Tag Archives: Mitt Romney

Obama or Romney: Who Wins Tomorrow?

Four years ago, the polls were clear, and the only question was whether a last gasp of racism would change voters’ minds in the booth. This year it’s all a lot less clear, but we can still see the general shape of how the election will play out.

Let’s start with the basics: The presidential election happens state-by-state. Each state has a certain number of electoral votes (equal to the number of its congressmen plus two for its senators). So in general, more populous states count for more, but the less populous states’ votes are still disproportionate to their population. Every state, no matter how small, gets at least 3 votes. The District of Columbia also gets 3 votes.

The total number of electoral votes is 538, which means a candidate needs 270 to get a majority (or two candidates could tie at 269-269). Almost every state awards its electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis, to the candidate who gets the most votes in that state. (Maine and Nebraska are exceptions, but probably that won’t come up this year and both states will end up giving all their votes to one candidate.)

The analysis I’m giving below is largely based on the work of NYT blogger Nate Silver, a polling geek who has a method for combining all the polls into a probability-of-victory percentage for each state. You don’t need to understand how the model works to recognize that Nate is good at this. In 2008, his predictions were uncanny. (The percentages below come from the early Monday morning run of Nate’s model.)

The fuhgeddabowdit states. In most states, the election won’t be close, and we might as well chalk them up now. Nate’s model gives at least a 99.5% chance that the following states will go to a particular candidate. Probably most of them will be called as soon as the polls close.

Obama: California (55), Connecticut (7), Delaware (3), D.C. (3), Hawaii (4), Illinois (20), Maine (3 out of 4), Maryland (10), Massachusetts (11), Minnesota (10), New Jersey (14), New York (29), Rhode Island (4), Vermont (3), Washington (12) — total 188

Romney: Alabama (9), Alaska (3), Arkansas (6), Georgia (16), Idaho (4), Indiana (11), Kansas (6), Kentucky (8), Louisiana (8), Mississippi (6), Missouri (10), Nebraska (4 of 5), North Dakota (3), Oklahoma (7), South Carolina (9), South Dakota (3), Tennessee (11), Texas (38), Utah (6), West Virginia (5), Wyoming (3) — total 176

Stranger-things-have-happened-but states. These are the 95% states. Occasionally somebody from the underdog’s camp will claim they’re going to pull an upset, and if you have too much money to spend you might even advertise (like Romney in Pennsylvania). But don’t hold your breath. The only way the underdog wins these states is with such a national landslide that the state won’t matter.

Obama: Michigan (16), New Mexico (5), Oregon (7), Pennsylvania (20) — subtotal 48; running total 236.

Romney: Arizona (11), Montana (3) — subtotal 14; running total 190.

Battleground Row. Now it starts to get interesting: Obama at 236 is approaching the magic 270. Romney at 190 has very little room for failure.

This is where Nate makes an astute observation: Each state may have its own independent election, but the state elections are not independent in a statistical sense. If, say, Obama takes North Carolina (where Nate gives him only a 22.8% chance), that probably means a national wave is building that will easily give him Wisconsin (94.5% chance). It would be a very strange world indeed if Obama took North Carolina and lost Wisconsin.

So it makes sense to line up all the states by their Obama-win-probability and see how far down the list he needs to go to get to 270.

Obama win probability state electoral votes Obama running total Romney running total
94.5% Wisconsin 10 246 292
90.7% Maine 1 of 4 247 291
90.0% Nevada 6 253 285
86.8% Ohio 18 271 269
81.2% Iowa 6 277 261
80.2% New Hampshire 4 281 257
72.6% Virginia 13 294 244
69.7% Colorado 9 303 235
44.5% Florida 29 332 206
22.8% North Carolina 15 347 191
12.3% Nebraska 1 of 5 348 190

So if you start at the top with Wisconsin (Obama’s most likely battleground state victory) and move towards the bottom, Obama crosses 270 at Ohio. Conversely, if we award Romney states from the bottom of the list up, he crosses 270 (reaching 285) if he wins Ohio. That makes Ohio the tipping point state, and explains why everybody is campaigning so hard there. So the minimal Obama-win map looks like this:

The minimal Obama-win map. (Not a prediction.)

And the minimal Romney-win map looks the same with Ohio red.

If Obama were to lose Ohio, he’d have to go three states further down his list (Iowa, New Hampshire, Virginia) to get to 270. If Romney loses Ohio, he’ll need either Nevada or Wisconsin to win. (In almost every reasonable scenario, Maine and Nebraska’s final votes don’t really matter.)

This is why you’ll hear Wisconsin, Nevada, Ohio, and sometimes Iowa described as “Obama’s firewall”. If he takes those states, he’s going to win even if he loses battleground states like Florida, Virginia, and Colorado.

What to Watch For. So Romney’s path to victory is narrow and depends heavily on the east-coast states Florida and Virginia. Those are the ones to watch early. If Romney loses either one, he’s done. If either one is too close to call hours after the polls close, probably that means the national trend is not enough in Romney’s favor to crack Obama’s firewall. An easy Obama win in New Hampshire, on the other hand, is only 4 votes, but it might be an early indication of an Obama victory nationally.

But if Florida and Virginia fall easily to Romney and New Hampshire is too close to call, we’re going to be studying specific Ohio counties far into the wee hours of the morning.

I’ll analyze Election Night hour-by-hour in a later post.

Convincing Friends to Vote for Obama

I don’t think anybody knows precisely how many voters make up their minds in the last week of a campaign, or how influenced they are by friends or relatives who steer them right. My guess is that the number is considerable. You might only influence one or two of them, but if a million people like you each influence one or two, that turns a close election into a landslide.

It’s worth trying, in other words.

These persuadable voters might be co-workers or classmates who are bored by politics, but feel vaguely guilty about not participating in democracy. Maybe they’re grandparents who have mostly lost interest in the larger world, or who only know what Bill O’Reilly chooses to tell them. Or they’re your grown children, who haven’t yet caught on to the idea that voting is part of their duty as an adult. Maybe they are friends who generally share your ideals, but aren’t in the habit of voting.

My two most important pieces of advice are:

  • Don’t waste your time arguing with committed Romney voters unless you enjoy it or you’re really performing for silent onlookers. Life is too short. If they pick an argument, you can put them off with a flip remark like “I’m not rich enough to vote for Romney.”
  • Don’t be a jerk. People who admire jerks are already voting for Romney, because Rush Limbaugh told them to. Liberalism is attractive because it is both serious and compassionate. Try to embody that; Obama does.

Some people don’t vote for really simple reasons that are easily dealt with.

  • I don’t know where to vote. The League of Women Voters knows. Go to their Vote411 web site and enter your address. It will locate your polling place and also tell you whether it’s still possible to register to vote in time for the election. (That’s worth checking. Some states allow at-the-polling-place registration.) The Obama campaign site gottavote.com is a good resource for early-voting info and for listing what you need to bring with you.
  • I can’t get to the polls. The best answer is “I’ll take you”, but that may not be practical if you’re talking to someone who retired to Florida. One of the things people can do at barackobama.com is identify themselves as Obama voters. If you do that, I guarantee someone will call you on election day to see if you need help getting to the polls. (I’ve been hanging out at the house of my recently deceased father, who was a 90-year-old registered Democrat. I’ve already gotten a call from the Obama campaign asking if he needed a ride.)

Closing arguments against Romney. The thing that makes you more effective than a TV commercial is that you know who you’re talking to and they know you. So some people will want to see why Romney’s budget numbers don’t add up and others will frost over immediately if you start making them do math. Some will be impressed by the depth of Romney’s duplicity, and others will shrug and say that all politicians lie. Still, seeing is believing.

One of the problems the Obama campaign uncovered early in its focus groups was that moderate voters simply refused to believe that Romney had taken the radical positions he ran on in the primaries, or that he lied as boldly as he did. But it’s true: He said he would cut taxes on “the top 1%” and later denied it. He said he would ban all abortions, without exceptions for rape or incest, and later denied it, at one point championing an exception for the “health of the mother” before denying that too. He said his health plan would cover pre-existing conditions, and later denied it. He says he loves teachers, but also wants to muzzle their unions and slash their retirement programs, and he opposes Obama’s plan to hire more of them in math and science.

Other than simple lying, Romney has taken advantage of vagueness. So he promises to balance the budget, but the only plans he has specified cut taxes and raise spending. (In Virginia, his ads cast him as the candidate who will create jobs by increasing spending, precisely what he denounces everywhere else in the country.) He says he can balance that out (plus the deficit we have now) with by cutting other spending and closing tax loopholes, but since he won’t specify those parts of his program, he can deny anything specific. So, is he planning to slash spending on education? On roads and bridges? On healthcare for the poor or food stamps for the hungry? Is he going to eliminate the mortgage interest deduction or deductions for contributions to charity? He has no plan to do that, he says. But he has to cut or tax somewhere to make his numbers work, and he won’t tell us where.

