Romney shows his worse side

Progress 10/17/2012

The one certainty it seems we can take from the past three debates is that the moderator improves every time. Candy Crowley delivered a masterful performance in the hardest of the debate formats, controlling two incredibly combative men.

The town hall format is the most restrictive, rule-laden and complicated of the debating formats. The ability to master the narrative, the moderator, the camera and the live studio audience simultaneously is incredibly hard. While neither candidate demonstrated a Clintonesque knack for it, the format deeply unsettled Mitt Romney.

It seems that the topic that Romney had at the top of his mind was that of the debating rules and time and time again he challenged the moderator for more time, pivoted to previous questions and was generally dismissive and disrespectful. In an election in which the female vote matters so much, Romney demonstrated his worse side, looking peevish and childish when he felt he was not getting his share of airtime.

While Romney talked down to the moderator, Obama tried to charm her and the audience, achieving laughs from the audience, who were under strict instructions not to show emotion all night. Indeed, the whole audience had to go through a rehearsal to practise how to act.

The chuckles clearly rattled Romney and he performed the majority of the night as if he was in enemy territory.

Both candidates were incredibly feeble and weak in dealing with a gun control question that was asked. Despite the spate of recent mass shootings over the past four years in the US, gun control has not been raised in this cycle. Obama ducked and weaved through the question around banning semi-automatic weapons. Romney decided to make the issue about single mothers raising kids, and the fact that two parents are needed to raise a child.

The unwillingness of either candidate to deal with this question demonstrates the tremendous power and reach of the National Rifle Association, by far the most powerful lobby in Washington today.

While the vast majority of the evening was on domestic issues, the pivotal moment came on the single foreign policy question surrounding Libya. After Obama accused Romney of playing politics with the attacks in Benghazi, Romney accused the Obama administration of playing politics with the death of an US ambassador. He then double-downed saying that the president going fundraising the day after was inappropriate.

With a deadly cold fury the president took to task the governor for accusing his administration of playing politics with national security and said that he was being offensive. Rather then back off, Romney came at Obama for not saying that the attack was a terrorist incident the day after. A furious Obama just started and demanded that Romney read the transcript of the speech that he made from the Rose Garden. At this point the rehearsed, neutral audience actually clapped for the president. They clapped again as the moderator stated from the transcript backed the president and Romney came out looking like he was scoring cheap political points on the death of a US ambassador.

Now to be fair, Obama does take every single opportunity to mention the death of Osama Bin Laden no matter what the question. Yet the almost personal nature of Romney’s attack on Obama over the Benghazi attack showed America a deadly focus and passion in the president that few knew was there.

Both Obama and Romney showed up for this one and it was Romney who showed his nasty side. His discomfort at the application of the carefully constructed rules led to his condescending manner and peevish attitude that lost him the audience and ultimately the debate itself.

Ignore the polls and look at the substance

Progress 10/12/12

The vice-presidential debate was a far more enjoyable affair then the presidential one a week ago. People actually enjoyed staying up through it, watching two engaging politicians going up against each other.  Perhaps it was the chairs, the low bar set by the previous debate, a great moderator or that VPs can say more; but it was far more watchable.

In addition to being watchable it will be seen (and this is a prediction) as a far more normal presidential debate then the one that preceded it last week. The polls will show that both parties feel that they won it but will not make big waves in the polls.

The Obama slaughter of the previous week created a stunning poll swing of 12 points to Romney. This debate will follow the traditional motto that while they make great theatre – presidential debates don’t really matter.

Yet despite the combative tone, the good put-downs and great zingers, the viewers actually got to see two heavyweight politicians argue against each other beyond soundbites. These debates are the rare times that the parties will go up against each other on stage; with no PMQs these offer the only chance for the leaders of the ideological camps of US politics to question each other.

The rareness of these moments was part of the reason for the outpouring of frustration at Barack Obama last week. While Joe Biden helped, the party will look to see if Obama can speak like a human, confident of his views and positions at the next debate.

Taking stock this VP debate gave us three truly remarkable things. First, the US public were privy to a bigger debate about the red lines on Iran then the Israelis will be in the run-up to their election on 22 January.

