It is not just about malaise in America, but also about morning in America. What can Americans look forward to with President Romney? For better or for worse, voters need to be flattered, and they don't want to to be told that the only reason not to vote for a sitting president is the disaster he will bring; they also need to be inspired by someone who would awaken their better angels and lead them to greener pasture.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The September Surprise

Mitt Romney definitely did not count on foreign policy becoming a major issue two weeks after he chose budget hawk, Paul Ryan, to be his running mate, making his the weakest ticket on foreign policy for decades.

What is even more perverse is that Romney himself chose to go off message. Instead of hammering Obama on the economy, he decided to come out to call the administration's alleged failure to deliver a more forceful repudiation of the attacks on 4 Americans in Benghazi "disgraceful." The result is that foreign policy will now dominate the airwaves even more than it would have without Romney's provocation. It also means that foreign policy will figure more in the upcoming debates than it would have, and Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney, who know a lot more about economics than war, will have plenty of opportunity to trip up against Joe Biden and Barack Obama. 

This is a continuing pattern of a campaign in constant search of an attack strategy that would work, one that willingly goes off message because for whatever reason, the message isn't working. A merely reactive campaign waiting on the sidelines to jump on a mistake cannot have a coherent message. 

The fact, anyway, is that President Obama is far more vulnerable on his economic record than he is on foreign policy. Yet he is not vulnerable enough. And this is the dilemma that the Romney team has not been able to resolve in the last couple of months. Each time they have tried a new message other than the economic declension narrative on the national debt and unemployment, they have had to ease up on the only strategy that has worked, but only to an insufficient degree. They are stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Infusing foreign policy into the campaign, however, is particularly counter-productive for the Romney campaign because foreign policy is a very poor fit with their existing economic message, unlike say healthcare reform / repeal. This is why the RNC convention barely talked about foreign policy. When voters are uncertain about their economic future, they have historically been prepared to take a leap of faith in a challenger candidate; but when voters are uncertain about global unrest, they have tended to stay the course with the incumbent. Further, Obama's likability numbers translate most easily into his role as Commander-in-Chief. This is not an area on which he could be easily challenged, however loudly the voices of a minority in the Republican Party suggest otherwise. 

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Post-Mortem on DNC Convention

The Democrats are enjoying a little bump from their convention last week, but it had little to do with Barack Obama, and a lot to do with Bill Clinton. The reason why Clinton's speech worked was because he was specifically charged to address the substance of his speech to independents and older white males. He was very successful in making his speech appear reasonable, while delivering very partisan conclusions. As such, the speech was becomingly presidential.

Obama's speech on the hand was predictable and tired. He seemed not to have recognized that he was in a very different position than four years ago. The language of empathy and hope falls on deaf ears when the speaker's credibility has been tarnished. What his research team needs is a catalogue of facts, such as those presented by Bill Clinton, for making the case that the administration has made some progress on various fronts ahead of the presidential debates next month. Unlike Romney, Obama must walk a tightrope of appearing presidential when still appealing to his base. Facts, not emotions, are his best allies this time.

In the end, for better or for worse, elections are now about persons, not parties. Candidates make all kinds of promises and voters have to make their judgment calls by triangulating imperfect indices of credibility. This is why negative ads can be so damaging. But so can strategic endorsements. One of the most powerful moments in the Republican convention was when Ann Romney shed light on some of Mitt Romney's  private acts of charity.

The rest of the Democratic convention was uninspiring. The choreography of minorities conspicuously put on display and the overplaying of the abortion issue crowded out precious time that could have been spent on putting a positive spin on Obama's record and restoring his credibility. The choice of North Carolina as the convention site was possibly also based on hubris. Most polls since May have put NC in Romney's column. The Democrats may have done better with a more defensive strategy and held their convention in states like Colorado or Virginia.

Looking ahead, the electoral dynamics are likely to change if for one reason alone: now that Romney is the official nominee, he can dip into the RNC's funds to add to his already formidable war-chest. He may yet be able to make up the advantage Obama enjoys in the electoral college map.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Post-Mortem on RNC Convention

The Republicans' convention bump for Mitt Romney appears to be muted. Why? There was a lot of bad luck. Going before the Labor Day weekend caused television viewership to go down by 30 percent, as did the competing and distracting news about Hurricane Isaac. The Clint Eastwood invisible chair was not a disaster, but a wasted opportunity that Romney's advisors should have vetted. Valuable time that could have been spent promoting Romney (such as the video of him that had to be played earlier) before he came out to speak on prime time was instead spent in a meandering critique of Obama.

