2012 - %3, October

Are Women Headed to the Infantry?

| Thu Oct. 4, 2012 11:54 AM EDT

Demi Moore in GI Jane.

Women could be poised to breach the final frontier of military macho. For the first time yesterday, women were included in a Marine Corps infantry officer training, a grueling three-month course at Quantico, Virginia, where Marines are schooled in making command decisions under extreme stress.

Women have fought and died in every American war, and more than 280,000 of them have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, but they are still barred from the infantry. In February, as my colleague Adam Weinstein reported, the Department of Defense urged Congress to allow women to serve in more combat-related jobs, and has since then opened up new jobs for women closer to the front lines. This training program is part of a Pentagon experiment to develop "gender-neutral physical standards," and collect data on whether women's bodies can actually handle this kind of Rambo job.

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Quote of the Day: Mitt Romney on Preexisting Conditions

| Thu Oct. 4, 2012 11:37 AM EDT

From Romney flack Eric Fehrnstrom, pressed on Romney's debate claim that "preexisting conditions are covered under my plan":

We'd like to see states do what Massachusetts did. In Massachusetts we have a ban on pre-existing conditions.

Translation: Romney's healthcare plan doesn't cover people with preexisting conditions. He thinks the states should do that.

Shorter translation: Romney lied.

CNN's Kentucky Fried Instapoll

| Thu Oct. 4, 2012 11:08 AM EDT

David Atkins passes along a strange find this morning. CNN's instapoll of the debate had Romney winning by 67-25. But if you look at the crosstabs, it appears that their sample was entirely white, entirely over 50, and entirely from the South. Maybe there's a good explanation for this, but it seems a bit odd, no?

UPDATE: TPM says, "CNN provided us with the internals of the poll, and the demographics of the poll respondents are very much in line with normal standards for randomized sampling." OK. Though I'm still not sure how you account for such odd crosstabs.

The Strange Case of the Trap That Was Never Sprung

| Thu Oct. 4, 2012 10:04 AM EDT

Last night's debate will end up getting parsed endlessly today, and President Obama is obviously the consensus loser already. I didn't quite see it that way. Obama was indeed halting and unfocused, which made him appear oddly unprepared, but I thought Romney's speaking style featured some equally unattractive qualities, ones we've seen in prior debates: he was nervously aggressive, spouted faux outrage over every single claim about his plans, repeatedly demanded more time to respond, and just generally oozed a sort of ADHD quality. Apparently, though, this bothers me more than most people.

But Obama's lack of focus bothered me too. For example, on three different occasions he claimed that Romney wanted to cut taxes by $5 trillion, and three times Romney said that was wrong:

Governor Romney’s central economic plan calls for a $5 trillion tax cut....

First of all, I don’t have a $5 trillion tax cut.....

Governor Romney’s proposal that he has been promoting for 18 months calls for a $5 trillion tax cut....

I’m not looking for a $5 trillion tax cut....

If you believe that we can cut taxes by $5 trillion....

Let me repeat what I said. I’m not in favor of a $5 trillion tax cut. That’s not my plan....

This is puzzling. The obvious gimmick here is to repeatedly refer to Romney's plan as a $5 trillion tax cut, which is sort of brazenly incorrect, as a way of baiting Romney into claiming that he's going to close loopholes and deductions that will make his plan revenue neutral. And it worked! That's exactly what Romney did.

This is a pretty good trap. After getting Romney to talk about deductions and loopholes on three separate occasions, it's the perfect time to make a withering comment about pigs in a poke and demand that he come clean. Is he going to do away with the home mortgage deduction? The charitable deduction? The healthcare deduction?  Come on, Governor Romney, level with us. No more snow jobs. Let's hear your real plan, not a bunch of supply-side happy talk.

It was perfect! Except that Obama never sprung the trap. Oh, he talked about "the math," and about the "analysts" who say Romney's plan doesn't add up, and later on even got off a quip about Romney's "secret plans." But he never even tried to seriously hammer Romney on the point he was obviously setting up: What are the deductions you're targeting? No more hiding. No more secrets. Tell us the other half of your plan.

This, to me, was the most peculiar single aspect of the debate. It seemed obvious that this was the road Obama was trying to lead Romney down, and it worked. But then he failed to follow up with the killing blow. Why?

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for October 4, 2012

Thu Oct. 4, 2012 9:21 AM EDT

Marines with 2nd Reconnaissance Battalion after an air raid exercise at the Sweet Water training area, Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center Bridgeport, Calif., Sept. 17, 2012. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Ali Azimi.

