Friday, September 30, 2011

“Don’t be Cruel”: The Limits of Republican Compassion

Since when have cruelty and greed have become politically and ethically acceptable in America? From the looks of the base of the Republican Party, both seem to be selling in 2011.

Just look at Republican presidential contenders and the debates so far. Rick Perry gets applause from the audience when he stated that he presided over more than 200 executions in his state. Conversely he gets attacked for using the word compassion when advocating some route for illegal aliens to get citizenship in America. States such as Arizona pass laws to randomly stop and question individuals who look illegal; Alabama adopts a law punishing the children of illegal aliens. Republican candidates jockey for position to show who is tougher on immigration. They talk of building fences and deploying troops to barricade the Mexican border, and proposals to amendment the Fourteenth Amendment to limit citizenship receive applause.

An openly gay solder Stephen Hill asks a question at the Orlando, Florida Republican debate and he is booed by the audience and then literally denounced by the candidates. No one thanks him for his service, for placing his life on the line. Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, and the rest of the candidates acted as if he did not exist, denouncing homosexuality as wrong and gay marriage as evil.

But there is more cruelty and greed. Unemployment is 9% and underemployed near 16%. The delinquency rate for homes (homes foreclosed or facing foreclosure) is above 8%–nearly one out of twelve owners are in danger of losing their homes. In 2010, 15.1%, of the population, representing a record 46 million, are in poverty. Record numbers of women, children, and people of color are in poverty. Nearly 50,000,000 are without health insurance. Better girls get cervical cancer than receiver the HPV. Better that children get aids or sexually-transmitted diseases than talk of birth control. Better women give birth to unwanted babies the product of rape than allow for the sale of RU 486. Children go hungry to underfunded schools.

But the GOP fiddles while America burns. They say we need to slash government spending, cut back on social services, preserve tax cuts for millionaires, and punish people who come to America seeking a better life. Cut back on disaster relieve and FEMA funding to extract budget cuts. Somehow the free market will save us all. Yes, the same free market that brought us the market crash, the mortgage crisis and the subprime problems, tainted meat and cantaloupes,

At one time America was the embodiment of the inscription of the Statue of Liberty--“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” But no more. How did this all happen?

Perhaps it began with Ronald Reagan asking in 1980 “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” Such a question made greed acceptable. Maybe it was Rick Santelli’s 2009 rant on CNBC against government bailouts to help owners that spurred the emergence of the Tea party. Who knows! The issue is that the anger expressed this year in the Republican presidential debates is so un-American and unpatriotic. And an unchristian.

Social conservatives talk of America as a Christian nation. I thought compassion and charity were the essence of Christianity. At least this is the version I learned growing up. But somehow the social conservatives seem inured to social compassion. They fail to practice what their faith preaches. This is not my Christianity, my America, my vision of socially responsible capitalism. Adam Smith, author of the economic classic Wealth of Nations, also wrote the Theory of Moral Sentiments and of the virtues of social compassion. America’s legacy is one of open arms to help others. Christianity of a religion embracing the golden rule.

America is not a suicide pack. We are in it together–we are supposed to be one nation-indivisible. We should be helping one another–with the thought that on another day they will help us. This is the America I grew up in.

My question to the Republican presidential candidates and members–“Have you no sense of decency?”

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Made for Television Campaign: Or why there are so many debates and is anyone listening?

Another day, another Republican presidential debate. Thursday night witnessed another debate–the third in 15 days–among the GOP contenders for president. Yet what did we learn about the candidates from it? Perhaps no more than they are artful at reciting their talking points. The debates revealed no new policy insights, no growth or development in positions, and no breakthroughs in terms of more detail on positions already articulated. The debate was an exercise in carefully delivering choreographed and rehearsed statements that had been pretested and repeated in the past.

Yet the debate leads one to ask why so many debates now, is anyone paying attention, and why has the dialogue and statements by the candidates appeared to have frozen?

Why so many debates so early?
State competition for attention.

The general election for presidential is November 2012–more than fourteen months from now. The real Iowa caucus is in February 2012–approximately five months from now. Why all the debates so soon? The simple answer is money and the expansion of primaries.

Think back to 1960 when Kennedy ran for president. There were very few primaries and the first was in New Hampshire and it generally did not take place until the spring of the election year. Most states then still did party conventions. In an era when few primaries existed one did not really begin running for president until late in the year before the election. More realistically, declarations to run for president took place early in the election year. Primaries and state conventions took place in the spring and ended by June and the general election more or less began around Labor Day. The campaign season was short.

But now nearly every state has a primary or secondarily a caucus. The expansion of democracy with parties to move presidential selection beyond the state convention and let party rank and file select their candidates really begin in the 1970s–especially with Jimmy Carter in 1976. This change has several implications. First, delegate selection at caucuses and primaries has made state parties and events more powerful and important than the national party convention. The latter now are more photo opps or coronations than real events to select presidential candidates. The power to select presidential candidates thus has shifted to the state level.

