Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Mitt Romney’s new deceptions

AT LEAST two days late and several dollars short of being convincing, the Romney campaign has finally answered the question of where the Republican nominee for president stands on the need for FEMA, the federal agency coordinating relief efforts for victims of Superstorm Sandy with the affected states — the same question he was asked by reporters a dozen times on Monday.

“I believe that FEMA plays a key role in working with states and localities to prepare for and respond to natural disasters,” Romney said in a statement presented by his campaign Wednesday.

“As president, I will ensure FEMA has the funding it needs to fulfill its mission, while directing maximum resources to the first responders who work tirelessly to help those in need, because states and localities are in the best position to get aid to the individuals and communities affected by natural disasters.”

Just when you thought Romney had finally settled on a persona to ride to Election Day, just when you thought he’d put the Etch a Sketch down for the last time, the former governor of Massachusetts walks back a previously stated and defended position on how “immoral” spending for federal disaster relief was. And he does it six days before the election.

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BUT AS surely as that’s likely to be another last-minute deception, the latest shiny objects from Team Romney, there was another deception that was painstakingly deliberate. If you believed the increasingly desperate RomneyRyan campaign couldn’t get more cynical and out of touch, McKay Coppins put that to rest today in an eye-opening BuzzFeed story about Romney’s “storm relief event” in Kettering, Ohio.

What was first reported (and at first blush generally appeared to be) a seemingly earnest but misguided effort at citizen outreach and assistance in the wake of the deadly storm turned out to be more orchestrated, more fabricated than we’d have thought possible. Even for Mitt Romney.

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From Dayton, Ohio, Coppins tells the story:

On Monday morning, Romney's local team in Dayton was eagerly preparing to host the candidate the following day. A high school gym had been reserved, a stage had been rented, and a pair of celebrity guests — country singer Randy Owen and NASCAR driver Richard Petty — had been booked to give the event some B-list heft.

Then, a little before noon, communications director Gail Gitcho announced the cancellation of “all events currently scheduled” for Tuesday. The superstorm that forecasters had been warning about for days had picked up steam ... In a statement, Gitcho said the decision to cancel campaign events had been made “out of sensitivity to the millions of Americans in the path of Hurricane Sandy.”

But Boston wasn’t quite ready to lose a full day of swing state visibility with a week left in the race. So, after some deliberation, the campaign decided to use their existing venue in Ohio to stage a makeshift and nonpartisan humanitarian project. …

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[O]n the ground in Dayton, aides were working feverishly to depoliticize the planned event. Campaign signs were removed from the premises, long rows of folding tables were set up, and logistics were painstakingly arranged to accomodate physical donations. ...

The plan was for supporters to bring hurricane relief supplies to the event and then deliver the bags of canned goods, packages of diapers, and cases of water bottles to the candidate, who would be perched behind a table along with a slew of volunteers and his Ohio right-hand man, Senator Rob Portman. To complete the project and photo op, Romney would lead his crew in carrying the goods out of the gymnasium and into the Penske rental truck parked outside.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Crossfire hurricane II: Praisesongs for the president

REX HUPPKE tweeted today: “The National Weather Service has downgraded Sandy from a Hurricane to a Category 4 Political Football.”

The Chicago Tribune columnist was cracking wise, of course; he knew well that the toll from Superstorm Sandy, the second American tsunami in seven years, was serious and climbing: at this writing 46 deaths, 7 million people without power in at least a dozen states, 16,000 flights canceled, parts of West Virginia blanketed in two feet of show. The Associated Press reported drifts 4 feet deep at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

For the second day, President Obama indicated that he gets it, shaping the contours of the crisis for the country. “It's very important for the public to ... listen to your state and local officials. Follow instructions,” he said at Red Cross national headquarters in Washington. “The more you follow instructions, the easier it is for our first responders.”

“My thoughts and prayers are with all the families who lost loved ones,” he said. “It's not clear that we have counted up all of the fatalities at this point. Obviously this is something that is heartbreaking for the entire nation.”

And the president put the word out to federal agencies: “Do not figure out why we can't do something. I want you to figure out how we do something. I want you to cut through red tape; I want you to cut through the bureaucracy. There is no excuse for inaction at this point. I want every agency moving forward to make sure we are getting the resources where they are needed as quickly as possible.”

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On MSNBC’s “Hardball,” assessing the political impact of Sandy, Chuck Todd observed: “This is a case where good politics is not playing politics.” His reaction seems a bit calculated. It suggests that a central motivation for Obama’s immediate reaction to the crisis is political rather than humanitarian — that he’s trying to paint the corners on the public perception of how he’s doing his job, rather than just doing the job he swore a constitutional oath to do.

When people have died on your watch at the hands of a natural disaster, the political takes a back seat to the immediately practical. That’s not to say that the president isn’t aware of how the public looks at him right now; it’s to suggest that, ironically enough, at this dangerous hour, the president doesn’t really care.

Just as ironically, and thanks to an unlikely supporter, he doesn’t really have to.

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THE STATE of New Jersey bore much of Sandy’s punch, with whole communities under water or nearly so, and facing monumental cleanup: homes washed away in Point Pleasant; devastation in Belmar; flooding in Cape May; Newark and poorer neighborhoods inundated. For residents of the Garden State, there’s been no escaping it.

For some of yesterday and much of today, there’s also been no getting away from Chis Christie, New Jersey’s prickly, irrepressible Republican governor and, in the past, a reliable critic of the Obama administration.

In the past. Christie, who made the rounds of the talk shows and news programs on CNN, CBS, MSNBC and Fox News, dutifully relayed the results of conversations with the president on the myriad problems facing his state. Result: The stuff that Obama campaign ads are made of.

“He has expedited the designation of New Jersey as a major disaster area,” Christie said. “The president has been outstanding on this, and so have the folks at FEMA. …

“The president has been all over this and he deserves great credit,” Christie said. “It’s been very good working with the president and his administration.”

Imagine that. Right now, President Obama’s best surrogate is a Republican governor — the same one who delivered the keynote address at the party’s own convention.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Crossfire hurricane: Sandy and everything after

FOR MONTHS, Team Obama has employed the word “FORWARD” as its new one-word meme, up to now rendered in white letters against a blue field, with nothing after it. But in recent days, President Obama has attended campaign rallies amid a lot of the same imagery as before – only now the word FORWARD gets an exclamation mark in the banners around the hall.

The quasi-militaristic aspect to the word (you can almost hear John Wayne saying it on horseback in a John Ford western) is that much more apparent with the exclamatory; so is the urgency that Team Obama is bringing to the campaign as a whole, with nine days before it’s all over.

Likewise, the Mitt Romney campaign (getting a recent uplift in the polls) seems to have found its mojo or a reasonable facsimile, despite two debate losses and the last-minute self-inflicted millstone of Richard Mourdock.

Everyone is ready for the last part of the game. Which is a good thing, now that there’s a new player in the game. Her name is Sandy, and she will not be denied. What she does in the next 48 hours could matter hugely in the 2012 presidential campaign. This is the October surprise no one could have wargamed.

