Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Amending the Minnesota Constitution

Hi all:

On Thursday, November 1, 2012,  I presented  a talk at Central Lakes College, in Brainard, Minnesota entitled "Amending the Minnesota Constitution."  I prepared a Powerpoint presentation on the history of the amending the Minnesota Constitution that also included a discussion of the two amendments on the ballot this fall.  I upload the Powerpoint presentation to my web page and you can find it there.  At my Web page scroll down on the left until  you get to the section entitled "Amending the Minnesota Constitution."  Here  you will find and can download my presentation.   Feel free to share.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Road to the White House: How Obama could lose it

From a political science perspective Obama is strategically positioned to win the presidency on November 6.  If all the polls are correct Obama has well positioned himself to win the critical 270 Electoral Votes to win the presidency, even if he were to lose the popular vote.  This split in the Electoral Vote and popular vote is a real possibility, but there are so many signs pointing to an Obama victory. He has a better ground game than Romney, he has registered more voters, delivered more early voters to the polls.  He has the demographic advantage with women and people of color.  All of this points to an Obama victory.

Yet for months I have said that Obama should not even be in this race.  The economy should have doomed him already.  Unemployment has ticked down, the GDP is up slightly, durable goods sales are better as is true also with home sales.  But unemployment is still high and past history suggests presidency almost always lose with numbers like this.  If this coming jobs report is bad–or at least spun as bad–Obama is in real trouble because he will not be able to explain away the economy over the last weekend where the news will key in on that.

Additionally, Obama’s major failure all along has been the missing narrative.  Obama has not had a rationale for reelection since at least back to 2010.  The Democrats were trounced in 2010 because they lacked a narrative and even today Obama too still lacks one.  “Forward” is meaningless.  Presidents needs to make the case for why they deserve four more years and Romney has correctly hammered Obama for a failure to articulate a vision for the future.

 A weak economy and no vision–this is a recipe to lose.  All that has kept Obama in the race is that Romney is a weak candidate.  The mistake of the first debate was that Obama made Romney look like a viable alternative.

But there is something else going on right now that is less political science and more intuition and observational.  Obama does have a lead in the critical swing states but that support may be soft and eroding.

Consider for example the October 28, 2012 Star Tribune poll that gives Obama merely a three point lead in the state.   Minnesota should never be a swing state and if it is Obama is in danger.  There are some reasons to thing the poll is accurate.  The Democratic-Republican makeup of the poll is 38%-33%, just about what I think it is in the state.  This should be cause for Obama to worry.  But the land line-cellphone split of 80%-20% probably under samples those who would support Obama.  And the news of the president consolidating support among independents also suggests that the president is doing well in the state.  Yet in a state where the Marriage amendment might pass, many if not most of those who support it might also vote for Romney, Obama might want to consider one more visit to the state before election day.

But nationally there are also worries for Obama.  The Washington Post reports the largest racial divide in the electorate since 1988.  Obama should worry.  Political scientists Charles Tien, Richard Nadeau, and Michael Lewis-Beck concluded that Obama lost five percentage points of the popular vote due to his race.  This time around that see him losing about 3 points.  They may be wrong.  Many working class whites voted for Obama begrudgingly in 2008 because of the economy.  Obama has had a hard time sealing the deal with them this time around.  It is possible that at the last minute that do not go for him.   Here is also some evidence that the waitress moms–working class moms without college degrees, are not as strong supporters this time around and may waiver.

So much of Obama’s 2012 strategy (as I have noted before) is reminiscent of the 1980 Carter strategy to make Reagan look like a nut.  Yet in the last 96 hours of the election the race went from a tie to a Reagan blowout as millions of voters changed their minds.  Reagan’s “Are you better off” question resonated, as did the reality of the continued Iranian hostage crisis pointed to a presidency that appeared to  lack leadership.  Voters liked Reagan as a person and the disgust with the status quo was so powerful that they opted for change over status quo.

There is no Iranian hostage crisis today.  People like Obama better as a person.  Much early voting has taken place.  But there are still 5% undecided voters in the swing states.  Hurricane Sandy if badly handled by the president could further dent his leadership and competency image.  And the economy and race are still factors.

