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Ben Adler | The Nation

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Ben Adler

Ben Adler

 The 2012 election, Republican politics and conservative media.

Republican Women in Denial


Republican presidential candidate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich listens at left, as his wife Callista introduces him during a campaign stop at Hood College in Frederick, Md., Monday, April 2, 2012. (AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt)

You have to feel just a little sad for Callista Gingrich. When she began having an affair with Newt Gingrich, he was House minority leader and on his way to becoming Speaker. He later told his soon-to-be-ex-wife Marianne that Callista would “help me become president.” And, remarkably enough, there was a moment or two in recent months where that seemed possible. Gingrich surged to the top of the national polls in early December, and he won a dramatic victory in the South Carolina primary. Callista, a former Congressional staffer, has surely entertained a few daydreams of being first lady.

Not anymore. On Tuesday afternoon Callista Gingrich appeared at the Republican Women’s Club in New York, an imposing gray, seven-story townhouse across the street from Rockefeller Center. The venue was impressive, but the event was not. The entire press delegation consisted of a producer from ABC News and a two-person team from a Chinese television station. The club apparently struggled to pull together its attendance of roughly sixty people. (One attendee told me she was called by the club and asked to come.)

The demographics didn’t augur well for the future of the GOP. The average age at the luncheon tables appeared to be around 75. I counted more women in pearl necklaces, more women in purple suits and more women with platinum blonde dyed hair (including Gingrich on all counts), than women who aren’t white.

Not a single woman I interviewed—of those who would let me, they were surprisingly hostile and generally unwilling to divulge basic information, such as their names—intends to vote for Newt Gingrich in New York’s upcoming primary.

You might expect this to be a depressing event for Gingrich for other reasons as well. The Republican war on women has severely damaged the GOP’s brand among women. Consequently, were the election held today women voters would provide Obama with his margin of victory, and a healthy one at that.

So you would expect the Republican Women’s Club to be a pretty demoralized crowd, right? Wrong. The table closest to me boisterously toasted the GOP and joked that President Obama had better start working on his presidential library.

When I asked about their party’s unpopularity among women and the reasons for it, I was met with nothing more than blinkered partisan denial. Some people simply denied the math of recent polls showing that Romney’s advantage among men is outweighed by Obama’s far greater advantage among women. For example, a lawyer told me she isn’t worried about Republicans doing poorly among women because “historically, for whatever reasons, Republicans have appealed to men more and Democrats to women.” Others simply denied the numbers, saying it all depends on which polls you look at.

These are irrelevant truths. Obama’s margin varies from poll to poll, but he consistently leads in all of them. And while women have always leaned more Democratic than men, they are currently leaning much more Democratic than men are leaning Republican.

On the substance of the issues that have made the Republicans look so retrograde to so many women, the majority in attendance simply spouted GOP talking points. “The press is making such a big deal out of birth control, which [banning] isn’t Romney’s platform,” said a woman who gave her name only as Delores. “[Insurance coverage] has nothing to do with birth control,” said another. “I’d like to have my eyeglasses covered.”

Even the predicament of a rape victim brought to the nearest hospital, which may happen to be a Catholic institution, generated no sympathy or compromise. According to Romney, Gingrich et al., a woman in such a circumstance should be denied emergency contraception (also known as “the morning-after pill”) and forced to carry her rapist’s fetus. “After you’ve been raped it’s too late for contraception,” Delores offered.

Ironically, the attendee who appeared to be most in touch with political reality, and the most reasonable on the substance of reproductive freedom, was Marilyn Reagan, a distant cousin of former President Reagan. “If you’re going to frown on abortion you need to provide contraception,” she said. “It’s the [Republican] men I’m worried about. They want to preach. Some of it seems religiously motivated.”

When I accosted Gingrich on her way in and asked what she’d be speaking about she said, “American exceptionalism.” I asked whether she would address the Republican war on women. “No,” she said, with a laugh. “Why not?” I asked. “Because I’m here to talk about American exceptionalism,” she said.

Her speech didn’t give anyone a specific reason to vote Republican, much less for her husband. It was a paean to America’s fantastic history. The only nominal connection to contemporary politics was the false assertion she frequently repeated that liberals and “elites” think America to be undistinguished among the nations. (This is strange since she mentioned liberal heroes John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. as having “testified” to America’s greatness.) “Nothing pinpoints you as a conservative more than believing in American exceptionalism,” said Gingrich. Presumably that means she either thinks President Obama is a conservative, or she didn’t listen to either of his two speeches to Democratic National Conventions. (Delores explained that Obama abandoned his belief in American exceptionalism upon taking office, and that he has explicitly proclaimed upon America’s unexceptional nature from the Oval Office, although she couldn’t furnish any offhand examples.)

The Gingrich campaign is not the only one afraid of addressing women’s rights. On Wednesday morning Sam Stein of Huffington Post asked Mitt Romney’s campaign on a conference call with reporters whether Romney supports the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. The answer? Six seconds of silence followed by “We’ll get back to you.” Hours later the Romney campaign made a half-hearted attempt to fight back on the gender front by issuing a statement from Representative Mary Bono Mack (R-CA) saying Obama is to blame for the rate of unemployment among women. Of course, macroeconomic conditions are completely unrelated to the question of whether Romney, like Obama, supports full legal equality for women.

I asked Reagan whether she thought Republican men would wise up on the subject of women’s rights. “It will take a long time,” she said.

How Rick Santorum Moved the GOP Primary to the Right


Surrounded by his family, Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum announces he is suspending his candidacy effective today (Tuesday, April 10, 2012) in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

On Tuesday afternoon former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum announced he is suspending his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. Although his departure means that Mitt Romney’s nomination goes from assumed to certain, Santorum has had a meaningful impact on the course of the Republican primary. He revivified the religious right and pushed his opponents to extremes on a host of issues.