Secondly, Biden and Paul Ryan had the most informed public discussion about withdrawal from Afghanistan and what that means perhaps ever heard between two elected politicians.

Third, and perhaps most importantly for a British audience, the excellent late question about the candidate views on faith and abortion gave the world a chance to see the culture war that drives so much passion in the States. There was a lot of foreign policy, yet it is the social issues, particularly those to do with the abortion debate, that are in the mind of swing voters.

The moderation throughout was phenomenal, particularly around the faith and society segment and it allowed both campaigns to share with America what they feel deeply and what they will do with one of the most hotly contested issues in the country.

So despite the small effect it will have in the polls (a draw will be declared) the VP  debate made up for the waffle of the previous week and set a standard of clarity and communication that Romney and Obama will have to meet.


Olympics, NBC and tragedies in America

Progress 8/7/12

As a Brit in the USA, watching the Olympics has been a chore. The much-maligned NBC coverage that misses moments of silence for 7/7 does not care for any team but the USA and refusing to broadcast live coverage except for ad-heavy live streaming is appalling.

One can understand the economic argument for NBC who paid so much for the rights and want to make sure that those who work in the USA can watch the highlights when they get home. But even on weekends, Americans had to wait till 11pm on Sunday night to see Usain Bolt run, and we never got a chance to celebrate with Mo Farah.

Yet with a constant eye on the BBC live ticker I am attempting to get excited along with everyone else with Team GB’s epic achievements.

While the world watches London, the world continues to turn, Romney’s world tour continues to embarrass, and Syrian descent into madness quickens. But even for a foreign policy junkie such as myself, the two recent shootings in the States have punctuated my consciousness like no other news story.

The Aurora shooting a week before the opening ceremony was terrifying in a way that no other public shooting had been for me before. Maybe it was my fiancée’s unease at seeing The Dark Knight Rises on the Sunday of opening weekend for fear of copycats or the weeks of political silence about gun control that followed, but I felt more uncomfortable in my surroundings then normal.

This discomfort was magnified over this past weekend with the shooting at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin. As a British citizen I am just not used to this level of violence and the political inaction that has followed it. I freely admit that I do not understand the second amendment, having no analogous experience to which to relate, yet the lack of debate around gun control is dangerous.

It’s not the lack of gun control that I find so worrying, but the lack of debate after these shootings that scares me. Yes I know it’s an election year and that the NRA is powerful. Yet these back-to-back tragedies merit some discussion by lawmakers. Even if nothing changes legislatively, the absence of the discussion on a national level makes me feel all the more foreign in America.

Much has been said about anonymous money and super PACs in this election cycle. Yet it is the lobbies which are clear, visible and have a mass membership that exert the greatest effect on US politics, as the deafening silence on Capitol Hill demonstrates.

In search of momentum

Progress 7/12/12

Turning on to watch the new season of comedy series Louie I saw my first presidential election advert. Living in true blue Boston MA I figured the only reason the president must be spending money here is that he wants to annoy his opponent on his home turf. The ad boldly cast President Obama as the in-sourcer and Gov Romney as the out-sourcer. Replete with blue and red colours, pictures of closed mills and Romney’s company Bain Capital flashing ominously across the screen, it fitted nicely into the glut of superhero movies that Hollywood is churning out at the moment.

Having studied at the Kennedy School this year, I have seen my fair share of political ads and this one fitted into the standard compare-and-contrast to demonstrate the negatives of one’s opponent. With the employment figures stubbornly refusing to turn in the president’s favour it is little wonder the campaign chooses this spot above others.

Yet I could not help feeling disappointed that a few days after the president’s signature policy had passed through the Supreme Court in a surprise victory for the administration, the ad ignored it. Rather then seeing the airwaves dominated with the fact that every American can now be insured (regardless of birth defects or pre-conditions) the message did not shift.

The very absence of healthcare from the president’s pitch for his re-election demonstrates the phenomenal messaging job that the GOP has managed since it was tabled in the first two years of the administration. The policy is so radioactive to the public that even the fact that Judge Roberts crossing the aisle to save it will did not make a difference in its popular appeal. And the fact that the Republicans in Congress managed to stop the vast majority of the Affordable Care Act taking affect until 2014, handed them licence to bury it in 2010 and 2012.