If the people you’re trying to convince say they’re leaning towards Romney or think he looked good at the debate or find him attractive in some other way, the right question to ask is: “Which Romney do you like?” Romney has literally had every position on every issue. But if he’s elected, which Mitt do you expect to take office in January? In order to support Romney, you need to believe that he was honest in what he promised you, but lying to all those other people.

If someone likes the “severely conservative” Romney of the primaries, there’s not much you can say. Whatever he does is likely to be more conservative than what Obama would do. But if they liked the “moderate Mitt” of the debates, probably they should be voting for Obama, who is the real moderate in the race. Jonathan Alter says it best:

Romney as president would be a man with a strange crick in the neck, constantly looking over his right shoulder to see which pickup truck full of movement conservatives was about to run him over.

Beyond the policy issues, there are character issues. Young Mitt was a bully, and his sons’ attempts to tell heart-warming stories about him only emphasize that he is still a bully. Women who came to him in his role as a Mormon bishop telling horrifying stories of his insensitivity. And of course there’s always the dog-on-the-roof story.

If you read between the lines in the stories of Romney’s friends, you see the larger pattern: He’s a great guy as long as he’s in control and you’re doing what he wants. James Lipton has him nailed:

He is that boss who tells lame jokes and waits for everyone else to laugh (or else), and keeps us forever off balance, uncertain and anxious.

Closing arguments for Obama. Two false charge against Obama are that he isn’t running on his record (or can’t because his record is terrible) or that his campaign is entirely negative. I’ve already devoted an article to Obama’s positive case, but it’s time to boil that down to a few paragraphs.

Here’s the best way to frame Obama’s economic record: Thanks to Obama (and his unfairly maligned stimulus), the next president won’t have to deal with anything like the multiple crises that Obama faced on Inauguration Day. The month Obama took office, the economy lost more than 800,000 jobs. Now it’s gaining at least 100,000 jobs a month. That’s not robust growth, but we are muddling ever upward. Those bad jobs numbers the Romney people throw around always include the massive job losses in the first few months of 2009, before Obama’s policies had taken effect.

When Obama became president, our banks were insolvent and the auto industry was about to collapse. We were fighting two expensive wars. Serious people were speculating about a Second Great Depression. It’s easy to brush that off now, but the fact that it didn’t happen is a major accomplishment.

Crises that deep take time to overcome. (In the First Great Depression, unemployment was still over 10% at the end of FDR’s second term.) Romney likes to compare the current recovery to the Reagan recovery of the early 80s, but that followed an ordinary interest-rate recession, not the popping of a bubble. Bubble recoveries are slower, because the previous peak wasn’t real.

There are a number of reasons to believe that the economy is about to accelerate. Consumer confidence is up. The jobless rate is finally below 8%. And people are starting to build houses again.

On foreign policy, Obama has been the steady hand we needed. He ended the Iraq War, wound down the Afghan War, attacked the people who really attacked us on 9-11 (including Bin Laden), and — best of all — didn’t get our troops involved in any new wars, despite numerous opportunities.

Myths. Many people — especially low-information voters — think they are against Obama because they’ve bought some crazy story about him: He’s Muslim, he’s Kenyan, he quadrupled the deficit, whatever. It’s impossible to list them all, but snopes.com is your best place to start debunking.

Greens are a special case. Some of the undecided are actually very well-informed liberal voters, but they can’t decide whether to vote idealistically for Green candidate Jill Stein or pragmatically for President Obama. If they live in a foregone-conclusion state like Texas or Vermont their Green vote isn’t going to affect the outcome anyway, so don’t bother trying to convince them. But in swing states people need to remember Bush/Gore in 2000. If the Nader voters in Florida or New Hampshire had voted for Gore, we wouldn’t have had an Iraq War.

I’ve made a longer pitch to Greens here, and Leftcandid has done it here.

In short. Across the board, Obama has done a good job in a bad situation. And on issue after issue, Romney has either offered no alternative or has offered every alternative, (when he wasn’t agreeing with what Obama has done). No matter what you think the country’s most important problem is — the economy, the deficit, women’s rights, war, terrorism, inequality, the environment, whatever — Obama is the best bet for progress.

What do we know about Romney’s tax and budget plans?

The first Obama/Romney debate on Wednesday had a playground quality to it: One contestant would say “You did X”, the other would say “No I didn’t”, and then either Obama would let it drop or Romney would repeat “Yes you did!”. Jim Lehrer refused to play teacher, so it was left to fact-checkers and other pundits to determine the truth afterwards.

On no subject was the truth less obvious than on Romney’s budget plans. President Obama laid it out like this:

Governor Romney’s central economic plan calls for a $5 trillion tax cut — on top of the extension of the Bush tax cuts — that’s another trillion dollars — and $2 trillion in additional military spending that the military hasn’t asked for. That’s $8 trillion. How we pay for that, reduce the deficit, and make the investments that we need to make, without dumping those costs onto middle-class Americans, I think is one of the central questions of this campaign.

And Governor Romney flatly denied it:

I don’t have a $5 trillion tax cut. I don’t have a tax cut of a scale that you’re talking about. My view is that we ought to provide tax relief to people in the middle class. But I’m not going to reduce the share of taxes paid by high-income people.

Fact-checkers tried to apply their usual categories — true, false, misleading — but often they just added to the confusion. CNN, for example, said Obama’s charge was false, but graded Romney’s denial as “incomplete”, whatever that means.

Here’s what’s going on: The press is afraid of bias accusations, so it hides behind rules of objectivity that have gotten increasingly technical. Campaigns have gotten good at manipulating those rules, so the objective press has a hard time announcing simple judgments. Judgments, then, are left to the partisan voices, who just increase the noise.

The Weekly Sift makes a lesser claim: I’m not objective, I just try to be honest and give you enough links to check my accuracy. So let’s see if some common sense can cut through the confusion.

The $5 trillion tax cut. Mitt Romney has proposed a tax plan, sort of. On his web site, the full plan to “create 12 million new jobs” has four “economic pillars”, one of which is:

Reform The Nation’s Tax Code To Increase Growth And Job Creation.

o Reduce individual marginal income tax rates across-the-board by 20 percent, while keeping current low tax rates on dividends and capital gains. Reduce the corporate income tax rate – the highest in the world – to 25 percent.
o Broaden the tax base to ensure that tax reform is revenue-neutral.

The idea is that people pay a lower tax rate, but that more income gets taxed (“broaden the tax base”), so the government winds up with the same amount of money (“revenue neutral”).

There’s no reason that can’t work in theory, but notice that the marginal-tax-rate cut (the attractive part of the plan) is specified at 20%, while “broaden the tax base” (the unattractive part) is left vague. Elsewhere, Romney promises to eliminate the alternate minimum tax (which falls almost entirely on the wealthy) and the federal estate tax (which only applies to multi-million-dollar estates).

So if you evaluate Romney’s plan by what he has specified – the tax cuts — it’s a $5 trillion tax cut over the next ten years. Now, that’s not entirely fair, because whatever plan he eventually proposes to Congress would also specify the base-broadening part. The rate-cut is part of a “revenue neutral” tax plan in the same way that Cocoa Puffs are “part of this complete breakfast”.

So Romney is technically correct in saying “I don’t have a $5 trillion tax cut.” But let me flesh that out by putting true words in Romney’s mouth: “I don’t have a plan to cut government revenue by $5 trillion. I have a revenue-neutral plan, but the only part of it I’m willing to spell out before the election cuts federal revenue by $5 trillion.”

So he still needs to specify what currently untaxed income will be taxed in order to raise the $5 trillion that his plan needs to fulfill his revenue-neutral pledge.

Growth or funny money? If you read the details on the web site, a big chunk of that previously untaxed income is money that just wouldn’t exist otherwise. Romney’s plan estimates that the economy will grow at a 2.5% rate with the current tax system, but that under his plan (including his similarly vague plan to de-regulate business and other plans he considers growth-inducing) the economy will grow at a 4% rate.

When you compound that over ten years, the difference is huge. Current GDP is around $15 trillion per year. Ten years of 2.5% growth get you to $19 trillion, but ten years of 4% growth get you to $22 trillion, which is almost 16% bigger. So in the tenth year, the 20% rate cut is almost balanced by the growth alone. The extra income you need to broaden the tax base is almost entirely manna that fell from Heaven.

The question is whether you believe any of that. The idea that tax cuts create growth is dogma among conservatives, but recent history doesn’t bear them out. We were promised the cornucopia of growth when Bush cut taxes in 2001 and 2003, but it didn’t arrive. Even with a bubble-based illusion of growth, median household income declined. Atlantic’s Ronald Brownstein reports:

When Bill Clinton left office after 2000, the median income — the income line around which half of households come in above, and half fall below — stood at $52,500 (measured in inflation-adjusted 2008 dollars). When Bush left office after 2008, the median income had fallen to $50,303. That’s a decline of 4.2 per cent. That leaves Bush with the dubious distinction of becoming the only president in recent history to preside over an income decline through two presidential terms, notes Lawrence Mishel, president of the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute.

