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.
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.
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 Vegas. But 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.
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.
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.
For the past week, all any one is taking about is Niall Ferguson’s Newsweek article on the case against re-electing President Obama. There has been a lot of arguing between Ferguson and many high-profile bloggers about various points in the article which are either false or misleading. There is also the revelation that Newsweek does not actually fact-check their articles. I think that aspect of it has been pretty well hashed-over, so I’m not going to spend much time on it.
What I want to address is why Ferguson thinks Romney would be any better. Because, the question is not “is Obama the best candidate for the Presidency,” but “is he better than Romney?” Ferguson’s reasons for favoring Romney seem to rest largely on the fact that his V.P. is Paul Ryan. Big deal. The Vice-Presidency is practically worthless except in the hands of somebody with vast experience with how Washington works and tons of connections within the political arena. But I don’t think Romney wants to market Ryan as “the next Dick Cheney”.
Then, of course, there is the problem that Ryan is not really all he’s cracked up to be, as documented by Ferguson’s arch-nemesis, Paul Krugman. I’ll address that in a minute but first let’s allow, for the sake of argument, that Paul Ryan is, as Ferguson writes “truly sincere about addressing this country’s fiscal crisis.” He’s still just the Vice-President. Arguably, he could do more to implement his budget schemes in his current position as Congressman than as Romney’s back-up.
But here is where things get problematic: Ferguson’s argument is that the economy has sucked under Obama. That’s true. There’s no two ways about it, as they say. And while that’s not completely or even mostly Obama’s fault, his administration has definitely made some mistakes on that front.
So, is the Romney/Ryan ticket likely to do a better job or a worse job?
Ferguson describes Ryan’s plan, kind of assuming that his plan is what Romney will pursue:
Replace Medicare with a voucher program for those now under 55 (not current or imminent recipients), turn Medicaid and food stamps into block grants for the states, and—crucially—simplify the tax code and lower tax rates to try to inject some supply-side life back into the U.S. private sector. Ryan is not preaching austerity. He is preaching growth.
“Growth”, eh? Well, to get growth, you need a multiplier effect. The estimated values for multipliers on tax cuts range from 1.29 to 0.27, according to Mark Zandi, Chief Economist at Moody’s, in a study cited by Wikipedia. The same study estimated the multipliers for government spending increases ranged from 1.73 to 1.36. These are the different effects a change in tax cuts or spending have on growth of domestic output. (GDP)
If you notice, the number 1.36 is greater than the number 1.29. That means that if you multiply the same number by both, you get a greater answer from the number that’s greater. The spending increase number is greater than the tax cut number. I realize this is difficult to understand. Apparently, a Harvard professor and the Republican candidate for Vice-President can’t follow it.
Alright, so I’m being a sarcastic jerk. There is an alternative explanation: that everything we thought we knew about basic macro-economics is wrong, in which case all bets are off. We may as well just go back to the barter system. Neoclassical synthesis? No thank you! The Republicans seem beholden to a school of thought which, rather than having a macro-economic model and a micro-economic model, simply extrapolates the principles of classical micro to describe the macro.
Remember what Ferguson wrote, about “supply-side life”? Well, that’s a swell plan if you’re facing a supply side recession, as we were in the 1970s. But we’re not facing that now. We’re facing a demand-side recession. How do I know this? Because there has been a decrease in GDP and low inflation–almost deflation. If it were a supply-side issue, there would have been a decrease in GDP and a rise in the price level–aka “stagflation“. Meaning, the supply-side stuff advocated by Ronald Reagan that worked to an extent in the early ’80s won’t work now.
(Not that I suppose you care, but here is a graph of what the present problem is. It’s lousy quality, and I just sketched it without using any numbers or anything, but I couldn’t find any public domain graphs of an Aggregate Demand decrease online.)
So, Paul Ryan–and, Ferguson would have us presume, Romney–are bringing supply to a demand fight. Their plan is to cut taxes and reduce spending, when what they should be doing is increasing spending and leaving taxes alone until the economy has recovered, at which point they could reduce spending and raise taxes to start dealing with the debt problem.
That is why, even though Obama has messed up his handling of the economy, it would not be smart to vote him out because of it. His replacements would be even worse.