Posts Tagged ‘Clown Car 2012’

The Pasty Little Putz, Dowd, Friedman, Kristof and Bruni

March 11, 2012

The Pasty Little Putz is trying to convince us that he’s really enjoying his shit sandwich.  In “Not-So-Crazy Republicans” he gurgles that facing a disappointing field, primary voters have acted like adults.  In “Manlashes, Manscara and Mantyhose” MoDo says that in a world where Vladimir Putin can cry on Russian national television, is it any wonder that men’s tights are coming into fashion?  The Moustache of Wisdom says “Pass the Books. Hold the Oil.” and that education is a better economic driver than a country’s natural resources.  In “Odysseus Lies Here?” Mr. Kristof says as the mystery of the exact location of Ithaca in Homer’s Greek epic endures, there might some inspiration here for America today.  Mr. Bruni addresses “Mitt’s Rich Predicament” and says for Mitt Romney, wealth has gone from tactical blessing to optical curse.  Here’s The Putz:

With Super Tuesday in the books, the time has come to praise that most mocked, maligned and misunderstood of Americans: the Republican primary voter.

The longer the primary campaign drags on, the more its noise and nastiness are being cited as proof that Republican America has gone crazy. “Political parties aren’t supposed to act suicidal,” Ryan Lizza wrote in last week’s New Yorker, but “conservative forces have pushed the presidential candidates to extremes.” New York magazine’s John Heilemann called this “the most volatile, unpredictable, and just plain wackadoodle Republican-nomination contest ever,” qualities he attributed to “the raging id of the party’s ascendant populist wing.”

Let’s stipulate that this has not been the most edifying of primary seasons. The policy debates have often been vacuous, the rhetoric shrill, the attack ads pervasive and wearying. Almost four years after the Bush presidency, the Republican Party is obviously still rife with dysfunction, and struggling to define itself for a new era and a changing country.

But against this backdrop, the party’s voters have behaved remarkably responsibly. Confronted with a flip-flopping, gaffe-prone front-runner whom almost nobody — conservative or liberal — finds very appealing, they have methodically sifted through the alternatives, considering and then discarding each in turn.

From early 2011 onward, the media have overinterpreted this sifting process, treating every polling surge for a not-Romney candidate almost as seriously as an actual primary result. They might nominate Herman Cain! They might nominate Michele Bachmann! Why — they might nominate Donald Trump!

Not so much. Instead, despite an understandable desire to vote for a candidate other than Mitt Romney, Republicans have been slowly but surely delivering him the nomination — consistently, if reluctantly, choosing the safe option over the bomb-throwers and ideologues.

A crazy party might have chosen Cain or Bachmann as its standard-bearer. The Republican electorate dismissed them long before the first ballots were even cast.

A crazy party wouldn’t have cared how Rick Perry debated so long as he promised to visit Texas justice on the Democratic Party. The Republican electorate did care, and delivered him less than one vote for every $1,000 dollars his campaign spent.

A crazy party would have either elevated Ron Paul to the nomination or damned him as a heretic. The Republican electorate has given him almost exactly the level of support and celebrity that a generally crankish, occasionally prophetic politician deserves.

A crazy party would have nominated the candidate who offered the most implausible policy pledges — Cain’s 9-9-9 tax plan, or Tim Pawlenty’s justly ridiculed promise of 5 percent growth a year, or Perry’s flat tax. The Republican electorate is poised to nominate a candidate whose domestic agenda is often light on details and imagination, but a long way from crazy.

Yes, Republican voters probably should have given Jon Huntsman more consideration, and South Carolina voters in particular shouldn’t have rewarded Newt Gingrich’s snarling, preening, media-bashing debate performances with an upset victory. But that irruption of folly came and went, and then the pattern of Iowa and New Hampshire reasserted itself: not a mad elopement with a right-wing Mr. Wrong, but a slow trudge toward the altar with Mr. Good-Enough.

Even the elevation of Rick Santorum as the last not-Romney standing testifies to the Republican electorate’s relative sobriety. For all his follies and failings, Santorum is a more plausible presidential candidate than most of this season’s alternatives — more experienced than Cain and Bachmann, more substantive and eloquent than Perry, more principled than Gingrich. As a two-term senator from a swing state with a record of legislative accomplishments, he’s far closer to a right-wing Howard Dean than a right-wing Jesse Jackson.

What we’re really seeing from the Republican campaign, over all, is less a party gone mad than a party caught between generations. The disasters of the George W. Bush era depleted the party’s bench of officeholders and tarnished the (last) name of its most successful big-state governor. The elections of 2009-10 delivered a promising crop of future stars, but the current presidential campaign arrived too soon for them to be entirely seasoned.

