Sunday, September 30, 2012

Obama-Romney: Prepping for the faceoff

THE DUELING niceties of President Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney arrived after months of figuratively beating each other’s brains out. Team Obama überbrain David Axelrod released a statement commending Romney as “prepared, disciplined and aggressive.” Beth Myers, Axelrod’s opposite number for Team Romney, released a bon mot of her own, saying the president enjoyed “natural gifts and extensive seasoning.”

This is not the campaign in a parallel universe; these damnations with great praise mean one thing: the debate season is about to begin.

Few things distill the distinctions between presidential campaigns, their styles and messages, quite like the debates. The ones for this election cycle start on Wednesday, at Denver University, and they bring opportunity and challenges for both.

The debates will be the president’s best chance to close the deal; a wave of recent favorable opinion polls and a stabilizing of the economy suggest that’s possible, and internalizing those favorables with confidence on the debate stage will be key to his success.

And the debates may be Romney’s last chance to counteract what Charles Blow of The New York Times described Wednesday on MSNBC as “the calcification of incompetence” as a baseline perception — the solidifying in the public mind of the idea that Romney is simply not up to the job.

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Obama benefits by his policy prescriptions actually being in place in America. From the Lily Ledbetter Act to the Dreamers immigration overhaul, from the strategic rescue of the auto industry (a gambit that’s yielded the U.S. Treasury handsome returns on investment) to the Affordable Care Act, President Obama has implemented tangible programs with tangible results.

His primary argument — we’ve made progress, but there’s more to do — reveals a gradualist, steady-as-she-goes approach to addressing the nation’s economic woes, one that, given the demolition-derby recklessness of the eight years before Obama, remains preferable to many Americans.

A September survey from The Associated Press and GfK asked: “Who do you trust to do a better job handling the economy?” Obama topped Romney, 50 percent to Romney’s 41 percent. The AP-GfK poll found Americans giving points to the president on handling the federal budget deficit, health care and other domestic areas of concern.

Ohio and Florida voters have more confidence in an economic rebound under an Obama second term than under Romney, according to a Washington Post poll. “Two thirds (64 percent) of Ohio registered voters said that the “loans to General Motors and Chrysler during the financial market problems” had been a “mostly good” thing for the economy,” reported Chris Cillizza of The Post on Sept. 25.

They’re not alone. The AP-GfK poll asked Americans if they thought the economy would improve over the next year, get worse or stay the same. Some 49 percent said the economy would get better; 24 percent said little would change; only 15 percent said things would get worse.

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THESE THREE debates won’t be a cakewalk for President Obama. When his boardroom game face is on, Mitt Romney can be a strong debater, with a mastery of the quotable sentence or the able distillation. During one of the GOP primary-season debates, in a relentless and slashing style, he damn near ran Newt Gingrich out of the building. The president will need to suppress his inner professor, tamp down his wonkish tendencies and really connect with people — not just the audience in the hall at Denver University but the 52 million people expected to watch across the country.

And President Obama has a tendency to freeze when speaking extemporaneously, backtracking to correct words, fumbling at times when not using prepared remarks. He sometimes hurries responses to questions; it’s a slight but striking oratorical disconnect from the president’s painstakingly deliberate approach to decision-making in the White House. He needs to relax, to stay on his toes but to quietly revel in the wind at his back, the confidence that extends from a solid, weeks-long plurality of leads in opinion polls across the ideological spectrum.

Neera Tanden, director of the Center for American Progress and the person who headed debate prep for Hillary Clinton in the 2008 race, said it plain to The Times what Obama needs to do: “The sale has been made. He just needs to reaffirm it. He just needs to not get in the way.”

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The first debate, on domestic policy, will be in some ways a bigger push for Romney than for the president. Romney has two major problems. The first, of course, is utterly generic: it’s the fact that he’s the challenger. The gravitas of the incumbency is a hard thing to topple in any election campaign; the challenger can only rely on imparting a compelling vision of how things could be under new management. But with none of his policies in place, the best any challenger can hope to do is offer ideas to make things better. Not bromides and boilerplate and zingers, however well-rehearsed. Detailed ideas. Specific ideas.

This leads to Romney’s second, specific problem: an absence of details about how he’d improve on the president’s performance in office, the details he needs to persuade the nation he’s presidential material.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Voter ID: The Supremes coming soon?

THE FRACTIOUS year-long to-and-fro underway over the future of voter ID laws in several states faces a rock-hard deadline: The next presidential election is 39 days away. And a string of decisions by lower courts indicates voter ID laws recently enacted or those being challenged by civil rights orgs are very much in play in some important states:

A U.S. District Court judge issued an injunction against Ohio’s “wrong precinct” law on Aug. 27, ruling that the state can't purge provisional ballots because of poll-worker errors.

On Aug. 28, three U.S. District Court judges blocked Texas’ redistricting plan, citing undue racial impact. The judge ruled that the state “failed to carry its burden” showing that redistricting plans “do not have the purpose or effect of denying or abridging the right to vote no account of race, color, or membership in a language minority group under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.”

On Aug. 29, a federal judge permanently blocked Florida’s more restrictive rules on third-party voter registration groups — a big win for such grassroots orgs as Rock the Vote and the League of Women Voters. The next day, a federal judge blocked Texas’ voter ID law in full, saying the law places “strict, unforgiving burdens on the poor.”

And on Aug. 31, a U.S. District Court Judge overturned the provisions of Ohio’s voter ID law that curbed early voting, saying that early voting “places all Ohio voters on equal standing.”

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Some or all of these states — headed by Republican governors and generally dominated by Republican legislatures — are likely to appeal the flurry of last month’s rulings. And new voter ID laws, restrictive  changes to other extant laws, and bills in committee face legal challenge or civic pushback in other states. Result? A disjointed, piecemeal process of debate and resolution, with a potentially ruinous national outcome on Nov. 6.

