The Pasty Little Putz has “Sympathy for the Undecided,” and he gurgles that there are reasons that even a highly informed voter could still be on the fence. He’s invented a new mythical beast: The “highly informed, highly engaged, yet still conflicted voter.” I defy the Putz to find one such person. Just one. I think we’re more likely to see herds of wyverns rioting in Times Square… MoDo has issues (doesn’t she ALWAYS have issues?) and says “Pampered Princes Fling Gorilla Dust.” She hisses that even cloaked in humor, the barbs of Mitt Romney and Barry Obama drip with disdain. Apparently “gorilla dust” is something that Ross Perot mentioned once. Who remembers that sort of crap? The Moustache of Wisdom has a question about “Obama’s Best Kept Secrets”: Why aren’t we hearing more about the major reforms in schools and cars? Well, Tommy, how much have YOU told us about them? Mr. Kristof says “Cuddle Your Kid!” He wants Romney and Obama to listen up: rats and a girl named Kewauna may hold secrets about what the country needs. Mr. Bruni, in “Taxing My Patience,” says with trickle-down aviation and other happy talk, Marco Rubio distills the avoidance of hard truths. Here’s that hopeless schmuck The Putz:
In public, the American political class makes idols of undecided voters. We put them in focus groups, we let them pose questions during debates, we interview them and pitch ads to them and fold them into elaborate theories about “soccer moms” and “Reagan Democrats.” Officially, their existence justifies everything that pundits and pollsters and consultants get paid to say and do.
In private, though — and, O.K., sometimes publicly as well — political insiders tend to discuss undecideds with a mix of exasperation, condescension and contempt. Especially at this point in the presidential season, after months of debates and ads and op-eds have made the case that “the choice is clear” in “the most important election of our lifetimes,” it can be hard to imagine how anyone with an ounce of savvy can still be on the fence.
Some of this frustration is justified. As anyone who’s watched a cable-news focus group can attest, many undecided voters do tend to be ill-informed bandwagon jumpers with little coherence or consistency to their worldview.
If you live and breathe politics, chances are that you care deeply about a particular issue — abortion or the environment, foreign policy or health care. But when the liberal writer Chris Hayes, now an MSNBC host, canvassed undecided voters for John Kerry in 2004, he noticed that “more often than not, when I asked … what issues they would pay attention to as they made up their minds, I was met with a blank stare, as if I’d just asked them to name their favorite prime number.”
As we enter this campaign’s last two weeks, though, it’s worth putting in a sympathetic word for a rarer species: the highly informed, highly engaged, yet still conflicted voter.
Whatever partisans on both sides may insist, there are good reasons that a high-information voter with views somewhere near the American median might still regard this November’s decision as a harder-than-average call.
That’s because on one of the biggest issues the campaigns are arguing about — the question of how to bring our spending in line with our revenues — the median voter is probably pretty happy with the status quo. Conservatives think we tax too much and liberals think we spend too little, but the present combination of relatively low middle-class taxes and relatively generous entitlement spending is one that most Americans would happily maintain in perpetuity.
Unfortunately, the status quo can’t actually continue: the combination of the baby boomers’ retirement and rising health care costs means something has to give. But to a voter who doesn’t bring strong ideological priors to the table, neither party’s vision for how to manage this transition probably looks like a sure bet.
The White House is arguing that we can limit health care spending largely by bureaucratic fiat, by empowering experts to change the way doctors and hospitals spend and treat and charge. But we’ve tried variations on centralized cost control for years — “Medicare Whac-A-Mole,” Reason magazine’s Peter Suderman has called it — without reaping anything like the promised benefits.
The Republicans are arguing for a more competition-driven approach, which would allow private insurers to compete for Medicare dollars, and hopefully bid down the cost of coverage. There are studies and pilot programs that suggest this kind of structural change might lower costs. But there isn’t a large-scale example that conservatives can point to as the template for the United States to follow. For a voter with a skeptic’s eye rather than a believer’s faith, the Romney-Ryan plan could easily seem like a leap in the dark.
That same skeptic’s eye would also tell our hypothetical undecided that neither side is being entirely honest about the costs of its approach. The Democrats are pretending that taxing the rich can pay for almost everything. The Republicans are pretending that neither today’s taxpayers nor today’s seniors need bear any of the burden. The high-information swing voters are basically left to decide which dishonesty is worse, and which unacknowledged cuts or tax hikes they’d rather risk having to bear.
Finally, the more our hypothetical voter knows about how Washington works, the more obvious it becomes that all of this will be hashed out over years of negotiated back-and-forth — because no legislation passed with a razor-thin majority can endure unchanged for decades, and any enduring settlement will have to leave both sides a little unsatisfied.