If the current race pitted Jeb Bush against, say, Mike Huckabee and Mitch Daniels, nobody would be talking about how the party has gone off the rails. But those three men all found reasons not to run. If it were being held two years hence, and featured Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio, the excitement on the Republican side would rival what the Democrats enjoyed in 2008. But those four, and others like them, decided they weren’t ready yet.

So the primary electorate was left to choose from a roster of retreads, mediocrities and cable-news candidates. And given their options, Republican voters have acquitted themselves about as sensibly, responsibly and even patriotically as anyone could reasonably expect.

Lemme tell you something, Putzy.  Your farm team in the state legislatures is even crazier than the folks in this year’s Clown Car.  Here’s MoDo:

Usually I’m the one musing about the end of men.

But this time it was my friend John, who sent me an alarmed e-mail: “Crying Putin, manscara and now mantyhose. We are over.”

Not to mention the new romantic comedy, “Friends With Kids,” starring Jennifer Westfeldt (who also wrote and directed), along with her boyfriend, Jon Hamm, and other “Bridesmaids” stars. The movie, as the Times reviewer Jeannette Catsoulis noted, depicts a New York world “where men now knowledgeably discuss Kegel exercises and uterine droop.”

Russia was stunned by the tears in the eyes of Vladimir Putin, the rugged and steely former K.G.B. chief, on the night he grabbed a third term as president. His critics mocked him for crying in gratitude over an election they charged was stolen.

“That wasn’t tears,” said Garry Kasparov, the Russian chess champion who is now a liberal politician. “That was Botox flowing out.” (No wonder Pootie-Poot, as W. called him, doesn’t wince when he’s accused of voter fraud.)

Putin claimed the tears were caused by the icy Moscow wind. But his spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, demurred on state television: “Well, at least that was his explanation for what happened.”

Manskirts, manscara, guyliner and guylashes have all had their spurts, especially in Britain. (Yes, that’s you, Russell Brand and Capt. Jack Sparrow.) A British brand called Eylure started selling false eyelashes for men last fall, promising to create a “Hollywood gaze.” Next up: eyelash extensions, already a trend for Japanese men, who tend to have short lashes.

On a recent episode of “The Office,” Jim (played by Jon Krasinski) had to sub for Ryan, the small-town temp who thinks he’s an Apple-worthy tech marketer, at the launch of an Internet gadget called the Pyramid. Jim did the presentation in the dark wearing a Nehru jacket and guyliner.

“Time, space, gender,” Jim intoned. “There are no rules anymore. All boundaries are breaking down in the wake of the infinite future.”

During New York’s Fashion Week last month, Alexandre Plokhov, the Russian-born menswear designer, sent out male models walking awkwardly in long skirts and hair extensions; they were greeted with gasps from the audience. Paul Marlow, the designer for Loden Dager, put eyeliner on his male models.

“They hated it at first and were joking with each other how pretty everyone was,” Marlow recalled. “Then they went out for a smoke, came back and were totally into it.”

Franceso Cavallini, the vice president of the Florence-based upscale legwear company Emilio Cavallini, told Women’s Wear Daily last week that there is “a cult following for mantyhose,” also known as “brosiery” and “guylons.”

The company introduced a unisex tights collection in 2009, a knitted blend of cotton and nylon that has more “breathability” for men, who perspire more. Purchases by men now make up 2 to 3 percent of the company’s annual production of one million tights.

Cavallini told Women’s Wear Daily that men in Europe wear tights with shorts and “for warmth under pants during cold weather months and also at home to lounge around in.” Prints for the tights include skulls, stars, stripes and a checkerboard pattern.

“The unisex tights are mainly black and white,” said Lisa Cavallini, a company executive and Francesco’s sister, “but I believe the men buying these tights want to make a fashion statement.” Their mantyhose are most popular with customers from Germany, France, Scandinavia, Canada and the United States.

Can tights be manly? As the “Robin Hood: Men in Tights” song goes, “We’re men, we’re men in tights; we roam around the forest looking for fights.”

A Web site dedicated entirely to men’s hosiery, e-MANcipate.net, offers an illustrated guide on how to put on pantyhose, starting with Step 1: “Take a seat. Be sure that the nails on your hands are at least in fine condition.”

I asked pretty 41-year-old Sara Blakely, who started Spanx with her $5,000 savings and just made the Forbes billionaires list as the youngest female self-made billionaire in the world, whether mantyhose were on her agenda.

“I never say never,” she said. “Men are starting to become more and more vocal about what they need. We’ve been getting calls from stylists who tell us that A-list actors and top musicians are squeezing into our Spanx bodysuits for women for movies and music videos. And women are telling us to please do something for their husbands and boyfriends, who are squeezing into large and extra-large women’s sizes.”