A new study, released on Monday, points to how bad things could get. The study by The Advancement Project, a civil-rights advocacy organization, found that more than 10 million eligible Latino voters in 23 states “could be deterred or prevented from voting in the 2012 elections” because of new voter IDs laws already laid down or in the works.

According to a recent report by the Brennan Center for Justice, as many as 5 million voters could be barred from voting in November because of the new laws, which critics say unfairly burden poor and minority Americans.

It’s time to put it back out there: If the issue of voter ID laws in the various states can’t be resolved by lower courts in the coming weeks, and with the results of a presidential election possibly in the balance, there’s one recourse left: A petition to advance and be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, in pursuit of what would amount to the ultimate American class-action lawsuit.

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OUT OF the question? Not necessarily. The logistics would seem to be workable: The Court, which reconvenes on Monday (the first one in October), would have a full plate from the jump, as they always do, but there’d be time to consider and rule on the constitutionality of any of these laws, on an expedited or emergency basis, well before the vote on Nov. 6.

Rather than take on all such laws in 23 states, the Court might focus on two or three states whose electoral-vote weight could make them the deciders in a close election (say, Florida, Ohio and/or Pennsylvania).

And there’s precedent. If the Supremes decided to make a ruling, it wouldn’t be the high court’s first constitutional rodeo at the level of a presidential election. As we all know.

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Wading into the current voter ID matter, the Court would almost certainly invoke a previous decision as a jumping-on point for everything from opening arguments by opposing counsel to the Court’s final, private deliberations.

That earlier decision, William Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, 553 U.S. 181 (2008), was the Court’s ruling on the constitutionality of SEA 483, a 2005 Indiana law that required all in-person voters to show either United States or Indiana photo identification. Under the law, voters without photo ID could cast provisional ballots, but for their votes to be accepted, they’re required to visit the circuit court clerk within 10 days with the required photo identification.

The Court decided that the law did not violate the U.S. Constitution. “Each of Indiana’s asserted interests is unquestionably relevant to its interest in protecting the integrity and reliability of the electoral process,” read part of the opinion.

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THE PARALLELS between the Indiana’s law and the recent rash of voter ID laws and measures are striking: In the case of the Indiana law, much like the ones now being debated and argued elsewhere, the defendants couldn’t offer any proof that the voter fraud that was the impetus for the law even existed — couldn’t prove that the law was anything more than a solution in search of a problem.

And the plaintiffs apparently couldn’t show, with witnesses, that the law’s new requirements were too much of a burden to perform.

But two factors would seem to undercut the Court invoking Crawford as rationale for a future decision: The scope of the current voter ID laws and measures, and the timing of their implementation, deserve the highest judicial scrutiny for their possible collective impact on the voting process now, at the national level, weeks before the next presidential election. Simply put, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

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In his majority opinion upholding the Indiana law, Justice John Paul Stevens (who retired in 2010) said that burdens placed on the state’s voters by SEA 483 would be limited to a small percentage of the population, and were offset anyway by the state’s legitimate, self-protective interest in curbing voter fraud.

From the syllabus: “Finally, Indiana’s interest in protecting public confidence in elections, while closely related to its interest in preventing voter fraud, has independent significance, because such confidence encourages citizen participation in the democratic process.”

But when writ large on a national canvas, if the states’ zeal in protecting confidence in elections is meant to encourage citizen participation, what happens when citizens have no confidence in the state governments conducting the elections? With the potential for millions of citizens unable to vote on the basis of what appears to be coordinated political partisanship, Crawford can hardly be used as a template to resolve a possible disenfranchisement on a national scale.

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IN HIS concurrence with Justice Stevens, Justice Antonin Scalia betrays a preference for deferring to local lawmakers: “It is for state legislatures to weigh the costs and benefits of possible changes to their election codes, and their judgment must prevail unless it imposes a severe and unjustified overall burden upon the right to vote, or is intended to disadvantage a particular class,” he writes.

But in its rejection of Texas’ voter ID law, judges relied in part on the fact that Texas is covered under the “preclearance” provisions of Section 5 of the 1965 Civil Rights Act, which requires new voting rules to be “precleared” by the Justice Department before they go into effect.

“A law that forces poorer citizens to choose between their wages and their franchise unquestionably denies or abridges their right to vote,” the opinion said. “Simply put, many Hispanics and African Americans who voted in the last election will, because of the burdens imposed by [the Texas law], likely be unable to vote in the next election.”

That would seem to satisfy Justice Scalia’s threshold of disadvantage to “a particular class,” a likely disadvantage beyond Indiana or Texas.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Mr. Morsi flexes his muscle

IF THERE was ever any doubt that Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi means to be taken seriously as a player on the world stage, or that he would work his leverage as head of the largest-by-population nation in the Middle East, those doubts may have died on Saturday, before he landed in New York to attend the General Assembly of the United Nations, and the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative.

In a remarkably candid, even tough 90-minute interview with The New York Times, published on Saturday, Morsi showed himself willing to call into question certain geopolitical pieties vis-à-vis Egypt’s historical relationship with the United States; and in blunt language brought the idea of a Palestinian state front and center for discussion — an inevitable chafing point for Israel.

But Morsi’s style — which seems to embrace the realpolitik aspects of diplomacy and the Egyptian street — should make the White House, Israel and western powers generally take notice. Morsi’s unalloyed patriotism combines with a worldliness, a savvy about the United States that his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, never had. The markers laid down in his Times interview effectively change the terms of engagement between the West and an indispensable Middle Eastern nation of 85 million people.

