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A Candidate Who Takes Care of His Own | The Nation

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Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman

Well-chosen words on music, movies and politics, with the occasional special guest.

A Candidate Who Takes Care of His Own

My new “Think Again” column is called “Ignoring Poverty and Hunger,” and it’s about the media’s lousy coverage of the issue.

My new Nation column is called “The Problem of Conservative Intellectuals.” You can guess its subject.

Oh, and Katrina and I will be on a panel about the election with Tom Frank, moderated by Touré, at the Brooklyn Book Festival Saturday morning at ten. I think it’s in the library. I will be speaking, I’m pretty sure, at the Scarsdale Public Library on “The Cause” on October 2 at 8:00.

This is brilliant and profound, and it’s what I’ve been trying to say for quite a while.  It starts like this:

1500s: The American Revolutionary War begins: “The reason we fought the revolution in the sixteenth century was to get away from that kind of onerous crown.”—Rick Perry

And ends like this: 

2011: President George W. Bush kills Osama bin Laden: “Thanks to George Bush…. Because if Obama had his way we wouldn’t have gotten bin Laden, you know that.”—Sean Hannity

Have you heard Randy Newman’s new election song, “I’m Dreaming”? It begins like this:

George Washington was a white man
Adams and Jefferson too
Abe Lincoln was a white man, probably
And William McKinley the whitest of them all
Was shot down by an immigrant in Buffalo
And a star fell out of heaven
 

It’s free, here.

And a happy 78th birthday to the great Leonard Cohen, who, weirdly, is older than my mom.  I am really excited to read what looks like it will be great biography, I'm Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen by Sylvia Simmons. I’m also listening to the new Michael Chabon book, Telegraph Avenue on CD, which I found confusing at first, but got settled down after reading Cathleen Schine’s review in The New York Review, which lays it out.

I caught another small acoustic Jorma Kaukonen show at the Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett. It’s kind of unfair to just name Jorma these days. While still going strong at 71 or 72, musically his shows belong no less to the incredible Barry Mitterhoff. You can watch them here. Last weekend the two were joined, as they often are, by G.E. Smith, and so it was a night of rarely-precedented virtuosity all around. I was, I’m sure, like many of you, deeply unhappy seeing G.E. up there leading the RNC band during the convention, as a nice a guy as he is. But that’s no reason not to enjoy a great show. I look forward to seeing Tuna (with G.E.) at the Beacon later in the season, but if you’re not so lucky, I strongly recommend the DVD made from the 2010 birthday party, with Steve Earle, Bob Weir, David Bromberg, etc. Details here.

So, the six-show/18-CD 1990 Dead box set was kinda pricey. This two-CD compilation version is one of the few releases from the Brett Myland era—there’s also Without A Net and Nightfall Of Diamonds—which is too bad, because the set list expanded in a good way. However, while there is some fine playing, it’s not their most inspired period by a long shot. Highlights at first listening were "It Must Have Been" and "Mississippi Half-Step" into "The Weight," and "He's Gone" into "The Last Time."

There’s also a new two CD/DVD live Paul Simon live package. It was recorded at Webster Hall in NY, a hipster hangout to which I’m usually too old to go. Paul is 70, and he’s not too old, though. He’s releasing in competition with his fellow septuagenarians Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen (and I suppose, Jorma) and it’s worth trying to decide for yourselves.

Speaking of young folks, it’s Bruce week in the tri-state area. More next week.

Now here’s Reed.

Fighting the Last War
by Reed Richardson

First, a very short review of Bruce’s very long show last night in the Meadowlands from the very tired Missus, who was right upfront for all of it. (I stayed home and worked on this sorry blog post—the sacrifices I make for you people…): 

“It was awesome, he played forever, and I loved the touching tribute to Clarence.” 

'Nuff said. Here’s the setlist.  

Second, I offer up yet another reason why no one should ever underestimate the absolute unhinged nature of this nation’s right-wing media machine. Back during the GOP primaries, I noted how conservative pundits were starting to casually dismiss this administration’s hunting down and killing of Osama bin Laden, even though it’s clear President Obama deserves some credit for the renewed intelligence effort he placed on the task soon after he came to office. And to capture the ridiculous direction of where this logic was headed, I made what I thought was a equally ridiculous joke about it back in February: 

“By the time Romney debates Obama next fall, others in the media might be going so far as to suggest that Bin Laden somehow accidentally left his address on Leon Panetta’s voicemail and then willingly threw himself in front of Seal Team Six’s gunfire, all in an effort to avoid his later, inevitable assassination under a new Romney administration.” 

Turns out it didn’t take until October for my joke to be proved all too prescient. For, just last week, Rush Limbaugh donned his (by now, well-worn) tinfoil hat to sickeningly speculate on his radio show that something very similar to my satirical gag was what might have happened in real life.

“What if Ayman al-Zawahiri gave up Osama bin Laden for the express purpose of making Obama look good? Giving Obama stature, political capital?”