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At this writing, Hurricane Sandy is undergoing the process of transforming itself into the dreaded freak of weather they're calling "Frankenstorm." The language of the National Weather Service advisory says it all:


The 900-mile storm began its life as three systems. Two of them — a blast of Arctic air barreling from the north and a early-winter storm front from the west — have combined … and combined again with the original Hurricane Sandy, one of the last of the 2012 hurricane season, up from the Caribbean and until recently expected to die out harmlessly in the mid-Atlantic ocean, tracking north and east far from American shores.

The combination of the three systems changes everything. The current meteorological consensus is that, when the storm makes landfall shortly, it will be as an apparently unprecedented hybrid beast, one with the traditional and catastrophic storm-surge characteristics of a hurricane, and the high winds and freezing temperatures of a nor'easter.

The potential for human disaster is the main thing. Estimates vary on the number of people potentially in or near the path of Sandy; some have said 50 million. One is much higher than that: “We’re looking at impact of greater than 50 to 60 million people,” said Louis Uccellini, head of environmental prediction for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in a Time interview.

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EVEN BEFORE Sandy arrives, the storm's being viewed in epic, almost Biblical terms. The prospects for creating social, environmental and economic changes are vast, even if only in the short term. And in the world of presidential politics, Sandy doesn’t so much change the game as it ups the ante on the game already being played.

For President Obama, this will be a towering test of his ability to orchestrate the resources of the federal government in an unprecedented emergency context. FEMA, the federal agency that became the embodiment of feckless governmental bureaucracy in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, is much improved since 2005. FEMA director Craig Fugate, a veteran hurricane watcher, works with professionals with experience in state and local disaster response. The agency has made advances in rapid contact with the public, with enhanced social media and smartphone access to timely information.

The president’s early reactions indicate he’s ready. “My main message to everybody involved is that we have to take this seriously,” Obama said Sunday, meeting with FEMA officials. He urged people to “listen to your local officials.”

“My message to the governors as well as to the mayors is anything they need, we will be there, and we will cut through red tape. We are not going to get bogged down with a lot of rules,” he said. “We want to make sure we are anticipating and leaning forward into making sure that we have the best possible response to what is going to be a big and messy system.”

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If Obama properly manages the domestic government as it rallies in response to FrankenSandy, it will reinforce his bona fides as the National Manager of a broad-scale domestic emergency. As it is, and despite its potential tragedy, the approaching storm will be an opportunity to reinforce the Obama brand — preparation, experience, a steadiness at the helm — in a way that no campaign ad can.

How that translates into votes on Nov. 6 is anyone’s guess. Early voting’s been going on since early September, but the storm’s expected impact in at least 10 states could snarl in-person turnout on a wide scale.

That fact would seem to favor Team Obama’s formidable ground-game operations, with two and three times as many campaign field offices as Team Romney. But the power outages that are certain to happen in those states, and maybe beyond, will complicate things for even the best field operation.

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TEAM ROMNEY faces another problem, or what amounts to another unforced error on the part of the candidate.

In the CNN Republican candidates’ debate in June 2011, Romney was asked whether FEMA should be dismantled, with its responsibilities assumed by the individual states.

“Absolutely,” he said. “Every time you have an occasion to take something from the federal government and send it back to the states, that's the right direction. And if you can go even further, and send it back to the private sector, that's even better. Instead of thinking, in the federal budget, what we should cut, we should ask the opposite question, what should we keep?”

“Including disaster relief, though?” asked CNN’s John King, the debate moderator.

“We cannot, we cannot afford to do those things without jeopardizing the future for our kids,” Romney said, doubling down on absolutist conservatism doctrine. “It is simply immoral, in my view, for us to continue to rack up larger and larger debts and pass them on to our kids, knowing full well that we'll all be dead and gone before it’s paid off. It makes no sense at all.”

It’s still to be seen how Romney’s position back then dovetails, or doesn’t, with where Romney stands on the issue today. Makes you wish we had one more debate to find out. But whatever position comes up next on the Etch a Sketch identity machine will have to contend with the candidate’s previous position that paying for the nation’s first operational line of response to domestic emergencies is “immoral” … in the face of one of those emergencies playing itself out in real time, in the lives of 60 million Americans, most of whom vote.

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FRANKENSANDY also affects another component of the 2012 race for the White House. The polls that the candidates live by are already feeling the effects of the storm; with planned or storm-related power outages, they’re denied telephone access to maybe as many as 10 million Americans; this short-circuits their ability to provide snapshots of the national mood.

Gallup editor in chief Frank Newport released the following statement a few hours ago:

“Gallup has suspended polling for its daily tracking as of Monday night and will reassess on a day-to-day basis. The ultimate effect on the overall picture of polling between now and this weekend, including election polling, will depend on what happens as a result of the storm, about which we will have a better understanding of on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week.”

Mark Blumenthal of The Huffington Post reports that New Jersey, site of the expected landfall, “is home to the corporate headquarters of a number of pollsters, including Gallup, Rasmussen Reports, SurveyUSA and Princeton Survey Research Associates International (PSRAI), a call center that conducts interviews for the Pew Research Center, among other clients.

It’s a given that the people on the eastern seaboard of the United States are in hunker-down mode (and good wishes for safety and relative calm in the coming days go out to every one of them). What’s left to be seen is how this supersized evidence of the unpredictability of nature affects the unpredictability of the state of the national race. While it’s an east coast phenomenon, FrankenSandy’s soon to have the rest of the country in hunker-down mode, too.

Image credits: Sandy satellite and thermal images: NOAA/NASA. Obama at FEMA briefing: via Christian Science Monitor ( Empty NYSE trading floor: The Associated Press. Romney: Debate pool image. Gallup logo: © 2012 Gallup. 

GOP and race: Lawrence Wilkerson says it plain

BY WAY of an Associated Press poll, The Washington Post reported late last week on a disturbing trend of sentiment that dovetails with the polarities of the current presidential campaign: the racial discord that defines so much of the American experience hasn’t modulated — not even since the 2008 campaign. To go by the numbers, it’s gotten worse.

“Racial prejudice has increased slightly since 2008 whether those feelings were measured using questions that explicitly asked respondents about racist attitudes, or through an experimental test that measured implicit views toward race without asking questions about that topic directly.

“In all, 51 percent of Americans now express explicit anti-black attitudes, compared with 48 percent in a similar 2008 survey.”

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Whatever the source of the popular discontent is, there’s an abundance of evidence that the Republicans are waging a presidential campaign powered with the fuel of racism. Over the last three years, conservatives and their proxies and enablers in the media have called President Obama a statist, a racist, a socialist, a Marxist, a new Hitler, a dick, a food-stamp president and a foreigner, among other printable things.

The more circumspect of those extremist leading lights (the ones who depend on ratings and advertisers) have assiduously avoided calling him the thing that troubles them the most: black man in the White House.

That fact is near or at the very heart of the heart of their objection, and they know it. It took one of their own last week to say it plain.