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It was a piss from a great height. In the interview with David D. Kirkpatrick and Steven Erlanger of The New York Times, Morsi displays a masterful sense of the moment. He’ll be addressing the Assembly on Wednesday, but the Times interview was his opportunity to make his case in depth as Egypt’s first democratically elected president, and to put it in the public record before he even arrived.

He did not disappoint. Kirkpatrick and Erlanger report:

“Mohamed Morsi said the United States needed to fundamentally change its approach to the Arab world, showing greater respect for its values and helping build a Palestinian state, if it hoped to overcome decades of pent-up anger. ...

“He said it was up to Washington to repair relations with the Arab world and to revitalize the alliance with Egypt, long a cornerstone of regional stability.

“If Washington is asking Egypt to honor its treaty with Israel, he said, Washington should also live up to its own Camp David commitment to Palestinian self-rule. He said the United States must respect the Arab world’s history and culture, even when that conflicts with Western values.”

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IN THE interview, Morsi pushed back against early speculation that the true authority for the Egyptian military still lay in the hands of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the clique of Mubarak patrons who consolidated power in the wake of Mubarak’s ouster in February.

In a bold and decisive move hailed by Egyptian media as a “revolutionary decision,” Morsi in August fired Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the defense minister, and Sami Anan, the armed forces chief of staff, and scrapped a constitutional declaration adopted by SCAF on June 17, a document that effectively let the military usurp the legislature, Al-Jazeera reported.

So Morsi spoke with an obvious confidence to the Times. “The president of the Arab Republic of Egypt is the commander of the armed forces, full stop. Egypt now is a real civil state. It is not theocratic, it is not military. It is democratic, free, constitutional, lawful and modern.”

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One response in particular showed the kind of strategic self-possession that President Obama is often credited with. Morsi rebuffed criticism that he failed to move quickly enough in officially condemning the protesters who breached the grounds of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo on Sept. 11, in protest of a movie video trailer that disparaged the Prophet Muhammad.

The Times reports that Morsi said “we took our time” in framing a response to the violence, but then addressed the situation “decisively.”

“We can never condone this kind of violence, but we need to deal with the situation wisely,” he said. That methodical approach to decision-making is straight from the Obama playbook. Or seems to be.

Another reason for Morsi’s reticence to make an immediate statement of condemnation may be an understanding of the tightrope he walks as the democratic head of a nation with an autocratic history, and ultraconservative Salafists ready to call Morsi on any perceived weakness.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Emancipation Proclamation at 150

ABRAHAM LINCOLN is hot these days. The 16th president of the United States, gone these 147 years, finds himself a Hollywood commodity, figuring in two recent big-budget movies (“Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter” came and went months ago, perhaps mercifully; we’re really waiting to see Daniel Day-Lewis portrayal in Steven Spielberg’s biopic, due out in November). And the president’s 1865 portrait by Alexander Gardner recently got a stunning full-color makeover from artist Sanna Dullaway.

But this year, Lincolnalia is less about the man than about the document that defined his presidency and, more than any other since the Declaration of Independence, announced the future of the United States.

On Sept. 22, 1862, President Lincoln sought to add to a military advantage secured days earlier at Antietam Creek, Md., the site of a pivotal battle between Union and Confederate soldiers. On Sept. 17, the deadliest single-day battle in American history took place, with more than 23,000 casualties — dead, wounded and missing — by the end of the fighting.

Despite its pyrrhic dimension, the Battle of Antietam stemmed the advance of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s forces into the north. Five days after that bloody victory, sometimes considered a stalemate by modern contemporary military analysis, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. It would go into full effect on Jan. 1, 1863 and while it conferred freedom on the slaves in the Confederate states at that time, the Proclamation was also a rolling phenomenon; the Proclamation’s provisions literally took effect as Union forces advanced into the South — a fact that swelled the numbers of former slaves willing to fight for the Union cause.

The rest is history, and current events.

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Last week, President Obama took note of the anniversary:

“One hundred and fifty years after that historic event, we recognize an important milestone in the American story and reflect on the progress we have made toward realizing our Nation's founding promise of liberty and justice for all.

“Though it would take decades of struggle before African Americans were granted equal treatment and protection under the law, the Emancipation Proclamation marked a courageous step forward in fulfilling that essential task. It affirmed that the Civil War was a war fought not only for the preservation of our union, but for freedom itself. And by opening the Union Army and Navy to African American men, the Proclamation gave new strength to liberty's cause.

“The Emancipation Proclamation stands among the documents of human freedom. As we commemorate this 150th anniversary, let us rededicate ourselves to the timeless principles it championed and celebrate the millions of Americans who have fought for liberty and equality in the generations since.”

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THAT’S THE anodyne, benevolent view we’ve come to expect from the president, and given the racial and ethnic chafing of today, one that makes perfect sense. But despite the Proclamation’s enduring emotional resonance, you have to reckon with its guiding principle: an apparently pure, cold, existential practicality that was, given the stakes, absolutely necessary.

“My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery,” Lincoln told Horace Greeley in a letter in August 1862. “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union. ...”

How different from the younger, leaner, idealistic Lincoln recalled by John Hope Franklin, perhaps the pre-eminent African American historian. In “The Emancipation Proclamation,” Franklin writes of Abraham Lincoln the lawyer of May 1831, the man who, after witnessing a slave auction in New Orleans, said to acquaintances: “If I ever get a chance to hit that thing [slavery], I’ll hit it hard.”

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In recent decades, it’s become almost intellectually fashionable to denigrate the Proclamation as calculating, expedient, and even racist. And criticism of the inciting document accompanies criticism of the man who wrote it. But the professionally cynical interpretations of the Proclamation have to confront the germ of idealism that birthed it.

