Bobo is bored. Bobo is restive. In “Dullest Campaign Ever” he babbles that this presidential campaign is turning out to be as boring as it is consequential. He thinks he has some of the reasons. Mr. Cohen is in Chérence, France. In “Murder in a French Village” he says bloodshed comes to rural France, and certainties collapse. Mr. Nocera says “It’s D-Day for the Post Office.” Yes, it’s yet another manufactured crisis, brought to you by Congress. Here’s Bobo:
A few weeks ago, Peggy Noonan wrote a column in The Wall Street Journal that perfectly captures my attitude toward this presidential campaign: It’s incredibly consequential and incredibly boring all at the same time.
Since then, I’ve come up with a number of reasons for why it is so dull. First, intellectual stagnation. This race is the latest iteration of the same debate we’ve been having since 1964. Mitt Romney is calling President Obama a big-government liberal who wants to crush business. Obama is calling Romney a corporate tool who wants to take away grandma’s health care.
American politics went through tremendous changes between 1900 and 1936, and then again between 1940 and 1976. But our big government/small government debate is back where it was a generation ago. Candidates don’t even have to rehearse the arguments anymore; they just find the gaffes that will help them pin their opponent to the standard bogyman clichés.
Second, lack of any hint of intellectual innovation. Candidates used to start their campaigns by giving serious policy addresses at universities and think tanks to lay out their distinct philosophies. Bill Clinton was a New Democrat. George W. Bush was a Compassionate Conservative.
But the ideological climate has ossified. Candidates know that they’d be punished for saying something unexpected — by the rich, elderly donors and by the hyperorthodox talk-show hosts. Instead of saying something new, now they just try to boost turnout within their own demographic niches and suppress turnout in the other guy’s niches.
Third, increased focus on the uninformed. Four years ago, Barack Obama gave a sophisticated major speech on race. Mitt Romney did one on religion. This year, the candidates do not feel compelled to give major speeches. The prevailing view is that anybody who would pay attention to such a speech is already committed to a candidate. It’s more efficient to focus on the undecided voters, who don’t really follow politics or the news.
Fourth, lack of serious policy proposals. Has there ever been a campaign with so few major plans on the table? President Obama’s proposals are small and medium-size retreads, while Mitt Romney has run the closest thing to a policy-free race as any candidate in my lifetime. Republicans spend their days fleshing out proposals, which Romney decides not to champion.
Fifth, negative passion. Both parties are driven more by hatred than by love. Both sides feel it would be a disaster for the country if the other side had power during the next four years. Neither side is propelled by much positive enthusiasm for their own side.
Many Democratic politicians think Obama looks down on them as a bunch of lowlife hacks. As Noonan wrote in that column, he sometimes seems to regard politics as a weary duty on his path to greatness. The Republican coolness toward Romney is such that he’s having trouble recruiting people to work on the campaign.
Sixth, no enactment strategy. To avert catastrophe, the next president will have to rally bipartisan majorities around a budget deal and many other things. That will require personal and relationship skills neither has demonstrated. The polarizing, negative tactics the candidates use to get elected will make it impossible to succeed after one of them wins.
Seventh, ad budget myopia. Both campaigns fervently believe that more spending leads to more votes. They also believe that if they can carpet bomb swing voters with enough negative ads, then eventually the sheer weight of the barrage will produce movement in their direction. There’s little evidence that these prejudices are true. But the campaigns are like World War I generals. If something isn’t working, the answer must be to try more of it.
Eighth, technology is making campaigns dumber. BlackBerrys and iPhones mean that campaigns can respond to their opponents minute by minute and hour by hour. The campaigns get lost in tit-for-tat minutiae that nobody outside the bubble cares about. Meanwhile, use of the Internet means that Web videos overshadow candidate speeches and appearances. Video replaces verbal. Tactics eclipse vision.
Finally, dishonesty numbs. A few years ago, newspapers and nonprofits set up fact-checking squads, rating campaign statements with Pinocchios and such. The hope was that if nonpartisan outfits exposed campaign deception, the campaigns would be too ashamed to lie so much.
This hope was naïve. As John Dickerson of Slate has said, the campaigns want the Pinocchios. They want to show how tough they are. But the result is a credibility vacuum. It’s impossible to take ads seriously. They are the jackhammer noise in the background of life.