In the debate, Romney refused any historical comparison. (“My plan is not like anything that’s been tried before.”) But his web site justifies the growth assumptions by looking at the recovery from the 1981-82 recession during the Reagan administration. The problem is that this recession (like the one before it) looks nothing like the 1981-82 recession. The Reagan recession was brought on by the high interest rates (over 20%!) that the Fed imposed to kill off the inflation plague of the 1970s. As the Fed cut rates back to more normal levels, the economy could resume a normal growth pattern, plus make up for lost time.

The last two recessions were set off by popping bubbles: the dot-com bubble of the late 90s and the housing bubble of the Bush years. Recoveries from bubbles are slower, because the previous level was illusory. Let me repeat that: The Obama Recovery is slower than Reagan’s because the level we are trying to recover to was a mirage.

Even if we grant Romney’s 4% growth assumption, the difference in the first year would be small, while the tax-cut hit would be as large as ever. Would the Tea Party types in Congress really accept a budget where the deficit continued to climb for several years while we waited for growth to catch up?

I personally have no confidence in Romney’s growth assumptions. If he’s really going to broaden the tax base, he’s going to have to extend taxes to real income, not imaginary income from the growth fairy.

Deductions. The one real base-broadening idea Romney has floated is to cap deductions. In the debate he said:

But in order for us not to lose revenue, have the government run out of money, I also lower deductions and credits and exemptions, so that we keep taking in the same money when you also account for growth.

One trial balloon suggested that deductions be capped at $17,000, though in the debate Romney refused to be pinned down to any specific number:

what are the various ways we could bring down deductions, for instance? One way, for instance, would be to have a single number. Make up a number, $25,000, $50,000. Anybody can have deductions up to that amount. And then that number disappears for high-income people.

That approach has a problem: If you don’t accept Romney’s growth assumption, eliminating all deductions for upper-income people doesn’t replace the $5 trillion in revenue. So he’s forced to break his pledge not to raise taxes on middle-income people — not all middle-income people, but quite a few. When you add up mortgage interest, state and local taxes, medical expenses, and so on, it’s not hard for a household of slightly-above-average income to hit a $17,000 cap, and even easier to hit some much-lower cap that would really raise $5 trillion.

I know because I did my parents’ taxes last year. In 2011, my parents were in “the 47%” of people who paid no federal income tax. My mother died that year, and both parents spent time in nursing homes, so their medical expenses wiped out their $50,000 of income. Under the Romney plan, with a $17K deduction cap, they’d have owed thousands.

So Al Sharpton is right: “This election isn’t about Obama, it’s about your momma.”

Tax fairness. Romney’s pledge not to favor the rich in his tax plan is very carefully worded: “I’m not going to reduce the share of taxes paid by high-income people.”

This echoes a common conservative framing of taxes. Over the last 30 years, the share of the national income that has gone to the very rich has skyrocketed. Under Romney’s policies, it would presumably continue to skyrocket, because of de-regulation, non-enforcement of antitrust laws, and so on. But all he pledges is to keep their share of taxes the same.

Think about it this way: Imagine a two-person economy that makes $10, with $6 going to the richer guy and $4 to the poorer guy. Imagine their government collects $2 in taxes; let’s say $1.50 from the richer guy and 50 cents from the poorer guy, so that their after-tax incomes are $5.50 and $4.50.

Now imagine that inequality increases, so that the rich guy makes $8 and the poor guy $2. But suppose the government keeps their taxes the same: The rich guy still pays $1.50 and the poor guy 50 cents, so that their after-tax incomes are $6.50 and $1.50.

That system would fulfill Romney’s tax-fairness pledge: the rich guy still pays 75% of the taxes.  But it isn’t fair at all. The rich guy’s tax rate goes down from 25% to 18.75%. The poor guy’s goes up from 12.5% to 25%.

In short: When the rich make more of the money, their share of the taxes should increase, not stay the same.

Spending cuts. The situation on the spending side of Romney’s plan is similar: He has spelled out his spending increasesdefense, mostly. And he has pledged not to cut Medicare of Social Security benefits for anyone currently over 55. In other words, even if he serves eight years, he will never submit a budget that shows a spending cut in either of those two giant entitlements.

But he also pledges to get federal spending down to 20% of GDP by 2016, which (even with his optimistic 4% growth assumption) means $500 billion of annual cuts. The only sizable cut he identifies on his web site is $95 billion by repealing ObamaCare. But repealing ObamaCare also repeals the cost savings and tax increases it contains, and so increases the deficit rather than decreasing it. And “I want to take that $716 billion you’ve cut and put it back into Medicare.” not use it to decrease the deficit. And he was open to retaining the improved drug benefits ObamaCare adds to Medicare.

So the ObamaCare cut is illusion. It won’t cut the deficit.

Romney’s other specified cuts are Amtrak; the national endowments for art, humanities, and public broadcasting (bye-bye, Big Bird); the Legal Services Corporation; family planning; and foreign aid. By Romney’s own account, the total savings (other than ObamaCare) is only $2.6 billion of the $500 billion he says he needs.

So he has specified about half a percent of the cuts his budget needs under his optimistic assumptions. And the biggest parts of the budget — defense, Social Security, Medicare — are off limits. The non-ObamaCare cuts he has specified are insufficient even to cover the increase he wants in defense spending.

That’s why Obama accused him of “gutting our investments in schools and education”, and how Romney was able to deny it: “I reject the idea that I don’t believe in great teachers or more teachers. … I’m not going to cut education funding. I don’t have any plan to cut education funding and — and grants that go to people going to college.”

“I don’t have any plan to cut …” is a universal dodge for Romney. Because he doesn’t have any plan to cut spending, Romney can deny any specific thing you imagine must be cut to plug the huge hole in his budget. The Ryan budget is a little more specific about cuts, but Romney disclaims that as well. His campaign says “as president he will be putting together his own plan.” And Romney has emphasized that he, not Ryan, is “the guy running for president.”

In short, what Romney has given us is a lot of specifics that cut taxes and raise spending, coupled with vague promises to make it all come out right somehow. So electing Romney is sort of like hiring a trainer who promises you can eat more and lose weight. He has pictures of the lavish meals his plan will let you eat, and a graph of how your weight will go down.

How does it work? “Exercise” he says. What exercise? When? How much? “We can work all that out later.”

The Romney Pre-mortems

Post-mortems on the Romney campaign are like Christmas catalogs. It’s way too early, but here they are. Waiting for a guy to actually lose before you explain why he lost is so old-fashioned.

Remember those articles about where the 2007-2008 Patriots rank among the all-time great teams? (Somewhere behind the 2007-2008 Giants, apparently.) I don’t know what makes this kind of premature speculation so irresistible, but it is.

Republicans thought this was the year they couldn’t lose. Unemployment was high, the deficit was high, ObamaCare was unpopular, and the same wave of public discontent that had given Republicans a sweep in 2010 would win them the White House in 2012. As a bonus, their new House majority that could keep Obama from getting anything done, and — even better! — shoot the economy in the foot by provoking a debt-ceiling standoff. See what a lousy president Obama is? The country’s credit rating went south on his watch!

So the dialog during the Republican primaries went like this. Tea Party types would say, “We don’t like Romney. He’s not really one of us.” And saner Republicans would answer: “Don’t screw this up by nominating somebody scary like Bachmann or Santorum. Just play it cool and we’ve got this in the bag.”

Suddenly it’s out of the bag. Obama’s approval rating is positive again. He leads Romney in every major poll, and Nate Silver’s polling model puts the odds of an Obama victory over 85% (98% if the election were held today). Now it’s starting to look like Democrats could hold the Senate and may even recapture the House.

Somebody’s got to take the blame for that, even if it hasn’t happened yet.

So the race is on to establish the definitive why-Romney-will-have-lost scenario. (If I remember my grammar, that’s the future perfect tense.)

Some have been quick to jump on the Romney’s-a-bad-candidate explanation. And indeed, he has failed to articulate any message more positive than “I’m not Obama.” (It was sad this weekend when even Fox News pressed Paul Ryan for details on the Romney tax plan, only to be told, “It would take me too long to go through all the math.”) The 47% video has turned out to be hugely damaging, not because it was that much worse than a lot of other things Romney has done, but because it so precisely confirmed what voters were already afraid of: Romney isn’t just rich, he holds the rest of us in contempt.

David Brooks has compared Romney to Thurston Howell, the out-of-touch millionaire from Gilligan’s Island. Peggy Noonan called his campaign a “rolling calamity“. All of which annoys RedState.com’s Erick Erickson to no end, because he blames the Brooks/Noonan Republicans for foisting Romney on the Party to begin with:

The staggering irony is that those of us who did not want Romney are now the ones defending him to the hilt while the elitist jerks are distancing themselves from Romney as quickly as possible — both upset at what their media friends tell them is to come and upset that Mitt Romney might not actually listen to their sweet whispers as much as they originally presumed.

But that leads to the question: Who should have been the nominee? Santorum? Herman Cain? Kevin Drum lays it on the line:

Romney was the best they had. The very best. Let that sink in for a bit.

Or maybe the problem is Paul Ryan. With Obama’s lead among younger voters, Romney had to carry the elderly. Ryan’s Medicare-voucher plan scared them.

