Brooks, Nocera and Bruni

Bobo is trying to make the best of a mess.  He’s writing “In Defense of Romney,” and squeaks that Mitt Romney does not fit the exciting mold Republicans think they want, but he may be just what the times require.  If Mittens is what the times require then we’re worse off than I feared.  Mr. Nocera, in “Hooray for Federal Loans!”, says Solyndra has caused a political firestorm, but the government program at the heart of the case does the country a lot of good.  Mr. Bruni addresses “The Twisting Route Back to Romney” and says on the far side of Super Tuesday, the Republican candidate will most likely be the very politician on whom the party establishment placed its bets from the start.  No shit?  Really?  Color me stunned…  Here’s Bobo:

Over the past several months, Mitt Romney has been an excellent presidential candidate. He has performed superbly in the debates. He has outorganized his rivals. He has relentlessly stayed on his core theme of putting Americans back to work. He has taken Rick Perry apart with a cold ruthlessness that is a wonder to behold.

And throughout this period of excellence, he has done almost nothing to endear himself to Republican activists. They have spent this season of excellence searching for anyone else: Palin, Trump, Bachmann, Perry, Cain and now (Please! Please!) Christie. On Nov. 4, 2010, Romney earned the support of 23 percent of Republican voters, according to the RealClearPolitics average of polls. Today, he also has support from 23 percent of Republicans nationwide.

The central problem is that Mitt Romney doesn’t fit the mold of what many Republicans want in a presidential candidate. They don’t want a technocratic manager. They want a bold, blunt radical outsider who will take on the establishment, speak truth to power and offend the liberal news media.

They don’t want Organization Man. They want Braveheart.

The question is: Are they right to want this? Well, if they want an in-your-face media campaign that will produce delicious thrills for the true believers, they are absolutely right. But if they actually want to elect an effective executive who is right for this moment, they are probably not right.

There are two important features of the current Republican moment. First, this is not a party riven by big ideological differences. This is not Reagan versus Rockefeller. Whoever wins the nomination will be leading a party with a cohesive ideology and a common set of priorities: reform taxes, replace Obamacare, cut spending and reform entitlements. The next president won’t have to come up with a vision, just execute the things almost all Republicans agree upon.

Second, the challenges ahead are technically difficult. There’s a reason that no president since Reagan has been able to reform the tax code. There’s a reason no president save Obama has been able to pass health care reform. These are complicated issues that require a sophisticated inside game — navigating through the special interests, building complex coalitions. They are issues that require executive expertise.

It’s easy to see how Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, if he decides to run, could rally public support behind these priorities. He has an amazing ability to talk about policy in concrete, common-sense terms. He might easily be the Republicans’ best option.

Yet Romney’s skills are not to be underestimated. In the first place, he doesn’t throw interceptions. As with quarterbacks, the chief job of a president is not to give the game away with unforced errors. Romney does not take excessive risks. He doesn’t make decisions without advance preparation.

He does adapt. It has been stunning to see how much better Romney is as a candidate this time around than in 2008. This improvement must have come from a pretty thorough period of self-examination and self-correction.

He seems to know how to pick staff. His economic advisers include R. Glenn Hubbard of Columbia, Greg Mankiw of Harvard, former Senator Jim Talent and Vin Weber, a former congressman. This is the gold standard of adviser teams.

He could probably work well with the leaders of his own party. If Romney were to be elected, he would probably share power with the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, and the House speaker, John Boehner. These are not exactly Tea Party radicals. Instead, they are consummate professionals and expert legislators who could plausibly work together. More presidents have been undone by the Congressional leaders in their own party than by members of the opposition.

Romney may be able to guard against ideological overreach. Each successive recent administration has overread its election mandate. Romney may be inauthentic, but he is rarely overzealous.

He comes from a blue state. Candidates who come from states where their party is in the minority are much more likely to be elected. In government, it really helps to have a feel for how people in the other party think. Neither President Obama nor George W. Bush had this.

Finally, Romney can be dull. Political activists like exciting candidates. But most people, who have lower expectations from politics and politicians, just want them to provide basic order. They want government to be orderly so they can be daring in other spheres of their lives. Romney is the most predictable of the candidates and would make for the most soporific of presidents. That’s a good thing. Government would function better if partisan passions were on a lower flame.

