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Romney’s Etch-a-Sketch Moment

Could the traits of a good president — unflappable calm, sober deliberation and dedication to facts — prove lethal to presidential candidate Barack Obama?  Last night’s first presidential debate showed us “no drama Obama” at his most wonkish, and the world called it a good night for Mitt Romney…

…whose agility onstage was stunning in direct proportion to his unbelievable re-invention.  His etch-a-sketch moment, whose timing was impeccable.

First off, the good news.  On the surface, both candidates were more serious, wonkish and focused on real issues than I have ever seen in a presidential debate. Moreover, in making his veer toward the center (see below), Willard Mitt Romney established what might actually be the outlines — come December and January — of a compromise on the budget that reasonable men and women could work out in a bipartisan manner, solving the Fiscal Cliff.

Assuming that one of the sides gets hammered enough to remember how to be “reasonable men and women.”

== The New Mitt Romney ==

I had been wondering when — after securing the Republican Party’s nomination, Governor Romney would take one of his patented veers, suddenly charging hard for the political center. (Or “shaking the etch-a-sketch”) to re-configure himself for centrists or undecided voters.  Why did he delay till now?

Apparently, after a tepid convention, he seemed unsure of solid support from the GOP base and felt he needed to shore it up.  Does that theory explain why, for several weeks, he maintained consistency with the far-right positions and statements he proclaimed during the primary?  Those included:

– adamant vows to repeal all of Obamacare (despite it having originally been cloned from the Massachusetts plan that he helped bring about, and the earlier Alternative Republican Health Care platform of 1995.)

– adamant and absolute refusal to increase revenues to the federal government, especially from the top 1%.

– decrying government regulation in principle and especially constraints upon big banks, Wall Street — and denouncing any empowerment or activation of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), which was blocked for two years by House of Representatives (GOP) inaction and by GOP filibusters in the Senate.

– ridiculing alternative energy methods and declaring absolute fealty to tax breaks for fossil fuel companies.

– insistence on supply side “boosts” to the economy by funneling trillions into the richest pockets, on the always-wrong wager that this time it will result in a burst of economic activity that increases tax revenues.

== The Big Swerve ==

All of those positions — declared vigorously during the primaries — are (on average) deeply unpopular with centrist Americans and I was wondering… when will Mitt do his veer?

You saw signs of it about five days before the debate, when he floated a very vague, but suddenly-different, notion that the rich might face an upper limit to their itemized deductions.  If the limit were chosen low enough – without exceptions –  it might offend the mortgage industry, charitable trusts and many other interest groups; but yes, it could result in major revenue to counter the arterial losses inherent in Romney’s top rate tax cuts.  You had to admire the jiu jitsu agility of it all, while denying he was breaking his “no new revenue” pledge.  (Of course it amounts to a huge tax hike and could, indeed, be a basis for December-January compromise.)

In fact, what we were witnessing during the last week was brilliant prep work, perfectly timed, for his Wednesday night veer and hard charge toward the center.  When Romney flat-out denied holding ANY of the beliefs or policies cited above!  Not only that, but he blamed the president for failure to unleash the CFPB on Wall Street with more vigor!

With panache you just had to admire, Romney moved from chutzpah…  claiming that – because of his three-day-old new tax policy he had never ruled out revenue increases or asking the rich to pay more or ever proposed a vast supply-side gift of trillions to the top 1%…

…all the way to flat-out lying. For example that ObamaCare is not directly modeled on the health care system he and the Democratic legislature enacted in his home state, when he was governor, down to the details of actual language in the bill.  As more and more elements of Obamacare have come into action, and proved publicly popular, those portions have come into Mitt’s category of “oh, well, I’ll keep THAT part, of course.”  And each time, he gets away with claiming that it is not a reversal.

Or his claim that Obama’s 90 billion dollars of aid to sustainable energy was fifty times the 3-4 billions per year of tax breaks given to the oil industry… when that 90 billion is mostly not expenditure but loan guarantees resulting in much lower costs, and is spread across many years.