Other observers blame the Republican base, (i.e., people like Erickson) for creating an environment where no Republican could win: To get through the primaries, any candidate would have to take positions that would make them unelectable in the general election. Robert Reich put it best:

Romney’s failing isn’t that he’s a bad candidate. To the contrary, he’s giving this GOP exactly what it wants in a candidate. And that’s exactly the problem for Romney — as it is for every other Republican candidate — because what the GOP wants is not at all what the rest of America wants.

National Review takes a longer, more philosophical perspective: The problem is “the shadow of the George W. Bush years.” As frustrating as it is to Republicans that people still blame Bush more than Obama for the bad economy, the party still hasn’t figured out what it should learn from the Bush era.

Romney’s silence about the errors of the Bush years is, on the other hand, understandable, since many Republicans continue to hold Bush in high esteem as a good man who tried to do a lot of good things. Since most Americans consider Bush a failure, Romney cannot embrace him either. So Bush has been an awkward non-presence in the campaign: the man who was not there.

Democrats kept running against Herbert Hoover until the generation that remembered him died off. W will suffer the same fate until Republicans come up with a definitive critique of Bush and some new non-Bush policies.

With the base still not willing to deal with their Bush mistake, Mitt had only two choices, says Steve Kornacki:

He can run on the House’s far-right agenda, which is a product of conservatives’ mistaken conviction that Bush failed because he wasn’t enough of an ideologue; or, recognizing how politically poisonous the House GOP’s vision is with general election voters, he can try to steer clear of it and hope voters are just blindly angry at Obama, like they were in ’10.

Romney has mostly chosen the second option, and while the evidence is mounting that it’s not working, you can hardly blame him for trying. The alternative is much worse.

As I indicated at the beginning, why-Romney-will-have-lost is a ridiculous game to be playing. Early voting has just started. Everyone who cares should just go all-out for their candidate and see what happens. It’s not like the why-Mitt-lost argument will be over by Election Day.

But … it’s so irresistible for any political junkie. I have to play. So here’s my thinking: At its root these days, the conservative movement is based on myths rather than facts. And the biggest myth of all is: conservatism is popular.

In conservative mythology, all real Americans are conservatives — unless they’ve been bamboozled by the liberal media or cowed by false accusations of racism or corrupted into dependency on government programs.

So if conservatives lose elections, there can only be a few explanations: voter fraud or the personal failings of a candidate or the media being “in the tank” for liberals. Otherwise, the problem was that the candidate just wasn’t conservative enough. He wasn’t a true believer. He didn’t put forward the full force of conservatism’s case.

The real explanation for Romney’s troubles is that conservatism just isn’t popular. He looked electable when he looked fuzzy — maybe he was a conservative, maybe he was a moderate. Remember his governorship in Massachusetts?

But the base couldn’t stand that fuzziness and Romney couldn’t win without them, so he was forced to define himself more and more as a conservative. Paul Ryan sealed the deal.

Republicans need to get their moderates back. They can continue to hold conservative ideals, but they need to reassure the country that they can compromise and be part of a governing coalition, as Reagan was. Right now that’s not true. Until it is, their national candidates will be in trouble.

How Lies Work

If you’ve ever seen a five-year-old stand over a broken vase and say, “I didn’t do it”, you might think lying is easy. But as Mark Twain observed: “An awkward, unscientific lie is often as ineffectual as the truth.”

Effective lying in a political campaign is very hard work. The soil has to be tilled and the lie planted just so. You have to water it over and over again. And then, at just the right moment, you add that special ingredient that makes it sprout and flower.

Let’s look at the most effective lie currently spreading: President Obama is a threat to your Medicare. I live in a swing state (New Hampshire), so I’ve been seeing it in this ad:

At first glance, this looks like a rubber/glue lie: The guy who wants to turn Medicare into a privatized voucher program and then not fund it properly is Paul Ryan. How can the Romney/Ryan campaign turn that around and make themselves the defenders of Medicare?

They’re doing it, and it seems to be working. I can feel the pull of their ad, even though I know it’s false. How does that work? It’s a master class in propaganda.

Start with a kernel of truth. Whether or not you believe that current deficits are necessary to stimulate the economy, you should worry about the rising cost of health care: It’s not just that in the long run Medicare, Medicaid, and veteran’s medical benefits threaten to swamp the federal budget, it’s that health-care spending in general threatens to swamp the economy.

You can get spending growth down in two ways: Reform the system to deliver care more efficiently or deliver less care. The Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare) pushes the deliver-more-efficiently approach. Medicare benefits don’t change, but hospitals get reimbursed less for delivering them. (Some of the profit built into hospital payments covers the emergency-room costs of the uninsured. ObamaCare lowers the number of uninsured, so hospitals don’t need to charge the insured as much.) Also, the government curtails Medicare Advantage, a wasteful Republican attempt to build a private option into Medicare. (The private plans cost more, because the private sector is less efficient at things like this. The government has been picking up the difference.)

The result is an estimated $716 billion in savings over ten years.

That’s the kernel of truth: Because of ObamaCare, the government will spend $716 billion less on Medicare.

Till the dirty soil. Bad propaganda boomerangs, because people who recognize your ugly falsehoods resent you for telling them. So you never want to be caught telling a nasty lie.

However … you can’t be blamed for the false information, irrational prejudices, and ugly stereotypes that already sit inside people’s heads, waiting to be exploited. So good propaganda contains only enough false or repulsive information to leverage the ignorance and misinformation that’s already out there.

If you want to convince people that President Obama is sabotaging the Medicare they deserve, you’ve got a lot to work with.

Obama is black. Romney doesn’t say, “You can’t trust Obama because he’s black”, because even whites who don’t trust blacks would be horrified to hear it said out loud. In this post-civil-rights-movement era, it’s rare to meet an open I-hate-niggers racist.

Still, race matters. White America does not give Obama the level of trust or respect a white president of either party would get. (Picture the outrage if a black congressman had interrupted President Bush’s state-of-the-union address by yelling, “You lie!”) And it’s different when blacks do things we accept whites doing. (Picture armed blacks protesting in a Tea-Party-like manner, with signs calling for revolution. Picture a black senate candidate threatening “second amendment solutions” if his side loses the election.)

You till this soil by talking about how “foreign” Obama is, and how someone needs to teach him “how to be an American“. If you just imply “Obama isn’t like you”, many whites will fill in the racist parts for themselves.

Blacks are lazy. They want the government to give them what white people earned. When Newt Gingrich calls Obama “the Food Stamp president”, he’s counting on his audience to fill this in. If they aren’t making the racial connection, Gingrich gives a nudge:

I’m prepared, if the NAACP invites me, I’ll go to their convention and talk about why the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps.

How did the NAACP get into this? Did they ever say they prefer food stamps to paychecks? No? Then what’s Newt talking about?

Ditto when Rick Santorum said:

I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money.

In context, that statement is a complete non sequitur unless the government-gives-white-money-to-blacks idea is sitting your head.

Romney himself has tilled this ground with the Obama-gutted-welfare’s-work-requirement lie, which he dispatched Gingrich to defend.

Liberals favor people who don’t work over people who work. They’ve been tilling this one for years. But the weekend, overtime pay, safe workplaces, and Social Security and Medicare themselves — those are liberal ideas.  Conservatives were against them every step of the way.

Nobody knows what’s hidden in the Affordable Care Act’s 2000 pages. Of course, if it had been 10 pages critics could say, “Nobody knows how ObamaCare will be implemented, because they left out all the details.” There’s always an angle.

This ground was tilled with Sarah Palin’s “death panel” lie — Politifact’s 2009 Lie of the Year.

As a result, many of the simple things the ACA does are not understood — like getting rid of the donut hole in Medicare prescription drug coverage. (That’s just one of the benefits seniors get from the bill. It isn’t “not for you”.) The pieces of ObamaCare are actually fairly popular, when people find out what they are.

The middle class is vanishing because all the money is going to poor people. In reality, all the money is going to rich people, but that process is complicated. The story that your hard-earned money is being taxed away and given to layabouts is much easier to understand.

A bunch of related misconceptions help out, like “Illegal immigrants steal our jobs.” The common element is that if you’re looking for someone to resent, look down, not up. The rich are heroes, “job creators” — not vultures who made a killing outsourcing everything to China.

Plant. Now look at what the Romney ad says: You (an aging white man) paid into Medicare “every paycheck” (because you worked for a living). But now Obama has siphoned $716 billion of those dollars into ObamaCare, a “massive new government program” which is “not for you”.

So who is it for? People not like you — the young, the non-white, the people who didn’t work.

Years of effort have pushed the idea that ObamaCare is a suspicious program put forward by an illegitimate president in order to give healthcare away to people who don’t work. If you’ve been buying the Republican message so far, you’ve been expecting something like what this ad is telling you.

Supply “independent” verification. Most people are too smart to believe something just because a TV ad says so. Instead, they look for independent verification. So they shrug off the claim that something is “the #1 movie in America” until they find out whether anybody at work has seen it.