Liberals tend to imagine the conservative base as implacable opponents of moderation and pragmatism. But in one crucial respect they are sophisticated political actors. They have long recognized that they cannot always ensure that every Republican nominee is a true believer in all their values. But rather than just picking up their toys and going home like Ralph Nader voters, they try to exercise influence in the Republican primary process to bring the nominee as far in their direction as they can. That’s why they have so many doctrinaire policy pledges, and the Tea Party has targeted incumbent senators for even the most minor infractions.

To force the front-runner to address your concerns, you need leverage, which comes from a credible threat of defection. Mitt Romney, who ran in Massachusetts as a supporter of abortion rights and is now trying to move back to the center for the general election, is exactly the sort of mainstream Republican that the conservative movement excels at pushing around. Romney will be as moderate as he can get away with, to maximize his chances of winning the general election. But being so lacking in principle, he will also, when necessary, swerve far to the right to appease conservatives. And that is what he has to do repeatedly to fend off Santorum’s challenge.

It was hard to imagine, even when staunch social conservatives such as Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry led the Republican field, that the primaries would become dominated by contraception. Few living politicians have made a point of decrying the immoral behavior that they believe contraception encourages. But Rick Santorum is one of them.

Prior to this campaign Santorum’s political identity was dominated by two concerns: a social conservatism that could veer into homophobia, and a hawkishness that could veer into paranoia.

Santorum has been beating the drum for a confrontation with Iran for years. His incessant fear-mongering on the campaign trail and in Republican debates—like his bizarre assertion that the United States faces a socialist/Islamist/terrorist threat from Latin America—has helped the GOP find its voice on foreign policy. President Obama has prosecuted the war against Al Qaeda much more effectively than did President Bush. That has left Republicans in a bind, unsure of whether they should follow their reflex to characterize Obama as weak, as they typically denigrate Democrats, when they lack any evidence to support such a claim. Especially with Ron Paul’s isolationist candidacy picking up enthusiastic support, Republicans were left flailing, attempting to somehow criticize Obama from the left and right simultaneously on issues such as Libya. Santorum, the most reliable proponent of neoconservative belligerence on the Middle East, argued forcefully with Paul in the debates and showed the way forward on foreign policy for other Republicans. The GOP message—that Obama has shown weakness towards adversaries such as Iran, China and Russia—may be absurd on the merits, but at least it’s a tangible concept. And it fits nicely with the Republican tendency to treat foreign policy as merely a swaggering expression of domestic nationalist identity politics. Romney has recently pivoted towards painting President Obama as weak on national security. 

On social issues, Santorum gave the religious right a reason to get out of bed. In recent years they had been supplanted by the Tea Party as the voice of right-wing populist anger. With Perry and Bachmann they had unserious candidates. When Santorum emerged in Iowa as a legitimate contender, religious conservative leaders had someone to coalesce around. Santorum ultimately won the majority of their endorsements.

His candidacy also demonstrated the ongoing political importance of evangelicals. In state after state, Santorum, a Catholic, won evangelicals, along with overlapping groups such as “very conservative” voters. Romney, a Mormon, won non-evangelicals, including Catholics. While some commentators have suggested this is a sign of social progress because it means voters no longer reflexively favor their co-religionists, it has a whole other implication. What Santorum’s strength shows is that evangelical Christian Republicans continue to hold a strong preference for candidates who are intensely conservative on social issues and overtly religious. They alone are not quite large enough to single-handedly give such a candidate the Republican nomination, but their cohesive voting behavior means they remain a powerful force in the party.

Santorum even moved the debate rightward on economic policy. To shore up his fiscally conservative bona fides, Santorum had an economic platform that was far to the right of Romney’s. Santorum would have cut taxes far more dramatically. In February, feeling a need to fend off Santorum’s challenge, Romney changed his own tax plan, making it much more extreme and more like Santorum’s.

Since then economic issues have been eclipsed by Republican hysteria over the possibility that some religious institutions will be forced to provide reproductive health coverage for their employees. While Santorum can hardly claim sole credit for execrable developments like the introduction of the Blunt-Rubio amendment to let employers opt out of covering treatments they find morally objectionable, his presence in the race has surely helped keep the spotlight on these issues that many women mistakenly thought were long settled.

Just a few years ago Santorum was a national laughingstock. He had lost re-election by an astonishing eighteen points. His most famous quote was a vulgar comparison between homosexuality and bestiality. Googling him brought up a mocking definition of his name. Now he is dropping out—at the right time, unlike Newt Gingrich—as the runner-up for the Republican presidential nomination. The last runner-up will be the nominee this time, just as the runner-up from 2000 was the nominee last time. If Santorum never makes another public appearance, he will have permanently changed the first line of his obituary from having left politics as a diminished joke back to being a significant right-wing leader. And this may not be the last we will hear from him.

Romney Trying to Erase Primary Extremism


Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks in Tunkhannock, Pennsylvania, Thursday, April 5, 2012. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Mitt Romney’s campaign adviser Eric Fehrnstrom caused a kerfuffle recently by saying that in the general election Romney could simply erase his extreme conservative positions from the primary “almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again.” 

Now that Mitt Romney is combining his campaign operations with the Republican National Committee, he is, for all intents and purposes, the nominee. And so the process of erasing extremism has begun.

