Bobo has decided to try his hand at speech writing. In “The Opening Statement” he gives us what he thinks Mitt Romney should say at the first debate this week. Over the course of the campaign Charles Pierce at Esquire has written some suggested speeches for Mittens. He does a great job. Bobo tried today. He’s no Charles Pierce… Mr. Nocera tells us “How Punch Protected the Times,” and that the special structure of Times Company stock has kept the newspaper in the Sulzberger family. Mr. Bruni, in “Trembling Before Mitt,” says in advance of the first presidential debate, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney try on the unfamiliar garb of exaggerated humility. Here’s Bobo:
Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to use the opening minutes of this debate a little differently. I’d like to say that I wish everybody could have known my father, George Romney. He was a great public servant and I’ve always tried to live up to his example. The problem is that you get caught up in the competitiveness of a campaign and all the consultants want to make you something you’re not.
I’ve allowed that to happen to me. I’m a nonideological guy running in an ideological age, and I’ve been pretending to be more of an ideologue than I really am. I’m a sophisticated guy running in a populist moment. I’ve ended up dumbing myself down.
It hasn’t even worked. I’m behind. So I’ve decided to run the last month of this campaign as myself.
The next president is going to face some wicked problems. The first is the “fiscal cliff.” The next president is going to have to forge a grand compromise on the budget. President Obama has tried and failed to do this over the past four years. There’s no reason to think he’d do any better over the next four.
He’s failed, first, because he’s just not a very good negotiator. You don’t have to believe me. Read Bob Woodward’s book, “The Price of Politics.” Obama spent the last campaign promising to be postpartisan and then in his first weeks in office, in the fullness of his victory, he shut down all cooperation with Republicans and killed any hope of bipartisan cooperation.
Furthermore, he’s too insular. As Woodward reports, he’s constantly leaving people in the dark — his negotiating partners and people in his own party. They’re perpetually being blindsided and confused by his amorphous positions. There’s no trust. If I were in business, there’s no way I would do a deal with this guy.
The second reason there’s been no budget compromise is that Republicans have been too rigid, refusing to put revenue on the table. I’ve been part of the problem. But, globally, the nations that successfully trim debt have raised $1 in new revenue for every $3 in spending cuts. I will bring Republicans around to that position. There’s no way President Obama can do that.
The second wicked problem the next president will face is sluggish growth. I assume you know that everything President Obama and I have been saying on this subject has been total garbage. Presidents and governors don’t “create jobs.” We don’t have the ability to “grow the economy.” There’s no magic lever.
Instead, an administration makes a thousand small decisions, each of which subtly adds to or detracts from a positive growth environment. The Obama administration, which is either hostile to or aloof from business, has made a thousand tax, regulatory and spending decisions that are biased away from growth and biased toward other priorities. American competitiveness has fallen in each of the past four years, according to the World Economic Forum. Medical device makers, for example, are being chased overseas. The economy in 2012 is worse than the economy in 2011. That’s inexcusable.
My administration will be a little more biased toward growth. It’ll treat businesses with more respect. There will be no magic recovery, but gradually the animal spirits will revive.
The third big problem is Medicare and rising health care costs, which are bankrupting this country. Let me tell you the brutal truth. Nobody knows how to reduce health care inflation. There are two basic approaches, and we probably have to try both simultaneously.
The first, included in Obamacare, is to have an Independent Payment Advisory Board find efficiencies and impose price controls. The problem is that that leaves the painful cost-cutting decisions in Washington, where Congress rules. Congress wrote provisions in the health care law that have already gutted the power of the advisory board. The current law allows Congress to make “cuts” on paper and then undo them with subsequent legislation. That’s what Congress always does.
The second approach, favored by me, is to scrap the perverse fee-for-service incentives and use a more market-based approach. I think there’s ample evidence that this could work, but, to be honest, some serious health economists disagree.
I’m willing to pursue any experiment, from any political direction, that lowers costs and saves Medicare. Democrats are campaigning as the party that will fight to the death to preserve the Medicare status quo. If they win, the lesson will be: Never Touch Medicare. No Democrat or Republican will dare reform the system, and we will go bankrupt.