But Americans have a lot less direct human contact than they used to. The difference is taken up by voices on the radio or emails from strangers who sound real. Many of them are not real, and conservatives have learned to exploit this avenue of false verification.

Last November, a “brain surgeon” called in to the Mark Levin show to say that ObamaCare would deny brain surgery to anyone over 70. He had the inside scoop, because he’d just come from a American Association of Neuro-Surgeons meeting where the new HHS guidelines document had circulated.

A viral email picked that up, amplified it, and kept people accessing the clip online. A hospital employee heard a doctor repeat it.

It was all fake. There was no meeting; there was no document; the guy who called in wasn’t a brain surgeon. He was just a voice in the ether, telling you something that somebody wanted you to believe.

Now this is going around:

Your Medicare premiums are going to double because of ObamaCare! There it is — the exact numbers! — independently verified by somebody who leaked the information out of BlueCross. But it hasn’t appeared publicly because of Obama’s 2012 campaign!

Except … it’s all fake. BlueCross has nothing to do with it. The numbers are made up.

It’s just something somebody wants you to believe. And it rockets around the country from cousin to co-worker to classmate. Inside information! Conveniently verifying the false thing that Mitt Romney is telling you.

No one knows how many of these fakes are out there, and by the time they get noticed and debunked the deed is done.

Nobody has succeeded in tracing such hoaxes back their sources, other than to note that they are overwhelmingly conservative. But they can’t just happen. No one can accidentally create such well-designed lies.

Don’t underestimate the power of lies. You may see some ad like Romney’s and say, “Nobody’s going to buy that.” But the ad is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s the visible piece of a complete propaganda campaign, much of which happens in places you don’t see.

Paul Ryan: Veteran of the War on Women

Right after Paul Ryan was named as Mitt Romney’s VP, I did what every other political blogger in the world did: wrote an article almost entirely about his economic policies. Of course I did and we did. In minds of politics-watchers everywhere, Ryan means the Ryan budget, with its strange combination of bold detail and cowardly vagueness. Just mentioning Ryan’s name launches an argument about taxes and Medicare and long-term deficits.

But a day or two later, I felt a wave of deja vu. Isn’t this exactly what happened in 2009 and 2010?

The Tea Party. Remember? The Tea Party burst onto the scene in April, 2009, billing itself as a non-partisan, grass-roots movement of people fed up with taxes and deficits. Taxed Enough Already — remember? The culture wars could wait; the problems of debt and government spending were too urgent.

An occasional liberal Jeremiah tried to warn us how phony this framing was, but for the most part we let them get away with it.

And then what happened? As soon as the election was over and Republicans (so much for non-partisan) controlled the House in D.C. and the entire state government in places like Wisconsin and Florida, their first priorities turned out to be abortion and all the other “values” issues they had swept under the rug during the campaign.

As the new Congress was settling in, Rep. Mike Pence segued like this:

Our economy is struggling and our national government is awash in a sea of debt. Amidst these struggles, some would have us focus our energies on jobs and spending. … I agree. Let’s start by denying all federal funding for abortion at home and abroad. The largest abortion provider in America should not also be the largest recipient of federal funding under Title X. The time has come to deny any and all federal funding to Planned Parenthood of America.

Annual Planned Parenthood funding under Title X was about $70 million. Take that, trillion-dollar deficit!

Rachel Maddow was one of the early major-media people to sound the alarm, in a series of segments she labelled Really, Really Big Government.

That is the message they campaigned on in November—freedom, liberty, letting people do what they want!

And then they arrived in Washington and immediately started working on putting government in charge of every single pregnancy in America. Even as they slowed the legislative calendar way down, stopped doing much of anything else, they advanced not one, not two, but three super radical bills to restrict abortion rights.

Ryan’s Role. Paul Ryan was co-sponsoring every one of the Religious Right’s “super radical bills”. The National Right to Life Committee says:

Ryan has maintained a 100 percent pro-life voting record on all roll call votes scored by National Right to Life through his entire tenure in the House, which began in 1999.

It’s important to understand just how radical the recent stuff is, because we’re used to the abortion struggle taking place on a fairly small battlefield — Medicaid funding, late-term abortions, parental notification — where the issues really are debatable. But since the Tea Party came into power, we’ve been fighting over issues that used to be on the fringe or completely off the table.

Forced ultrasounds. The general public didn’t catch on to the changing battlelines until women protested the Virginia forced transvaginal ultrasound law this March: In the original version of the bill, women seeking an abortion would be forced to have an ultrasound probe shoved up their vaginas. (Texas already started enforcing a similar law in February.) The legislature had no medical justification; they just figured women who want to abort are too dumb to understand what a fetus is unless the government forces them to look. Or maybe the point is to humiliate women before granting them their constitutional rights.

Maddow and others began calling Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell “Governor Ultrasound” — a nickname that probably pushed him off Romney’s VP short list.

Well, Paul Ryan is Congressman Ultrasound. He co-sponsored the federal Ultrasound Informed Consent Act. Women would be forced to submit to and pay for a medically unnecessary procedure because Paul Ryan believes they’re “uninformed”. (I wonder how he’d feel about making anybody who wants to buy a gun observe the autopsy of a gunshot victim. Don’t they deserve to be “informed” too?)

Rights for single-celled organisms. Another radical addition to the abortion debate are “personhood” laws, which define a fertilized ovum as a human being deserving the full protection of the laws.

Such a law would not only outlaw all abortions, it would also ban any form of birth control that works by interfering with the zygote’s ability to implant in the uterus — like the Pill.

The birth control pill, for example, prevents pregnancy in three ways: The pill thickens the cervical mucus to make it more difficult for sperm to reach the egg; it suppresses ovulation by mimicking pregnancy-level hormones in the body, preventing eggs from being released from the ovaries; and finally, as a fail-safe, the pill makes the lining of the uterus inhospitable to any fertilized egg that might slip through. The time between fertilization and implantation (when a pregnancy becomes medically detectable) usually takes about a week.

In public, advocates of personhood bills deny they’d ban the Pill. But among themselves they sound more like this:

A justly written personhood amendment should ultimately outlaw all abortions  including both the intentionally induced “miscarriages” of the hormonal birth control pill and the blatant infanticide of the partial birth abortion.

Personhood laws would also outlaw in vitro fertilization as currently practiced, because the test-tube zygotes that aren’t implanted must eventually be destroyed. A pro-life article that tries to dispel this “absurdity” actually verifies it:

Couples trying to get pregnant through IVF procedures would have nothing to fear from Personhood legislation unless they consented to the intentional destruction of their embryonic children. [emphasis added]

Who would support such a radical law? Not voters. No personhood referendum has come close to passing, even in Mississippi.

But Paul Ryan is a more radical culture warrior than the average Mississippian. He co-sponsored the Sanctity of Human Life Act, which says:

the Congress declares that … the life of each human being begins with fertilization, cloning, or its functional equivalent, irrespective of sex, health, function or disability, defect, stage of biological development, or condition of dependency, at which time every human being shall have all the legal and constitutional attributes and privileges of personhood

Ryan’s defenders sometimes claim this bill merely empowers states to protect the personhood rights of fertilized ova, but it says what it says. If this passed, how long would it take the Thomas More Society to file a class-action suit against birth-control-pill manufacturers on behalf of zygotes?

Employers’ Rights Trump Workers’ Rights. Ryan voted against the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act that eliminated a hole in the equal-pay-for-women laws.

Ryan also co-sponsored the Religious Freedom Tax Repeal Act of 2012. Motivated by the concerns trumped up against ObamaCare’s contraception mandate — Wheaton College had to stop covering contraception so that it could join the lawsuit against being forced to cover contraception — Ryan’s bill goes way beyond that case, to prevent the government from enforcing any coverage “if an employer with respect to such plan is opposed to such coverage by reason of adherence to a religious belief or moral conviction.”

So the Christian Science Monitor wouldn’t have to cover any cancer treatment beyond prayer. And what if an employer just has a “moral conviction” against spending money on workers?

In his own voice. Finding Ryan’s name in a list of co-sponsors doesn’t tell you much about his level of commitment or the thinking behind it. For that you have to turn to his writings and speeches.

In September, 2010 (when the Tea Party was playing down culture-war issues) Ryan wrote The Cause of Life Can’t Be Severed From the Cause of Freedom, which explains why “freedom” requires forcing women to obey the tenets of Ryan’s religion.

I recommend reading the entire article, because you will learn a lot about how Ryan’s mind works. No actual pregnant women are mentioned or even imagined. His argument is entirely abstract; the lives and situations of real people carry no weight.

What’s more — and this style is very familiar if (like me and Paul Ryan) you read way too much Ayn Rand in high school — all the important ideas are hidden in the framing, so the argument consists entirely of tautologies. (The third and concluding part of Atlas Shrugged is titled “A is A”, as if something important could be deduced from that.)

So how does Ryan defend the absurd idea that zygotes deserve all the rights of fully-developed human beings? He doesn’t; he just labels them “people” and then defends the rights of people. He compares Roe v Wade to Dred Scott — there being no noteworthy differences between black slaves and single-celled organisms — and concludes:

I cannot believe any official or citizen can still defend the notion that an unborn human being has no rights that an older person is bound to respect. I do know that we cannot go on forever feigning agnosticism about who is human.