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The latest phase of the American hate started on Thursday, when former Secretary of State Colin Powell endorsed Obama on “CBS This Morning,” taking a support position consistent with what he did in 2008, when he broke ranks with his own Republican Party. “I voted for him in 2008 and I plan to stick with him in 2012,” he said. “I signed on for a long patrol with President Obama, and I don't think this is the time to make such a sudden change.”

Powell, concerned by the “very strong neoconservative views that are presented” by Team Romney, called Romney’s foreign policy “a moving target. … I am not quite sure which Gov. Romney we would be getting with respect to foreign policy.”

Never missing a chance to worsen his reputation, John Sununu, a spokesman for the Romney campaign, told Piers Morgan on CNN: “Frankly, when you take a look at Colin Powell, you have to wonder whether that’s an endorsement based on issues or whether he’s got a slightly different reason for preferring President Obama,” Sununu said Thursday.

When Morgan asked what that might be, Sununu said, “Well, I think when you have somebody of your own race that you’re proud of being president of the United States, I applaud Colin for standing with him.”

Sununu, realizing he’d stepped in it big time, walked it back fast and furious. Late Thursday, in a statement, he said “Colin Powell is a friend, and I respect the endorsement decision he made, and I do not doubt that it was based on anything but his support of the President’s policies.”

It was a similar walkback from when the Romney surrogate apologized for saying he wished President Obama “would learn to be an American.”

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IT WOULD have been enough if Sununu’s outburst was the start and the end of it. But what he said then and now was just indicative of an old pattern of identity common to the Republican Party, and a longstanding antipathy to the concerns of African Americans and minorities in general. It was an identity crisis that South Carolina GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham spoke of recently.

“The demographics race we’re losing badly,” he told The Washington Post. “We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.”

We’ve seen a variety of other idiocies, including the one in September in Austin, Texas, where a homeowner hung an office chair from a tree, in some bizarre postmodern attempt to invoke Clint Eastwood suggesting President Obama. Or at the Republican National Convention, back in August, when two attendees were thrown out of the hall after throwing peanuts at a black CNN camerawoman, telling her, “This is how we feed animals.”

Or the June experiment in racist diorama design by the Rev. Terry Jones, the Koran-destroying nominal Florida pastor who hanged President Obama in effigy on a gallows above the gay pride and American flags, as an Uncle Sam figure stands by, a response to Obama’s stand on gay marriage and what Jones in a statement called Obama’s “appeasing of radical Islam.”

“Part of it is growing polarization within American society,” said Fredrick Harris, director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University, to The Associated Press. “The last Democrat in the White House said we had to have a national discussion about race. There’s been total silence around issues of race with this president. But, as you see, whether there is silence, or an elevation of the discussion of race, you still have polarization. It will take more generations, I suspect, before we eliminate these deep feelings.”

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SO THE growing climate of intolerance makes it easy for bilious fishheads like Sarah Palin and Donald Trump to endlessly revive the birther canard, calling into question President Obama’s citizenship, and by extension his very right to even be president with the tacit approval that follow from a generalized climate that suggests such behavior is permissible, even fashionable in some conservative quarters.

On Friday, Lawrence Wilkerson finally gave voice to the Republican sub rosa narrative about this president, the subtext of race and racial animus that’s not so much a dogwhistle as it is a shout at the top of the lungs.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Obama-Romney III:
The president and the chameleon ghost

WHO’D HAVE believed that, on the same night as Monday Night Football and the deciding game of the National League Championship Series, the best thing on television last night was a presidential debate?

True enough; the third presidential debate between President Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Republican-in-chief — the third episode of Barack & Mitt — had its dramatic moments, but much of the drama was accidental. It was the result of a candidate who ran headlong into a president with the experience of being what the candidate wants badly to be. But mostly it was the drama of a man who finally, publicly, absolutely ran into the ethical emptiness that is himself.

Last night, in spectacular fashion, in front of the people of this country and the world beyond, for the last time before the election two weeks away, Mitt Romney created his last Etch a Sketch portrait of the Mitt Romney he wants the American people to believe in on Election Day. Who’d have believed that portrait looks like Barack Obama?

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We knew going in that last night’s debate at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., had the potential to be definitive, maybe even dispositive. Romney’s own post-debate surge, two weeks on, had managed to continue despite the headbutting the governor got in the second debate. And the president’s numbers were as strong as they’ve been in weeks, faltering a little but only to the point where it narrowed the lead he already enjoyed.

The moderator, the no-bullshit veteran CBS News Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer, brought questions on foreign policy. In short order, with response after response, it became clear that the fire-breathing, severely conservative Mitt Romney of the primary season and earlier this fall season was trying to morph into Moderate Mitt, his guise for the general election campaign (and a costume he put on months too late).

On Syria, the president reiterated the value of a sanctions regime intended to pinch the leadership in Damascus, a sanctions process not unlike that used against Libya in the waning months of the Gaddafi regime. That would be combined with humanitarian assistance, consultation with partners in the region, and a firm resistance to American boots on the ground.

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ROMNEY AGREED. “I don’t want to have our military involved in Syria. I don’t think there’s a necessity to put our military in Syria at this stage. … We don’t want to get drawn into a military conflict,” he said. “The right course is working with our partners ...”

On Egypt, when Schieffer asked the president about our hopes for the newly democratic Egypt, Obama called for the new Morsi government to recognize the rights of women, acknowledge religious tolerance, continue counter-terrorism efforts, and to abide by its peace treaty with Israel.

Romney lamented the timing of the American response to events in Egypt and the viral, panoramic unrest that led to the Arab Spring. But ultimately, Romney agreed with the president. “I believe as the president indicated that and said at the time that I supported his action there,” he said, actually ascribing the origin of American myopia vis-à-vis U.S.-Egyptian relations to a period before the Obama administration.

“I wish that, looking back at the beginning of the president's term and even further back than that, that we'd have recognized that there was a growing energy and passion for freedom in that part of the world and that we would have worked more aggressively with our — our friend and with other friends in the region to have them make the transition towards a more representative form of government such that it didn't explode in the way it did. But once it exploded, I felt the same as the president did …”

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On the United States’ frenemy relationship with Pakistan: “I don't blame the administration for the fact that the relationship with Pakistan is strained. We had to go into Pakistan; we had to go in there to get Osama bin Laden. That was the right thing to do.” Romney agreed.

Romney conflated Iran with the killing of Osama bin Laden by way of congratulating the president for taking him out: “Of course, the greatest threat of all is Iran, four years closer to a nuclear weapon. And — and we're going to have to recognize that we have to do as the president has done. I congratulate him on — on taking out Osama bin Laden and going after the leadership in al-Qaida.”

On security for Israel, Romney said: “I want to underscore the — the same point the president made, which is that if I'm president of the United States, when I'm president of the United States, we will stand with Israel. And — and if Israel is attacked, we have their back, not just diplomatically, not just culturally, but militarily.” Romney agreed with the president.