Pure political science suggests today an Obama victory.  Political intuition tempers that.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Minnesota's Constitutional Politics and the Tyranny of the Majority

 (Please note:  This blog is drawn from my comments at a October 26, 2012 conference at Hamline University sponsored by the Hamline University Law School that discussed the two constitutional amendments.)

The case against the Marriage and the Elections amendments can be made on many grounds.  But one argument often overlooked is that their proposal and perhaps adoption by the people represents what America’s constitutional framers feared most–the tyranny of the majority. 
    Consider the context that influenced the framing of the Constitution  in 1787.  On the one hand the framers feared strong central authority and power as exemplified by King George III.  Our American Declaration of Independence is literally an indictment of the king.  Conversely, events such as Shay’s rebellion 1786 instilled a fear of mob rule and the instability that accompanies it.  Thus, the writing of the Constitution set a task: Create a government powerful to maintain stability yet not too powerful to threaten individual liberty.
    This problem of politics is the subject of the Federalist Papers.  According to Alexander Hamilton and James Madison in Federalist 47 and 49, "all government rests on opinion" (Federalist, p. 329).  Public opinion is composed of the sentiments and passions of the majority of  people organized together for particular purposes.  Arguably the strength of popular government is that it rests upon public opinion, drawing its democratic impulse and authority from the consent of the government.   Yet, the weakness of republican government also rests upon public opinion. Alone, humans can be reasonable but not in crowds, at least this is the sentiment expressed in the Federalist.  Crowds and the crowd sociology turns individual thoughts into restless sentiment and passion.  Public opinion is both popular sentiment and popular sovereignty.  The sentiment of public opinion is the ruler in a popular democracy yet this sentiment is not firm but unstable, subject to frequent changes, and to fits of passion and excess.  But the real danger is how such public opinion can decay  and become destructive, degenerating into a faction.
    What is a faction for Madison and how do factions relate to speech and public opinion?  According to Madison:

By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority of minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.

Madison is saying four things about factions.  One, people join factions because of some common interest or, two, because of some common passion.  Three, factions can either be composed of a minority or a majority of the population.  However, while Madison is concerned about both types of faction, his real concern is with majority factions because the regular votes of the majority and the weakness of the minority will prevent the latter from being a real threat to others.  Finally, a faction is not defined as simply any band of people who share common impulses or interests.  Their association must be destructive of the rights of others or of the interests of the entire community.  The latter suggests that there is an identifiable common good that can be known and should be defended .  Individuals banding together, can do great things and pursue the public good, but they can also let their passions and interests run wild, thereby threatening the rights of others and the public good.
    Individuals have a propensity to band together for common base interests and desires and this pursuit of desires can constrain or distort the rights of others including the community.
    If a faction is simply a small portion of our society then the majority can outvote them. But what if a faction is composed of a majority, then what?   This is the question Madison asks and in Federalist 10 he states the core problem facing the framers: 

    When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular government, on the other hand, enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens. To secure the public good and private rights against the danger of such a faction, and at the same time to preserve the spirit and the form of popular government, is then the great object to which our inquiries are directed.

The issue for the framers was how to preserve individual liberty and popular government from the threats of majority faction.  Phrased otherwise, the problem, as Alexis DeTocqueville would later ask, is how can the American republic deal with the threats of the tyranny of the majority?  Another way of stating it: How to balance majority rule with minority rights?  How does one allow for majority opinion to rule, as it should in a popular government, but not let it become destructive to minority rights?
    The constitutional solution is a complex combination of ways to break up political power and slow down the forces of political change.  It involves appeals to separation of powers, checks and balances, federalism bicameralism, and the enabling of a robust competitive political process to prevent anyone group from getting too powerful.   Bit is also included eventually in 1791 the adoption of a bill of rights.
    The Bill of Rights takes some issues out of politics.   As Justice Jackson eloquently stated in  West Virginia v. Barnette:

    The very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts.  One's right to . . . freedom of worship . . . and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.

