2012 - %3, October

It's Zinger Time!

| Mon Oct. 1, 2012 11:55 AM PDT

With the first presidential debate approaching, we're starting to see lots of retrospective pieces about famous debate gaffes of the past. The Wall Street Journal has a greatest hits parade here, and it's fun because it includes video clips of the various moments. Still, don't take it too seriously. The most famous gaffe of all, Richard Nixon's refusal to wear makeup and his profuse sweating in the television studio, probably didn't actually make any difference. The myth that Nixon lost the debate among TV viewers but won among radio listeners was seriously called into question long ago. And as Bob Somerby reminds us, Al Gore's famous sighing in 2000 didn't prevent him from posting a convincing win over George Bush in the overnight polls. It was only after the media got hold of the sighing meme that it took off.

As for the others, who knows? Reagan was already well ahead of Jimmy Carter when he invented the debate zinger in 1980, and it's pretty unlikely that George Bush looking at his watch in 1992 really made much of a difference. As for the Ford and Dukakis gaffes — well, I don't know. But I guess I'd like to see some evidence that there was a sharp tick in the polls shortly afterward.

In any case, if there's anything that partisans of all stripes should hold against Ronald Reagan, it's the idiotic obsession we now have with debate zingers. Romney's team has apparently been hard at work on the zinger front, and the New York Times reports that they've "equipped him with a series of zingers that he has memorized and has been practicing on aides since August." Great. I don't doubt that Team Obama is doing the same, but the big difference here is that the Romney guys actually bragged about it. This is so mind-numbingly stupid that Romney probably ought to be tossed out of the race just for sheer campaign incompetence.

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It's October, So It Must Be Time For a Surprise

| Mon Oct. 1, 2012 10:03 AM PDT

Anton Brand/Shutterstock; Harry E. Walker/MCT/ZUMAAnton Brand/Shutterstock; Harry E. Walker/MCT/ZUMAAccording to Craig Unger at Salon, a "highly reliable source" tells him that the Romney campaign is "chortling with glee" over an October Surprise they plan to unleash in the coming days.

Republican operatives are primed to unleash a new two-pronged offensive that will attack Obama as weak on national security, and will be based, in part, on new intelligence information regarding the attacks in Libya that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens on Sept. 11....[The source] added that they planned to release what they hoped would be “a bombshell” that would make Libya and Obama’s foreign policy a major issue in the campaign. “My understanding is that they have come up with evidence that the Obama administration had positive intelligence that there was going to be a terrorist attack on the intelligence.”

Really? Well fine. I wasn't going to do this, since the prospect of an October Surprise hasn't really been a topic of conversation this year, but back in 2004 it was, and I wrote a short little history of October Surprises for the Washington Monthly. It never got published, but by God, no research should ever go to waste, should it? So in honor of October 1st, here it is. If you have the stamina to make it all the way to the end, there's even a short little contest. Enjoy.


In July 1940, at the height of his powers and running for an unprecedented third term, Franklin Roosevelt surveyed the Democratic party in search of a running mate. After due consideration his eyes lighted on his Secretary of Agriculture, Henry Wallace, a selection his closest advisors and most of the Democratic party chiefs warned him away from. FDR refused to listen: "They will go for Wallace or I won't run," he insisted testily.

And why not? Wallace was popular, a good speaker, and had done a creditable job of running the Department of Agriculture. What's more, he was honest to a fault, a fervent New Dealer, and intensely loyal to Roosevelt. Oh, and one more thing: in this era before FBI background checks, it turned out that Wallace had an additional trait that FDR either didn't know about or didn't take seriously: he was a wee bit eccentric.

Unfortunately for Roosevelt, his Republican opposition did know.

PHOTO: Georgia GOP Goes Full Bircher

| Mon Oct. 1, 2012 9:48 AM PDT

The choice is up to you, comrade!

Camden County, Georgia, don't need none of that smart-growth communism. That's the apparent message behind this billboard, flagged by Mother Jones reader and Camden County resident John S. Myers. "Nov. 6 You Decide America's Fate," the billboard's copy blares, with a US flag-and-Statue-of-Liberty collage pasted on its right wing... and a hammer and sickle emblazoned on the left. "VOTE REPUBLICAN," it concludes, with a smaller message below: "Paid for by the Camden County Republican Party."

Anyone who's shuttled back and forth on the byways linking North Florida to Georgia and South Carolina has probably seen dozens of billboards like this, but rarely do they come directly from the GOP. It could be another sign of the party's rightward march into Bircher and birther territory. Just last week, a Virginia county Republican party came under fire for distributing Photoshopped images depicting President Obama "as a witch doctor, caveman and thug."

