In “It Could Be His Party” The Putz gurgles that for one night, Mitt Romney was a leader and Republicans were following. MoDo has turned to fiction writing again. In “Two Presidents, Smoking and Scheming” her febrile imagination conjures up Aaron Sorkin pulling back the curtain on a secret New England presidential summit. I suppose she finds herself amusing… The Moustache of Wisdom asks “Can I Phone a Friend?” He suggests what we need to hear in the second presidential debate. Less lying from Mittens and a functioning moderator would be a good start. Mr. Kristof has a question in “The Cancer Lobby:” If chemicals are carcinogens, should the government hide that information? Mr. Bruni, in “Never Waver, Never Wobble,” says as Mitt Romney demonstrated last week, there’s no political asset like sheer bravado. Here’s The Putz:
In countries with parliamentary systems, political parties rarely lack for formal leadership. When the British Tories or Canadian Liberals are out of power, they have an official prime minister-in-waiting standing by, and a “shadow cabinet” as well. There’s jockeying for influence behind the scenes, but there’s always somebody out front who can claim to speak for the party, setting its agenda and making a case to the country as a whole.
Not so in the United States. Here, parties in their out-of-power years tend to slip into low-grade civil wars, with rival camps inside Washington and various warlords — er, governors — squabbling on the periphery. Not coincidentally, the parties tend to look their worst during these periods: fractious and solipsistic, intellectually confused or ideologically extreme, with opportunists grabbing for the megaphone at every opportunity.
The Republican Party has been effectively leaderless for almost six years, ever since the 2006 midterm elections made George W. Bush’s lame-duck status official. John McCain was so mistrusted by conservatives that he probably would have felt like an interim figure even if he hadn’t gone down to defeat in 2008, and after the general Republican rout that year, the party’s public image was suddenly defined more by media personalities — from Rush Limbaugh to Glenn Beck — than by any of its elected officials.
The Limbaugh-Beck moment passed, but the vacuum remained — and for most of his two years of campaigning, as a primary candidate and then as the Republican nominee, Mitt Romney conspicuously failed to fill it. He seemed content to take his party as he found it, and to conform rather than to lead: in the primaries because conformity was the safest way to reassure his critics, and in the general election because his campaign apparently believed that a generic Mr. Republican would be able to glide to victory in the fall.
That finally changed in the first presidential debate. In 90 prime-time minutes, the country had a glimpse of what our politics might look like if the Republican Party actually had a leader again.
What Romney executed on Wednesday night was not just a simple pivot to the center, as much of the post-debate analysis suggested. Pivot he certainly did — stressing bipartisanship and touting his record as the moderate governor of a liberal state, backing away from the more implausible spending cuts implied by his budget promises, explicitly breaking with the idea that upper-bracket tax cuts can be a self-financing free lunch.
But this wasn’t some sort of Sister Souljah moment, where Romney called out his fellow conservatives in order to curry favor with the center. Rather, what he did was clarify, elevate and translate. He clarified what kind of tax reformer he would be, by promising that revenue neutrality would take priority over sweeping cuts for the rich — a premise that plenty of Republicans are already happy to accept. He elevated an argument that’s increasingly popular among conservative wonks — that the Dodd-Frank financial reform perpetuates “too big to fail” — and used it to make a populist case against the president. And he translated the basic free-market vision to a nonideological audience, by talking more about decent jobs than heroic job creators, and more about the struggling middle class than about the supposedly persecuted John Galts.
This is the role that an effective party leader ought to play. Media fantasies notwithstanding, you can’t lead a party by repudiating its base or campaigning against its reigning ideology. But you can lead by channeling the base’s passions in a constructive direction, and by reinterpreting the party’s ideology to meet the challenges of the present day.
One debate does not such a leader make. But at the very least, the fact that Romney’s strategy worked so effectively last Wednesday — that it made him seem mainstream and appealing while also winning him plaudits from almost every sort of conservative — suggests that the Republican Party can actually be led, and that its politicians don’t have to be prisoners of talking points and groupthink.
Indeed, the party may actually be ripe for such leadership. Cut through the Kabuki narratives on the contemporary right — the grass roots versus the establishment, the True Conservatives versus the RINOs — and you’ll find that what conservatism actually stands for, issue by issue and policy by policy, is more up for grabs than at any point since the Reagan revolution.
