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Ben Adler | The Nation

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Ben Adler

Ben Adler

 The 2012 election, Republican politics and conservative media.

How Romney Would Worsen Unemployment Among the Disabled

If Mitt Romney has made one promise during the campaign it is to improve employment. From his slogan—”Obama isn’t working”—to his stump speech, to his talking points in debates and press releases, Romney has made high unemployment his central attack on President Obama’s record. Even permanent Republican goals, such as rapacious extraction of our natural resources and lower marginal tax rates, have been reframed as pieces of Romney’s five-step plan to get the country working again.

But one of Romney’s central campaign pledges—to repeal Obamacare—would undermine employment for those who are most likely to be unemployed: people with disabilities. The rate of unemployment among disabled adults has remained stubbornly high, even since the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act banned workplace discrimination against them. In September, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the labor force participation rate among people with disabilities was 21.9 percent, compared to 69.3 percent among people without disabilities.

That is partly because our pre-Obamacare health insurance system makes it impossible for many people with disabilities to get a job. People with disabilities require comprehensive and continuous insurance coverage. If you are unemployed and impoverished, you qualify for Medicaid. If you get a job, your income will make you ineligible for Medicaid. But your job may not provide you with health insurance. Even if you get insurance, it may not cover services and medications you require. Or it may not cover pre-existing conditions. Or it may subject you to an annual or lifetime cap on coverage that you will exceed. Even if you have none of those problems, there may be an untenable three month waiting period for your insurance to kick in. “That’s a huge disincentive to working,” says James Weissman, general counsel of the United Spinal Association. “A person with disabilities on Medicaid doesn’t have any cap, lifetime or annual. A person on an employer’s plan, even if he’s covered right away and doesn’t have a waiting period, could still have an annual cap of $25,000.”

Obamacare will correct all of those problems. It will eliminate annual and lifetime caps on coverage, make it illegal to deny coverage of pre-existing conditions and require large employers to provide immediate coverage to new employees. (It will also expand Medicaid coverage to include some 17 million low-wage workers.)

“Obama preventing exclusions for pre-existing conditions in the Affordable Care Act—assuming we survive Romney’s attacks on it—has gone a long way towards reducing the disincentive for people with disabilities to get employment. Assuming that’s the case people will not be afraid of losing their Medicaid in going to work,” says Weissman.

There are other reasons to oppose Romney’s pledge to repeal Obamacare: It will steal insurance from millions to pad the reimbursement rates of Medicare Advantage–participating hospitals and insurers. But, ironically, it will also work at cross-purposes to Romney’s supposed number-one priority.

For more on the impact of Obamacare, check out "What the Affordable Care Act Would Mean for Transgender People."

Sandy Shows Republicans Incapable of Change

Mitt Romney is trying to look magnanimous in the wake of Tropical Storm Sandy’s devastation of the East Coast. He is reframing campaign rallies as events to collect charitable contributions such as canned food. The con game is working well: CNN dutifully covered his Tuesday schedule as a shift away from his usual Obama-bashing.

Unfortunately, as I have previously explained, the Romney-Ryan ticket’s lip service to volunteerism is just a way of distracting voters from the heartlessness of their policy proposals. All the cans of soup they collect are no substitute for the power of the federal government to rescue the stranded or care for the injured. As John Nichols notes, the Romney-Ryan budget would slash funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. This is a regular feature of Republican governance: Republicans in Congress have sought to reduce FEMA’s budget and both Presidents Bush undermined the agency by filling it with political hacks. The results after hurricanes Andrew and Katrina were terrible.

If Romney wanted to actually do something useful for the people in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut who are suffering from flooding, power outages, transit service cancellations, injuries and property damage, he wouldn’t be holding rallies in the Midwest pretending to do something charitable. Instead, he would make a substantive speech in which he acknowledges that he has prioritized tax cuts for the wealthy over emergency relief. But now, he would say, he is willing to forgo tax cuts as much as necessary to make sure emergency relief is adequately funded. Moreover, recognizing that climate change will increase the frequency and severity of natural disasters, he would put forth a plan to mitigate their future impact. For example, he could propose that the federal government invest in moving power lines underground, or modernizing subway infrastructure so that it can better withstand being inundated with salt water.

Alas, none of that is going to happen. Nor will this event cause Republicans to face reality regarding climate science. Meghan McCain, a Republican pundit who calls for her party to accept modernity, tweeted Monday night: “So are we still going to go with climate change not being real fellow republicans [sic]?” By Tuesday we had an answer: Romney released a commercial for Pennsylvania promising to mine and burn as much coal as we can. “And, by the way, I like coal,” says Romney in the ad, with video taken from the first presidential debate. “People in the coal industry feel like it's getting crushed by [Obama’s] policies. I want to get America and North America energy independent so we can create those jobs.”

Conservative pundits had already returned to their pre-storm talking points on Tuesday. Frustrated by their inability to find a failure in Obama’s response to the storm, they instead had to settle for carping more about their pet issue of the attacks on the US consulate in Benghazi. This put them in the bizarre position of seeming to complain that Obama was actually too attentive to the nation on Monday and Tuesday. Michael Brown, who notoriously failed to effectively manage FEMA’s response to Hurricane Katrina when he was its director, actually had the gall to criticize Obama. In an interview with a local weekly newspaper in Denver, Brown said, “One thing he’s gonna be asked is, why did he jump on [the hurricane] so quickly and go back to D.C. so quickly when in…Benghazi, he went to Las Vegas? Why was this so quick?… At some point, somebody’s going to ask that question…. This is like the inverse of Benghazi.”

The question is already being asked on Fox News, of course. As ThinkProgress reports, “Brown is not the only one making the insinuation that Obama and his administration are responding too quickly to Sandy only for political reasons. He’s joined in his accusations by such prominent right-wing commentators as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and columnist Charles Krauthammer.” Brown, Gingrich and Krauthammer might have a point about Benghazi in itself, but that is irrelevant to the question of how Obama handled Sandy. Their answers make it clear that they are so blinded by partisanship that there is nothing Obama could have done that they would not criticize.

It would be nice if conservatives and Republicans were capable of having their ideological fixations adjusted by lived experience. Sandy should have convinced them that even if they still oppose cap-and-trade, climate change is quite real. And even if they oppose a generous welfare state, there are some things only the government can handle. New Jersey’s Republican Governor Chris Christie is belligerently angry at New Jerseyans who ignored his order to evacuate. And yet he seems incapable of recognizing that, as William Saletan points out at Slate, the rationale behind mandatory evacuations is exactly the same as for an individual health insurance mandate: you should not be able put yourself in harm’s way and expect society to bail you out. Republicans are, of course, as unlikely to reconsider healthcare reform in light of Sandy as they are climate change or budget priorities.

And so the lesson from Sandy will be drawn by liberals: that the stakes in this election are truly a matter of life and death.

Romney has also considered privatizing emergency relief. Check out Katrina vanden Heuvel's "Romney's Public Disservice."