Why Obama Didn't Mention the 47 Percent Video

| Thu Oct. 4, 2012 9:01 AM EDT

After the first presidential debate in Denver—which an on-the-attack Mitt Romney seemed to exploit better than a noncombative President Barack Obama—at least one question loomed: Why had the president not once referred to the 47 percent video that showed Romney denigrating half of Americans as moochers and victims who don't assume responsibility for their lives? After all, this video seemed to have sent the Romney campaign reeling, and focus groups conducted by both campaigns have found it had a serious impact on voter perceptions of Romney.

The morning after the debate, I contacted several Democratic strategists. They each said they were puzzled by Obama's silence on this topic and by his decision not to say a word about Romney's days at Bain Capital. "This is the stuff that has been working for us," one remarked. "Bain, 47 percent, Romney not empathizing with the middle class. Why not mention it?"

The Obama campaign does have an explanation. When I asked a top campaign official why Obama had made no mention of Romney's 47 percent remark, he said,

Not that we won't talk about it again. We will. But [what's] most compelling [is] hearing it from Romney himself. We've got that on the air at a heavy dollar amount in key states. And it's sunk in. Ultimately the president's goal last night was to speak past the pundits and directly to the undecided voter tuning in for the first time about the economic choice and his plans to restore economic security.

It's clear, one Democratic strategist said, that Obama's inner circle concluded it was best not to turn the debate into a slugfest and hit Romney personally. That might come across as not presidential. It could distract from his aim of persuading those few remaining undecideds that they should see this election as a choice between two starkly different visions for the future and select his. Besides, there are weeks of ads to come, and if the 47 percent theme continues to resonate, the campaign certainly can keep producing ads that use the video as ammo.

Despite the pundit reviews noting that Romney performed better than Obama, is it possible that Obama's low-impact strategy worked—or didn't fail? Priorities USA Action, a pro-Obama super-PAC, has released a memo based on a "dial group session" pollster Geoff Garin held in Aurora, Colorado, during the debate; the participants were "weak Democrats and independents who voted for Obama in 2008 but who remain open to switching in the upcoming election." The results were mixed: 

Compared with the beginning of the session, there was a doubling in the number of respondents who said that Obama has good ideas for improving the economy. While Romney also improved on this dimension, 63% of respondents said at the end that Obama expressed good ideas for improving the economy, compared with 27% who said the same about Romney in the debate…

Romney did gain ground on the President on the issue of taxes, and he largely negated the advantage Obama had on the issue when respondents first walked into the room.

In the moment-to-moment dialing, President Obama’s high points were when he talked about outsourcing and tax breaks for shipping jobs overseas, the need for a balanced approach to dealing with the deficit, and clean energy. Romney’s high points were fewer, but he scored best whenever he spoke about making jobs the number-one priority.

Respondents who came into the room open to Romney as an alternative to Obama felt disappointed in Romney’s lack of specifics. But Romney did benefit from low expectations among this group, and several said that Romney did not seem as bad as they thought he might be. For these key swing voters, whom Obama must hold and Romney must win, the first debate did not change much, but it also did not settle much. Obama continues to have the advantage with them, but the deal still is not sealed.

Not settle much. That's often the case with presidential debates. But perhaps the most worrisome of these findings for the Obama camp is that these voters ended up believing Romney's not such a bad guy. That suggests his debate performance has the potential to undo some of the damage he suffered from the Bain blasts and the revelation of his 47 percent tirade. Yet, as the Obama campaign official suggests, there's plenty of time—and plenty of opportunity—for the campaign to resume its Bain-bashing and reprise its 47 percent assault.

UPDATE: On a conference call with reporters, a defensive David Axelrod, Obama's chief strategist, noted that the president's supporters would have liked to see Obama slam Romney on Bain, tax returns, and the 47 percent video. But, he added, "a lot of these issues are well known to the public," and Obama's "choice was to talk about the main things people are worried about in their lives." Obama, Axelrod said, had wanted to avoid an insult-fest and instead use the debate to discuss the future. He did note that following the debate the campaign would "make some adjustments."

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Historic Food Market Gets Torched in Syria's Civil War

| Thu Oct. 4, 2012 5:00 AM EDT
A spice stall in Souk Madina.

Thirty thousand people have died in Syria's civil war—and the killing is only intensifying. Obviously, human beings are any war's most appalling casualties, but there are cultural conflagrations that matter, too—vital spaces laid waste, lost forever. Few alive today have experienced the reputed grandeur of old Warsaw, leveled by Nazi bombs in World War II. How would the celebrated Aztec city of Tenochtitlán have weathered the centuries? We'll never know, because the Spanish flattened it in the process of conquest, building over it what we now know as Mexico City.

Unhappily, the violence in Syria has spread to the "ancient city" section of Aleppo, a UNESCO World Heritage site and home to the famous Souk Madina, a vast market vending everything from meat to spices to fabric since medieval times. On Saturday, reports Reuters, a clash between government and rebel forces sparked a fire that swept through the old market, burning a substantial portion of it. According to Reuters, it's the largest covered market in the world—"a network of vaulted stone alleyways and carved wooden facades" whose winding interior hallways "have a combined length of eight miles."