At last, I’ve tried to be on the level with you. This president was audacious in 2008, but, as you can see from his negligible agenda, he’s now exhausted. I’m not an inspiring conviction politician, but I’ll try anything to help us succeed. You make the choice.
Bobo, go take a break and have a nice lunch at Applebee’s salad bar. Here’s Mr. Nocera:
In 1969, shares of The New York Times Company began to be listed on the American Stock Exchange.
The driving force behind the listing was the company’s chairman and chief executive, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, who was then 43 and had been at the helm for six years. Eager to expand the company, he needed a listed stock that the company could use to make deals. But a listed stock had to have voting rights. And that conflicted with another of Sulzberger’s goals: to ensure that his family, which had owned the paper since 1896, would remain in control of the company and its flagship newspaper.
Since the 1950s, the company had given stock to favored employees and others, stock that could be bought and sold but had no voting rights. The solution was to give that stock — Class A shares, they were called — some voting rights, but not enough to threaten the family’s control. The Class B shares, held largely in a family trust, still gave the Sulzbergers the power to elect around 70 percent of the board.
Sulzberger, who was known as Punch, died on Saturday. In the encomiums that followed, much was made of his fierce dedication to the First Amendment and his overseeing the remaking of The Times, especially the addition of feature sections that brought new advertising, and new life, to “The Gray Lady.”
But that long-ago decision to issue two classes of stock has also had long-lasting ramifications. As someone who joined The Times right around the time the Internet was beginning to wreak havoc on the newspaper business, I have watched us tighten our belts, offer buyouts, sell off divisions and even, in 2009, borrow $250 million from Carlos Slim Helú, the Mexican billionaire. (The money was paid back in 2011.)
But I’ve never had to worry that The Times would go the way of so many other once-great papers, abandoning independent foreign reporting, for instance, or shrinking the news hole to the point where the paper could be read from cover to cover in 10 minutes. As many other well-known newspaper families have abandoned the business — most recently, the Bancrofts of Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal — the Sulzbergers have remained steadfast in their belief that they were put on this earth to preserve and protect The New York Times.
In recent years, that dedication has been sorely tested. As advertising gravitated away from the printed page and toward the Internet, Times Company stock has been hit hard. Profits have declined. In 2009, the company eliminated the dividend, which had been a source of cash for family members. At Dow Jones & Company, the ruling Bancroft family decided to sell to Rupert Murdoch and the News Corporation. By all appearances, the Sulzbergers never flinched.
None of which would have mattered without the protection provided by the dual class of shares. Inevitably, as the newspaper business declined, financial engineers came knocking. In 2006, Hassan Elmasry, a fund manager at Morgan Stanley, which held around 7 percent of the Class A shares, began agitating for the company to abolish its dual class structure. But, precisely because of that structure, he couldn’t gain any traction.
A few years later, a pair of hedge funds took a 19 percent stake in the Class A shares and began to mount a proxy fight. It ended with the company agreeing to put two of their representatives on the board. One of the two has since left the board.
As a red-blooded capitalist, I understand why dual classes of stock are frowned upon. They deprive ordinary shareholders of the chance to have any say in how a company is run or who sits on its board. A dual-class structure protects the bad along with the good. It is likely that Times Company stock is lower than it would be if shareholders knew they could “put it in play,” as they say on Wall Street.
I also understand that the Sulzbergers have made their share of mistakes, such as the purchase of The Boston Globe for $1.1 billion in 1993. But there is something both straightforward and honest about their approach. If you buy New York Times stock, you are buying into the notion that you’ll let the family run the show, as it has done for more than a century. And the Sulzbergers will put The Times’s journalism ahead of all else, because that is what is in the family’s DNA.
The bet Punch Sulzberger made his whole career is that people wanted — and would pay for — great journalism. Today, despite an uncertain future, his heirs are making the same bet. The protection afforded them by the dual-class structure has allowed the current chairman, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., and the rest of the family to take the long view without worrying about corporate raiders or hedge fund managers.
“You can talk about the fact that a dual-class structure is unfair to shareholders,” said John Morton, a veteran newspaper analyst, “but I’m a sucker for good newspapers. I’m glad The Times is owned the way it is.”
