About five years ago, I wrote about the conspiracy theories surrounding the death of Andrew Breitbart. At the time, various conservative groups were suggesting he’d been assassinated by the Obama administration.

Well, now there’s a new theory, promoted by former British MP Louise Mensch, that he was assassinated by the Russian government:

Here at Ruined Chapel, we love analyzing a good conspiracy theory–and if it involves politics, so much the better! So let’s think about this.

To begin, the facts of the case: Andrew Breitbart collapsed suddenly while walking home after dinner one night. His cause of death was listed as heart failure. There was no evidence of any suspicious drugs.

It is common knowledge that journalists in Russia get killed with unusual frequency and under mysterious circumstances, especially since the year 2000, when Vladimir Putin took power. It has not been proven that Putin has ordered or otherwise had foreknowledge of any of these deaths, but the pattern is suspicious.

People are quick to suspect Putin for a couple of reasons: First, it seems like the sort of thing a former KGB agent would do, and second, the Putin regime is generally hostile to the press.

It’s worth noting that most of the reporters dying suspiciously in Russia were undoubtedly murdered.  Aside from a few suspicious poisonings and plane crashes, in most cases, nobody questions that these journalists were deliberately killed by somebody; it’s just they can’t figure out who.

And that’s on Putin’s home turf.  If he can’t have people killed using untraceable methods in Russia, it seems like it would be even harder for him to do so in the United States.

Now, there’s another element to all of this that makes it even more interesting. Mensch also tweeted this:

Additionally, the Wikipedia page for Stephen Bannon states:

“In March 2012, after founder Andrew Breitbart‘s death, Bannon became executive chair of Breitbart News LLC, the parent company of Breitbart News. Under his leadership, Breitbart took a more alt-right and nationalistic approach toward its agenda.”

If you understand Vladimir Putin’s long-term goal to be dissolving the internationalist post-World War II geopolitical order and replacing it with a system of Great Powers acting in their own national interest, the rise of Bannon and his philosophy is clearly good news for him.

Just on the basic facts, it’s hard to argue this entire episode did not turn out splendidly for Putin. I mean, look at it:

  1. Upon Breitbart’s death, Bannon takes over his operation.
  2. Bannon uses his power  at the Breitbart site to promote nationalism and undercut Putin’s main opponent, then-President Barack Obama.
  3. Bannon later uses his site to promote the Presidential candidate most favorable to Putin, Donald Trump.
  4. Trump wins, in part due to major propaganda efforts by Putin and Breitbart, and then appoints Bannon to be an advisor in his administration.

It all went spectacularly well for Putin and Bannon. Since the death of Andrew Breitbart was the first domino that started this entire chain of events, you can see why, in retrospect, Putin would have had an incentive to cause it. The results benefited Putin in a big way.

However, as compelling of a story as that may be, I have a problem with it.  Mainly, it requires Putin to have almost supernatural gifts of foresight. And if he has that, he should be ruling the world already.

Who would have ever guessed that the head of a fringe conservative news site would be able to successfully get the ear of a reality TV star-turned-Presidential-candidate, who would go on to win the election, and then appoint said site head as an advisor? So many bizarre things had to happen for all this to work that it is hard to imagine anyone consciously planning it.

Given that, it would seem insane for Putin to have carried out a high-risk assassination operation against a relatively small-time political commentator in the United States. If it failed or was otherwise exposed, the backlash against Russia would have been enormous.

Remember, in 2012, the Republicans were generally anti-Putin. Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney said Russia was the United States’ “number one geopolitical foe”that year.  Can you imagine what the Republicans would have done in 2012 if they found out Russia killed one of their people? They would have been screaming that Obama was weak and campaigned on a very aggressive anti-Russia platform.

To me, that argues strongly against this idea.  The risk for Putin of assassinating Breitbart would have been too great–the fact that the reward would turn out to be so high would not have been knowable at the time.