Second, the explosion of primaries and conventions requires space and time. There needs to be time and space on the calendar to hold all the caucuses and primaries Presidential candidates need time to reach voters in those states. They need to campaign in those states. Moreover, each state wants to be influential–it wants candidates to come to their state to campaign and it wants their state to be the one that has a real say in who the next president will be. States thus compete for presidential selection influence with one another. This has gradually pushed out the primary and convention season and led to state parties coming up with crafting ways to expand influence–straw polls and early primaries for example. Each event thus takes on special importance, especially when it is early–as each of these events come to be seen as significant or an early clue about viability. Moreover, parties use events such as straw polls and debates to bring attention to themselves, and also as fund raising tools.

But unlike with a convention where presidential candidates only needed to reach a small number of delegates, primaries and caucuses require them to potentially reach thousands or millions of voters in a state. The only way that is possible is via the mass media-television. Thus state campaigns are not simply personal appearances and speeches to ask for votes–they are media campaigns too reaching out to potential voters. All this requires money.

Thus, the campaign season is longer to accommodate competition among states to gain an edge in presidential selection in an era where national conventions mean little and state primaries and caucuses have each become mini-presidential campaigns requiring money and media exposure. Thus, each state wants to run a debate or do a straw pool as early as possible to maximize influence.

But what do we learn?

Debates are scripted with talking points that are poll-tested and focus-grouped researched. Watch several debates and one will hear Bachmann repeat for the umteenth time: “I will not rest until we repeal Obamacare.” Why repeated so much without elaboration or development? These are talking points geared to the way we consume news.

In 2004 I watched the debates between Bush and Kerry. Every 30 minutes they repeated their lines and statements already stated the previous hour. Why? They understand the concept of the 30 minute tv cycle. People tun in and out on a 30 minute cycle. We are conditioned to view tv in the 30 minute sit-com chunk. Repeat your lines for each half hour time slot and you maximize your messaging.

Now combine that with candidates having test marketed their comments to reach specific audiences. The two together mean candidates repeat the same statements frequently in the same debate. They also now do the same in multiple debates.

Even worse. With so many debates candidates come to know what they will say, what their opponents will say, and what they should say, all based on audience reaction. Debates seemed seem scripted like plays and the lines actors rehearse in them. There seems to be minimal incentive to change your script unless it is not working for you, but that is hard for candidates to do. Think about Pawlenty’s inability to do this.

Finally, why are they televised? They rise of cable news and the 24/7 news cycle means airspace to fill. Debates are easy and cheap filler. Broadcast the debate, do a post debate analysis, and this keeps your analysts busy and audience and advertisers happy.

Are voters listening?

Most voters are not listening because nothing new is said. Each debate repeats the same lines from a previous debate. It is like watching the same movie several times. It gets stale.

What does all this suggest? The debates are saying little and Nielsen ratings probably confirm little viewership. They are scripted events that feed on themselves, producing little debate and serving little more than advertising events for candidates and state parties .

Moreover, it is only September 2011–13 months before the election. Most voters are zoned out, thinking more about other things–such as their kids, holding a job, and making sure they can pay their bills. None of these debates seem to offer any ideas on how to address these problems.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

It's About Jobs--Obama's Failing Quest for Reelection

President Obama gave a jobs speech about a week ago and it was clear that the job he is most worried about is his. Offering an anemic job proposal that neither the Republicans nor the Democrats in Congress find appealing, Obama is in political trouble, with a 60/40 chance that he will not get reelected. Why such dismal prospects?

Obama was a brilliant campaigner. He understood the basic rule of politics for how to get elected, yet as president and now in seeking reelection, he just does not seem to get it. What are these rules of politics? For our purposes, four rules are critical.

The first is that politics is like selling beer. By that, politics and political success are contingent upon developing a powerful narrative. Narratives are stories–they are stories that explain who you are as a candidate, what you hope to accomplish as president, what your view of the world is. Narratives are rhetorical and persuasive tools to convince voters to support you. Moreover, good narratives are positive and look to the future. Great example of past narratives are Reagan’s “Morning in America,” Clinton morphing Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop Thinking about Tomorrow” into a campaign mantra, and even Obama’s 2008 “Change we can believe in.” All were inspirational.

But where is Obama’s narrative now? The problem is he has no narrative. In 2010, the Democrats went down to defeat because either they had no narrative or at best, their narrative was “It could have been worse.” The latter, in reference to claims that had Obama not acted with the stimulus and Dodd-Frank the economy could have been worse. Such a narrative was neither inspirational not compelling. It died in the face of the a brilliant Republican narrative stolen from Obama in 2008–change.