Zygotes have rights because “I cannot believe” otherwise. And if you claim not to believe it, or not to be certain enough to use government power to force women to bear their rapists’ babies, you are “feigning”. Ryan knows you agree with him deep down; you’re just pretending not to.

That’s how he thinks.

And if he ever ascends to the presidency, or if he becomes the family-values point man in a Romney administration, that’s the level of public debate we can expect.

I Read Everything About Paul Ryan So You Don’t Have To

Much ink was spilled this weekend about Paul Ryan. Here are the ten best observations I found:

1. This was Plan B for Romney.

Steve Kornacki:

The most important thing to know about Mitt Romney’s running-mate choice is this: It’s not the move he would have made if the campaign was going the way he hoped it would.

Plan A was to frame the election as Barack Obama vs. Somebody Else, and Mitt all but changed his name to Somebody Else. Beyond a few believe-in-America platitudes, the Romney campaign has been the anti-Obama campaign.

That strategy led to what Ezra Klein called a “policy gap” — not a gap between Obama’s policies and Romney’s policies, but

Obama has proposed policies. Mitt Romney hasn’t. … Romney’s offerings are more like simulacra of policy proposals. They look, from far away, like policy proposals. They exist on his Web site, under the heading of “Issues,” with subheads like “Tax” and “Health care.” But read closely, they are not policy proposals.

Klein gives many examples, including:

On financial regulation, Romney would ‘repeal Dodd-Frank and replace with streamlined, modern regulatory framework.’ That is literally his entire plan. Three years after a homegrown financial crisis wrecked the global economy, the likely Republican nominee for president would repeal the new regulatory architecture and replace it with … something.

Romney’s plan to “repeal and replace” ObamaCare is equally light on the “replace” part. The Romney website lists a lot of virtues his plan will have, but only hints at how it will achieve those virtues.

Until Saturday, everything about the Romney candidacy was fuzzy, even whether or not he supports RomneyCare. He bowed to all the conservative icons during the primary campaign, but his Massachusetts record pointed the other way, and Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom indicated that Romney’s primary commitments might be null and void after the convention:

I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch-A-Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all of over again.

In hindsight, the hole in that strategy is obvious: Not only did this looming betrayal make the base edgy, but Romney’s refusal to define himself let Obama define him as the slash-and-burn financier who destroyed American industry and walked away with all the money.

All summer, Romney has been helpless against the assault. Does he want to make women bear their rapists’ children? Does he want to raise taxes on the middle class? Did he pay any taxes himself? All possible responses would force Mitt to be Somebody, when he really wanted to be Somebody Else.

The results showed up immediately in Romney’s unfavorable rating.

Romney’s overall favorable/unfavorable score remains a net negative – a trait no other modern presumptive GOP presidential nominee (whether Bob Dole, George W. Bush or John McCain) has shared.

And eventually Obama started to pull away in the head-to-head polls.

Time for Plan B.

2. Ryan’s voting record is very, very conservative.

Nate Silver notes that Ryan’s Congressional voting record gives him a DW-Nominate rating “roughly as conservative as Representative Michele Bachmann”. Ryan may not be as physically wild-eyed as Bachmann, but ideologically they’re very similar. That makes him the most ideologically extreme VP candidate from Congress since at least 1900. (See chart below.)

Given Mitt’s fuzziness and Ryan’s high-contrast definition, Ryan’s positions are now the Romney-Ryan positions. The Etch-a-Sketch option is gone.

Those Romney-Ryan policies include privatizing Social Security, turning Medicare into a voucher program, and drastically cutting Medicaid. (Ryan hopes that some magic wand at the state level will create efficiencies, but the Urban Institute estimates some 14 million poor people would lose coverage.)

3. Ryan is both a Catholic and a follower of atheist author Ayn Rand.

He’s very anti-abortion but completely ignores the long series of socio-economic encyclicals that started with Pope Leo’s Rerum Novarum in 1891.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote letters criticizing the Ryan budget, which Ryan falsely rejected as not representing “all the Catholic bishops”.

Catholics have a real decision to make in this election. Are they single-issue anti-abortion voters? Or does the Sermon on the Mount still count for something?

4.The Ryan pick focuses the election on the deficit.

Matt Yglesias complains:

focusing attention on the big-picture disagreement between Democrats and Republicans about long-term fiscal policy means we won’t be focusing attention on what ought to be the most pressing economic policy issue of our time—mass unemployment and the tragic waste of human and economic potential it represents.

This cuts both ways. On the one hand, it plays into the popular misconception that lowering the deficit would create jobs. (Both Econ 101 and the experience of Britain say that cutting the deficit will destroy jobs.) That favors Romney.

On the other hand, Obama’s balanced plan for dealing with the long-term deficit is much more credible than the Ryan/Romney plan to cut rich people’s taxes even more, increase defense spending, and make up the difference by closing unspecified loopholes and cutting unspecified spending.

Ezra Klein explains how steep those cuts would have to be:

Ryan says that under his budget, everything the federal government does that is not Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security will be cut to less than 3.75 percent of GDP by 2050. That means defense, infrastructure, education, food safety, energy research, national parks, civil service, the FBI — all of it. Right now, that category of spending is 12.5 percent of GDP.

Another way to put 3.75% in context: Romney has already promised to put “a floor of 4 percent of GDP” under the defense budget alone.

5. Ryan’s reputation as a deficit hawk is undeserved.

Ezra Klein:

the real north star of Ryan’s policy record isn’t deficits or spending, though he often uses those concerns in service of his agenda. It’s radically reforming the way the federal government provides public services, usually by privatizing or devolving those public services away from the federal government.

More bluntly: The deficit is just an excuse to shrink government. If the deficit went away, Ryan would rebuild it by cutting rich people’s taxes and letting corporations skim a bigger profit out of public services.

Paul Krugman says Ryan’s budget-sausage contains $4.6 trillion in “mystery meat”: Like Romney, he claims his tax cuts for the rich will be balanced by closing loopholes, but he doesn’t identify any of those loopholes.

We’ve heard this song before: Republicans always claim their tax cuts won’t increase the deficit, but they always do. Reagan’s did, Bush’s did, and Romney’s will too.

They will try to claim that Ryan’s cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and every other non-defense program are necessary to save our children from the deficit. (MoveOn points out the ways in which the cuts harm our children — like making it harder for them to get an education if their parents aren’t rich.) The election probably hangs on making the public realize that those cuts have nothing to do with the deficit and will instead go straight into the pockets of the rich.

Early focus groups indicate that sale won’t be hard for Obama to make.

6. He’s not as smart as he thinks he is. 

Ryan has benefitted from what President Bush (in another context) called “the soft bigotry of low expectations”. The prevailing media prejudice is for “balance”. But the reality of the last few years has been a reasonable administration facing an opposition that abandoned anything resembling facts or logic in favor of pure obstructionism and open hatred.

How to balance that? Paul Krugman explains:

What these people need is reasonable Republicans. And if such creatures don’t exist, they have to invent them. Hence the elevation of Ryan — who is, in fact, a garden-variety GOP extremist, but with a mild-mannered style — to icon of fiscal responsibility and honest argument, despite the reality that his proposals are both fiscally irresponsible and quite dishonest.

I don’t think Ryan understands this process, so I expect him to be totally floored when the media starts covering him more rigorously and asking reasonable questions.

The Republican rank-and-file also don’t understand. They believe Ryan is really, really smart and expect him to wipe the floor with that doofus Joe Biden.

I think they’ll be surprised.

7. Ryan is a creature of Washington.

Wisconsin reporter John Nichols describes him as “Dick Cheney with nice hair”.

he is a guy who went to Washington as soon as he could, rooted himself in the establishment, got himself elected as soon as he could and became a major player

Joan Walsh offers him as an example of “the fakery at the heart of the Republican project today”.

The man who wants to make the world safe for swashbuckling, risk-taking capitalists hasn’t spent a day at economic risk in his entire life.

If you want to make an Ayn Rand character out of him, Wesley Mouch is a closer match than John Galt. Walsh continues:

guys like Ryan … somehow become the political face of the white working class when they never spent a day in that class in their life. Their only tether to it is their remarkable ability to tap into the economic anxiety of working class whites and steer it toward paranoia that their troubles are the fault of “other” people – the slackers and the moochers, Ayn Rand’s famous “parasites.”

8. He voted for all the budget-busting policies of the Bush administration.

According to the LA Times, Ryan voted for TARP, the unfunded Bush prescription drug benefit, the Iraq War, and (of course) all the Bush tax cuts.

Deficits only became a problem after Obama was elected.

9. Obama owns foreign policy now.

Romney and Ryan look good posing in front of a mothballed battleship, but that’s the only qualification either brings to the job of Leader of the Free World. Meanwhile, Obama is the guy who finally got Bin Laden and ended the unpopular Iraq War.

Thomas Schaller observes that until now

at least one candidate on every GOP presidential ticket during the past half-century could boast at least some foreign policy, diplomatic or defense chops.