As Daniel Libit reports in the Daily, the RNC intends to introduce a major initiative to appeal to Latinos. “The RNC will unveil a Hispanic coalitions team with state directors in Nevada, Colorado, North Carolina, Virginia, Florida and New Mexico,” Libit writes. “The swing-state undertaking is part of a larger effort to stem the tide of Latino disaffection with the Republican brand—at least enough so that trouble doesn’t turn into certain disaster in the general election…. Perhaps most noteworthy of that operation is its emphasis in reaching out to voters in Spanish, at times exclusively, despite the calls of some conservative activists and Republican lawmakers who are currently to pushing English-only legislation in Washington.” The Romney campaign has plenty of room for improvement in its Spanish language outreach. Currently there is no Spanish language version of its website.

Democrats are determined not to let Romney run away from his positions on immigration that are wildly unpopular among Latinos. For example, Romney opposes the Dream Act, which enjoys support of 90 percent of Latinos. The Democratic National Committee is organizing conference calls for reporters with Latino Democratic congress members nearly every day. On Friday morning they gladly pulled one together after Russell Pearce, the Arizona State Senator who wrote that state’s draconian anti-immigration law, said that he and Romney have an “identical“ position on immigration. “Romney’s locked into the most extreme position on immigration,” said Representative Charlie Gonzales (D-TX) on the DNC’s Friday call. “He supports states passing laws [similar to Arizona’s] meaning we could have 50 [state] immigration laws.”

Romney and his Republican supporters are also attempting to avoid responsibility for their opposition to women’s rights. Throughout the primary season Romney has pandered to opponents of women’s rights in the most cowardly and dishonest manner. He refused to state in a debate whether states should be allowed to ban contraception, pretending that even though he went to Harvard Law School he is unaware of the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Griswold v. Connecticut that overturned state laws against contraception use. In a later debate he insisted that his healthcare reform law in Massachusetts did not require Catholic hospitals to provide emergency contraception for rape victims, as if such a requirement would be a bad thing. He was timid in his criticism of Rush Limbaugh’s sexist smearing of contraception advocate Sandra Fluke. And Romney promised to end funding for Planned Parenthood.

Now polls show he may pay the price among women voters. A swing state poll shows President Obama leading Romney by nine points, thanks to an eighteen-point lead among women and a 2–1 lead among women under 50 years old. RNC Chair Reince Preibus tried to explain Romney’s women problem by claiming that the Republican War on Women, epitomized by intrusive state laws such as requirements that women be subjected to a transvaginal ultrasound before having an abortion, is an invention of Democrats and the media. “If the Democrats said we had a war on caterpillars and every mainstream media outlet talked about the fact that Republicans have a war on caterpillars, then we’d have problems with caterpillars,” Priebus said in an interview on Bloomberg Television’s Political Capital with Al Hunt. “It’s a fiction.” Comparing women to caterpillars and claiming their concerns are fictional is probably not going to help the GOP’s gender problem very much.

Other Republicans keep causing problems for Romney. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, whom Romney has hailed as a “hero,” signed a law on Friday revoking his state’s equal pay requirement. The Obama campaign is more than happy to blast out such news to the national press and to draw the connection between the GOP’s more extreme ideologues such as Walker and Romney. “Does Romney think women should have ability to take their bosses to court to get the same pay as their male coworkers?” demanded Obama campaign spokesperson Lis Smith in a statement. “Or does he stand with Governor Walker against this?”

Romney’s camp is trying to soften his image among women through meaningless feel-good gestures rather than substantive policy moderation. His campaign uses his wife, Ann Romney, as his designated humanizing agent. On Friday the Romney campaign released a video called “Family” that contains no policy content of any kind. It merely features Ann recounting her experience raising five boys. Romney surrogate South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley called Ann Mitt’s “golden bullet” for winning over women. “When they see how strong she is, the fact that she is an M.S. survivor, a cancer survivor, a great mom, a great wife, strong supporter, and hear her talk about him, I think he’ll do a lot better [among women],” Haley said. Apparently Haley thinks women care more about Romney’s marriage than their reproductive freedom. And Romney should think twice before inviting women to examine his personal life as evidence of his benevolence towards women. In his capacity as a Mormon bishop he demonstrated a breathtaking lack of sensitivity to women experiencing medically complicated pregnancies, whom he pressured not to have abortions.

Romney himself seems to appreciate that women actually care about social, legal and political gender equality. Unfortunately he offers them little besides more congenial issue framing and symbolism. “A discussion about religious liberty was distorted into a discussion about contraceptives,” said Romney in an interview with NewsMax on Wednesday. “And there was the somehow Republicans are opposed to contraceptives. I think it was most unfortunate twist by our Democrat friends. I think this will pass as an issue as people understand our real position.” Presumably he is referring to the debate over the Blunt-Rubio amendment, a Senate measure that Romney endorsed and virtually every Senate Republican voted for. If it passed, employers would be allowed to refuse health insurance for any medical procedure they deem immoral. It is intended to protect conservative institutions from having to pay for contraception coverage, but it could be extended to anything.

In another attempt to woo women voters Romney offered on Friday that he thinks the Augusta golf club should allow women to join. He’s right, but who cares? President Obama had already taken that position. And Obama, unlike Romney, stands for the rights of women on issues that matter to more than just a handful of corporate executives such as the membership policies of elite golf clubs. If Romney is going to win over women and Latinos he is going have to offer them valuable policy proposals. Doing so, however, would risk alienating his socially conservative base. That is a bigger problem than a few videos cut in Spanish or featuring Ann Romney reminiscing about raising their children can solve.