She already sells men’s undershirts, made of cotton and spandex, and underpants for men featuring “a better designed pouch.”

Perhaps men are emboldened now that the Y chromosome, which has been shedding genes willy-nilly and shrinking for millions of years, has steadied itself. The Y has reached, as the Times science writer Nicholas Wade put it, “a plateau of miniaturized perfection.”

Miniaturized perfection in skull tights. What could be better?

Next up is The Moustache of Wisdom:

Every so often someone asks me: “What’s your favorite country, other than your own?”

I’ve always had the same answer: Taiwan. “Taiwan? Why Taiwan?” people ask.

Very simple: Because Taiwan is a barren rock in a typhoon-laden sea with no natural resources to live off of — it even has to import sand and gravel from China for construction — yet it has the fourth-largest financial reserves in the world. Because rather than digging in the ground and mining whatever comes up, Taiwan has mined its 23 million people, their talent, energy and intelligence — men and women. I always tell my friends in Taiwan: “You’re the luckiest people in the world. How did you get so lucky? You have no oil, no iron ore, no forests, no diamonds, no gold, just a few small deposits of coal and natural gas — and because of that you developed the habits and culture of honing your people’s skills, which turns out to be the most valuable and only truly renewable resource in the world today. How did you get so lucky?”

That, at least, was my gut instinct. But now we have proof.

A team from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or O.E.C.D., has just come out with a fascinating little study mapping the correlation between performance on the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, exam — which every two years tests math, science and reading comprehension skills of 15-year-olds in 65 countries — and the total earnings on natural resources as a percentage of G.D.P. for each participating country. In short, how well do your high school kids do on math compared with how much oil you pump or how many diamonds you dig?

 The results indicated that there was a “a significant negative relationship between the money countries extract from national resources and the knowledge and skills of their high school population,” said Andreas Schleicher, who oversees the PISA exams for the O.E.C.D. “This is a global pattern that holds across 65 countries that took part in the latest PISA assessment.” Oil and PISA don’t mix. (See the data map at: http://www.oecd.org/dataoecd/43/9/49881940.pdf.)

As the Bible notes, added Schleicher, “Moses arduously led the Jews for 40 years through the desert — just to bring them to the only country in the Middle East that had no oil. But Moses may have gotten it right, after all. Today, Israel has one of the most innovative economies, and its population enjoys a standard of living most of the oil-rich countries in the region are not able to offer.”

So hold the oil, and pass the books. According to Schleicher, in the latest PISA results, students in Singapore, Finland, South Korea, Hong Kong and Japan stand out as having high PISA scores and few natural resources, while Qatar and Kazakhstan stand out as having the highest oil rents and the lowest PISA scores. (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Algeria, Bahrain, Iran and Syria stood out the same way in a similar 2007 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or Timss, test, while, interestingly, students from Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey — also Middle East states with few natural resources — scored better.) Also lagging in recent PISA scores, though, were students in many of the resource-rich countries of Latin America, like Brazil, Mexico and Argentina. Africa was not tested. Canada, Australia and Norway, also countries with high levels of natural resources, still score well on PISA, in large part, argues Schleicher, because all three countries have established deliberate policies of saving and investing these resource rents, and not just consuming them.

Add it all up and the numbers say that if you really want to know how a country is going to do in the 21st century, don’t count its oil reserves or gold mines, count its highly effective teachers, involved parents and committed students. “Today’s learning outcomes at school,” says Schleicher, “are a powerful predictor for the wealth and social outcomes that countries will reap in the long run.”

Economists have long known about “Dutch disease,” which happens when a country becomes so dependent on exporting natural resources that its currency soars in value and, as a result, its domestic manufacturing gets crushed as cheap imports flood in and exports become too expensive. What the PISA team is revealing is a related disease: societies that get addicted to their natural resources seem to develop parents and young people who lose some of the instincts, habits and incentives for doing homework and honing skills.

By, contrast, says Schleicher, “in countries with little in the way of natural resources — Finland, Singapore or Japan — education has strong outcomes and a high status, at least in part because the public at large has understood that the country must live by its knowledge and skills and that these depend on the quality of education. … Every parent and child in these countries knows that skills will decide the life chances of the child and nothing else is going to rescue them, so they build a whole culture and education system around it.”

Or as my Indian-American friend K. R. Sridhar, the founder of the Silicon Valley fuel-cell company Bloom Energy, likes to say, “When you don’t have resources, you become resourceful.”

That’s why the foreign countries with the most companies listed on the Nasdaq are Israel, China/Hong Kong, Taiwan, India, South Korea and Singapore — none of which can live off natural resources.