The extent of the damage remains unclear, but it appears extensive. Reuters reports that local observers say at least 1,500 stalls are ruined, and were, as of Sunday, still burning. UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova has issued a missive deploring the destruction. "The Aleppo souks have been a thriving part of Syria's economic and social life since the city's beginnings. They stand as testimony to Aleppo's importance as a cultural crossroads since the second millennium B.C.," she wrote. I have emails into the UNESCO press office seeking an update on the damage.

Though I've never been to the Middle East, Souk Madina has long occupied a place in my imagination for the storied richness and diversity of its spices, produce, and meat, the maze of hallways and vaulted ceilings that make up its endless stalls, and the sheer grand chaos of a teeming old market. So I contacted a few US food authorities from whose writings I've learned to revere the cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean to get their perspective on the apparent disaster.

More Debate Reax

| Wed Oct. 3, 2012 10:11 PM EDT

All the talk on CNN seems to be about how Obama "looked like he didn't want to be there." I didn't really see that myself. Obama certainly wasn't crisp, which I find a little inexplicable, but that's about the worst I saw.

Did Romney come armed with "loads of details"? Not even close. He certainly made an endless number of points, but there weren't really many facts and figures there. Just a flurry of words. And that old Romney weirdness made a few appearances too. For example, this bit about what he'd cut from the budget: "I'm sorry, Jim, I'm going to stop the subsidy to PBS. I'm going to stop other things. I like PBS. I love Big Bird. Actually I like you, too."

My sister emailed during the debate to ask, "Can Romney look any more insulting when he's listening to Obama? It's like he's looking at an idiot child." Romney's normal debate face strikes me the same way, but I don't know if it strikes everyone that way. Judge for yourself on the right.

Andrew Sullivan is beside himself: "This was a disaster for the president for the key people he needs to reach, and his effete, wonkish lectures may have jolted a lot of independents into giving Romney a second look. Obama looked tired, even bored; he kept looking down; he had no crisp statements of passion or argument; he wasn't there. He was entirely defensive, which may have been the strategy. But it was the wrong strategy. At the wrong moment." I'll chalk that up to Sullivan's mercurial temperament, but now that I'm listening to the talking heads, it seems like there's a pretty fair consensus that Obama lost by a bunch. I'll stick to my guns on this: I think Obama lost by a little, but not by much.

Matt Yglesias tweets: "It's interesting that conservatives who think they don't want Mitt to pivot to the center are clearly elated when he did it and it worked." That's true. Romney repeatedly noted that he agreed with Obama on various issues and repeatedly took rhetorically moderate positions. For example: "Regulation is essential. You can’t have a free market work if you don’t have regulation." You sure wouldn't have heard him say that during one of the primary debates.

I didn't see this myself, but Ed Kilgore reports that the CBS instapoll has Romney winning by 46-22. Ouch. Looks like the talking heads called it better than me.

Noodling a little more about this, I think my disagreement with the media consensus is more over Romney's performance than Obama's. I agree that Obama didn't bring his A game. But I didn't think Romney was all that good either. Yes, he attacked, but he did it in a curiously hyperactive way, constantly insisting on getting in one more rebuttal and then using it to go over every single point that Obama had just made. I thought that was both confusing and exhausting. Romney also made frequent references to things that Beltway junkies understand but ordinary viewers probably didn't. The "accounting treatment" for oil companies, for example, or jumping into a point about Dodd-Frank without explaining what Dodd-Frank is. And for what it's worth, I suspect that Romney won't do well in the post-debate fact checks either. It won't be the disaster that Paul Ryan's convention speech was, but he seemed pretty clearly a little faster and looser with the truth than Obama was.

Big Bird Takes Over the Internet

| Wed Oct. 3, 2012 10:09 PM EDT

About halfway through Wednesday's debate, Romney took a hit at host Jim Lehrer's network PBS, and one of its most well-known stars: Big Bird. Talking about federal subsidies he would eliminate in order to reign in the deficit, he said this:

"I'm sorry, Jim, I'm going to stop the subsidy to PBS. I'm going to stop other things. I like PBS, I love Big Bird. Actually I like you, too. But I'm not going to -- I'm not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for [it]."

The Twittersphere exploded with a Big Bird hashtag (#savebigbird) and Twitter handles, and the character's name earned 17,000 tweets per minute, according to The Hill. Incidentally, the Center for Public Broadcasting, which funds PBS, made up .00014 percent of the federal budget last year. But whatever.

Here are a few of the Big Birds that were born.

Aw. Sad face.