This is the paradox. As campaigns get more sophisticated, everything begins to look more homogenized, less effective and indescribably soporific.
Wouldn’t it give you something to do, Bobo, if you charted out Mittens’ lies, deceptions and flip-flops? Maybe you’d be less bored then… Schmuck. Here’s Mr. Cohen:
A French expression has it that “On est à l’abri nulle part” — roughly, “there is no shelter anywhere.”
This village an hour’s drive west down the Seine from Paris, with its 11th-century Romanesque church, its cluster of limestone houses, its 150 inhabitants and its central patch of gravel for the obligatory boules, seems the image of an unchanging France set apart from any storm. A bronze bell cast in 1591 tolls the hours. Little happens to distinguish them.
A less likely candidate for bloodshed is hard to imagine.
Or so it seemed. Then, on April 8, Easter day, Chérence awoke to murder most foul: a 22-year-old woman bludgeoned to death in a small house beside the boules terrain, her head split open by a tremendous blow as she clutched her baby boy. Police and forensic experts were everywhere. Fear spread and rumor with it.
I knew the victim, Maëva Rousseau, a little. Part of her responsibility as minder of the rural association was to oversee the tennis court (and the boules). She would hand me the key to the court; we’d chat a little. She seemed happy holding little Lorenzo. Her partner, Alan, was a waiter. The night of the murder he was working late at the Moulin de Fourges, a nearby restaurant of some renown, where Hillary Clinton once dined on lobster salad and loin of lamb.
In the weeks after the crime theories multiplied. Her killing must be the work of a sadistic madman on the loose in the villages of the Vexin. No, drugs were involved, an unpaid debt, a settling of scores. Wrong! Maëva had been the victim of a crime of passion, the target of the jealous rage of a former boyfriend or his family.
As residents voted at the town hall in France’s May presidential election, they were concerned less with politics than murder scenarios. At night they bolted their doors. They wondered. The village, infected by a savage act, was changed, not utterly, but some.
“You see, we’d never known anything like this,” said Roger Gasse, who has lived in Chérence 80 years.
Write the truth, people tell journalists, as if that were simple. Why don’t you just write the truth? That should be straightforward enough in a French village of 150 souls where everyone knows everyone and hardly a car passes. Jerusalem this is not. How many truths can there be when hardly anything happens?
But even now, more than three months after the murder, accounts of Maëva’s death multiply. Every conflict is fought over memory precisely because memories, being shifting, being alive, seldom coincide. It is said she was not bludgeoned but shot. That she was found on her bed, or on the floor, or in a cellar. That the weapon (not found) was a baseball bat or a hammer. That Maëva’s ex-boyfriend, Rodolphe Berruet, was killed last year in an auto accident, or a motorcycle accident, and that this happened after he met with Maëva or, no, after he had a fight with his then girlfriend, Christelle, who was angry about his obsession with Maëva.
A few weeks ago, police arrested Rodolphe Berruet’s father for what seems to have been a crime of crazed vengeance.
This much is clear: On Aug. 21, 2011, Rodolphe Berruet, who had been Maëva’s high-school boyfriend in the depressed nearby town of Bray-et-Lû, was killed when he crashed his Peugeot 407 on a country road. He had been texting Maëva, telling her about his enduring passion. Maëva’s partner, Alan, was infuriated. He showed the texts to Rodolphe’s girlfriend: jealous scenes, drink and a car out of control.
Rodolphe’s father, a craftsman named Alain Berruet (and close friend of Maëva’s father), could not get over his son’s death. He told the mayor of Bray-et-Lû he was hearing voices from the grave, which he insisted should be reopened. He blamed Maëva for his son’s death and, it seems, threatened her in phone messages. She would suffer as his son had suffered.
Just after midnight, on April 8, according to police charges, Alain Berruet broke into Maëva’s house in the middle of Chérence, beside the rural association where residents gather on Bastille Day and prizes are handed to the winners of the boules competition. He killed the young woman with a blow to her head. Her 13-month-old son, Lorenzo, was found by Alan on his return from work, his left arm caught beneath his mother’s corpse. The baby survived.
There are rumors now that Berruet is from a Gypsy, or Roma, family and that the murder was an honor killing, an act of tribal retribution for which Chérence happened to be the setting even though none of those involved came from here.
