Friday, August 31, 2012

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly of the RNC

The slickly-produced 3-day Republican National Convention is now done, culminating with Mitt Romney's unexpectedly passionate acceptance speech.  Before action moves to the Democratic National Convention on Monday, I thought I'd reflect on what worked well, what worked poorly and what was just plain ugly at the convention.

The Good (and Very Good)
(1) Condoleezza Rice
Rice gave far and away my favorite speech of the convention.  First, she has a grace and a presence that is seldom seen in political circles.  She spoke from the heart and even declined to use a teleprompter, choosing instead to speak from memory.  Her personal story is compelling and her views on national security, while all (including myself) may not agree, are always stated with intellectual force and thoughtful logic.  She hit the rare duo of giving an intellectual and honest speech and arousing the passion and love of the crowd.

(2) Chris Christie
The night that Christie spoke was also the night of Ann Romney's personal speech about her husband.  Most pundits concluded that Ann Romney's speech was highly effective and that Christie's was mediocre.  Let me go on record and say that I think most pundits are nuts.

Ann Romney's speech may have done something to personalize the sometimes-wooden GOP nominee, but it was largely generic platitudes.  No disrespect to the Romneys, who seem to have a truly loving marriage, but the fact that Ann Romney loves Mitt is hardly a surprise or a differentiating factor, and certainly not something anyone should vote based on.

Christie's speech was pointed and passionate without being caustic (as he has often been accused) or deceiving.  His story of effective governance in New Jersey is almost all true.  His line that "real leaders don't listen to polls, real leaders change polls" will probably be the one line from the 3-day convention that I will remember for a long time and I thought struck a chord with an increasingly cynical electorate.  He represented the future of the GOP well.

(3) The Personal Narratives of Mitt Romney's Life
The stories, told by others, of the personally generous things that Mitt Romney has done to help children with cancer, a single mother with a leaky roof and many others personalized Romney for me in a way that Ann Romney's speech failed to do.  I write a lot about politics and am not particularly prone to being emotionally swayed by politics, much less so by a heavily produced political convention, but I honestly walked away from those speeches believing Mitt to be a good person.

(4) The First Half of Mitt's Acceptance Speech
Mitt was fired up, patriotic and optimistic, possibly the three most important elements a candidate has to possess to be a winner on the national stage.  He was believable and while he took President Obama head on, he did it in a reasonable way, steering clear of ridiculous allegations.  His singular question "If you felt that excitement when you voted for Barack Obama, shouldn't you feel that way now that he's President Obama?" I thought was a simple and fairly damning indictment of the Obama Administration - those who voted for President Obama (myself included) are certainly a heck of a lot less excited about the President now than when he was a candidate.

(1) The Second Half of Mitt Romney's Speech
When he began to talk policy, Mitt utterly lost me, and I would wager, many independent voters.  When he says a top priority of his will be to "repeal and replace Obamacare", I am still struck with two thoughts.  #1 - Why are you so passionate about repealing a bill that is based on the one you created in your home state and that you wrote in early 2009 in a USA Today editorial should be anational model?  And #2 (and more importantly, once I get past his big flip-flop) - replace it with what?  What is the Romney healthcare plan?

Secondly, lowering taxes, increasing defense spending, protecting existing entitlement benefits for those retired and those slated to retire in the next 10 years and balancing the budget is a mathematical impossibility.  Let me put it more simply - it is a lie.  Mitt Romney is right to call President Obama on the carpet for not halving the deficit as he had promised to do in the 2008 campaign.  But Mitt's plan is far more dishonest.

Finally, his foreign policy indictment of the President was, to me, bizarre.  Lack of support for Israel is a legitimate issue.  But Romney will be more free trade and yet impose sanctions on China?  Does any credible economist or foreign policy expert think these two promises are reasonable?  He would have done more with Iran?  What exactly?  Go to war?  Romney would be wise to steer clear of foreign policy, as I think it is possibly Obama's strongest story.

One small but subtle final point - how can Romney simultaneously claim that we need to shrink the federal payroll but oppose defense cuts, in part, because they would "cost jobs" (his words in his convention speech)?  Does it get any more hypocritical than that?

(2) Paul Ryan
The big idea, serious policy guy told a dishonest set of hackish talking points.  I had some hope when Ryan became the VP pick that we were going to have a serious discussion about the size of government and the best way to reduce the deficit.  After his speech, I think I can kiss that goodbye and officially label him an opportunist, not a serious thinker.

His indictment of Obama for a shuttered GM plant has been ravaged by the fact-checking organizations.  Blaming the President for a factory whose closure was announced during the Bush administration is a joke.