The Reagan nostalgia, the fears of looming socialism, the paranoia about a shiftless 47 percent: They are all symptomatic of a party on the brink of transition rather than one incapable of change. Republicans seem to be clinging to the past mostly because their leaders haven’t shown them what they should stand for in the present.
The only question, as we head into the final four weeks of the campaign, is whether Mitt Romney has realized this a little bit too late.
So Putzy thinks his part is on the brink of transition? Cripes. That probably means it’ll get even more bughouse crazy that it is now… Here, FSM help us, is MoDo:
After the debate, I was talking to Aaron Sorkin, who was a little down. Or, as he put it, “nonverbal, shouting incoherently at a squirrel, angrier than when the Jets lost to the 49ers last Sunday without ever really being on the field.”
Aaron was mollified when he learned that President Obama, realizing things were dire, privately sought the counsel of a former Democratic president known for throwing down in debates. I asked Aaron if he knew how the conversation between the two presidents had gone and, as it happened, he did. This is his account.
The lights from the presidential motorcade illuminate a New Hampshire farmhouse at night in the sprawling New England landscape. JED BARTLET steps out onto his porch as the motorcade slows to a stop.
BARTLET (calling out) Don’t even get out of the car!
BARACK OBAMA (opening the door of his limo) Five minutes, that’s all I want.
BARTLET Were you sleepy?
OBAMA Jed —
BARTLET Was that the problem? Had you just taken allergy medication? General anesthesia?
OBAMA I had an off night.
BARTLET What makes you say that? The fact that the Cheesecake Factory is preparing an ad campaign boasting that it served Romney his pre-debate meal? Law school graduates all over America are preparing to take the bar exam by going to the freakin’ Cheesecake Factory!
OBAMA (following Bartlet inside) I can understand why you’re upset, Jed.
BARTLET Did your staff let you know the debate was gonna be on television?
OBAMA (looking in the other room) Is that Jeff Daniels?
BARTLET That’s Will McAvoy, he just looks like Jeff Daniels.
OBAMA Why’s he got Jim Lehrer in a hammerlock?
BARTLET That’s called an Apache Persuasion Hold. McAvoy thinks it’s the responsibility of the moderator to expose — what are they called? — lies.
WILL (shouting) Did Obama remove the work requirement from Welfare-to-Work?!
WILL And you didn’t want to ask Romney about that because? It would’ve been impolite?!
BARTLET Let’s go in another room, Mr. President. You want a cigarette?
OBAMA I stopped smoking.
BARTLET Start again. (Leading the way into his study) I’m a father of daughters, you’re a father of daughters. It looked to me like right before you went on stage, Sasha told you she likes a boy in her class who has a tattoo.
OBAMA That’s not what hap —
BARTLET Here’s what you do. You invite the boy over for dinner, you have a couple of fellas from your detail brush their suit coats back just enough so the lad can see the .44 Magnums — problem solved. You have what every father of a daughter dreams of — an army and a good dog.
OBAMA The girls are fine, that wasn’t the problem. In the debate prep we —
BARTLET Whoa … there was prep?
OBAMA (shouting) Enough! (taking a cigarette and lighting it) I appreciate that the view’s pretty good from the cheap seats. Gore chalked up my debate performance to the altitude. He debated at sea level — what was his excuse?
BARTLET They told you to make sure you didn’t seem condescending, right? They told you, “First, do no harm,” and in your case that means don’t appear condescending, and you bought it. ’Cause for the American right, condescension is the worst crime you can commit.
OBAMA What’s your suggestion?
BARTLET Appear condescending. Now it comes naturally to me —
OBAMA I know.
BARTLET It’s a gift, but I’m likable and you’re likable enough. Thirty straight months of job growth — blown off. G.M. showing record profits — unmentioned. “Governor, would you still let Detroit go bankrupt as you urged us to do four years ago?” — unasked. (shouting) I’m talkin’ to you, too, Lehrer!
WILL (in the other room) I got him, sir!