Obama's first remarks about the convention was that it was something you would see on a black-and-white tv -- a new spin on the Republican Party as allegedly backward, as opposed to the Democrat's who lean "Forward." The most revealing thing about the convention was that President George W. Bush was not asked to speak. Instead, he appeared in a video with the older Bush, possibly in a bid to mollify the presence of the younger. Republicans are still divided over Bush, which is why they continued their hagiography of Reagan in the convention. For all of Jeb Bush's intonations for the Obama campaign to stop putting blame on the previous administration, the fact is that the convention conceded that George W. Bush was indeed a liability. "Forward" is a narrative that can work as long as the look immediately backwards isn't too satisfying.

On the other side, Bill Clinton will of course make an appearance in Charlotte in next week. The Democrats have also wisely flooded the speakers' list with women, to show that the Republicans' paltry presentation of just five women represent the tokenism narrative that Democrats are trying to paint. Women are America's numerically biggest demographic, and they are more likely to turn out than men (by 4 percent in 2008).

In this final stretch, the gurus are gunning straight for the demographics. Campaigning has become a science, albeit an imperfect one. The Romney campaign now knows that a generic refutation of the Obama's performance about the economy, jobs, the national debt -- which we've all been hearing about for nearly 4 years -- is not going to change the underlying tectonics of voter sentiment. This is why they tried to elevate the Medicare issue last week, and why they're trying the personalize Romney strategy this week. The latter is more likely to work, and it should be done quickly, because next week, the DNC intends to make America fall in love with Barack Obama again.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Team Romney's Game Change

In our fast-paced world where candidates throw everything but the sink at television and internet audiences to see what sticks, Mitt Romney made a particularly gutsy move last week by adopting Medicare in his fight against Obama and Obamacare. Together with the selection of Paul Ryan as VP candidate, this was a game change revealing that Team Romney is going straight for demographics in this home stretch of the campaign.

For months, the Romney team has tried to make the election a referendum on Obama's first term. They believe they have failed, in large part due to the Obama campaign's very successful negative campaign on Romney's tax returns and record with Bain. They now know that an unemployment rate hovering above 8 percent is the new normal, and they need to be more aggressive to get through Obama's teflon hide.

The Medicare strategy is clearly targeted at states with an older population. It is a strategy made for Florida and Pennsylvania. The Paul Ryan pick, on the other hand, will help Romney not only in Wisconsin, but is also a strategy pitched at young voters. If Romney can erode Obama's popularity among the young, especially those between 18 and 24, and secure the support of the older in Florida, he may have a way to 270.

But as all game changers are, these are  high risk strategies, very much like John McCain's pick of Sarah Palin. Most Americans trust the Democrats more on Medicare than the Republicans. More importantly, most Republicans don't know how to talk about Medicare. It is a convoluted argument indeed to lament that America is becoming an entitlement state while at the same time say that Romney would protect the entitlements of those above 55 (unlike Obama). Yet this is a problem surmountable with enough campaign advertisements which we know Team Romney can afford. A deeper challenge remains, however. Paul Ryan is young and likeable, but as we know from 2008,  it is not easy to transfer charm upwards from the second person on the ticket.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Playing the Veepstakes

As the national conventions of the major parties approach, the presidential campaign has taken a sharply negative turn in recent days.

Even conservatives are turning on themselves, not because they really think that Romney is going to lose, but because they are mounting an internal campaign to foist a more robustly conservative running mate, Paul Ryan, on Romney knowing that the person on the top of the ticket was the least conservative person the Republicans could have chosen.

Most candidates name their running mates about a week before the national conventions.  So this is the time to apply the pressure.

Between now and November, strategy will matter, because fundamentals are unlikely to change. In particular, the state of the economy is unlikely to be as great a predictor as it has been in past elections. First, the unemployment rate is not going to affect Obama as much as once thought, because of a collective sense of learned helplessness, already priced into the market, that the state of the American economy turns on what happens to the European Union. Second, 60 percent of Americans believe Obama inherited an economic morass, which means that the best predictor of election outcomes, the economy, becomes less useful. Third, the Obama campaign neutralized its greatest weakness - the economy's performance - by making a big deal about Romney's tax returns and Bain history. If Romney does not redefine himself in the eye of the electorate, he cannot put the blame of the faltering economy wholly on Obama's shoulders. Oddly enough, that Republican-leaning superPACs are raising three times as much money as Democrat-leaning superPACs is only adding to the perception that Romney is in cahoots with Big Business.