Romney Opposed Gay Rights in Massachusetts

Mitt Romney was against gay adoption before he was for it. Recent reporting from his home state of Massachusetts shows that during his term as governor, Romney opposed many popular gay rights causes. Romney opposed anti-bullying efforts, adoption rights for gays and efforts to prevent hate crimes. When lobbied by gay rights groups he was unwilling to engage. When urged to reconsider by his own state officials, he refused to listen to reason.

As I reported last week, the Log Cabin Republicans endorsed Romney, claiming he is a relative moderate on gay rights. When I pressed their executive director on how Romney’s policies differ from those of homophobes who LCR would have declined to endorse, such as Rick Santorum, one of the examples he cited was Romney’s support for gay adoption.

It turns out that in May, just a day after Romney declared qualified gays’ ability to adopt children “a right,” he reversed himself and said it is up to the states and he simply acknowledges that virtually every state allows it. But, even then, he was sure to note that Massachusetts has long allowed gay adoption and he believes that is correct.

But when he was governor, Romney was scandalized and disgusted by the thought of gays forming families. In 2003, Romney refused to make a small change to Massachusetts birth certificates to accommodate the families of gay couples. As Murray Waas reported Thursday the The Boston Globe:

It seemed like a minor adjustment. To comply with the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling that legalized gay marriage in 2003, the state Registry of Vital Records and Statistics said it needed to revise its birth certificate forms for babies born to same-sex couples. The box for “father” would be relabeled “father or second parent,’ reflecting the new law.

But to then-Governor Mitt Romney, who opposed child-rearing by gay couples, the proposal symbolized unacceptable changes in traditional family structures.

He rejected the Registry of Vital Records plan and insisted that his top legal staff individually review the circumstances of every birth to same-sex parents. Only after winning approval from Romney’s lawyers could hospital officials and town clerks across the state be permitted to cross out by hand the word “father’’ on individual birth certificates, and then write in “second parent,’’ in ink.

In addition to needlessly stigmatizing the children of gay couples, Romney imposed a cumbersome bureaucratic process. So much for his self-proclaimed mission to infuse government with efficiencies derived from his business acumen. Romney, in a remarkable display of ideology trumping competent governance, persisted with the policy throughout his term, despite being warned by the state department of health that, “Crossouts and handwritten alterations constituted ‘violations of existing statutes’’ and harmed ‘the integrity of the vital record-keeping system.’” He also ignored warnings that children with these birth certificates could face difficulties with processes such as applying for passports, driver’s licenses or joining the military.

Romney’s office generally granted the requests to cross out father and write in second parent. However, they refused, on at least one occasion, to list the mother’s spouse as “wife,” calling her instead “second parent.” They also refused to list a mother’s female partner at all if the couple was not married.

This is not the only area in which Romney would not listen to reason on gay rights. Boston Spirit magazine published an investigation of Romney’s dealings with gay rights activists. They were frustrated to find that he not only opposed their positions—for example, he backed a state constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, and opposed even civil unions—but that he was completely uninterested in engaging with them or thinking critically about the issues. The Spirit reports:

Julie Goodridge and other plaintiffs in the landmark case [for gay marriage rights] had written a letter to the governor, asking for a meeting. He ignored it, so they staged a press conference at his office to read the letter to the media. That, finally, got them through his door. Once inside, they were shocked.

For about 20 frustrating minutes, say those in attendance who Boston Spirit interviewed recently, they shared their stories, pled their case, and tried to explain how equal marriage would protect them and their families. Romney sat stone-faced and almost entirely silent.…

“I didn’t know you had families,” remarked Romney to the group, according to Wilson. The offhanded remark underscored that Romney, the governor of the first state prepared to grant same-sex marriage, hadn’t taken the time to look at what the landmark case was really about.

Romney also opposed even the most minor and unobjectionable efforts to protect gays, even children, from violence and bullying. He abolished the Governor’s Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth. He defunded the Governor’s Task Force on Hate Crimes and tried to remove the words “bisexual” and “transgender” from passages in a state anti-bullying guide.

It seems that the Log Cabin Republicans have backed an ardently anti–gay rights presidential candidate.

For more on Romney’s dismal record on LGBT issues, check out “Romney Flails on Gay Rights.”

Romney Flails on Gay Rights

This has been a confusing week for voters trying to keep track of Mitt Romney’s constantly changing stances on gay rights. As I reported Tuesday, the Log Cabin Republicans endorsed Romney, claiming that Romney opposes workplace discrimination and expressing confidence that he would work with them to pass legislation banning it. From my interview with R. Clarke Cooper, LCR’s executive director, it was clear that Romney had told them as much in private. This is strange, because Romney has not made such a pledge publicly since 1994. More recently, in 2007, he said he would oppose such legislation as burdensome on business.

Some bloggers interpreted my report to mean that Romney had explicitly struck a deal with LCR for their endorsement. That is not necessarily the case. He clearly pandered to them in private prior to winning their endorsement, but that does not mean any deal was made.

BuzzFeed asked Cooper if Romney pledged to sign the Employment Non-Discrimination Act [ENDA], and Cooper said, “I did not say Romney would sign the current form of ENDA.” But he admitted that he, “discussed legislative vehicles and executive actions with Romney regarding workplace non-discrimination, including ENDA.” The emphasis on the current form of ENDA is crucial: the bill currently in Congress, unlike some prior versions, includes protection for “gender identity” as well as sexual orientation. That means it would protect transgender people as well as gays and lesbians. That may be a bridge too far for Romney.

Cooper reiterated his certainty that Romney would support anti-discrimination policies in an interview with the Washington Blade, saying it was the subject of a meeting between LCR and Romney on October 17. “I can say with confidence that the Romney administration would work on desirable outcomes for workplace non-discrimination,” Cooper said. “I’m going to leave it broad like that because I think there’s room for administrative action as well as legislative. I also think it’s probably fair to say that legislation in a form of an ENDA or an ENDA-like legislation is certainly realistic.”

Given how Romney is trying to carefully balance appeals to social moderates by presenting himself as opposed to discrimination without taking a stand on any actual legislation, figuring out his position on ENDA is turning into Kremlinology. As BuzzFeed’s Chris Geidner notes, “Cooper’s careful language would allow a lesser, but similar, understanding about Romney’s general support for workplace protections to have been reached before the endorsement.” What would such an understanding consist of? Possibly that Romney would support a bill that is weaker than the current form of ENDA in Congress. One obvious way the law could be weakened is removing protections for transgender individuals. As Zack Ford of ThinkProgress notes, “LCR only claims to support equality for ‘gay and lesbian Americans,’ so perhaps they are prepared to abandon the transgender community to achieve ‘tangible outcomes’ that include only protections based on sexual orientation.”

This is not the only issue of civil rights for gays and lesbians that Romney has confused the public about his stance on. Cooper gave me three examples of gay rights issues Romney supports, besides workplace discrimination: adoption for gay couples, serving in the military, and hospital visitation rights for partners. The Romney campaign has undermined Cooper’s claims on two of those.

Back in May, Romney told Fox News that “[gay couples] have a right,” to adopt children. But the very next day he told CBS affiliate WBTV in Charlotte, North Carolina, that he was observing a national consensus, not asserting a belief of his own. “That’s a position which has been decided by most of the state legislatures,” said Romney. “So I simply acknowledge the fact that gay adoption is legal in all states but one.”