The narrative again in 2012 for the Republicans will be change. Obama still lacks a narrative. His speech on jobs last week was an effort to cast himself with a narrative that it is “the economy stupid” and that he cares more about it than the Republicans. So far, that new narrative is not working.

The second rule of politics is mobilize your base. It is imperative to nail down your political base if running for office. You need to get them behind you, excited, and mobilized. Politics begins with dueling bases. If your base stays home and the other shows up, you are in trouble. As Woody Allen correctly stated: “Ninety percent of life is showing up.”

Obama’s base is eroding. Recent NY Times polls show that the unions, white working class, the young, and the liberals in his party are discouraged, and disappointed with Obama. It is for good reason–he blew them off too many times. He continuously gives into the Republicans instead of fighting for what his base wants. Somehow Obama the law professor believes that everyone will be reasonable and willing to compromise. It takes two to tango and only one side is dancing. Moreover, Obama consistently blew off supporters–stating that they had to wait on don’t ask don’t tell, gay marriage, changing rule son unionization, or dealing with the environment. He has told his supporters he has bigger fish to fry and that they must wait. Bad moves. The best way to disappoint supporters is to raise their expectations and then dash them.

The third rule is that politics is a bar fight. Fights in bars are won or lost by the ability to capture the audience to your side. In politics, this means the battle is for the swings. Even if each side mobilizes its political base, that does not guarantee victory because neither the Democrats not Republicans represent 50% +1 of the voters. Neither party has majority status. The battle is thus to capture the swing voters and states. Among voters, the suburban moms and moderates are the swings.

Obama’s new strategy is to refine himself as the moderate centrist, seeking to show he is reasonable and the Republicans are not. Obama’s job speech, his efforts to compromise on the debt deal, and so much more recently have been efforts to do this. Yet the efforts to create this new narrative have failed. He has failed to capture the swings, but luckily for him, the same is true for the Republicans.

Obama has failed to capture the swings because of his inability to propose economic plans deep and broad enough to really stimulate the economy and produce jobs. He has failed to address the mortgage crisis that continues to depress real estate prices, sales, and personal wealth. And he has done nothing to reinvigorate consumer demand. His jobs proposal was anemic and failed because it did not offer solutions to these problems. As so aptly stated by several small business owners at a talk to the Twin Cities West Chamber of Commerce: “Tax cuts will not encourage me to hire anyone. So long as no one wants to buy my products I have no reason to hire anyone and tax cuts are not going to change that.”

Finally, Obama has forgotten a fourth rule of politics–Rod Stewart is right--It’s about passion (in reference to a song he wrote many years ago). Passionate people are motivated and will vote and give money vote. They will show up. Obama seems to assume a dispirited base has nowhere to go but back to him. He banks on this and tries to appeal to swings (and a miserable Republican candidate) to pave his way to victory in 2012. However, a lethargic base and an inability to capture swing voters with an uninspiring narrative is certainly not a winning formula. Combine all this with 9% unemployment and a probable double-dip recession and that result is one more ex-president out of work.

In all fairness, the one thing Obama has going for him is that the Republican field is equally horrible. Perry and Bachmann are unappealing to swing voters and they lack any real plan for the economy and the nation. Romney is bland and boring and his narrative has failed to captivate, and Congress’ approval rating is 12%. The choices are bad, making it not much of a surprise that a third of the voters want a viable third party and many want to see other candidates run for president.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the Democrats need a challenger to Obama. They need an alternative to force the president to fight for his base and galvanize them. Obama needs to work for his party vote, he needs to define himself, he needs to learn how to fight. He has failed to do all of that so far, questioning both whether he deserves his party nomination and whether he can win reelection.

(Cartoon courtesy of the New Yorker Magazine.)

Thursday, September 8, 2011

And the loser is....Michelle Bachmann: Thoughts on the GOP Presidential Debate

It may not be clear who won the Wednesday night Republican presidential debate at the Reagan Library, but it is clear who lost and it was Michelle Bachmann. It may not be over for her yet, but she left the debate badly wounded and spiraling downward, ready to follow the path already forged by Tim Pawlenty a few weeks ago.

The Rise of Bachmann
Bachmann has had an amazing ride the last few months. Declaring her official candidacy the night of the New Hampshire presidential debate, she won it in part by being the new kid on the block, giving short quick answers, and simply holding her own compared to the other candidates. Her success, culminating in the Iowa Straw Poll victory a few weeks ago, was the product of several factors.

First, unlike the other candidates, she had a clear narrative that appealed to the Tea Party wing of the GOP. Without Palin in the race, the Republican Party remade in the ideology and image of her was lacking a candidate that captured the excitement of the Tea Partiers. Neither Romney, Pawlenty, nor the other contenders captured that excitement and appealed to them. Bachmann did. Thus, with the Tea Party bloc representing about one-quarter to one-third of the party, and with these individuals being highly motivated and likely to attend to show up for a straw vote or a grass roots activity (much like they did in August, 2009 to oppose Obamacare), Bachmann had an advantage for the start in appealing to and motivating this crowd.