But there is an important message for the industrialized world in this study, too. In these difficult economic times, it is tempting to buttress our own standards of living today by incurring even greater financial liabilities for the future. To be sure, there is a role for stimulus in a prolonged recession, but “the only sustainable way is to grow our way out by giving more people the knowledge and skills to compete, collaborate and connect in a way that drives our countries forward,” argues Schleicher.

In sum, says Schleicher, “knowledge and skills have become the global currency of 21st-century economies, but there is no central bank that prints this currency. Everyone has to decide on their own how much they will print.” Sure, it’s great to have oil, gas and diamonds; they can buy jobs. But they’ll weaken your society in the long run unless they’re used to build schools and a culture of lifelong learning. “The thing that will keep you moving forward,” says Schleicher, is always “what you bring to the table yourself.”

Now here’s Mr. Kristof, writing from Cephalonia, Greece:

For a nation like ours that is seeking its way home from 10 years of war, maybe there’s a dash of inspiration in the oldest tale of homecoming ever — “The Odyssey” — and in new findings that shed stunning light on it.

Homer recounts Odysseus’s troubled journey back from a military entanglement abroad, the decade-long Trojan War. “The Odyssey” is a singular tale of longing for homeland, but it comes with a mystery: Where exactly is Odysseus’s beloved land of Ithaca?

Homer describes Odysseus’s Ithaca as low-lying and the westernmost island of four. That doesn’t fit modern Ithaca, which is mountainous and the easternmost of the cluster of islands in the Ionian Sea.

A British businessman, Robert Bittlestone, working in his spare time, thinks he has solved this mystery — and his solution is so ingenious, and fits the geography so well, that it has been embraced by many of the world’s top experts. Gregory Nagy of Harvard University and Anthony Snodgrass of Cambridge University both told me that they largely buy into Bittlestone’s theory. Peter Green, an eminent British scholar, wrote in The New York Review of Books that Bittlestone is “almost certainly correct.”

Bittlestone, who loves the classics but has no special qualifications, noted that the westernmost area in this cluster of islands is Paliki, a peninsula that sticks out from the major island of Cephalonia. He wondered: What if in ancient times the isthmus connecting Paliki to the rest of Cephalonia were submerged? In that case, Paliki would be an island fitting Homer’s description.

With that insight, Bittlestone found a 2,000-year-old account by a geographer, Strabo, who described the isthmus as so low that it periodically was under water. Moreover, the collision of two tectonic plates is forcing the land mass up. A single earthquake in 1953 raised Paliki another 2 feet above sea level.

“Everybody tends to look at a landscape and assume that it’s always been like that, but in this part of the world that’s not true,” Bittlestone told me as he gave me a tour of Paliki.

John R. Underhill, a British geoscientist who is president of the European Association of Geoscientists and Engineers, has overseen a geological examination of Paliki. Underhill says that his core samples and other research, so far, support the idea of an ancient channel separating Paliki, although the study is continuing.

There are still plenty of skeptics. Some experts still are partial to modern Ithaca as the homeland of Odysseus. Others favor the main part of Cephalonia, where an excavation has turned up the ancient tomb of a major king. For that matter, it’s not even clear that there really was an Odysseus; maybe he and Ithaca were imaginary.

Then again, the descriptions of Homer’s Ithaca are detailed and offer terrific matches with Paliki. Bittlestone led me to a beach on the north end of Paliki where he believes Odysseus landed on his return from his long journey home from Troy. Odysseus’s last stop before home was probably Corfu, and anyone sailing from Corfu to Paliki would likely land on this beach. It also matches Homer’s description of “precipitous promontories” that jut into the sea.

Yes, I know this is a flight of fancy. But it was magical to stroll the beach and imagine Odysseus landing here.

One shortcoming of this beach is that Homer describes a great cave nearby with two entrances, and there is none now. “Is there a silver bullet test as to whether this is where Odysseus landed?” Bittlestone mused. “Yes, a silver bullet would be to find the cave.”

Geologists are investigating a nearby limestone hill, a kind that is home to caverns elsewhere. The surface of the hill has been covered with more than 200 feet of rubble from landslides, but they are hoping to find the cavern buried underneath.

“You often find things in caves,” Bittlestone said, adding with a twinkle that his dream is to find the cave sheltering an early manuscript of Homer’s epics.

From the beach, he led me to an area that matches the description of the ancient pig farm (now a goat ranch) where Odysseus rested. A bit beyond is Kastelli, which Bittlestone describes as “a candidate hill for the palace of Odysseus.”

Professor Snodgrass examined the hill, finding ancient fortifications and shards of pottery, and he confirms that it is a prehistoric site.

There’s more that I don’t have space for. Bittlestone has written a 598-page book, “Odysseus Unbound,” published by Cambridge University Press, that explores the evidence for Paliki as Homer’s Ithaca.