John Derbyshire, 'National Review' and Conservatives' Race Problem

It has been a rough couple of days for our friends over at National Review. On Thursday their longtime contributor John Derbyshire published a racist screed on a website called Taki’s Magazine that has caused NR some serious embarrassment. Ultimately, enough of Derbyshire’s colleagues called for his head that he was fired. Conservatives may hope that by cutting Derbyshire loose they can avoid being associated with views such as his. But the truth is that their relationship with the racist right-wing fringe is far deeper and more complex than any one writer.

Derbyshire’s piece referenced the widespread discussion, in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s murder, of how black parents must tell their children that when they go out into the world they will face suspicions solely because of their race. “There is a talk that nonblack Americans have with their kids, too. My own kids, now 19 and 16, have had it in bits and pieces as subtopics have arisen. If I were to assemble it into a single talk, it would look something like the following.”

Derbyshire went on to list a series of assertions about African-Americans. The least offensive were technically factual statements presented in a hostile manner and totally lacking in relevant context. For example, he wrote, “Of most importance to your personal safety are the very [emphasis his] different means for antisocial behavior [between whites and blacks], which you will see reflected in, for instance, school disciplinary measures, political corruption, and criminal convictions.” Of course, the fact that blacks might be over-represented in criminal convictions and school disciplinary measures because of racist assumptions and practices among the authorities, fed by pseudo-scientific claptrap such as Derbyshire’s column itself, does not occur to him. Derbyshire’s column also makes no mention of the historical and contemporary framework for modern race relations in the United States, such as slavery, segregation and persistent structural economic inequality. And it only got worse from there.

If Derbyshire had stuck to merely implied rather than overt racism, he would not have lost his job. As Elspeth Reeve noted in the Atlantic Wire, publications such as National Review have long relied upon writers like Derbyshire to cater to their readers’ baser instincts by putting an intellectually refined gloss on bigotry.

But Derbyshire went much further. He descended into purely imagined assertions of racial animosity. “A small cohort of blacks—in my experience, around five percent—is ferociously hostile to whites and will go to great lengths to inconvenience or harm us,” wrote Derbyshire. “A much larger cohort of blacks—around half—will go along passively if the five percent take leadership in some event. They will do this out of racial solidarity, the natural willingness of most human beings to be led, and a vague feeling that whites have it coming.” He offers no basis for this except for a link to a decidedly non-viral short YouTube video of an obscure author expressing a desire to kill white people.

Derbyshire then went on to offer his children horrifyingly racist advice on how to avoid black people so as not to be a victim of violent crime. “Do not attend events likely to draw a lot of blacks,” Derbyshire urges. “If you are at some public event at which the number of blacks suddenly swells, leave as quickly as possible.” He also advocates racist voter behavior. “Do not settle in a district or municipality run by black politicians. Before voting for a black politician, scrutinize his/her character much more carefully than you would a white.” He continued on with sections on affirmative action and advice to make a few black friends to burnish your public image. The piece was odious, but so over the top that it was almost funny as a kind of self-parody.

Fellow writers at National Review who weighed in did so with appropriate chagrin. On Friday Josh Barro wrote a Web column for Forbes urging NR to dump Derbyshire so as to prevent their other writings on race from being tainted by guilt through association. Jonah Goldberg and Ramesh Ponnuru tweeted that they disapproved of his piece.

On Saturday NR editor Rich Lowry posted on their blog saying that Derbyshire had been relieved of his duties.

“Anyone who has read Derb in our pages knows he’s a deeply literate, funny, and incisive writer.… Derb is also maddening, outrageous, cranky, and provocative. His latest provocation, in a webzine, lurches from the politically incorrect to the nasty and indefensible. We never would have published it, but the main reason that people noticed it is that it is by a National Review writer. Derb is effectively using our name to get more oxygen for views with which we’d never associate ourselves otherwise. So there has to be a parting of the ways. Derb has long danced around the line on these issues, but this column is so outlandish it constitutes a kind of letter of resignation.”

Noticeably absent from Lowry’s statement was any mention of the word race, racism or what exactly they found so distasteful about Derbyshire’s article. By calling Derbyshire “cranky and provocative,” Lowry seems to imply that Derbyshire’s racism is merely an extreme manifestation of his avuncular crankiness. And he doesn’t venture to explain why Derbyshire was allowed to dance “around the line on these issues” until now.

Clearly, National Review and other conservatives hope that by cutting Derbyshire loose they can avoid accusations of institutional racial insensitivity and go back to whining that they are unfairly accused of racism. As political blogger Ben Smith tweeted, “Twitter [is] just overflowing with relief from conservatives eager to shrug off a kind of generational legacy on issues of race.”

Their eagerness is understandable. The conservative movement, and National Review, has a long history of accepting, and then occasionally expurgating, racist elements. NR itself famously editorialized against civil rights. The fathers of the modern conservative movement—Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan—opposed the Civil Rights Act.

Conservatives would like you to think that is all in the past and that today they stand for racial equality, while liberals endorse preferences for racial minorities. In fact, conservatives have never fully accepted the civil rights revolution. Right now, for instance, they are attacking the Voting Rights Act in court and in National Review. According to a 1989 article in Spy magazine, casual racism was frequently tossed around in NR’s office.

And it’s not as if Derbyshire has never endorsed bigotry before. Back in 2001 he wrote in National Review Online in favor of stereotyping: “the racial stereotypes that white Americans hold of black Americans are generally accurate; and where they are inaccurate, they always under-estimate [emphasis his] a negative characteristic.” He said it would be better if women did not vote. In 2003 he said in an interview, “I am a homophobe, though a mild and tolerant one, and a racist, though an even more mild and tolerant one.” This is not the first time National Review has carried an offensive writer and only dumped him or her after an especially embarrassing episode. Ann Coulter spewed hateful invective for years, and she left National Review only after she wrote a column in 2001 calling for America to “invade [Muslim] countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity." And she wasn’t even fired for that. Rather she got into an argument with her editors about whether they would publish a self-defense she wrote, and they let her go after she publicly complained they were “censoring” her.