And on Afghanistan, the mutha of all our foreign entanglements, the king of the ethical Etch a Sketch reversed his previous position in front of more than 55 million people and endorsed the Obama White House timeline for the United States’ exit from the Afghan War. “Well, we're going to be finished by 2014. And when I'm president, we'll make sure we bring our troops out by the end of 2014. The commanders and the generals there are on track to do so.”

This is a complete 180 from positions Romney took, publicly, more than once, in a variety of high-profile campaign events between earlier this year and earlier this month.

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WHAT HAPPENED last night was the breathtaking unraveling of a political campaign from the top down, in real time, on prime time — a willful shattering of the basic policy distinctions between his campaign and the president’s.

After the debate, Romney operatives were spinning faster than any centrifuges in Iran. Some characterized Romney’s statements that evening in the context of an “evolution” or a “revision” of previous thinking. They couldn’t be more wrong.

On some pressing matters of foreign policy, there’s apparently not much more than an inch of daylight between Romney and Obama. The distinctions Romney did have with Obama on several issues — dealing with Egypt, isolation of Iran, sanctions against Syria, the centrality of Israel in U.S. geopolitical calculations in the Middle East — are mostly matters of nuance and degree, not an outright divergence of opinion.

What we saw last night wasn’t an evolution, it was a lurch from one lane to another in search of an exit ramp. It was a blatant, desperate, hamfisted bid to shift to the political center, where most Americans are. But the more Romney moderated his positions last night on just about everything tied to foreign policy, the more he revealed how much he said he and the president have in common, the more he disavowed his own campaign’s reason for being.

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Except when there was daylight between them — acres of it, and something the president didn’t let Romney forget.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Dirty tricks in the Old Dominion

UP TO NOW, the idea of voter suppression in November has been mostly just that — an idea, something we’ve seen and read about in terms that were disturbing but conditional: “This is how bad it could get.” What a difference 48 hours makes. In that time, by way of the state of Virginia, the fear of voter suppression became as real as it gets, as real as the contents of a trash can in a north Virginia town.

Our first alert was a global Tuesday tweet from Taylor Dobbs, which linked to the Not Larry Sabato Web site of political observations and analysis … which linked to the Facebook page of Rob Johnson, who posted this on Oct. 15, from near Harrisonburg, Va.:

I just saw a guy throw a bag of trash in my cardboard dumpster and speed off. I went to get the bag and throw it in the trash dumpster. In the bag was a folder containing FILLED OUT VIRGINIA VOTER REGISTRATION FORMS!! I called the Harrisonburg Registrars office and they sent the police who said they really didn't know what to do in a case like this because it’s never happened before. The police took the forms and left. I'm really concerned because today is the last day in Virginia to register to vote and if these forms are tied up while trying to figure out what to do, will these people be allowed to vote???

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We don’t have the source or sources of his information, but Not Larry Sabato wrote this with some conviction last week: “The car that drove up was a black Toyota Camry with Pennsylvania license plates. Who would be in the Valley from Pennsylvania and have a bunch of completed voter registration forms that they wanted to destroy?

“Once this story hit Facebook, a number of people pointed out to the person who witnessed this crime that the state GOP 'Victory Office' was just a couple blocks away. Yesterday afternoon, guess what car was parked in front of the office?

“Yep, a black Toyota Camry from Pennsylvania.

“Police are investigating and the local media has begun reporting on this story. The Sheriff (a Republican) has said the person who destroyed the forms was a different person than who collected them.”

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NOW WE KNOW the rest. Talking Points memo reported this on Thursday: “A Pennsylvania man employed by a company working for the Republican Party of Virginia was arrested by investigators from the Rockingham County Sheriff’s office on Thursday and charged with destroying voter registration forms.

“Colin Small, a 23-year-old resident of Phoenixville, Pa., worked for Pinpoint, a company hired to register voters on behalf of the Republican Party of Virginia. Prosecutors charged him with four counts of destruction of voter registration applications, eight counts of failing to disclose voter registration applications and one count of obstruction of justice.”

“Rockingham County Sheriff Bryan Hutcheson’s office said there was no indication that the activity was widespread in their jurisdiction and said the conduct ‘appears to be limited in nature.’ His office said there is a possibility that additional charges may be filed.”

That last sentence is important. If in fact Small’s not the same person who collected the forms, we may be looking at conspiracy, whether such charges are filed or not.

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Happily, the forms were apparently returned to the Rockingham County registrar’s office. And as you might expect, Small was thrown under the bus by the employer of his employer — the Republican Party of Virginia. But as you also might expect, that’s not end of story. There’s other chicanery in the Old Dominion.

Dan Froomkin of The Huffington Post reported: “The Virginia State Board of Elections is warning residents that ‘some Virginia voters, particularly older Virginians, are receiving phone calls from unidentified individuals informing voters that they can vote over the phone. This information is false.’

“In Florida, the 866-OUR-VOTE election protection hotline run by the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law has received a report of a similar calls in Florida.”

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AND FROOMKIN reported that this isn’t just a Virginia thing: “The lawyers' committee is also investigating reports from callers into African-American and Spanish-language radio stations in Florida that they had received warnings over the phone that election officials would be checking car insurance and registration status at the polls.”

How much farther this virus spreads is up for debate. Wherever it tries to surface in the next 16 days, we can, ironically, thank Colin Small for the service he’s accidentally rendered to the American people.

His attempt at a document dump in a small town in Virginia should wake us up to the possibility of similar actions going on across the country … and alert us to just how dangerously shameless some people are willing to be, how far they’re prepared to go, to disconnect you from the right to vote.

Image credits: Small: Rockingham County Sheriff’s Office booking photo. Facebook logo: © 2012 Facebook.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Obama-Romney II: The president, on point

IT’S A LONG fight to Election Day, and last night, like before, President Obama played more of the long game against his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney. What I’d originally thought was a “stealth TKO” for the president at the debate in Denver was actually the first third of a heavyweight fight.

For a lot of people (and nearly every political analyst), the Denver debate was a triumph of aggression at the expense of insight. We always knew Romney could be something of a bully, and he proved it in Denver. Or he tried to. But being a bully is a short-term proposition. A comeuppance begins in the middle rounds.

The former Massachusetts governor got one last night, at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., at the hands of a president more animated, less cerebral, more in his element last night than he was in Denver. Last night he brought all the weapons at his disposal, first and foremost the ability to connect with voters in a way Romney does not and never did.

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Maybe it was destined to be a good night. Team Obama had gotten good news on two fronts earlier in the day: The Supreme Court restored early in-person voting in Ohio, letting stand a lower court ruling that will let that Ohio tradition resume before the Nov. 6 election.

And among those Americans who’ve already voted, Obama has a commanding lead over Romney, 59 percent to 31 percent, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll. “[Seven] 7 percent of those surveyed said they had already voted either in person or by mail,” Reuters reported. And almost forgot, Wall Street had a terrific day, with the Dow climbing 127 points.

But the president didn’t need tie-ins like that, welcome though they were. In four areas — women and the economy; immigration matters; the Libya tragedy and the devastating power of campaign optics — Obama succeeded last night unambiguously, on his own terms, prowling the stage, radiating an obvious self-confidence, following through on what he must have learned in Denver, letting Romney be Romney (again) and winning the second presidential debate in a flat-out walk.