The essential problem for American democracy is balancing majority rule versus minority rights.  Majorities get there way on most issues, but not when it comes to minority rights.  And the problem with ballot measures such as the two constitutional amendments is there legacy in targeting minority rights.
    There is unfortunately an ugly side to American politics where fear and prejudice have prevailed.  The Salem witch trials, slavery, denying women the right to vote, the McCarthy era, and Stonewall.  Majorities do ugly things and the constitutional framers were correct that pure majority rule needs to be tempered by minority rights.
    Seldom do ballot measures and votes by majorities protect minority rights. Barbara S. Gamble’s “Putting Civil Rights to a Popular Vote,” 41 American Journal of Political Science 245 (1997) examined local and state ballot measures related to AIDS testing, gay rights, language, school desegregation, and housing/public accommodations desegregation), from 1960 to 1993. that Minorities almost always lose. In the eighty-two initiatives and referendums surveyed in this Article, majorities voted to repeal, limit, or prevent any minority gains in their civil rights over eighty percent of the time.
        Gamble also found that measures aimed at limiting the civil rights of minority groups were much more successful than other types of initiatives and referendums. She noted that a previous study of ballot measures between 1898 and 1978 found that only 33% of measures  succeeded.  Low passage rates change dramatically when it came to the  limitation of civil rights is the subject of the proposal.  In this case, 78%  of the 74 civil rights measures that she studied resulted in a defeat of minority interests.
    Gamble's findings are consistent with those of political scientists Haider-Markel and Meier. Mei-er and Haider-Markel's study on gay ballot initiatives found that 77% of those seeking to repeal the rights of lesbians and gays were successful in doing so, and in the 13 attempts to extend rights of gays and lesbians, 84% were unsuccessful.  Gays and lesbians, as well as other minority groups, lose when their rights go to the ballot box.
    What does all this mean?  Direct democracy and majoritarian politics inconsistent with the broader substantive values of the Constitution and Bill of Rights which the Framers understood.  They recognized the problems of the tyranny of the majority and the threat that the ballot box poses to individual liberty.  In the case of the marriage amendment, it singles out a specific group for a special disability, in ways that the Supreme Court found unconstitutional in Romer v. Evans.  Gays and lesbians (and transgenders too) are the classic discrete and insular minority  that the Supreme Court speaks of in footnote four of United States v. Carolene Products.  Groups unable to defend themselves in the normal political process are those which the judiciary are supposed to protect against the tyranny of the majority.
    Moreover, Carolene Products also spoke of special judicial scrutiny in cases where legislation circumvents the normal political process and closes it down.  Normally we say that if you do not like a specific policy use the ballot box to change it.  The Elections amendment targets the political process, seeking to close down and make it more difficult to vote.  It and the Marriage amendment, by constitutionalizing these policies, aim to circumvent the normal legislative process and place political change beyond the reach of ordinary legislation.
    The opening three words of the Constitution are “We the people.”  Our nation is one that is supposed to be inclusive, respecting the rights of all to compete fairly and equally in the political process.  The tragedy of the Marriage and Elections amendments is how they undermine the promise of We the People and hoe they are inconsistent with the values that our Framers endorsed.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Soccer Moms and Swing State Politics: The Missing Narratives

On the eve of the final presidential debate the race has come down to three predictable points–developing a compelling narrative to move soccer moms in the swing states to vote for Romney or Obama.  None of this should come as a surprise.
Politics is about the power of telling a compelling narrative about yourself, why you are running for office, what you hope to accomplish, and what you think the world looks like. It is your vision of yourself and the world that you seek to sell to others.

Everyone loves a good story or narrative. We all love a good movie, television show, joke, and perhaps a book if it has a good plot and story.

Politics is no different. To be successful in politics, candidates need a narrative.  For most candidates, simply explaining why they are running for office is not enough. A good political narrative has several components: (1) it explains why the candidate is running for us; (2) it is a narrative describing who the candidate is; (3) it must describe the candidate(s vision of the world; and (4) it must describe what the candidate wants to accomplish if elected(it is their platform.