Regarding hospital visitation rights, Romney surrogate Bay Buchanan said after Monday’s presidential debate that Romney believes decisions on gay marriage and related issues such as hospital visitation and adoption should be left up to the states. This was off-message to both the right and the left. It blatantly contradicts Romney’s pledge to support a federal ban on gay marriage. But it also implies that Romney would reverse the Obama administration’s 2010 executive order requiring hospitals participating in Medicare and Medicaid to recognize the visitation rights of gay couples. Buchanan later sent BuzzFeed a clarification of Romney’s convoluted position:

Governor Romney supports a federal marriage amendment to the Constitution that defines marriage as an institution between a man and a woman. Governor Romney also believes, consistent with the 10th Amendment, that it should be left to states to decide whether to grant same-sex couples certain benefits, such as hospital visitation rights and the ability to adopt children. I referred to the Tenth Amendment only when speaking about these kinds of benefits – not marriage.

In other words, Romney maintains his support for making a federal issue of gay marriage, in order to ban it. But he thinks visitation rights are a state issue and would therefore presumably reverse Obama’s action.

This contradicts what the Romney campaign has told LCR. In our interview Cooper told me, “We’ve been assured there’s no retreat or interest in walking back repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ nor hospital visitation.”

The politics of gay rights are forcing Romney to perform these feats of contortion. Put broadly, his religious right base opposes civil rights for gays across the board, while a majority of the public supports them, except for marriage, on which the public is roughly evenly divided. As a general election candidate that makes Romney’s optimal position supportive of all gay rights except marriage. But that would alienate his base. (Since Romney has virtually no known actual principles on anything, the only relevant factors here are his political incentives.)

After I posted my item on Tuesday, I called Bryan Fischer, director of issue analysis for government and public policy at the American Family Association, and host of a popular right-wing talk radio program. Fischer has previously told me that Romney should unequivocally state his opposition to ENDA in order to shore up his support among social conservatives. I asked if he had seen LCR’s endorsement of Romney. “The main question I had [upon reading it] was if they got any concessions from Romney on ENDA,” said Fischer. I said Cooper had told me Romney had assured LCR that he would support ENDA-like legislation.

Fischer warned that any move to support ENDA by Romney would dramatically upset social conservatives. He said:

If Governor Romney gives up any ground on ENDA that is a huge problem for social conservatives. ENDA will do to every Christian businessman in America what Obama’s abortion mandate does to hospitals, which is robs them of religious freedom and freedom of conscience and their constitutional right to freedom of association. I think if a President Romney were to give an impetus to an ENDA-like bill that would create a firestorm in his conservative base. It would not be smart politics for him to do that, as well as being wrong.

Fischer then took to Twitter to make the same argument and request a “flat emphatic, unambiguous denial from Romney himself.” The Romney campaign has not responded to my request for comment. It has previously shown a willingness to contradict Fischer on tone, rather than policy. It seems that this close to Election Day it is desperately trying to avoid offending anyone. That leaves us not knowing much about Romney’s actual positions. But we do know this: if both LCR and the religious right think Romney is on their side, at least one of them is wrong.

Don’t miss Ben Adler’s report on “Romney’s Private Promises to the Log Cabin Republicans.”

Romney's Private Promises to the Log Cabin Republicans

President Obama has been the most pro-gay rights president in US history. He has allowed gays to serve openly in the military, refused to defend the Defense of Marriage Act in court, endorsed gay marriage and pledged to sign the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would prevent workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Mitt Romney opposes gay marriage, even going so far as to support a constitutional amendment to ban it. He has refused to take a position on ENDA, but he opposed it in his last run for president. He did not support repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell.” So you would think that from a gay rights perspective, the question of which candidate is better would be unambiguous.

Well, not if you ask the Log Cabin Republicans. The self-described, “only Republican organization dedicated to representing the interests of LGBT Americans and their allies,” endorsed Romney on Tuesday. Of course, one can argue, as to an extent LCR does, that they simply care more about some other issues than their own civil rights. But, to the immense frustration of liberal gay rights advocates, they also elide the differences between two candidates on gay rights itself.

In the most pivotal paragraphs, LCR writes:

If LGBT issues are a voter’s highest or only priority, then Governor Romney may not be that voter’s choice. However, Log Cabin Republicans is an organization representing multifaceted individuals with diverse priorities. Having closely reviewed the candidate’s history and observed the campaign, we believe Governor Romney will make cutting spending and job creation his priorities, and, as his record as Governor of Massachusetts suggests, will not waste his precious time in office with legislative attacks on LGBT Americans.

We are confident that there will be no retreat from the significant gains we’ve made in recent years, most importantly on repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” With regard to the LGBT issue most likely to reach the president’s desk and most vital to many in our community today—workplace nondiscrimination—we are persuaded that we can work with a Romney administration to achieve a desirable outcome.

The first and last sentences of that section struck me as nonsensical. While it is legitimate for LCR to say that they care more about tax cuts than LGBT issues, how can they only acknowledge that Romney “may not” be the candidate for a voter whose only priority is gay rights? Shouldn’t that phrase be “would not”? And why is LCR persuaded they can work with Romney to pass a workplace nondiscrimination law?

I called LCR’s executive director, R. Clarke Cooper, to find out.

Romney’s greatest asset as a politician is his total lack of integrity, honesty or consistency. He is perfectly willing to go before the religious right one day and pledge fealty to them, and the Log Cabin Republicans the next day to do the same. And, apparently, that is what he has done, in private. Cooper asserted repeatedly that, “With a President Romney we’re confident we can work with him [on ENDA].” But when asked why, Cooper offered only reasons that Romney should work with them: that discrimination is a form of economic inefficiency and impediment to job growth. But you could make the same argument to any president. The question is what Romney has said that gives them such confidence. Cooper says, “Romney been clear in his opposition to workplace discrimination.” He also seemed to conflate private conversations with LCR representatives and his public pronouncements, saying such things as, "[Romney] is acutely aware of the problem of the patchwork of discrimination," meaning that it creates problems for businesses that some states ban anti-gay discrimination and others do not. Later, clearly referencing private communications with the campaign, Cooper said, "Based on our work with the campaign and Gov. Romney, I'm confident [that he will support anti-discrimination legislation]." Cooper was coy and vague about what exactly Romney said to inspire such confidence; he says Romney "has been adamant" in opposition to discrimination. Romney is clearly quite a salesman. 

As I’ve written before, Romney has spoken of his personal preference not to practice discrimination, but he has not actually publicly called for outlawing workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Cooper said he would e-mail me Romney quotes I may have missed that do call for such legislation, but as of this writing he had not done so.

As I continued to press this point and suggested that LCR may be factually wrong about Romney's position, Cooper blurted out, rhetorically, “Have you met with Romney’s domestic policy team?” Cooper's implication was abundantly clear: Romney's domestic policy team has privately told LCR what they wanted to hear. And therein lies the answer to how Romney secured LCR’s endorsement. But Romney so fears the wrath of the religious right that he will not adopt this position in public, (Although ENDA polls very well, major social conservative groups, such as the American Family Association, continue to oppose it and demand that Romney do the same.)