“The Odyssey” is particularly relevant to us today as we recover from our own decade of war. How sweet it would be to discover, after three millenniums, that Odysseus was not imaginary but a product of these rocky hills, olive trees and beaches on an obscure Greek peninsula — an example of how the ordinary can inspire the extraordinary.

Last but not least here’s Mr. Bruni:

Mitt Romney may be as close to a walking, talking dollar sign as presidential politics has ever witnessed. If money were made flesh, it would apparently have fair skin, flawless hair and an off-key tropism toward patriotic anthems.

I say that only partly because of all of those awkward asides of his, the ones that keep reminding voters, who need no further reminding, that he’s loaded. And I’m not really focused on just how loaded he is. With a personal net worth in the vicinity of $225 million, Romney is no Warren Buffett, no Bill Gates. There have been more affluent candidates for the presidency. For lesser offices, too. Michael Bloomberg could buy and sell Romney several times over and still have enough left for a couple of Cadillacs.

But every discussion of Romney’s campaign, no matter the angle, winds up referring to riches. It’s uncanny. Wealth is the Go on the Monopoly board of Mitt: you’re either starting there, heading there or circling past it. If only you collected $200 each time.

His detractors, citing his personal awkwardness and policy flip-flops, believe that money is the only reason he’s doing as well as he is, which isn’t as well as he’d hoped. His campaign’s fund-raising total of nearly $75 million by the end of February dwarfs those of his Republican rivals, and that’s not counting the coffers of the super PAC supporting him. The two treasuries combined fuel a spending juggernaut.

But they also hammer home the image of him as the designated frontman of the moneyed establishment: Mammon’s missionary. At a time of populist rancor and class resentment, that’s no asset, and some of his supporters believe it’s holding him back.

The truth lies in between. Romney’s presidential bid, a fascinating commentary on wealth in politics, suggests various ways in which a financial advantage can curdle into something more complicated, a tactical blessing turned optical curse.

Last week provided fresh examples of just how thoroughly money defines him. On Friday morning, the banner headline atop the Politico Web site was this: “Romney calls in cash cavalry.” The story below it pegged him as someone who could marshal greenbacks at will and noted that his campaign and super PAC together deployed $32.7 million in January alone.

To secure his squeaker of a victory in Ohio last week, he outspent Rick Santorum, who took second, by about four to one. That sort of disparity repeatedly diminishes the sense of accomplishment surrounding each Romney win. It’s the cloud within the sterling silver lining.

Recent analyses of individual contributions to his campaign underscore just how affluent his backers are. Citing numbers through the end of January, The Times’s Nicholas Confessore and Ashley Parker reported that about 40 percent of his donors had given the primary-season maximum of $2,500. In comparison, just 9 percent of Santorum’s donors, 8 percent of Newt Gingrich’s and 4 percent of Ron Paul’s had hit the limit.

Individual donations of less than $200 accounted for only 10 percent of Romney’s total haul, while they represented 48 percent of Gingrich’s, 49 percent of Santorum’s and 46 percent of Paul’s.

Exit polls in Ohio confirmed that Romney’s support among primary voters rises steeply in higher income brackets. And there was yet more evidence last week that for Romney holdouts, his riches are a barrier. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll asked Republican primary voters which of six concerns about Romney was their greatest. That he’s “too wealthy and does not relate to the average person” ranked second, behind only “he waffles on the issues.” Dead last was that “his Mormon religious beliefs will be out of the mainstream.”

Money typically helps a candidate, at least at the outset. The rich man or woman more quickly gets an initial hearing, more easily connects with donors of means, more readily finds time to stump and can often frame a fortune as a measure of mettle, a sign of know-how.

But during the 2010 election cycle, one rich candidate after another — including would-be senators Carly Fiorina in California, Linda McMahon in Connecticut and Jeff Greene in Florida — failed, despite their efforts to turn affluence into a kind of populism by stressing the time they’d spent outside government, in a private-sector realm of results and common sense. Meg Whitman burned through more than $140 million of her own money in the course of losing the California governor’s race to Jerry Brown by almost 13 points.

Unlike Romney, those four were politicos-come-lately, with no prior experience in office. Like him, they had savvy opponents who raised pointed questions about how the candidates accrued their fortunes. They failed to cast their wealth in a positive light.

Which is indeed doable, said Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist who worked to defeat Whitman. He mentioned Bloomberg’s emphasis on philanthropy and on the independence that can come with not being economically beholden to anybody.

But while Romney, too, has been notably generous, the primary beneficiary has been the Mormon Church. Perhaps because of that, he’s not as vocal about his giving as he might be.

As for independence, “The Republican primary is a sprint to the right,” Lehane noted. “You can’t establish independence.”

Romney’s own clumsiness has worsened matters. Instead of smartly releasing his tax returns in the dead of night during a summer lull, he hemmed, hawed and ensured a protracted debate about tax equity in America.