This weekend, in response to the Women’s Marches in various cities across the country, the new President tweeted:

The President of the United States had 140 characters to comment on massive protests against him and his policies, and he used 24 of them to offer the advice that celebrities were detrimental to the protest effort.

Now, why would he bother to do that? What interest does he have in teaching them how to protest more effectively?

Answer: the celebrities are actually very effective.  Thus, he is trying to discourage the Democrats and other groups opposed to him from utilizing them.

Let me repeat what I said in my first post on this subject:

[Celebrity supporters] made Democrats seem out of touch with the salt-of-the-Earth workers in the Rust Belt.

Moderate Republicans and Bernie Sanders voters alike have argued that the Democrats need to jettison celebrity support and focus on connecting with “everyday folks”.

It makes for a nice story. But it’s not true.

Again, it’s instructive to look at examples of a similar phenomenon from the past: Democrats advising Republicans on what sort of candidate they should run to win elections.

“You can never win with somebody so unpalatable to the diverse, socially liberal electorate”, they said. “Republicans need moderates like McCain and Romney if they want to win elections”.

This line of thinking was so influential that prominent Republicans bought into it.

The Democrats, meanwhile, convinced themselves that running against an extreme candidate like Trump would mean an easy win for them.

This was conventional wisdom in both the Republican and Democratic establishments. And it was wrong. The Republicans didn’t win with moderates, but did win with an extremist, completely contrary to what the Democrats (and the moderate Republicans) said would happen.

Let me repeat myself: Democrats would be wise not to listen to the advice given by their opponents.

I’m a big believer in the “charisma theory” of Presidential elections.  To summarize, the idea is that the more charismatic candidate always wins. It has held in every election since 1992, and examples can be found going back to 1960.  In fact, the only instance I know of in which the more charismatic candidate lost was in 1896, before TV or radio existed.

One curious thing about charismatic candidates is that seemingly they always go up against non-charismatic opponents–people who may be good, studious, diligent policy wonks, but who are also stiff and boring.  Or, to use the words of Paul Graham, the creator of the theory, “people who are earnest, but dull.”

Think about it: the big knock on Hillary Clinton was that she “couldn’t connect with people”–versus Trump, who could at least connect with angry white men.

Same deal in 2012: Obama was one of the most charismatic politicians in history, and Romney was famously stiff and awkward.

Again, 2008: Charismatic Obama against boring, tired John McCain.

It goes on. In 2004, folksy “just a regular guy” George W. Bush vs. famously boring speaker John Kerry.

2000: Folksy Bush beats dull, awkward Al Gore.

1996: Legendarily charismatic Bill Clinton beats old, tired Bob Dole.

It goes on and on. Now and then you get elections where neither candidate was charismatic (Bush vs. Dukakis, Nixon vs. McGovern and Humphrey) but you seemingly never get two charismatic candidates running against each other. (Imagine what Trump vs. Obama would have been like!)

That seems highly improbable when you consider that there are lots of charismatic politicians, and that charismatic politicians have an innate advantage over non-charismatic ones. They should be running against each other all the time. What’s going on?

One possibility is that charisma is a winner-take-all sort of thing, in that whichever candidate is more charismatic automatically makes the opponent seem stiff and boring by comparison.  So if A is more charismatic than B, B looks boring, but B might be more charismatic than C, and make C look boring.

But it doesn’t seem to work this way.  Nixon lost to Kennedy on charisma, but he beat Humphrey and McGovern without getting any more charismatic.  Charisma simply wasn’t a factor in those elections.

Another possible explanation is that when one party has been out of power for a while, they become more likely to nominate a charismatic candidate. (Charismatic candidates usually start as long-shot outsiders, e.g. Obama and Trump) Similarly, when a party has been in power for a while, they are more likely to nominate a careerist politician who has paid their dues in the party. (e.g. McCain, H. Clinton)

If that’s the case, it apparently runs in an eight year cycle, conveniently matching up with Presidential term limits, and thus preventing possible “high-charisma showdowns”, as would have happened with Clinton vs. Bush, or Obama vs. Trump.

