In “Poll Addict Confesses” Bobo has a question: Is all this 24/7 hysteria over the latest political poll doing us any good? No. SASQ. Mr. Cohen also has a question in “Working With the Muslim Brotherhood:” If U.S. dialogue with Islamists works in Egypt, why not elsewhere? And there’s another question from Mr. Nocera. In “Where the Candidates Agree” he says President Obama and Mitt Romney both see the need for serious tax reform. So why won’t it happen? In “Heated in Florida” Mr. Bruni says the final presidential debate stayed true to the previous ones, giving us comedy, drama and some essential truths. Here’s Bobo:
Hello, my name is David, and I’m a pollaholic. For the past several months I have spent inordinate amounts of time poring over election polls. A couple of times a day, I check the Web sites to see what the polling averages are. I check my Twitter feed to see the latest Gallup numbers. I’ve read countless articles dissecting the flawed methodologies of polls I don’t like.
And do you know what I’ve learned from these hours of attention? That if the election were held today (which it won’t be), then President Obama would be a bit more likely to win. At the same time, there seems to be a whiff of momentum toward Mitt Romney. That’s it. Hundreds of hours. Two banal observations.
I have wasted a large chunk of my life I will never get back. Why? Because I’ve got a problem.
Look, I know in the cool light of rationality how I should treat polling data. First, I should treat polls as a fuzzy snapshot of a moment in time. I should not read them, and think I understand the future.
If there’s one thing we know, it’s that even experts with fancy computer models are terrible at predicting human behavior. Financial firms with zillions of dollars have spent decades trying to create models that will help them pick stocks, and they have gloriously failed.
Scholars at Duke University studied 11,600 forecasts by corporate chief financial officers about how the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index would perform over the next year. The correlation between their estimates and the actual index was less than zero.
And, if it’s hard to predict stocks or the economy, politics is a field perfectly designed to foil precise projections.
Politics isn’t a game, like poker, with an artificially limited number of possible developments. National elections are rare, so we have ridiculously small sample sizes. Political campaigns don’t give pollsters immediate feedback, so they can gradually correct their errors. They have to wait for Election Day for actual results, and only the final poll is verifiable.
Most important, stuff happens. Obama turns in a bad debate performance. Romney makes offensive comments at a fund-raiser. These unquantifiable events change the trajectories of tight campaigns. You can’t tell what’s about to happen. You certainly can’t tell how 100 million people are going to process what’s about to happen. You can’t calculate odds that capture unknown reactions to unknown events.
The second thing I know is that if you do have to look at polls, you should do it no more than once every few days, to get a general sense of the state of the race. I’ve seen the studies that show that people who check their stocks once a day get lower returns than people who check them once a quarter because they get distracted by noise and make terrible decisions. I’ve seen the work on information overload, which makes people depressed, stressed and freezes their brains. I know that checking the polls constantly is a recipe for self-deception and anxiety.
I know all this. But do I obey? Of course not. I check every few hours. I’m motivated by the illusion of immanent knowledge. I imagine that somehow the next batch of polling will contain some magic cross-tab about swing voters in Ohio that will satisfy my voracious curiosity and allay this irritable uncertainty.
I’m also motivated by the thrill of premature celebration. Elections aren’t just about policy choices. They’re status competitions. When the polls swing your way, you feel a surge of righteous affirmation. Your views are obviously correct! Your team’s virtues are widely recognized! You get to see the humiliation and pain afflicting your foes.
When the polls swing the other way, well, who believes the polls anyway? Those idiots are obviously skewing the results. This has been a golden age for confirmation bias.
Finally, I’m motivated by the power of cognitive laziness. It’s hard to figure out how each candidate will handle the so-called budgetary fiscal cliff or the uncertainties involved with Iran. But the polling numbers are like candy. So clear and digestible! Just as the teenage mind naturally migrates from homework to Facebook, just as the normal reader’s mind naturally wanders from Toynbee to Twitter, so the political junkie’s brain has a tendency to slide downhill from policy to polling.
Look, I went into a profession — journalism — committed to the mission of describing the present. Imagine how many corrections we’d have to publish if we tried to predict the future. Yet, despite all that, every few hours, I’m on my laptop, tablet or smartphone — sipping Gallup, chugging Rasmussen, gulping Pew, trying to figure out how it will all go down.