Taking the president’s historic policy off the table, the GOP has managed to make this election about the economy alone. Foreign policy is but a distraction with the employment and economic challenges the USA faces, much to the annoyance of embassies and policy analysts around DC.

With little to talk about between the Department of Labor’s monthly job figures, process stories and small issues continue to dominate the political news cycle. One in particular that had me fearing for the Obama campaign was their latest fundraising idea.

June marked a month where Romney out-raised Obama by $20m. Never missing a beat, and recognising that the summer marked the beginning of the wedding season in the US, the Obama campaign emailed its supporters the option to switch out a gift registry for a donation to the Obama campaign. Instead of gifts to a newly wedded couple, give to the president’s reelection bid.

As someone who is getting married to a diehard fan of the president in a month, I can tell you that the best way to demotivate your young, poor, recent graduates is to steal their wedding gifts.

This odd idea is symptomatic of a campaign that assumes that the momentum is still there and all they need to do is ask. Yet as the election comes down to the wire, supporters are going to need to feel inspired again rather then just tapped for donations.

140 characters does not make an electoral platform

Progress 6/21/12

With the selection of Mitt Romney as the GOP nominee and the implosion of Americans Elect from the process, unable to find a candidate for their ticket, we know the full set up for the election in November. With the clearing of the field the polls have both candidates jockeying for position, each week being either slightly ahead or behind one another in the national polls. Yet, with what should be a big vision election, with all the economic questions America faces, we are seeing a small idea campaign.

Dominating news cycle after news cycle are the little things, a misspoken phrase in a press briefing, weird facts and conspiracies that will not die.  The speed with which something small can spread through social media and into the news networks is frightening. The pace and fury of this campaign is limiting the ability of the candidates to deal with any of the big policy issues as they bounce from gaffe to gaffe.

America needs to make a decision about its economic future and this election offers them an ability to do this; if the candidates can get past the distractions of dressage horses and celebrity fundraisers.

The lack of vision has been truly extraordinary. A big economic debate that has been playing out in Wisconsin has been seen as a surrogate for the national stage, yet the president chose not to get personally involved.

Unlike elections of the recent past, we are not faced with someone who is aloof vs. a man of the people. Both candidates struggle to connect to the everyman in their own way. There will be no ‘I feel your pain’ moments, nor feel good, beer drinking scenes that don’t smack of political theatre. With two intellectuals in the race one would assume that there would be much to discuss.

The GOP will keep on hoping that creating gridlock in DC and hoping for further economic gloom will be their big win in this race. The Democrats believe that Romney might die a death of a thousand embarrassments.  Neither of these strategies offers anything new to a population that is desperate for new ideas.  The lack of enthusiasm for either of these candidates is palpable despite tremendous efforts to make the campaigns movement-like.

Digital seems to be the great distraction from offering grand visions of what a better America could look like. Is this now the level of politics that we will have to expect in an instant news age?

Winning without bouncing

Progress 7/3/2012

As the dust settles from Super Tuesday, there was a clear delegate winner on the night. Mitt Romney took the lines share of delegates on offer with five clear victories and a single point win in Ohio. He now stands 200 delegates above his nearest rival, Rick Santorum. Though there are still delegate-rich races to come, with the proportional allocation that most states now use, Romney looks to go into the nominating conference with the biggest head of steam, though perhaps without the 1,144 target he needs to lock it up. Super delegates, as in 2008 will soon be under a spotlight and could make the difference.

If this primary was only about delegate numbers last night should have left no one in doubt that Romney is on course to be the GOP nominee. Yet with Santorum winning more conservative states and robbing Romney of a big win in Ohio, a key national bellwether state, the race looks to continue ever onwards. Romney again failed to capture the conservative or evangelist vote, did poorly with blue-collar workers, and benefited from the disorganisation of the other campaigns. The inability to work through the ballot access system in Virginia left only a Romney v Paul ticket in that state, a blessing for the Romney camp on a night that they needed to win across the map.

Ron Paul for all the hype could not muster a win anywhere, losing by over 10 points to Santorum in North Dakota, a state that his strategy was meant to work. Newt Gingrich won his home state, Georgia, and won big taking, a huge swath of delegates from the largest contest of the evening.

