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Ben Adler

Ben Adler

 The 2012 election, Republican politics and conservative media.

The Right-Wing Catholic Vice-Presidential Voter Guide

Before there were soccer moms or NASCAR dads, there were Catholics. Once a Democratic bastion, they have been the bellwether voting bloc for the last forty years. As Ross Douthat of The New York Times notes, “Exit polling tells us that in every presidential election since 1972, the candidate who has won Catholics has won the popular vote as well.

Now the religious right is targeting Catholics with a narrow message of what Catholic teachings should mean in the political realm.

The Family Research Council, a socially conservative advocacy organization, has released a “2012 Catholic Vice-Presidential Voter Guide.” This seems especially relevant since both Vice President Joe Biden and Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) are Catholic and were chosen partly for their putative appeal to Midwestern Catholic voters. FRC defines Catholic issues in a way that is far more congenial to Republicans.

They list nine “Intrinsic Evils,” of which eight favor the Republican position: various manifestations of opposition to abortion, gay rights and stem cell research. The one outlier is torture of foreign prisoners of war, which Vice President Biden, like the Catholic Church, opposes. (FRC could not find a position on torture taken by Ryan.)

Then there are “Prudential Judgments” on which good Catholics may disagree. These include more issues on which Catholic teaching would line up with Democratic values, such as amnesty for undocumented immigrants. Curiously, FRC offers the proportions of Biden’s and Ryan’s income that each gave to charity, but no other mention of helping the poor. It’s as if the few thousand dollars Ryan gave matters more than the trillions he would cut from social programs.

The justifications for how FRC determined what is a Catholic issue and where the candidates stand on them are provided in a “supporting document.”

Given the Catholic Church’s long commitment to aiding the needy, the absence of economic policy seems a bit odd. Ryan, after all, has been criticized by Catholic bishops because his budget would cut funding to essential anti-poverty programs such as Medicaid and food stamps to pay for tax cuts for the rich. In fact, the voter guide would give a Catholic the false impression that Ryan actually supports more aid to the poor than Biden, because he has given more to charity. (Although, as the supporting document unintentionally demonstrates, many of those charities—such as the Boy Scouts and crisis pregnancy centers—have little if anything to do with addressing poverty.)

FRC’s response is that the Catholic Church only holds a vague notion that poverty should be ameliorated, not specific positions on how to do so. “Ryan makes the argument it’s not that you don’t help people in need rise out of poverty, it’s how you do that,” says Tom McCluskey, senior vice president of FRC Action and co-author of the voter guide. “It’s a political difference that has no relevance to Catholic teaching.”

I’m no expert in Catholic teaching, but I beg to differ. The church has repeatedly supported federal anti-poverty programs, such as the expansion of Medicaid eligibility under the Affordable Care Act, that Biden supports and Ryan opposes. Even taking at face value Ryan’s claim that cutting taxes on the wealthy will grow the economy and thus lift more poor people into jobs, or better-paying ones, there will always be unemployed people, especially the disabled. The fact that Ryan would decimate their essential social services is fundamentally at odds with any concern for the vulnerable.

But McCluskey clearly believes in this distinction. He says:

Catholic doctrine is an official edict of the Catholic Church. On the issue of life, for example, there is only black and white, there is no gray [as is there is on economic justice]. A pro-life universal health care bill was supported by US Conference of Catholic bishops, but opposed by many individual bishops and that did not hurt their standing in the Church.

If a Catholic bishop were to take an opposing view on the life of the unborn, that would be unheard of and going against Catholic teaching. Support for increasing Medicaid funding would be more like Catholic opinion [than Catholic doctrine].

McCluskey also says the voter guide’s scope was limited by available information. “We couldn’t compare apples and oranges. If Ryan had a position we need one from Biden.” The one exception they made, given how essential it is Catholic teaching, is for torture. That notwithstanding, the general impression conveyed by the voter guide is that a good Catholic would prefer Paul Ryan, since Ryan’s decidedly un-Catholic fondness for warfare and opposition to welfare are not mentioned.

FRC is currently just sending the guide to thought leaders in the Catholic community such as priests and groups at Catholic universities. “We’re not at this point sending it to voters but if it’s financially possible, it’s definitely something we’re going to look at,” says McCluskey.

It might not even matter if they do spread it far and wide. There is tendency among journalists and political professionals to act as if the Catholic vote’s priorities reflect Catholic theology. The lazy conventional wisdom is that this is because Catholics follow their church’s teachings and thus hold commitments that are orthogonal to the partisan divide. Here’s Mark Stricherz, of Catholicvote.org:

While experts define the Catholic vote in many ways, I define it as a vote that mirrors the social teaching of the hierarchy, especially the American bishops: culturally conservative, economically populist or liberal, and moderate to liberal on foreign policy.

Stricherz is approvingly cited by Douthat as a premise to Douthat’s argument that Obama has failed to appeal to these voters because he has emphasized his commitment to women’s rights and gay rights. Also in The New York Times, and also cited by Douthat, is Jim Arkedis, a Catholic Democrat who works for the Progressive Policy Institute. Arkedis writes:

The key to winning the Catholic vote is to understand its composition—litmus-test abortion voters, moderates, women and Hispanics—and to aim to carry persuadable Catholics by healthy margins in crucial swing states. The Obama campaign should tread lightly, however, and resist any poll-driven urge to drive a wedge between the faithful and official church positions on women’s issues or same-sex marriage. Divisive messaging probably won’t fly among most Catholics, who may grumble about their religious leaders’ positions, but don’t seek overt separation from them. I can’t say that there’s any scientific evidence to support this theory, but it comes from my observations over a lifetime in the Catholic community.

The Obama campaign’s message should unequivocally stand with the Church and Jesus Christ’s humble message of social justice, equality and inclusion.

Arkedis certainly does lack scientific evidence. And considering there is no shortage of polling data on the opinions of Catholic voters, it is mysterious that the Times would allow him to make such an unsubstantiated argument.

Catholics are actually no more socially conservative than the electorate as a whole. Gallup polling has found “almost no difference between rank-and-file American Catholics and American non-Catholics” on whether abortion and stem cell research are morally acceptable. That’s because Catholic voters do not take their marching orders from the church. A massive study by Georgetown University found Catholics growing more likely to make up their own minds about social issues. “American Catholics...increasingly tune out the hierarchy on issues of sexual morality,” reports the Religion News Service. “The sweeping [Georgetown] survey shows that over the last quarter-century, US Catholics have become increasingly likely to say that individuals, not church leaders, have the final say on abortion, homosexuality and divorce and remarriage.”

At the state level the Catholic electorate seems to actually be a force for social moderation. Take a look at the religious breakdown of states and you will find that predicting whether a state will lean Democratic or Republican is often as easy as simply asking whether it has more Catholics or white evangelicals. The ten states with the highest proportion of white evangelicals reads like a roll call of Red America: Tennessee, Oklahoma, Alabama, West Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, Kentucky, South Carolina, Mississippi, Kansas. The most Catholic states are concentrated in the Northeast and Upper Midwest, including such Democratic bastions as New York and Massachusetts. In the Republican primaries, Catholic voters consistently favored the mainstream Mormon Mitt Romney, while evangelicals voted for the staunchly socially conservative Catholics Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich.

Stricherz points to the existence of Catholic anti–abortion rights Democrats as proof that a distinctly economically populist, socially conservative Catholic vote exists. “Think of the late Bob Casey Sr., governor of Pennsylvania, as the beau ideal politician for the Catholic vote,” Stricherz writes. “If there was no Catholic vote, these pro-life Democrats would be Republicans.” But a few anecdotes is not evidence. One could easily counter with the example of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who is Catholic, socially liberal and fiscally conservative.