His attack on Obama for reducing Medicare spending is absurd when his own budget contained identical cuts, as well as much deeper ones in Medicaid.  Claiming now that he and Romney are going to be the protector of entitlements is a funny thing to say for someone who has hardly been an advocate for our entitlement programs in the past.

All the points above about Romney's speech apply just as much to Ryan's as well.

The Ugly
 (1) Clint Eastwood
Might have been better to have him record a video or at least get him to agree to stick to a script.  The rambling, off-message rant from Eastwood the night of Romney's big speech was an ugly distraction.  I'm not sure exactly what Eastwood was advocating, but I think he said Romney would have brought troops home from Afghanistan faster?  I almost felt sorry for the guy, he was so lost and incoherent.

Overall, it was a solid convention.  It is too early to have a good poll read on the impact, although the last 2 cycles, convention impacts have been a lot more muted, thanks to the early exposure of 24 hour news networks.  If Romney can get a 2-3% bump out of this, I think his team would consider it to be a success.  Even that will be hard to measure with the DNC happening so close behind.  I will try to get a read on the polls early in the week, before the DNC begins in earnest, to measure the Romney bounce.

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Friday, August 24, 2012

On the Eve of the RNC, A Tight Race

Days Until the Election: 74
Projected Popular Vote Total: Obama +1.1% (down 0.8% from last week)
Projected Electoral Vote Total: Obama 294, Romney 244 (Romney +29 from last week)

There is no doubt that over the past few weeks, since the announcement of Paul Ryan as his running mate, Mitt Romney has been gaining momentum.

In 3 days, weather permitting, the Republican National Convention will begin.  It is a star-studded event, whose speakers are highlighted in my earlier post.  It will be carefully scripted and messaged and put together well,  Mitt Romney should get a boost.

There is a decent possibility, perhaps even a probability, that Mitt Romney will be leading following the RNC (the second of my 7 key events in the race.)  What happens after that at the DNC will set the trajectory going into the debates.

Stay tuned over the next week, the next chapter of Presidential history is well underway.

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Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Big 2012 Electoral Map - Ryan Selection Shows Some Gains for Romney, Conventions Take Form

Race Tightens
Days Until Election: 80
Projected Popular Vote Total: Obama +1.9% (down 1.9% from 2 weeks ago)
Projected Electoral Vote Total: Obama 323, Romney 215 (Romney +9 from 2 weeks ago)

State Changes: Colorado swings from Romney to Obama (9 electoral votes)

Since the selection of Rep. Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney's running mate, media coverage has been largely focused on Ryan and has largely been positive.  This, plus Joe Biden firing off yet another in his seemingly endless string of gaffes, have moved the polls back towards Romney.

In addition to Colorado swinging from Obama to Romney, Ohio and Florida are now even closer (arguably well within the margin of error) and Ryan's Wisconsin roots puts that state in contention in a more meaningful way.

So, at least in the short-term, the selection of Ryan appears to have been a success for Romney.  This was the first of 7 scheduled significant events in the last 100 days of the election that I discussed previously, with the 2 conventions and the 4 debates comprising the other major events.

Romney still has ground to make up, obviously.  Even if Romney manages to flip Ohio and Florida, he will be at 262 electoral votes and will need to either flip Virginia or Wisconsin or some combination of two states between Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada.

The next major events are the Republican convention in Tampa and the Democratic convention in Charlotte.  Let's turn our attention there.

Convention Speaker Roundup
The GOP is rolling out the A-list for the convention and largely excluding the more polarizing wing of the party.  Confirmed speakers are listed below, including keynote speakers.

Chris Christie, NJ Governor, Keynote
Jeb Bush, Former FL Governor
Nikki Haley, SC Governor
Mike Huckabee, Former AR Governor
John Kasich, OH Governor
Susana Martinez, NM Governor
Rick Scott, FL Governor
Scott Walker, WI Governor
Mary Fallin, OK Governor
Luis Fortuno, PR Governor
Condoleezza Rice, Former Secretary of State
Pam Bondi, FL Attorney General
Sam Olens, GA Attorney General
Ted Cruz, TX Senate Nominee
Artur Davis, Former Democratic Representative
Rand Paul, KY Senator
John McCain, AZ Senator
Rick Santorum, Former PA Senator

A few key things to note.  First of all, the outside-the-beltway focus is evident, with 10 current or former governors and 2 AG's speaking (12 state-level speakers) and only 3 current or former Senators, 1 Senate nominee, 1 former Representative and 1 former cabinet official (6 national politicans.)  So, two thirds of the convention will feature people from primarily outside-the-beltway.