Since economic fundamentals are out of the control of the politicians, unfortunately, for already weary television audiences in the swing states, it is going to be a deluge of mud slinging till the end. Artificial crises, mutual outrage, feigned innocence are among the predictable catalogue of campaign techniques for a democracy reduced to treating citizens as poll-tested automatons responding to manufactured stimuli.

Political fundamentals, however, will continue to apply. And here, Obama dominates. The electoral map tells a story far clearer than the noise of the national polls going up and down, and the media reporting the sideshow of the day. In fact, at the risk of over-simplifying the puzzle, one need only look at Ohio. No Republican candidate has won the presidency without taking Ohio, and Barack Obama has led in every poll in Ohio since November 2011, by an average of 5 points. My advice to Romney if he wants to win: ask, beg, demand that Ohio Senator Rob Portman be his running mate. If he takes a risk  as McCain took on Palin, and goes with Ryan, then he already knows that he has nothing to lose.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Dawn of a New Age of Government?

Senator Edward Kennedy called healthcare reform the "the great unfinished business of our society." Today it is finished. Every branch of the US government has had its say. The Supreme Court decision also marks the end of the Rehnquist era. No longer can we reliably predict that it would always send powers back to the states. Indeed, it said "No" to 26 states that had challenged the Affordable Healthcare Act today.

This is also, incontrovertibly, a victory for Obama. Today, John Boehner called the Act a "harmful" law. Mitch McConnell called it "terrible." Romney called it "bad." But none of them can call it "unconstitutional" anymore, taking the wind out of the Tea Party's sails.

Sure, this is now a rallying and fund-raising issue for Romney, but it's always been an issue. The conservative base now knows that the only way to repeal the Affordable Healthcare Act is to take out Obama. The difference between a conservative and an independent voter, however, is that only the former looks back. Swing voters at the presidential lever will appreciate a conservative Chief Justice's endorsement of the Affordable Healthcare Act, and won't care anymore after this. This is now a done deal.  It re-establishes Obama as a leader, because he joins Lincoln and FDR as a winner in tumultous politics.

If Obama follows up and wins the election this year, we may be in for a resurgent Age of Government after three decades of retrenchment. FDR caused the nine (justices) to switch in time in 1937. Obama caused only one, but then again he tried to and pushed through a law that FDR knew he couldn't do and the one was a Chief Justice appointed by his Republican predecessor, no less.

To be sure, the Court did reject the administration's argument that the Interstate Commerce clause legitimated the individual mandate. Chief Justice Roberts, however, argued that the Supreme Court's job is to mine the Constitution for arguments - even when the administration failed to find or emphasize them - to sustain acts passed by  Congress. In ruling that the mandate is constitutional under the taxing and spending powers of the Congress, he exercised, in his mind, the duty of judicial restraint and deference to the elected branches. In this, he acted like the Justice George W. Bush thought he had nominated to the bench.

However, the constitutional reasoning Roberts proffered -- that the individual mandate is a tax (and the Attorney General explicitly said it was not) -- is way beyond what Bush or any conservative would have liked. People aren't quite coming to grips with this fact yet. The congressional power to tax is a massive power and by failing or refusing to make a clear and distinct separation between what is a tax and what is penalty (Roberts gave three very weak reasons), this decision delivered a huge victory for "big government" liberals, because almost anything can henceforth be classified a tax and therefore permissible under the taxing and spending clause of the Constitution.

The Anti-Federalists of 1787/88 were right: where the purse lies, so does sovereignty. Publius, or at least Hamilton, knew it too, but he kept mum about it, because his goal had always been a "consolidation" of federal authority.  Today, Justice Roberts unknowingly but effectively extinguished the (already specious) distinction between a tax and a penalty. When Republicans now turn their argument to calling "Obamacare" "Obamatax," they are fighting on much weaker ground than before, because the taxing and spending powers of Congress are massive; yet this power was among the principal reasons for why the Constitution was written in the first place. What Roberts did, in effect, was to force the conservatives back to their original ground and show their true colors: they are, at heart, Anti-Federalists who are no more appreciative of a powerful federal government in 1787 than in 2012.