In his lapidary “My Dungeon Shook,” a letter written to his nephew, the author James Baldwin said: “Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one's sense of one's own reality. Well, the black man has functioned in the white man's world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar: and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations.”

This, then, is the ultimate value of the Emancipation Proclamation: Lincoln’s declaration effectively recalibrated the possibilities of life in this nation, started the process of moving the African American star from its fixed place in the national universe. The transit of that star began on Sept. 22, 1862; that star realized maybe its brightest moment in a new part of the sky 53,446 days later, when Barack Obama took the oath of office to become the President of the United States.

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THE PROCLAMATION was never a present-tense conceit; it was never about “what is”; ultimately, and perhaps in ways Lincoln never intended, it was always about “what is possible.” For this reason, for all its flaws and faults, real and perceived, the Emancipation Proclamation remains the most aspirational American document since the aspirational document that invented America.

Beyond the immediate calculus of victory and defeat in the context of war, it ratifies the idea of America. It wasn’t so much a reordering of America’s reality as a renunciation of that reality. It was an invention, conceived in brutal practicality, that first and foremost, now like before, calls on us to free ourselves.

Sanna Dullaway’s full-color reinterpretation of Abraham Lincoln may aspire to do the same thing; it may be revelatory of more than the latest applications of Photoshop’s potential. Implicit in her reimagining of Lincoln’s world is the aspiration — call it a wish, if you like — that we finally engage race in America the same way: not in the comfortable daguerrotype view of our history, but in something closer to the bolder, fiercer Pantone palette of the colors we live, and live among, every day of our American lives.

Image credits: Abraham Lincoln top: Portrait by Alexander Gardner, 1865. Lincoln bottom: Portrait by Alexander Gardner, 1865; full-color re-creation by Sanna Dullaway.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Early voting 2012:
‘Anything can happen’ may be happening right now

ANYTHING CAN happen. Admit it — you’ve heard those words a lot in the last three weeks or so as they relate to the 2012 presidential campaign. More often than not, they’ve been uttered by any of the professionally cautious political analysts at one of the networks with a vested financial interest in this White House horse race being as close as possible for as long as possible.

The conservative wing of the CAPS LOCK commentariat have been screaming it, in their fashion. It’s more and more the mantra of the movers and shakers of the Mitt Romney campaign, an org so deeply immersed in damage control that damage control is the order of the day.

And it’s increasingly become the operating philosophy, if not the catchphrase, of a conservative media — from Laura Ingraham to Bill Kristol, Charles Krauthammer to George Will — whose frustration with the candidate gets more obvious all the time.

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Peggy Noonan got at this thinking in another way in a Thursday column in The Wall Street Journal. Expressing the hope that Team Romney may yet carve out a winning strategy at the tenth hour-plus, she borrowed a sentence from the Robert Bolt screenplay of ”Lawrence of Arabia”: “Nothing is written.”

It’s a fine, culturally classy way to inspire hope for the beleaguered Republican nominee. But the wave of recent internal strife and unforced errors for the Romney campaign confronts a parallel wave of new polling suggesting that, in the swing states and generally, Team Romney is in deep trouble.

Now, add to that a toweringly inconvenient fact: early and absentee voting has already started in dozens of states, as of yesterday. The result for Team Romney is perhaps half the nation deciding on his desperate campaign sooner rather than later … and the certainty that, all apologies to Robert Bolt, much is being written as we speak.

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ON FRIDAY NBC ‘s Kyle Inskeep reported: “Idaho, South Dakota, and the crucial swing state of Virginia are the first states to begin early, in-person voting today.

“Also today, absentee voting begins in Minnesota, West Virginia, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Georgia, Arkansas, Idaho, and Maryland, bringing the total number of states already accepting ballots to 13. Twelve others -- South Carolina, New Jersey, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Delaware, Louisiana, and Missouri — will begin absentee or early voting Saturday.”

“That means, by tomorrow, half the country will be casting votes. By the end of the month, voters in 30 states will be voting already.”

Four states — Kentucky, Indiana, and swing states Wisconsin and North Carolina had already started their early voting between Sept. 6 and Thursday.

Dr. Michael McDonald, a professor at George Mason University who studies voter behavior, told NBC that more than 46 million people — one in every three voters expected to turn up at the polls between now and Nov. 6 — is expected to vote early in 2012 either in person, by mail or absentee. “Once you turn up the faucet on early voting, you keep turning it up until it’s all the way open,” he said.

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This is hardly a good time, conservatively speaking, for Team Romney to find that faucet on. As his campaign has lurched from one reinvention to another, ricocheted from one crisis to the next, Romney, his supporters and the campaign itself have privately if not publicly held out the hope that the three October debates between Romney and President Obama would be definitive, and a final opportunity for Romney to close the sale — to shine as he has in previous debates. Some analysts have gone so far as to say the debates would be the pivot point for the future trajectories of both campaigns.

Noonan at WSJ: “It is true that a good debate, especially a good first one, can invigorate a candidate and lead to increased confidence, which can prompt good decisions and sensible statements. There is more than a month between the first debate and the voting: That's enough time for a healthy spiral to begin.”

That lofty possibility is monkey-wrenched by the calendar. Including Friday, there’ll be 13 days between the start of early voting and the first presidential debate, on Oct. 3, at Denver University. And that’s not counting the four states that started before Friday.

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The early voting now underway dovetails with the stunning unraveling of the Romney campaign in recent weeks; whatever case Romney may think he can make in any of the debates is a moot point to the millions who would have cast their ballots by then.

Maybe that’s why Gallup reported on Wednesday that “Three in four swing-state voters … believe the upcoming presidential debates will do little to influence their vote, while 25% say the debates could influence their vote 'a great deal' or 'a fair amount.' ”

Makes perfect sense that the debates won’t matter if you’ve already cast your vote.