Second, Bachmann had a clear Iowa strategy, drawing upon her birth in Waterloo. It was this strategy that knocked Pawlenty out of the race because he tool had an Iowa game plan, but it failed. Bachmann’s social and economic conservatism also appealed uniquely to an Iowa crowd too.

Thus, put together these factors–a remade Republican Party, no Palin or other Tea Party candidate, Bachmann’s message, the Iowa strategy, and her ability to appeal to a large bloc of voters–and you get a straw poll victory.

However, Bachmann peaked in Iowa.

Bachmann's Fall

The roots of her demise were obvious even before Wednesday night. Look at the debate in Iowa before the straw poll. She tangled with Pawlenty and managed to look petty in it. She did not rise above the crowd as she did in the New Hampshire debate. Moreover, she failed to say anything new or significant, simply repeating one-lines she always had–railing against Obamacare and seeking to defend her pithy legislative record against charges by Pawlenty that her accomplishments were insubstantial. Pawlenty was right and when Bachmann stated that her record included introducing the Consumer Lightbulb Freedom of Choice Act it was clear that no lightbulb over her head had gone on. It was beginning to flicker off.

Bachmann’s weaknesses have always been there but magnified in the last couple of weeks, coming into full view last night. Bachmann did not have much of a record of accomplishment. Moreover, she has zero qualifications when it comes to jobs and the economy and with unemployment at 9% plus, her inexperience was a liability waiting to happen. Moreover, Bachmann appealed to a bloc but needed to expand that appeal beyond a core group of supporters. She never did that. In fact, she could not do that. Her rhetoric was always clear in how it appealed to one group of people. There was no way she could redo her message to appeal to a broader constituency. New Hampshirites are fiscally but not socially conservative. Her rhetoric would not fly there.

Moreover, her rhetoric in the last few weeks doomed her too. Comments about earthquakes and floods on D.C. representing the wrath of God did not play well. Moreover, her naivety and lack of gravity and depth on issues was apparent. Other candidates rolled out jobs programs and developed ideas on foreign policy, Bachmann simply repeated her same old lines. Staff increasingly had to manage and apologize for her. She was being handled because who she was, was not working.

Moreover, the new kid on the block status was wearing thin. Remember when Trump, Cain, and Giuliani had risen to the top of the polls, only to fade soon? Bachmann suffered the same fate. Simply, she became boring–the worst fate for a candidate–and she lost the buzz.

But had no other Tea party candidates emerged should could have run a long way with a bloc of 30% of the party. But something happened–Rick Perry.

The Perry Factor
Perry immediately cut into Bachmann’s bloc support. She was unable in the last weeks to stem the hemorrhage, and the same was true last night. So think about how Bachmann got squeezed. She failed to hold on to Tea Party bloc and at the same time failed to expand her base. She was doomed.

Wednesday’s night debate revealed how far she had fallen. She was marginalized. She had few questions directed to her, little camera time, and no one really attacked her directly. When she did speak she repeated the banal one-liners she had used for weeks, revealing little growth or thought. She had no plan for the economy. Her responses were often incoherent and at least twice the moderators pointed out she had failed to answer the question and gave her another chance to answer. She failed on the second attempt too.

This was a big debate for Bachmann. She fell to third in the polls, she lost Ed Rollins and her campaign manager, and she needed to take on Perry and recapture momentum. She did nothing to reverse her decline. Now it is too soon to say it is over for her. The Iowa caucuses are months away. However, she is damaged now and may be in the downward swirl of money and support that Pawlenty faced a few weeks ago. She may not be toast yet but they're getting the butter out now.

Final Thoughts: Perry, Romney, Huntsman, Gingrich, and Palin
Perry is the front runner and may run the course of the ups and downs of the new kid on the bloc syndrome. The most disturbing part of the debate for him was the discussion of the death penalty. In 2000 George Bush looked almost gleeful in describing his record of execution in Texas. Perry came close to this too. Worse, the crowd applauded when he stated how many he had killed. This issue may appeal to a Texas and conservative base but not to a broad swing voter in an America much less supportive of execution than in 2000. Bush talked of compassionate conservativism–there was no compassion in Perry’s eyes or words last night.

Romney and Huntsman were the voices of reason last night. Romney defended Social Security and talked of jobs. Huntsman admonished the GOP not to be the party opposing science–it cannot reject climate science and evolution.

Gingrich? Where was he. He had almost no camera time even though he had important things to say.

Finally, if I were Sarah Palin watching the debate last night I would conclude that it is time to run for president. She too could cut into the Perry base and pull the Tea Partiers over to her. She has an opening.