This could be the case, although it seems like an awfully big coincidence that it takes almost exactly eight years for one party to get a charismatic candidate, and that the other party seemingly forgets this lesson every eight years.

What are your thoughts on this pattern?

Ok, so the title may not be specific enough. Trump seems to have many problems.  But I’m not addressing his financial, social, physical, intellectual, moral or psychological problems.  Lots of people have run successful political campaigns despite having those. I’m talking about his strategic problem that’s hampering his quest for the Presidency.

Trump’s strategic problem is that he can’t adapt.  He is a one-trick pony who has used his trick to the limit of its potential and now does not know what to do on finding it no longer works.

In the primaries, Trump employed an aggressive, brash style to get attention for himself and to mock his competitors. It worked very well.  I won’t lie; I thought it was very entertaining to see him relentlessly mock the career politicians.  They had never seen anything like it, and were unprepared for it.

The problem is, people have now gotten tired of the insult-comedy routine. It was funny for a while, but eventually wears out its welcome.  Add to this that the general electorate is less receptive to such an aggressive style than Republican primary voters, and it becomes clear Trump needs a new strategy.

The standard political hack term for this is “pivoting to the general election”, which is a nice way of saying: “tell the primary voters one thing, then tell general election voters something else.”  Or lie, to put it simply.

Mitt Romney provided the textbook example of this in 2012.  He said all sorts of Conservative-sounding stuff in the Primaries, then took it all back and came out with new, more liberal policies in the General election. It all seemed strategically sound in theory, and I think most strategists would say it was very well done, except for the bit where Romney lost the election.

As you can perhaps tell, I do not like the “pivot to the general election” concept.  It seems to show contempt for voters.  It is effectively saying “Ha!  Those stupid voters will forget what we promised earlier this year, and believe the new, contradictory set of things we are promising now.”  I like candidates who seem a bit more principled.

Trump is definitely not pivoting, but he is also not standing on principle.  He is just continuing to fight and insult people.  And people are tired of it.  They want to see that he is capable of doing something else, at least once.

The funny thing is, his biggest error may also have been his greatest opportunity to do this–but he missed it.

After he started his absurd argument with the Khan family, Trump could have surprised everyone by apologizing to them profusely.  If he had done that, completely and unreservedly, people might have said “Wow!  Trump actually can admit when he’s wrong!” and it might have come out being a positive for him.

But Trump couldn’t do that. Whether because he has some personality disorder that prevents him from ever admitting he’s wrong or just because he thought “My ‘Always Attack/Never Apologize’ strategy got me this far, I won’t drop it now”, Trump failed to do the right thing because he can’t do anything other than attack people.

In general, I try not to use sports analogies when discussing politics, because sports are zero-sum games, and politics has more dimensions to it than that.  But in this case, there is a fairly apt analogy with American football.

Teams with great offenses that can “throw the ball all over the field” and score tons of points will go on record-setting streaks and look almost unbeatable playing teams with bad to mediocre pass defenses.  Then they finally have a game when the quarterback and/or receivers timing is off, or the opposing pass defense is giving them a hard time, and they have nothing else they can do.  They fall apart.

Trump is like that.  He won the primaries with an aggressive, angry style against weak opponents, but now that he is in a contest where people want to see empathy and humility, he can’t adjust and do it.

All right, so maybe I did end up analyzing his psychological problems a little, after all.  It’s kind of unavoidable.

From the time this blog began, back in the doe-eyed innocent days of 2009, there is one idea I’ve hammered on more than any other.  I’ve written so many posts about it that I’ve lost track of when I wrote what. It’s not even my idea, it’s Paul Graham’s; but I have kept discussing it, debating it, and analyzing it more than even he has.

The idea is that charisma is what wins Presidential elections.

Policies, facts, scandals, money… all of these things are secondary. Modern elections are determined by which candidate has more charisma.