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It’s of course an unproven assumption that all, or even most of the early voting is for Obama. Minds are just as likely to be made up early in Romney’s favor. But there’s no escaping the fact that the debates are thought to be Romney’s last hope, not the president’s.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Today in Idiotic: The invisible Obama effigy

THE BURNT Orange Report, a blog on Texas state and political affairs, published a story Wednesday about the latest spin on the Clint Eastwood empty chair incident at the Republican National Convention. It seems that a postmodern strain of racist idiocy took hold of a homeowner in northwest Austin, Texas, when he hung an invisible Obama effigy — an empty folding chair — in his yard for all to see.

Burnt Orange editor Katherine Haenschen reported that when she called the homeowner to complain, out of civic concern, “[h]e replied, and I quote, 'I don't really give a damn whether it disturbs you or not. You can take [your concerns] and go straight to hell and take Obama with you. I don't give a shit. If you don't like it, don't come down my street.' "

Haenschen reports that, “[i]ronically, the homeowner in question, Bud Johnson, won 'Yard of the Month' in August 2010 from his Homeowners Association.

“The man has since added an American flag to the chair,” she reported in an update today.

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In her story, Haenschen smartly puts this dumbass neighborhood prank into historical context with a cogent snapshot of the state’s history of lynchings:

“Lynching was a horrific and commonplace act in Reconstruction-era Texas and continued until the mid-1940's, spurred on by Ku Klux Klan groups. Texas is third amongst all states -- behind Mississippi and Georgia -- in the total number of lynching victims between 1885 and 1942. Of those 468 victims, an overwhelming number were African-American.

“Perhaps the most well-known and horrific lynching in Texas occurred in 1916, when Jesse Washington was accused of raping and murdering a woman near Waco. He was sentenced to death, and lynched in front of a crowd of onlookers, after which members of the mob castrated him, cut off his fingers, and hung him over a bonfire. Pieces of his body were sold as souvenirs. The gruesome event became part of the NAACP's anti-lynching movement.

“Most recently, in 1998, James Byrd Jr. — for whom the Texas Hate Crimes Prevention Act is named — was lynched by being dragging behind a vehicle in East Texas.”

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WITH THAT for context, it’s hard to entirely make light of Bud Johnson’s folding-chair exercise of the First Amendment. In a sinister, subversive way, it feeds into the corrosive, utterly racist Obama As Other meme that conservatives and extremists have constructed for the president since before he took office.

But at the same time ... look at it. Like Eastwood’s bizarre performance art in Tampa, the power of the hanging-chair effigy derives solely from one’s imagination. In many ways, the sting of Bud Johnson’s protest can only be implied. Without the direct visual component of a facsimile of the intended target, without the searing, historicizing emblem of a noose, it’s a gesture as empty as the chair itself. An effigy of an effigy.

There’ll be calls for the chair’s removal, and much outrage and complaint. But end of the day, who cares? Stupid is as stupid does. Let this hanging matter hang. There’s too much else — in the campaign, in life in general — that's important to think about.

Image credit: Chair: Burnt Orange Report.

Campaign by numbers: Surveying the latest polls

THE LATEST WAVE of opinion polls debating the merits of the campaigns of President Obama and Mitt Romney point to a trend starting to set in, not quite gravitational but increasingly consistent. Most of this latest collection of polls, virtually all of them with bad news for Team Romney, arrived in recent days without polled reaction to the leaked Boca Raton “47 percent” fundraiser videos. That’ll change in the next few days, with more polls expected, one as soon as this evening.

There was one early spot poll of note: A Gallup/USA Today flash survey of independents, released Wednesday, found 36 percent of independent voters were less likely to back Romney in the wake of the Boca videos’ release; 20 percent are more likely to support him despite the videos. For 43 percent, it doesn’t make any difference.

But that split decision is the exception to the rule of bad polling news for Team Romney, results that don’t even include public reaction to the Boca unforced error.

For Obama, the polls point to base Democratic support solidifying for the president, with new inroads in swing states. For Romney, the data's almost uniformly downbeat generally and in the crucial swing states, among women and Latino voters. And just like any toxic liquid seeps to its own level, the fallout of Romney’s recent missteps is trickling into the various down-ticket races in a way that could weaken the GOP’s prospects for the Senate.

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Where do you wanna start? Let’s go with the Pew Research Center general election poll, conducted between Sept. 12 and Sept. 16. Sampling likely voters (the cohort more and more often considered definitive the closer to Nov. 6 we get), Obama enjoys a stunning eight-point lead over Romney.

“Romney has gained no ground on Obama in being seen as more credible or more empathetic, and Obama now leads Romney by nearly three-to-one (66% to 23%) as the candidate who connects well with ordinary Americans – an even wider margin than in June,” Pew reported.

In the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 50 percent of likelies back the president, compared to 45 percent for Romney. “In the new survey, the president pulled even with his Republican rival on who voters think is better to fix the economy, after lagging behind Mr. Romney on that question in July,” The Journal reported Wednesday.

A Gallup survey of voters in 12 swing states from Colorado to Virginia gives Obama a two-point lead overall, slim enough to be insignificant regardless of the margin of error, but an Obama lead just the same.

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BUT THEN there’s the new Quinnipiac/New York Times/CBS News poll of likely swing-state voters, a survey that gives President Obama a four-point edge over Romney in Virginia (50/46), and a handsome six-point lead over Romney in Wisconsin (51/45).

