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.

Intriguing title, huh?  I can’t take full credit for it though, it was inspired by Michael Tomasky’s piece in The Daily Beast criticizing Obama’s DNC speech:

This was the rhetorical equivalent, forgive the football metaphor, of running out the clock: Obama clearly thinks he’s ahead and just doesn’t need to make mistakes. But when football teams do that, it often turns out to be the biggest mistake of all, and they lose.

Well, teams that are competent can usually manage to do that.  It’s only teams with glaring weaknesses that fail at it. If you can’t run out the clock when you’re ahead, it means you’re not very good.  Tomasky continues:

 Unlike Clinton, Obama didn’t even mention [Medicaid] by name. Social Security and Medicare, yes, although even with those, he uttered mere vague sentences. But his not even mentioning Medicaid stunned me. Third down and 12, let’s run it up the middle, boys, take no chances.

Hey, Tomasky, teams that throw deep with a late lead tend to end up like this.  So maybe Obama knows what he’s doing.  Yes, I liked Clinton’s speech a lot too.  But there was no point in Obama repeating what Clinton had already said.  There was enough repetition in the convention speeches as it was.

As of right now, Obama leads Romney 48-45 in the Gallup poll.  To continue the football analogy, with a three point lead late in the game, he’d be crazy to try anything risky.

 

People are complaining about it, but I really enjoyed former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm’s DNC speech.  Why, if the politicians aren’t excited about what they’re doing, how can they expect the voters to be?  The only problem I have with her speech is that the enthusiasm it engendered will be long forgotten come election day.  She should have given it in early November.

Meanwhile, President Obama’s speech seems to have gotten a mixed reception.  I think his reputation as a good speaker is starting to work against him; he is expected to give a brilliant address every time he speaks.  Whereas Romney just has to prove he has actual human emotions for people to feel like he gave a good speech.

Ultimately, I really don’t think the conventions changed anything.  All anyone will remember from either of them will be Clint Eastwood, and he isn’t even running.

 

I liked Bill Clinton’s speech last night.  He did a good job of using his charisma to package the use of actual numbers and statistics in his speech.  It seems to me that politicians nowadays prefer to rely more and more on clever turns of phrase, rather than actual facts and figures to get their points across.  Clinton certainly had some one-liners, but he also gave some pretty involved  explanations of things.  I especially liked his observation that  “Today, interest rates are low, lower than the rate of inflation. People are practically paying us to borrow money”.

I am still not a fan of saying the stimulus “created or saved” jobs, which he did at least once.  That sounds like weasel words, and even though I assume the “saved” idea is based on models and projections of the economy without the stimulus,  those are still just models, and it feels shady to take credit for preventing something you assume would have happened.  They should stick with just “created”.

All in all, though, a very good speech.

Okay, I wanted to try to avoid blogging about politics this weekend, but analysis of Clint Eastwood’s Absurdist one-man play is everywhere.  I guess it’s not even that political except that it happened at the Republican convention.  As eurobrat points out, the performance, unlike everything else at the convention, was not carefully stage and crafted.  It was spontaneous.

That definitely was why it was more memorable than anything  else at the convention, but I am not sure that “memorable” means “good”.  “All publicity is good publicity”, they say, but they are wrong.  Just ask Richard Nixon.  Still, I like Eastwood, and I can sort of see what he was trying to so, but it just fell flat.  That’s okay; plays often do need adjustments after opening night.

I think he should hire Roger Guenveur Smith to perform in the next version of it.  Number one because he is very good at one-man performances, and number two because there would be something delightfully ironic about a man named Roger Smith interviewing an empty chair.

Talking of which, Michael Moore has his own take on it, in which he erroneously says “a crazy old man hijacked a national party’s most important gathering so he could literally tell the president to go do something to himself”.  But Eastwood had the imaginary President–President Harvey, if you will–telling him, Eastwood, that.  The implied swearing didn’t bother me that much, although I suppose it will horrify the religious wing of the Republican party.

But, in the end, it was my favorite part of the convention.  I have to give Eastwood credit for that much.

Matt Taibbi is one of my favorite writers.  He is generally called a “liberal”, though in my opinion that word does not give a very good idea of either his views or his style.  “Jacobin” is perhaps the best word, though it is a pejorative which suggests he means some sort of violent revolution.  I don’t think he does, but his writing is very angry and his ideas very radical for the modern Democratic party.

Anyway, Taibbi wrote an article for Rolling Stone about Mitt Romney’s work at Bain Capital.  It is not a bad article, though Taibbi is more of a polemicist than a journalist, and so he tends to cast all of Romney’s actions in the worst possible light.  He also makes a few questionable assertions, such as:

If you haven’t heard much about how takeover deals like Dunkin’ and KB Toys work, that’s because Mitt Romney and his private equity brethren don’t want you to. The new owners of American industry are the polar opposites of the Milton Hersheys and Andrew Carnegies who built this country, commercial titans who longed to leave visible legacies of their accomplishments…

The men of the private equity generation want no such thing. “We try to hide religiously,” explained Steven Feinberg, the CEO of a takeover firm called Cerberus Capital Management that recently drove one of its targets into bankruptcy after saddling it with $2.3 billion in debt.

The first rule of Private equity is “you do not talk about Private Equity”, huh?   If so, then why is Romney running for President, when he must know that his background will be investigated? And if the other private equity people are so anxious to protect their wheelings and dealings, why are they not using their considerable resources to make him drop out?

Taibbi is wrong.  The reason you don’t hear about how Bain Capital works is that it’s too complicated and too boring for the average voter to pay attention to–especially given that when Romney worked there, he was just some rich guy that no one had reason to pay attention to.  Maybe they should have, but they didn’t.  Romney didn’t need to go to a lot of effort to keep his activities secret.

But then, towards the end, Taibbi says something very interesting.  I don’t want to post it all here, but the part beginning “Listen to Mitt Romney speak, and see if you can notice what’s missing…” is where it starts.  Taibbi notes that Romney and Obama both have what he calls a “post-regional attitude”.  If Obama represents the cosmopolitan worldview, then Romney represents international finance… and neither of these views are well-liked by the nationalists, as I have written about many times.  This, in other words, is the key to why Romney struggles among social conservatives.

 

Try to ignore the awful background music, and focus on what Senator Santorum says.  Notice first of all that Santorum tries to get in all kinds of subtle digs at Romney.  He even makes an allusion to “telling stories about having a dog”.  Maybe that was just coincidence, but I suspect it was calculated to evoke this.  He suggests that Romney is not an “idea man”, he repeatedly emphasizes how unlikable Romney is, and that he says he “offered” the Romney camp advice, not that they took it.

People thought Palin had “gone rogue” towards the end of the 2008 campaign; heck, here’s Rick Santorum putting down the nominee in the middle of the Republican convention.  Santorum does everything except say “Romney is not likable, and he won’t win for that reason.”  I am pretty sure that such pessimism, even when totally warranted, is frowned upon at political conventions.  He actually compares Romney to Al Gore and John Kerry!  It’s a highly accurate comparison in many ways, but I bet the Romney campaign is none too pleased.

This was the most interesting thing I’ve seen at the convention so far; a bit of subtle, passive-aggressive psychological manipulation that would make Darth Traya proud.