The real cleavage among Catholics, as has been the case in recent elections, is how religious they are. Voters who go to church once or more per week, regardless of their denomination, tend to vote Republican, and those who go less often or not at all tend to vote Democratic. McCluskey points to this as evidence that their voter guide is in line with religious Catholics, if not Catholics more generally.

“One thing when talking about polling of Catholics is look at how frequently they go to church,” McCluskey said. “It’s basically an ethnic identity at this point. There are people in my own family who call themselves Catholic but don’t go to church on a weekly basis; that’s a sin. Most polls find those Catholics who go to church on weekly basis tend to run more conservative.”

That’s true, but it also suggests that there are not a large number of undecided voters out there who are socially conservative and fiscally liberal, who can be suckered into voting Republican by being told Catholic issues are limited to abortion, stem cell research, gay marriage and torture. But conservatives will give it a try.

Romney's Flip-Flop to Center Continues With Foreign Policy

Mitt Romney’s Etch A Sketch has had a very busy few days. Just as his campaign advisor Eric Fehrnstrom promised, Romney is abandoning his self-described “severely conservative” persona, and what we know his real agenda to be, in favor of a newfound moderate image.

It started in Wednesday night’s debate, when Romney—after running hard to the right on every issue for the last six years—suddenly switched positions on a range of issues. Romney falsely claimed, for example, not to be proposing a deficit-busting tax cut for the wealthy on the back of the middle class, even though his tax plan is just that. And he swore he would increase funding for education, even though his budget and that of his running mate would require cuts to federal education spending.

On Friday, after Romney had apparently been given a free pass from conservatives for his apostasies, Romney decided it was finally safe for him to repudiate his notorious assertion that the 47 percent of Americans who do not pay income taxes are lazy and entitled wards of the state. (They are largely retirees, the disabled and the working poor.) Since that position is dogma on the far right, Romney stood by the comments, even as they hurt his poll standings. But in an interview with Sean Hannity on Fox News, Romney said, “Now and then you’re going to say something that doesn’t come out right. In this case, I said something that’s just completely wrong…. my life has shown that I care about 100 percent.”

And on Monday Romney delivered a foreign policy speech at the Virginia Military Institute, in which he reversed a number of his previous positions.

Given President Obama’s success in combating Al Qaeda, Romney has been largely at a loss as to how to draw a contrast on national security. For most of the campaign, he has avoided articulating a foreign policy approach, in favor of single-minded focus on the economy.

When he has had to take positions on international issues, Romney has used every conceivable attack on Obama, even ones that are mutually exclusive, without articulating a remotely coherent vision of his own. During the debate, as he has throughout the campaign, Romney attacked Obama both for cutting defense spending and for not doing enough to promote the Simpson-Bowles commission report on deficit reduction. But Simpson-Bowles calls for cutting defense spending significantly. If, as Romney asserts, the defense sequestration cuts would endanger national security, then so would Simpson-Bowles. (Romney also conveniently ignores the fact that his own running mate, Representation Paul Ryan (R-WI), voted for the sequestration cuts and against Simpson-Bowles.)

In his speech, Romney made similarly hypocritical, self-contradictory arguments. In essence, Romney tried to portray himself as a more aggressive advocate of America’s national interest and opponent of America’s enemies. But that can come into conflict with his own professed admiration for free trade and his oft-repeated assertion that the United States should stand by its allies even when they are wrong.

Heather Hurlburt, executive director of the National Security Network, wrote in an e-mail to The Nation:

[Romney’s] book No Apologies explicitly condemns Obama for taking too hostile an approach to China on trade; Romney now claims he will slap the currency manipulator on China on his first day in office, and “punish” China for its trading tactics.

Romney slams Obama for insufficiently supporting our allies. Yet when our allies oppose his positions — on negotiating with Iran, on arms control with Russia, on missile defense — he ignores them.

In Virginia, Romney said, “It is the responsibility of our president to use America’s great power to shape history—not to lead from behind, leaving our destiny at the mercy of events. Unfortunately, that is exactly where we find ourselves in the Middle East under President Obama.”

The examples he offers are that we are not doing enough to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, we are letting Al Qaeda regroup in Iraq and we have not intervened militarily in Syria.

But Romney offers no specific alternatives that would be more effective. Obama has imposed stiff sanctions on Iran. Short of going to war, what would Romney do differently? He did not say.

“I will put the leaders of Iran on notice that the United States and our friends and allies will prevent them from acquiring nuclear weapons capability,” said Romney. “I will not hesitate to impose new sanctions on Iran, and will tighten the sanctions we currently have.” Well, that sounds tough, but it is precisely what Obama has done. So what else would Romney do? Escalate military tensions. “I will restore the permanent presence of aircraft carrier task forces in both the Eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf region—and work with Israel to increase our military assistance and coordination.” So, Romney pledges a costly and provocative expansion of the American empire. Why Iran would abandon its nuclear ambitions because of some aircraft carriers in the gulf is unclear. As for cooperation with Israel, the Israeli government has called the Obama administration’s cooperation with Israel, “unprecedented.”

When Romney does get specific, it exposes a disturbing ignorance. “When millions of Iranians took to the streets in June of 2009,” complained Romney, “when they demanded freedom from a cruel regime that threatens the world, when they cried out, ‘Are you with us, or are you with them?’—the American President was silent.” That is because, as anyone with a rudimentary understanding of Iranian public opinion can tell you, if Obama endorsed the Iranian opposition it would delegitimize them internally. Just because they oppose Iran’s oppressive regime does not mean they want to be, or want to be seen as, American puppets. Romney either does not know, or does not care, that what he demands would actually be counterproductive.

In his most nakedly dishonest assertion, Romney said, “I will recommit America to the goal of a democratic, prosperous Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with the Jewish state of Israel. On this vital issue, the president has failed.”

But in the same speech at a Florida fundraiser in which he uttered the “47 percent” comment, Romney dismissed the prospect of Palestinian statehood. Romney said:

I look at the Palestinians not wanting to see peace anyway, for political purposes, committed to the destruction and elimination of Israel, and these thorny issues, and I say, “There’s just no way.” And so what you do is you say, “You move things along the best way you can.” You hope for some degree of stability, but you recognize that this is going to remain an unsolved problem. We live with that in China and Taiwan. All right, we have a potentially volatile situation but we sort of live with it, and we kick the ball down the field and hope that ultimately, somehow, something will happen and resolve it.

This is not the bold, assertive leadership that Romney promises he would bring to the White House. But that should come as no surprise. Romney tries to project an image that is wildly at odds with his true character: a coward who will pander to any audience but lacks any core convictions.

CPAC: We Swear, Conservatives Aren't Only Old White Men!

DenverThe Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) is the premier annual right-wing confab in Washington, DC. For the last two years, they’ve also taken the show on the road, with regional CPACs held in crucial swing states such as Florida and Colorado. On Thursday, high on their candidate’s aggressive but dishonest performance in the previous night’s presidential debate, several hundred conservative activists gathered in Denver for the second annual CPAC Colorado.

The right’s newfound ebullience about the presidential election was largely overshadowed by its insecurity. Several speeches and plenary panels were largely dedicated to discussing how conservatives can reverse their ominous demographic destiny. Female, young and minority speakers repeatedly reassured the overwhelmingly older white audience that conservatism is actually the best ideology for the disadvantaged. Conservatives seem not to have considered that women and minorities may find conservative policies unappealing.

“There are men and women of color—black, brown and yellow—who share our faith, share our values…. They need to know that when we say, ‘we,’ we mean them too,” said former Representative Artur Davis (D-AL). In what was a rare, albeit only implicit, admission—that the GOP’s royalist economic agenda and Romney’s infamous “47 percent” comment—might alienate working class voters, Davis also said, “People who work with their hands need to know that their cause is our cause.”

