Ms. Collins is off today. In “40 Days of Night” Mr. Blow says the problem for Republicans that has led to President Obama widening his lead in the polls has a name: Willard Mitt Romney. Mr. Nocera looks at “The College Rankings Racket” and says the U.S. News & World Report’s annual list promotes status at the expense of affordable education. Here’s Mr. Blow:
Mitt Romney is losing badly. And he has only himself to blame.
Not only is he trailing President Obama in almost every national poll, he’s trailing in almost every poll of swing states.
What is the Republican response? That there must be some magical, maniacal skew in the numbers, and the skew must be a conscious effort by a scheming, elite media to dampen Republican enthusiasm.
There may be an oversampling of Democrats in some polls, but this is by no means universally true. And the fact that Obama has a growing lead when the polls are taken in aggregate is undeniable.
This is just an extension of the Republican war on facts. If you find a truth disagreeable, simply deny it. Call it corrupt. Suggest that it is little more than one side of a story — an opinionated, biased one — and insist that there is another explanation. The base will buy it.
Let’s just call this Operation Ostrich.
The real problem that has caused this very real turn in the polls has another name: Willard Mitt Romney.
It is, in part, because of his convention that didn’t congeal and, in part, because of his own missteps and misstatements, the most devastating of which was the secretly recorded tape of him dismissing 47 percent of the population: “I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
Mother Jones magazine on Thursday posted a new video of Romney from 1985. In this one, he said that Bain Capital’s mission was to “invest in start-up companies and ongoing companies, then to take an active hand in managing them and, hopefully, five to eight years later, to harvest them at a significant profit.” And what about the people who might lose jobs in the process?
Seriously, Mother Jones is dropping these Romney secret recordings with the frequency of hip-hop mix tapes.
And the Obama campaign is receiving them like manna from heaven. It is using Romney’s own words in ads to brutal effect.
This further calcifies Romney’s image as callous, incompetent and reckless. He is his own worst enemy.
This all makes the coming debates, especially the first one next week, make-or-break moments for Romney.
Debates are largely stagecraft and tests of temperament as well as articulation: How does a candidate perform under pressure, and how do the candidates compare with each other.
That being the purpose, both campaigns are working overtime to lower expectations of their candidate and raise those of their opponent.
In a memo released Friday, David Axelrod, an Obama adviser, said, “Just as he was in the primaries, we expect Mitt Romney to be a prepared, disciplined and aggressive debater.”
But, as is its wont, the Romney campaign overdid it. It released a memo Thursday hailing Obama as “a universally acclaimed public speaker” with “natural gifts and extensive seasoning” who “is widely regarded as one of the most talented political communicators in modern history.”
All the calibrating of expectations aside, something dramatic must happen in the debates, or over the next few weeks, to alter the course of the race, and it must satisfy three criteria: it must be major, new and digestible.
It can’t be subtle policy difference. It can’t be a rehash of a known negative. And it can’t be ambiguous.
If you are a die-hard partisan, your support is unlikely to change. For instance, if you believe in the sovereignty of a person’s body — to make individual health care choices and have freedom in love and marriage — nothing would likely make you vote Republican. Conversely, if you believe that life begins at conception and every abortion is the murder of an innocent defenseless child, it is hard for you to vote Democratic.
But if you are one of the people in the mushy middle, one of the undecided or switchable, you need a clear mind-changer or confidence-builder.
I don’t think Romney can deliver this. He’s a profoundly clumsy campaigner. A Politico article on Friday about Romney’s problems contained this damning quote:
“Lousy candidate; highly qualified to be president,” said a top Romney official. “The candidate suit fits him unnaturally. He is naturally an executive.”
In fact, the more Romney talks, the more damage he does to himself. Romney’s only hope is that Obama slips up, makes a gaffe or some never-before known fact emerges that speaks negatively of the president’s character.
All things are possible, but that scenario is becoming increasingly unlikely.