BARTLET All right! (back to OBAMA) And that was quite a display of hard-nosed, fiscal conservatism when he slashed one one-hundredth of 1 percent from the federal budget by canceling “Sesame Street” and “Downton Abbey.” I think we’re halfway home. Mr. President, your prep for the next debate need not consist of anything more than learning to pronounce three words: “Governor, you’re lying.” Let’s replay some of Wednesday night’s more jaw-dropping visits to the Land Where Facts Go to Die. “I don’t have a $5 trillion tax cut. I don’t have a tax cut of a scale you’re talking about.”
OBAMA The Tax Policy Center analysis of your proposal for a 20 percent across-the-board tax cut in all federal income tax rates, eliminating the Alternative Minimum Tax, the estate tax and other reductions, says it would be a $5 trillion tax cut.
BARTLET In other words …
OBAMA You’re lying, Governor.
BARTLET “I saw a study that came out today that said you’re going to raise taxes by $3,000 to $4,000 on middle-income families.”
OBAMA The American Enterprise Institute found my budget actually would reduce the share of taxes that each taxpayer pays to service the debt by $1,289.89 for taxpayers earning in the $100,000 to $200,000 range.
BARTLET Which is another way of saying …
OBAMA You’re lying, Governor.
BARTLET “I want to take that $716 billion you’ve cut and put it back into Medicare.”
OBAMA The $716 billion I’ve cut is from the providers, not the beneficiaries. I think that’s a better idea than cutting the exact same $716 billion and replacing it with a gift certificate, which is what’s contained in the plan that’s named for your running mate.
BARTLET “Pre-existing conditions are covered under my plan.”
OBAMA Not unless you’ve come up with a new plan since this afternoon.
BARTLET “You doubled the deficit.”
OBAMA When I took office in 2009, the deficit was 1.4 trillion. According to the C.B.O., the deficit for 2012 will be 1.1 trillion. Either you have the mathematics aptitude of a Shetland pony or, much more likely, you’re lying.
BARTLET “All of the increase in natural gas has happened on private land, not on government land. On government land, your administration has cut the number of permits and licenses in half.”
OBAMA Maybe your difficulty is with the words “half” and “double.” Oil production on federal land is higher, not lower. And the oil and gas industry are currently sitting on 7,000 approved permits to drill on government land that they’ve not yet begun developing.
BARTLET “I think about half the green firms you’ve invested in have gone out of business.”
OBAMA Yeah, your problem’s definitely with the word “half.” As of this moment there have been 26 recipients of loan guarantees — 23 of which are very much in business. What was Bain’s bankruptcy record again?
BARTLET And finally?
OBAMA Governor, if your ideas are the right ideas for our country, if you have a plan and it’s the best plan for our future, if your vision is the best vision for all of us and not 53 percent of us, why aren’t you able to make that case in the same ZIP code as the truth?
OBAMA Tell John Sununu anytime he wants to teach me how to be more American he knows my address for the next four years. He used to have an office there before he was fired.
BARTLET You picked a bad night to have a bad night, that’s all. You’ve got two more chances to change the scoreboard, and Joe unplugged should be pretty good television too. Make Romney your cabana boy in New York.
OBAMA Got it.
BARTLET (taking the cigarette out of OBAMA’s hand and stubbing it out) These things’ll kill you. Pull McAvoy off Lehrer on your way out.
Gawd… Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:
Last week’s debate was important not only because Mitt Romney “won” and thereby energized his moribund campaign. It was important because Romney won in a way that exposed and deepened President Obama’s two greatest vulnerabilities in this election, while overcoming, at least for one night, Romney’s greatest weakness.
Maybe we should have seen this coming. For weeks, Romney had performed so badly and had fallen so far behind in swing states that if this campaign were a Ryder Cup singles match, you’d have said the president felt he had the match in the bag with just a few holes left to play. So he did the worst thing you can do in match play golf: he started playing not to lose. He continued with an uninspired, vague and cautious campaign and just waited for Romney to keep hitting balls out of bounds. Romney, his back to the wall, had no choice but to start aggressively playing to win.
He did so by repositioning himself as a center-right Republican moderate. Yes, this required him to mischaracterize and disguise key aspects of his platform on taxes and health care. But because Obama did not pounce on that abrupt Romney shift to the center, Romney’s arguments were allowed to be presented without any counter and, as I said, scored a direct hit on Obama’s two greatest vulnerabilities.
The first, and the most dangerous threat to Obama’s re-election, is a critical mass of voters saying this: “Barack Obama, nice man, good father, great that we finally elected an African-American. He tried hard. But you know what? I just want to try something new, even if I don’t know it will work.”