Davis, being an African-American who recently switched parties, has skyrocketed to Republican stardom. He spoke during primetime to the Republican National Convention. He gladly plays the role of assuaging any conservative guilt about their hostility to civil rights. “Conservatism has nothing to apologize for or be defensive about,” Davis asserted. But the whole rest of his speech was a defense against the widely held perception that conservatives are hostile to anyone who is not a rich white person.

Davis even went so far as to assert that for the homeless black men he passed in a park the night before, “conservatism has a case to make in their lives.” He did not explain what that case would be. The crowd clapped as if what conservatism offers the homeless is self-evident. Can you imagine a Republican candidate actually going to a group of homeless men in a park and arguing that cutting the capital gains tax is what will most help them? They need housing vouchers, Medicaid and food stamps, for which congressional Republicans are cutting funding.

Over a dozen speakers and panelists argued that all conservatives need to do to convert minorities, young people and women is to reach out to them. That, and a little dose of tokenism, will bring a diverse generation of single women and young Latinos into the Republican Party, they asserted. Several speakers glowingly mentioned Mia Love, a congressional candidate in Utah. Strangely, I did not catch references to any other first time congressional candidates. Surely the fact that Love happens to be African-American must be pure coincidence. Or not. “A party that has Bobby Jindal, Mia Love and Marco Rubio doesn’t need to take lessons from the left on diversity,” said Davis.

Rubio was the day’s keynote speaker, as he is for virtually any conservative convention that can get him. Conservatives believe that because he is Cuban-American and charismatic that he can make them more appealing to Latinos. And, as later panels demonstrated, they are very anxious about the growing, Democratic-leaning Latino population.

One of the panels was devoted to the right’s current imaginary scourge: voter fraud. This grows out of the same anxiety about America’s changing demographics. Conservatives recommend policies that would disproportionately disenfranchise minorities, young people and poor people. This has been a direct response to young people and minorities becoming more Democratic and a larger share of the electorate. To win with an almost exclusively older white base, Republicans must limit participation from everyone else. True the Vote, an anti-voter fraud group that is participating in its first presidential election was tabling in the exhibition hall.

Another afternoon panel was called, “The Next Generation of Conservatives: Growing the Conservative Movement.” Every speaker portrayed young conservatives as an embattled minority. Some, such as Charlie Kirk, founder of SOSLiberty.com, a group of fiscally conservative youth, insisted that the tide is beginning to turn. Kirk said his liberal friends realized after watching the presidential debate that it will ultimately fall on them to pay off the accumulation of federal debt. “Fiscal conservatism is taking over the youth,” he concluded, although he offered no electoral results or polling data to support that claim.

Others were more frank about their dire prospects for the future and the need to address it. “I’m kept up at night by the possibility of Hispanics voting [up to 95 percent] liberal,” fretted Mario Lopez, president of the Hispanic Leadership Fund, a conservative advocacy group. Lopez noted that 50,000 Hispanics, of whom 44,000 are citizens, turn 18 years old each month. “We can’t win on policy the other 364 days of the year if we lose on Election Day, and increasingly that means we need to expand the base,” said Lopez.

Townhall.com political editor Guy Benson praised the RNC’s tokenistic lineup of speakers as a means of diversity outreach. “I was very encouraged by [the RNC’s] smart strategic speaker choices,” said Benson, ticking off some of the female and non-white speakers.

Lopez suggested a less condescending approach that is actually smarter and more strategic than simply finding every minority or woman in the GOP, all the way down to the wife of the governor of Puerto Rico, and putting her on stage. He acknowledged that there is a tendency for Republicans to simply put Rubio forward and assume that will take care of Latino outreach, while white Democratic politicians forthrightly make the case to minorities that the Democratic platform is in their best interest. Calling on white Republicans to do the same, Lopez said, “We need to make our principles relate to people’s everyday lives. We have to demand of our conservative leaders, what are they doing to expand the base? So that when we come back to CPAC in Colorado we’re in a room three times the size, and it looks more like America.”

Certainly, the polls and past election results suggest the RNC’s empty tokenism has failed to win over minorities or women. Lopez’s suggestion might work better. An even more effective way of appealing to women and minorities, of course, would be endorsing policies that protect them from discrimination. But no one mentioned that.

Anita Moncrief, an African-American “ACORN whistleblower,” exhorted the audience, “We have to stop preaching to the choir and talk to these people. Until we do that we won’t grow the movement. Most of what people see as racism is just miscommunication.”

Young conservatives seemed particularly distressed by the fact that people think their politics might hurt their social status. Moncrief lamented that her political conversion from Democrat to Republican took unduly long because, “they’ve made it sound uncool to be a conservative.” Conservative commentator Dana Loesch, who moderated the panel, later asked, “How do we remove the stigma that it’s uncool to be conservative or that our ideas are antiquated?” The answers were mainly that conservatives should meet liberals and show they aren’t angry and use humor like John Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

No one brought up the elephant in the room: what if conservatives seem uncool because their policies are uncool and their ideas are antiquated? Having sex is cool. Abstinence-only education and opposition to contraception is uncool and antiquated. Being tolerant and cosmopolitan is cool. Opposing gay rights and immigration is uncool. Here’s a suggestion for how could conservatives could become cooler: by becoming socially liberal.

The preceding panel was called “The Fictional #WaronWomen.” It featured five conservative women making some of the usual, predictable arguments about why women are really better off with Republicans. The most common conservative talking point is that the overall economy matters more to women than their civil rights, so “the real war on women” is Obama’s economy.

Several panelists also invoked Hillary Rosen’s reference to Ann Romney’s never working outside the home as evidence that Democrats do not respect the importance of motherhood. “Moms have to stick together and those comments are telling about the radical feminization of society, that only work outside the home [counts],” said Debbie Brown, director of the Colorado Women’s Alliance.

But there was a considerable amount of hand-wringing over the fact that single women vote Democratic. Again the assumption was that it is not conservative policies, merely their packaging, that is the problem. “We should be telling single women, who may feel more vulnerable and want to keep the safety net strong, that Paul Ryan has the answer for them,” said Representative Cynthia Lummis (R-WY). That’s because Lummis does not accept that turning Medicare into a voucher system eviscerates, rather than preserves, the social safety net. Ruth Malhotra, assistant editor of Patheos.com and the panel’s moderator, speculated that single women think they are “married to the government” and therefore dependent on it.

The solution, as always, is tokenism. “We shouldn’t be able to count on one hand the minority stars in our party,” complains Crystal Wright, who runs the site ConservativeBlackChick.com. But if you could count them on two hands, that would still be no substitute for a policy platform. Until conservatives change that, their demographic anxiety is likely to grow.

If the GOP can't win over minority voters, they will try to disenfranchise them instead. Check out The Nation's coverage of voter suppression across the U.S.

Romney, Obama Campaigns Squeeze Debate Into Their Campaign Narratives

DenverA political reporter was likely to be disappointed upon entering the University of Denver’s “DebateFest.” The event, held on the campus quad Wednesday afternoon before Wednesday night’s debate, was advertised as a largely political affair. Instead, one found a sort of yuppie spring fling: a concert stage in one grassy area and an impressive array of high-concept food trucks in another. Tucked off to one side were the largely ignored tables for political activists. Even many of the groups there were unrelated to the campaign. Personhood USA, a national anti–abortion rights group headquartered in Denver, was trying to convince passersby that a fetus was the “thirteenth victim” of the recent Aurora, Colorado, shootings, while progressive anti-poverty groups raised awareness about their general goals. The main electoral activity was voter registration: Voto Latino, NARAL, the University of Denver College Democrats and others offered the opportunity to join the voter rolls. Outside, Kevin Mason, the president of Personhood USA, told me that he is not even voting for Romney. “He’s a lame duck,” says Mason. “He says he’s pro-life but he doesn’t act like it.”