This bit of right-wing paranoia—that Al Qaeda is deviously plotting against the Republican Party’s presidential nominee—is by now a tried-and-true tactic. It harkens back to the rampant fearmongering perpetrated eight years ago by the bumbling conservative commentator Dick Morris, who just couldn’t keep straight which candidate Al Qaeda was going to end up helping—Kerry or Bush.

And let us stop and take a moment to note that Morris, perhaps better than anyone else in the media firmament, personifies the complete lack of intellectual accountability that poisons our punditocracy. His inerring propensity for erring makes him the George Costanza of pundits. That any media organization—even the shills at Fox News—would continue broadcast his idiotic, up-is-down ramblings across the public airwaves, rather than just let him bore the people sitting next to him at the 5:30 dinner seating, is a outright shame. Just as there are those rare standup comedians who represent the purest of the form, and are known fondly in the business as a “comic’s comic,” Morris has to have earned the dubious honor of a “hack’s hack,” someone who gets so many predictions wrong, so often, that even prominent gasbags like Jonah Goldberg, David Brooks, and Sean Hannity must shake their heads in wonder that he still has a job, despite a prodigious ability for terrible prognostications and boneheaded mistakes.

 

This cycle, Morris is just as bad. Just six weeks ago, he was still predicting not just a Romney victory, but a landslide. A few days later, Morris came out with a video handicapping the GOP VP field that was proven so ludicrously wrong it was akin to him earning a pundit’s version of the Golden Sombrero in baseball. In the course of just four minutes he whiffed time and again with a series of predictions and pieces of advice, none of which would come true: 

a) The Democratic convention would get disastrous TV ratings

b) Romney should avoid selecting Paul Ryan as his VP

c) Romney should choose Marco Rubio as VP instead

d) Romney should announce his VP pick at the GOP convention

e) The GOP convention would result in a 10-point bounce for Romney in the polls 

That Morris touted Romney’s arrogant “47 percent” language this week as a positive for the GOP’s presidential and down-ballot electoral prospects is simply more proof of his uncanny facility for up-is-down thinking. But, to be fair to Morris, there is one other major blind spot in his misbegotten political outlook that is shared by much of the mainstream media—the failure to recognize that Romney’s entire electoral strategy has been based on shaky, mistaken assumptions about the past.

In the U.S. military, there’s a cautionary term that speaks to the risk that comes from looking backward rather than forward, for assuming what worked in the past will be successful in the future—it’s known as “fighting the last war.” A classic example of the dangers of this outdated thinking occurred at the outbreak of World War II. The French Army, anticipating a reprise of the trench warfare of World War I, had spent the 1930s investing untold capital into building the Maginot Line, a 450-mile-long complex of trenches and bunkers along its border with Germany. But the German Army had instead spent the past decade innovating a fast-moving panzer corps, one that easily skirted around the Maginot Line through the Low Countries and quickly overwhelmed a French Army incapable to counter this new threat.

This same ossified plan of attack looks likely to be the Romney campaign’s downfall as well, though you see precious little of it in the press. Essentially, what Romney and the GOP are doing is relying on primary campaign tactics in the general election—in messaging, yes, but in strategy as well.

Since last fall, it has been clear that the right-wing crackpots and egomaniacs Romney would face in the Republican primaries offered little in the way of real organized opposition. This allowed him, in a tortured military analogy, to basically win the nomination by simply waging an aerial bombardment campaign fueled by a few, big-money financiers. But because his plan was to win a war of attrition by steadily overwhelming his competition with TV ads, Romney’s team didn’t have to do the hard work of organizing on the ground to win (or come close) in the battleground state contests. And so, their eventual primary triumph was something of a hollow victory, one that allowed them to neglect a crucial aspect of presidential campaigning.

In retrospect, it seems to me that Romney camp consciously accepted this low-effort path to victory predicated on another risky assumption—that a pulsing anti-Obama sentiment among both frustrated swing voters and their rabid Tea Party base would more than make up for a noticeable campaign ground game disadvantage. Republican enthusiasm would trump Democratic organization, in other words. But as several recent polls now demonstrate, that bet has proven to be misplaced, as Democratic voter enthusiasm has caught up with Republicans (and in the swing states, the former has even surpassed the latter).

Ah, but even this discrepancy ultimately won’t matter because Romney suffers from an embarrassment of campaign riches, right? He has billionaire benefactors who are publicly willing to open their bottomless wallets to unseat the president. Well yes, it’s true, that when all is said and done, the pro-Romney forces will have easily outspent Obama, and the press has rightly pointed this out. But what’s often overlooked is that all campaign spending is not alike. Much of this “dark money” has been funneled through Super PACs and 501(c)4 advocacy groups, which can’t directly coordinate with the Romney campaign. And between clinching the nomination in May and the party’s convention in late August, while Romney and the GOP were raising money for the fall like a house afire (and tripping over their feet, message-wise), these disparate outside groups shouldered most of the campaign’s ongoing messaging burden. In the meantime, Obama and the Democrats pummeled Romney with highly coordinated and targeted ads all summer long and continued to build their on-the-ground campaign infrastructure.