Every reader should feel likewise.
Last but not least is Mr. Bruni:
Disregard today’s column. It won’t impress you.
There’s no way around that, not when you factor in how little practice I have at this sort of thing and how much more articulate my fellow columnists are. Also, I went to bed the other night with the sniffles and woke up to a spotty Internet connection and then there’s the matter of my right pinkie, which I’m pretty sure I sprained over the weekend when I lifted an unusually large martini. So on top of my hangover, I feel a stabbing every time I type a semicolon or a “p,” which is a real problem (ouch!), because you can’t exactly write your way around an entire consonant, unless maybe it’s “z.”
Are your expectations sufficiently lowered?
Then I’m ready for my first presidential debate.
The buildup to the one on Wednesday night has been a laughable comedy of tactical self-effacement, with each candidate setting his own bar so low that an arthritic earthworm could clear it.
And while that’s not wholly unusual, it’s surreally at odds with the way the rest of the campaign is being waged. According to the candidates and their teams, this is the most important election in a generation, a crossroads for an exceptional nation whose destiny depends on the selection of a leader with heroic skill and judgment. Just don’t hold out for one who can speak coherently about sequestration or make a subject and a verb agree.
Most days, we’re regaled with President Obama’s boldness in going after Osama bin Laden, his prescience in bailing out the auto industry and his dexterity with a golf club, a basketball, fatherhood or a tune.
But for the last week, we’ve been told that the thought of sharing a stage with that fearsome oratorical beast otherwise known as Mitt Romney has him trembling in his leather oxfords. If he hops away with even three of his four limbs, it’ll be a miracle.
“Governor Romney, he’s a good debater,” Obama said to voters in Nevada on Sunday night. “I’m just O.K.” He sounded like a host inviting people over for dinner and warning them that the arugula would probably be wilted and the steak overcooked to the texture of jerky and they’d be wise to stop first at McDonald’s, so long as they don’t tell Michelle.
And his put-on pessimism was a pale echo of the Romney gilding and Obama gutting done by the president’s allies, who have been unusually generous with reminiscences of the way Obama patronizingly told Hillary Clinton she was “likable enough” during a debate four years ago.
They’ve also volunteered that he tends toward unwieldy answers but, on the flip side, isn’t comfortable with pithy zingers. That leaves him searching between the too-long and the too-short for the just right, a tentative Goldilocks yanked into a gunfight at the so-so corral.
Jay Carney recently told reporters aboard Air Force One that Obama prevailed in 2008 “in spite of his debate performance.” David Axelrod noted in a memo that “five out of the last six challengers were perceived to win the first debate against an incumbent president” and garlanded Romney with adjectives like “disciplined,” “poised,” “smart.” David Plouffe maintained that Romney has “prepared more than any candidate in history.” Any candidate? In all of history? That Plouffe: a farsighted strategist with a political nanny cam on the full sweep of time.
Meanwhile, Beth Myers, a senior adviser to Romney, confined her assessments to the last half-century or so when she wrote that Obama “is widely regarded as one of the most talented political communicators in modern history.” This nonetheless sent Bill Clinton into an emotional tailspin — had she failed to catch his oratorical cartwheels in Charlotte? — and cast Romney as the shaky debater daunted by a rival’s greatness and likely to tumble into a dark sea of split infinitives and weird rich-guy remarks. (“Mr. President, I’ll bet you the contents of my Cayman Islands account…”)
The Obama camp’s assertions of Romney’s advantage rest on two inarguable realities. One, Romney has indeed been better on the debate stage than on the stump, in many interviews or at the London Olympics. He’s like a Chippendale end table that doesn’t quite go in the den or the family room, but there is that one far corner of the living room where he more or less fits and occasionally gleams.
Two, Romney has had more practice than Obama: some 35 debates over the last two election cycles to Obama’s 20-odd. But the Obama camp conveniently overlooks whom Romney got all that practice against, an all-star lineup that included Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann and of course Rick Perry, whose advisers had to beat back reports that he was on pain pills. They presented sleep apnea as an alternate explanation.
I’m guessing he had the sniffles, too. They’re hell on a debate performance — or, trust me, a column.