I was reminded of an old Saturday Night Live sketch, in which a wife comes home to find her husband in bed with a bimbo and screams “what’s this?” To which he replies: “What’s what?  I don’t know what you’re talking about.”  He keeps up his denial while calmly getting dressed and the bimbo dresses and departs. Stonewalling her rage, he maintains the counterfactual with such puzzled calm and patronizing panache, while making coffee and suggesting that the wife is having blithering fantasies, that she winds up just sitting at the table with him, letting him change the subject to how her day went.

Seriously. Are we that stupid?  And is Obama such a klutz he will just stare at the lies, in pole-axed surprise?

== The insanity of liberals ==

It has long been the bane of liberals that they keep offering to negotiate, expecting that they are still talking to the party of Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley and that the spirits of those noble, old-style, intellectually formidable conservatives might somehow be roused — and the Beck-Fox madness quelled — by finding the right arguments or by marshaling enough facts!

Mitt himself showed the impossibility of that during the debate.  In his biggest chutzpah, he claimed that the Democrats were the partisan fanatics, because ObamaCare passed without a single Republican vote, whereas in Massachusetts he got the nearly identical plan passed by working with all parties.  Of course this reflects history, in that democratic-controlled legislatures always negotiate with Republican presidents and governors.  Reagan, both Bushes, even Nixon were able to get large parts of their agendas passed that way.  (In the case of GWB, that acquiescence constitutes a shame for which the DP should deeply atone.)

The opposite is almost never true.  Just once, in 1995, the Republicans in Congress worked with Bill Clinton and negotiated two epochal achievements — Welfare Reform and the Rudman-Tsongas budget compromise that Clinton then meticulously enforced, giving us four years of budgets in the black and paying down debt.  After which, the new wave of GOP radicals swore that cooperation with a democratic president would never ever happen again.  They made that vow openly and publicly — launching the impeachment hysteria and so much else — and have kept it to this day.

The failure of a single Republican in Congress to support ObamaCare… which was based upon Newt’s Alternative Republican Health Care platform of 1995… was not about Democratic intransigence.  It was about the fact that the GOP has become the most tightly disciplined partisan machine in the history of the American Republic.

And … President Obama wasn’t able to make hay of that???

Did any of you notice the lame little jibe he made? And I agree that the Democratic legislators in Massachusetts might have given some advice to Republicans in Congress about how to cooperate, but the fact of the matter is, we used the same advisers, and they say it’s the same plan.”

Ah, yes.  I guess he made my point… and maybe five people caught it.


== What the President did right ==

Look, I personally am happy with some things the President said.

Did anyone else notice that he mentioned  SCIENCE and TECHNOLOGICAL LEADERSHIP five times?  That’s more than lip service to the one factor in our society that produced more than half of our economic growth and power since 1945.  Anyone who cares about a logical, scientific, progressive, pragmatic, problem-solving civilization should take that — and a myriad similar data — as evidence for why only 6% of U.S. scientists are still Republicans.  No such mention is ever made by Republicans.  Except Newt.  Ever.

And sure, if he had to err in one direction or the other, then “no drama Obama” is the correct choice.  Frankly, I don’t think he’d be president today, if he had an angry bone in his body. (Though he got Osama bin Laden, and nearly fifty other top terror leaders.)

Still, what would it hurt to — well — invoke the ghost at the banquet?  A particular name.  The name of a fellow known as George W. Bush?

Jeez!  The Republicans are fleeing from that name like the Knights Who Say Ni!  They never ever mention their own record at governance over the United States, which lasted longer and was more fierce in control than the shorter spans of democratic rule.  Can you imagine this final chutzpah?  Demanding power, while frantically refusing to discuss how you used it before? Or the resulting outcomes?

ALL of our current deficit can be attributed to two multi-trillion dollar wars of “nation building” that resulted in new satrapies of Iran, giant tax gifts to oligarchs who created no jobs, the unfunded Medicare Part D and the trillion dollar raid on our economy that led to the Second Depression… and the Dems are afraid to remind voters any of that?  Any at all?