That sentiment is deadly for Obama. As long as Romney didn’t seem like a credible alternative, Obama kept it at bay, even though the economy has stagnated. But Romney reawakened that mood by the confident and crisp way he talked about the mechanics of how jobs are created — through start-ups, small businesses and entrepreneurship — and the catalytic power of markets. His presentation crackled with a freshness and a sense of possibility that was completely missing in Obama’s monotone discussion of health care, deficits and government programs. And where Obama had a chance to talk about how his own green jobs initiative has actually spurred all kinds of innovations and start-ups, he whiffed. (As some have noted, it is too bad the debate rules didn’t allow him to phone a friend.)
I confess, spending time with inventors, social entrepreneurs and people who start companies really floats my boat — and I am not alone. If there has been one consistent weakness to this president’s public messaging, it is that it is often lacking in any excitement about innovation and entrepreneurship — the real drivers of our economy. In recent years, all net new jobs in America have come from start-ups.
Obama knows this, and, in his convention speech, at least he actually spoke to it eloquently, saying: “We honor the strivers, the dreamers, the risk-takers, the entrepreneurs who have always been the driving force behind our free enterprise system.”
Yes! Yes! Yes! Mr. President. And. in the next debate, look into the camera and tell us what you are going to do in a second term to multiply the number of those risk-takers by 10. Give those people who are saying, “Nice guy, but I just want to try something new,” a real reason to be excited that you not only want to deliver national health insurance but also an innovation economy that will ensure we can afford it.
Your closing statement was awful: If you re-elect me, I will “fight every single day on behalf of the American people and the middle class.” That’s a given! What great inspiring journey are you going to take the whole country on to invent the future and spark more good jobs?
The other Obama weakness exploited by Romney was the country’s political paralysis. Obama is right — most of that gridlock was orchestrated by the Republicans to make him fail. But the fact is, a lot of Americans today look at our politicians and feel as though we’re the children of permanently divorcing parents — and they are sick of it. There is a longing to see our politicians working together again. So when Romney spoke about how he met with Democrats once a week as Massachusetts governor to get stuff done, that surely touched a hopeful chord with some voters. Obama needs to stress that he, from his side, aspires to restore bipartisanship and has a plan to overcome paralysis and pull the country together in a second term.
The weakness Romney overcame was the notion that he didn’t care about or know how to talk to 47 percent of the country. This was the first time Romney addressed the whole country directly, rather than a purely Republican audience. He didn’t have to worry about the nut balls he was running against in the G.O.P. primary and was not forced to cater just to the Tea Party base. So he finally took out the Etch A Sketch and moved to the center.
Is this how he would really govern? I wouldn’t trust it — not with all his voodoo math — but it was a lot more effective messaging than that by the Romney of old. This new Romney sounded like a man applying to be the C.E.O. of a country that needs a turnaround. Obama sounded like a man who forgot — or resented — that he needed to reapply for his job at all.
Apparently it makes no difference if every other sentence that comes out of your mouth is an outright lie. Here’s Mr. Kristof:
Who knew that carcinogens had their own lobby in Washington?
Don’t believe me? Just consider formaldehyde, which is found in everything from nail polish to kitchen countertops, fabric softeners to carpets. Largely because of its use in building materials, we breathe formaldehyde fumes when we’re inside our homes.
Just one other fact you should know: According to government scientists, it causes cancer.
The chemical industry is working frantically to suppress that scientific consensus — because it fears “public confusion.” Big Chem apparently worries that you might be confused if you learned that formaldehyde caused cancer of the nose and throat, and perhaps leukemia as well.
The industry’s strategy is to lobby Congress to cut off money for the Report on Carcinogens, a 500-page consensus document published every two years by the National Institutes of Health, containing the best information about what agents cause cancer. If that sounds like shooting the messenger, well, it is.
“The way the free market is supposed to work is that you have information,” said Lynn Goldman, dean of the school of public health at George Washington University. “They’re trying to squelch that information.”
The larger issue is whether the federal government should be a watchdog for public health, or a lap dog for industry. When Mitt Romney denounces President Obama for excessive regulation, these are the kinds of issues at stake.