If you want to think well of swing voters, and imagine them as wise Athenians rather than a Colosseum-going mob, you could see the improving odds for what once seemed like an unlikely 2012 outcome — a Romney victory in which Democrats hold the Senate — as a nod to the necessity for bipartisanship, and an attempt to make a significant change in Washington while also forcing both parties back to the negotiating table.
And if you want to go on thinking poorly of the undecideds — well, I’m sure that some of the post-debate focus groups this week can help with that.
Now here’s MoDo’s snot slinging hissy fit:
Even at a dinner dedicated to the Happy Warrior, the president seemed like the Unhappy Warrior.
Barack Obama was elegant in white tie and got off some good gibes at the annual Al Smith charity banquet at the Waldorf-Astoria in Manhattan on Thursday.
But his smile sometimes looked forced as he was goaded by Mitt Romney, whose comic barbs were just as aggressive as his last debate performance.
“President Obama and I are each very lucky to have one person who is always in our corner, someone who we can lean on, and someone who is a comforting presence,” Romney said. “Without whom, we wouldn’t be able to go another day. I have my beautiful wife Ann, he has Bill Clinton.”
It was funny, and it drew blood.
Tremors from the asymmetrical first debate are still reshaping the race and buoying Romney. It has been said that Obama didn’t show up for that contest, but the reverse is true: the real Obama did show up, indulging in flashes of petulance, self-pity and passivity at a treacherous moment for himself, other Democratic candidates and all the people working their hearts out — and emptying their wallets out — for him.
Will it mean that Obama ends up being the one-term Democratic tunnel between the first black president, as Bill Clinton has been dubbed, and the first female president — the organic arugula in a messy, meaty Clinton sandwich?
Much was made of the alpha tone of the second presidential debate. But it was more like a parody of alpha, a couple of pampered, manicured Harvard princes kicking up “gorilla dust,” as Ross Perot calls it. In a truly commanding performance, you don’t jab fingers, invade space, bark interruptions.
Obama put aside his disdain for jousts and woke up from the “nice, long nap I had in the first debate,” as he wryly said at Thursday’s dinner. But he was overcompensating for the first debacle, and he still didn’t have a vision or memorable zingers or a knockout punch for a rival who hides in plain sight.
Obama’s contempt for Romney gleamed through as Mitt got all O.C.D. with Candy Crowley about the rules, and rambled on about his weird retro worldview, where women in binders have to bound home to make dinner, where the problem of too-easy access to assault weapons could be helped if, gosh, we just tell “our kids that before they have babies, they ought to think about getting married to someone.”
As Massachusetts governor, Romney signed a ban on certain assault weapons. But now he has “Romnesia,” as Obama bitingly calls it, so Mitt is always distancing himself from himself.
In some ways, the two rivals are alike: cold, deliberative fish, self-regarding elitists with upbringings out of the norm and trouble connecting at times, as when Obama echoed Jon Stewart’s word “optimal” on “The Daily Show” and sounded aloof about the tragedy in Libya: “If four Americans get killed, it’s not optimal.” The mother of one of those Americans, Sean Smith, told The Daily Mail of London, “It’s insensitive to say my son is not very optimal; he is also very dead.”
These candidates are, in some respects, natural antagonists. Their rancor seems especially intense, fueled by jagged ads and a long period of mud-wrestling on the head of a pin.
Barry scorns Mitt as a guy who had it all handed to him and now feels comfortable taking it away from everybody else.
Like the Bushes, the Romneys, another famous Republican political dynasty that grows more conservative with each generation, promote the myth that they are self-made men.
“The danger arises when a family myth intersects with a governing vision, when the stories a presidential candidate tells himself shape the policies he favors for everyone else,” Noam Scheiber writes in The New Republic, adding that the Romneys can’t fathom that if federal programs are slashed for the less privileged, those people can’t use family connections to help obstacles melt away.
The president joked at the Al Smith dinner about how both candidates had “unusual” middle names — Mitt and Hussein — noting mock-wistfully, or maybe really wistfully, “I wish I could use my middle name.”
The line summed up Obama’s incredible odyssey, how many barriers he had to leap over with no rich daddy, no daddy at all, to rise to the pinnacle. President Cool hates the fact that the uncool scion is making him descend from the lofty heights of governing and engage in crass politics.
Romney can only do offense, not defense. He expects to be catered to as the smartest guy in the room, and he clearly loathes being patronized by Obama. But some who have worked with Mitt say his teeth-baring is an act, overlaying indifference. Romney, they say, is all about crunching the data, regarding Obama coldly as an impediment to his dream of becoming the first Mormon president.
“Mitt does not express great love, and he does not express hate,” said one Republican strategist who knows him well. “Ledger sheets don’t hate.”