Foreign Policy’s Joshua Keating comments:

Romney seems to be wagering that foreign policy will not be a major issue in the campaign.

10. Ryan would be the real power in a Romney administration. And if Romney loses, Ryan is already the front-runner for 2016.

When Romney introduced Ryan as “the next president of the United States” Steve Kornacki heard a Freudian slip:

while it will be the former Massachusetts governor who is sworn-in as the 45thpresident if the GOP ticket prevails this November, it will be Ryan who sets the new administration’s policy direction.

The New Republic’s Michael Kazin predicts Ryan would be more powerful than Dick Cheney.

Republicans have never before nominated someone for V.P. in hopes that he, and not the would-be President, would define the critical domestic policies of the entire federal government.

MSNBC’s Alex Wagner agrees:

Republicans envision an administration in which Romney has relegated
himself to a kind of head of state role … with Ryan as the actual head of government

Why? Well, Ryan has a philosophy and a real constituency in the Party and in Congress. He also carries the standard of the Koch brothers. Romney has none of that.

Already on Saturday, Nate Silver tweeted:

If Obama wins, most likely 2016 match-up is: Paul Ryan vs. Hillary Clinton. That would be pretty epic.

Kornacki describes Ryan 2016 as “the Right’s long game”.

But even if Ryan’s budget proves an albatross for Romney and the GOP ticket goes down, it’s not hard to see conservatives rationalizing away the defeat: The problem was Romney couldn’t sell the message – that’s why the next time we need Ryan at the top of the ticket!

After all, right-wingers still haven’t admitted that Palin was a liability to McCain. As Digby put it years ago: “Conservatism cannot fail, it can only be failed.”

What Free Market?

Do you think it’s hard to get your child into Harvard? Try getting a new product onto the shelf of a big chain of stores in the United States.

– Barry Lynn, Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism
and the Economics of Destruction 
(2010)

 

This week everybody was talking about the Olympics

but you knew that.

… and Chick-fil-A and Mitt Romney’s foreign tour

I covered Chick-fil-A in Is That Sandwich Political?, but let’s deal with Romney’s trip here.

Romney’s tour of Britain, Israel, and Poland was designed to add foreign-policy heft to his image, but the British leg didn’t work out.

That pretty well covers it. Prime Minister David Cameron is a British conservative, but Romney exasperated him to the point where he stuck this knife in:

Of course it’s easier if you hold an Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere.

Some anonymous Romney adviser really did talk about the “Anglo-Saxon heritage” Obama can’t appreciate, which is even a step beyond calling him “foreign“. Why not just say, “White people shouldn’t vote for Obama because he’s black” and get it over with?

These stumbles happen abroad for the same reason they happen at home: Romney’s lack of empathy gives him a tin ear. Slate’s Fred Kaplan points out that Romney’s business experience differs greatly from previous generations of businessmen-turned-statesmen, who actually built things and sold them, and so had to learn to deal with workers and customers. But Bain’s brand of financial manipulation

is not the sort of enterprise that requires even the most elementary understanding of diplomacy, courtesy, or sensitivity to other people’s values, lives, or perceptions.

Instead, it

breed[s] an insularity, a sense of entitlement, a disposition to view all the world’s entities through a single prism and to appraise them along a single scale.

Growing up as the rich son of the governor probably didn’t help either.

I agree with Kevin Drum’s analysis the foreign-policy speech that kicked Romney’s tour off: He’s trying to cast a striking image without saying anything. What little remains beyond the I-will-be-strong-where-Obama-is-weak rhetoric is either vague, outside the president’s power, or exactly what Obama is already doing.

… but I also wrote about monopolies

  • Monopoly’s role in inequality. In my previous discussions of rising inequality, I’ve always felt like a piece of the puzzle was missing. I think I found it.

and you might also be interested in …

The death of first-female-astronaut Sally Ride put a face on the injustice of the Defense of Marriage Act. Most of us learned that Ride was a lesbian only when her obituary named Tam O’Shaughnessy as her 27-year domestic partner. Under DOMA, O’Shaughnessy will not receive the federal survivor benefits that a male husband would get.


The guy who all but invented the too-big-to-fail bank has changed his mind. Former Citicorp honcho Sandy Weill now says

What we should probably do is go and split up investment banking from banking, have banks be deposit takers, have banks make commercial loans and real estate loans, have banks do something that’s not going to risk the taxpayer dollars, that’s not too big to fail.

In short, let’s just pretend the last two decades never happened.


How does a bill become law? Not the way it used to.


The NYT op-ed Israel’s Settlers Are Here to Stay by settler Dani Dayan underlines just how intractable the Israel/Palestine conflict is. Dayan presents a we’re-right-they’re-wrong history of the conflict and says a two-state solution is unworkable because

Our presence in all of Judea and Samaria — not just in the so-called settlement blocs — is an irreversible fact. Trying to stop settlement expansion is futile

If a two-state solution is out, then what happens to the Palestinians? I can only see three options:

  • ethnic cleansing: Perhaps Israel could use the Spanish Expulsion of 1492 as a model.
  • democratic annexation: Palestinians become citizens of a democratic Greater Israel, which might not have a Jewish majority. (This is sometimes called the one-state solution.)
  • status quo: Palestinians remain a subject population ruled by Israel.

Dayan opts for the status quo, which he thinks is “immeasurably better than any other feasible alternative”. It could be improved, but only if Palestinians would accept the irreversibility of their subjugation and stop resisting.

Checkpoints are a necessity only if terror exists; otherwise, there should be full freedom of movement.

If Dayan speaks for some sizable and committed bloc of Israelis — and the NYT apparently thinks he does — then I can’t see this conflict resolving for at least another generation.


He may or may not be a reliable witness, but a Florida Republican is blowing the whistle on voter-ID laws, or, as he puts it “keeping blacks from voting”. And Harold Meyerson asks: What if it works? If Romney wins, and his margin in key states is clearly the result of voter suppression, are we all just going to go along?


Pastor Rick Warren appeared to blame the Aurora shooting on evolutionists, tweeting:

When students are taught they are no different from animals, they act like it.

It’s weird how people demonize animals, who aren’t nearly as nasty as humans. How do you think this young mountain gorilla (being comforted by a park ranger in the Congo after his parents were killed by poachers) feels about human morality?


The next installment of the Nuns vs. the Inquisition saga is about to start. In our last episode, board members of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious went to Rome, where Grand Inquisitor Levada said they should regard Rome appointing a man to watch over them as “an invitation to obedience”. (I think I would have issued a counter-invitation for Levada to do something impossible with his anatomy, but I guess that’s why I’m not a nun.)

This week the LCWR will meet in St. Louis to discuss

at least six options that range from submitting graciously to the takeover to forming a new organization independent of Vatican control, as well other possible courses of action that lie between those poles.


When Republicans liked the Arab Spring rebellions, they gave the credit to Bush’s freedom agenda. Now that they’ve decided they don’t like the Arab Spring, they claim it was caused by Obama abandoning Bush’s freedom agenda.


I don’t understand why everyone isn’t saying the obvious things Elizabeth Warren says: Our infrastructure is crumbling, people need jobs, and the government can borrow money at rates lower than inflation. What’s the downside?

It might even save money in the long run: If, say, we buried our power lines, we wouldn’t lose all that productivity every time the weather turned bad.


The WaPo debunks Five myths about why the South seceded. The truth is pretty simple: The southern states seceded to defend slavery; they said so themselves in their secession statements. And then Lincoln went to war to preserve the Union, not to free the slaves.

To understand why articles like this are necessary, read the comments.


President Obama isn’t saying the kind of outrageous things the Romney campaign wants to run against, so they’re editing tape to create gaffes. Ezra Klein covers this issue seriously,

And Lewis Black approaches it humorously, but Mike Luckovich captures what’s going on in one image:

Finally, ABC’s Jake Tapper has solved the mystery of the Churchill bust. Will the Romney campaign stop telling the story now that we know there’s nothing going on, or is that too much to ask?

Believe in America, Mitt

Now available on t-shirts. Click the image.

When Mitt Romney wrapped up the Republican nomination in April, I framed the next phase of the campaign in terms of four narratives: pro/anti-Obama and pro/anti-Romney. The anti-Romney narrative was:

You should vote against Romney because he’s not on your side. His policies favor the rich because he’s rich, he’s always been rich, and the rich are the only people he understands or cares about.

In the last few weeks we’ve seen Obama’s people establishing that narrative and Romney’s people floundering to counter it. The threads of that story are Romney killing American jobs while he was at Bain Capital and Romney maneuvering around taxes by running his money through Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, and Switzerland.

When this stuff came up in the Republican primaries, Romney toughed it out by saying his critics were jealous of his successhe did nothing illegal, and he wasn’t going to talk about it.

Those answers worked then for two reasons:

But Romney should fire whoever told him the same answers would work now. The Republican establishment may have whipped Gingrich and Perry into line, but they can’t make Obama back off. And general-election swing voters do see tax evasion as a moral issue. It’s not enough for Romney’s high-priced accountants to follow the letter of the law. When the rich wriggle out of taxes by using special dodges not available to working people, that’s not clever, it’s sleezy.