I thought I had a pretty nice test in 2012: Mitt Romney had tons of money, and many pundits confidently predicted he would win.  But he was stiff and boring next to the charismatic and likeable President Obama. I didn’t think Romney had a chance.

I was right. Obama won re-election.

But there was one moment when I felt a little less confident of Obama’s chances: the first debate in 2012, which was a disaster for him.  Romney owned the stage and seemed more vigorous and energetic than Obama. Some people said Romney was outright bullying both Obama and the debate moderator, Jim Lehrer; but the bottom line was it worked. Most people felt Romney won that debate.

Obama and his campaign learned their lesson, however; and after that, Romney lost the next two debates, and his running mate, Paul Ryan, was similarly overpowered by Vice-President Biden.

Romney had one successful moment where he was able to position himself as an energetic businessman and cast Obama as a stodgy career politician, but he couldn’t keep it up.  Probably because Romney was a stodgy career politician himself.

Most people, including myself, saw this first debate, figured it was an aberration, and moved on.

But somewhere, I think someone must have seen it and thought “what if you had someone who didn’t just adopt the ‘bullying energetic businessman’ persona for one debate? What if you found someone who had dedicated his entire life to playing the character of an bullying energetic businessman?”

You would need more than that, though.  Another problem with Romney was that he was so unlikable.  He was not just anti-charismatic; he seemed profoundly out of touch with the common people.  He was “old money”; the kind of blue-blood elitist that Republicans always complain about.

To appeal to the average voter, you want someone who behaved like stereotypical “new money”–someone who made big, gaudy purchases, and spoke the language of the typical “man on the street”.

I think you see where I’m going with this, but let me drive the point home a bit more.

In 2012, I made a lot of fun of Romney for being a “generic Republican”.  It was comical how vanilla he was.  And that was boring.  He was the politician from central casting; nothing memorable about him.

And I firmly believe that is the reason he lost.

Enter Trump.

Trump is not boring.  Trump constantly commands the press’s attention.  He does this mainly by saying stuff that is so outrageous they are compelled to cover him.  And he almost never backs down from it, either.

In his 1987 book, The Art of the Deal, Trump explicitly says that he uses this technique to promote stuff.  Whether it’s promising to build the World’s Tallest Building or a wall on the Mexican border, Trump knows this is how to get free media coverage.

Trump is also a big believer in the idea that negative publicity is better than no publicity. Most political candidates are terrified of negative publicity, but Trump seems to take the view that when you get it, the best follow-up action is not to apologize, but to double down on whatever caused it.

And as far as “optics” go, he is right.  Pure, baseless confidence plays better on TV than nuanced reason or thoughtful consideration.  When you are debating on TV, it’s better to be wrong and “full of passionate intensity” than to be right and “lack all conviction.”

The moment that truly sunk Romney in 2012 was this one, from the second debate.  He looked weak and hesitant, especially contrasted with the President’s tone of calm command:

 

In Romney’s place, Trump would have probably just kept going and shouted down everyone, insisting that the transcript was wrong.  I’m not saying it’s a good or honest way to live one’s life, but the sad fact is that it’s how you win televised debates.

Debates aren’t won on the basis of facts and policies.  They certainly ought to be, and it would be a better world if they were, but the truth is they are won on the basis of who connects with the audience on a visceral level.

That is where charisma comes in.  Actually, that is what charisma is: the ability to make people irrationally feel a connection with the candidate, irrespective or even in spite of what the candidate says.

Donald Trump can do that, at least with some people.  Mitt Romney could not do it with anyone.

And there is a lot of evidence to suggest Hillary Clinton can’t, either.

My Democratic friends usually get upset when I say that, like I’m criticizing Clinton or saying it is some kind of character flaw.  It’s not that at all.  Most people in the world, including many successful politicians, cannot do that.  It’s a very rare ability.