Nor is Derbyshire the only person in the conservative media sphere holding views such as his. Taki Theodoracopulos, the editor of the magazine that published his rant, is the co-founder, with Pat Buchanan, of The American Conservative. Taki himself has written for National Review. Taki’s Magazine also features the work of Steve Sailer, whom Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting refers to as “a well-known promoter of racist and anti-immigrant theories.”

The conservative media has generally responded to Martin’s death by unfairly assaulting his character. Rush Limbaugh, the most popular conservative talk radio host, regularly makes racially inflammatory and insensitive remarks. Fox News also has a long history of what Media Matters terms “racially divisive coverage.”

In February I saw Derbyshire speak on a panel on “the failure of multiculturalism” at the massive Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, DC. His co-panelists included Peter Brimelow, editor of the notoriously xenophobic website VDARE and author of Alien Nation: Common Sense About America’s Immigration Disaster, a book devoted to lamenting the influx of non-white immigrants. Issues of Chronicles magazine, a far-right publication, were handed out at the panel and they featured a back-page column by Taki filled with racist, homophobic fear-mongering.

At the CPAC panel Brimelow, who has written for National Review, mentioned that NR had “purged” people like him. Derbyshire’s firing isn’t the first time NR has had to distance itself from an embarrassing bigot. Unless it, and the conservative movement, change their substantive views on civil rights and racial equality, it probably won’t be the last.

Why Romney Bashes Obama’s Harvard Education

Mitt Romney is the archetypal Harvard alum. He went there for law school and business school. After graduating he joined the Boston Consulting Group, which heavily recruits Harvard MBAs. He went on to amass a fortune through consulting and private equity work in the Boston area.

As Benjy Sarlin notes in TPM, “Three of his sons attended Harvard and he has donated over $50,000 to the university. His campaign lists over a dozen advisers with Harvard ties.” Romney has also publicly sung Harvard’s praises. With his stiffly coiffed hair and habit of using awkward jargon, Romney is the epitome of America’s academically credentialed business elite.

And that’s the problem. Romey is an uncomfortable fit for a political party deeply suspicious of intellectualism and cosmopolitanism. So he has made bashing President Obama’s ties to Harvard--Obama also attended Harvard Law School--a feature of his stump speeches. He regularly tosses out the meaningless complaint that Obama takes “advice from the Harvard faculty lounge.” Sometimes he even does so the day before bragging that a Harvard professor supports one of his own plans. The slur is fundamentally silly, and all the more so coming from Romney.

On Thursday, as Sarlin reports, he went after Obama for having maybe spent “too much time at Harvard.” Romney, of course, spent even more time there than did Obama. (Romney’s combined degree program was four years, Obama spent three years in law school.)

But if you think spouting such laughably hypocritical nonsense is bad for Romney, think again. Following the mantra, often attributed to Karl Rove, that a politician must attack his opponent’s strength, Romney is trying to neutralize Obama’s biographical advantages.

Obama’s Harvard pedigree, of course, plays differently than Romey’s. Romney is the son of an auto executive, George Romney, who became governor of Michigan. Going to an expensive graduate school comes across as merely fulfilling his life’s destiny. That is all the more true because Romney only used his degrees to make piles of money. Obama, the bi-racial son of a single mother, went to Harvard after working as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago. He wrote movingly about those experiences in his lovely memoir, Dreams from My Father.

Someone with a sense of shame would, in Romney’s shoes, avoid calling Obama an elitist. But Romney is utterly shameless in his pandering. And, as I’ve written, that is his greatest asset. Romney will say absolutely anything if it is the right thing to say politically.

Biographical jiu-jitsu as ridiculous as Romney’s has worked before. Consider George W. Bush. The son of a president and grandson of a senator, he ran portrayed himself as a Washington outsider and his opponent, Al Gore, as an alien creature of the Beltway. In 2004 Bush, a draft-dodger, attacked decorated Vietnam veteran John Kerry as anti-military elitist. And it worked. So laugh at Romney’s silliness if you want to, but the last laugh may be his.

 

Why Romney Bashes Obama’s Harvard Education

Mitt Romney is the archetypal Harvard alum. He went there for law school and business school. After graduating he joined the Boston Consulting Group, which heavily recruits Harvard MBAs. He went on to amass a fortune through consulting and private equity work in the Boston area.

As Benjy Sarlin notes in TPM, “Three of his sons attended Harvard and he has donated over $50,000 to the university. His campaign lists over a dozen advisers with Harvard ties.” Romney has also publicly sung Harvard’s praises. With his stiffly coiffed hair and habit of using awkward jargon, Romney is the epitome of America’s academically credentialed business elite.

And that’s the problem. Romey is an uncomfortable fit for a political party deeply suspicious of intellectualism and cosmopolitanism. So he has made bashing President Obama’s ties to Harvard--Obama also attended Harvard Law School--a feature of his stump speeches. He regularly tosses out the meaningless complaint that Obama takes “advice from the Harvard faculty lounge.” Sometimes he even does so the day before bragging that a Harvard professor supports one of his own plans. The slur is fundamentally silly, and all the more so coming from Romney.

On Thursday, as Sarlin reports, he went after Obama for having maybe spent “too much time at Harvard.” Romney, of course, spent even more time there than did Obama. (Romney’s combined degree program was four years, Obama spent three years in law school.)