Now that MoDo’s finally hissed her last hiss today we can proceed on to Mr. Kristof:
As the presidential candidates debate how to strengthen America, maybe they can learn from rats.
A McGill University neurologist, Michael Meaney, noticed that some of the mother rats he worked with spent a great deal of time licking and grooming their babies. Other rat moms were much less cuddly.
This natural variation had long-term consequences. Meaney’s team found that when the rats grew up, those that had been licked and groomed did better at finding their way through mazes.
They were more social and curious. They even lived longer.
Meaney’s team dissected adult rats and found that licking led to differences in brain anatomy, so that rats that had been licked more were better able to control stress responses.
So, could the human version of licking and grooming — hugging and kissing babies, and reading to them — fortify our offspring and even our society as well?
One University of Minnesota study that began in the 1970s followed 267 children of first-time low-income mothers for nearly four decades. It found that whether a child received supportive parenting in the first few years of life was at least as good a predictor as I.Q. of whether he or she would graduate from high school.
This may illuminate one way that poverty replicates itself from generation to generation. Children in poor households grow up under constant stress, disproportionately raised by young, single mothers also under tremendous stress, and the result may be brain architecture that makes it harder for the children to thrive at school or succeed in the work force.
Yet the cycle can be broken, and the implication is that the most cost-effective way to address poverty isn’t necessarily housing vouchers or welfare initiatives or prison-building. Rather, it may be early childhood education and parenting programs.
Scholars like James Heckman of the University of Chicago and Dr. Jack Shonkoff of Harvard have pioneered this field, and decades of fascinating research is now wonderfully assembled in Paul Tough’s important new book, “How Children Succeed.” Long may this book dwell on the best-seller lists!
As Tough suggests, the evidence is mounting that conservatives are right about some fundamental issues relating to poverty. For starters, we can’t talk just about welfare or tax policy but must also consider culture and character.
“There is no antipoverty tool we can provide for disadvantaged young people that will be more valuable,” Tough writes, than grit, resilience, perseverance and optimism.
Yet conservatives sometimes mistakenly see that as the end of the conversation.
“This science suggests a very different reality,” Tough writes. “It says that the character strengths that matter so much to young people’s success are not innate; they don’t appear in us magically, as a result of good luck or good genes. And they are not simply a choice. They are rooted in brain chemistry, and they are molded, in measurable and predictable ways, by the environment in which kids grow up. That means the rest of us — society as a whole — can do an enormous amount to influence their development.”
Here’s an example: the Nurse-Family Partnership, one of my favorite groups fighting poverty in America. It sends nurses on regular visits to at-risk first-time moms, from pregnancy until the child turns 2. The nurses warn about alcohol or drug abuse and encourage habits of attentive parenting, like reading to the child. The results are stunning: at age 15, these children are less than half as likely to have been arrested as kids from similar circumstances who were not enrolled.
Maybe we’re beginning to crack the code of how to chip away at so many of America’s domestic problems. Tough cites evidence that while toxic stress or unsupportive parenting damages the prefrontal cortex in infancy, this damage can often be undone at least through adolescence.
He tells the story of Kewauna Lerma, a girl from Chicago who started high school with a C- average and an arrest. Then a group called OneGoal, which has emerged out of this wave of research, began to work with Kewauna and nurtured her ambitions and talents.
President Obama and Mitt Romney, listen up: Kewauna’s story underscores that strengthening our nation means investing not only in warships but also in America’s children.
On a practice ACT standardized test, Kewauna scored in the bottom 1 percentile. Yet she began to focus on schoolwork, and her grades and test results soared. In her senior year of high school, she didn’t have a grade lower than an A-.
She made it to college, where her toughest class was biology and the professor used words that Kewauna didn’t understand. So she sat in the front row and after class asked the professor what each word meant. Kewauna was short on money, and once when she ran out of cash she didn’t eat for two days. But in biology, she earned an A+.
Last but not least, here’s Mr. Bruni:
On the morning of the second presidential debate, Marco Rubio gave a performance every bit as riveting as the ones the candidates turned in less than 12 hours later.
He was visiting Bloomberg View in Manhattan, where he sat down with political journalists for a freewheeling hourlong conversation. I’d never met him and was eager to, given the belief of many Republicans that he has a big future in the party, and in politics.
I was impressed first and foremost by the assurance with which he spoke, projecting a wisdom and an authority beyond his 41 years.
But I was even more struck by something else: the dispiriting, infuriating way in which he deployed that assurance and what that said about our sorry politics today. Instead of conducting a blunt, honest examination of the hard choices and necessary compromises that confront our country, he presented the sorts of rosy assumptions and slippery generalizations that have characterized too much of this election.