Most people are afraid of public speaking.  This is because they are worried about remembering what they have to say, getting the facts right, etc.  But charismatic people don’t care about that–they are connecting with their audience on another level entirely.

That’s the bad news for the Democrats.  The good news is that Trump’s “say outrageous stuff to get free coverage” strategy has alienated not only huge numbers of independent voters, but also many members of his own party. When a party can’t unite, it typically dooms them in a general election.

Add to this that due to a combination of demographic and political factors the Democrats start off at an advantage in terms of Electoral College votes, and it seems like this could be the election that shows the charisma theory does not always hold true.

And that is indeed how most people expect it to play out.  Most polls favor Clinton. So the Democrats have every reason to feel good about their chances.

But there is one thing that should give them pause.  And to see it, we have to go back again to that first debate in 2012.

The odd thing that happened in that debate was that Romney became shockingly moderate.  So moderate that it caught President Obama off guard.  He was surprised by Romney’s sudden change of positions, and thus unprepared for it. (You can read my original take on that debate here.)

Romney threw out a lot of the stuff he had said during the primaries, and became almost a copy of Obama. And it worked–for one debate.

And this was Mitt Romney, career Republican politician, who was throwing out his own Party’s platform. Do you think that Donald Trump, a political newbie who is currently at war with half his own party; a man who wrote a book advocating saying whatever it takes to close a deal, will have any compunction about making even more extreme changes in order to win?

I expect Trump to have adopted many of Bernie Sanders’s plans by September.  He is counting on the fact that people will forget what he said earlier in the year.  He is counting on the fact that breathless media coverage will want to discuss what he said that day, not what he said six months ago.

Trump will attempt to surprise Clinton by taking positions more liberal than hers on many issues, and he’ll do it in his usual over-the-top, name-calling style. He’ll try to court the liberal vote by saying he is more liberal than she is.

Will he succeed?

Hard to say. But the power of charisma is that it makes people believe things that they really have no logical reason to believe.

In a sort of homage to his greatest hit, Mitt Romney complained that he lost because of President Obama’s “gifts” to  “the African-American community, the Hispanic community and young people.”

The use of the word “gifts” is interesting, but in a broader sense, Romney is correct in that these groups had reason to support Obama because his policies will make material improvements in their lives.  The number of people the President’s policies materially benefit is very large, whereas the number Romney’s policies–or, rather, what Romney’s policies were suspected to be, since he never told anyone–materially benefited was relatively small.  When you put it like that, it doesn’t sound so good for old Willard Mitt, but that is effectively what he’s saying.

Indeed, when you look at it this way, the question really is: “how did Romney do so well in the election?”  Well, it’s the old What’s The Matter With Kansas? problem.  Some voters vote on issues other than their material interests.  Poor farmers vote Republican despite the Republican economic policies because they agree with Republicans on social issues.  The inability of the Democrats to get votes from such groups has long frustrated them.

To be completely fair, there are also people who would be materially advantaged by supporting Republicans, but who support Democrats anyway.  Paul Krugman and LeBron James are two good examples.  So, this runs both ways.  And neither the poor Republican farmers nor the rich Democratic celebrities are in any way behaving illogically.  They simply vote based on other issues than their personal finances.

It’s not new for Conservatives to complain about this sort of thing.  The radical writer Albert Jay Nock complained in the 1930s that F.D.R’s election was a “coup d’Etat effected… by purchase”.  It has also been said–I have not researched this, so I don’t know whether it’s true or not–that most New Deal spending went to what were at the time “swing states”, in order, so the accusation has it, to get F.D.R. re-elected.

To my eyes, Romney’s gripes are just a way of putting the worst imaginable spin on the normal functions of a Democratic Republic.  When the most you can do is say “those stupid voters–they support the candidates who gives them the most benefit”, it makes you look like you don’t quite get how this system works.  Of course, the Republicans always try to further spin this as if they are the party of wisdom and prudence, giving the country not what it wants, but what is better for it.  The Democrats, so they say, are spoiling the electorate, giving them candy instead of vegetables, as it were.