Narratives are important. Back in 1988, George Herbert Walker Bush cast off the importance of narratives by stating that he did not need the (vision thing( to get reelected. He may not have had an explicit vision, but he certainly had a narrative. He had a narrative about winning the Cold War, creating a kinder and gentler society; one guided by a thousand points of light. Bush successfully convinced many Americans about a way to think about the world and him; they believed that by voting for him, they would get a particular type of government that would secure a specific view of the world without new taxes. Unfortunately for him, he did raise taxes. His story turned out to be a lie for some, and he lost in 1992 to Bill Clinton.

In 2008 Obama ran with a powerful narrative–change.  Change is a compelling  narrative, especially when you are the opposition. Gerald Pomper, one of my former political science professors at Rutgers University, once pointed out that Obama’s use of change as a slogan was similar to those of Eisenhower and Kennedy. Change seems to be the narrative to use when wanting to out incumbents or when voters are weary of the status quo.
The generational narrative of 2008 about change, then, captured age, technology, being cool, and being connected to Americans. Obama and the Democrats had a great narrative, but then 2010 happened. In a year where the economy still stunk, how did Obama defend his stimulus bill, financial reform, and health care changes? The situation was clear: they had no good narrative. I could not find a single compelling narrative for the Democrats in 2010 to defend what they had done.

But then a new narrative emerged–“It could have been worse” (had we not acted). This narrative grew out of comments from Obama and Tim Geithner, who talked about all the things they had done, such as bailing out the banks, GM, and so on. Had these steps not been taken, said Obama and Geithner, things would have been worse. I do not know about you, but for me “It could have been worse” hardly inspires voters or wins over swing voters. Still, that was their narrative, and Democrats lost big when Republicans ran on the narrative change in 2010.   

The basic problem Obama has had in this campaign is finding a narrative, vision, or argument for four more years. Romney is correctly criticizing Obama for his lack of vision for the future.  Obama‘s “forward” does not offer it, and throughout the debates and even his speech at the DNC one is still looking to hear the argument of Obama’s for why he deserves four more years and what he hopes to do.  Simply saying “I am not Romney” may not be enough.  What the 2012 campaign is offering is one candidate lacking a narrative versus another whose narrative of change is vacuous, disingenuous, or simply flawed.  However, the power of Romney’s narrative is identical to Reagan’s “Are you better off now” and Obama seems unable to articulate a Reaganesque “Morning in America” response. 

The missing narrative gets to the second factor dominating the closing days of the presidential election–appealing to soccer moms.  I have consistently argued for years that soccer moms are the single most influential swing voter in American politics.  Women are the majority of the electorate now and vote in greater percentages than men.  Women are more likely to be Democrats than men. Many former GOP women have left that party because of the issues the Republicans push now.  These women are not yet willing to call themselves Democrats and thus they are swing voters who  vote on issues different from men. Women were a critical constituency to Obama’s 2008 win but they stayed home in 2010.  How they vote will be critical in 2012.

While Democrats have enjoyed a gender gap for years, this year Obama appeared to be opening up a huge lead among women.  But then it began to shrink.  This is the main reason for the tightening in the polls since the first debate.  Soccer moms are shifting–not in large numbers, but enough to make a difference.  This is why Democrats are seizing on Romney’s “Binders of women” slip.  It is an effort to portray Romney as out of touch with women.  The reality is that the “binders” comment was probably simply a miss-statement that means nothing.   Yet Romney seemed like he did not get it when it comes to gender discrimination issues.  That was the real gaffe.  He failed to understand women still face workplace discrimination in the form of sexual harassment, being paid 76% that of men, glass ceilings, and other problems of being single parents or double standards.  Yet the problem for Obama is that he too has failed to describe an agenda appealing to women, and his failure to craft a narrative about the economy, student loans, education, and a host of other matters means that some soccer moms are unsure about who to vote for.