But if you think spouting such laughably hypocritical nonsense is bad for Romney, think again. Following the mantra, often attributed to Karl Rove, that a politician must attack his opponent’s strength, Romney is trying to neutralize Obama’s biographical advantages.

Obama’s Harvard pedigree, of course, plays differently than Romey’s. Romney is the son of an auto executive, George Romney, who became governor of Michigan. Going to an expensive graduate school comes across as merely fulfilling his life’s destiny. That is all the more true because Romney only used his degrees to make piles of money. Obama, the bi-racial son of a single mother, went to Harvard after working as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago. He wrote movingly about those experiences in his lovely memoir, Dreams from My Father.

Someone with a sense of shame would, in Romney’s shoes, avoid calling Obama an elitist. But Romney is utterly shameless in his pandering. And, as I’ve written, that is his greatest asset. Romney will say absolutely anything if it is the right thing to say politically.

Biographical jiu-jitsu as ridiculous as Romney’s has worked before. Consider George W. Bush. The son of a president and grandson of a senator, he ran portrayed himself as a Washington outsider and his opponent, Al Gore, as an alien creature of the Beltway. In 2004 Bush, a draft-dodger, attacked decorated Vietnam veteran John Kerry as anti-military elitist. And it worked. So laugh at Romney’s silliness if you want to, but the last laugh may be his.

 

Why Romney is Attacking Obama for Comments to Medvedev

Republicans and conservatives are determined to turn an unremarkable off-the-record comment by President Obama into a major campaign issue. Last week Obama was caught on an open mic telling Russian President Dmitri Medvedev that he would have more “flexibility” after the November election. “On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved, but it’s important for [incoming Russian President Vladimir Putin] to give me space,” Obama told Medvedev. 

Romney pounced. He immediately issued a statement complaining that Obama is going to cave to Russia on missile defense.” Later he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, “Russia is not a friendly character on the world stage and for this president to be looking for greater flexibility where he doesn't have to answer to the American people in his relations with Russia is very, very troubling, very alarming.... This is without question our number one geopolitical foe.” The Republican National Committee released a statement and video criticizing Obama’s comments to Medvedev as well.

Why is Romney making such a major issue out of such a minor gaffe? The conventional explanation is that he is pivoting towards attacking Obama on foreign policy. Romney is trailing Obama in matchup polls and watching the issue he has made the centerpiece of his campaign—the weak economy—disappearing as employment picks up. So he may be seeking a new campaign strategy. As the Washington Post reported, “Advisers say Romney intends to deliver a major foreign policy address in April or May, depending on the status of the primary contest, and create what one adviser described as a series of ‘platforms’ to highlight the differences between the two candidates.... The political opportunity Romney sees in foreign policy was reflected this week when he seized on Obama’s open-mike conversation with his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev.”

To Democrats this might seem odd. Obama has ended the unpopular Iraq War, decimated Al Qaeda’s leadership and overseen the killings of Osama bin Laden and Muammar Qaddafi. To a liberal, if Obama has made any mistakes in the foreign policy realm, they would be ones of excessive rather than insufficient militarism.

But that is not the critique that Romney or any other Republican is making. Rather, they say that Obama shows weakness in negotiations with our adversaries. China, Iran and Venezuela are frequently invoked by Republican foreign policy figures such as John Bolton. Specific actions by Obama to bolster this sentiment can be hard to come by, so his comments to Medvedev provide a perfect opportunity. “Obama will have a good gut-check response with bin Laden, but there will be plenty to work with for a broader critique of the foreign policy of this administration,” says Republican consultant Soren Dayton regarding the political saliency of foreign policy attacks on Obama. “The Russia exchange could end up being a powerful example of how Obama offers concessions to enemies but pressures our allies, like Israel and Canada.”

This is good for stirring up the Republican base, but is unlikely to sway many swing voters. “It is a rare election that is decided on foreign policy,” says Dayton. “In all likelihood, instability in the Middle East will have an impact through things like the price of crude oil and gas at the pump.”

But perhaps the Republican political calculation is not about foreign policy. The average swing voter may not care much about US policy on European missile defense, but they often do care about the president’s character. “[Republicans] are just trying to neutralize the ‘etch-a-sketch’ criticisms that Democrats are lobbing at Romney,” says Darrell West, director of the Governance Studies program at the Brookings Institution. “They want voters to see Obama as just another politician to delegitimize him. They’re playing to public cynicism: it’s easy to portray politicians as willing to say anything.”

Leonardo Alcivar, a national Republican political consultant with Hynes Communications, agrees. “Romney was right to criticize the President's gaffe, for both tactical and strategic reasons,” says Alcivar. “The Romney team well understands the need to position the President as a typical Washington politician whose failed economic policy is compounded by a rudderless foreign policy. The open mike gaffe supports a widely held, and largely correct, view that the President has been campaigning, not leading.”

From Obama’s perspective, trying to improve relations with Russia is leading, or at least governing. Nation contributor and Russia expert Stephen F. Cohen writes that “the United States is farther from a partnership with Russia today than it was more than twenty years ago.” As Cohen explains, partnership with Russia is essential for US objectives such as preventing nuclear proliferation and access to Russia’s vast natural resources. But, as Cohen notes, the Obama administration is “refusing to respond to Moscow's concessions on Afghanistan and Iran with reciprocal agreements on Russia's top priorities, NATO expansion and missile defense.” That is the crucial context for Obama’s remarks. Moscow sees us placing missile defense installations near Russia’s border as a provocation.