Well, maybe they’ve assigned that role to Vice President Biden.  If so, I hope he is well rehearsed.  Because Paul Ryan is a pit bull.

== Follow up ==

In my posting about Questions I would Ask at the Debates, I linked to some of my earlier articles about each topic.  Still, I expect folks just skimmed on past, so let me urge you to consider:

My series about gerrymandering, offering some easy fixes you have almost certainly never seen before!  Including the simplest reform that would require a minimum of bureaucracy…

…. and about the Electoral College.  Let’s not bother to eliminate it. (Too much trouble.) But there is a simple, almost trivial fix that could ensure that there’s almost no chance that the popular vote winner will ever again be frozen out in the Electoral College.  See also this very informative video assessment  by Mansur Gidfar


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Unusual Topics To Raise at the Presidential Debate

Who among us doesn’t yearn to ask questions at the presidential fora?  Poking at both candidates, shaking the routine of canned talking points and practiced answers?  Sure, I have a firm preference. But separately, How I wish that I could ask the following:

1) Mr. President and Governor Romney. There is a crime afoot that’s been committed by politicians of both parties against the voters in almost every state, disenfranchising millions and distorting elections while giving partisan radicals  the upper hand over moderate liberals and moderate conservatives.  That crime is called gerrymandering — the deliberate twisting of voting districts in order to create safe seats, a job security scam for politicians.

Everyone knows gerrymandering is dishonest and destructive, helping drag American politics away from negotiation and practicality toward total partisan war.

In a few states, like California, citizens have rebelled to end this dark practice, and already in that state republicans and democrats are talking to each other, like they used to, before culture war.  What would you do, as president, to bring the foul gerrymandering habit to an end, and force politicians to work for a living, representing all citizens in their districts once again?

FOLLOWUP: Everyone knows the Electoral College is absurd, distorting elections almost as much as gerrymandering.  To eliminate it would take a Constitutional Amendment and that it won’t happen.  But one simple measure would ensure the Electoral College matches the popular vote.  Simply insist all states award their electors proportional to the votes cast in that state, instead of winner-takes-all.  Two states already do this. Will you commit yourself to push for that simple reform?  

2) Mr. President and Governor Romney.  Today, many Americans have narrowed their news inputs down to just one or two television channels and web sources that offer narrow, extreme views on the issues of our day. These channels — found on both the far left and the far right — push indignation and resentment till millions of Americans no longer consider members of the other party to be fellow citizens, only enemies in culture war.

Is it time to bring back the Fairness Doctrine, which served our country well for so many years?  If Sean Hannity or Keith Olberman get to rant at hypnotically captivated viewers for an hour, pushing one narrow perspective, shouldn’t their viewers get to see serious questions or rebuttals by top level opponents? Say just one minute of response for every ten minutes Olberman or Hannity get to rant?

Look at how – right now in this debate – you are at your best, answering questions. Might just a few minutes each night, set aside for questions, shake us out of partisan stupor, arguing fairly with each other once again? 

3)  Governor Romney, why do you never mention the record of past Republican governance of the United States? The GOP held power more than the democratic party, across the last 30 years. Yet, you never speak the name of your Republican predecessor in the office you seek, even though you surround yourself with Bush officials and advisors and will put many of them back into positions of power. Can you cite for us right now any ways that America was statistically healthier in 2009 than it was in 2001? And if you can’t, why should we re-hire you? 

4) President Obama, you promised a government that would be much more open to its citizens, yet you’ve only done a little to cut down on secrecy or to increase citizen oversight. Every year, elites of government, business, and personal wealth gather more information about American citizens while our ability to look-back decays. Yes, real government can be more complicated than a candidate’s promises. But can we believe you, when you vow to get that promise back on track?