Liberals shouldn't get too smug yet though. The individual mandate is not the panacea of our still very flawed health-care system. 30 million or so people are now going to be in the system in 2014, and they will move from already crowded emergency rooms to primary care physician offices. This is the start of healthcare reform, not the end. But it is also the start of an era where government is no longer seen as the problem. It may yet prove to be the solution again.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Is Team Obama Cracking under Pressure?

How quickly Fortunes change. For the first time this election season, the Republicans now look poised not only to match Obama's fundraising ability, but to beat him at it. There is certainly no way that Obama is going to enjoy the 3 to 1 advantage he had over McCain four years ago. All this is also to say, then, that for the first time this year, Mitt Romney could be the frontrunner in the presidential race.

The worst month for the Dow Jones this year has also been the worst for Obama. Republicans are perking up because with the economy taking a turn for the worse, Obama's electoral college advantage appears to be weakening. Having won an important victory in the Scott Walker recall election in Wisconsin, the GOP now believes that it has a shot at bleeding Democratic resources there, and possibly even in Michigan and Pennsylvania. If Obama is forced to spend valuable time and resources in these three weakly Democratic-leaning states, he will have less time to spend in Ohio, Virginia, and Colorado.

Just as Obama looks like he is defending the electoral fort, he is also in defense mode on the ideas. This is the fundamental difference between '08 and '12. Obama had it easier in 2008, when he was up against a highly unpopular president waging a highly unpopular war. Not so in 2012, when this not so popular president, defending an even more unpopular health-care law, is up against the same atavistic contempt for incumbents that he had used to upend McCain in '08. This is why Obama surrogates keep going on about the mess they inherited. The longer they can claim Obama to be the Washington outsider besieged by the legacy of Bush, the less he can be stained by his own incumbency.

Yet the more he gripes about the past, the more Obama looks like a rookie overwhelmed by the complexities of governance, and the more Mitt Romney looks like the man for the job. Obama's campaign slogan, "Forward," subtly implies that the Republicans are "backwards." But the president should be mindful that he can hardly appear to be leaning forward if his eyes are continually cast backwards to the previous administration for comparison. That strategy worked once in 2008, but the past cannot be prologue twice.

To top it off, the president made his "the private sector is doing fine" comment.  You would expect this from Joe Biden, not Barack Obama. The president is not out of touch, but out of it. Even the best campaigners crack when reality bites. Hit hard by a slew of bad news, Obama is running to his base, rhetorically and literally, for comfort and coddling. But neither partisan sound-bites nor standing ovations by the LGBT community are going to get him reelected.

The dynamics of 2012 are nothing like that of 2008. Americans are done with hope; they want jobs. They are done with bickering about wars, and are more angry about health-care laws. Obama is no longer the new kid on the block, and he is not going to be the best funded anymore. Inspiring platitudes will not work this year.  As the going gets tough, Team Obama will have to think outside of the '08 box or face ignominious defeat.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Obama: Campaigner-in-Chief

Barack Obama proved this week that his understanding of public opinion and how timing can be used to massage the media's storyline is head-and-shoulders above any campaigner we have known in modern history. Mitt Romney cannot begin to overestimate the gap between what Obama enacts by intuition and what he himself can barely perform by imitation.

On last Sunday's "Meet the Press," Joe Biden came out in support of same-sex marriage, an alleged gaffe that precipitated Obama's announcement this week that his own thinking on the issue has evolved to the same effect. This then allowed Obama to tout his new position to the Hollywood crowd from whom he was raising $15 million on Thursday evening (that's $13k per second of speech). Next morning, Obama wakes up to a story breaking about Mitt Romney bullying a presumptively gay classmate while in high school. Romney, for his part, is going to deliver the Commencement address at Liberty University this weekend to appeal to Christian conservatives -- which is, believe it not, exactly in sync with the temporal frame and media storyline the Obama campaign has quite consciously created.

What a way to launch the Obama re-election campaign. The campaign opens with one message: this is the Obama Democrats voted for in 2008. Who would have thought that the politics of Hope would actually make a come-back after three years of compromises and disillusion? Hope is what excites young people, and with it, it will not be the record Obama will be running on, but an America liberals can be proud of. Because this is a state-by-state race to 270, Obama understands that the youth vote matters in North Carolina, Iowa, and Colorado -- states that offer him an alternate route to victory other than the traditional way of Florida and Ohio.