Election year politicking such as Romney’s can make relations between the United States and Russia even more fraught. As Vice-President Joe Biden pointed out on Sunday, Romney’s characterization of Russia as “our number one geopolitical foe” is outdated and unhelpful. “He acts like he thinks the Cold War is still on [and] Russia is still our major adversary,” said Biden to Bob Schieffer on CBS’ Face the Nation. “I don't know where he has been." Back in February Cohen predicted that the election could exacerbate tensions with Russia, writing,  “recent developments, including presidential campaigns and other political changes under way in both countries, may soon make relations even worse.” Obama was merely stating the truth when speaking to Medvedev. And nothing upsets Republicans like an inconvenient truth. 

Romney’s Growing Momentum

By the end of April we may have a Republican nominee for president. Republicans are coalescing around Romney, as he has picked up recent endorsements from party leaders past (George H.W. Bush), present (Jeb Bush, Paul Ryan) and future (Marco Rubio). Meanwhile the primary calendar is set to give the frontrunner a boost this week.

The widespread perception is that Romney has had the steady backing of the GOP establishment. In fact, it appeared that way only because his opponents were so unappealing, or even unserious, in the eyes of most influential Republicans, that they received even fewer endorsements. By historical standards Romney has actually lagged behind past favorites. As BuzzFeed’s Zeke Miller notes, “George W. Bush locked up 44 Senate endorsements before the South Carolina primary, and had more than half of the House’s 222 Republicans backing him by May of 1999—well over a year before the election. But to date, Mitt Romney has only gathered the endorsements of 91 Republican members of Congress—including just 17 senators.”  

On Tuesday Maryland, Wisconsin and Washington, D.C., will hold their primaries. Washington is considered such friendly territory for Romney that Santorum’s campaign claims he will be no worse off for not having even gotten onto the ballot. Maryland, being a liberal Northern state, is also Romney country. The Washington Post reports, “the often overlooked and bulging moderate middle of the Maryland GOP will be relevant—at least for a day. In the state’s first competitive presidential primary in a generation, polls and interviews suggest an overwhelming number of Republicans will vote for Mitt Romney.”

Santorum’s only chance at slowing Romney’s momentum will be in Wisconsin. Santorum has been competitive in industrial MidWest, but he has yet to score a decisive win there. MidWestern states have competing characteristics, some of which favor Romney and some Santorum. They tend to have lower education and income levels than the Northeast. That helps Santorum, who does better with less wealthy and educated voters. But they have fewer evangelicals than the South, Great Plains and Rocky Mountain West. Generally, Santorum only wins in states where evangelical or born again Christians are a majority of Republican primary voters.

Romney is following his standard playbook in Wisconsin and massively outspending his opponents. His Super PAC, Restore Our Future, has spent $2,687,938, compared to $735,093 from Santorum’s Red White and Blue Fund.

Polls show Romney leading Santorum by an average of seven or eight points in Wisconsin. The New York Times' statistical guru Nate Silver gives Romney a 91 percent chance of victory.

After Tuesday Santorum’s last stand will be the April 24 Pennsylvania primary. The other states to vote on April 24—Delaware, New York, Rhode Island, Connecticut—are likely to favor Romney. Santorum has conceded that he must win his home state to stay viable. If Romney is able to win Pennsylvania and sweep the April primaries, the nomination could be settled and pundit fantasies of a brokered convention in Tampa would be an ancient memory by August. 

The Problems With BDS

I grew up three blocks from the now famous Park Slope Food Coop. Although my parents never joined, their liberal politics and proto-foodieism were similar to the values of its members. Support for Israel—perceived at the time as a lonely stronghold of democracy, socialism and gender equality in the Middle East—was uncontroversial in this milieu.

No more. As Kiera Feldman reported for The Nation on Thursday, a meeting of the Coop entertained a motion to hold a vote on whether to join BDS (boycott/divest/sanction), a movement dedicated to weakening Israel economically and thus forcing it to behave as its critics would want it to.

Feldman claims that the motion losing by twenty-two points—the vote count was 1,005 against and 653, or 61 percent to 39 percent—constitutes a victory for BDS. Implicit throughout her piece is that progress for an anti-Israel boycott would be a good thing. I think she is only half right on the first point and entirely wrong on the second. 

“It might once have been safe to assume that in Park Slope, Brooklyn, progressive Jews would side with their more conservative co-religionists on matters pertaining to Israel. No longer,” Feldman triumphantly writes. “BDS had permeated even Park Slope—’the heart of the Jewish crunchy liberal establishment,’ in the tongue-in-cheek words of Jewish Voice for Peace activist Jesse Bacon.”

There's a tendency within activist movements to narrow their field of vision to create a misleadingly positive frame. That is reinforced in this case by the overrepresentation of young liberal writers in or near Park Slope. That has led to a disproportionate amount of coverage of the proposed boycott and a failure to consider how such a measure would go over just a few miles in any direction.

The Park Slope Food Coop is more lefty than the neighborhood as a whole. If 40 percent of the Coop supported the measure, you can assume it would poll even worse in the rest of the neighborhood. Indeed, many of the Coop members don’t even live there. Like any organic food collective it attracts a very self-selecting group.

Park Slope is more lefty than New York City as a whole, and the City is more lefty than the country. Nor is the Slope a Jewish neighborhood as such, Bacon’s misleading description notwithstanding. People do not live in Park Slope because they are Jews; they live there because they are liberal yuppies. In New York many liberal yuppies happen to be Jews, but just as many are not. If you want to see how a boycott of Israeli products would play out in a grocery store in a Jewish neighborhood, try holding that vote in Riverdale, Midwood or Forest Hills. BDS would lose by more than they did on Tuesday night, and probably by more still in Scarsdale or Great Neck. In the real “heart of the Jewish crunchy liberal establishment," the Upper West Side, no boycott of Israel would stand a chance of passage.