A Washington Post poll released on Tuesday has Obama up eight points over Romney in Virginia, another critical swing state. “Virginia rode out the recession far better than many other states, in part because of a huge defense sector, and that appears to be working in the president’s favor. A majority of Virginia voters surveyed in the Post poll still say the country is on the wrong track. But the percentage who say it is moving in the right direction has increased nine points, to 41 percent, since May,” The Post reported Tuesday.

Public Policy Polling weighed in Tuesday with a statewide perspective on the national race: “PPP's newest Massachusetts poll finds Barack Obama leading Mitt Romney 57-39, up a tick from last month when the spread was 55-39. A lot of the internal numbers on the poll are pretty brutal for Romney. Only 39% of voters have a favorable opinion of him to 58% with a negative one.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Among Latino voters, Obama leads Romney by a jaw-dropping margin. A new poll published Monday at, extracted from data in an ImpreMedia/Latino Decisions tracking poll, finds the former Massachusetts governor trailing the president by deep double digits: 61 percent of Latino males will vote Obama, while 32 percent side with Romney. The chasm’s even wider among Latinas.

In the new Marquette University Law poll, Obama tops Romney by double digits, 54 percent to 40 percent. An earlier Marquette survey, conducted before both parties held their conventions, found the president with a narrower lead of three points, 49 to 46 percent. This, mind you was after Romney tapped Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate ... and well before everything went south in Boca Raton.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Ladies and gentlemen, the real Mitt Romney

When shit rains, shit pours.
— John Heilemann, New York magazine

AT THIS WRITING there are 314.4 million people in the United States. Approximately 47 percent — 147.7 million of you — will be dismayed to discover that, in the diamond-encrusted world view of former Massachusetts governor and presidential hopeless Mitt Romney, you are “victims,” freeloaders, slackers, moochers, ne’er-do-wells, parasites, layabouts and thieves sucking on the breast of the public dole for as long as you can get away with it, indifferent to personal initiative, unwilling to take responsibility, deserving of your wretched crawl across the American earth.

So said Romney to a group of kindred financial spirits at a fundraiser earlier this year. The Republican nominee, in moments of candor he rarely approaches when among the American people, offered a frank strategy for achieving the White House in November, a callous zero-sum-game vision of America that — now revealed — almost certainly completes the five-spiral crash of the most panoramically inept presidential campaign of the modern American political era.

(We can thank Mother Jones, as well as an unidentified netizen, for bringing it to light on Monday, on its Web site and elsewhere. The full story and accompanying videos, written and organized respectively by the magazine's Washington bureau chief, David Corn, may well be the political scoop of the year. Read it at Mother Jones.)

◊ ◊ ◊

Romney must have felt right at home there in Boca Raton, Fla., the evening of May 17, attending a private, $50,000-a-plate fundraiser dinner at the home of Marc Leder, private equity manager and co-founder of Sun Capital Partners, an $8 billion investment firm with offices in Boca and eight other locations around the world.

Millionaires and multimillionaires were everywhere. These were Mitt’s kind of people, the ones who sided with Mr. Potter in “It’s a Wonderful Life” and who cried when Ebenezer Scrooge went soft at the end of “A Christmas Carol.” And so the candidate no doubt felt comfortable letting his hair down, speaking at length about his apparently real feelings for the vast unwashed electorate he presumed to lead in January 2013.

Romney went on at length on various topics, from excoriating President Obama on handling of the Iraq war to treating Obama with rhetorical kid gloves. He lets a little something slip about the business of his advisors and consultants, and reveals his penchant for secrecy:

“I have a very good team of extraordinarily experienced, highly successful consultants, a couple of people in particular who have done races around the world,” he said. “I didn't realize it. These guys in the U.S. — the Karl Rove equivalents — they do races all over the world: in Armenia, in Africa, in Israel. I mean, they worked for Bibi Netanyahu in his race. So they do these races and they see which ads work, and which processes work best, and we have ideas about what we do over the course of the campaign. I'd tell them to you, but I'd have to shoot you.”

But at one point in the proceedings, feeling his oats, Romney answered a strategic question from someone in the audience: How can he win in November?

Romney’s reply: “There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what …These are people who pay no income tax. ...

"[M]y job is is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives. What I have to do is convince the 5 to 10 percent in the center that are independents that are thoughtful, that look at voting one way or the other depending upon in some cases emotion, whether they like the guy or not ...”

◊ ◊ ◊

WHEN THE video was released — Corn said on MSNBC on Monday that more would go up that night on the Mother Jones site, and more would come in the coming days — the firestorm was immediate and relentless.

From Corn’s story: “Here was Romney raw and unplugged — sort of unscripted. With this crowd of fellow millionaires, he apparently felt free to utter what he really believes and would never dare say out in the open. He displayed a high degree of disgust for nearly half of his fellow citizens, lumping all Obama voters into a mass of shiftless moochers who don't contribute much, if anything, to society, and he indicated that he viewed the election as a battle between strivers (such as himself and the donors before him) and parasitic free-riders who lack character, fortitude, and initiative.”

In a statement, Jim Messina, Obama campaign manager said: “It’s hard to serve as president for all Americans when you’ve disdainfully written off half the nation.”

Josh Barro of Bloomberg agreed, writing emphatically that the Boca Raton videos’ release “has killed Mitt Romney's campaign for president.”

Joan Walsh of weighed in at MSNBC, with an acid distillation of what was said: “He is writing off … about half of our country with utter contempt … he’s talking about them as parasites and moochers and … he is talking about a large segment of the Republican base. Like it or not, there are a lot of white people, older white people, in that category as well ...

“It’s contempt for everybody. It’s equal opportunity contempt, and it’s hugely damaging.”

◊ ◊ ◊

The Romney campaign, no doubt weary from the whiplash of recent weeks, responded with a ritual defense.