“Formaldehyde is known to be a human carcinogen,” declared the most recent Report on Carcinogens, published in 2011. Previous editions had listed it only as a suspected carcinogen, but the newer report, citing many studies of human and animal exposure to formaldehyde, made the case that it was time to stop equivocating.
The chemical industry was outraged, because it sells lots of formaldehyde that ends up in people’s homes, often without their knowledge.
“Nearly all homes had formaldehyde concentrations that exceeded guidelines for cancer and chronic irritation,” according to a 2009 survey by the California Energy Commission.
The Report on Carcinogens also offended the chemical industry by listing styrene for the first time as “reasonably anticipated to be a carcinogen.” Styrene, which goes into everything from boats to shower stalls, is mostly a risk to those who work in factories where it is used, so it’s less of an issue for the general public.
The chemical industry is represented in Washington by the American Chemistry Council, which is the lobbying front for chemical giants like Exxon Mobil, Dow, BASF and DuPont. Those companies should understand that they risk their reputations when they toy with human lives.
The American Chemistry Council first got its pals in Congress to order a $1 million follow-up study on formaldehyde and styrene. Then it demanded, through a provision drafted by Representative Denny Rehberg, a Montana Republican, that no money be spent on another Report on Carcinogens until the follow-up was completed — meaning a four-year delay until the next report. Stay tuned for an industry effort to slip some such provision into the next budget legislation.
Let’s be clear. There is uncertainty about toxic chemicals, and it is perfectly legitimate to criticize the Report on Carcinogens. But this effort to defund the report is an insult to science and democracy alike.
Barbara K. Rimer, the chairwoman of the President’s Cancer Panel, told me that there might be ways to improve the Report on Carcinogens but that it would be wrong to cut off money for it. “Without this program, there would be a gap in the protection of the public,” she said.
Last month, 76 scientists wrote a joint letter to Congress noting that the World Health Organization also listed formaldehyde as a known carcinogen, and styrene as a possible carcinogen. They defended the Report on Carcinogens as “consistent with international scientific consensus.”
“The American Chemistry Council is working to delay and ultimately destroy” the Report on Carcinogens, the scientists wrote.
The chemical council declined to speak to me on the record. It has a long record of obfuscation, borrowing the same strategies that the tobacco industry used to delay regulation of cigarettes.
“It’s the same playbook,” noted Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The American Chemistry Council is also trying to undermine scientific reviews by the Environmental Protection Agency. You can say this for our political system: Even carcinogens have an advocate in Washington!
The basic strategy is an old one. As David Michaels notes in his book “Doubt Is Their Product,” the first evidence that asbestos causes cancer emerged in the 1930s. But three decades later, industry executives were still railing about “ill-informed and exaggerated” press reports, still covering up staggering cancer rates, and still denouncing regulation of asbestos as “premature.” Huge numbers of Americans today are dying as a result.
Do we really want to go through that again?
As long as there’s a buck to be made… Last but not least here’s Mr. Bruni:
What fools most of us are. What chumps. We worry about our flaws, sweat our mistakes, allow the truth to be our tether and let conscience trip us up. We tiptoe. We equivocate.
The political arena would make mincemeat of us.
It’s a place for pure bravado, a lesson we’ve been reminded of lately by politicians as diverse and diversely accomplished as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bill Clinton and of course Mitt Romney, who gave President Obama a special tutorial on Wednesday night.
How did he win their first debate? Let us count the ways: by homing in tight on the president’s unmet goals and unfinished business. By looking consistently into the camera during his closing remarks, which Obama somehow forgot to do. By being alert, while the president seemed hungry for, or hung over from, a nap.
By smuggling notes in? Certain hysterics on the left lofted this accusation, pointing to wholly ambiguous video snippets, while their counterparts on the right claimed that the unemployment rate’s dip to 7.8 percent — the lowest since the first month of Obama’s presidency — was some sort of statistical skulduggery by the White House. The homestretch of this bitter campaign will clearly be fertile for more than nasty commercials. A thousand conspiracy theories will bloom.
None will adequately explain Obama’s torpor when, at the debate, Romney actually made a reference to his own accountant, a ball that came in low and slow over the plate, practically begging Obama to knock it out of the park. Which he did. The following day. After the credits had already rolled and 67 million viewers had gone back to their usual programming.