Obama Apparently Has Pact With Devil in Swing States

| Mon Oct. 1, 2012 8:55 AM PDT

The latest results from the Washington Post/ABC News poll are pretty interesting. Not because they tell us anything especially new — Obama is doing well in swing states — but because the magnitude of his lead is so astonishing. I did a bit of quick back-of-the-envelope arithmetic and concluded that Obama and Romney are probably dead tied in all the non-swing states put together. But Obama leads 52-41% in swing states. That's a difference of 11 points between swing states and non-swing states.

Are Obama's ads really that much better than Romney's? Is his early start in the ground game paying off this big? Or what? This sure seems like a surprisingly massive difference.

The madcap pollsters at the Post also continued this year's big new fad of asking a whole bunch of bizarro questions about the candidates: Who would you rather have as ship's captain during a storm, who would you rather invite home to dinner, who would you go on an overnight camping trip with, who would you rather have babysit your kids, whose music playlist would you rather listen to, who would you rather see as a contestant on Dancing with the Stars? Poor Mitt did badly on all of them except for the babysitting question.

However, in yet another indication of liberal bias in polling this year, they didn't ask who you'd rather have do your taxes, or who you'd rather have as a 401(k) investment advisor, or who you'd rather hire to manage your hedge fund. I bet Romney would have done pretty well in those categories.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for October 1, 2012

Mon Oct. 1, 2012 8:18 AM PDT

U.S. Army soldiers from Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, "Gimlets" 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25 Infantry Division engage targets during a live fire training exercise Sept. 19, 2012, at Pohakuloa Training Area, on Hawaii. U.S. Army photo.

The Drone Unknowns

| Mon Oct. 1, 2012 8:15 AM PDT

We don't know how many civilians are killed in drone strikes, but we do know the US government is almost certainly wrong about it. 

That's one conclusion you could draw from a report on the impact of the use of drones in targeted killing by the the Human Rights Clinic at Columbia Law School and the Center for Civilians in Conflict*, released Sunday, a year to the day that radical American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki was killed in a drone strike in Yemen. While the US government has maintained that few if any non-militants are killed in drone strikes, reports about how targeting decisions are made, the realities of airborne warfare, and the basic fallibility of humankind call the Obama administration's claims of precision into question. There's also the problem that some behaviors which might seem to indicate "guilt" out of context, like carrying a gun, are common in the areas being targeted. "A civilian carrying a gun, which is a cultural norm in parts of Pakistan, does not know if such behavior will get him killed by a drone," the report notes. While "personality" strikes are aimed at specific individuals, the government also conducts "signature strikes" which hit anonymous individuals on the basis of a "pattern of behavior."

Because the government has yet to even officially acknowledge the existence of the CIA's targeted killing program or its military counterpart in the Joint Special Operations Command however, it's hard to evaluate the Obama administration's claims about avoiding civilian harm. The report notes that the dearth of first-hand information from the areas most frequently targeted by drone strikes means that determining who is a "militant" and who is not, particularly after the fact, is very difficult. That's why third-party estimates, which cast serious doubt on the government's assessments, vary so widely, and why the Obama administration itself may not even know how many civilians are being killed. Here's a chart from the report:

 

The report points out that the impact of drone attacks on civilians cannot be measured by deaths alone. "[O]ne civilian death or injury is enough to dramatically alter families' lives. In Pakistan, families are often large, and their well being is intricately connected among many members. The death of one member can create long-lasting instability, particularly if a breadwinner is killed." Even if no civilians are killed, the report states that property damage related to strikes can drastically alter the lives of those impacted. "A house is often a family’s greatest financial asset. In northern Pakistan, homes are often shared by multiple families, compounding the suffering and hardship caused when a house is destroyed." That's to say nothing of the psychological effects of living in a place where you never know if fire will rain down from the skies. The study quotes Michael Kugelman of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, who says that "I have heard Pakistanis speak about children in the tribal areas who become hysterical when they hear the characteristic buzz of a drone."

The report recommends that the Obama administration empanel an "interagency task force" to "evaluate covert drone operations" with regard to civilian harm, oversight, and accountability. The ongoing popularity of drones as a method of fighting terrorism without putting American lives at risk, however, gives the administration little political incentive to publicly reevaluate its drone policy, despite the fact that its being shrouded in secrecy denies Americans the ability to make informed value judgements about whether it does more harm than good—or even how much harm or good they actually do. 

*An earlier version of this post mistakenly referred to the producers of the report as the Center for Civilians in Conflict at Columbia University.

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"Homeland": Lots of Tick-Tick, Not Much Boom

| Mon Oct. 1, 2012 8:01 AM PDT

It’s hard to tell how clever Showtime's Homeland—whose second season started last Sunday—actually is. One early scene in the season premiere showcases the range of acceptable views for cable news pundits on bombing Iran: A leftist describes the logic of Israel bombing Iran to stop Iran from bombing Israel as "maddening"; a "centrist" opines that military action is sometimes necessary; a right-winger notes that "the Arab religion doesn't value human life the way we do." A fourth voice points out that Iranians are not Arabs.