It’s exciting to have charismatic leaders. But often the best leaders in business, in government and in life are not glittering saviors. They are professionals you hire to get a job done.

The strongest case for Romney is that he’s nobody’s idea of a savior.

Here’s Mr. Nocera:

In the firestorm over Solyndra, three main criticisms have emerged.

The first is that Solyndra wasn’t ready for prime time and that the Department of Energy, which gave it a $535 million federally guaranteed loan, should have known as much. The second is that Solyndra used political influence to land a loan that was destined to blow up. And the third is that Solyndra’s bankruptcy case shows why government bureaucrats shouldn’t be picking technology winners and losers — or making risky investments that the private sector won’t.

I think we can now safely concede the first point. Although what sunk Solyndra was the unsustainably high price of its innovative solar panels, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times and Megan McArdle’s blog at The Atlantic’s Web site have all made a convincing case that, internally, the company was a mess.

The second argument, on the other hand, strikes me as utterly bogus. Yes, there are a few e-mails from inside the government that questioned the loan guarantee. And, yes, Solyndra hired — shocker! — lobbyists. But you can always find, after the fact, “bad documents” that can be twisted to make something innocent sound nefarious.

“I suspect that when all the information finally comes out, there will be very little that is scandalous,” said Jonathan Rothwell, who has studied the Solyndra case as a senior research analyst at the Brookings Institution. Although Republicans will surely try to keep Solyndra in the news until, oh, next November, the scandal will eventually evaporate because there is very little there.

The third criticism is the one that really matters: government “is a crappy vc,” as Obama’s former economic adviser, Larry Summers, put it in another embarrassing e-mail that was recently released as part of a Congressional investigation into Solyndra.

“VC,” of course, stands for venture capitalist; the notion is that government is not equipped to play that role. A corollary point, voiced by Holman Jenkins Jr. in The Wall Street Journal, is that solar projects that make financial sense get financed by the private sector and those that don’t are the ones that need federal backing.

But if you spend any time actually looking into how the Department of Energy doles out the loan guarantees, you quickly realize that it’s not acting like a venture capitalist. Rather, it is funding projects that have already attracted private capital — lots of it. The private sector, in other words, is still the one picking winners and losers.

What the program is essentially doing is moving alternative energy innovations to full-scale development. Why is the government doing this? Because this is precisely where the private sector fails. As Rothwell puts it, “The program is supposed to overcome the commercialization valley of death.”

In this country, it is relatively easy to get venture capital for a good idea — and alternative energy has attracted billions in the past few years. What is hard to come by is money to fund the far more expensive process of commercializing the innovation. Andy Grove, the former chief executive of Intel (and still one of the great business minds in America), has been sounding the alarm about this, pointing out that one reason so many American innovations wind up being manufactured in China is that the Chinese are more than happy to finance the commercialization process.

One company that has received three federally guaranteed loans, totaling more than $3 billion, is First Solar. That money is going to help the company build three solar power plants in California and Arizona. The plants already have long-term contracts with utilities. They have locked-in cash flows. The risk is minimal.

Shouldn’t banks be making these loans? Sure, but they are still paralyzed by the financial crisis and don’t understand the economics of solar power. Can you really argue that the government should, therefore, also sit on its hands? Indeed, one goal of the loan guarantee program is to show private capital that these loans make sense — so that the banks can eventually step in and replace the government.

The Republicans know all this, surely. In 2005, when the Energy Policy Act was first proposed by the Bush administration, they made some of these same arguments in support of the loan guarantee program, which was part of the bill. The bill passed the House with overwhelming Republican support. Most Democrats voted no.

Today, the Republican-led Energy and Commerce Committee is investigating Solyndra, forcing its executives to take the Fifth Amendment, and releasing embarrassing White House e-mails. I looked it up: every single Republican on that committee who was in office in 2005 voted for the loan guarantee program that they are now so gleefully condemning.

I wonder why.

Many readers have asked if Harold Burson’s Nuremberg trial scripts, which were the subject of my last column, are available online. Although they are not, Harold has posted a small sampling at I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.