 
At least since Reagan, though, the Republicans have been as or more liberal in their spending as the Democrats.  And they also give “gifts” to their constituency–you pretty much will get nowhere in politics unless you do–but they made the mistake of having too small a constituency this time around.

I played the end of Fallout 3 last night.  For those of you who haven’t played it, it’s a video game set in a post-apocalyptic future in Washington D.C.  Awesome setting, absolutely dreadful writing.  There is exactly one well-written character in the game, and many of his lines are just quotes from actual U.S. Presidents.

The game has multiple endings, and the one I played last night has a massive, giant, gaping plot-hole in it.  I won’t give it away–it would take forever to explain anyway–but in brief, the player is forbidden from making the most logical choice simply because the game writers wanted to force a choice on the player.  There’s a perfectly logical ending that’s best for everyone, but the game won’t let you pick it. (In fairness, they did subsequently make an add-on that will let you choose this option, but  I don’t have it.)

I’ve talked in the past on here about good and bad video game writing.  I could talk about the writing in F3 is an example of the latter, and contrast with the brilliantly constructed plot in its sequel, Fallout: New VegasBut we all have bigger things to worry about, what with the election coming up.  And it is along those lines that forced choices in Washington D.C. set me thinking.

There are exactly two real choices for President this election, as there in almost all other elections of late.  Yes, there are third-party candidates, but they cannot win, and unlike Ross Perot in ’92, are unlikely to even attract enough votes to make the real candidates take notice.  Thus, as I have written before, the question is not “is this the best person for the job?”, but, “is this person better than this other person for the job?”

I support President Obama.  I think he is clearly better than Romney.  But is he the best person for the job?  I don’t know.  Theoretically, of course, the primary system would produce the two best people for the job, but an incumbent President who faces a primary challenge is virtually sure to lose, and so no Democrat had any reason to challenge Obama this time around.  And Mitt Romney, for his part, put on an absolute clinic on how to game the American electoral system.  He discovered that he could simply say one thing in the primaries, and the opposite in the general campaign, and face no real consequences for it.  His campaign even told everyone they were going to do that, and it still worked.

It is well-known that some voters blindly give their unwavering support to one party or the other, but the bigger issue is that even when people attempt to escape from the false dichotomy of Republicans and Democrats, they still allow the parties to dictate the terms on which political decisions are made. That’s why the word “centrist” annoys me so much; it still permits the parties to set the agenda, from which the “centrists” only mix and match their  selections.

I sometimes think it would be better if the system worked as follows: the politicians were all effectively independents most of the time, but during election season could choose to align themselves with some party if they felt so inclined.  In other words, the candidate would nominate the party, rather than the party nominating the candidate who has best worked his way up in the party.  (If you think about it, why should low-ranking local officials need to have a party affiliation?) But maybe this has already been done and failed.  And it does have its drawbacks–most notably, there’s still the question of how to keep the number of candidates manageable.  Elections would all end in ties if every adult were easily able to run.  So, how do you decide who is qualified to be a national candidate without involving the party system?

Well, as I said, I think Obama is the better candidate, no question.  I don’t even really understand why so many Republicans are eager to vote for Romney, as he is apparently willing to throw away their platform to win a debate.  I don’t  actually know what he plans to do, though the best guess I can make is cutting spending and causing another recession.  So, by default, I have to support Obama for President.

“And I am right,

And you are right

          And all is right as right can be!”

–lyric from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, and Mitt Romney’s Foreign Policy.

Speaking of international affairs, the foreign policy speech the other night was surreal.  I say “speech” because it was in no way a “debate”.  Romney just echoed Obama.  Sort of pointless, really.  They might have at least had the decency to say beforehand “hey, we have no major disagreements on this, so let’s debate something else”.