5) Mr. President and Governor Romney, do you agree with each other about anything?  Not motherhood or apple pie, or easy generalities like free enterprise or American greatness, or generalities about solving the debt, but some issue that would not win you votes?  Some hard news that we, the people, really ought to hear, that politicians find difficult to say? For example: about the 70 year War on Drugs?

Will you promise that — before the third debate —  you’ll together issue one page of joint stipulations?  Things that both of you think we need to hear, because you both agree not to attack each other for saying it? 


Okay, I try for questions that I hear nobody else asking. And I’ll bet none of you have heard or seen these questions elsewhere.

As you might guess, I have tons of others that I’d love to poke at these fellows. And even more suggestions!  Some will be posted later. One can hope that the network hosts — even the candidates — might raise them on their own.

Ah yes, hope. Though delusional, it springs eternal.

== Other matters: “Which 47%?” ==

Amid the furor over Mitt Romney’s “inelegant” remarks about the 47% of Americans who are “freeloaders” — who pay no net federal income tax (FIT) — many rebuttals have shown that he slagged mostly retirees, lower middle class workers (who still pay payroll and other taxes), and even our fighting men and women who get their combat pay untaxed. (Along with a darned big slab of millionaires and corporations whose accountants and lawyers get them off scot free.) Note also that the fraction who pay no FIT had its biggest increase under George W. Bush.

What’s astonishing is the fact that many let him get away with a conflation of two entirely separate statistics.  The 55% of the public who support President Obama and the 47% who pay no FIT are supposed (by Romney) to completely overlap.

They do not.  Yes, democrats still stand up for the very poor, and hence a third of the 47% do pretty much plop onto the democratic side. On the other hand it has long been the plain fact that Red America suckles in far more net tax dollars than it pays, while Blue America — the wealth and productivity and innovation-generating areas — pay more more in taxes than they get back… yet blue states whine about taxes much less.  See the very starkly informative graphic below:

Of course it’s more complicated than that. In fact, the conservative in me feels that all Americans should be asked to pay at least a small, token tax just to feel vested in how the money gets spent. It’s one of many Goldwater style suggestions that could go on the table for negotiation… if today’s conservatism still bore any resemblance at all to that of Goldwater and Buckley. (Barry how we miss you.)

== Political Miscellany ==

As perfect evidence of that drift, take this nonsense that Buckley and Golwater would never have stood for: “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers,” said Neil Newhouse, a Romney pollster.  Of course Robert Reich is no conservative. But his point in this article is clear.  Lacking any facts at all to support their side, and knowing full well that they dare never mention (at all) their record at governance, the Murdochians have completed their migration.  They now say whatever they damn well please and let assertions stand in for truth. That is now the Red-Blue divide.

(When only 6% of U.S. scientists call themselves Republican, and every other clade of knowledge is under attack by Fox, this final shift can come as no surprise.)

Some of the heirs of Barry Goldwater have taken notice. Mike Lofgren, in The American Conservative  (One of the few journals of the right that today would be considered sane by Goldwater and Buckley) has penned a scathing denunciation of how today’s worldwide caste of uber-wealthy appear to be seceding from the nations and peoples they increasingly control. In “Revolt of the Rich,” Lofgren shows how this process – bringing us toward wealth disparities like those of 1789 France – threatens the very fabric of our western/american social contract.

“It is no coincidence that as the Supreme Court has been removing the last constraints on the legalized corruption of politicians, the American standard of living has been falling at the fastest rate in decades. According to the Federal Reserve Board’s report of June 2012, the median net worth of families plummeted almost 40 percent between 2007 and 2010.”

Here is another snippet:

“If a morally acceptable American conservatism is ever to extricate itself from a pseudo-scientific inverted Marxist economic theory, it must grasp that order, tradition, and stability are not coterminous with an uncritical worship of the Almighty Dollar, nor with obeisance to the demands of the super wealthy. Conservatives need to think about the world they want: do they really desire a social Darwinist dystopia?