Also notably absent are the most controversial of the Republican politicians.  Sarah Palin is not featured.  Neither is George W. Bush or Dick Cheney.  Newt Gingrich is missing, as is Herman Cain.  This is, perhaps, the first time I can recall a living, healthy ex-President not making a speech at his party's convention, although there is still time for Bush to be given a speaking spot and if not, one can certainly understand Romney's desire not to remind people of the last Republican President.

Also of note is the diversity of the speakers.  Of the 18 that have been named, fully one third are ethnic minorities with 3 featured hispanics (Cruz, Fortuno and Martinez), 2 featured African-Americans (Davis and Rice) and 1 featured Indian-American (Haley.)  5 of the 18 speakers are women (Bondi, Haley, Martinez, Rice and Fallin.)

I think the focus on diversity is progress.  While Democrats will say it is a cynical attempt to win hispanic votes and appear inclusive to swing white voters, I say that even if that is the motivation, the very fact that the GOP chooses to focus on highlighting diversity in the party is a good thing.

On the Democratic side, the schedule is far less formed.  Confirmed so far are:
Bill Clinton, Former President
Jimmy Carter, Former President (by video)
Michele Obama, First Lady
Julian Castro, San Antonio Mayor
Elizabeth Warren, MA Senate Candidate

Stay tuned.

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Sunday, August 12, 2012

Who is Rep. Paul Ryan and What Does His Selection Mean?

Vice Presidential candidates generally don't decide general elections.  Some of the most widely panned Vice Presidential selections have still resulted in candidates being elected, Spiro Agnew and Dan Quayle being obvious examples.  Many great Vice Presidential picks have failed to life tickets, including the original compassionate conservative, Jack Kemp in 1996 being an obvious example.

Vice Presidential candidates who don't win become forgotten in history.  Does anyone remember who Adali Stevenson's running mates were in 1952 and 1956?  Let's try an easier one - do you remember who Gerald Ford ran with in 1976?  The answers, for the curious, are John Sparkman, Estes Kafauver and Bob Dole, two names you probably don't even know and one that you know only because he was a Presidential candidate 20 years later.

So, to reinforce what I've often said, I find it highly unlikely that the selection of Rep. Paul Ryan (WI) as Mitt Romney's running mate will make or break the election either way.  He is unlikely to torpedo and otherwise winning ticket and he is unlikely to bolster an otherwise faltering ticket in a meaningful way.

But Vice Presidential picks do reveal a lot about the Presidential candidates, as they are the first governing choice that they will make.

In 1980, we learned that Ronald Reagan, in spite of lofty rhetoric, was at heart a pragmatist, understanding that he needed to surround himself with smart people who knew more about areas like foreign policy, than he did.  George Herbert Walker Bush had been a bitter primary rival and was very much at odds with Reagan's economic policy, but Reagan knew a good executor when he saw one.

In 1988, we learned that George Herbert Walker Bush wanted nothing so much as to appease the right wing of the party.  Everyone realized Dan Quayle wasn't the best qualified candidate for the job, but Bush had fences to mend with conservatives.

In 1992, we learned that Bill Clinton prized an intellectual equal and wanted to be surrounded by very bright people.  It was also an indication that Clinton, a classic Center-Left Democrat, might have a little more left in him than center.

In 2000, we learned that George W. Bush prized loyalty immensely and wanted to be around people he was comfortable with, a theme we saw throughout his administration, where he frequently surrounded himself with people who had been with him his whole career.

In 2008, we learned that Barack Obama wanted to "first do no harm", picking a clearly qualified Veep who was uncontroversial and unlikely to get him trouble (frequent gaffes aside.)  We also learned that Obama didn't like being told what to do, roundly rejecting the easy choice of Hillary Clinton to forge his own path.

So what do we learn about Mitt Romney in 2012?

First, we learn that he is first and foremost, going to run an economic and budgetary campaign.  This comes as no surprise as economics are front and center in the national concern and Romney has always showed something between disdain and discomfort discussing social policy.  Secondly, we learn that Romney behaves in his hiring decisions like a CEO - he needs an economic and budgetary plan, so he hires the smartest young economic thinker in the GOP.  We also learn from a political standpoint that Romney is far more interested in running a base turnout election than a swing-voter election - Ryan energizes economic conservatives and tea party-types but does little with moderate voters and opens Romney up to all kinds of attacks about Ryan's plans for Medicare and Medicaid.