Mr. Nocera, anyone who quotes Megan McCurdle of the once-worth-reading Atlantic (which also gave us The Pasty Little Putz) as being knowledgable about anything other than pink salt is a fool.  Here’s Mr. Bruni:

This just in: the Iowa caucuses have been moved up significantly, lest the state jeopardize its status as the nation’s Capital of Disproportionate Political Influence.

They will be held on Wednesday.

State Republican officials said they had no choice and could take no chances, not after their peers in Florida set a new date for their primary, Monday, Oct. 31st, and then, in a cunning bid for maximum television coverage, promised Halloween candy to voters who came in costume as the candidate they supported. This understandably infuriated South Carolinian Republicans, who rescheduled their primary for Monday, Oct. 17th, even though 9 of the 213 Republican debates won’t have been held by that point.

Far-fetched? Only a little. Whether judged by the leapfrog that states are playing with the contest calendar, the quicksilver rise and fall of candidates du jour, the showy dithering of supposedly would-be contenders or the dogged persistence of also-rans sprinting nowhere fast, this has been an epically silly primary season, and (cue the Carpenters) we’ve only just begun.

Almost makes you wonder why we bother with it at all. On the far side of Super Tuesday, which at this rate is going to have to be nicknamed Afterthought Tuesday, the victor will most likely be Mitt Romney, the very politician on whom the party establishment placed its bets from the start. Things weren’t so different in primary seasons past with John McCain, George W. Bush, Bob Dole. The arc of Republican history bends toward the foregone conclusion.

But while it’s bending, what fun we have! The 24-hour news cycle demands nothing less. There are pundits to quiz, acres of cyberspace to fill, Op-Ed columns to file, chesty or creepy-eyed Newsweek covers to shoot, campaign strategists to deify, campaign strategists to demonize, and an Ed Rollins psychodrama to behold.

The media-political-industrial complex must have its way and its say, and so the Michele Bachmann crest gives way to the Rick Perry tsunami and now the Herman Cain ripple, thanks to his fearsome dominance at the fiercely contested Florida straw poll.

You thought straw polls were proprietary to Iowa? Only in Iowa’s dreams. Not just Florida but also the National Federation of Republican Women held such polls recently, and Cain triumphed in both.

He’s unstoppable, and could be stopping soon at a Costco or Barnes & Noble near you. For much of this month he’ll be promoting his just published, ambiguously titled book, “This is Herman Cain!” It’s not just exclamatory but delusional, as demonstrated by its subtitle, “My Journey to the White House.”

I don’t doubt that he’d like to get there. I doubt very much that he expects to, but then entering the primaries — or, the easier route, flirting with entering them — is less about viability than visibility. Donald Trump rode self-created speculation about a possible candidacy to enhanced ratings for the TV show “Celebrity Apprentice.”

Bachmann has a book due in late November. It has been titled to appeal to both the Pentecostal and Pilates crowds. It’s called “Core of Conviction.”

Down the line she and Cain and Rick Santorum will be in competition for the kinds of speaking gigs and television slots enjoyed by Sarah Palin, who still hasn’t made up her mind about the primaries, or so she says. All four now enjoy a currency well beyond their actual political offices or professional accomplishments — a currency derived from, and rising with, the sheer number of times a television camera turns their way. For that reason and by that arithmetic, the primaries are a profitable gig.

And the calendar gets ever kookier. It has long been frustrating, granting outsize sway to Iowa and South Carolina and thus tilting the Republican process in favor of candidates with conservative positions on social issues. It’s telling that Chris Christie opposes abortion rights and same-sex marriage. Would the courting of him be so ardent, and the assessment of his prospects so hopeful, if he supported either?

As for actual dates, Iowa is indeed expected to hold its caucuses in early January rather than early February, because South Carolina on Monday moved its primary up to Jan. 21st, a reaction to Florida’s deciding on Jan. 31st, in defiance of national party leaders’ wishes.

That Florida was feeling neglected is perhaps the silliest primary-season twist of all. This is the place that educated a breathless nation on the distinction between dimpled, hanging and pregnant chads, and it becomes a veritable news media preserve for the months just before every presidential election.

There’s loud chatter about its junior senator, Marco Rubio, being tapped as the Republican nominee’s running mate. To top it all off, Cain himself — the straw poll victor!— will be hitting bookstores in St. Petersburg and near Orlando on Wednesday. Could a state really ask for anything more?



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