Blow, Nocera and Collins

Mr. Blow addresses “Mitt, Grits and Grit,” and says that as Mitt Romney campaigns in the Deep South, his attempt to connect with southern voters is exposing his some of his greatest weaknesses.  Mr. Nocera looks at “The Phony Settlement” and says the recent BP deal really wasn’t about justice. It is about big paydays for the lawyers.  Ms. Collins says “The Bad News is Good News,” and has a question:  Want to know why we can’t get the dog-on-the-roof story straightened out? Just look at the latest happenings in Mittworld.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

“I’m learning to say ‘y’all,’ and I like grits. Things, strange things are happening to me.”

Those are the words of Willard Mitt Romney campaigning in Pascagoula, Miss., this week.

Wow. Note to Mitt: As a Southerner, I’ve never known us to find caricature endearing. But welcome to the Deep South anyway, Mitt. I wonder if you’ve been introduced to one of my favorite Southern sayings: the backhanded “Bless your heart.”

By all accounts you’re going to need it. No one expects you to do well on Tuesday when Mississippi and Alabama hold their primaries.

(Kansas holds its caucuses on Saturday, and Rick Santorum is leading the polls there.)

When Gov. Phil Bryant of Mississippi endorsed Romney on Thursday, he tried his best to humanize him, saying: “He just has a warm, comfortable way about him. I like to see a man when he’s holding a baby. And he looks like he’s held a baby before. Let me tell you, this man is connecting with the people of this nation, and it is about those simple things.” He knows how to hold a baby? Nice try, governor. Bless your heart.

According to Gallup, Mississippi is the most conservative state in the union, and Alabama clocks in at No. 4. Romney continues to struggle with more conservative voters. In the 2008 elections, 7 out of 10 Mississippi primary voters described themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians. Romney has also struggled with that group.

Last Tuesday, in the primaries in the states of Oklahoma, Georgia and Tennessee, about 70 percent of voters said it was important that their candidate share their religious views. Romney won no more than a quarter of those voters in each state. Welcome to the Southern G.O.P. Bless your heart.

Some argue that this is inconsequential and that all Romney has to do is win the nomination and rank-and-file Republicans will fall in line. They even argue that his less-than-strident, often inconsistent, views may be an asset in a postnomination tack to the middle.

It is true that these states are in no danger of swinging Democratic. Mississippi and Alabama haven’t voted Democratic since 1976. And since Mississippi started holding primaries, no Republican candidate except the eventual presidential nominee has won the state, according to Catherine Morse, a University of Michigan government and political science librarian.

In fact, Obama lost both states to John McCain in 2008 by large margins, and the votes were largely along racial lines. In both states, 88 percent of whites voted for McCain, while 98 percent of blacks voted for Obama.

Obama will not win Mississippi and Alabama, period. But that’s not the issue. The issue is enthusiasm, which has a way of bleeding across borders and ideological boundaries.

In elections, enthusiasm has two sources: for your candidate or against the other. We know well that there is a high level of hostility toward Obama on the right, but he still maintains a number of liberal devotees. Although there are some on the left who have softened on him, he still has a wide swath of passionate supporters who seem to feel that he is moving in the right direction and deserves a chance to finish the work he has started. In fact, according to Gallup, at this point in the race, Democrats are more enthusiastic about Obama than Republicans are about Romney.

The elections will boil down to a duel between anger and optimism, and in general elections optimism wins. Energy wins. Vision wins.

If the message that emerges from the nominating process is that Republican voters lack confidence in their candidate, that is not a message that can be easily sold to swing voters. It’s hard to point to your candidate’s good qualities when you’re using your hands to hold your own nose.

If the Republican nominee can’t appeal to his own base, how can he expect to draw from the middle and the left?

This is the conservative conundrum.

The Republican Party had an opening as wide as the Gulf of Mexico to unseat President Obama, but it appears that it could close with a weak candidate. The president has been hammered by a sputtering economy and hemmed in by an intransigent Congress. All the Republicans needed was a presidential nominee who could capture their discontent on a gritty, granular level and put a positive, big-picture, forward-looking face on it.

Instead, they find themselves with a scraggly lot of scary characters, each with a handicap larger than the next. And the one who’s likely to win the nomination is the one whom the base has the biggest doubts about. He has the good looks of a president but not the guts of one. The only view that he has consistently held is that he wants to win. Everything else is negotiable.