“The objective of the predatory super-rich and their political handmaidens is to discredit and destroy the traditional nation state and auction its resources to themselves. Those super-rich, in turn, aim to create a “tollbooth” economy, whereby more and more of our highways, bridges, libraries, parks, and beaches are possessed by private oligarchs who will extract a toll from the rest of us. Was this the vision of the Founders? Was this why they believed governments were instituted among men—that the very sinews of the state should be possessed by the wealthy in the same manner that kingdoms of the Old World were the personal property of the monarch?”

If I might add, it would not end there.  Read about Paris, 1789, and the Estates Generale.  How the artistocratic First Estate demanded everything, conceded no obligations to the people, the state or society, and justified their exemption from taxes almost literally by calling themselves the job-creators.

In retrospect, and on a purely pragmatic basis, that was a very big mistake for those lords, an obstinacy that wound up costing them everything. It makes you wonder about the intelligence of the self-flattering aristocracy of our time.

Lofgren’s whole article makes compelling reading and I suggest you recite it aloud to some conservative “ostrich” who seems sane enough to listen… and possibly even to stand up to reclaim the sadly hijacked movement of Barry Goldwater.

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Why the Candidates Should (But Won’t) Stipulate

Stipulate-electionIt’s been said that a politician gets to be perfectly honest just once in a long career — at its end. Refreshing candor sometimes pours after an old pol has faced the last campaign. No more fund raisers or flattering voters. One chance to tell the truth.

All right, it’s rare. Many politicians hurry through a revolving door, into fat directorships and lobbying firms. Still, it can be colorful when a few spill their hearts.

Take the day in 1992 when both Republican Senator Warren Rudman and Democrat Paul Tsongas made headlines declaring that everybody was at fault for the country’s fiscal condition at the time, from then-President Bush to the democrat-controlled Congress, to the American people. Responsible economists later credited Rudman and Tsongas for spurring reforms that helped lead to the Clinton era surpluses.

Around the same time, retired senator and conservative eminence gris Barry Goldwater denounced the followers of émigré philosopher Leo Strauss – so-called “neocons” – for hijacking Goldwater’s beloved movement over cliffs of romantic delusion. A more recent example of post retirement candor came When G.W. Bush’s ex-Treasury Secretary, Paul O’Neill, revealed a swamp of backroom dealings and ineptitude, explaining that he was “old and rich” and unafraid to speak his mind. On the other side, some claim that Senator Joe Lieberman really came into his own when he ran as an independent, shrugging off party discipline (if such a thing exists, among democrats.)

Alas, under our electoral system candor is punished. Folks on both sides of the lamentably oversimplifying “left-right axis” yearn for the best and most sincere people on the other side to wise up!  To eject radicals from control over the other party’s agenda. Too bad we rarely ponder the way crimes like gerrymandering have been used by our own side, with terrible effects upon the radicalization of politics.    (Elsewhere I describe one time that party self-reform actually happened.)

== A Modest Proposal ==

Let me offer here a proposal that I’ve made every presidential election for decades. Throughout the campaign we’ll learn how the candidates disagree on a myriad issues. And platitudes, what they think voters want to hear.

Logically, there must be a third category — areas where these well-informed professionals agree with each other, but fear to speak  first.  But consider: there’s no political cost to telling voters what you really believe… if your opponent has agreed, in advance, to say the same thing.

What’s wrong with two leaders finding patches of consensus amid a sea of discord? It has a name – stipulation… as when attorneys in a case agree to agree about a set of points, so the trial can focus on areas where they disagree.

What does stipulation have to do with politics? Given the intensity of partisanship in recent American political life, can we dream? Bear with me for a “what-if” thought experiment.

Suppose, amidst the 2012 campaign, Republican candidate Mitt Romney and President Obama were to suspend their mutual attacks just long enough to meet for an afternoon. Staffs would cover debate rules, and maybe how to prevent spirals of mudslinging and people would applaud just seeing them talk to each other like adults.

Only then — they go for a walk, alone. During this quiet moment before the rough and tumble resumes, they seek just a few points of consensus.