Finally, the problem of narratives and appealing to soccer moms comes down yet again to the swing states.  As it had been for the last several election cycles, the entire race comes down to about ten states that are swing and which will determine who gets to 270 electoral votes.  Thus, the race is simple–finding a narrative to move a handful of swing soccer moms in a handful of swing states.

Neither candidate seems overly appealing to the soccer mom. Neither offers a narrative or message that addresses their concerns or needs.  Despite the fact that women are the majority of the electorate American politics seems fixed in a masculine voice telling a story that is either absent or unappealing.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Obama Supporters Breathe! Second Debate Thoughts

    Ok Obama supporters, you can now breathe.  The second debate is over and Obama did not pull a repeat of the first performance. Instead, he was much stronger than before.  But what does it all mean?  A few quick thoughts.

Obama probably won slightly on debate points in terms of answering the questions.  He had more specifics.  He had more gotchas and quotable one-lines.  Romney had several near gaffs regarding “binders of women,” references to his retirement portfolio, and fact-checked by Candy Crowley.  His facial expression and body language were not great.  Obama made good eye contact, was aggressive, and offered specific proposals for what he has done and would do.  All this set a contrast from debate one.

What will really matter is the world of perception.  The spin will probably favor Obama and it will negate the first debate bounce for Romney.  Historically presidents lose first debates and come back and win the second.  This happened here too.  Look to see in about 2-3 days what all this means in terms of polling both at the national and swing-state basis. 

But the real impact will be the enthusiasm factor.  Much like the first debate enthused the Romney people the same will be the case with the Obama people now.  They will be more excited and it translates into dollars and votes.

So far Romney and Obama have won the debates they should have won.  Romney should have been his best at the first debate on the economy, Obama on a debate with audience interaction.  Now the critical third debate on foreign policy that usually favors the president.  Here it should help Obama.  Whether foreign policy is the defining issue of the campaign I doubt it.  It is still the economy and it is also about rival personalities.  But perhaps foreign policy is the tie-breaker or perhaps if Syria deteriorates more or Israel does pull an October surprise, then expertise is an issue.

If I were Obama now, I would steal Hilary Clinton’s ad from 2008 and ask who do you trust taking the call at 3 AM.  Given Romney’s lack of foreign policy experience, the ad would be just as devastating against him as it was against Obama in 2008.

But the debate last night also highlighted three other sleeper issues to think about.

Early voting: Up to 40% of the population cane vote before November 6.  Early voting started three weeks ago and some early signs are that the Obama people are doing a much better job winning the early vote.  Early votes seals the deal for a candidate.  This early voting may have negated some Romney bounce and now may make more Obama voter excited to vote early.  Look to see the Obama people make a bigger push to get their people to the polls.

Voter registration: Obama and the Democrats have registered more voters this year than Republicans.  This is the payoff of the ground game that has been Romney’s weak point.  With most voter ID laws weakened or halted in swing states such as Wisconsin or Pennsylvania, this is good news for Democrats.

November 2 unemployment numbers: This is the last Friday before the election and the last report on unemployment before the election.  This date and report could decide the election.  It will dominate the news cycle to the election with a report helping or hurting the president.

My point to above?  The second debate was important but more so is what you do with it.  This is what is yet to bee seen.

I return to the USA for the third debate!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

An American in Ukraine: Thoughts on Politics, Domestic and Abroad

Fade to Black: The End of the Orange Revolution

    Americans often times don not realize how good our election system actually.  Some bitterly complain–with little evidence to support their contentions–that the American political system is perforated with voter fraud and that election officials are biased and do a bad job counting ballots.  Consider ourselves lucky.

For the last week I have been teaching and lecturing in Kyiv (Kiev) Ukraine.  I was invited to lecture on election law at the school of law at Taras Schevecheno University.  I was also asked by the US State Department to give two additional lectures on American democracy.  One for the history department at Schevecheno University, the other at the Ukrainian National Library.  All of my public lectures were packed with students and members of the public eager to learn about America.  They also wanted to talk about their elections.

