Kevin Drum - October 2012

Mitt Romney's Head Fake to the Center

| Fri Oct. 5, 2012 9:37 AM PDT

I want to second this remark from Ed Kilgore:

Before it becomes a kind of Fact-Made-Fact-By-Repetition, I'd like to challenge the much-assumed idea that in the first presidential debate Mitt Romney "moved to the center" in a real, substantive way. This seems to be the conclusion of many Democrats, many in the MSM, and of those few Republicans who occasionally object to the endless rightward drift of the GOP.

Sure, his rhetoric sounded more moderate. But when you look at the details, nothing changed.

Ed provides chapter and verse in the rest of his post, which is worth a read. But I'd like to add a related thought: relatively speaking, Romney was never all that far to the right in the first place. Sure, he's adopted all the standard positions of the modern tea-party-ized GOP, but during the primaries he was always pretty careful not to go any further than that. On actual policy, he never tried to move to the right of Newt Gingrich or Michele Bachmann or Rick Perry.

What he did do was adopt a "severely conservative" rhetorical style, highlighted by his almost comically harsh attacks on Barack Obama. He was content to let the other candidates offer up redder meat than he did, but he always insisted on making sure that everyone knew his contempt for Obama was second to none. At the time, I figured this was deliberate: he didn't want to take any insane positions that might hurt him in the general election, but he still wanted to do something to show tea party voters that he was one of them in his heart. The way he did that was by never letting five minutes go by without launching yet another over-the-top verbal volley against Obama.

And it was a good strategy! It's easy to ditch attacks like that after the primary is over, and for the most part he has. Ever since spring, Romney's schtick has been an almost sorrowful acknowledgment that Obama is a good man, an honorable man, but in over his head. The harshness is mostly gone, and hardly anyone has even noticed that his attacks on Obama changed course rather abruptly as soon as he became the consensus nominee in April. And since then he's also solidified his standing with the tea party base strongly enough that he can get away with some rhetorical concessions on policy as well. This resonates more strongly with the pundit class, but Ed is right: on substance, Romney hasn't changed a thing. He still won't accept a dime in revenue increases; he still plans to cut taxes substantially on the rich while claiming he's doing no such thing; he still wants to voucherize both Medicare and education spending; he still wants to turn Medicaid over to the states and slash its funding; he still wants to increase the defense budget; he still wants to repeal both Obamacare and Dodd-Frank; and he still claims to be a deficit warrior even as he refuses to provide any details about just how he'd actually cut the deficit.

The new, more bipartisan Romney should be taken for what it is: a campaign stratagem, not a real change. He isn't moving to the center, he's just trying to sound like he's moving to the center. My guess is that it won't work, but given the obsession of the Washington press corps with optics and conflict, it might. You never know.

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Diplomatic Attacks Are Much Rarer Than They Used to Be

| Fri Oct. 5, 2012 8:55 AM PDT

Adam Serwer has a pretty interesting chart today that accompanies his piece about the history of attacks on U.S. diplomatic targets. Here it is:

There's a very sharp, very sudden dropoff in 1994. Just eyeballing it, it looks like there were an average of about 14 attacks per year from 1970-1993 but only six or so from 1994-2010. Why?

"That follows the trend of terrorism generally," says Erin Miller, a research assistant at START who manages the Global Terrorism Database. "In the early 1990s there's a drop-off worldwide in terrorism against pretty much all target types." Miller cites the collapse of the Soviet Union, and a subsequent wane in leftist terrorism as one possible explanation for the downturn beginning in the mid-1990s.

Maybe! On a broader note, Adam points out that Mitt Romney's tiresome trope about the Benghazi attacks being the result of President Obama's "weakness" is just nonsense. There were lots of attacks during the Reagan administration, and many fewer during the Clinton administration. Attacks rose a bit during the Bush administration, and have been a hair lower during the Obama administration. This is almost certainly due to external factors, not to any particular strength or weakness of the presidents themselves.

Still, it's fair to say that the Obama administration has hardly distinguished itself with its curiously meandering response to the Benghazi attacks. I think they've finally given up on the suggestion that it was all because of a YouTube video, but beyond that there's still a fair amount of confusion about who was behind the attack and what the motivation was. Weakness may not have caused the attacks, but until Obama can get his hands around it, it's going to remain a pretty soft spot for the Romney campaign to poke at.

Chart of the Day #2: The Public Sector is Shrinking

| Fri Oct. 5, 2012 7:50 AM PDT

A friend writes to remind me that, aside from a brief census blip in 2010, public sector jobs (state+local+federal) have steadily declined during the Obama administration. At the same time, private sector jobs bottomed out at the end of 2009 and have been on a steady upward rise ever since. "The government sector drag pulls the total down," she says, "which should be appreciated by small-govt loving Republicans." It should be! Over the past four years, government has gotten smaller and the private sector has become a bigger and bigger percentage of the workforce. Conservatives ought to be pretty happy.

Chart of the Day: Net New Jobs in September

| Fri Oct. 5, 2012 7:23 AM PDT

The American economy added 114,000 new jobs last month. However, about 90,000 of those jobs were needed just to keep up with population growth, so net job growth is closer to 24,000 jobs. The chart below, which I update monthly, shows net job creation since the beginning of 2008. Those of you with sharp memories will note that the past three months look bluer than they used to. This is because the BLS revised its July and August estimates upward. It's still nothing to write home about, but job creation over the past few months has been a bit healthier than it initially looked.