Come on, David, think through the poll. This is the first day of the rest of your life.
Wait a second! The 7-Eleven Coffee Cup Poll is out! Just one more look. Obama is up big!
Bobo is such a schmuck. Wow! Let’s handicap the horse race instead of discussing the issues that will have a huge effect on people’s lives. Moron. Here’s Mr. Cohen, writing from Cairo:
Perhaps the most radical change in U.S. foreign policy under President Obama has occurred here in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood, long shunned as a collection of dangerous Islamist extremists, is now the de facto object of American support.
Not only that: Ultraconservative Salafist politicians, who make the Brotherhood seem like moderate pragmatists, are now regular visitors to the U.S. Embassy and, on the theory that it is better to have them inside the tent than out, they are able to visit the United States to learn how things work in the land of Jeffersonian democracy.
Of course, the new American thinking goes, agreement will never be possible with these Salafis on women’s rights, for example, but this does not mean that they cannot have a mutually beneficial relationship with the West or evolve. Every Salafi in Parliament is one less potential jihadist.
The turnabout is dramatic. The United States consistently supported former President Hosni Mubarak, whose campaign against the Brotherhood was relentless. Prison for Brotherhood leaders was de rigueur. The Brotherhood occupied the space in American strategic thinking now taken by the Salafis — radical Islamists — with the difference that they were ostracized.
President Mohamed Morsi — who was of course imprisoned under Mubarak and was elected as Egypt’s first civilian leader in June — has ousted top generals with whom Washington and Israel were comfortable and installed his own men. The new chief of staff, Gen. Sedky Sobhi, while studying in the United States in 2005, wrote that American policy makers had shown a “fundamental lack of understanding and communication” with the Arab world. Some $1.5 billion in mainly military U.S. aid has continued to flow through this upheaval to Egypt.
Any prediction in Egypt today is hazardous. The nation at the heart of Arab society is in turbulent flux. As Tarek Shoeb, an Egyptian-American, put it to me: “There are a bunch of different streams, but it is not yet clear which one is the river.”
Still, I would argue that the United States has made the right choice; that this new policy of engagement with even extreme currents of political Islam in the Middle East is salutary; that the model should be extended; and that indeed the Obama administration had little choice. To keep doing the same thing when it does not work is one definition of madness.
What is the alternative to supporting Morsi and the Brotherhood and urging them to be inclusive in the new Egypt? Well, the United States could cut them off and hope they fail — but I can think of no surer way to guarantee radicalization and aggravate the very tendencies the West wants to avoid as a poverty-stricken Egypt goes into an economic tailspin. The same would be true of any attempt to install the armed forces again, with the difference that there would also be bloodshed.
The United States tried Middle Eastern repression in the name of stability for decades: What it got was terrorism-breeding societies of frustrated Arabs under tyrants. (Mohammed Atta came from Cairo.) The Brotherhood narrowly won a free and fair election. If they fail, throw them out next time. That’s democracy.
It is time to overcome the “fundamental lack of understanding and communication” of which General Sobhi wrote. That can only happen through working with the real forces of Arab societies rather than “Green Zone” fantasies.
Mitt Romney thinks Obama has been “passive” with the Islamists; aid could be slashed. But when aid is cut off, and American attention turns elsewhere, and future generals start getting their training in Saudi Arabia rather than Kansas, we know the result: Pakistan. That is not where the United States wants Egypt to end up. Turkey is a far better, if imperfect, model, and it is to Turkey and its governing Justice and Development Party that the Brotherhood is looking.
Morsi, who studied in California and breaks into English when impatient with his interpreters, has reached out to the United States from early in the transition — with trade requests, investment plans, vows to root out corruption, pleas to help get tourism back, and of course requests that aid be maintained. Even with little strategic alternative, America has leverage. It should be used to prod Morsi out of his Brotherhood roots toward the middle where the new Egypt must be forged. He appears ready to compromise.
America’s radical policy turnabout in Cairo poses an important question: Why is this engagement with political Islam, even in Salafist form, confined to Egypt? If Washington has discovered by engaging that the long reviled Brotherhood, or at least large swathes of it, may have evolved into centrist pragmatists, what other such discoveries may be made through dialogue rather than confrontation?