That debate rages still, drowning out realities that potentially flatter him. His support from the highest-earning voters, for example, can be described instead as support from the best-educated ones: the groups overlap. While his tax plan is indeed indulgent of the wealthy, it’s no more so than Santorum’s or Gingrich’s.

If he makes it to the general election, it’s not at all certain that he’d do financial laps around President Obama. Obama’s campaign has raised nearly twice what his has, and the president has invited super PAC help as well.

Romney’s no profligate hedonist. He plays golf with clubs from Kmart, as Parker and Michael Barbaro reported in The Times. One Republican who knows him well told me: “He almost never flies first class. Thinks it’s a waste of money. Loves JetBlue. Loves JetBlue.”

His political fate depends largely on whether he can persuade voters of that. On Monday Ann Romney tried to help, telling Fox News, “How I measure riches is by the friends I have and the loved ones I have.”

Three days later, in Mississippi, her husband told voters, “I’m learning to say y’all and I like grits.”

He added, “Strange things are happening to me.”

Yeah.  Southerners just love being patronized, as Mr. Blow pointed out the other day.

Blow, Nocera and Collins

March 10, 2012

Mr. Blow addresses “Mitt, Grits and Grit,” and says that as Mitt Romney campaigns in the Deep South, his attempt to connect with southern voters is exposing his some of his greatest weaknesses.  Mr. Nocera looks at “The Phony Settlement” and says the recent BP deal really wasn’t about justice. It is about big paydays for the lawyers.  Ms. Collins says “The Bad News is Good News,” and has a question:  Want to know why we can’t get the dog-on-the-roof story straightened out? Just look at the latest happenings in Mittworld.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

“I’m learning to say ‘y’all,’ and I like grits. Things, strange things are happening to me.”

Those are the words of Willard Mitt Romney campaigning in Pascagoula, Miss., this week.

Wow. Note to Mitt: As a Southerner, I’ve never known us to find caricature endearing. But welcome to the Deep South anyway, Mitt. I wonder if you’ve been introduced to one of my favorite Southern sayings: the backhanded “Bless your heart.”

By all accounts you’re going to need it. No one expects you to do well on Tuesday when Mississippi and Alabama hold their primaries.

(Kansas holds its caucuses on Saturday, and Rick Santorum is leading the polls there.)

When Gov. Phil Bryant of Mississippi endorsed Romney on Thursday, he tried his best to humanize him, saying: “He just has a warm, comfortable way about him. I like to see a man when he’s holding a baby. And he looks like he’s held a baby before. Let me tell you, this man is connecting with the people of this nation, and it is about those simple things.” He knows how to hold a baby? Nice try, governor. Bless your heart.

According to Gallup, Mississippi is the most conservative state in the union, and Alabama clocks in at No. 4. Romney continues to struggle with more conservative voters. In the 2008 elections, 7 out of 10 Mississippi primary voters described themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians. Romney has also struggled with that group.

Last Tuesday, in the primaries in the states of Oklahoma, Georgia and Tennessee, about 70 percent of voters said it was important that their candidate share their religious views. Romney won no more than a quarter of those voters in each state. Welcome to the Southern G.O.P. Bless your heart.

Some argue that this is inconsequential and that all Romney has to do is win the nomination and rank-and-file Republicans will fall in line. They even argue that his less-than-strident, often inconsistent, views may be an asset in a postnomination tack to the middle.

It is true that these states are in no danger of swinging Democratic. Mississippi and Alabama haven’t voted Democratic since 1976. And since Mississippi started holding primaries, no Republican candidate except the eventual presidential nominee has won the state, according to Catherine Morse, a University of Michigan government and political science librarian.

In fact, Obama lost both states to John McCain in 2008 by large margins, and the votes were largely along racial lines. In both states, 88 percent of whites voted for McCain, while 98 percent of blacks voted for Obama.

Obama will not win Mississippi and Alabama, period. But that’s not the issue. The issue is enthusiasm, which has a way of bleeding across borders and ideological boundaries.

In elections, enthusiasm has two sources: for your candidate or against the other. We know well that there is a high level of hostility toward Obama on the right, but he still maintains a number of liberal devotees. Although there are some on the left who have softened on him, he still has a wide swath of passionate supporters who seem to feel that he is moving in the right direction and deserves a chance to finish the work he has started. In fact, according to Gallup, at this point in the race, Democrats are more enthusiastic about Obama than Republicans are about Romney.

The elections will boil down to a duel between anger and optimism, and in general elections optimism wins. Energy wins. Vision wins.

If the message that emerges from the nominating process is that Republican voters lack confidence in their candidate, that is not a message that can be easily sold to swing voters. It’s hard to point to your candidate’s good qualities when you’re using your hands to hold your own nose.