It even inspired avatar solidarity:

Debate Liveblogging - 3 October 2012

| Wed Oct. 3, 2012 7:26 PM EDT

WRAP-UP: This was an odd, off-kilter debate. Neither Romney nor Obama seemed entirely comfortable. Romney struck me as too hyper, insisting in every segment on going over every single claim Obama had just made. The result was a bunch of laundry lists that never cohered into recognizable points. Obama seemed oddly hesitant and halting, as if he wasn't quite sure what points he wanted to make. Transcript here.

Neither candidate landed any serious blows. Obama came the closest, I thought, in the last half hour when he attacked Romney for all his secret plans. After noting that Romney wouldn't tell us which tax deductions he wants to cut, or how he wants to replace either Obamacare or Dodd-Frank, Obama delivered the best line of the night: "Is the reason that Governor Romney is keeping all these plans secret because they’re too good? Is it because somehow middle-class families are going to benefit too much from them?"

Did that make up for the fact that Obama was strangely incompetent at attacking Romney on his tax plan in the first half hour? Hard to say. But honestly, going after Romney on the tax deduction front seems pretty obvious, and I don't understand why Obama never really did it. Sure, he made a crack about "the math," but he didn't come straight out and ask Romney if he planned to get rid of the home mortgage deduction, for example. That would have hit home a lot harder than hauling out a wonkish point about the "independent analysts" who say Romney's plan doesn't add up.

Romney avoided any big mistakes, and certainly projected more energy than Obama. But I didn't think he really delivered any great lines, or got off any really crisp explanations of his policies. I don't think tonight's performance will hurt him, but I doubt that it really helps him either.

Final score: I give Obama a B-, Romney a B.


Forget all that newfangled Twitter nonsense. We're going retro with some old school liveblogging of tonight's debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Let's do it.

10:24 - Lehrer: "We've lost a pod."

10:23 - Romney is seriously rambling on education.

10:22 - Obama keeps pulling back when he's obviously about to attack Romney. Not sure why.

10:21 - No zingers so far. A few obviously canned lines, but nothing delivered with any zest.

10:16 - "I love great schools." Uh huh. "I reject the idea that I don’t believe in great teachers." Oh please. The faux outrage doesn't work here.

10:15 - Obama's tic of constantly saying "What I've said is...." is annoying.

10:13 - So Lehrer's approach for every topic is to ask the candidates if they think there are any differences between them? This really isn't working. It's just an invitation to give a stump speech.

10:12 - Romney is answering with a bunch of possible options? Weak. Now retreating to talking points.

10:11 - Ah, finally the attack on details. Romney won't tell us what deductions he'll cut. He won't tell us what he'll replace Dodd-Frank with. He won't tell us what he'll replace Obamacare with. "Is the reason that Governor Romney is keeping all these plans secret because they're too good?" Very good line.

10:04 - Obama's IPAB explanation wasn't bad, but his speech is oddly halting and staccato tonight. He just doesn't seem fully in command of what he wants to say.

10:03 - "We didn't cut Medicare. Of course, we don't have Medicare." Oops.

10:01 - "The irony is that we’ve seen this model work really well — in Massachusetts." Good line.

9:59 - "Let me tell you exactly what Obamacare did." Finally! Now let's see if he does a good job.

9:54 - Starting to think that the old 60-second limits were a good idea.

9:53 - Do most viewers know what Dodd-Frank is? Do they know what leverage limits are?

9:47 - Obama's attack on vouchers is fairly effective. "If you’re 54 or 55, you might want to listen ‘cause this will affect you."

9:44 - Romney's attack on the $716 billion that Obama cuts from Medicare was OK, but he should have stuck with it instead of flitting around to whatever other attack popped into his mind.

9:43 - Obama is right that Social Security needs nothing more than modest tweaks.

9:40 - Romney is all over the map trying to respond to every last thing Obama said.

9:38 - "It's actually an accounting treatment...." That's really not a good phrase to come out of Romney's mouth.

9:36 -  So far, neither of these guys has really done a crisp job of explaining their programs.

9:34 - Romney going all in on the dynamic scoring fairy.

9:33 - "You’ve been president four years. You said you’d cut the deficit in half. It’s now four years later." That's a good line.

9:27 - "I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS"? Seriously? "I like PBS. I love Big Bird. Actually I like you, too." Come on.

9:25 - Romney's habit of arguing about how much time he has is something he really needs to overcome. Sounds childish.

9:20 - Nope, no pushback on loopholes.

9:18 - Is this $5 trillion tax cut thing a trap for Romney? Now Obama can ask him to list the loophole disclosures to pay for that $5 trillion.

9:15 - Are these guys trying to be soporific?

9:09 - A pair of stump speeches. I've forgotten what they said already.

9:01 - CNN has voter reaction in real time! Squiggly lines!

8:58 - David Gergen says it's all about who's "looser." That's bad news already for Romney.