Given that Romney is a reflexive liar, the question then becomes why LCR chooses to believe Romney. For that, I have no answer other than wishful thinking on their part. 

In a response video posted online, Representative Barney Frank (D-MA) complains that LCR is dishonestly muddying the issues. “I can understand people saying, ‘gay rights is not that important to me and I’m generally conservative on other issues,’” says Frank. “It makes no sense, however, to argue, as some in Log Cabin do, that they will be advancing LGBT rights by voting, or supporting, Romney…. I very much want them to try to get Republicans to stop being so homophobic. My objection is that they pretend to succeed when they haven’t…. You don’t change people by rewarding them for continuing to act the way they’ve been acting.”

LCR does make distinctions among Republicans as to which ones are more or less supportive of their positions. Romney has won only a “qualified” endorsement. While they will volunteer for Romney, LCR intends to be more active on behalf of House and Senate candidates who are more pro–gay rights, and their political action committee is giving money only to House and Senate candidates. “While many of our members will also be working hard on behalf of Governor Romney, growing the pro-equality Republican presence in the House and Senate is our highest electoral priority this year,” writes LCR.

They also have their limits as to how much anti-gay bigotry they could tolerate on the presidential ticket. They write, “Mitt Romney is not Rick Santorum, and Paul Ryan is not Michele Bachmann. Otherwise, our decision would have been different.”

While liberals might view the distinction between Santorum and Bachmann and Romney and Ryan as merely rhetorical, Cooper cites some real policy differences. Santorum, for example, pledged to reinstate “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which Romney would not. And Romney supports adoption rights for gay couples, which Santorum opposes.

Nonetheless, the gulf between President Obama and Governor Romney on gay rights is at least as wide that between Romney and Santorum. As Frank says, “We have never in American history had a sharper distinction between a very supportive candidate and platform and one that’s very opposed.”

This post has been updated for clarity.

Obama's progressive stance on social issues was key to his appeal to young voters. Will those issues still push them to the polls this November? Check out Zoë Carpenter on "The Missing Millennials." 

'National Review' Falsely Accuses Obama of Vote-Buying

Some conservative pundits are a little over-eager to reinforce the racially tinged Republican narratives of election fraud. Take Lawrence Kudlow, host of a CNBC show and writer for National Review. In his column on Friday Kudlow asks, “With the unprecedented budget explosion of means-tested, welfare-related entitlements, does Team Obama think it can buy the election?… I wouldn’t put it past that cynical bunch.”

Kudlow then runs through the numbers showing that some anti-poverty programs have increased their expenditures since 2008. If that strikes you as unremarkable, it should. These programs are means-tested entitlements. The number of poor people increases, so too does the federal government’s expenditure. It happens automatically. And what happened back in 2008? Oh right, President George W. Bush’s catastrophic economic meltdown and ensuing recession. So yes, the number of Medicaid and food stamp beneficiaries has increased, and consequently so has the government’s expenditure on those programs. Kudlow’s complaint is reminiscent of Newt Gingrich’s misleading and racially coded derogation of Obama as the “food stamp” president.

Surprisingly, Kudlow is intelligent and honest enough to anticipate this counterpoint. And so he writes:

By the way, it’s not just the deep recession and weak recovery that’s driving up these programs. It’s a substantial eligibility [emphasis in original] expansion, which started under George W. Bush, but has gone much further under President Obama…. It is [emphasis in original] redistribution, but it could be vote-buying, too.

Kudlow offers no breakdown of how much of the increase can be explained by eligibility expansion and how much by the recession.

But the bigger problem by far is that Kudlow is alleging unethical or illegal behavior on the president’s part where none exists. To “buy the election” is to cheat and thereby subvert the democratic process. Kudlow throws out this very serious charge with no evidence, or even intellectually honest analysis, with which to support it.

There are two main ways that election-buying occurs: rich people or monied interests determine the results through using their buying power, or parties or campaigns bribe voters. The former is legal and the latter illegal. Hence the common observation that a worse scandal than law-breaking in politics is what is actually allowed.

The first type of election buying is the kind of which Kudlow and other conservatives approve. It is being currently conducted on behalf of Mitt Romney by Sheldon Adelson and other billionaires. Some are motivated mainly by ideology. For many, it is a business investment: elect Mitt Romney by spending enough of your fortune that ads on his behalf will outnumber those for Obama, and he will save you far more with tax cuts or favorable regulatory decisions.

The paradigmatic vote-buyer is New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who outspent his most recent opponent by more than 10 to 1. He is now taking that show on the road, dumping millions of his dollars into congressional races to support “moderate” candidates in both parties.

Kudlow is so unperturbed by this kind of vote-buying that he does not even bother to note that it is not at all what he is talking about. He can rest assured that when he talks of vote-buying, his readers will think only of the kind that they don’t like: the vote-buying conducting by political party machines. In those arrangements, ward heelers pay citizens to vote. Republicans and conservatives have become wildly obsessed with the threat of these and other such vanished practices. Since 2008 they have fixated on the behavior of marginal, ineffectual and mostly defunct organizations such as ACORN and the New Black Panther Party, deluding themselves into thinking that Obama had to have stolen the election because their America would never elect a Kenyan Muslim socialist.

Kudlow is deploying a double dog-whistle: to conservatives “welfare” is code for urban or black, and so is vote-buying. His column is a conservative smear madlib.

Unfortunately for Kudlow, his analysis is as nonsensical as it is absurd. For vote-buying to work, there must be a voting component. That is to say, ward heelers buy votes by saying, “I will give you this money in exchange for your vote.” Obama has not made welfare eligibility contingent upon voting, much less voting for him. Obama has not even bragged that he has spent more on welfare, seeing it apparently as an electoral liability rather than an asset. If Obama’s welfare policy is a vote-buying scheme, then it is a terribly ineffective one. The government’s money is being spent, but Obama is not guaranteed any votes in return.

Of course, Kudlow is not really suggesting bribery on Obama’s part. That’s why it is so disgusting and unethical for Kudlow to throw around the “vote-buying” allegation. He is merely suggesting that Obama calculated that he could win the loyalty of low-income voters through expanding the welfare state. Even if that were true it is not vote-buying. Suppose Obama does win re-election because poor people are motivated to vote to protect their Medicaid benefits. That’s a perfect exercise of democracy, not a subversion of it.

If Kudlow is so concerned about the misuse of government funds to improperly affect the outcome of an election, he should take a look at Pennsylvania, where the Pennsylvania Department of State is running ads incorrectly telling voters they will a photo ID to vote. The only purpose served is to frighten Democrats into staying home because they fear they will not be able to vote.