◊ ◊ ◊

THROUGHOUT THE debate, Romney seemed to be holding serve. It was a big opportunity to punch through, to fully capitalize on his pugnacious performance in Denver. Last night was the time to close the sale. But Romney never did that; he relied again and again on the same bullet points and general concepts that have masqueraded as an economic plan for months. He was offering business-plan evangelism when the investors were waiting for the numbers.

“We don’t have to live like this,” he said at one point before regurgitating the same gauzy principles he’s been offering all year, and almost word for word.

The Romney five-point plan? “Energy independence for North America in five years —“

Specifically how, Governor?

“—Opening up more trade, particularly in Latin America —“

And how would this be done differently from what the president’s already doing with the three trade deals he signed last year, two of them with Latin American countries?

“—cracking down on China when they cheat—“

What are the details, sir?

“—Getting us to a balanced budget —“

Specifics, please? Please?

“— and finally, championing small business …”

All in all, more of the same boilerplate, PowerPoint sales pitch he’s been spouting since his campaign began.

◊ ◊ ◊

These generalities were joined by Romney’s ritual advertisements for himself, all debate long.

“I know what it takes to get this economy going.” “I know what it takes to create good jobs again.” “I know what it takes to make sure that you have the kind of opportunity you deserve.” “I know what it takes to make an economy work.” “I know what it takes to balance budgets.”

The president pushed back on all of it. Hard.

“Governor Romney’s says he’s got a five-point plan? Governor Romney doesn’t have a five-point plan. He has a one-point plan. And that plan is to make sure that folks at the top play by a different set of rules. That’s been his philosophy in the private sector, that’s been his philosophy as governor, that’s been his philosophy as a presidential candidate.

“You can make a lot of money and pay lower tax rates than somebody who makes a lot less. You can ship jobs overseas and get tax breaks for it. You can invest in a company, bankrupt it, lay off the workers, strip away their pensions, and you still make money.

“That’s exactly the philosophy that we’ve seen in place for the last decade. That’s what’s been squeezing middle class families. And we have fought back for four years to get out of that mess. The last thing we need to do is to go back to the very same policies that got us there.”

◊ ◊ ◊

OBAMA WAS asked: “In what new ways to you intend to rectify the inequalities in the workplace, specifically regarding females making only 72 percent of what their male counterparts earn?”

The president invoked the Lily Ledbetter Act, his first major piece of legislation. “And it’s named after this amazing woman who had been doing the same job as a man for years, found out that she was getting paid less, and the Supreme Court said that she couldn’t bring suit because she should have found about it earlier, whereas she had no way of finding out about it.

“So we fixed that. And that’s an example of the kind of advocacy that we need, because women are increasingly the breadwinners in the family. This is not just a women’s issue, this is a family issue, this is a middle-class issue, and that’s why we’ve got to fight for it.”

Romney’s solution? “What we can do to help young women and women of all ages is to have a strong economy, so strong that employers that are looking to find good employees and bringing them into their workforce and adapting to a flexible work schedule that gives women opportunities that they would otherwise not be able to afford.”

Well, isn’t that intelligent, enlightened employers are doing already?

◊ ◊ ◊

Later, in a broader discussion of advocacy for women, Obama followed up brilliantly:

“When Governor Romney says that we should eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood, there are millions of women all across the country, who rely on Planned Parenthood for, not just contraceptive care, they rely on it for mammograms, for cervical cancer screenings. That’s a pocketbook issue for women and families all across the country. And it makes a difference in terms of how well and effectively women are able to work. When we talk about child care, and the credits that we’re providing. That makes a difference in whether they can go out there and, and earn a living for their family.

“These are not just women’s issues. These are family issues. These are economic issues.”

Four words — “that’s a pocketbook issue” — will resonate with every woman under the American sun. You could see it in the faces of the people assembled, and women in particular. Those words told them, like nothing else could, Obama understands. He may or may not feel my pain, but he knows what my pain feels like.

And in a horse race of an election, that could make all the difference.

◊ ◊ ◊

FOR FIVE weeks, Team Romney has been hoping to score the president on the crisis in Libya, sparked by a Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi in which four Americans were killed. But last night, rather than focus on the more salient, more substantive points of the administration’s lackluster explanations of what happened and how we could have prevented it, Romney tried to play the gotcha game, letting things drift into imagistics.

"I think it's interesting the president said something, which is on the day after the attack he went in the Rose Garden and said this was an act of terror," Romney said, then turning to Obama. "You said in the Rose Garden the day after the attack, it was an act of terror? It was not a spontaneous demonstration, is that what you are saying?"

“I want to make sure we get that for the record,” Romney continued, his eyes widening. “It took the president 14 days before he called it an act of terror.”

“Get the transcript,” Obama said, and CNN’s uncannily prepared Candy Crowley did just that, on the spot — pulling out a document that showed that the president was right. “He did, in fact, call it an act of terror,” she told Romney, alluding to the Presdient’s statement in the Rose Garden on Sept. 12.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Some questions for the Governor

YOU JUST know it’s coming: At tonight’s second presidential debate of the 2012 season, a town-hall affair in which the questions come from everyday people, somebody — either a senior citizen with deep concerns about the state of the nation he or she grew up in, or some earnest undergraduate wiseass who loves disruption for its own sake — will ask The Question that resonates for years to come. It will, inevitably, be the one question that the campaigns didn’t wargame for.

When the debate swings to foreign policy, as is expected tonight, Mitt Romney, still on the glide path from a recent resurgence in the polls, may want to be sure he’s not walking around the cabin of the aircraft. Based on what's available through the public record, he might expect a little, uh, turbulence.

For the last year, Romney’s perspective of life and lives outside the United States has been crowded with misstatements and an almost brazen insensitivity to cultures and traditions outside his own. Add to that a series of outright reversals of his own policies on various global situations, and you’re left with a candidate vulnerable on different fronts.

I won’t be there in the hall to ask questions at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., and probably neither will you. But let’s pretend we’ve got the Republican nominee all to ourselves.

◊ ◊ ◊

Governor Romney: At your speech at the Virginia Military Institute on Oct. 8, you said, “The President has not signed one new free trade agreement in the past four years. I will reverse that failure. I will work with nations around the world that are committed to the principles of free enterprise, expanding existing relationships and establishing new ones.”

Last October, of course, in an Oval Office ceremony, President Obama signed not one but three trade deals with Colombia, Panama and South Korea, agreements that were years in development and which could reap billions for U.S. exporters in years to come.

Even House Speaker John Boehner was cool with it, saying in a statement that “years of perseverance have been rewarded today as American job creators will have new opportunities to expand … While this day took too long to come, manufacturers, farmers, and small businesses can now be more competitive in the global marketplace.”

Governor Romney, would you like to correct that — for the record?