With our debt soaring, our population aging and our infrastructure crumbling, we stand at a troubling crossroads. And yet politicians sell us low-tax, no-pain fantasies. They traffic in vagueness and treat us like toddlers.
On Tuesday morning Rubio certainly did. When the conversation turned from immigration, on which he was eloquent, to taxes, he followed Mitt Romney’s lead and became maddeningly evasive, indicating support for Romney’s half-formed proposal of across-the-board cuts in marginal rates that somehow won’t diminish federal revenue.
Before we go deeper into that proposal, a question: when did we become so spectacularly tax-phobic? Who appointed Grover Norquist our national revenue muse?
At a time when our taxes are, in a historical sense, relatively low, our leaders vie for favor not by conjuring more sweeping and profound visions of the future but by leaning on the prosaic, default promise that they’ll leave more money in our pockets than the other guys will.
President Obama admits that he’d like taxes raised on households making more than $250,000. But he casts those increases as an insurance policy against any significant hikes on everyone else, and puts an emphasis on them far out of bounds with their potential impact. The implication is that extra taxation on the rich alone can solve many of our budget problems. That’s savvy marketing, smart politics and utter bunk.
But Romney’s bunk, like his pension, is bigger. Or at least seems to be. We can’t know for sure, because he won’t give us details. He says that his proposed 20 percent cut in marginal rates won’t sap the Treasury because of all the tax loopholes he’ll close, but then he won’t name which loopholes.
His vagueness serves a dual purpose. It prevents voters from panicking about a lost deduction and analysts from checking his math. There’s no math to check.
Under pressure for at least a few specifics, he at one point furnished an actual number, $17,000, which he mentioned as a hypothetical cap on aggregate deductions. But it was apparently hypothetical in the extreme, because at the first debate, talking about such a cap, he said, “Make up a number.” He floated $25,000, then $50,000. There’s more than a little bit of daylight between those two figures.
In the second debate, he said, “I’ll pick a number: $25,000.” And I’ll pick a color: yellow. I mean, as long as we’re just picking things at random. Besides which, yellow is the hue of cowardice.
Rubio, in his meeting with journalists last week, didn’t get into deduction caps. But he did get into specific deductions, only to name ones he would not want eliminated.
“The home interest deduction is troubling, because it really helps the middle class,” he said. As for any rollback of deductions for philanthropy, he said: “Do you really want to hurt charitable giving in a country when you’re saying you want to rely less on government and more on private institutions?”
He even expressed reservations about fiddling with the oft-disparaged deduction for private jets. It may sound reasonable, he conceded, to ask, “Why does a billionaire need a tax deduction on a plane he just bought?”
“But if you talk to the folks that build that plane,” he continued, “they’ll tell you, ‘Well, it helps us hire 5,000 people.’ ” Trickle-down economics includes trickle-down aviation.
“I’m not prepared to go through the tax code and say, ‘This is what I’d go after,’ because it’s a false choice,” he declared, explaining his belief that the federal government would reap more revenue by keeping taxes as low as possible, because that would spur growth. “Only through growth,” he summed up, “can you generate the revenue to bring the debt under control.”
There are several problems with this happy talk. One is that many economists dispute any such tidy correlation between tax cuts and quick, consequential growth.
Another problem is that growth on the scale he’s suggesting isn’t really a plan or policy. If it were that controllable, we’d be growing like a punch-drunk weed, quarter after merry quarter. It’s a goal. A hope.
But the biggest problem is that growth is the one putative solution that asks nothing of us: no trade-offs, no sacrifices. It perpetuates the seductive and irresponsible illusion that we can get our house in fiscal order without any terrible inconvenience after all.
Rubio’s attachment to something-for-nothing salesmanship was confirmed when he was asked about Medicare. He started out with two refreshingly frank admissions, saying that “there’s a growing realization that Medicare as it’s currently structured is unsustainable in the long term” and that “my generation is going to have to accept that our Medicare is going to look different.”
But then he insisted that his generation would still have the option of a Medicare program just like the current one, in addition to private-insurance alternatives. Apart from acknowledging that wealthy older Americans in the future would have to contribute more to their health care than they do now, he painted a win-win picture of undiminished aid and undiluted services.
It was a master class in wishful thinking, and I pick on it not because it was unusual, but because it distilled so many politicians’ refusal to have adult conversations with us, to assume that we’re grown-ups who can do some math and face some disappointment.
And I think Rubio in particular got under my skin because he has real charisma and obvious talent. If he hitched them to a mature grappling with our challenges, we might actually get somewhere.
But he’s a Republican and has to pander to the knuckle-walking no-nothings of the tea party faction of a party that’s gone completely off the deep end, so we won’t get anywhere.