If Obama is engaged in vote-buying, then every Republican presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan would be a vote-buyer as well. Republicans run every four years on a promise to cut taxes. By Kudlow’s standard, that amounts to an anti-democratic effort to purchase votes. “Vote for me,” say Republicans, “and I’ll put more money in your pocket.” This approach to electioneering reached its apotheosis in 2001 when George W. Bush deployed government money to make himself seem like Santa Claus. As Jim Hightower wrote at the time:

First, Bush spent several million of our tax dollars on pre-notification letters mailed to eligible households, telling people what a big favor he had done for [quote] "America's working families," and that they should expect a check soon. Next he flew around he country at our expense to hold photo-op press conferences where he handed out blown-up mock checks of $300 to people, like he was some sort of big, pink, Easter Bunny delivering free candy to everyone. Then the actual checks were mailed, only the Treasury was short of cash due to the economic downturn we're experiencing under Bush, so George had to borrow $28 billion from the Social Security trust fund to cover his shameless political ploy.

Obama put a higher premium on actually generating economic activity than Bush did. So when Obama cut payroll taxes, he did not send a letter. (Informing the public that they just got a lump sum tax rebate often leads them to put the money in the bank. Since you would rather they spend it, it is better to simply remove it from their federal withholding in every paycheck, as Obama did.)

I wouldn’t go so far as to call what Bush did “vote-buying,” because unlike Larry Kudlow I don’t think journalists should level false accusations at the president. But, if one party has tried to use federal policy to buy elections, it’s the GOP.

For more on right-wing conspiracy theories, check out "Where Crazy Conservative Memes are Invented."

Romney’s False Claims of Bipartisanship in Massachusetts

In Tuesday night’s presidential debate at Hofstra University on Long Island, Mitt Romney said, “We haven’t had the leadership in Washington to work on a bipartisan basis. I was able to do that in my state.” This repeats a claim he made repeatedly in the first debate that he worked successfully in with the Democratic state legislature in Massachusetts. “Republicans and Democrats both love America,” said Romney. “But we need to have leadership—leadership in Washington that will actually bring people together and get the job done and could not care less if—if it’s a Republican or a Democrat. I’ve done it before. I’ll do it again.”

Romney also argues that an ability to work across the aisle is essential for any president, and that it is a quality he has and Obama lacks. At the first debate, Romney said, regarding a deficit reduction deal, “I think something this big, this important has to be done on a bipartisan basis. And we have to have a president who can reach across the aisle and fashion important legislation with the input from both parties.”

Romney’s surrogates have even gone so far as to offer his bipartisanship approach as the reason he will not specify what tax expenditures he will eliminate to offset the cost of his tax cuts, arguing that he should work with Congress to identify them, rather than dictating his own preferences.

During the primaries, when Romney claimed to have been “a severely conservative governor,” he never boasted of working with Democrats.

In truth, his approach in Massachusetts was neither severely conservative nor bipartisan. Democrats in the legislature held a veto-proof super-majority. That meant Romney had no choice but to play ball with them or else he would get nothing done. Sometimes he opted for the former, as in the case of healthcare reform. Often, he opted for the latter.

Looking at Romney’s record in Massachusetts one does not see bipartisanship as an operating principle. Rather than it is a tool he uses when it is convenient. Romney was not particularly good at cultivating relationships with the Democratic legislature. Former Massachusetts House Speaker Tom Finneran told the Associated Press, “Initially [Romney’s] sense was, ‘I have been elected governor, I am the CEO here and you guys are the board of directors and you monitor the implementation of what I say.’ That ruffled the feathers of legislators who see themselves as an equal branch (of government).”

Romney’s approach to the legislature remained mostly hostile, rather than conciliatory. As NPR reports:

Romney clearly did not relish having to work with a Legislature that was 85 percent Democratic. He pushed hard during his first two years as governor to boost the number of Republicans on Beacon Hill. But that effort was a failure; Republicans ended up losing seats in the midterm elections…. Apart from health care, Romney defined success not with big-picture legislative accomplishments but with confrontation. In a 2008 campaign ad, Romney actually bragged about taking on his Legislature: "I like vetoes; I vetoed hundreds of spending appropriations as governor," he said.
Romney issued some 800 vetoes, and the Legislature overrode nearly all of them, sometimes unanimously.

In 2005 and 2006, after Romney decided not to run for re-election but instead to seek the Republican presidential nomination, he abandoned much of his erstwhile moderation. Massachusetts pulled out the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, abandoned his smart growth policies, and reversed his prior support for abortion rights and stem cell research. Refusing to make investments in stem cell research and renewable energy—two important sectors of Massachusetts’s economy—contributed to his abysmal record on job creation.

It is also hard to reach across the aisle when you aren’t even in town. Towards the end of Romney’s tenure, he was out of the state more than he was in it. In 2006, Romney’s last year in office, he was traveling out of state for all or part more than 200 days. During his total four years he was out of the state more than 400 days. While on the road, speaking to Republican audiences, he would frequently mock Massachusetts for its liberal politics. By the time he left office, his approval ratings back home were 34 percent.

If anything, Romney’s approach in the White House would be even more partisan and polarizing. In Massachusetts, Romney was not only governing with Democratic legislature but with a liberal electorate. What he did under those circumstances could be quite different from what he would do with a Republican Congress and a national Republican constituency.

The Nation’s George Zornick made a must-read list of Romney’s seven biggest lies in Tuesday’s debate. Romney’s claim of governing in a bipartisan manner is number eight.

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What Obama Should Have Said in the Debate About Pay Equity

President Obama was handed a gift in Tuesday night’s debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, but he failed to take full advantage of it. A woman in the audience named Katherine Fenton asked Obama, “In what new ways do you intend to rectify the inequalities in the workplace, specifically regarding females making only 72 percent of what their male counterparts earn?” Obama could have talked about legislation in Congress to address just this issue, which he supports and Romney does not. But he didn’t.

Obama noted that he signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, and then he went on a tangent about how he improved college affordability by increasing Pell Grants. “We’ve got to make sure that young people like yourself are able to afford a college education,” Obama told Fenton. That’s correct, but it’s totally irrelevant. There are more women attending college than men. The problem is not that women are being disproportionately kept out of college due to lack of funds and therefore not getting jobs. It is that once they get jobs, they are paid less than men.

Romney bragged that he practiced affirmative action—although of course he did not call it that—in staffing his cabinet as governor of Massachusetts. He also noted that he accommodated women workers who needed flexible hours to juggle their work and family responsibilities. That’s nice, but it’s even more irrelevant than what Obama said. Practicing personal affirmative action or accommodating female employees is insignificant compared to the policies that as president you may impose on the rest of the country. That’s clearly what Fenton was asking about, and Romney gave her no answer at all. Will Romney require businesses to do anything to recruit qualified women or accommodate their needs? No. He just says the economy will grow so dramatically under him that it will happen automatically because everyone will be competing to hire and retain the best workers.

Initially, Obama did not even discuss Romney’s contorted position on the Ledbetter law. On the second go-round, Obama noted that when Romney’s campaign was asked by Sam Stein of the Huffington Post if Romney supported Ledbetter he was met with silence and told, “We’ll have to get back to you on that.” Obama then brought up other women’s issues, primarily pertaining to healthcare, on which he and Romney differ.