What Romney had done, in essence, was push all of his campaign’s chips onto making a late move—to taking the lead after the conventions and then riding a deluge of campaign ads in September and October to victory. But thanks to the contrast of a bitter and incompetently managed GOP convention versus a more positive, brilliantly stage-managed Democratic one, Romney’s lead never materialized. All the political capital he had hoped to have by now to force Obama’s hand just doesn’t exist. Now, all Romney’s left with to persuade voters in the next few weeks is that cash advantage.

But this is an increasingly untenable position for Romney for two reasons. One, though his polling deficit isn’t that great, the universe of voters to be won over is shrinking daily. In most polls, the percentage of undecided voters now number in the single digits. And while there are greater numbers of voters that still might switch their vote from Obama, that universe is growing smaller every day as well, for a very good reason that the press routinely underplays or overlooks—voting in the general election has already begun.

In fact, thousands of people in North Carolina, Kentucky, and Indiana have already voted for president by mail. Absentee voting in the swing state of Wisconsin begins today and, by Monday, twenty-one more states, including Michigan, Virginia, and New Hampshire, will have opened the polls to either in-person voting or mailed-in absentee ballots. By the time of the first presidential debate on October 3, thirty-five states, including Florida and Ohio, will be casting votes. So, we’re now at a point where each day that Obama leads in the polls in key swing states is no longer an academic exercise, it’s an electoral reality. Romney isn’t simply behind anymore, he is losing.

But don’t expect to read much about the very real impact of early voting in the news. This BloombergBusinessweek story from today, for instance, still includes this deceptive piece of conventional wisdom: “Less than 50 days before Election Day and less than two weeks before the first of three debates against Obama, Romney is still working to get his campaign back on track.” Likewise, this detailed Real Clear Politics analysis of Obama’s path to victory offers nary a mention about his campaign’s potential for banking millions more votes than Romney before November 6. By the same token, a companion RCP analysis of Romney’s chances plays up the fact that his vast spending advantage has yet to be fully unleashed, but fails to note that a law of diminishing returns takes effect.

Just how large is this early voting pool? In 2008, more than 30 percet of those who voted—just over 40 million people—had already cast their ballot by Election Day. In 2012, it’s hard to say if this number will follow the historical trend of increasing each election, mostly because of dastardly “voter ID” suppression efforts, but it’s nonetheless possible that as many as one in three votes will be early this time.

More importantly, the four closest battleground states in polling so far this year were also among the biggest early voting states, percentage-wise, four years ago—Iowa (36 percent), Florida (51.8 percent), North Carolina (60.6 percent), and Colorado (78.9 percent). And how did Obama do in amassing early votes in these four states in 2008? Well, as this very helpful, yet hard-to-find AP news article notably points out, if one had only counted votes cast on Election Day, McCain would have won all four of these states instead of Obama—a swing of 116 electoral votes. That would not have been enough to tip the election the other way, but it damn sure would have made it uncomfortably close.

This is what a deliberate, strategic investment in a coordinated, people-focused, get-out-the-vote infrastructure gets you. And it’s why Obama and the Democratic Party have plenty of reasons to be optimistic of their chances again in 2012. But this lesson is seemingly lost on Romney, since, as his campaign was in circular firing squad mode on Tuesday, he spent several hours fundraising in blood-red Utah rather than on the trail pursuing swing voters. As a result, all that’s left for his campaign is to desperately try to catch up on the ground and then surpass Obama using the same, last-minute, air-war strategy from the primaries, writ large. But as more and more people vote early each passing day, his will increasingly become an electoral strategy of too much too late, as an ever-larger percentage of the money Romney spends will be wasted on reaching people who have already voted. 

Of course, one can find numerous other reasons besides poor strategy for why Romney's campaign is fatally flawed: his cold, standoffish personal demeanor, his uncompromising embrace of the most extreme policy positions of his party, and his now publicly-revealed contempt for half of the country. But while it may be tempting for conservatives to chalk up the coming Romney defeat simply to a bad candidate and his poorly run campaign and instead double down on their radical beliefs, that, I suspect, is a recipe for continued Republican disappointment at the polls. 

For, Romney’s doomed political strategy was born out of the same kind of arrogant, hidebound thinking that now colors every aspect of his party’s political ideology. It’s a narrow, hard-edged worldview that mistakes success for superiority, believes dollars equal discourse, and sides with the powerful over the people. Fortunately, in this coming election, I feel increasingly confident that the battle is Obama’s to win. But I also have no allusions that even if the president is reelected, come the morning of November 7th, his next victory is by no means guaranteed.  

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