It is foolish for the United States to oppose reconciliation between the main Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, when the spectrum of opinion there may be no greater than Egypt’s Brotherhood-Salafist front with which the United States now talks.
In Egypt, where almost 25 percent of Arabs live, the United States has at last begun to deal with the Arab world as it really is. Such taboo-breaking offers the only way forward — for Egypt and for Israel-Palestine.
Next up is Mr. Nocera:
Judging by the first two presidential debates — I’m writing this on the eve of the third — there is one area where Mitt Romney and President Obama are in at least quasi agreement: the need for serious tax reform.
“I want to bring the rates down; I want to simplify the tax code; and I want to get middle-income taxpayers to have lower taxes,” said the Republican challenger during the second debate. He added that he would limit “deductions and exemptions and credits, particularly for people at the high end” — while getting us “on track for a balanced budget.”
In response, President Obama said that he, too, wanted to bring rates down for the middle class. But, he said, “in addition to some tough spending cuts, we’ve also got to make sure that the wealthy do a little bit more.”
As my old friend Jeffrey Birnbaum pointed out recently, the two men really aren’t all that far apart. Romney and the president both want to lower the corporate tax rate and get rid of numerous loopholes. (Romney, of course, has yet to say which loopholes he favors eliminating.) Romney would cap deductions and credits — which would have the effect of raising taxes on the wealthy, which the Democrats want. “The plans differ in detail,” Birnbaum wrote in a note to his clients, “but they aren’t unbridgeable.”
Birnbaum, the president of BGR Public Relations, is a former Washington journalist. As a young reporter for The Wall Street Journal, he co-wrote, with The Journal’s Alan Murray, a minor classic about government: “Showdown at Gucci Gulch,” which chronicled the arduous, multiyear effort that led to the Tax Reform Act of 1986. Tax reform — real tax reform that rewrites the tax code top to bottom — is so rare that it has happened only once in my lifetime. Birnbaum, however, believes that it could happen again.
Then, as now, voters were upset about the state of the tax code. Stories about millionaires paying lower rates than their assistants give people the gnawing sense that the system is unfair. Corporations that pay little or no taxes amplify that feeling.
What’s more, the need for tax reform is probably more urgent now than it was in the 1980s. Then, the deficit wasn’t nearly the problem that it is today. Now, tax reform is just about the only politically palatable way for Congress to begin the process of lowering the deficit. Lowering tax rates will give Congress and the president — whomever he turns out to be — cover for broadening the tax base, reforming entitlement spending and raising additional revenue.
Yet what struck me as I reread “Showdown at Gucci Gulch” recently is not the similarities between then and now, but the differences. For starters, we had, in Ronald Reagan, a president deeply committed to lowering tax rates — because during his days as an actor, the marginal tax rate was 90 percent. We had a senator, in Bill Bradley, who was obsessed with creating a fairer tax system and wouldn’t let go of the issue. Today, that role is played by Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles — neither of whom is an elected official.
We had plenty of money sloshing around politics in the 1980s — not to mention powerful special interests — but it wasn’t close to the kind of money that is routinely tossed around today, especially after the Citizens United decision. Members of Congress and senators are more beholden to special interests than they were a quarter-century ago.
Most of all, we had a Congress in which Democrats and Republicans, whatever their differences, talked to each other and were willing to cut deals. (Stunningly, one of those deals in 1986 led to the elimination of the capital gains differential, which is almost unimaginable today.) Both Democrats and Republicans got things they wanted — and lost things they wanted. “Compromise,” said Bradley the other day, “is the essence of democracy.”
Today, of course, compromise has become a dirty word. That’s partly because Republicans and Democrats have differing goals: one side wants to use tax reform to shrink the government; the other wants to use it to raise revenue. But it is also because Congress has simply become a nastier, more partisan place than it was in the 1980s. Last year, the lack of trust and communication between the two parties led to debt-ceiling crisis and the collapse of the so-called Grand Bargain. Why should anybody think it will be any different next year?
Right around the corner lies the “fiscal cliff.” It offers Congress and the president a golden opportunity to begin a process that will lead to tax reform and, ultimately, deficit reduction. Birnbaum likes to point out that back in the 1980s, nobody really believed tax reform could ever happen. Miraculously, after many fits and starts, it did. One can only hope that lightning can strike twice.