Politically, this jobs report has something for everyone. The Romney will camp will correctly point out that the recovery remains pretty sluggish. The Obama camp will correctly note that the unemployment rate has now fallen from 9.0% to 7.8% over the past year. The Romney camp will correctly point out that the payroll survey (see chart below) doesn't suggest job creation is really all that robust right now. The Obama camp will simply be happy that the headline unemployment number went down a bunch and the Romney team can no longer chirrup endlessly about "xx straight months of unemployment above 8%." You should feel free to adopt your own talking points accordingly.

UPDATE: I originally said that the unemployment rate had gone down partly because people were dropping out of the labor force and therefore no longer being counted as unemployed. That was true last month, but not this month. Sorry about that. I've corrected the post.

 

Should We Break Up the Two-Party Debate Monopoly?

| Thu Oct. 4, 2012 2:19 PM PDT

I'm a little tired of debate navel gazing, so let's look around for other topics to talk about. Glenn Greenwald must have one. Let's take a look:

Wednesday night's debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney underscored a core truth about America's presidential election season: the vast majority of the most consequential policy questions are completely excluded from the process....In part this is because presidential elections are now conducted almost entirely like a tawdry TV reality show....But in larger part, this exclusion is due to the fact that, despite frequent complaints that America is plagued by a lack of bipartisanship, the two major party candidates are in full-scale agreement on many of the nation's most pressing political issues. As a result these are virtually ignored, drowned out by a handful of disputes that the parties relentlessly exploit to galvanise their support base and heighten fear of the other side.

Most of what matters in American political life is nowhere to be found in its national election debates. Penal policies vividly illustrate this point.

Damn. Even Glenn is talking about the debate. He thinks that allowing third-party candidates to participate would "highlight just how similar Democrats and Republicans have become, and what little choice American voters actually have on many of the most consequential policies." Maybe. But keep in mind that the topics of last night's debate were chosen in advance by Jim Lehrer. Here they are:

  • The Economy – I
  • The Economy – II
  • The Economy – III
  • Health Care
  • The Role of Government
  • Governing

Penal policy wasn't there, so it wouldn't really matter much if Gary Johnson had been on the stage. The problem here was the moderator, not the two-party system.

However, there will be a stronger case for a third-party presence in the next debate, which includes foreign policy topics. Even if Candy Crowley sticks to the big-ticket topics — Iran, Afghanistan, China, etc. — a third-party candidate like Johnson would have genuinely different things to say. At the same time, I wouldn't expect too much from this. Ron Paul participated in all of the Republican primary debates, and he didn't noticeably move the public opinion needle on foreign policy issues. I'm not sure Gary Johnson would either.

Still, maybe he should have a chance to try. So here's a question for the hivemind: what's fair here? The current threshold is that candidates have to score at least 15% in selected polls to be invited to the debates, and this year no one has qualified. Gary Johnson is around 3% nationally. But maybe that's the wrong threshold. I'm violently opposed to a really small threshold, like 1% or so, because it has the potential to turn the debates into a circus. (Well, more of a circus.) The public really does deserve to get a good close look at the two major-party candidates, since one of them is certain to win the election, and having half a dozen true-believing obsessives on stage doesn't help that.

So here's another idea: the debates should always feature three candidates. Two of them would be the major party candidates and the third would be whoever polls the best among all the minor party candidates. If there were literally no minor party candidates who even appeared on enough state ballots to be serious contenders, then maybe we'd be stuck with two debaters after all. Otherwise, though, we'd always make room for at least one more. Maybe the debate commission would commission its own polls, or maybe it would rely on existing polls. Either way, it would publish the ground rules, and a week before the first debate it would announce who the best performing third-party candidate was.

This system has the virtue of ensuring that the non-mainstream has at least some representation, but without turning the debates into a free-for-all. Comments?

The Greatest Debate Performance in the History of the World!

| Thu Oct. 4, 2012 11:01 AM PDT

I don't really begrudge conservatives their victory lap today. This campaign has been a grim one for them, with a candidate they don't like much making gaffe after gaffe and now trailing a president they loathe in virtually every swing state. Romney's debate win last night is a rare ray of sunshine for them, and it's no surprise they're making the most of it.

But honestly, someone needs to collect some of the best reactions on the right and put them up in one place. Just for laughs. Over at NRO, Peter Kirsanow has a hilarious set of over-the-top bullet points, topped off by this one:

Romney’s was the best performance of any presidential candidate in the television age.

Better than the Gipper? Say it ain't so! And why only the television age? I guess so that Kirsanow isn't claiming that Romney was better than Lincoln. Or something. I'm not quite sure. In any case, these guys need to watch out. The way they're crowing about Mitt's world historical performance, he's going to have to show up with a halo over his head to meet expectations in the next debate.

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Numbers, Schmumbers, 9 Percent Is About Half, Isn't It?

| Thu Oct. 4, 2012 10:07 AM PDT

Here is Mitt Romney last night, criticizing the green energy loan guarantee program that was part of the stimulus bill:

You put $90 billion into green jobs…And these businesses, many of them have gone out of business, I think about half of them, of the ones have been invested in have gone out of business.

Close! The DOE 1705 program has approved 33 loans worth about $16 billion. So far there have been three failures (Solyndra, Beacon, and Abound), which works out to a failure rate of…

Nine percent.

By dollar volume, these loans will cost a maximum of about $600 million if the government ends up on the hook for the entire loan amount. That comes to maybe 4 percent of the total. By other measures, the failure rate is less than 1 percent.

Still, close enough for a national debate, I guess! Michael Grunwald tweets that Romney's people later told him that "Mitt didn't mean to say half the stimulus-funded green firms failed." So I wonder what he did mean to say?

Quote of the Day: Mitt Romney on Preexisting Conditions

| Thu Oct. 4, 2012 9:37 AM PDT

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 9:08 AM PDT

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 8:04 AM PDT

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?