The political dexterity of the Obama campaign in responding to changes on the ground can be seen in how they have turned the culture wars against Republicans. In 2004, the Bush administration used the culture war to rally the conservative base on the same-sex marriage issue, when a dozen of so states put constitutional amendments to define traditional marriage on the ballot. Today, Barack Obama is hoisting with that petard. Same-sex marriage is a losing issue for Republicans because while a majority of Republicans oppose same-sex marriage, a super-majority of Democrats support same-sex marriage. The reason why culture wars are waged is because their effect is asymmetric, and this time, it is benefiting the Democrats. And Republicans cannot in good faith argue that the culture war is a distraction from real economic issues that Americans ought to be talking about because they were the first to wage it.

In just two electoral cycles since 2004, the Republican candidate who ought to be spending his time talking about the lackluster economy is being forced to address allegations about his actions as a high school kid. If there is a science to politics, Team Obama obviously understands its laws and equations.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Why Obama Cannot Receive Any Credit for his Actions

With the airwaves ablaze with a new controversy about President Obama campaign ad, it may be worth thinking about why it is  that it is so difficult for many Americans, even some on the Left, to give Obama credit for anything.

To proffer a tentative answer, I'm going to sketch the landscape of the comparison group -- how other presidents have been vilified. 

Every president has suffered his share of invective. Some were made fun of because of their physical traits. John Adams was called "His Rotundity" and Chester Arthur was the "Walrus." Others were attacked for their character flaws.  The Whigs called Jackson "King Andrew" and his successor, "Martin Van Ruin." Rutherford B. Hayes was scorned as "Rutherfraud" as a result of the Compromise of 1877.  Richard Nixon was derided as "Tricky Dick" and Bill Clinton, "Slick Willie." 

What is curious about the vituperation directed at Barack Obama is that the attacks are seldom directed at his body or his character. Woodrow Wilson was obsessive-compulsive, Jack Kennedy was a philandering playboy, Bush was an obstinate cowboy. Flawed characters are not ideal in our presidents, but at least we can identify with them. Most presidents are presumed American and therefore legitimate, even if they are imperfect.

Not so for Barack Obama. Many of the attacks on Obama start off with the unspoken assumption that he is so foreign and so unAmerican that he doesn't even pass the bar of legitimacy, much less identifiability. Indeed, his character may well be unimpeachable, certainly compared to Bill Clinton (pun intended). But that only reinforces his scary foreignness. Many of the attacks on Barack Obama do not even assume an identifiable personhood capable of moral corruption. He is painted as a foreigner with malign intentions on the nation when he is accused of caballing with President Medvedev, a Socialist, a Fascist, a Kenyan, or a Muslim. Whereas other presidents at least get to be Americans and identifiable persons who bear the epithets of their flaws, Obama is often cast as the secret representative of a group of marauding Others embedded amongst us.

And that is why the Obama ad claiming victory for the slaying of Osama Bin Laden was deemed by some observers as beyond the pale. The ad strikes at the heart of the insidious narrative that President Obama is unAmerican because he actually helped to take down America's greatest enemy. Yes, the ad was political. But all ads are. If it is so offensive for Barack Obama to take credit for taking out Bin Laden, maybe it is because some of Obama's critics start off from the presumption that only an American can take credit for a victory for America.

Knee-jerk reactions are often revealing. When Mitt Romney weighed in with, "any thinking American would have taken down Osama Bin Laden," he may well have unconsciously meant that his own Americanness was incontrovertible, certainly more incontrovertible than Barack Hussein Obama's. Or maybe this was a subtle pitch for the Birthers' vote. Either way, there are some Americans who simply do not think it enough to castigate Obama as a flawed American; they think it more appropriate to call out the fraudulence of an illegitimate foreigner pretending to take credit for a mission he probably wasn't even rooting for.

What Mitt Romney might or might not have done about the Bin Laden raid is an open question (even if the chances of Romney not having made the same call as Obama did is near zero), even if it is not for Obama. But of course Romney has a right to be outraged. His American character is under attack.

In what world is the slaying of America's greatest enemy not grounds for credit taking, or even impolitic bragging? It is in the world inhabited by those who are convinced that Obama is not an American, and he is not for America, and so of course he cannot take credit for anything he does for America.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The 2012 Playbooks for Obama and Romney

The General Election campaign appears to be in full swing now that Mitt Romney is the presumptive nominee for the Republican Party. But this is really only true on the Republican side. Team Obama is obviously holding back.