But Obama did not contest Romney’s false assertion in the debate that he supports the law. In fact, while Romney did eventually say he would not repeal it, he still refuses to say whether he would have signed it in the first place.

Obama completely failed to discuss the other ways in which Romney opposes pay equity. There is currently a Democratic bill in Congress, which Obama supports, called the Paycheck Fairness Act. It is much stronger than Ledbetter, which merely repealed the Supreme Court’s unreasonable ruling that a woman must bring a pay discrimination lawsuit within six months of her first paycheck, rather than within six months of discovering the disparity.

According to the Huffington Post, the Paycheck Fairness Act would have, “required employers to demonstrate that any salary differences between men and women doing the same work are not gender-related. The bill also would have prohibited employers from retaliating against employees who share salary information with their co-workers, and would have required the Labor Department to increase its outreach to employers to help eliminate pay disparities.” All forty-seven Senate Republicans voted to filibuster it in June. Romney has not taken a position on Paycheck Fairness. His campaign has not responded to any media queries as to whether he would sign it into law. Given that his entire party opposes it, the safest assumption is that Romney does as well. If nothing else, a Romney victory would have down ticket effects that would create too Republican a Congress to pass the bill. This would have been an excellent opportunity for Obama to ask Romney if he supports it and finally get an answer.

When discussing Ledbetter, Obama mentioned that the law was necessitated by a Supreme Court ruling. That would have been a good opportunity for him to discuss a subject that did not come up in the debate but that has major implications for pay equity: the composition of the federal courts. Democratic appointees to federal district and appeals courts, as well as the Supreme Court, favor civil rights. Republican judicial appointees oppose civil rights. A Republican presidency thus has adverse implications for anyone seeking protection from discrimination in the workplace, including racial, ethnic and religious minorities, people with disabilities, and women.

Finally, Obama neglected to point out that gender discrimination in the workplace is not just a question of men and women. Gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people also face discrimination on the basis of their gender identity. Democrats in Congress have proposed, and Obama has pledged to sign, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, to make such discrimination illegal. Romney was for such legislation when he ran for US Senate in 1994, against it in 2008, and has refused to take a stance this time. Polls show large majorities support ENDA, and Obama should have tried to get Romney on the record on that as well.

Social issues such as workplace discrimination put Romney in a very tough position. On the one hand he is trying to reinvent himself, yet again, for the benefit of socially moderate swing voters. On the other hand, he has to retain his support among social conservatives and business interests that oppose ENDA and Paycheck Fairness. Obama should exploit this tension and force Romney to stand against bigotry, or with America’s shrinking number of bigots. 

In case you missed it, Romney also claimed he supported access to contraceptives for every woman in America. Check out more of "Romney's Seven Biggest Debate Lies."

Ryan Stunt Exposes Fraudulence of GOP Charity Rhetoric

As part of the Romney campaign’s current disingenuous pivot to the center, Republicans and their allies have been promoting private charity as a substitute for the social welfare programs they would savagely cut. In anticipation of just this moment, Mitt Romney donated considerably more to charity in 2011 than he does in a typical year, which was conveniently timed to be revealed in late September. (Although, as I pointed out, most of Romney’s giving has historically been to the Mormon Church, his alma maters and the George W. Bush presidential library, not directly to poor people.)

During the vice-presidential debate Paul Ryan pointed to Romney’s donations as evidence of Romney’s compassion. Other conservatives been doing the same for Ryan. For example, the Family Research Council noted in its vice-presidential Catholic voter guide that Ryan gave more to charity last year than Vice President Biden. (It made no mention of any substantive anti-poverty policy positions.)

But the Romney/Ryan campaign took its obsession with proving their personal charitable bona fides a little too far on Saturday. After Ryan held a townhall at Youngstown State University in Ohio, Ryan stopped by a soup kitchen, without permission from the charity that runs it, for about fifteen minutes on his way to the airport. Brian J. Antal, president of the Mahoning County St. Vincent De Paul Society, in an interview with The Washington Post, said the Romney campaign did not contact him prior to their visit. Had they asked for permission to hold a photo op there, Antal tells the Post, he would have denied it because he runs a faith-based organization that avoids the appearance of engaging in partisan politics. But, says Antal, the Romney campaign “ramrodded their way” in. That’s because Ryan does not actually care about helping charities, only creating the appearance that he does.

The Post reports:

By the time [Ryan] arrived, the food had already been served, the patrons had left, and the hall had been cleaned.

Upon entering the soup kitchen, Ryan, his wife and three young children greeted and thanked several volunteers, then donned white aprons and offered to clean some dishes. Photographers snapped photos and TV cameras shot footage of Ryan and his family washing pots and pans that did not appear to be dirty.

As Antal says, “The photo-op they did wasn’t even accurate. He did nothing. He just came in here to get his picture taken at the dining hall.” Now, Antal is left to worry that Ryan’s appearance will offend donors who vote Democratic and result in lower donations.

Personal charitable contributions or volunteerism are no substitute for the far greater sums that Romney and Ryan would steal from the poor and give to the rich through cuts to taxes and spending. If Ryan had actually spent a few minutes cleaning pots and pans at a soup kitchen, it would be no compensation for his proposal to starve families by cutting funding for food stamps. But it’s worth noting that even Ryan’s supposed commitment to private charity is just dishonest window dressing.

For more on the Romney-Ryan ticket's fake charity, check out Ben Adler on "Romney's Ungenerous Donations."

In Colorado, Obama and Romney Focus on Mobilizing Their Bases

Terms like “swing state,” or a purple coloration on an electoral map, may create the false impression of a place filled with moderates who collectively shift from one election to the next. That’s not what such states actually look like on the ground. Rather, they are a collection of dense blue archipelagos—typically cities and college towns—surrounded by geographically vast swaths of less densely populated rural and suburban conservatism. The actual swing areas are typically limited to a few inner-ring suburbs. Even in those neighborhoods, victory might be determined by simply turning out more of your supporters rather than winning over converts.

Colorado, one of the highest-priority swing states for both the Romney and Obama campaigns, is typical of this pattern. So, while both the Romney and Obama campaigns say their focus is as much on persuasion as mobilization, on the ground in Colorado they seem entirely focused on the latter.

The Democratic strongholds in Colorado are Denver and Boulder, which together accounted for most of Obama’s 215,000-vote margin of victory in 2008. These are the sorts of unabashedly liberal bastions where you see Human Rights Campaign and Planned Parenthood soliciting donations on the street. Boulder, home of Colorado University, especially embodies the stereotype of a hippie college town. Visit the main drag and you will pass white kids with dreadlocks and a sandwich shop called Cheba Hut that plays Bob Marley and boasts the motto, “Friends don’t let friends eat shwag.”

In 2008, despite Obama’s nine-point victory in Colorado, McCain cleaned up in the sparsely populated eastern and western corners of the state. The two most populous Republican counties are Douglas, in the prosperous far suburbs of Denver and El Paso, around Colorado Springs. (The Colorado Springs area is home to a large evangelical community, due to the presence of socially conservative organizations such as Focus on the Family, and military bases.) “Our overarching strategy is just to get out the Republican vote,” says Mike Roy, the executive director of the El Paso County Republican Party. “In El Paso County, we have a wide margin of Republicans. If we mobilize that base, no matter what the Democrats do we’d be able to win big enough in the county [for Romney to carry the state]. Our focus isn’t on conversion.” To that end they are canvassing and calling as many registered Republicans as they can with a simple message: vote.