Gail Gitcho, communications director, wrote: “Mitt Romney wants to help all Americans struggling in the Obama economy. As the governor has made clear all year, he is concerned about the growing number of people who are dependent on the federal government, including the record number of people who are on food stamps, nearly one in six Americans in poverty, and the 23 million Americans who are struggling to find work. Mitt Romney's plan creates 12 million new jobs in four years, grows the economy and moves Americans off of government dependency and into jobs.”

Nowhere, of course, in Gitcho’s statement is there a denial of what was said in Boca Raton. Nor could there be. Romney’s plainly visible in the video. There’s no walking this back. This was no accident. He didn’t have too much wine at dinner; since he’s Mormon, we know he doesn’t drink. What’s revealed on the Mother Jones videos isn’t a spasm of hyperbole or politician’s Tourette’s; what’s revealed is a core conviction expressed in a reasoned, thoroughly articulated view of an America that would be better off if 47 percent of its people just ... went away.

Monday, September 17, 2012

‘Saturday Night Live’ tweaks the conversation

RIGHT OR WRONG, better or worse, the last few weeks of the nation’s political conversation have been crowded with polls, many of them slowly beginning to statistically concretize the idea that the presidential campaign of Mitt Romney is likely to be a doomed forgone conclusion. The New York Times (via Nate Silver’s projections), Gallup, Rasmussen, ABC/Washington Post, Marist, NBC/Wall Street Journal, Fox freakin’ News — all have the various hard numbers to suggest we may be closer to the end of this than we think.

But of all the forecasts of the high probability of an Obama victory in November, the one that may have the most impact on people where they live in America was broadcast on Saturday night from Studio 8H at Rockefeller Center in New York City.

Barack Obama got a renewal on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” and everything old is new again.

◊ ◊ ◊

It was announced on Sept. 12 that Jared (“Jay Pharoah”) Farrow, toiling in the vineyard of the SNL featured-players team for two years, had gotten the nod from SNL executive producer Lorne Michaels to take over impersonation duties as the 44th president, replacing Fred Armisen, the Japanese-German-Venezuelan actor who’s been the SNL Obama since shortly before the real one took office.

Jason Sudeikis, who’s been portraying Mitt Romney on the show, will return, accoirding to Michaels, who spoke to The New York Times. However, and provocatively, Michaels suggests that Sudeikis’ time with the show may be brief.

“Right now the idea is that Jason will go through at least until January,” he said, announcing a timeline that generally dovetails with that of the next inaugural.

Pharoah, an adept at impersonation (his Denzel Washington and Will Smith are witheringly dead-on), opened the 38th season of the award-winning NBC repertory series Saturday, and in four minutes claimed the presidential pretend as his own.

But this is more than a random cast change. Pharoah’s ascension to being the show’s permanent Obama is both a vote of confidence in his abilities, as if one were needed, and SNL’s vote of confidence in the gathering national meme that Romney will be defeated in less than two months. The subtext of the decision — new term, new Obama — couldn’t be more obvious.

And while anything can happen between now and the election, the show that’s long been a part of the pop-cultural discourse (and by extension the national discourse) for almost two generations advances an idea that’s immune to Romney campaign talking points and spin.

Over the next two months, you’re more likely to remember something from one of Pharoah/Obama’s skits on SNL than you are to recall Romney’s fulminations on the campaign trail. And for Team Romney, that’s a problem.

◊ ◊ ◊

PHAROAH’S new gig is something of a cultural milestone for another reason. For the first time on SNL, an African American cast member will portray the first African American president. That fact alone awakens the controversy that NBC and the show’s producers had to contend with when Armisen was named the presidential impersonator, in 2008.

Robert Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, told me in 2009 that “SNL has a tradition of underusing their African-American characters. Garrett Morris [the show's charter black cast member, from 1975 to 1980] was a good example of that, and even Chris Rock complained about it.”

Not that there weren’t black players to choose from. Starting with the show's debut in October 1975, SNL effected a policy that became something of a revolving door for male African American players. Look at who’s come and gone: Eddie Murphy (1980-1984). Damon Wayans (1985-1986). Rock (1990-1993). Tim Meadows (1991-2000). Tracy Morgan (1996-2003). Finesse Mitchell (2003-2006). Kenan Thompson, who joined in 2003, is still hangin’ in, and on pace to eclipse Meadows as the show’s longest-distance black cast member.

In March 2009, Phillip Lamarr Cunningham, a pop-culture scholar and a doctoral candidate in American culture studies at Bowling Green State University, wrote of his problems with the show. “Given SNL's centrality in political discourse and in popular culture, its failure to embrace more racial and gender diversity perhaps does not threaten the show's relevance, but it undoubtedly undermines it.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Pharoah’s securing the plum presidential role undercuts that problem for SNL. The SNL commitment to a new Obama comes months after NBC made an earlier commitment to prime-time comedy based, however loosely, on the presumptive assumption of an Obama second term.

In March — in the heat of the primary season — the network ordered 104 episodes of “The First Family,” a sitcom about a black First Family in the White House, The Root and The Times-Leader reported. The series, produced by Byron Allen’s Entertainment Studios, will star Christopher B. Duncan (“The Jamie Foxx Show”), Kellita Smith (“The Bernie Mac Show”) and comedy legend John Witherspoon. It’s set to roll sometime this fall.

But that’s on the come. What we’ve got for sure right now is another challenge — at least an optical one, maybe a perceptual one, too — for Team Romney: one of pop culture’s enduring barometers of the public zeitgeist, investing heavily in the idea of Obama II.

Image credits: Jay Pharoah as Obama: NBC/Saturday Night Live © 2012 Broadway Video. Promo image from “The First Family”: NBC/© 2012 Entertainment Studios.