Any tax reform will wind up benefiting the wealthy. You can take that to the bank. Now here’s Mr. Bruni:
So that’s it? The last of the presidential debates? No, no, no. I’m already in mourning, can’t quiet my hankering for more and am not being remotely sarcastic. In a political culture as stage-managed, focus-grouped and airbrushed as ours, these debates gave us rare moments of rawness, not to mention Big Bird.
Monday night’s face-off in Boca Raton was no exception. Any worry that the designated focus on foreign policy would tilt this encounter in a cerebral rather than visceral direction was dispelled almost instantly. Within minutes the candidates were sharply talking over each other, and President Obama, banishing his debacle in Denver once and for all, issued a denunciation of Mitt Romney more sweeping than any from the previous two presidential debates.
Turning to his rival, he said, “You seem to want to import the foreign policies of the 1980s, just like the social policies of the 1950s and the economic policies of the 1920s.”
Romney smiled a brittle smile: “Attacking me is not an agenda.” It was as good an answer as any, but he had an odd color and odder sheen, that of a man without Dramamine on a rickety boat in threatening seas.
Obama repeatedly reminded television viewers that he alone was familiar with the responsibilities of the commander in chief. He clearly wanted Romney’s experience as a mere governor to sound, in comparison, like a job running a curbside lemonade stand.
And though Romney perspired and occasionally stammered, he wouldn’t surrender. He insisted that Al Qaeda wasn’t really “on the run.” He claimed — yet again — that Obama had begun his presidency with “an apology tour,” and faulted him for skipping Israel. It was a barb tailor-made for Florida’s many Jewish voters.
Foreign policy is not at the top of voters’ concerns, so both candidates demonstrated a comic eagerness to build an oratorical bridge from Tripoli to Toledo, Ohio, the debate becoming a contest of how frequently each candidate could beat a path from northern Africa and the Middle East back home.
Thus they sparred over education, food stamps, Obama’s unbalanced budgets, Romney’s unspecific tax plan and even Solyndra. We weren’t in Libya anymore.
In aggregate these presidential debates gave us sublime drama, the first one scrambling the race’s momentum, the second one flavored with enough disdain to fill a “Real Housewives” season, and Monday night’s reprising that ill will without quite replicating it. Romney wasn’t as truculent as he’d been, ceding the part of bully to Obama, who took it on too arrogantly at times.
His mantra of “not true,” “not true” from the prior debate was replaced by “all over the map,” “all over the map,” a dismissal of Romney’s positions as undependable.
These debates did in fact give us truth. I don’t mean that the candidates themselves spoke honestly. Hardly. In fact we should pause to note how sad it is that we’ve come to regard a post-debate fact-check — a report card on who told the most and biggest whoppers — as an inevitable and unremarkable part of the process. In campaigns these days, dishonesty is both an art form and a given.
But the debates revealed each candidate for who he really is: the good, the bad and the binders. Although the two men armed themselves with practiced soliloquies and prefabricated expressions, there was something about the physical proximity of an opponent that scrubbed off even the thickest varnish.
We saw Obama’s aloofness and distaste for the more superficial aspects of politics. But we also saw his impressive resilience.
The debates enabled Romney, at long last, to show Americans his persuasiveness. But he also exhibited his prickliness — “Candy! Candy!” — when he doesn’t get his way.
I not only reveled in all of this but also returned to it, fishing out transcripts and rereading bits, like Obama’s let’s-measure-our-pensions put-down. On YouTube I revisited the laugh factory that was Joe Biden, who went through all the existing facial expressions for disbelief and derision and then went on to invent another dozen.
And in my head I replayed my favorite post-debate analyses: Al Gore’s wondering if the altitude in Denver had incapacitated Obama; one Republican strategist’s description of that Obama performance and Biden’s subsequent mania as a “sleepy cop/crystal meth cop” routine. The debates were the mothers of some highly inventive wordplay.
They were also a study in moderation, by which I refer to the disparate styles of Jim & Martha & Candy & Bob. I’m considering a come-as-your-favorite-moderator Halloween party, and while I thought Bob Schieffer did well Monday night, I’m leaning toward a Candy costume myself, in tribute to her moxie. Debate overlords intended to muffle the moderator’s role in the town-hall format, and asked her to impersonate a potted plant.
So she did: a Venus flytrap. That’s horticulture you can believe in.