The campaigns focused their energies on rallying small groups of loud supporters, waving signs and chanting unpersuasive slogans like “four more years,” outside the campus perimeter. 

Colorado is a crucial swing state, and both campaigns are trying to take full advantage of being here for the debate. Romney held a rally on Monday, followed by one with Ann Romney on Tuesday and Marco Rubio on Wednesday morning. Turnout for Rubio was unimpressive: about 250 people. While the speakers were Latino, and the signs behind the stage said, “Juntos Con Romney,” Latinos appeared to make up a small minority of the audience.

The debate itself provided an opportunity for the candidates to reinforce the attacks on their opponents that they have been repeating over the last few days. After Vice President Joe Biden admitted on Tuesday that “the middle class that has been buried the last four years,” Republicans sought to make it into a major theme of their campaign. Rubio riffed on it at length Wednesday morning. Sure enough, just a few minutes into the debate, Romney said the middle class has been buried. Later, he changed that to “crushed,” and returned to the word several times. (Small business “has been crushed” by the Obama administration, and so on.) Romney also mentioned Solyndra, a Republican obsession on the order of Whitewater, multiple times.

Both campaigns also dispatched teams of surrogates to hold press conferences on Tuesday and spin the media immediately after the debate. At a Democratic press conference in Denver on Tuesday, Obama campaign spokesman Robert Gibbs referenced Romney’s insult towards the 47 percent of Americans who have no income tax liability. “Forty-seven,” Gibbs noted, “is also where Massachusetts ranked in job growth out of the fifty states when he was governor.”

Obama failed to explicitly bring up Romney’s comment, but in his discussion of Social Security and Medicare he made what may have been an oblique reference to it. Romney infamously complained that the 47 percent are Obama voters, “who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to healthcare, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them.”

Throughout the debate Obama tended to explain the complex reasons that Romney’s vague policy promises on taxes and spending are mutually exclusive. But when it came to programs for the elderly, he took a step back and emphasized his underlying philosophical difference with Romney. Obama noted that his grandmother, who worked her whole life and helped to raise him, was dependent on Social Security and Medicare in her old age. “The word ’entitlement‘ implies some dependency on the government. These are folks who’ve worked hard, like my grandmother,” said Obama. If Obama were a little more aggressive, as he should have been throughout the night, he could have drawn that out and explained that Romney thinks retirees, who make up a significant portion of the 47 percent, are spoiled brats.

Before the debate had even ended the “spin room” ritual began in the press filing center. Both sides essentially fit the evening’s events into their pre-existing campaign narratives. For Romney, that means arguing Obama simply can’t win a debate on the economy after having been in office for four years of high unemployment and growing budget deficits. For Obama, it means trusting that his more likeable demeanor will win out.

From talking to the assorted campaign spokespersons it was apparent that Romney’s team was more confident in their candidate’s performance. Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom flatly declared, “Mitt Romney was the clear winner.”

“Tonight is a dramatic moment in this campaign,” predicted Rubio. “I think there are a few million Americans who might have made up their minds tonight.” (That estimate is probably off by a few million.) The Romney camp’s spin, in essence, is that Obama was reluctant to talk about the economy because he cannot brag about his record. “Obama doesn’t have a good answer to the question, ‘Are you better off than you were four years ago?'" Said Romney advisor Kevin Madden.

Multiple Romney surrogates pointed to Obama’s suggesting that they move on from the discussion of tax and economic policy after it ran long that as a high point of the evening. “President Obama doesn’t want to talk about taxes, the deficit or the economy,” crowed Rubio.

The Obama campaign shied away from claiming they had won the debate outright. They were besieged by reporters asking questions premised on the assumption that Romney had won, and they pushed back by arguing that Obama’s sedate performance was more likable.

The media tends to view debates through the prism of whoever was on offense as the winner, so the Obama team tried to recast Romney’s energetic and combative demeanor as “testy.” “You might say [Romney] was aggressive, some would say testy,” said Obama adviser David Plouffe. “You guys can give [Romney] style points, I thought he was testy,” said Obama campaign manager Jim Messina. “If you’re at home you have to ask, do you want that for the next four years?” Obama, Messina argued, “Came off as what he is, a calm leader.”

The Obama campaign vacillated between two slightly contradictory arguments: that Romney’s performance was superior in style alone, and that Obama was more likable. Obama spokesperson Stephanie Cutter tweeted that “Romney won on style, lost on substance.” But if Obama was more likable, didn’t he win on style?

The style versus substance frame was connected to one of the Obama campaign’s other major talking points: that Obama, in Messina’s words, “spoke to the American people like adults.” Every Obama representative used a variation on that line. What it means is that Obama carefully explicated the inevitable adverse impacts of Romney’s policy proposals, such as raising taxes on the middle class, gutting funding for programs like education and increasing the deficit. Obama levels with the American people about the hard choices we face. We cannot cut tax rates for the wealthy and increase defense spending, as Romney promises to do, without incurring those results. Romney simply asserts, without evidence, that he will magically lower tax rates without decreasing tax revenue, increase defense spending, increase funding for education and balance the budget by cutting funding for PBS. Obama is telling the truth, while Romney is lying. But what makes the Obama campaign so confident that the American people prefer to be treated like adults, rather than told they can have their cake and eat it to? Remember, this is the country that elected George W. Bush.

So far, the Obama campaign seems to have been vindicated. He won last time, and his greater likability has indeed kept him ahead thus far in this campaign. Obama’s representatives were also pleased to note that Romney doubled down on his unpopular plan to turn Medicare into a voucher program. That too is part of what has kept Obama in the lead. But that was not the debate’s main focus. Romney needed a turning point tonight, and he may well have gotten it. 

For more on President Obama's relative passivity during last night's debate, read John Nichols's latest.

GOP Seizes on Biden Gaffe

Vice President Joseph Biden speaks at the Mine Resistance Ambush Protected (MRAP) Program transition ceremony, Monday, October 1, 2012, at the Pentagon. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

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Denver—While campaigning on Tuesday in North Carolina, Vice-President Joe Biden admitted a politically inconvenient truth. Biden said Mitt Romney would raise taxes on the middle class and asked, “How they can justify…raising taxes on the middle class that has been buried the last four years?”

Republicans are, understandably, excited. The Romney campaign pounced, with Paul Ryan declaring at an Iowa campaign rally, “We agree!” he said. “That means we need to stop digging by electing Mitt Romney as the next president of the United States.”

In Denver, where some members of the national media have already arrived for Wednesday night’s presidential debate, the state Republican Party quickly threw together a press conference Tuesday evening to “discuss how the middle class has been buried under President Obama.” Standing in front of a Romney/Ryan campaign bus emblazoned with the slogan “More Jobs, More Take Home Pay,” three Republican politicians gleefully recounted statistics that illustrate the financial squeeze that has been placed on many American families.

Unfortunately for the Republicans, though, the arguments they presented demonstrate why Biden’s comment may not be nearly as damning as they hope. At first glance, it was incredibly foolish of Biden to admit that the last four years have been tough ones for many voters. Certainly, Biden’s statement can only do more harm than good for the Democratic ticket.

But it will be seriously damaging for Obama and Biden only if voters are not smart enough to recognize an important fact of American politics: the White House does not single-handedly control all aspects of their lives. It does not hire and fire all the employees, or set all their salaries or set the prices of commodities. What Biden said is true: the middle class has had a hard few years under Obama, but Obama’s opponent would make the next four years even harder. If voters can separate those two things—to be sure, that is never a safe assumption—then Biden’s gaffe will not get much traction.