It would appear that the opening statement of the Obama campaign has been made. They are emphasizing the "Buffett Rule" (increased taxes for millionaires) and trying to draw what pollsters call "sharp contrasts" with the Republican candidate, Mitt Romney. They are highlighting the fact that Romney is not releasing the full record of his tax returns.

This is not the best strategy for an incumbent candidate, which is why it is important to know that this is just the opening volley. If history is any guide, the Obama campaign won't be releasing its secret weapon just yet. Historically, all re-election campaigns are referenda on the incumbent's first term. For challengers like Mitt Romney, the strategy has almost always been to take on the president for his failure to run the country and in this year's case, the economy. That is to say, challengers usually address issues, not personality. Since the president has the aura of the office behind him, challengers are better off confronting sitting presidents on the issues.

Knowing this, the Obama campaign, by taking on the issues, appears to be walking into terrain more advantageous to the Romney campaign. But they know better. The thing about drawing sharp contrasts is that whoever is doing it is, by definition, carving out his piece of the electoral pie, and simultaneously helping to define his opponent's electoral pie. By harping on the Buffett Rule -- even if a supermajority of Americans support it -- Obama appears to be reinforcing the preconceived notions of Republicans that he is just a crazy tax-and-spend liberal. Or maybe Team Obama is just holding back.

The reason why the Republican Party took so long to grudgingly settle on Romney isn't just because he is a moderate. He's just not very likeable, which is exactly what a majority of Americans, by a 2 to 1 ratio, think of Obama. Clearly this is Team Obama's secret weapon: the candidate. Mitt Romney is to the Republicans who John Kerry was to the Democrats in 2004.

Perhaps even more than the economy, contrasting personalities are the underlying tectonic of Election 2012. The economic situation, barring surprises in Europe, isn't going to be particularly rosy; but it doesn't look like it would be dismal either. In the context of a slow but steady recovery, independent voters in swing states may not be easily persuaded to switch course because transitions mean uncertainty and voters, like businesses, don't like uncertainty.

So why isn't the Obama campaigning highlighting their candidate's likability now? Because doing so invariably involves a negative campaign against Romney, akin to an a tv ad with a John Kerry flip-flopping with the wind. And research shows that the best negative campaigns are those done by surrogates (such as SuperPACS) so that the offending campaign catches no flak. So watch for it. There are going to be a ton of really innovative, even humorous (and those are the best) ads painting Romney as an awkward, company destroying, out-of-touch one-percenter. Maybe this is why Republican elites are correctly vetting the veepstakes already. Romney is in grave need of his Sarah Palin if his personality stays buttoned up in his tailored suits.

The issues will not save Romney in 2012. A personality might.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Difference between Healthcare Insurance and Broccoli Markets

Democrats and the Obama administration have seriously if not fatally fumbled on the simple answer to a question Justice Scalia posed:

"Could you define the market -- everybody has to buy food sooner or later, so you define the market as food, therefore, everybody is in the market; therefore, you can make people buy broccoli?"

According to Senator John Kerry, "Like it or not, at some point in our lives, every single person will receive healthcare." That is a terrible answer.

Solicitor General Verrilli, the person the Obama administration entrusted to make the case for the individual mandate responded to Scalia, saying "if you go in and -- and seek to obtain a product or service, you will get it even if you can't pay for it." But he didn't finish the thought and missed the heart of the distinction.

It is not that broccoli is different from healthcare because it is not about the nature of the product but the nature of their markets. It is not that everyone needs healthcare because again this is about the product and not the market. It is not even that people can get healthcare without having to pay for it. This begins to talk about the market, but it doesn't say what is it about such a market that may invoke the government's authority to regulate commerce.

What he ought to have said is that people can get healthcare without having to pay for it and the rest of us who do buy insurance must. Those of us who are paying for health insurance are forced to subsidize those who do not. This, if anything, is what would invite government regulation.

Recognizing that the health-care industry suffers from a free-riding problem helps us pinpoint two general solutions. 1. We get rid of the law that creates the free-riding problem. 2. Or we enact a law that closes the free-riding loophole -- and that is the individual mandate of the Affordable Healthcare Act, or "Obamacare."

What is the law that creates the free-riding problem? It is the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA) of 1986 which requires that hospitals provide emergency care to anyone seeking it regardless of ability to pay. Now, why would millions of Americans buy health insurance voluntarily if we can get it for free? Actually, this is the law that small government conservatives ought to be challenging. This is what causes the problem; Obamacare is only the fix.