If the Republican nominee can’t appeal to his own base, how can he expect to draw from the middle and the left?

This is the conservative conundrum.

The Republican Party had an opening as wide as the Gulf of Mexico to unseat President Obama, but it appears that it could close with a weak candidate. The president has been hammered by a sputtering economy and hemmed in by an intransigent Congress. All the Republicans needed was a presidential nominee who could capture their discontent on a gritty, granular level and put a positive, big-picture, forward-looking face on it.

Instead, they find themselves with a scraggly lot of scary characters, each with a handicap larger than the next. And the one who’s likely to win the nomination is the one whom the base has the biggest doubts about. He has the good looks of a president but not the guts of one. The only view that he has consistently held is that he wants to win. Everything else is negotiable.

He projects the slick feel of a man who’s trying to sell you something that you don’t want by telling you something that you don’t believe. People don’t trust and can’t fully endorse it, even the ones who deeply dislike the president. In fact, poll after poll finds that the longer the nomination fight drags on and the more people come to know Romney, the higher their unfavorable opinions of him climb.

Furthermore, postnomination pivots have become more difficult in a world driven by YouTube, social media and citizen activism, where prenomination politicking lives forever online in a candidate’s own voice (and often on video).

Unfortunately for Romney, grits don’t give you grit. Dabbling in dialectic speech won’t quench people’s thirst for straight talk. Being called warm and comfortable doesn’t remove the gut feeling that you are cold and rigid. There is something missing from the core of the man, and people can see straight through him.

That makes places like Mississippi a real litmus test — of Romney’s ability to convert his base by connecting with it. Mississippi is a world away from Massachusetts. It’s a ruby-red state and the heart of conservatism. Mississippi is where he has to sell himself.

Bless his heart, y’all.

Indeed.  Here’s Mr. Nocera:

Forgive me for repeating myself, but I’m going to start this column with an anecdote about Ken Feinberg that I’ve told before.

It was November 2010, a few months after Feinberg had been named the administrator of the $20 billion fund that BP had established to compensate victims of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. He and I were having breakfast, and he was recounting some of the more ludicrous claims that had already begun streaming in. The restaurant in Las Vegas that said it had lost business because its shrimp scampi wasn’t as good without shrimp from the Gulf Coast. The Florida dentist who wanted to be compensated because fewer patients were getting cavities filled in the wake of the oil spill. The guy in Norway — Norway! — who slipped and fell while going to the post office to mail his claim — and then added his medical bill to the amount BP “owed” him.

Two tables over, another diner, overhearing the conversation, looked up at Feinberg. “Just pay them,” he said angrily.

A year and a half later, that is exactly what is about to happen. Earlier this week, Feinberg stepped down from the Gulf Coast Claims Facility (as it is officially called), having doled out $6.1 billion to some 220,000 claimants. It is in the process of being replaced by a new claims facility, the result of the recent settlement between BP and the plaintiffs’ lawyers who had been suing the company in federal court in New Orleans.

That settlement has been estimated as being worth $7.8 billion, but, since it is uncapped, it could actually wind up costing BP a lot more than that. And even though the vast majority of legitimate claims have already been paid by Feinberg, the settlement will generate hundreds of thousands of new claims, many of which are likely to be bogus.

The two lawyers who spearheaded the settlement, Stephen J. Herman and James P. Roy, issued a statement last week claiming that the settlement “does the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people.” What it really does is ensure that hundreds of millions of dollars will wind up in the pockets of lawyers whose cases were evaporating, thanks to Feinberg. They might as well erect billboards along the Gulf Coast proclaiming “Free Money for All!”

Let me repeat something else I’ve said before about the Gulf Coast Claims Facility. It could — and should — serve as a model for how to compensate victims after a big industrial disaster. It was vastly more efficient than using lawsuits to extract money from companies. It was fairer, too; in lawsuits, some victims get rich while others are left empty-handed, even though their cases are virtually the same. That didn’t happen with the claims facility. In fact, the lawyers who took their clients to Feinberg said that, most of the time, he was more generous than the legal system would likely have been.

What the BP claims process couldn’t do, it turns out, is overcome lawyers’ greed. For those lawyers who helped clients go through Feinberg’s process, their fees were relatively low — as they should have been. But that’s also why, despite the clear appeal of the claims process, other lawyers continued to press on with their lawsuits, which they settled just before BP was about to go on trial to establish the extent of its liability. Yet with the number of legitimate cases dwindling, they still weren’t guaranteed a big pay day — unless they could find a way to gin up new categories of claimants. That is precisely what this settlement does.