◊ ◊ ◊

AMONG THE other, more virally circulated comments you made in Boca Raton, back in May, you held forth on the situation in the Middle East: “I look at the Palestinians not wanting to see peace anyway, for political purposes, committed to the destruction and elimination of Israel, and these thorny issues, and I say there’s just no way. So what you do is, you say, you move things along the best way you can. You hope for some degree of stability, but you recognize that this is going to remain an unsolved problem ... and we kick the ball down the field and hope that ultimately, somehow, something will happen and resolve it.”

That’s a real walkback from what you said at VMI: “Finally, I will recommit America to the goal of a democratic, prosperous Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with the Jewish state of Israel. On this vital issue, the President has failed, and what should be a negotiation process has devolved into a series of heated disputes at the United Nations. In this old conflict, as in every challenge we face in the Middle East, only a new President will bring the chance to begin anew.”

Mr. Romney, these seem to be more than just tweaks or refinements to a defined, articulated geopolitical overview. This sounds like something from a man without a philosophical compass. Which position is your current position? Never mind “current” position — what’s your real position?

◊ ◊ ◊

You’ve lately made a lot out of the tragic situation that began on Sept. 11, when Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed in an attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. You’ve taken President Obama to task more than once for a lack of embassy security.

But in 2011 and 2012, the Republican-led House cut the president’s funding request for embassy security and related purposes by $500 million. The budget proposed by your own running mate, Paul Ryan, would slash spending in the area by another 10 percent in 2013, and even more down the road.

Just last week, interviewed by CNN, Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz, said he “absolutely” voted to cut embassy security funding. “When you’re in touch economic times, you have to make difficult choices. You have to prioritize things.”

Governor Romney, how the hell do you square your position on the need for more embassy security with your party’s position, and your running mate’s position, on refusing to pay for the security you say our embassies need?

◊ ◊ ◊

OH YEAH: Shortly after your VMI speech last week, you went into a roundtable of retired admirals and generals and said this — with a perfectly straight face, according to a video of the event:

“Back in 2008, during the presidential debates, there were no discussions of terrorism. And, uh, yet, a year later, the world was changed.”

Let’s set aside for the moment the numerous times that Sen. John McCain and then-Sen. Barack Obama did in fact mention terrorism in that year’s debates. Never mind that verifiable claptrap, just one more of the aggressive factual errors you’ve been performing all year.

Take note of what you told the generals: “a year later, the world was changed.”

WTF did you mean when you said that? What could have so changed the world in 2009? Did you mean the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States?

Or did you, he who would be president of the United States, manage to confuse 2009 with 2001, the year of 9/11 and the war footing we’ve been on ever since?

Thank you, Governor.

Image credits: Romney at VMI: via youtube. Obama signs trade deals: Pete Souza/The White House. Stevens: State Department (public domain). Chaffetz: U.S. House (public domain).

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Biden-Ryan: The mensch wins

WHEN HISTORIANS and political studies students and loudmouths like me look back on the 2012 presidential campaign, they’ll watch for the pivot points that occurred before Election Day, the things that, in retrospect, affected the outcome on Election Day.

We got one of those from Centre College in Danville, Ky., on Thursday night, the night when the Republican congressman from Wisconsin became the unwitting customer of the Joseph R. Biden Clock Cleaning Company.

It was the same night that, by way of articulating the policies of any Romney-Ryan administration on a woman’s right to the self-determination of her own body, Paul Ryan effectively alienated women voters in the United States, the cohort of the American electorate that may well determine the outcome of this election.

◊ ◊ ◊

They were what they needed to be: able proxies for the men at the top of their tickets, reliable ambassadors for policy on the one hand and proposals on the other. Vice President Biden’s direct, voluble, plain-spoken approach — like his boss, he wasn’t afraid to make a habit of looking directly into the camera — contrasted with Ryan’s technocratic, data-driven style, more earnest and willfully implacable.

The early flash poll scorecards were split: CBS News’ flash survey gave Biden a clear win by 19 points (50 to 31), but a CNN/ORC flash poll gave Ryan an edge of a win, 44 to 48. But later surveys cemented the first impressions: that Vice President Biden’s compelling blend of energy and experience carried the night. “It was a man against a boy,” said Ed Schultz on MSNBC.

And consistent with a tenet of “The Art of War” — a battle is won or lost before it is ever fought — Ryan was also wounded by his own campaign’s policies. To the extent that Ryan said the RomneyRyan ticket agreed with various policies and plans that the Obama administration has already undertaken or proposed, the advantage had to go to Biden, the representative of the administration that put those policies and plans in place.

Nothing undercuts a challenger’s claim to election like proposing to do what the incumbent already does.

◊ ◊ ◊

THE NIMBLE, engaged, righteously aggressive moderator, Martha Raddatz of ABC News, opened with the issue of Libya, and her recognition of the fact that, “one month ago tonight, on the anniversary of 9/11, Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other brave Americans were killed in a terrorist attack in Benghazi. The State Department has now made clear, there were no protesters there. It was a pre-planned assault by heavily armed men. Wasn't this a massive intelligence failure, Vice President Biden?”

“What is was, it was a tragedy, Martha,” Biden said before expressing the administration’s commitment to finding the ones who killed the Americans in Benghazi, and going on offense against Team Romney for its positions on Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ryan seemed to take an early round by pointing out the inconsistencies of information about those responsible for the attack on the U.S. Consulate — the classic who-knew-what-and-when interrogatory. “It took the president two weeks to acknowledge that this was a terrorist attack,” Ryan said.

“Look, if we're hit by terrorists we're going to call it for what it is, a terrorist attack. Our ambassador in Paris has a Marine detachment guarding him. Shouldn't we have a Marine detachment guarding our ambassador in Benghazi, a place where we knew that there was an al-Qaida cell with arms? This is becoming more troubling by the day.”

◊ ◊ ◊

“Now, with respect to Afghanistan, the 2014 deadline, we agree with a 2014 transition," Ryan said.  “But what we also want it to do is make sure that we're not projecting weakness abroad, and that's what's happening here. This Benghazi issue would be a tragedy in and of itself, but unfortunately it's indicative of a broader problem. And that is what we are watching on our TV screens is the unraveling of the Obama foreign policy, which is making the world more chaotic, and us less safe.”

But Biden responded well on the Libya question, faulting Ryan on his own voting record. “With all due respect, that's a bunch of malarkey,” he said. “The congressman here cut embassy security,” he said, a reference to the fact that, as reported by The Washington Post, “House Republicans reduced administration requests for embassy security funding by $128 million in fiscal 2011 and $331 million in fiscal 2012.” And under the Ryan budget, embassy security would lose $400 million more.

Despite his jingo bluster, Ryan was undercut on this vital international matter by his party’s votes, and his own. He got hammered again with a more direct exchange about the Afghan exit:

BIDEN DEFENDED the Obama administration’s rescue of the auto industry, something of deep importance to the people of swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania.

“We knew we had to act for the middle class. We immediately went
 out and rescued General Motors. We went ahead and made sure that we
 cut taxes for the middle class. And in addition to that, when that, 
when that occurred, what did Romney do? Romney said, ‘No, let Detroit 
go bankrupt.’ We moved in and helped people refinance their homes.
Governor Romney said, ‘No, let foreclosures hit the bottom.’”