Al Gore wondered whether Denver’s mile-high elevation and a deficit of oxygen had undone The One. There should be a Hall of Fame for political spin, and this bit of conjecture should be enshrined in it immediately.
Obama’s problem wasn’t altitude. It was attitude — and affect. In a format that demands certitude, he hemmed. In a vocation that rewards swagger, he wobbled.
Had he failed to take a good look around him? Not noticed that some of the grandmasters of bravado were out and about, striding across the land and showing how it’s done?
Schwarzenegger spent last week on the interview circuit, plugging a memoir, “Total Recall,” that’s a testament not only to outsize confidence — he insisted on supremacy in bodybuilding, movies and politics, three careers not previously associated with one another — but also to the peculiar talent that many successful people have for being utterly unabashed.
You’d think that he wouldn’t want to humiliate his estranged wife, Maria Shriver, any more than he already did with the revelation last year that he had fathered the son of a housekeeper in their employ. You’d be wrong. In a book that needn’t have been written — he has all the money he could want, as he bragged to Lesley Stahl in a “60 Minutes” segment that was broadcast last Sunday — he confirmed an affair with Brigitte Nielsen, his co-star in “Red Sonja,” that happened some eight years into his relationship with Shriver.
In the Stahl interview, he tersely admitted wrongdoing, but was more expansive about his new $250,000 Mercedes, a monstrous truck that he eagerly showed her. Look how mighty! How tall! In Arnold’s world, redemption is a matter of riding high and not letting anyone or anything bring you down. Bravado is the new contrition.
HARRY REID understands this. After his charge several months ago that Romney had gone a decade without paying federal income tax, he was widely (and justly) roasted. His response? To level that charge again and again. Don’t retreat, repeat. That’s the strategy of the day.
It’s Paul Ryan’s method. His selection as Romney’s running mate prompted a closer look at his Congressional record, which revealed that he had voted for increased federal spending, contributing to a larger federal debt, during George W. Bush’s presidency. Did he then feel compelled to modulate his marketing of himself as the great deficit hawk and budget truth-teller of our time?
Please. He proceeded to give a convention speech that chastised Obama for his neglect of the Simpson-Bowles deficit-reduction plan, even though Ryan himself had refused to support it.
Speaking of the conventions, the Clinton nostalgia that reached its apotheosis at the Democrats’ gathering in Charlotte has been an interesting exercise in something less than total recall. His presidency was indeed a successful one, and he’s a brilliant model for how to shape public opinion and for the glad-handing, backslapping and messy compromise that the legislative progress typically requires.
But how much more successful might that presidency have been if his private failings hadn’t opened the door to public scandal? If he hadn’t strayed? There’s almost no talk about missed opportunities, and that’s a tribute to his unbowed posture. He may have been impeachable, but his self-assurance wasn’t and isn’t. And what wounds time doesn’t heal, a broad smile and a defiant twinkle take care of.
Romney actually allowed himself a public expression of regret late last week, apologizing for his infamous “47 percent” remark. But this came only when the campaign narrative had suddenly turned in his favor, and certainly not in the hot glare of Wednesday night. For the debate viewers he was all pluck and no doubt, even when he fibbed or flipped.
Obama didn’t exactly crumble, contrary to the consensus that deepened and darkened as the minutes ticked by and we pundits piled up, each judgment less qualified and each voice more emphatic than the last. An unimpressive performance became an unalloyed cataclysm, never mind that Ronald Reagan bungled his first debate with Walter Mondale and was nonetheless re-elected in a landslide, or that George W. Bush muffed his initial face-off with John Kerry and also won a second term.
There’s still a month to go. The fundamental dynamics of the electorate aren’t different now than they were when Romney and Obama strode to their lecterns. And Obama, in the past, has shown himself plenty capable of extreme nerve, extraordinary verve and epic self-promotion. He just lost touch with his bravado in Denver.
As Dan Rather told Rachel Maddow on Thursday, “We learned again last night, if we needed any reminding, that there’s power in taking the view, ‘Listen, I’m frequently in error, but never in doubt.’ ”
That perspective may not be admirable. But it’s effective. And it’s politics.
I see that people who are questioning the production and subsequent hiding of the papers Romney brought with him and placed on the podium are officially “hysterics.” Nice to know.