Take, for example, the health claims that will now be allowed. The plaintiffs’ press release says that the settlement will “potentially benefit hundreds of thousands” of gulf residents who “suffered acute or chronic illnesses” as a result of the spill. In truth, only around 700 people sought compensation for health reasons from Feinberg. Why?  Because there is no evidence that the spill caused serious health problems for Gulf Coast residents.  The only health claims Feinberg accepted came from rig workers who were truly injured. Thanks to the settlement, anybody in the gulf with a runny nose can now seek compensation from the new facility. Meanwhile, injured rig workers are specifically excluded from the settlement.

Back when we had breakfast that morning, I asked Feinberg why he didn’t just do what the man had suggested: Pay them all. BP, after all, was the clear villain, and nobody would care if he gave its money to undeserving claimants.

“If the process lacks credibility,” he replied, “people will begin to question the legitimacy of this alternative to the court system. The idea that I’m Santa Claus undercuts the integrity of the process.”

As Feinberg steps down, no one can say he didn’t handle the process with integrity. The tragedy is that the legal system hasn’t followed suit.

Anyone who expects any integrity or honesty to have anything to do with the BP spill is a naive fool.  Here’s Ms. Collins:

There was one brief shining moment last week when Mitt Romney appeared to be saying something sensible about sex.

“The idea of presidential candidates getting into questions about contraception within a relationship between a man and a woman, husband and wife, I’m not going there,” he told reporters.

This was the way Republicans used to talk, oh, about a millennium or so ago. The state legislators wore nice suits and worried about bonded indebtedness and blushed if you said “pelvis.” A woman’s private plumbing? Change the topic, for lord’s sake. Now some of them appear to think about women’s sex lives 24/7, and not in a cheerful, recreational manner.

And it turned out that Romney misspoke. He apparently didn’t realize that the subject he was proposing to steer clear of was a Republican plan to allow employers to refuse to provide health care coverage for contraception if they had moral objections to birth control.

He was definitely going there! Mittworld quickly issued a retraction making it clear that Romney totally supports the idea of getting into questions of contraception within a relationship between a man and a woman. Particularly when it comes to reducing health insurance coverage.

Really, what did you expect? If Romney couldn’t even take a clear stand on Rush Limbaugh’s Slutgate, why would he say anything that forthright unless it was a total error? This is why we can’t get the dog-on-the-car-roof story straightened out. The reporters have their hands full just figuring out Mitt’s position on the biggest controversy of the last month.

We’ve certainly come to a wild and crazy place when it comes to the politics of sex. Perhaps this would be a good time to invest in burqa futures. However, I like to look on the bright side, and I am beginning to think we may actually be turning a corner and actually getting closer to resolving everything.

All of this goes back to the anti-abortion movement, which was very successful for a long time, in large part because it managed to make it appear that the question was whether or not doctors should be allowed to cut up fetuses that were nearly viable outside the womb.

But now we’re fighting about whether poor women in Texas — where more than half the children are born to families whose incomes are low enough to qualify them for Medicaid coverage of the deliveries — should have access to family planning. As Pam Belluck and Emily Ramshaw reported in The Times this week, the right has taken its war against Planned Parenthood to the point where clinics, none of which performed abortions and some of which are not affiliated with Planned Parenthood, are being forced to close for lack of state funds.

Or about whether a woman seeking an abortion should be forced to let a doctor stick a device into her vagina to take pictures of the fetus. The more states attempt to pass these laws, the more people are going to be reminded that most abortions are performed within the first eight weeks of pregnancy, when the embryo in question is less than an inch-and-a-half long.

And the more we argue about contraception, the more people are going to notice that a great many of the folks who are opposed to abortion in general are also opposed to birth control. Some believe that sex, even within marriage, should never be divorced from the possibility of conception. Some believe that most forms of contraception are nothing but perpetual mini-abortions.

Most Americans aren’t in these boats. In fact, they are so completely not in the boats that very, very few Catholic priests attempt to force their parishioners to follow the church’s rules against contraceptives, even as the Catholic bishops are now attempting to torpedo the health care reform law on that very principle.

Every time a state considers a “personhood” amendment that would give a fertilized egg the standing of a human being, outlawing some forms of fertility treatment and common contraceptives, it reinforces the argument that the current abortion debate is actually about theology, not generally held national principles.

And, of course, every time we have one of those exciting discussions about the Limbaugh theory on making women who get health care coverage for contraception broadcast their sex lives on the Internet, the more the Republican Party loses votes, money, sympathy — you name it. The Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, which last summer found women almost evenly divided on which party should control Congress, now shows that women favor Democrats, 51 percent to 36 percent.

The longer this goes on, the easier it will be to come up with a national consensus about whether women’s reproductive lives are fair game for government intrusion. And, when we do, the politicians will follow along. Instantly. Just watch Mitt Romney.

 


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