But then Chérence is full of people who did not come from here. It is less static than it seems and less immune from its surroundings.
Come to think of it, that French expression — “On est à l’abri nulle part” — or, roughly, “no place is a safe haven” — is not a bad one for these times.
And now here’s Mr. Nocera:
Welcome to the week the United States Postal Service defaults on a major obligation. D-Day is Wednesday, Aug. 1, when the Postal Service is obligated, by statute, to make a $5.5 billion payment, money that is supposed to be put aside to “prefund” health benefits for future retirees. But, with less than $1 billion in the bank, the Postal Service announced on Monday that it would not be making the payment. It has a second payment, for $5.6 billion, due in September. Unless lightning strikes, it won’t be making that one either.
On the one hand, there is no doubt that part of the reason the post office is struggling is that its world has changed mightily. Everyone knows the story: the rise of e-mail, online bill paying, and so on, have cut deeply into Americans’ use of first class mail, which peaked in 2006. Last year, the Postal Service reported losses of more than $5 billion — even though Congress allowed it to defer its annual prefunding of retiree health benefits. With or without the prefunding, the post office was eventually headed toward a crisis.
On the other hand, that prefunding requirement is an absolute killer. It has cost the post office more than $20 billion since 2007 — a period during which its total losses amounted to $25.3 billion. Without that requirement, the post office would still likely be struggling, but it would have a lot more wiggle room — and a lot more cash. (Its pension obligations are also overfunded by around $11 billion.) Not since the debt crisis has there been such an avoidable fiscal mess.
It is a little startling when you first hear about the prefunding requirement. It seems to make no sense, and, as many have noted, it is something that is demanded of no other company or government agency. So why does it exist? It turns out to be one of those things that only Congress could cook up.
Since the 1970s, the Postal Service has been self-sufficient, generating money by selling stamps and offering services — and not dependent on the taxpayer. It is thus considered “off budget.” Yet part of its operations — including its health and retiree benefits — have continued to be part of the federal budget, and thus count against the federal deficit.
In 2002, it was discovered that the Postal Service was wildly overpaying its retirement obligations to the tune of $71 billion. Not surprisingly, it soon began advocating for ways to use some of that excess. One bill passed that did almost nothing to solve the problem. Later bills that would have fixed the problem, however, all ran into the same stumbling block: they would have ostensibly added to the deficit. And the Bush administration was adamant that it would veto any bill that wasn’t deficit-neutral.
Thus it was that a new fund was established in 2006 — for the prepayment of health benefits for future retirees, with the Postal Service agreeing to pay between $5.5 billion and $5.8 billion annually. The money simply goes into an escrow account, where it is invested in special issue Treasury securities. Thus does it somehow magically help with the deficit. Also, of course, no sooner did the bill become law than first class mail began to fall off the cliff. The prefunding requirement became a noose around the Postal Service’s neck.
Incapable of simply letting the Postal Service go free — imagine what that would do to the deficit! — Congress continues to micromanage it, offering various ways for it to cut costs and raise revenue. The Postal Service, for instance, wants to cut Saturday delivery to save money; a Senate bill passed in April defers that decision for two years. But at least the Senate bill offers some relief from the absurd prefunding of health benefits. It would also return some of the excess retirement funding.
The postal reform bill that has emerged from the Republican-led House of Representatives, however, does no such thing. Representative Darrell Issa, the chairman of the committee that oversees the Postal Service, talks fiercely about the need to lower labor costs, while describing the Senate bill as a “bailout.” What he is doing, of course, is using the fact that the Postal Service is going broke to impose a slash-and-burn approach — while ignoring the central reason the post office is running out of money: Congress itself. Meanwhile, the bill that emerged from Issa’s committee has never been brought to a vote on the House floor. Default notwithstanding, there won’t be a vote anytime soon. After all, the Congressional recess is right around the corner.
The post office insists that the default will not affect its ability to deliver the mail. Maybe not now. But several postal experts told me that at the rate things are going, it will be out of money sometime next year. Maybe then Congress will start taking seriously the crisis it created.
I’m sure the fact that the Post Office is possibly the largest union in the world has nothing to do with anything. Nothing to see here, move along…