Paul Ryan would not have been my first choice if I were a political adviser to Romney.  Bobby Jindal would have been a solid conservative (appease the base), experienced governor (buttresses Romney's executive experience argument) and a non-overshadowing force in the campaign.  Paul Ryan does not bring governing experience - how can Romney argue business and governing experience is so critical when his 2nd choice for President doesn't have any?  Ryan may overshadow Romney as he is a much more respected thinker in the party.

But, apparently, CEO Romney is much more concerned with hiring the guy with the plan than what that guy will mean to the campaign.  And like I said, it probably won't decide the election, so Romney is probably well-advised to pick someone with whom he is comfortable.

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Sunday, August 5, 2012

A Bad Week for Romney, Does He Need a Game Change?

Obama Lead Widens
Days Until the Election: 93
Projected Popular Vote Total: Obama +3.8% (+3.5% from last week)
Projected Electoral Vote Total: Obama 332, Romney 206 (unchanged from last week)

The last time that I actually flipped a state on my electoral vote projection was June 30th.  For a race that is supposed to be neck-and-neck and back-and-forth, that is pretty remarkable...5+ weeks of essentially the same map.  And the map is not so kind to Mitt Romney - it shows a pretty resounding victory for President Obama.  Not quite the 365 to 173 whacking that he gave to John McCain in 2008, but a large enough cushion that if the election were being held today, Obama advisers wouldn't be worried about a state here or there.

No states flip this week either, but the trend is decidedly for the President over the course of the past week.  He picks up 3.5% in the average of national polls and moves up the strength of several states.  For the first time in a long time, he now has 271 electoral votes in either the "safe", "strong" or "likely" category for him.  This is big because it means that the President could lose every single close state - North Carolina, Florida, Virginia, New Hampshire, Colorado, Ohio, Iowa and Nevada, and still win the electoral college 271 - 267.

The reason for this, of course, is the state of Ohio, which now sits in the Likely Obama category.  It is virtually impossible for a Republican to win without Ohio.  No Republican has ever won the Presidency without winning Ohio, going all the way back to the founding of the party in 1856.  Romney HAS to win there to open up the map to possible paths to 270 for him.  If he loses in Ohio, as the present polling would indicate, it's game over early on.

Romney's bad week has been the result of several things.  His first foreign trip was more or less a disaster as he offended the Brits by saying they might not be prepared for the election, offended Muslims across the world by saying that Palestinian poverty was the result of an inferior culture (no, that isn't taken out of context) and his campaign advisers offended the Polish by cursing at reporters during a trip to a sacred burial site.  In short, Romney looked not ready for prime-time on the world stage, and not appearing Presidential is an important defect for a challenger.

Also starting to move the polls is massive spending by the Obama campaign.  Ironically, after caving into the congressional Republicans to extend the Bush tax cuts for all incomes this year, Obama is campaigning hard on NOT extending the cuts again.  And it seems to be working.  You may call it cheap class warfare (and I have at times), but the theme of "Romney is an out-of-touch rich guy" combined with "the rich need to pay their fair share" and "Romney is a repeat of the Bush policies" are having a meaningful impact on the race.

Finally, the economic news has been relatively good.  It certainly hasn't been the V recovery that I had hoped for (and erroneously predicted) 3 years ago, but the stock market is double what it was then and we had another month of significant, although not stellar job growth.

Put it all together and Romney has some work to do after the Olympics to regain a solid footing in the race.  Things are certainly not insurmountable for him at this stage - after all a 3.8% lead can evaporate in a few days if the right events happen, but he has to be careful not to let this race get too far away from him given the strength of the coffers and strategy of the Obama campaign.

Game Changing or Safe VP Pick?
Romney's inability so far to close the gap has many among the GOP faithful calling for a bolder pick for his VP.  Rob Portman and Tim Pawlenty are the two heavy favorites for the nod and both represent very safe picks - unexciting but unoffensive soldiers who possess solid, but not radical, conservative credentials and would widely be seen as qualified to be President on day one.

The call is for a pick like Marco Rubio or Paul Ryan, Rubio for his youth and the energy of support for him from the Tea Party, Ryan for his conservative budget credibility, something which could be a big help for Romney, who has struggled to articulate any kind of cohesive economic and budget philosophy.

My bet is still on the safe picks and probably rightly so.  I've made this point before, but it bears repeating - I cannot think of a single winning Presidential Candidate who won because of his VP pick.  VP picks generally can only hurt not help, so the first principle should be to do no harm.

Pawlenty seems like the best choice of the bunch.  Outside the beltway, conservative but mainstream, has run things and therefore buttresses the Romney argument of executive experience.  And he is not at all gaffe-prone.  But it's Romney's call, obviously, and how and what he decides will be our first big reveal into how he might govern.

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