Colorado is a crucial swing state whose winner will almost certainly be the next president. The Romney campaign held three rallies in the run-up to the first presidential debate in Denver, and the Obama campaign held one the day after, his eleventh appearance in Colorado this year. Only a week later, Michelle Obama returned to hold two more rallies, and Vice President Joe Biden will do the same on Wednesday. Colorado’s population is concentrated heavily along the Interstate 25 corridor, which has Denver in the middle, with Boulder and Fort Collins to the north and Colorado Springs to the south. Despite his greater popularity in the rural areas, even Romney has to go where the votes are: his fourteen Colorado field offices are bunched like discs along I-25’s spine.

One conundrum for campaigns is that even as the electorate becomes more reliably partisan in its voting behavior, it becomes less partisan in its registration. Unaffiliated voters are the plurality in Colorado, and they are its fastest-growing electoral segment. So even though Colorado has become increasingly Democratic in its electoral results, Republicans retain a slight registration advantage. Perversely, this has led both parties to become convinced that Colorado is one of their most congenial swing states. “Colorado of all the top tier states has always been the easiest for Romney to win. White collar + Western, ” tweeted GOP strategist Patrick Ruffini on Tuesday.

On the other hand, Colorado is appealing to the Obama campaign because it is a classic Obama coalition state. Rather than being filled with working-class white Democrats who are skeptical of the African-American law professor—the sort of folks who have moved Indiana into Romney’s column—Colorado embodies America’s new demographics. Its population is younger, more Latino and much more likely to have a bachelor’s degree than the country as a whole. While it is not an industrial powerhouse, it is also not “right to work,” so service-sector unions such as SEIU can play an important role in mobilizing

On some level, the battle for Colorado can be seen in starkly racial terms. A Romney rally in Denver that attracted 6,000 attendees appeared to have more minorities—about half a dozen—in the press riser than in the audience. Most attendees are bald, gray-haired or both. Even at a “Juntos Con Romney,” rally with Marco Rubio and other Latino speakers, the crowd is mostly white. Obama events, by contrast, are Benetton ad–esque. Colorado’s swing counties tend to lean more Republican in off-year elections such as 2010, when Republicans regained control of the state legislature, than in presidential elections, because of the changes in electoral demographics. (Younger voters and Latinos are less likely to come out in off years, leaving an older, whiter and more Republican cohort). And so it is essential to both campaigns that they make the electorate as this year as favorable as possible.

The big bellwether counties—the inner-ring Denver suburbs of Jefferson and Arapahoe, and Larimer County, surrounding Fort Collins—have more registered Republicans than Democrats, even though they all went for Obama in 2008. The voters in these counties, as well as Adams County, also in suburban Denver, may determine the outcome of the election. “If somebody wins all those counties, or three of them, he is going to win,” says former Governor Bill Ritter, a Democrat. Republicans and Democrats do not agree on many things, but they speak with one voice on this: it is in these suburbs that Colorado’s nine electoral votes will be decided. Colorado also has a divided legislature and three competitive House races. Both parties are trying to mobilize voters for all of these races at once, in the same handful of battlegrounds. “State legislative victories will be determined largely in the same swing counties and districts that will help decide this year’s presidential race—namely, Jefferson and Arapahoe Counties,” wrote Michelle Selesky, communications director for GOPAC, in a recent e-mail to supporters.  

According to Roy, Republican phone bankers do not have to talk about the issues, because their voters’ views are already solidified. What they need to do is bump the turnout among El Paso county Republicans from 67 percent in 2008 to 75 percent this year. “We don’t need to talk issues,” says Roy. “I get very frustrated because people will come to me and say, ‘I just saw something about Obama as a flag burner, boy that will turn the election!’ No it won’t. Other than the debates, there is no incident or issue that will turn the election at this point.”

The Romney field office in Adams County is nothing like the storefront Obama office in Boulder. Both offices seem to reflect the campaigns and even the candidates themselves. Obama’s Boulder office has large bay windows, as if to emphasize transparency, wood floors and a quirky layout. Romney’s Adams County office is hidden behind a parking lot in a low-slung, awkwardly shaped beige office building. Since there is no foot traffic, it is not outwardly festooned with the usual campaign posters. Inside, there are a handful of volunteers making phone calls. Their average age looks to be about 65. On the dry-erase board there is a motivational list of who has made the most calls that week and throughout the campaign, like at a telemarketing firm. They call registered voters, regardless of party, ask if they support Romney and if the answer is yes offer to send a mail-in ballot. Then they enter the data and move on. Several volunteers told me they have been doing this several days per week for months, and it has always been a variation on this same script, never a persuasion effort targeting undecided voters.

Phone banking may not be as effective a method for mobilizing Obama’s young supporters. Many of them do not have landlines. So you must find them where they are. In Boulder, there are three daily voter registration and mobilization operations on campus. The Obama campaign and two non-partisan groups, New Era Colorado and COPIRG. Each of them mans a table inside the University of Colorado student center or out front, around the fountain dedicated to Dalton Trumbo, Colorado alum and Hollywood blacklist victim. The Obama campaign also goes door-knocking on weekends. They try to persuade everyone to vote in state, even students from, say, California, on the grounds that their vote will count more in a swing state. Colorado’s early voting system is a boon to efforts to turn out notoriously recalcitrant students, and there are early voting stations on campus. The Obama campaign encourages early voting rather than voting by mail, since that requires a photocopy of an identification card for first-time voters and other technical hoops that they fear students may not successfully jump through. The Obama campaign office in Boulder also has students and recent graduates, even ones from other countries, making phone calls. But the emphasis is more on in-person voter contact than at the Romney field office.

New Era, which is focused on engaging young Coloradans in the political process, conducts voter registration drives on campus every election year. They’ve achieved some impressive results. College students and young people tend to move frequently, and so many of them make a biannual stop at the New Era table to update their registration. According to Molly Fitzpatrick, New Era’s Boulder organizing director, they had 6,200 registrations as of October 1. (The state registration deadline was October 9.)

Although many of the registration efforts are nonpartisan, and even the Obama campaign has registered plenty of Republicans in Boulder, it is clear whom a strong turnout in Boulder will benefit. The disdain for young people is evident when I ask Joe Coors, the Republican nominee for Congress in Colorado’s 7th District, about the presidential race’s ground game in Colorado. “Obama is aimed more at the younger people and Romney is aimed more at people that are actually working for a living,” says Coors.

One of the privileges of incumbency is that Obama got a head start on voter mobilization. He has fifty-five field offices in Colorado to Romney’s fourteen. “The basis of a good ground game is that you have to build it over time,” Robert Gibbs, a senior Obama campaign advisor tells The Nation. “Romney has tried to build a field organization in weeks, not a year. People were freaked out that we were spending too much money early on, but we were spending it on the right things.”