Don’t dismiss it too readily. For all his faults, the last GOP nominee – John McCain did this sort of thing before. So did Senators Clinton and Obama, amid their primary fights in 2008.  In fact, the only ones to object would be extremes in both parties.

Oh, neither candidate will change the other’s mind concerning major divisions. But here we have two knowledgeable public persons, presumably concerned about America’s future. Surely there’d be some overlap? Things that both of them feel that we, as a nation, should do.

Imagine a joint statement. Though reiterating a myriad points of disagreement, they make public simultaneously their shared belief that America should, for its own good, pass law “X”, or repeal restriction “Y”. Further, they agree – neither will attack the other for taking this stand.

No longer pandered to, folks might say — “Gosh, if both say the country needs this strong medicine, let’s give it thought.”

This would not free candidates completely from the stifling effects of mass-politics. But it could let them display something rarely seen… leadership. Even statesmanship. Setting aside self-interest in favor of hard truth, telling the people what they need to hear, whether they like it or not.

=== Is This Impossible? ===

Well, it happened before, during the Presidential campaign of 1940. When Franklin Roosevelt was running for a third term, he approached Republican candidate Wendell Wilkie, to negotiate just such a stipulated agreement in the area of foreign policy. Britain badly needed escort vessels for the North Atlantic and the U.S. had over-age destroyers to spare. But Roosevelt feared political repercussions during a campaign in which he was already under attack for breaking neutrality. Wilkie agreed to FDR’s request, and declared that lend-lease would be his policy too, if he were elected.

Everyone benefited — Wilkie rose in stature. FDR got his policy implemented, and the world was better off because political advantage was briefly put aside for the common good. On other issues, Roosevelt and Wilkie battled as fiercely as ever. Yet, that historical act of stipulation shines in memory.

How might today’s politics differ if two adults — each the standard bearer of a major party — agreed to let it be known how they agree? Might they take on some of our most politically impossible subjects? Perhaps a cow as sacred as the Social Security retirement age, a compromise on gun control, some campaign finance reform…

… or the biggest candidate for such a declaration?  The obvious of course. The topic that neither side dares to raise first.  The failed Drug War.

== How it could happen ==

Is this quixotic proposal too much to ask of today’s opportunistic brand of politician? Perhaps. Indeed, I have little hope that it has a chance of happening during the 2012 election cycle, while partisanship towers foremost in the minds of the partisan attack dogs who have turned America into a silly place for two decades, overshadowing any national good.

Still, our politics can evolve. Only during the most recent generation has the tradition of Presidential debates become so entrenched that no front-runner can now duck them. Ancient hurdles of age, race, and gender are falling. And note, there are millions of Americans who deeply yearn for a more mature approach to politics. If a candidate offered this kind of stipulation process, and the other refused… well, there might be benefits there, as well.

Indeed, imagine if a third party candidate – say the Libertarian Party’s unusually reasonable/interesting Gary Johnson – were to join one of this year’s presidential debates. (Okay, so I think that would devastate one of the major candidates, offering sane, libertarian-minded conservatives a place to escape their party’s current madness.)  Johnson’s natural move would be to pounce on obvious things like the drug war. Ironically, this could offer one of the other guys cover to step forward, partially agreeing with Johnson while remaining moderate/skeptical. Good positioning, politically speaking.  And as a result, we all benefit when the topic itself (changing the drug war) moves up in peoples’ minds.

All right.  It won’t happen. Not this time around. But it could.  And maybe someday it will.

Shatter the barriers against candor!

CANDOROnce upon a time, it was just a glimmer in a few eyes to imagine that debates would be standard in elections.  Now it’s normal.

Might the Candidates’ Post-Convention Summit and Letter of Stipulation also become traditional, like doldrums in July and mudslinging in October?

Someday, the whole nation may look forward to the occasion, once every four years, with a sort of delicious, nervous anticipation — awaiting the one day when two eminent politicians will say not what is politically savvy, but what is simply wise.

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