If Obama doesn’t slip up, the next 40 days or so will be one long, dark night for Mitt Romney.
From your lips to God’s ear, Mr. Blow. However, if the Republicans manage to disenfranchise enough people… Here’s Mr. Nocera:
The U.S. News & World Report’s annual college rankings came out earlier this month and — knock me over with a feather! — Harvard and Princeton were tied for first.
Followed by Yale.
Followed by Columbia.
It’s not that these aren’t great universities. But c’mon. Can you really say with any precision that Princeton is “better” than Columbia? That the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (No. 6) is better than the California Institute of Technology (No. 10)? That Tufts (No. 28) is better than Brandeis (No. 33)?
Of course not. U.S. News likes to claim that it uses rigorous methodology, but, honestly, it’s just a list put together by magazine editors. The whole exercise is a little silly. Or rather, it would be if it weren’t so pernicious.
Magazines compile lists because people like to read them. With U.S. News having folded its print edition two years ago, its rankings — not just of colleges, but law schools, graduate schools and even high schools — are probably what keep the enterprise alive. People care enough about its rankings to pay $34.95 to seek out the details on the U.S. News Web site.
And they imbue these rankings with an authority that is largely unjustified. Universities that want to game the rankings can easily do so. U.S. News cares a lot about how much money a school raises and how much it spends: on faculty; on small classes; on facilities; and so on. It cares about how selective the admissions process is.
So universities that once served populations that were different from the Harvard or Yale student body now go after the same elite high school students with the highest SAT scores. And schools know that, if they want to get a better ranking, they need to spend money like mad — even though they will have to increase tuition that is already backbreaking. “If you figure out how to do the same service for less money, your U.S. News ranking will go down,” says Kevin Carey, the director of education policy at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan research group. The rankings encourage trends that ill-serve the country.
There is something else, too. The rankings exacerbate the status anxiety that afflicts so many high school students. The single-minded goal of too many high school students — pushed by parents, guidance counselors and society itself — is to get into a “good” school. Those who don’t land a prestigious admission feel like failures. Those who do but lack the means often wind up taking on onerous debt — a burden that can last a lifetime. And U.S. News has largely become the measure by which a good school is defined. “U.S. News didn’t invent the social dynamic,” says Carey. “What it did was very accurately empiricize them.”
As it happens, Carey has been working for a number of years with The Washington Monthly to compile a different kind of college ranking. (I was an editor at The Monthly in the late 1970s.) Instead of trying to serve as a gauge of status, The Monthly’s rankings attempt to gauge more useful measures: social mobility, for instance, or “bang for the buck.” Its top-ranked national universities this year are the University of California-San Diego and Texas A&M. Neither is ranked in the top 30 by U.S. News. All they do is graduate a higher percentage of students than you would expect given their populations — at a reasonable price.
Yes, The Washington Monthly’s rankings are yet another list compiled by magazine editors, inevitably flawed. But the point the magazine is trying to make is that this is the model of higher education we should be encouraging. Can you really disagree? I have no doubt that you can obtain a very good education at Texas A&M. As you surely can at many other institutions that don’t crack the top of the U.S. News rankings.
Not long ago, I saw an article written by a recent graduate of Stuyvesant High. Stuyvesant, widely considered the most prestigious public high school in New York, has just been through a cheating scandal — one driven in no small part by the imperative of its students to get into a prestigious college.
The author, who was not part of the cheating scandal, had succeeded in getting into a “Desirable University,” as she put it, but her parents had been unable to afford the tuition. She wound up, deeply embittered, at a state school. Whenever people would bring up the subject of college, she wrote, she would “mutter something about not wanting to talk about it.” Although she claimed to have made her peace with her education, she ended her article by vowing to save enough so that her children wouldn’t have to suffer the same fate.
How sad. Maybe someday she’ll understand that where you go to college matters far less than what you put into college. Maybe someday the readers of the U.S. News rankings will understand that as well.