Barry Goldwater famously derided “me-too” Republicans, meaning Republicans who went along with the Democrats with only slight deviations.  Mitt Romney has taken “me-too” Republicanism to an absurd extreme–at least in his words, if not in his deeds.  Either he is lying to the country in general about what his plans are, or else he is lying to the Republicans about being one of them.  I think there was a famous quote from some old politician about “fooling all of the people all of the time“.  Romney should check that out.

One problem with foreign policy debates is that foreign policy more than other matters requires secrecy.  You can’t go blabbing your plans all over the place, or rival nations and other entities will find out what you’re up to and react accordingly.  So, all they can really do is spout platitudes. “Peace is good”, “America must be strong” and so on. Still, spouting platitudes is what politicians excel at.

Obama’s line about horses and bayonets was a good one, but I sometimes think he’s over-thinking things.  While I agree that some of the military spending Romney is proposing is wasteful, it might be the easiest way of providing the economy with the Keynesian stimulus it needs, since few Republicans will vote against it.  It would be better to spend it on schools and such, but if the political landscape makes that impossible, there’s not much to be done.

I still think Obama is going to win this election, but there’s no question it’s been much closer than I ever expected.

Now then, as I was saying, charisma is what wins Presidential elections.  The first debate proved this point quite conclusively; as Mitt Romney won it in the opinion of almost everyone simply because he seemed more energetic than the President did.  Naturally, I was shocked that Obama did so poorly, but nonetheless the general principle that charisma wins elections was upheld.

Obama returned to form, though, in the second debate and I think won it despite Romney’s best efforts to weird him out by stealing his material.  Obama is more likeable than Romney in general; so I really cannot think what happened in the first debate.  I still believe that Obama will win because of his charm, and leave the awkward, sometimes nervous looking former Governor wondering what happened.

Of course, in the matter of what they proposed to do things were very different.  Mitt Romney threw almost all conservative ideas out, and simply mimicked Obama to a great extent.  He talked about how rich people  do not need help; the middle class does, and spoke fondly of the need for government regulations.  In the second debate, he came out in favor of affirmative action, albeit awkwardly.  In the upcoming foreign policy debate, he will probably quote Howard Zinn approvingly.

Romney won the first debate, but in so doing he essentially promised to be super moderate–to out-Obama Obama, as it were.  Maybe Romney will just say whatever he thinks is likely to be popular at any given moment.  Or maybe there is a conscious and deliberate plan whereby Romney talks like the consummate “centrist” and then governs like a supply-side Republican.  But either way, the Etch-A-Sketch strategy worked like a charm.

In a way, I think these debates have been the culmination of what I talked about in this post.  There are two Rockefeller Republicans in these debates; one of them simply happens to be a Democrat.  There are differences in their personal style, in their manner, and in degrees of Rockefeller Republicanism, but that is what they both are campaigning as.

Obama is (usually) more charismatic, and so he gets the advantage among swing voters.  Of the remaining votes, I assume that most will be cast based on party loyalty.  The Democrats will vote for Obama and hope he will adhere more closely to their platform, even though he will still face opposition in Congress.  The Republicans will vote Romney because they want Obama out, and will vote automatically for the GOP candidate whoever he happens to be.

It bears repeating that Romney is probably not actually a Rockefeller Republican; he just plays one on TV.  He played a much more socially conservative kind of Republican in the primaries, and then relied on the public’s short attention span to affect his metamorphosis.   Most likely, he is a George W. Bush Republican: almost all of his policies suggest that he supports the same tax cuts and military interventionism that the last Republican did.  But saying that won’t win him any allies.

I think that Obama, meanwhile, would like to be more liberal on government spending, raising taxes, and so on.  He probably wants to be an FDR Democrat on the economy, but the political terrain is such that he can’t find a way to do that.  For one thing, I think he is more interested in achieving bipartisanship than FDR was.

Ultimately, I think Obama wins this on personal appeal.  Romney, outside of one fluky debate, seems rather arrogant and condescending.  Even in the debate he “won”, he seemed arrogant with the way he talked over the moderator.