“Joe Biden is the broken clock that got it right,” joked Barbara Comstock, a Virginia state delegate at the Tuesday evening press conference in Denver. “Biden was more honest than he intended to be,” gloated former congressman Bob Beauprez. Beauprez went on to note the various measures by which the country has suffered. “There are more people unemployed than when Barack Obama stepped into the White House,” he said.  Beauprez argued that the high rate of unemployment proves that the American Recovery Act was an abject failure. Beauprez threw out more statistics, always using Obama’s inauguration as the benchmark: gas prices are higher, the debt has increased, health insurance premiums have risen.

This is all technically true, but wildly misleading. The economy lost 3.8 million jobs between December 2008 and April 2009. Obama took office on January 21, 2009. No reasonable person could conceivably blame Obama for those layoffs. They were the result of the recession that began on President George W. Bush’s watch. The Recovery Act passed Congress on February 13, 2009. Obviously it took several months for the money it appropriated it to be disbursed, and a few months more for the multiplier effect of increased consumer spending to further bolster employment. (The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the stimulus saved or created 1.4 million jobs directly and 3.6 million jobs if you include indirect results.) That is why, if you look at a chart of US employment from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, you will see that employment has grown consistently since Obama’s policies started to take effect.

But it is also important to remember that the president does not set policy unilaterally. If Obama had his druthers, the stimulus may have been bigger and there would certainly have been further rounds of it. He was constrained by Republicans in Congress who refused to support even stimulative tax cuts.

The same lesson—that the president’s influence over the economy is limited by Congress and the laws, policies and macroeconomic conditions he inherited—apply to the other metrics Republicans use to measure the difficulties of the last four years. The debt has indeed increased, but that is because of Bush’s policies—tax cuts, spending increases and wars—and the recession he left for Obama.

And then there is the fact that elections are choices. Obama and Biden do not need to convince a plurality of American voters that they are economic magicians. They need only to convince them that they will do better than their opponents.

So what do their opponents propose? More of the same policies which created exactly the conditions bemoaned by Biden and Republicans alike.

In Denver the Republican speakers attacked the stimulus in one breath and in the next breath they promised that Romney would boost employment by cutting taxes. But the stimulus consisted largely of tax cuts. I asked, If tax cuts were just proven not to stimulate the economy, as the speakers had implicitly just asserted, then why do they say more tax cuts will create growth? Representative Cory Gardner (R-CO) seemed not to understand the question despite my offering several clarifications. He just kept repeating ad nauseam that the stimulus had been “proven” not to work because unemployment remains above 8 percent.

Beauprez offered an actual answer: that the stimulus cut taxes selectively, while Romney and Ryan would cut taxes across the board. “The stimulus picked and chose winners and losers,” said Beauprez. “And a great portion of it went to green energy, and you know how well that went, just check out Solyndra.” Republicans are indeed obsessed with Solyndra. But the entire energy allocation in the stimulus was only $15.5 billion, of which $535 million went to Solyndra. Tax cuts acounted for $288 billion of the $840 billion total stimulus package.

Beauprez argued that reducing all marginal tax rates and simplifying the tax code by eliminating expenditures would unleash the market, as it did under President Reagan. That’s intuitively appealing. But there is a far more recent example of a president who cut marginal tax rates: George W. Bush. The economy did not respond to that by creating jobs. But as was the case under Reagan, the federal budget deficit increased dramatically.

And, of course, none of the speakers specified which tax expenditures would go on the chopping block. As the Tax Policy Center has calculated, Romney cannot fulfill his promise of making his tax cuts revenue neutral without going after the biggest tax expenditures, such as the mortgage interest deduction. That’s a good policy over the long run. But, in the short run, it would mean paying for tax cuts for the wealthy by raising taxes on the middle class. It would also destroy the slowly recovering housing market. Raising taxes on the middle class right now would also undermine the economy by weakening consumer demand.

The party that is out of power always has an incentive to pretend that every economic condition is entirely within the president’s power to control. Republicans have been harping on high gas prices, as if it were Obama’s fault. They were notably silent on this subject when prices spiked under President Bush and the GOP Congress in 2006.

In point of fact, the federal government does not determine how many jobs there are or how much everything costs. The government sets the amount that every member of society will contribute to the greater good, and what the money will be spent on. Biden was simply stating the objective fact that exogenous forces have made this a hard time for middle-class families, and Romney would take more of their money to fund tax cuts for plutocrats and buy weapons. Obama would do what he can to increase fairness in the tax code and strengthen the social safety net. Just because Obama was elected in 2008 and the economy hasn’t grown by leaps and bounds in the years since does not make any of that untrue or inherently unpersuasive.

But Republicans are betting that Americans will be too simple-minded to understand the difference between the economy under Obama and the economic results of his policies. If so, they may see Biden’s comments as an admission that he and Obama have failed and must be replaced. Republicans will surely make the most they can of Biden’s gaffe. Look for Romney to mention it in the debate Wednesday night and on the campaign trail. Don’t be surprised if you see it in a commercial. Republicans have made a long-term strategy of betting on the American people’s inability to grasp the relationship between policies and economic conditions. In 2010 that strategy was vindicated. But sometimes it does not work, and this election feels like it is shaping up to be one such unlucky year for them.

For more on the GOP's flailing, last-ditch attempts to reclaim the election, check out Ben Adler on Romney's skirting of social issues.

Romney Avoids Social Issues on Campaign Trail

Denver—Colorado is supposed to be Mitt Romney’s most promising major swing state. According to Politico’s Mike Allen, Republicans’ internal polls show Romney ahead in Colorado, even as they acknowledge that he has fallen behind in Florida, Ohio and Nevada. Other Republican-leaning polls, such as Rasmussen Reports, show Romney with a slight edge here, although Rasmussen’s most recent poll is two weeks old. The Real Clear Politics polling average shows Obama ahead in Colorado by three points, which is consistent with Virginia and Florida, but smaller than Obama’s commanding leads in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa.

But Colorado presents Romney with a challenge. In order to win it he must simultaneously appeal to three constituencies: the ardent conservatives—both religious social conservatives and current and retired military personnel—in the Colorado Springs area, the more economically focused Republicans in the Denver suburbs and at least half of the state’s large independent electorate.

The Romney campaign is aware of the importance of the state’s nine electoral votes. Romney has already visited the state repeatedly, and in advance of Wednesday night’s debate in Denver his campaign has scheduled a series of events. Ann Romney will hold a rally here on Tuesday and Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) will hold one on Wednesday. On Monday night, Romney spoke in a warplane museum—Republicans seem to love that as a setting for campaign stops—in Denver. It was apparent from Romney’s remarks that he is carefully trying to balance the aforementioned constituencies. But, ultimately, he is betting that he already has the most ardent conservatives in his pocket and so he avoids any mention of his party’s polarizing stance on social issues.

Romney was introduced by John Elway, the legendary Denver Broncos quarterback, who just endorsed Romney. In what passes by Romney’s standards as regular guy sports talk, Romney effused, “You guys have some real teams here, no doubt about that!” He then went on to list to the Denver area’s other assets: “This is the home of the Air Force Academy, of NORAD, that helps keep our skies safe, home to great universities.” It appeared not to have dawned on Romney, nor his enthusiastically clapping audience, that the US military is a government program and that Colorado’s universities are all either public or draw heavily upon federal support for student tuition and research. But the biggest applause by far came when Romney said, “and it’s the home of Focus on the Family.” (The socially conservative advocacy organization, like NORAD and the Air Force Academy, is based in Colorado Springs, about an hour from Denver.)

Given the subtle signal his crowd sent—that these are what used to be called “family values” voters—you might have expected Romney to talk about how he plans to stifle gay marriage, appoint judges who would overturn Roe v. Wade and free Catholic organizations from covering employees’ health insurance for contraception.