He projects the slick feel of a man who’s trying to sell you something that you don’t want by telling you something that you don’t believe. People don’t trust and can’t fully endorse it, even the ones who deeply dislike the president. In fact, poll after poll finds that the longer the nomination fight drags on and the more people come to know Romney, the higher their unfavorable opinions of him climb.

Furthermore, postnomination pivots have become more difficult in a world driven by YouTube, social media and citizen activism, where prenomination politicking lives forever online in a candidate’s own voice (and often on video).

Unfortunately for Romney, grits don’t give you grit. Dabbling in dialectic speech won’t quench people’s thirst for straight talk. Being called warm and comfortable doesn’t remove the gut feeling that you are cold and rigid. There is something missing from the core of the man, and people can see straight through him.

That makes places like Mississippi a real litmus test — of Romney’s ability to convert his base by connecting with it. Mississippi is a world away from Massachusetts. It’s a ruby-red state and the heart of conservatism. Mississippi is where he has to sell himself.

Bless his heart, y’all.

Indeed.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

Forgive me for repeating myself, but I’m going to start this column with an anecdote about Ken Feinberg that I’ve told before.

It was November 2010, a few months after Feinberg had been named the administrator of the $20 billion fund that BP had established to compensate victims of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. He and I were having breakfast, and he was recounting some of the more ludicrous claims that had already begun streaming in. The restaurant in Las Vegas that said it had lost business because its shrimp scampi wasn’t as good without shrimp from the Gulf Coast. The Florida dentist who wanted to be compensated because fewer patients were getting cavities filled in the wake of the oil spill. The guy in Norway — Norway! — who slipped and fell while going to the post office to mail his claim — and then added his medical bill to the amount BP “owed” him.

Two tables over, another diner, overhearing the conversation, looked up at Feinberg. “Just pay them,” he said angrily.

A year and a half later, that is exactly what is about to happen. Earlier this week, Feinberg stepped down from the Gulf Coast Claims Facility (as it is officially called), having doled out $6.1 billion to some 220,000 claimants. It is in the process of being replaced by a new claims facility, the result of the recent settlement between BP and the plaintiffs’ lawyers who had been suing the company in federal court in New Orleans.

That settlement has been estimated as being worth $7.8 billion, but, since it is uncapped, it could actually wind up costing BP a lot more than that. And even though the vast majority of legitimate claims have already been paid by Feinberg, the settlement will generate hundreds of thousands of new claims, many of which are likely to be bogus.

The two lawyers who spearheaded the settlement, Stephen J. Herman and James P. Roy, issued a statement last week claiming that the settlement “does the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people.” What it really does is ensure that hundreds of millions of dollars will wind up in the pockets of lawyers whose cases were evaporating, thanks to Feinberg. They might as well erect billboards along the Gulf Coast proclaiming “Free Money for All!”

Let me repeat something else I’ve said before about the Gulf Coast Claims Facility. It could — and should — serve as a model for how to compensate victims after a big industrial disaster. It was vastly more efficient than using lawsuits to extract money from companies. It was fairer, too; in lawsuits, some victims get rich while others are left empty-handed, even though their cases are virtually the same. That didn’t happen with the claims facility. In fact, the lawyers who took their clients to Feinberg said that, most of the time, he was more generous than the legal system would likely have been.

What the BP claims process couldn’t do, it turns out, is overcome lawyers’ greed. For those lawyers who helped clients go through Feinberg’s process, their fees were relatively low — as they should have been. But that’s also why, despite the clear appeal of the claims process, other lawyers continued to press on with their lawsuits, which they settled just before BP was about to go on trial to establish the extent of its liability. Yet with the number of legitimate cases dwindling, they still weren’t guaranteed a big pay day — unless they could find a way to gin up new categories of claimants. That is precisely what this settlement does.

Take, for example, the health claims that will now be allowed. The plaintiffs’ press release says that the settlement will “potentially benefit hundreds of thousands” of gulf residents who “suffered acute or chronic illnesses” as a result of the spill. In truth, only around 700 people sought compensation for health reasons from Feinberg. Why?  Because there is no evidence that the spill caused serious health problems for Gulf Coast residents.  The only health claims Feinberg accepted came from rig workers who were truly injured. Thanks to the settlement, anybody in the gulf with a runny nose can now seek compensation from the new facility. Meanwhile, injured rig workers are specifically excluded from the settlement.