The Republican primary system in its current form was designed by former RNC chair Michael Steele to make sure the party activists had a voice in the nomination and to try and build up momentum to whoever was going to be the GOP standard bearer. While the primary system is testing the mettle of the various contenders it is also creating the worrisome phenomenon (if you are Republican) of winning without bouncing. Rather then propel Romney’s numbers onward nationally, each win is seen as a disappointment for what should have been, with this field, a coronation.

Over the past six months Romney’s ratings have plummeted nationally, with his unfavorables 16 points higher than his favorables among independents. In every primary one appeals to the base and the balancing act is not to alienate the centre in the process. Not only has Romney not been rewarded with his conservatism by the base, he has also taken a large hit with the national middle. His muddled silence during the current war on contraception, especially during the ongoing Rush Limbaugh scandal, is killing him with mainstream America.

Meanwhile, quietly and effectively the Obama for America team is rebuilding the national organising machine that served them so well in 2008. The National Journal this week covered the fact that while Romney was the only GOP candidate to have a field operation in Virginia (an office in Richmond), Barack Obama already has dozens of events taking place, has run spring training for activists and has groups across the states phone banking. Across the map you can find hundreds of Obama events taking place every day. The campaign is now looking for data crunchers and computer modellers to build the electoral map, state by state.

The rip-and-run nature of the GOP contest is leaving whole states without field operations of any calibre. Obama won 2008 by building a field network the likes of which had never been seen before. This started even before the first votes were cast in Iowa. The GOP’s navel-gazing has caused them to lose sight of the political reality of their opponent. For all the straw men they put up on the stump speech, the eventual GOP nominee is going to face a democratic incumbent with thousands of paid field staff and hundreds of thousands of volunteers in every state of the union.

A long, drawn-out primary may test a candidate, but if momentum is not built in victory the process merely is a drain on resources and political capital – something that the Obama campaign is banking on.

More than nicknames needed

Progress 27/2/12

Though great nicknames abound, the GOP field has failed to ignite any enthusiasm

The twentieth GOP debate this week attempted to give the voters a lasting impression of the candidates. Though their positions were well rehearsed and their talking points recycled, CNN decided to continue the infotainment with a new round of nicknames, these ones the most outlandish of the season.  Here was Mitt ‘the long distance runner’ Romney, Newt ‘the constant challenger’ Gingrich, Rick ‘the late contender’ Santorum and my personal favorite, Ron ‘the delegate hunter’ Paul.

CNN has taken some ribbing for its ridiculously overproduced introductions but it points to the power that these TV debates have had in this forever-changing field. Now down to four contenders the debate cycles have been seen as the major movers of momentum alongside pocket billionaire money bombs in media markets. The GOP field has felt like a reality show, with contestants being voted out week by week.

The turbulent path that has so far been this nomination process demonstrates the inability of any of the field to truly motivate the GOP base, and has further alienated the independents that are necessary for victory.  In a period of such uncertainty within the American national psyche now was a golden opportunity for a ‘change’ message.

There are still some vain hopes that a saviour will be found in the wings, especially as delegate rich states such as California, New York and Texas will not vote for some weeks, yet the issues of ballot access (needing 10,000 signatures to get on the ballot in some states) make the hurdle near impossible at this late stage.

The Punch and Judy show that has so far been the GOP nomination contest has managed to boo a serving gay solider in Iraq and bring access to contraceptives to the forefront of the national debate. When independents will decide the outcome of this election, charging to the social extremes is not a winning strategy.

The move to the social space is partly due to the upturn in the US economy. Barack ‘the president’ Obama has managed to get unemployment to start trending downwards and the Dow is up to pre-crash highs. Yet with the upturn in the economy the president is still to see the significant bump in the polls to put him anywhere in the ‘safe territory’ in this election.

The long nomination battle provides benefits for both parties, however. For the Democrats, seeing their opponents at war with each other allows them to get on with running the country while the GOP flounder. Whoever triumphs will have had severely depleted their resources.  Yet for the GOP, the fight allows them to stay in the national spotlight and give brand recognition to whoever the candidate is. This nomination fight will harden their eventual nominee for the main event and limit the amount of ‘got you’ moments that the president’s team can dig up.