Plus, it undermines the pro-Romney narrative, which I phrased like this:

This country is going the wrong way and Romney is a smart executive who knows how to turn things around.

Sure, Romney is smart. But is he Steven Jobs smart or Bernie Madoff smart? Swiss bank accounts, Bermuda shell corporations, deals where Romney walks away with all the money and everybody else gets screwed … what does that sound like?

Once you get past first impressions, the argument over Bain turns technical, which is never good for a politician trying to dispel a bad odor. (That’s what Lee Atwater meant when he said, “If you’re explaining, you’re losing” — a line Romney misquoted and apparently doesn’t understand.) Romney’s defense against the job-exporter charge is that Bain outsourced to Mexico and China only after Romney left in 1999 to run the Salt Lake City Olympics. That answer temporarily convinced New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait, who, in a remarkably balanced analysis, concluded that Obama’s attacks were false … until the next shoe dropped and he had to write an update.

The next shoe was the Boston Globe uncovering filings with the SEC in which Bain listed Romney as CEO up to 2002 and said he made a six-figure salary for what he now claims was a no-show job. Also, when Massachusetts Democrats challenged his residency prior to his 2002 run for governor (partly because Romney had been avoiding state taxes by listing his Utah home as his primary residence), Mitt claimed he was merely “on leave” from Boston-based Bain, making Massachusetts his real home.

So where Romney lives, who he works for, and the location of his money all vary depending on who’s asking and why.

Shifty. Sleezy. And in retrospect, maybe not as clever as he thought.

On Friday, Romney broke out of his bubble and let himself be interviewed by every major news network other than MSNBC. Unfortunately for him, he doesn’t understand the playbook for such situations. Unlike, say, Barack Obama trying to settle the Jeremiah Wright controversy or the Clintons responding to Gennifer Flowers’ charges, Romney offered no deeper insight into himself and no broader frame for the story as a whole. Instead, he just put his own face behind the unconvincing denials his people had already offered.

Two media responses to the Romney interview blitz sum up how ineffective it was. Rachel Maddow (of the spurned MSNBC) laughed at the situation:

And Forbes’ T. J. Walker captured how little Romney had settled in 35 Questions Mitt Romney Must Answer About Bain Capital Before The Issue Can Go Away.

Meanwhile, there’s some evidence that the Bain story is moving the polls in swing states, where Obama is running ads like this one.

But at this stage, the main thing is the narrative, not the polls. Come November, both Romney and Obama will need a closing argument to convince those last few undecideds. That argument will have to build on the stories being established now. “I’m a smart executive” is not going to do the job.

If Not ObamaCare, What?

One way or another — either by decree of an activist Supreme Court or by winning in November and repealing the Affordable Care Act — Republicans are aiming for a post-ObamaCare world. What would they do then?

Despite the rhetoric against it, ObamaCare has never been just an extension of federal power for its own sake. It is an attempt to solve a serious problem: When President Obama took office, something like 50 million Americans did not have health insurance. Millions more had hollow health insurance: Their most likely health problems were labeled “pre-existing conditions” and not covered. Also, yearly or lifetime caps on what the insurance company had to spend meant that people were only covered if they didn’t get too sick. In short, millions of Americans with some kind of insurance still faced bankruptcy if they had major health problems.

The ACA is not a perfect solution. Some people will still fall through its cracks, but ObamaCare imposes federal standards that do away with hollow insurance, and (when it fully takes effect in 2014) it will considerably shrink the pool of uninsured Americans.

Reasonable people can disagree about whether this was the best we could do, or whether the same or better results might have been achieved more efficiently with either more or less government intervention. But reasonable people can’t argue with this: If ObamaCare gets repealed, we’ll then face the same serious health-care problem that President Obama faced when he took office.

What would President Romney do about it?

The Romney campaign web site has a page about that. At first glance, it looks like a serious plan: It has 15 bullet points, each of which looks like a link to some detailed position paper. However, they aren’t links; they’re just bullet points formatted in blue.

That’s all you get.

Blanks, not bullets. A few of the 15 are standard conservative talking points that sound good but are basically empty, like capping malpractice awards. (I’ve explained before why I think this will accomplish very little. Short version: Malpractice awards themselves are a trivial part of the overall healthcare budget, and claims about “defensive medicine” don’t hold up when put to the test. States that cap malpractice awards don’t suddenly see their healthcare costs drop.)

Another empty bullet: “Prevent discrimination against individuals with pre-existing conditions who maintain continuous coverage.” Good as that sounds, it just restates what the HIPA Act established in 1996. People who spend their 20s in some Starbucks-barista type job could still be out in the cold when they finally do try to get insurance later on.

And yes, it would be nice to have “IT interoperability”, “non-litigation alternatives to dispute resolution”, and “Consumer Reports-type ratings of alternative insurance plans”, but none of that is going to help you much if you get cancer. And actually guaranteeing such stuff would be too much government intervention anyway, so Romney just pledges to “encourage” and “facilitate” these changes.

States and individuals lose power to corporations. Romney’s website highlights this quote:

I believe the better course is to empower the states to determine their own health care futures.

And yes, the substantive parts of the Romney plan do appear to move responsibility and decision-making from the federal government to states and individuals. However, when you assemble the bigger picture the bullet-points paint, the real story is that power moves to the insurance companies.

Here’s how: The federal government gets out of the standards-making business, apparently returning that power to the states. However, the bullet “Allow consumers to purchase insurance across state lines” undoes all that state power. If consumers can purchase insurance in any state, then states can’t regulate the health insurance sold to their citizens. If Vermont has high consumer-protection standards and New Hampshire low ones, then health insurance companies will only offer Vermonters policies written in New Hampshire.

You could argue that the market will provide whatever consumers demand, but we’ve seen this scenario play out before, when interstate banking was deregulated in 1999. If you have a Citicorp credit card, you send your payments to South Dakota. Bank of America payments go to Texas. That’s because those states have low consumer-protection standards. Would you like to have a Visa protected by the more consumer-friendly laws of, say, Massachusetts? Good luck with that; you won’t find one.

The same thing happened 100 years ago with corporate charters. Half of all U.S. corporations are chartered in Delaware, because Delaware won the race to the bottom.

So we know pretty well what will happen to health insurance if there are no federal standards and insurance companies can sell across state lines: States will race to the bottom until a few states say that health-insurance companies can do whatever they want. Then all policies will be written in those states. There won’t be anything you can do about it, because nobody you can vote for will have any control.

Block grants. Romney’s first bullet reads “Block grant Medicaid and other payments to states”. The cost of Medicaid is currently shared between the states and the federal government. (This article says the feds pay 60% in Texas.) For its contribution, the federal government gets to establish standards.

A block-grant approach would have the federal government say, “Here’s some money for Medicaid; spend it however you want.” By writing that check, the federal government would completely discharge its responsibility for providing health care to poor people.

The assumption behind this approach is that federal standards are inefficient. Left to its own devices, a state might get more out of the money than it does with the feds looking its shoulder. That may or may not be true, and it can work in either a conservative or a liberal direction. (Vermont is hoping for some kind of no-strings arrangement as it moves towards a single-payer system.)

But something else happens when you move the federal government out of the picture: You break the link between poor people’s health care and the Federal Reserve.

As we have seen since 2007, the federal government can borrow money in large quantities even during a financial crisis. And since dollars are created by the Federal Reserve, it is literally impossible for the federal government to go bankrupt as long as it owes dollars.

But states can go bankrupt, and the threat of bankruptcy can force them to do otherwise unthinkable things. Since 2007, states have been canceling projects and laying people off in droves — not because they wanted to destroy jobs and not because they suddenly discovered they didn’t really need teachers or firefighters or highways. But tax receipts were down, needs were up, and something had to give.

If there were no federal standards and federal money involved, Medicaid would be the obvious place to cut during a  crisis. (Texas keeps looking at abandoning the Medicaid system anyway,  even if it means losing the federal money.) Sure, some people would die, but they’re poor and don’t have press agents, so who would notice? (When did you last see a headline like “Sick homeless man dies in alley”? Do you think it never happens?) And if the poor decided to move to a more compassionate state, so much the better. Win/win.

In short, a state Medicaid program can’t provide the same security as the current system. States can promise whatever they want, but in a crisis those benefits would vanish.

And even in good times, states would feel pressure to race to the bottom. Be hard on poor people and maybe they’ll go somewhere else.

Responsibility. Everybody looks with horror at the upward-sloping trend in healthcare spending. But there are two ways to deal that trend: Figure out how to deliver care to everyone more efficiently, as most European countries do. Or push the responsibility off on somebody else, with the ultimate result that federal government won’t be held responsible when there’s no money to take care of people.

Romney wants to go in the second direction. Under President Romney, we could expect more and more people to have hollow insurance policies (written in whichever state allows the hollowest insurance). More and more people will either go bankrupt when they get sick, or will depend on state programs that go unfunded in hard times.

Stacked up against that future, ObamaCare looks pretty good.

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