Back when we had breakfast that morning, I asked Feinberg why he didn’t just do what the man had suggested: Pay them all. BP, after all, was the clear villain, and nobody would care if he gave its money to undeserving claimants.

“If the process lacks credibility,” he replied, “people will begin to question the legitimacy of this alternative to the court system. The idea that I’m Santa Claus undercuts the integrity of the process.”

As Feinberg steps down, no one can say he didn’t handle the process with integrity. The tragedy is that the legal system hasn’t followed suit.

Anyone who expects any integrity or honesty to have anything to do with the BP spill is a naive fool.  Here’s Ms. Collins:

There was one brief shining moment last week when Mitt Romney appeared to be saying something sensible about sex.

“The idea of presidential candidates getting into questions about contraception within a relationship between a man and a woman, husband and wife, I’m not going there,” he told reporters.

This was the way Republicans used to talk, oh, about a millennium or so ago. The state legislators wore nice suits and worried about bonded indebtedness and blushed if you said “pelvis.” A woman’s private plumbing? Change the topic, for lord’s sake. Now some of them appear to think about women’s sex lives 24/7, and not in a cheerful, recreational manner.

And it turned out that Romney misspoke. He apparently didn’t realize that the subject he was proposing to steer clear of was a Republican plan to allow employers to refuse to provide health care coverage for contraception if they had moral objections to birth control.

He was definitely going there! Mittworld quickly issued a retraction making it clear that Romney totally supports the idea of getting into questions of contraception within a relationship between a man and a woman. Particularly when it comes to reducing health insurance coverage.

Really, what did you expect? If Romney couldn’t even take a clear stand on Rush Limbaugh’s Slutgate, why would he say anything that forthright unless it was a total error? This is why we can’t get the dog-on-the-car-roof story straightened out. The reporters have their hands full just figuring out Mitt’s position on the biggest controversy of the last month.

We’ve certainly come to a wild and crazy place when it comes to the politics of sex. Perhaps this would be a good time to invest in burqa futures. However, I like to look on the bright side, and I am beginning to think we may actually be turning a corner and actually getting closer to resolving everything.

All of this goes back to the anti-abortion movement, which was very successful for a long time, in large part because it managed to make it appear that the question was whether or not doctors should be allowed to cut up fetuses that were nearly viable outside the womb.

But now we’re fighting about whether poor women in Texas — where more than half the children are born to families whose incomes are low enough to qualify them for Medicaid coverage of the deliveries — should have access to family planning. As Pam Belluck and Emily Ramshaw reported in The Times this week, the right has taken its war against Planned Parenthood to the point where clinics, none of which performed abortions and some of which are not affiliated with Planned Parenthood, are being forced to close for lack of state funds.

Or about whether a woman seeking an abortion should be forced to let a doctor stick a device into her vagina to take pictures of the fetus. The more states attempt to pass these laws, the more people are going to be reminded that most abortions are performed within the first eight weeks of pregnancy, when the embryo in question is less than an inch-and-a-half long.

And the more we argue about contraception, the more people are going to notice that a great many of the folks who are opposed to abortion in general are also opposed to birth control. Some believe that sex, even within marriage, should never be divorced from the possibility of conception. Some believe that most forms of contraception are nothing but perpetual mini-abortions.

Most Americans aren’t in these boats. In fact, they are so completely not in the boats that very, very few Catholic priests attempt to force their parishioners to follow the church’s rules against contraceptives, even as the Catholic bishops are now attempting to torpedo the health care reform law on that very principle.

Every time a state considers a “personhood” amendment that would give a fertilized egg the standing of a human being, outlawing some forms of fertility treatment and common contraceptives, it reinforces the argument that the current abortion debate is actually about theology, not generally held national principles.

And, of course, every time we have one of those exciting discussions about the Limbaugh theory on making women who get health care coverage for contraception broadcast their sex lives on the Internet, the more the Republican Party loses votes, money, sympathy — you name it. The Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, which last summer found women almost evenly divided on which party should control Congress, now shows that women favor Democrats, 51 percent to 36 percent.

The longer this goes on, the easier it will be to come up with a national consensus about whether women’s reproductive lives are fair game for government intrusion. And, when we do, the politicians will follow along. Instantly. Just watch Mitt Romney.

 

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