And then Biden Went There — invoked the issue of the 47 percent, the percentage of Americans that Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee, infamously said didn’t care about their own lives.

“But it shouldn't be surprising for a guy who says 47 percent of 
the American people are unwilling to take responsibility for their own
 lives,” Biden said. Then in a reference to Ryan himself: “My friend recently in a speech in Washington said 30 percent
 of the American people are takers."

◊ ◊ ◊

“These people are my mom and dad, the people I grew up with, my 
neighbors,” Biden said. “They pay more effective tax than Governor Romney pays in
 his federal income tax. They are elderly people who in fact are 
living off of Social Security. They are veterans and people fighting 
in Afghanistan right now who are, quote, ‘not paying any tax.’”

“I've had it up to here with this notion that 47 percent — it's
 about time they take some responsibility here. And instead of signing 
pledges to Grover Norquist not to ask the wealthiest among us to 
contribute to bring back the middle class, they should be signing a 
pledge saying to the middle class, ‘we're going to level the playing 
field; we're going to give you a fair shot again; we are going to not
 repeat the mistakes we made in the past by having a different set of
 rules for Wall Street and Main Street, making sure that we continue to
 hemorrhage these tax cuts for the super wealthy.’”

◊ ◊ ◊

THIS KIND of thing, this hoisting of Ryan on his own rhetorical petards, happened more than once. The vice president, for example, laughed at Ryan for his past and frequent attacks on the $830 billion Obama stimulus, reminding him that he requested stimulus funding for his own state.

“I love my friend here," Biden said. “I'm not allowed to show letters here, but go on our Website. He sent me two letters saying, by the way, can you send me some stimulus money for companies here in the state of Wisconsin?"

“You did ask for stimulus money, correct?” Raddatz asked Ryan.

“On two occasions we, we, we advocated for constituents
 who were applying for grants. That's what we do. We do that for all 
constituents who are ...”

Biden smiled. “I love that, I love that,” he said, laughing. “This is such a bad program and he writes me a letter saying -- writes the Department of Energy a letter — saying ‘the reason we need this stimulus, it will create growth and jobs.’ His words. And now he's sitting here looking at me.”

“I wish he would just tell the — be a little more candid.”

◊ ◊ ◊

There were other unforced errors, the kind that originated from Romney campaign policy. Ryan said his ticket agreed with the Obama administration on sanctions against Iran, on placing no troops in Syria, and on the 2014 Afghan timeline. All that was counterproductive enough.

But the most damage done to Ryan was on abortion and women’s reproductive rights. The positions taken by Biden and Ryan on these matters brought the positions of their respective parties and party philosophies into sharp relief. The contrasts couldn’t be more obvious; for RomneyRyan, those contrasts couldn’t be more problematic.

When Raddatz asked about their personal views of abortion, and those views' proximity to the intersection of faith and national law, Ryan said: “I don't see how a person can separate their public life
 from their private life or from their faith. Our faith informs us in
 everything we do. My faith informs me about how to take care of the
 vulnerable, of how to make sure that people have a chance in life.

“Now, you want to ask basically why I'm pro-life? It's not
 simply because of my Catholic faith. That's a factor, of course. But
it's also because of reason and science.

“… Now I believe that life
 begins at conception. That's why, those are the reasons why I'm pro-life. Now I 
understand this is a difficult issue, and I respect people who don't
agree with me on this, but the policy of a Romney administration will
be to oppose abortion with the exceptions for rape, incest and life 
of the mother.”

Later, Raddatz followed up. “If
 the Romney-Ryan ticket is elected, should those who believe that
abortion should remain legal be worried?

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The 7.8 percent dissolution:
Politicizing the unemployment rate

THERE'S NOTHING like good news to make people a little ... unhinged. The United States got some on when the Labor Department reported that the U.S. unemployment rate dropped to 7.8 percent last month, falling below 8 percent for the first time since Barack Obama took office as president.

Conservatives in the business media and the political arena lined up for the expected ritual denunciation of the best good news the economy had in quite a while. But for all the gnashing of teeth from business tycoons and the conservative media, the new unemployment figures are most problematic — and potentially damaging — for the man who built his campaign around those numbers being as bad as possible: Mitt Romney.

◊ ◊ ◊

Explaining the rate’s drop from 8.1 percent, the Labor Department said Friday that U.S. employers added 114,000 jobs in September. And icing on the icing on the cake: The agency also reported that the national economy actually created 86,000 more jobs in July and August than originally estimated.

It’s a great day for America, right? Apparently, that depends on who you are. Some people don’t know what to do with good news.

No sooner did we get the figures from Bureau of Labor Statistics, which operates as part of the Department of Labor, than the conservative long knives came out.

Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric and a longtime champion of conservative politics, tweeted his reaction: “Unbelievable jobs numbers..these Chicago guys will do anything..can't debate so change numbers.”

It was a doubly nasty cheap shot, one that impugned the reputation of the Obama administration and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which operates in a nonpartisan fashion. Still something of a showboat years after exiting the high-profile GE gig and writing several successful books, Welch took to the airwaves to make his case.

“I have no idea where this number came from,” he told the folks in the friendly confines of Fox News. “I don't know what the right number is, but I'll tell you these numbers don’t smell right when you think about where the economy is right now.”

◊ ◊ ◊

ON MSNBC, Welch brawled with “Hardball” host and network alpha male Chris Matthews: “...What evidence do you have that they got to the [Bureau of Labor Statistics]?” he said.

“I have no evidence to prove that, I just raised the question,” Welch said.

“No, you didn't raise the question,” Matthews said. “You were asserting ... did you talk to any economists?”

"I know that these numbers are gathered by a series of wild assumptions," Welch said.
"Do you want to take that back?" Matthews asked. "This is an assertion that there was jimmying with these numbers."

When Welch laughed, Matthews shouted, "It's not funny, Jack!"

Matthews was right; it way less funny than it was sad that Welch, a proven business leader, the severely conservative gerbil titan of American industry, would take to social media and go on TV to suggest the president of the United States could be part of an attempt to manipulate unemployment statistics with the collusion of a reliably nonpartisan federal agency — and do it without a shred of evidence, with nothing more to support the claim than his intuition, a hunch, the hairs standing up on the back of his neck.

◊ ◊ ◊

WORD OF Welch’s shrill defense of his aroused suspicion got around, and fast. The Huffington Post had the headline of the day: “JACK SNAPS.”

Eamon Javers, Washington correspondent for CNBC, tweeted: “These BLS truthers (jobbers?) are starting to make the UFO people look credible. Please produce your evidence.”

As you’d expect, Welch has since walked back his claim. He took to the twitterverse again, on Sunday, denying he had directly accused the Obama White House of anything with his slam against “Chicago guys.”

"Have never commented on White House in any tweets I can recall," Welch tweeted on Sunday.