The shift in Park Slope, to the extent that there actually is one, is probably a story of demographics more than gathering strength for Israel’s opponents. Younger progressives have grown up with an image of Israel as an occupying power and they are less sympathetic to it than is their parents’ generation. In recent years Brownstone Brooklyn has been swamped with young recent liberal arts graduates. As Peter Beinart argues in his new book, The Crisis of Zionism, slackening support for Israel among this cohort poses a threat to its long-term interests. I agree with Beinart that withdrawing settlements, respecting Palestinian human rights and offering the concessions necessary for a two-state solution is therefore a practical as well as moral imperative for Israel. And, like Beinart, I think boycotting democratic Israel, within the Green Line, is not the appropriate mechanism to promote this. Beinart’s proposed “pro-Israel boycott” of settlements in the West Bank may not be a practical solution either, but at least he—unlike BDS—is making the important distinction between Israel proper and the West Bank. 

If you want to boycott Israel itself, then you need to explain why you’re not calling for a boycott of other countries in the Middle East that oppress their own citizens worse than Israel does anyone living within the Green Line. Plenty of countries violently suppress internal dissidents and persecute ethnic minorities but are virtually never criticized by the American left, much less boycotted. And if your answer is “because the Israeli government is occupying the West Bank,” I’d like to know why BDS activists didn’t call for boycotting American products during our occupation of Iraq.

The response I routinely get from BDS supporters when I point this out is that countries such as Bahrain, although they are privileged US allies, are not recipients of massive US foreign aid packages. That is both a valid point and irrelevant. If you oppose US aid to Israel then you should write to your congressman and ask him to vote against it. The United States could at least use its power over the purse strings to force Israel to make more concessions. Why doesn’t BDS address a political problem with the appropriate political solution?

You don't have to be a fan of Israel's current government, or its policies in the West Bank, to think that boycotting Israeli products is counter-productive. Consider, for example, academic boycotts of Israel in Europe, which punishes one of the segments of Israeli society most critical of the occupation. How does making Israelis feel besieged and disdained by leftists abroad make them more likely to moderate their treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank? If anything, it risks bolstering Bibi Netanyahu and his party, who argue that Israel is confronted everywhere by enemies who seek its destruction and thus it has no choice but to cling together while projecting strength outwards.

And Israel's destruction is indeed what BDS seeks. Calling for a Palestinian "right of return" is, as Feldman acknowledges, calling for the demographic abolition of Israel as a Jewish state. A lot of people have fled persecution over the years. I have no right of return to the Eastern European countries where my ancestors feared pogroms, nor do Israelis. Native Americans cannot reclaim the land in Brooklyn that the Park Slope Food Coop currently occupies.

Even if you think a right of return for Palestinians is just in the abstract, it's a nonstarter when negotiating an agreement whereby Israel withdraws from most of the West Bank and dismantles the settlements. They simply won't agree to a right of return. No matter what you think is right, you're talking about a country with one of the best military and intelligence operations and nuclear capabilities. You will have to offer them a deal by which they continue to exist, or there will be no deal.

Therefore I fail to see how the BDS movement will succeed in forcing Israel to reform. Boycott proponents fondly reminisce about the boycott of South Africa that helped bring an end to Apartheid. But there are plenty of boycott/divestment/sanction efforts that have proved futile, from Cuba to Sudan.

Feldman is correct that many younger progressives, including Jews, understand that Israel should not be given carte blanche to trample human rights. I hope they find a better strategy than BDS to fight for what they know is right. 

The Republican War on Voter Registration

Republican state legislatures aren’t only trying to prevent voting at the polling place, they are also stopping people from becoming registered voters in the first place. These same laws that require voters to present state issued photo identification at the polling both—nominally aimed at preventing voter fraud—also sometimes contain provisions that are placing onerous requirements and stringent limitations on third party voter registration efforts.

The targets are national and statewide organizations that use volunteers or paid staffers to canvass underrepresented communities to register new voters. Often these voters are young, poor or non-white and thus lean Democratic. A study by the Brennan Center for Justice found, “54 million eligible Americans are not registered to vote. More than 25% of the voting-age citizen population is not registered to vote. Among minority groups, this percentage is even higher— more than 30% for African Americans and more than 40% for Hispanics.” Registration drives typically focuse their efforts on these historically disenfranchised populations, as well as elderly and disabled voters who may have trouble reaching a government office to register. Perversely, as the Brennan Center notes, “Instead of praising civic groups who register voters for their contribution to democracy, many states have cracked down on those groups.”  

The excuse is that they wish to prevent fraudulent voter registrations from being submitted. But the result, if these rules are enforced, is that far fewer voters are registered.

In Florida, the New York Times reported on Tuesday, the law has been quite successful:

Florida, which is expected to be a vital swing state once again in this year’s presidential election, is enrolling fewer new voters than it did four years ago as prominent civic organizations have suspended registration drives because of what they describe as onerous restrictions imposed last year by Republican state officials.

The state’s new elections law—which requires groups that register voters to turn in completed forms within 48 hours or risk fines, among other things—has led the state’s League of Women Voters to halt its efforts this year. Rock the Vote, a national organization that encourages young people to vote, began an effort last week to register high school students around the nation—but not in Florida, over fears that teachers could face fines. And on college campuses, the once-ubiquitous folding tables piled high with voter registration forms are now a rarer sight.

The election of 2000 demonstrated how just a few hundred votes in Florida could determine who wins the presidency. Florida’s voter registration law is, of course, facing legal challenges. If the law remains in place, though, it could depress turnout by far more than a few hundred votes. 

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