The Obama campaign is notably secretive about the details of its field operation. It refuses to divulge any metrics for voter contacts, or to allow reporters on canvassing trips. The Romney campaign offered that it hit its one-millionth Colorado voter contact in mid-September. By the end of the month, it had knocked on six times more doors and made four times as many phone calls as the Republican campaign did in all of 2008.

Besides having more offices, the Obama campaign has also done more than Romney to integrate field organizing into their rallies. When Romney spoke in Denver last week his campaign set up tables for phone banking, which were about half full with volunteers reading from a printed-out script and calling on cellphones. As always, it was about collecting voter information, not making the case for Romney. “We will be calling to advocate for our cause but more importantly to survey individuals to discover who they are planning on supporting,” read the instructions. “We use this information to target things like mailings and media buys.”

Obama, who held his rally on an unseasonably cold morning in an outdoor park, did not do have phone banking tables. But he did have young, Latina campaign field organizer Terrina Gogue spend ten minutes exhorting the crowd to get involved in mobilizing their neighbors. She asked the audience to volunteer, to register to vote and shouted out a local volunteer by name. Gogue urged the crowd repeatedly to visit GottaVote.org, an Obama campaign portal for voter registration. “Take out your phone,” demanded Gogue. “We need you to commit to one shift for this month.” You can do so merely by texting.

“How many doors would you knock if it means your mom can get a small business loan and follow her dream?” Said Gogue. “How many people would you call if it meant your daughter, like myself, could get health insurance? How many people would you canvass if it meant you could marry who you love?”

Likewise, in a return to his 2008 message, Obama flattered the crowd by telling them it was they, not he, who could change the country for the next four years. “You’re the reason a woman outside Durango [Colorado] with cancer can get insurance and treatment,” he said. “We couldn’t do it without you, Denver!” Obama also presented volunteering for his campaign as the way to combat the influence of nefarious forces in politics. “If you give up, other people fill the void: lobbyists, special interests…folks trying to make it harder for you to vote, who want to tell women about their medical decisions,” he argued.

By contrast, the only mobilization effort at Romney’s rally was a request he made, at the end of his speech, to “find someone who voted for Obama last time,” and convert them.

“The impression I have, and everything I hear, is the Obama ground game is better,” says John Straayer, an expert on Colorado politics who teaches Colorado State University. Straayer recently examined the increase in voter registration over the last month in the most heavily Latino counties and found that they outpaced the rate in the state as a whole. “Colorado is rich with Hispanic voters, but they’ve underperformed historically [in turnout],” notes Straayer. But the registration numbers suggest that Democrats are focusing on increasing Latino participation, and that it is working.  

If Romney is going to catch up, he does not have much time left. The election in Colorado is already being decided. In Colorado voters can mail in ballots as of October 15 and vote in person beginning on October 22. In 2008, 78 percent of the votes were cast prior to Election Day.

But Romney will be getting help from outside sources that John McCain did not. Americans for Prosperity, the fiscally conservative advocacy group founded by the Koch brothers, was not around in 2008. Now it has five paid field organizers in Colorado. Each AFP organizer can draw on the strength of actual grassroots Tea Party groups. The Colorado Tea Party Patriots, for example, are offering up their members to do canvassing at the direction of AFP’s paid professionals. “We’ve got more than sixty groups across the state,” says Regina Thomson, who coordinates an umbrella of Tea Party organizations in Colorado. “We’re actively getting involved with organizations like AFP because they’ve already got walk lists and infrastructure to make it happen.”

But when it comes to canvassing, Obama holds a geographic advantage. To mobilize voters in inner-city Denver, or Boulder, one can stand on the street or walk down a residential street ringing bells. Much of Republican Colorado is simply not accessible in that way. “We hope to reach all 172,000 [registered Republicans in El Paso county], realistically if we reach 75,000 we’re doing very well,” says Roy. “That’s just the reality of distance. We have rural areas that you can’t walk.” To compensate, the GOP is augmenting its phone banks by buying ads on local conservative talk radio and sending mail to registered Republicans, urging them to vote.  

Colorado has one distinctive demographic feature that does play to Romney’s advantage. It is 4.8 percent Mormon. The church is officially politically neutral and not engaged in electioneering. (When I asked the main Mormon Church in Denver if it was doing any nonpartisan voter mobilization the answer was a terse, “No.”) But Mormons, an already Republican-leaning group, are sure to come out in droves for the first Mormon major party presidential nominee. Underground, unofficial voter turnout efforts in the church have come to the national media’s attention. Buzzfeed reported on a viral e-mail being received by Mormons all over the West, calling for them to fast and pray on September 30 for Romney to do well in the presidential debates. A Mormon Church official in Nevada distributed a presentation urging Mormons to speak “with one voice” in the presidential election.

Being a Mormon, particularly one who used to support gay rights and abortion rights, is not particularly advantageous in Colorado’s much larger evangelical community. But even among evangelicals, Colorado’s large Mormon population is a boon. Colorado Republicans say that anti-Mormon bias among evangelicals is not an issue in the Rocky Mountain West as it is in the South. “Mormons in the West are a bigger part of the community,” says John Suthers, Colorado’s Republican Attorney General. “Everyone has Mormon friends and coworkers.” That is not just hopeful Republican spin. “As much as anywhere the country there is no anti-Mormon feeling as there is in the Bible Belt or some parts of the country,” concurs Mike Stratton, a Denver-based national Democratic strategist.

And evangelicals are as motivated by Obama-hatred as any part of the Republican base. “Whatever reservations they have about Romney pale next to Obama,” says Suthers. “Beating Obama is their number-one goal in life right now.”

“Most evangelicals think Obama is a Muslim or the Antichrist himself,” says Roy. “They think the Mormon is more in their camp than the Muslim is. I don’t think Obama is a Muslim. I think the whole thing with Pastor Wright in 2008 would have disproved that, but that’s a pervasive sentiment.”

But in Colorado, the cultural alienation card can be played both ways. In 2010, Michael Bennet—a Democrat who had been appointed in 2009 and had never run for office before and barely won his primary—managed to eke out a win in the general election despite a national Republican wave that flipped two congressional seats in Colorado. He was lucky that his opponent, Ken Buck, was a far-right Tea Party insurrectionist who was prone to making inflammatory statements, such as comparing homosexuality to alcoholism. But Ritter says that Bennet’s campaign provides a model for Obama to mimic against Romney. “Michael Bennet probably won that race because he tarred his opponent as someone who is unacceptable to moderate Republican and independent women,” says Ritter. Emphasizing education and social issues is the way Obama could do the same to Romney. And, sure enough, Obama has run television commercials on abortion rights in Colorado, even in heavily evangelical El Paso County.

Thanks to an increasingly extreme Republican Party, the electorate is as polarized as ever. On both sides, the presidential campaign’s ground game is designed to exploit, rather than ameliorate, that polarization. That’s good politics. One phone call from a stranger won’t convince many people to change their political allegiances. But it won’t make it any easier to unite the country on November 7.

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