Friday, September 14, 2012

World leader pretend 2.0

ON WEDNESDAY, at a press conference in Jacksonville, Fla., bearing what greatly resembled the countenance of a beaten man, Willard Mitt Romney went before the cameras, doubled down on a breathtakingly maladroit statement he issued the night before, and provided for historians unborn the distilling moment when — in all growing viral, political and statistical probability — he lost his second bid for the presidency of the United States.

By now you know the backstory: Protests occurred in Libya and Egypt ostensibly sparked by a YouTube video of a movie trailer that defamed the Prophet Mohammed, a video believed to have originated with an American in California.

The United States embassy in Cairo released a statement at 6:17 a.m. ET on Sept. 11, saying, "The embassy condemns the continuing efforts by 
misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions."

At 6:25 p.m. on Sept. 11, a State Department spokeswoman confirmed that the protest in Libya had taken a violent turn with the death of John Christopher Stevens, U.S. Ambassador to Libya, and three other American citizens.

◊ ◊ ◊

But Romney, desperate to claw back something like an advantage in his increasingly problematic pursuit of the White House, weighed in with a statement on the situation, one that blamed the Obama administration for siding with the protesters.

At 10:10 p.m., the Romney campaign emailed a statement to media: “It’s disgraceful that the Obama administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to 
sympathize with those who waged the attacks.”

And the next day, rather than admitting the mistake of jumping to conclusions in the wake of the deeper tragedy his e-mail completely missed, Romney toughed it out at the Jacksonville newser, insisting that his was the right response.

“I don’t think we ever hesitate when we see something which is 
a violation of our principles,” he said. “We express immediately when we feel that 
the president and his administration have done something which is inconsistent with the principles of America.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Kasie Hunt of The Associated Press capably distilled the timeline of events:

“One Republican official advising Romney's campaign on foreign policy and national security issues painted a picture of a Romney campaign more focused on ensuring Romney's evening statement made it into morning news stories than on waiting for details about what had happened.

“This official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid angering Romney's campaign, said that as word of violence spread, campaign aides late Tuesday watched tweets coming out of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo that were criticizing the filmmaker rather than condemning the attackers, and saw an opportunity to criticize Obama.

“It wasn't until Wednesday morning, when the U.S. confirmed the death of the U.S. ambassador to Libya, that Romney's team recognized the severity of the situation — and that, the night before, it had opened itself up to criticism for politicizing a diplomatic crisis.

◊ ◊ ◊

THE BLOWBACK was immediate, and the most bipartisan experience of this campaign year. A highly-placed Republican foreign-policy expert told BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith that "[t]hey were just trying to score a cheap news cycle hit based on the embassy statement and now it’s just completely blown up." This source called the Romney statement an "utter disaster" and a "Lehman moment" — a reference to when John McCain sabotaged his 2008 presidential prospects as the depth of the financial crisis precipitated by the collapse of Lehman Brothers became known.

“It wasn't presidential of Romney to go political immediately,” a former Bush State Department official told BuzzFeed. “A tragedy of this magnitude should be something the nation collectively grieves before politics enters the conversation.”

On MSNBC, Joy Reid, managing editor of TheGrio, said: “[T]he American people, if nothing else, they look for a lot of 
intangible qualities in a potential president and dignity and decency are two of them. And I think at this point, Mitt Romney has sacrificed both.”

Maybe. Dignity? Some will say Romney can’t lose what he never had. This, of course, wasn’t the first time Mitt Romney has demonstrated an astonishing ineptitude on the world stage. You can take your pick from among four or five examples of bad manners and fecklessness on display earlier in the year:

Dissing the United Kingdom while attending the London Olympics. Mangling history in Poland. In Israel, offering a profound misreading of the life of the Middle East that insulted Israelis and Palestinians alike. Embarrassingly injecting himself into the administration’s handling of the crisis surrounding Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng.

And now this.

◊ ◊ ◊

TEAM ROMNEY and its supporters in the Republican camp have spent the last 48 hours or so furiously pushing back against the damage done. But there’s no way for the campaign to spin this into insignificance. This wasn’t a gaffe to be downplayed or minimized; this was a test of presidential character, a gauge of Romney’s readiness to be a world leader, and Romney’s was an epic fail, a sadly revelatory event that will dog him for the next 54 days.

Because here’s the thing, here’s what some analysts and wonk-worshippers and the Romney brain trust refuse to accept when they insist that the Romney campaign can still transform itself, rescue itself in the debates in October, or with a flurry of nonstop TV ads as likely to anger the people they’re aimed at as they are likely to change their minds:

The race is where it is for a reason. Everything Mitt Romney has done to this point has led us to this point.

And where things stand as a result of the Romney presidential campaign playing itself out organically, on the stump over these many months, almost certainly won’t be overturned by any deus ex machina event, any tactical epiphany that suddenly shifts the dynamic of the race in Romney’s favor.

If that were even remotely possible, it would have happened by now.

◊ ◊ ◊

That’s not to suggest that the unexpected won’t happen again between now and Nov. 6. (Events in Libya, Egypt and elsewhere just proved that.) It is to say that, to this point, the Romney campaign is subject to the momentum it’s already created with the actions it’s already taken. Right now, Romney’s presidential bid is as much a captive of the laws of physics as it’s in thrall to politics and strategy and round-the-clock ads on TV.

Minds are being made up, and it’s not hard to figure out why. From a businessman’s point of view, Romney himself might understand what seems to be a prevailing school of thought: If a company’s going through a fiscal crisis, and the current leadership of the company has at least stopped the bleeding, stabilized the share price and restored some measure of shareholder confidence … in a situation like that, the last thing you do is replace the leadership with people who don’t know their way around the company.

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