Ukraine is having its national elections on October 28.  Yet unlike the United States, the prospect of a fair election is nil.  Ukraine was part of the USSR but in 1991 achieved independence.  Its democracy has struggled, with the turning point–or so it appeared–reached in 2004 when a rigged election was thrown out by its Constitutional Court and a new fair election was ordered.  Ukrainians took to the streets in what was called the Orange Revolution, demanding free and fair elections.  It looked like they got what they wanted.  Yushchenko, a reformer looking to the west, had defeated Yanukovych to become president.  In 2006 free parliamentary elections produced a governing coalition electing Yuliya Tymoshenko as prime minister.  But then in 2010 elections,  Yanukovych barely defeated Tymoshenko in elections that were barely fair and free.  In 2010 local elections were held, and they were not free.

Yet now it appears that the Orange Revolution is perhaps ready to fade to black. Yanukovych and his governing coalition have jailed the leading opposition candidate  Tymoshenko on trumped up charges.   Yanukovych’s supporters are trying to enact a defamation law to criminalize criticism  of the government.  Opposition candidates and parties are being removed from the ballot.  Few expect the elections to be fair.

Whether people will take the streets again I do not know.  Kyiv is politically odd.  I see opposition  commercials on television and there is a permanent encampment protesting Tymoshenko located not far from Independence Square.  Students are openly critical of the government but yet there seems realization that the election results are already known and that perhaps more restrictions are on the way.

Lessons for America
America’s political system is far from perfect.  Money corrupts the political process for one.  The choice of candidates is often lousy and the two major parties provide voters with often mediocre options.  Yet the opposition is not jailed.  We have no real evidence of voter fraud or vote buying with two close elections in Minnesota demonstrating a political system 99.9%+ free from errors.  Studies across the country further prove the general integrity of our political system and generally how fair and impartial the administration of our elections.  We have the right to openly criticize the  government and a right to vote.

Yet all of that is being threatened.  The cries of voter fraud and efforts to restrict franchise worry me.  Restrictions seeking to be put in place across the country to make it more difficult to vote compromise the integrity of our democracy.  Stories of partisan election officials and legislatures trying to limit franchise too smack of vote rigging.  Laws that make it difficult for third parties to access the ballot are fearful.  And of course now watch some of our political debates where political honesty and truth seem secondary to winning.  We are not Ukraine but we certainly are not the model of democracy we like to believe we are.

The lesson of Ukraine for the United States is that we take our political system for granted.  We should not be creating a democracy that attempts to disenfranchise voters and make it difficult for  parties to campaign and gain access to the ballot.  Students in Kyiv worry that the rich are buying  elections in their country.  We too should worry the same and not let those who argue cynically that money is speech win the argument.  Some I know who argue that money is speech content they are merely neutrally looking out for the rights of us all, including the poor, to give money to the candidate of their choice.  Anatolie France once said the rich and poor equally have the right to sleep under the bridge.  Some equality, some choice.  We can do better as a country, and we should.

Life in Kyiv
    Kyiv is a beautiful city.  I spent a lot of time just hiking it in between lectures and sampling  wonderful food.    The best part of the city is the architecture of the old churches.  The city is old, founded around 980 CE, and some of the churches approach 1000 years old.  At some future point I will post a few of my pictures.  Beyond the buildings, the people are very friendly and there is a love for flowers, tea, and sweets here that is great.  Wonderful pastry shops and places for treats are everywhere.  This city has one of the best subways (Metros) I have every ridden, and I get could get anywhere for hardly a cost.  One of my colleagues took me to the Kyiv Opera House to see a terrific contemporary ballet.  The opera house was stunning and the ballet excellent.

My favorite events here were the talks with the students and the public.  My public lecture at the Ukraine National Library was standing room only and the questions from the audience great.  The same was true with the student lectures, but the talk I gave in the history department to them was especially fun.  Students here are still excited by Obama, even if the same is no longer true in the USA.  The history department chair had spent some time at the University of Iowa and we had common friends.  In fact, there is another funny story here.  One of my law colleagues here had visited the country of Georgia recently and she ran into one of my former students from Moscow State University.  This is truly a small world!