But no. Romney delivered his usual litany of vague, bogus economic promises. He will simultaneously increase free trade and get tough on China. He will hand out drilling rights on federal land like it’s candy, and somehow that will create millions of jobs by magically bringing back the manufacturing sector thanks to cheap energy. He will defenestrate teachers unions, so that our workforce is better educated and cut spending to balance the budget. And by extending the Bush tax cuts he will make small businesses grow and then they will go on a hiring spree. Isn’t Romney lucky that every long-held Republican plot to please a group of Republican donors, or antagonize a group of Democratic donors, is also sure to induce economic growth?

In case the message were not clear enough, there were giant letters behind Romney’s lectern: “J-O-B-S.” The only supplement to his economic message was a nauseating pander to Colorado’s large military population. Romney attacked the sequestration defense spending cuts that President Obama agreed to with the Republican Congress, and for which his own running mate, Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI), voted. “It will cost thousands of jobs here, and millions of jobs across the country,” Romney complained.

Millions of jobs? That sounded exaggerated to me. And sure enough, it is. Romney did not cite a source. Knowing Romney, he may have simply made it up out of thin air. But most likely he is referring to a report by the Aerospace Industries Association, which claimed, “A total of 1,090,359 jobs with a total labor income of $46.5 billion would be lost due to DOD budget cuts in FY 2012-FY 2013.” However, as the Brookings Institution explained, the AIA estimate is totally bogus. (This should come as no surprise, given AIA’s vested interest in the subject.) As Brookings notes, the AIA is predicting that a 10 percent cut to defense spending will lead to one-third of all jobs in the defense and aeronautics industries being eliminated. This is extraordinarily unlikely, especially in light of the fact that not even all of those jobs are defense-related.

But even if what Romney said were true, it’s a disgusting sentiment. We should spend everyone else’s hard-earned tax dollars on building weapons simply to keep people employed? This is wasteful big government at its absolute worst.

“I do not believe in shrinking the military,” declared Romney. “I believe it should be second to none in the world.” Romney did not bother to explain why the sequestration cuts would make the US military lose its spot as number one in the world. Nor did he say who would replace us. The United States spends about six times as much as its nearest competitor, China. So it would still vastly outspend China if the sequestration cuts do occur.

Romney effort to tie his views on military spending to his economic pitch was a vague statement that “we need a strong economy to support a strong military.” Almost as an afterthought he added, “We need strong homes.”

And that was about it, as far as social conservatism was concerned. Not a single one of the infamous “three Gs”—God, guns and gays—that Republicans once used to peel away working-class and rural white voters appeared in the speech. There was no mention of abortion or stem cell research. The only time Romney came to close to mentioning any of that was when he claimed, “The founders [had a] great insight that rights come from the Creator, not the government.” That’s a nonsensical false dichotomy: the founders saw fit to enshrine those same rights in the Constitution, the basis of their new government. But Romney was not trying to be historically accurate. His purpose was to nod to theocrats while wrapping even his token religious reference into an argument for small government. Except for military spending, everything with Romney comes back to fiscal conservatism.

That may not please of all his supporters. A young woman named Carol whom I met on the way into the speech said she likes Romney “because he is a conservative like me, he is pro-life, like me.” But you would never know Romney opposes abortion rights from hearing him speak. Lee Ann Barnhart, a middle-aged mother in attendance, told me that she was disappointed that social issues were never mentioned. Still, she is growing to like Romney, she said. (She supported Gingrich during the primaries.)

Romney’s calculation is clearly that he can count on these voters coming out for him in opposition to Obama, and so he can avoid reminding swing voters of the Republican War on Women. It’s probably wise politics. But Democrats devoted much of their convention to making sure women are not fooled. The question now is whether that message gets through.

The election is only thirty-five days away. For more swing state coverage, read Ari Berman’s reporting on voter supression in Florida.

'Wall Street Journal' and Fox News Don't Disclose Romney Advisers

Other than basic factual accuracy, there may be no principle of journalistic ethics more sacred than disclosure of conflicts of interest. On op-ed pages it is understood that the writers have no commitment to neutrality. But it is also a given that a reader cannot evaluate the arguments if she is unaware of a personal stake writers have in the subject at hand.

A perfect example of this came in Friday’s Wall Street Journal, which published an op-ed by former Senator Evan Bayh. The piece complains about the medical device tax in the Affordable Care Act, which is a strange fixation for an elder statesman. As Jonathan Chait points out in New York magazine, the explanation comes in Bayh’s bio, which notes that Bayh “is a partner at the McGuireWoods law firm, which represents several medical-device companies.”

So The Journal, its conservative corporatist politics notwithstanding, seems to understand the importance of disclosing such information.

And yet they almost never do it when the writer is an adviser to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. On Tuesday, for example, The Journal published an op-ed by Michael Mukasey making the ludicrous and unsubstantiated assertion that President Obama may release the mastermind of the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. Mukasey was identified as a former US Attorney General and federal judge.

As Media Matters noted, Mukasey is also an adviser to the Romney campaign, an extremely relevant fact that went unmentioned. A reader of the piece would have no idea that Mukasey has a strong professional incentive to spread bogus rumors about Obama, since he is working for his opponent.

This is not an isolated incident. Media Matters has been tracking this unethical practice by The Journal, and has found nine previous op-ed writers who are Romney campaign advisers but were not identified as such. A week before the Mukasey piece ran, Media Matters wrote,

The Journal published a total of twenty-three pieces from the following Romney advisers without disclosing their campaign ties: John Bolton; Max Boot; Lee A. Casey; Paula Dobriansky; Mary Ann Glendon; Glenn Hubbard; Michael Mukasey; Paul E. Peterson; David B. Rivkin Jr.; and Martin West. In several instances, the Journal failed to disclose an op-ed writer's connection despite its own news section reporting that the writer is advising Romney.

Editorial page editors at other newspapers are aghast at The Journal’s practice, calling it “shameless” and “inexcusable.”

Nor is The Journal’s unethical practice limited to those ten writers. The Journal also runs a weekly column by Karl Rove. Rove analyzes the campaign, and he has never been identified as a player in the campaign himself, even though his political action committees have raised and spent tens of millions of dollars on behalf of Republican candidates.

Last week, The Journal finally acknowledged in his bio line that Rove is the cofounder of American Crossroads. It is unknown if this was in response to criticism, and whether it constitutes a new policy. The Journal has not responded to repeated requests for comment from Media Matters and they had not responded to a request from The Nation at the time of this writing.

While The Journal’s behavior is unusual and embarrassing for a respected broadsheet newspaper, it is par for the course within the conservative media. Fox News has many contributors, such as John Bolton, who criticize Obama on their programming without being identified as a Romney campaign adviser or employee. (Rove is also a Fox News contributor.)

There is nothing wrong with Fox or The Journal editorial section being openly conservative. But if their contributors are working on behalf of a vested interest, such as the Romney campaign, their readers and viewers deserve to know.

The Wall Street Journal featured another controversial op-ed today, in which Mitt Romney fanned anti-Muslim flames. Check out Robert Dreyfuss's coverage here.

Where Crazy Conservative Memes Are Invented

Have you ever wondered where Republicans come up with their absurd ideas about what President Obama intends to do? According to Mitt Romney, Obama wants to take “In God We Trust” off money. In The Wall Street Journal today, Michael Mukasey, who is advising the Romney campaign although the Journal does not disclose that, claims Obama might release Omar Abdel Rahman, mastermind of the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. Mukasey readily admits to having no real evidence for such a preposterous scenario. So where do these lies get invented? Often they come from the conservative underground echo chamber.