◊ ◊ ◊

Welch wasn’t alone in his thinly veiled whisper of corruption, of course. Stuart Varney at Fox News and Florida GOP Rep. Allen West joined the chorus in suggesting (or, in West’s case, stating “absolutely”) that the Bureau of Labor Statistics cooked the books on the president’s behalf — again with nothing more than a sour cynicism to support their claims.

“I told you they'd get it under 8 percent — they did!” said CNBC’s caffeinated chowderhead analyst Rick Santelli on Friday, barely concealing the disdain he’s had for the Obama administration for years. “You can let America decide how they got there!”

Friday, October 5, 2012

Can’t ‘win’ for losing:
Romney and the post-debate debate

FORTY-EIGHT hours after holding serve in the first presidential debate, Mitt Romney is in a curious position: While much of the punditburo proclaimed Romney the winner in Wednesday’s debate on elements of style, Team Romney has had to release corrections to some of the candidate’s debate-night statements — the kind of backing & filling you expect from the loser.

And in his zeal to project an image of fiscal rectitude, Romney made an enemy of a beloved icon of childhood and early learning. As President Obama showed on Wednesday, there’s more than one way to “win” a debate. As Romney has shown in the days since, there’s more than one way to lose one.

◊ ◊ ◊

In the Walk It Back Dept., Romney campaign honcho Eric Fehrnstrom had to retract some of Romney’s debate-night comments on health care. Romney said that “preexisting conditions are covered under my plan. … In fact, I do have a plan that deals with people with pre-existing conditions. That’s part of my health care plan.”

Never mind the fact that Romney has no health-care plan (besides the DNA within the one that’s federal law). After the debate, Fehrnstrom told Evan McMorris-Santoro of Talking Points Memo that those who lack coverage now due to pre-existing conditions would need their states to enact their own laws barring insurance companies from discrimination. In short: “You’re on your own if Obamacare is repealed, which is what we want to do.”

Team Romney also walked back the candidate’s debate-night assertion that “about half” of the renewable energy companies backed by the Obama administration “have gone out of business.” Right after the debate, Politico responded to that hazy recollection with facts.

Politico reported that Romney “was referring only to the first seven green energy companies to get loan guarantees from one Energy Department program in 2009 and 2010. Three of them — including the solar company Solyndra — have since filed for bankruptcy, and ‘a fourth is on the verge,’ a Romney campaign aide said by email.

“Romney’s stats didn’t include the 19 companies that later received loan guarantees under the same program. None of them went bankrupt, and some are even thriving.

“The three bankruptcies amounted to 12 percent of the total 26 companies — far less than half. ... Romney was basing his statistics on just the first two years of the program.”

◊ ◊ ◊

ALL THAT’S bad enough. But Romney’s bigger gaffe on Wednesday night came when he began to outline some of the things he’d cut from the federal budget if elected.

“I’m sorry, Jim, I’m gonna stop the subsidy to PBS,” Romney said Wednesday night in Denver, speaking to Jim Lehrer, whose “NewsHour” program is in the PBS lineup. “I like PBS, I love Big Bird — I actually like you too — but I am not going to keep spending money on things [we have] to borrow money from China to pay for.”

The portion of the federal budget that PBS occupies is about 1/100 of 1 percent.

The backlash was immediate. Loren Steffy at the Houston Chronicle: “PBS gets $444 million in government subsidies, Amtrak gets $1.4 billion and the arts endowment gets $146 million. Taken as a whole, the programs come to slightly more than $2 billion, which is so insignificant against the $1.1 trillion deficit that it's not worth mentioning.” Steffy said that, “as a deficit reducer, it's like throwing a few grains of sand over the rim of the Grand Canyon and saying you're fighting erosion.”

◊ ◊ ◊

The Big Bird thing may be more disruptive than Team Romney thinks. It points to something that has nothing to do with numbers. It has to do with a smallness about the campaign, a baseline punitive aspect in its spirit, a fundamental meanness that’s hard to spin away. Add to that the actual numbers involved — the miniscule dollars-and-cents savings to the budget by defunding PBS — and you have the emergence of a new unforced error by the Romney campaign, one that matters to educators, early-childhood advocates, and mothers of young children across this country. Most of whom vote.

Peggy Noonan understands that. “Watch out for Big Bird,” she wrote Friday in the Wall Street Journal. “Putting the merits and realities of overall PBS funding aside, Mr. Romney here gave a small gift to the incumbent. Democrats will merrily exploit it. Big Birds will start showing up outside Romney rallies, holding up signs saying "Don't Kill Me!" Think this through.”

Except that the Big Bird flap is more than a “small gift” to Team Obama already. It’s a big, wet kiss from an unlikely place, and it complicates the centrist outreach to a wider constituency that Romney is trying to make (quite belatedly).

◊ ◊ ◊

WHETHER HE intended it or not, Romney’s threat to Big Bird deepens the meme of Romney as heartless plutocrat; it intensifies his economic villain’s aspect and revives the idea of Romney as a man who’d happily exchange what’s popular for what’s political — what’s effective for what’s efficient.

Adding that to Romney’s well-documented “47 percent” philosophical big reveal in Boca Raton makes Romney look irretrievably insensitive — just what he doesn’t need right now. Optically, it’s unspinnable: If Romney’d just mentioned PBS and let it go at that, he might have been OK. But the moment he mentioned Big Bird, he put a face on an otherwise nondescript organization taking government money. Romney made it personal, and in the process, he made a problem for himself. And maybe a big one.

Mary Elizabeth Williams got this in a recent piece for Salon: “It's one thing to try to go all folksy, man of the people, we won't make poor struggling Americans pay for your highfalutin’ Der Ring des Nibelungen marathons and your Frontline documentaries about homosexual artists, and it is quite another entirely to go after Big Bird.

“You. Do. Not. Screw. With. Big. Bird.... Going after Big Bird is like putting down baseball and rainbows and YouTube videos of otter pups. You just don't.”

◊ ◊ ◊

THE BETTING window is now open as to how long it takes Team Romney to walk back his assault on Big Bird, and by extension retract an attack on an organization serving the wider spiritual needs of the nation — and doing so at a relative bargain given the immensity of the rest of the budget.

If it happens (or more likely when), the Romney campaign will swallow another reality check, one the public already gets: It’s easier being green than it is being nothing at all.

Image credits: Romney: Pool from Oct. 3, 2012, debate. Talking Points memo logo: © 2012 TPM Media LLC. Big Bird poster: Unknown artist; image recalls the design style of Shepard Fairey. Tweets by their respective creators. 

UPDATE: Oct. 7 — Now it’s really getting personal. Diane Mapes, my sister in letters, posted to Facebook a picture of her impossibly adorable niece, Nora, who’s lodging her own protest against Mitt Romney’s plans to send Big Bird packing. When all’s said and done, when politicians have had their say and the budget wonks have spoken … this is what it comes down to. If Nora and the millions like her around this country have anything to say about it (and they do by way of their parents, who vote), Romney better find something else in the budget to cut. Back off, Mittens. You don't know who you're messing with.
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