Yet for whatever reason, we have decided as a society that we will not engage in patient dumping. Maybe we should, maybe we shouldn't, but statutory law already accepts that there is something different about the healthcare product from broccoli. No point harping on that argument. But liberals and Obama are too fixated on this line of reasoning because they are too quick to use the victim-centered approach to selling their political programs. Oh, those poor 40 million Americans without health-care insurance, they say.

But they are shooting themselves in their empathetic feet this time. It is not those poor 40 million Americans. It is those free-riding 40 million Americans who could and have gotten healthcare for free and made everyone else pay for it that necessitates regulation of an industry bloated and rendered inefficient by free-riding.

The free-riding problem reaches deep into our pockets -- at least for those who have health insurance. Unregulated commerce can be coercive too, not just "individual mandates." Can we really expect someone who doesn't buy health insurance (and therefore who does not, allegedly, perform an action) never to seek free services in an emergency room when the law says s/he can? Maybe we won't need Obamacare if, as Madison intoned in Federalist 51, "men were angels." If we won't go in for a free service when we haven't paid for it.

But we are not angels. And that is why Publius proposed a federal government to, among other things, regulate inter-state commerce. The Solicitor General should have framed the debate in terms of the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA). Does the Court want to strike that law down? If the answer is "no," then we have a free-riding loophole that only the government can close. Yes, the individual mandate is perhaps constitutionally novel, but so is the EMTALA. But no one is challenging the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act before the Court now, is there?

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Rick Santorum wins in Louisiana

Rick Santorum had a great night, but he would need to win 70 percent of the delegates moving forward to unseat frontrunner Mitt Romney. That's not going to happen, but it'll be a painful road toward the increasingly inevitable. As late in this game, powerful conservatives like Thomas Sowell, Rush Limbaugh, and Tony Perkins are still advocating for Rick Santorum and other non-moderate candidates. Every day they continue to do this, they make less likely confident predictions from outside the beltway that Republicans will come together in the Fall against Obama.

The problem could go away if Rick Santorum bowed out. But he has absolutely no reason to. At worst he would be a Hillary Clinton. A serious challenger to the eventual nominee, someone who ran a very credible campaign, the candidate all eyes will turn to first in the next nomination race. Since all the benefits accrue specifically to Santorum and all the cost are diffused across the entire party, the candidate is here to stay for as long as Romney has not clinched his 1144th delegate.

This means that Romney would not be able to turn to a frontal, undistracted campaign against Obama just when Americans check out, tune out, and head to the beaches in Summer. Most Americans would have made up their minds about their vote by then, and there may not be enough time between September and November for the constant barrage of negative messages and psychological massaging to convince Independents that Obama is so bad that he needs to be fired.

The Republican "establishment," otherwise read as Romney's supporters, fear this more than anything, and for the love of God, no pun intended, simply do not understand why Tea Partiers and Southern evangelicals are continuing on the road to electoral perdition. Yet while resentments are building and intra-party strife is festering, it not the moderate Republicans but the Rush Limbaughs of the world who are ironically assuming that an upper-crust, French-speaking Mormon from the Northeast who entered the 1 percent by way of Wall Street would be able to put Humpty Dumpty together again before the party faces Barack Obama. Hubris!

Next up are Washington, DC and Wisconsin. That means relatively cash-strapped Rick Santorum now has a windfall of a week and some to gloat over his victory in Louisiana, and consolidate the narrative that he is a credible candidate and the truly conservative alternative to Romney. Yet each time the Republican Party has thrown an anti-Romney candidate a lifeline -- and doing so has been the leitmotif of Campaign 2012 -- it has deprived itself of one in the real contest that is to determine the eventual occupant of the White House.

All this is also to say that we are witnessing the maturation of American conservatism. For years observers have described liberalism as a bloated tent filled with too many strange bedfellows. But all we were saying is that a dominant ideology necessary co-opts many disparate factions in order to form a governing majority. Finally, American conservatism, nearly 60, is big enough to have its own internecine feuds played out in the public square (and not just in the National Review). But conservatives must also learn that no majority is too big to fail. Liberals, defeated in a string of elections in the 1980s, came to their senses and nominated a "Third Way" Democrat in 1992. Conservatives too shall have to come to terms with the iron law of American electoral politics: moderate or mortify.