Liberals talk a lot about Fox News and Rush Limbaugh and other conservative media that are on the mainstream radar. But liberals and mainstream journalists tend to forget that there is a fever swamp of crazed conspiracy theories and shockingly offensive rhetoric that exists in obscure right-wing websites and viral e-mail chains. As David Frum recently noted on his Daily Beast blog, it is impossible to understand the dog whistles you hear on Fox News if you aren’t familiar with the viral e-mail smears their audience believes in. Specifically, Frum was referring to Fox host Greg Gutfield’s line that “Obama is now out of the closet.… he’s officially gay for class warfare.” That’s a reference to the conservative e-mail meme that Obama is gay. Frum writes:

Fox is only the most visible part of a vast alternative reality. Fox’s coverage of the news cannot be properly understood in isolation, but only in conjunction with the rest of that system—and especially the chain emails that do so much to shape the worldview of Fox viewers.

I have a friend from a small town in Washington state. She gets e-mails forwarded from her right-wing uncle, which have sometimes come to him as part of a group of recipients that includes local high school teachers and administrators. Frequently, they are bigoted jokes that incorrectly assume President Obama is a Muslim. Here’s a typical recent one:

Just wanted to let you know—today I received my 2012 Social Security Stimulus Package. It contained two tomato seeds, cornbread mix, a prayer rug, a machine to blow smoke up my ass, 2 discount coupons to KFC, an “Obama Hope & Change” bumper sticker, and a “Blame it on Bush” poster for the front yard. The directions were in Spanish.

This apparently started as a Facebook post on the page of the Rutland County, Vermont, Republican Party.

For another example of a vicious anti-Obama e-mail that mocks his falsely alleged Islamic faith, check out this e-mail from a Tea Party group in Northeastern Pennsylvania, which jokes about Obama being beaten up by the founding gathers in heaven. The kicker is that Obama, being a Muslim, was expecting to be greeted by seventy-two virgins in heaven, but was instead met by seventy-two Virginians, such as George Washington and James Madison.

Sometimes, the e-mails are more substantive and they repeat demonstrably false assertions about policy matters. They also seem to circulate for years without being updated. A recent one complained that the US is under the boot of a “shadow government” of Obama’s czars. It listed Richard Holbrooke, who was special adviser for Afghanistan and Pakistan before he passed away in 2010, as “Afghanistan czar.” It inaccurately described Holbrooke, a politically moderate career foreign policy official, as, “Ultra liberal anti-gun former Governor Of New Mexico, Pro-Abortion and pro-drug legalization. Wants to dissolve the 2nd Amendment.” It’s not even clear with whom they have Holbrooke confused. Other e-mails repeat more common conservative lies, such as claiming that the Affordable Care Act will extend health insurance to undocumented immigrants.

Occasionally conservatives with a public platform repeat these viral e-mail smears, but they try to avoid having to defend them with facts. Case in point: a couple of months ago I tweeted that Mitt Romney might as well release his tax returns, since he eventually is going to have to anyway. This is a fairly unremarkable statement, considering plenty of conservatives and Republicans had made it themselves. Kathleen McKinley, conservative blogger for The Houston Chronicle and Newsbusters whom I had never heard of but had taken to trollishly responding to many of my tweets, tweeted at me: “@badler We are waiting on O’s grades,l passport, & fast and furious docs.” Passport? I was unaware this was an issue. So I asked McKinley what she was talking about. “@badler Just one of many documents Obama never released,” she responded.

Well, that does not tell me why anyone wants Obama to release his passport and what it might show that is of interest to the public. So I Googled. It turns out that the White House did, in fact, show Obama’s passport in a publicly released video back in 2010. As the New York Daily News reported at the time:

A close-up of the passport reveals only a few bits of information about the President, but they are specific to the question of where and when he was born.

The document shows that his nationality is “United States of America,” that he was born on August 4, 1961 and that his “Place of Birth” was Hawaii, U.S.A.

In order to obtain a passport, an American must provide a “certified birth certificate issued by the city, country or state,” according to the State Department website. This would suggest that President Obama would have had to show documentation proving when and where he was born in order to obtain the U.S. passport.

Reporters speculated that this would be the final nail in birtherism’s coffin. Apparently not. I pointed this out to McKinley, and she replied, “@badler Not his recent passport. Look, I don’t care about that. But I do care about Fast and Furious Docs.” OK, so which passport is she talking about then? She wouldn’t say.

It turns out that conservative lunatics have been demanding to see the passport Obama used to travel to Asia in 1981. Their theory is that Obama must have had a non-US passport because he visited Pakistan.

In 2011, notorious birther Jerome Corsi of the far-right website World Net Daily complained that Obama’s current passport doesn’t have II after his name, as his birth certificate does. (Obama was named after his father, hence II). “Since Obama has refused to release his passport records, it is impossible to determine what documents were submitted to the State Department to obtain the passport,” Corsi wrote. The underlying complaint is, of course, ridiculous nonsense.

In fact, my friend’s uncle had sent her an e-mail back in January, 2010, laying out the whole passport theory. The e-mail begins with a fake news story that is presented as an actual one article from the “AP.” Here is the lead:

In a move certain to fuel the debate over Obama’s qualifications for the presidency, the group “Americans for Freedom of Information” has Released copies of President Obama’s college transcripts from Occidental College. Released today, the transcript school indicates that Obama, under the name Barry Soetoro, received financial aid as a foreign student from Indonesia as an undergraduate. The transcript was released by Occidental College in compliance with a court order in a suit brought by the group in the Superior Court of California. The transcript shows that Obama (Soetoro) applied for financial aid and was awarded a fellowship for foreign students from the Fulbright Foundation Scholarship program. To qualify, for the scholarship, a student must claim foreign citizenship.

A web search for the text shows that it has been circulating for years and it has been debunked by several sites, including Factcheck.org, which received a query from someone who had gotten the e-mail. They concluded, “The claim is false and the story is a hoax.” But Google the first sentence of the fake story, and you will turn up 151,000 results.

This particular e-mail goes on to pose a series of rhetorical questions about Obama’s 1981 trip, ending with:

When Obama went to Pakistan in 1981 he was traveling either with a British passport or an Indonesian passport. Whatever the truth of the matter, the American people need to know how he managed to become a “natural born” American citizen between 1981 and 2008.

But it isn’t true that Americans were unable to visit Pakistan in 1981. It was, in fact, perfectly legal and possible to travel to Pakistan on American passport.

If you’re surprised that the debunking hasn’t stopped the passport myth from circulating, don’t be. As the allegations from Republicans in Congress that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s longtime aide Huma Abedin is working for the Muslim Brotherhood demonstrates, Islamophobic and xenophobic allegations don’t have to make any sense for conservatives to believe them.

It’s worth remembering that these underground conservative memes exist when you listen to conservatives speaking in public. Remember the repeated jokes at the Republican National Convention about Obama’s supposed laziness—that he is always playing golf and has never had a real job? If these references struck you as odd and unfamiliar, that’s because, per Frum, conservatives have their own shadow conversation, whence these false assumptions are ingrained. And the next time you hear a crazy conspiracy theory like the one about Abedin, you will have a good guess as to where it came from.

Liberal bloggers don’t have to fabricate crazy right-wing agendas—Republicans do it for them. Check out Bryce Covert’s piece on the GOP’s recent “gaffes.”


Romney’s Ungenerous Donations

As soon as Mitt Romney’s 2011 tax returns were released, newspapers unleashed a flood of credulous stories touting his supposedly large charitable contributions.

“Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney was far more generous to charities than President Barack Obama or Vice President Joe Biden last year, both in dollar terms and as a percentage of income,” reported Politico. “Romney and his wife, Ann, gave 29.4 percent of their income to charity in 2011, donating $4,020,772 out of the $13,696,951 they took in. Obama and first lady Michelle Obama gave 21.8 percent of their income to charitable organizations last year, donating $172,130 out of the $789,674 they made.”