Final Thoughts on the American Elections
    Amazing how much Obama threw away with his horrible first debate.  He all but had the presidency sew up and destroyed it.  The numbers now suggest that his leads in the swing states are  disappearing too.  What happened?  Simply put, Obama failed to demonstrate a passion or install a passion among his supporters and swing voters and he finally gave those doubtful about voting for Romney to consider him a viable alternative.  Obama needs to shift the momentum in his second round with Romney, otherwise the swings will continue to shift and it will be more and more difficult for him to win.  Obama does have voter registration and money on his side, but that may not be enough.

Off to Malta to lecture!

Friday, October 5, 2012

A Debate That Could Have Been

    No question Obama lost the first debate.  It was not even close.  But as pundits and the public debate the performance one has to ask, did it really matter that Obama blew it? 

Think first about had the debate gone the other way.  Romney is behind in the polls nationally and in the swing states and lagging in fund-raising.  He was coming off a couple of very bad weeks.  Had Obama won a decisive victory this might have ended Romney’s presidential campaign.  A bad performance would have shifted donors from his campaign to congressional races, making it all but impossible for Romney to remain competitive.  Obama had a chance to deliver a technical knock out.  But he failed.  In part Obama’s failure is the failure of his presidency–a failure to provide a narrative or rationale for another four years. As I have repeatedly contended, since 2010 the Democrats have failed to provide a narrative and Obama has yet to explain why he deserves four more years.  Romney provided a vision for the future, Obama did not.  His closing statement was terrible.

Romney did not achieve a knockout either in terms of dooming Obama’s campaign.  But whether this was the proverbial “game-changer” that experts talk of is a matter of dispute.  Romney would not be the first challenger to win the first debate but still lose.  In 1984 Mondale decisively beat Reagan and the latter came back for a second debate and won, and trounced him in November.  Kerry too beats Bush in 2004 only to lose the election.  First debates often go to challengers.  Simply by virtue of standing next to the president challengers often win.  But Romney did more than that. 
This was the debate that should have been Mitt’s best–on the economy.  He could shine by criticizing the president’s handling of the economy and sin with his experience as a business person and head of Bain capital.  Obama could have wounded him with the criticisms of exporting job’s oversea or outsourcing while at Bain or with the 47% speech, but Obama let him off easy, thus giving Romney  the best forum on the best topic for him to debate the president.  The next debate will be on foreign policy, a weaker area for Romney, and Obama should be more in the game for it.  He needs to look like he wants to be at the debate, not somewhere else.  On Wednesday I saw shades of 1992 when George Bush looked at his watch during the presidential debate, acting as if he had a better place to be that talking to the public.

My point is that presidents off blow a first debate and recover.  So can Obama.  There are two other presidential debates and a vice-presidential debate to come.  There is also one more month.  At least Obama got some reprieve on Friday with an unemployment rate falling to 7.8%–the number looks better even if the job production is still bad.  Obama’s approval rating is over 50% according to CNN and his poll numbers in swing states still look good.  Early voting is already taking place and there are few undecided voters.  All this suggests Romney’s good performance may be muted unless the performance was so good it forces some already decided voters to change their mind.  I am cautious about instant polls on the debate and look to see what the polls say on Saturday or Sunday was the tweets and pundits are done.

What Romney got Wednesday was a new lease on life.  Obama could have ended the campaign effectively but failed to do so, giving Romney a new chance to do something.  Both candidates need to decide what to do with the opportunity but still it looks like the race is Obama’s to lose.

Finally, it was  debate that could have been had either candidate really offered ideas that would work or which had realistic math and numbers attached to them.  I saw it as a debate with two contending economic philosophies:  One that failed  and one that is failing.  Neither Romney not Obama or the Republicans or Democrats in general seem to be offering realistic theories about taxes, investing in the future, energy, or a host of other issues.  So much of the debate the other night was about what was not discussed and needed to be.

Side Note:   Today I head to Kiev, Ukraine and Malta until October 20.  I will be teaching and giving lectures as an independent scholar for the US State Department.  I will do mu best to blog while away.