The scene does not take place on cable news, however. It is an argument between children at a prestigious Quaker private school where prominent government officials send their children (a clear stand-in for Sidwell Friends). Is this setup mere exposition, or a biting satire of a glib media conversation about war that never rises above the level of an argument between children?

Mattress Buying Is Very Annoying

| Mon Oct. 1, 2012 7:31 AM PDT

I agree with Rohin Dhar that the mattress industry is rotten. However, not because of this:

The top four companies (Sealy, Serta, Simmons, and Tempur-Pedic) make up 59% of the industry revenue. The top fifteen mattress companies make up a whopping 81% of the market. Low levels of competition lead to consumers paying obscenely high prices for mattresses.

Is this unusual? It doesn't sound all that unusual to me. Four companies that control about half the market and a dozen that control 80% of the market? I don't know what's average for national industries like this (or even how you'd calculate "average"), but isn't this pretty average sounding?

(Via Andrew Sullivan.)

Bloggingheads: Corn and Wright Discuss the 47 Percent Story

Mon Oct. 1, 2012 6:54 AM PDT

On Friday's Bloggingheads, David Corn and The Wright Show's Robert Wright discussed what in God's name Mitt Romney was thinking when he made his now-infamous 47 percent comments. Corn also explained how he got the scoop. Was it his biggest moment as a journalist? "There's nothing I've done that has reached this many people this fast."

P.S. Wright also compares Corn to Harriet Beecher Stowe.

New Poll: Mitt's Got a Serious Swing State Problem

| Mon Oct. 1, 2012 5:56 AM PDT

Veteran politicos and journalists who've done a few tours on the campaign trail like to say that, in a tight race, you shouldn't put much faith in national presidential polls. It's the state-level polls, especially those in the handful of fiercely fought battleground states, that really matter.

By that measure, President Obama has opened up a sizable lead over Mitt Romney with five weeks until Election Day. According to a new ABC News/Washington Post poll, Obama leads Romney 52 percent to 41 percent among likely voters in swing states, which include Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia. Nationwide, 49 percent of likely voters say they'd vote for Obama in November, while 47 percent said the same for Romney.

Obama's swing state advantage in this latest poll doesn't appear to be a fluke. Last week, Quinnipiac University/New York Times/CBS News polls showed Obama ahead by 10 points in Ohio and nine in Florida. RealClearPolitics' polling averages in the top nine swing states show Obama ahead in all of them, albeit by single-digit margins.

These latest swing state polls suggest that Romney's path to 270 electoral college votes is slimmer than ever. Romney needs to win the bulk of the top nine swing states—Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Iowa, New Hampshire, Virginia, Colorado, Wisconsin, and Nevada—to have a shot at prevailing on November 6.

Obama's lead could be a result of his campaign's advertising and ground-game advantage in those key states. According to a recent Wesleyan Media Project analysis, Obama's campaign and his Democratic allies out-advertised Romney and various GOP groups by more than 2-to-1 between late August and early September, running 40,000 broadcast and cable ads compared to Romney and the GOP's 18,000. That disparity is evident in battleground states. Between April and early September, Democrats ran more ads in Las Vegas, Cleveland, Denver, Orlando, Reno, Norfolk, Tampa, and Richmond—all major media markets in swing states—according to Wesleyan.

And the Obama team is outpacing the Romney campaign in the ground game as well. In Ohio, for instance, the Obama campaign has 96 field offices and the Romney campaign has 36.

Here's more from the ABC News/Washington Post poll, on the candidates and the issues:

Obama continues to hold double-digit advantages when it comes to being the more friendly and likable of the two, and as the candidate more voters trust on social issues, women's issues and terrorism. He maintains a big lead when it comes to empathizing with people facing economic problems. And he has a 10-point edge when it comes to handling "an unexpected major crisis," the first time the question has been asked this year.

He and Romney are judged more evenly on some other key issues, including the deficit, health care and Medicare. Romney does not have significant leads in any of the areas tested in the poll, but he has a numerical edge on dealing with the federal budget deficit, 48 percent to 45 percent, among all voters.

On the economy—still the dominant issue in the campaign—voters render a split verdict, with the two tied at 47 percent.

The state of the economy and dissatisfaction over the country's direction continue to be steep obstacles to the president's reelection—but Obama benefits from recent improvements in voters' moods, even if it is mainly Democrats who are feeling better about things.

More voters still give Obama negative ratings for his handling of the economy, but the number of approvers has edged up to 47 percent, its highest level in nearly two years.