John D. McKinnon of The Wall Street Journal, in a biased digression, added: “The Republican candidate’s giving reflects a tendency his party would like to see replicated more widely. Republicans favor a world in which people pay fewer taxes and give more to charity, believing that private spending is more effective than that of the federal government.” This is both untrue and irrelevant. The Republican political platform is to cut taxes on the rich and government aid to the poor. Sure, some of them sometimes claim that private charity will fill in the gap. But giving more to charity is not a political proposal that Republicans support and Democrats oppose.

The notion that the Romneys are necessarily more generous than the Obamas is false for a few reasons. First, there is the principle of progressivity. To expect people making tens of millions of dollars per year, such as the Romneys, to merely give the same percentage of their income to charity as people making less than one million dollars, such as the Obamas, is the equivalent of a flat tax. But our tax code is progressive for a reason: the more you make, the more of your income is disposable. And so, richer people should give a higher proportion of their income to charity just as they should pay a higher proportion of their income in taxes.

Given that the Romneys have already amassed a fortune of of more than $200 million, and their children are grown, they could afford to have given away all of their income in 2011 and every year to come. But they didn’t.

While running for president Romney seems to have suddenly found his inner philanthropist. As George Zornick reports (quoting Romney’s trustee, Brad Malt), “Over the entire 20-year period period [of 1990-2009, the Romneys gave to charity an average of 13.45 percent of their adjusted gross income.” To be a Mormon in good standing one must donate 10 percent of one’s gross income to the Mormon church. If Romney did so, that means he gave only 3.45 percent of his vast fortune to all other charities.

Finally, there is the question of whom Romney gives his money to. Business Insider ran the numbers: “The answer appears to be primarily one organization: The Church of Jesus Christ Of Latter-Day Saints, more commonly known as the Mormon church. According to tax documents viewed by Business Insider, the vast majority of the money Mitt Romney gave away in 2009 and 2010—80 percent of it—went to the church.”

The same holds true for 2011. As the McClatchy Newspapers noted: “In 2011, the Romney’s charitable cash contributions included $1.115 million to the Mormon church and $214,516 to Tyler Charitable Foundation, a Romney family foundation. The Romneys also claimed a deduction of $920,573 for noncash contributions that were not spelled out in a statement accompanying the return.”

In other words, the Mormon church was the biggest recipient of the Romneys’ largesse. And what does the other main recipient every year, the Tyler Charitable Foundation, do? It makes up for shortcomings in Romney’s donations to his church. According to the Daily Caller, Romney actually fell slightly short of the tithing requirement in 2009. But the Tyler Foundation gives to the Mormon church, and when you add in those contributions as Romney family money, they exceed the threshold. But that, in turn, is true only if you don’t also count the foundation’s income from its investments as Romney family income. If you did, the Romneys would fall well below the tithing requirement.

Here, via Forbes, is a breakdown of where the Tyler Charitable Foundation has given the more than $7 million it doled out since 2000:

1. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints: $4,781,000
2. Brigham Young University: $525,000
3. The United Way: $177,000
4. Right to Play: $111,500
5. The George W. Bush Library: $100,000
6. Operation Kids: $85,000
7. Center For Treatment of Pediatric MS: $75,000
8. Harvard Business School: $70,000
9. City Year: $65,000
10. Deseret International: $50,000
Weber State University: $50,000

As you can see, the majority of the funding goes to the Mormon church. The second-biggest recipient is the Mormon university that Romney attended. Other recipients include Romney’s former business school, and the library of the former president he has an incentive to curry favor with. In all, it is clear that Romney’s donations are about taking care of his own and advancing his personal interests. Relative to his vast wealth, he has given relatively little to programs that assist those truly in need.

Donations to religious organizations are considered “charitable contributions” for tax purposes. So are private schools. But that doesn’t mean that giving your church money for a new stained glass window or helping your alma mater build a new swimming pool is charity in the colloquial sense.

The Business Insider breakdown of Romney’s personal donations in 2009 and 2010 is worth quoting at length, because it exposes just how miserly he actually is.

In 2010, Mitt Romney took $3 million in charitable deductions on his tax return, against adjusted gross income of $22 million.

  • $1.5 million was a direct cash donation to the LDS Church

  • $1.5 million was a stock donation to the Romney’s private foundation, which is called the Tyler Foundation. The Tyler Foundation, in turn, gave away $647,500 in 2010, of which $145,000 went to the church. (The Tyler Foundation is controlled by the Romneys, so any money the Tyler Foundation gives away is effectively money the Romneys are giving away)

In 2010, therefore, Romney gave third parties (other than his foundation) a total of $2.1 million, with a total of $1.7 million going to the church. 78 percent of Romney’s donations in 2010, therefore, went to the church.
In 2009, meanwhile, Romney’s private foundation gave away a total of $631,000. This was made up of four gifts:

  • The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints ($600,000)

  • My Sister’s Keeper ($5,000)

  • The Becket Fund ($25,000)

  • Mass General Hospital Cancer Center ($1,000)

In 2009, therefore, 95 percent of the money Romney’s foundation gave away went to the church.

The other recipients of Romney’s money are often right-wing anti-gay groups. As Raw Story reported: “The Tyler Charitable Foundation, set up and funded by the Romneys, donated $10,000 in 2006 to the Massachusetts Family Institute, which promotes the ex-gay therapy. The charity also donated $25,000 to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which opposes same sex marriage and has compared LGBT activists to the terrorist group al Qaeda.”

So Romney gives $1,000 per year for a cancer center, while his church gets at least 600 times as much and he keeps millions more? He gave virtually nothing to any program that focuses directly on feeding the hungry, housing the homeless or educating the disadvantaged.

Of course, the Mormon church does some of those things itself. But that is not its primary purpose. While the tax code does not distinguish, as it should not, between organizations that exist solely to serve the needy and churches, synagogues or mosques, voters can and should. The Mormon church is not necessarily any less worthy a cause than any other religion, but it is not, say, City Harvest. The Mormon church also spends a lot of money on building grand edifices that non-Mormons are not allowed in. (That rule is so ironclad that even Ann Romney’s non-Mormon parents were not allowed to attend her wedding with Mitt.) They send legions of young men on proselytizing missions abroad. Giving to these endeavors may not be a bad thing, but it does not prove that Mitt is some great humanitarian.

Check out our D.C. correspondent's coverage of the Romney's tax returns.

Conservative Media Try to Save Romney's Campaign

Mitt Romney sure is lucky that major media outlets exist to serve his interests. After a video came out on Monday afternoon in which Romney denigrates the nearly half the country that did not pay federal income taxes last year as irresponsible and entitled, it seemed he was in quite a political pickle. The comments were unlikely to endear him to swing voters who perceive Romney as an out-of-touch elitist. But since Romney got the idea that 47 percent of the country are lazy Democratic moochers from movement conservatives, he could not repudiate his own remarks.

At first, Fox News had no idea how to respond. They simply ignored the story, even as it dominated coverage on other networks, all through their primetime lineup on Monday. Finally, when Romney gave a press conference after 10 pm, in which he admitted to having made poor word choices but not a substantive error, they showed it. On Tuesday, the Fox Business network hosted Romney for a softball interview with Neil Cavuto. Fox was determined to avoid covering the story except to help Romney burnish his self-defense. Alas, Romney himself did not have much of a defense, other than to say that he had simply been acknowledging that he will not win a landslide victory.

But then, Providence struck. On Tuesday afternoon the Drudge Report released an audio recording from 1998 in which Barack Obama says, “I actually believe in redistribution.” Drudge splashed the phrase in a banner headline across his front page as if it were earth shattering news. Since then, according to Huffington Post media reporter Michael Calderone, Fox has played the audio clip twenty-two times.

The Romney campaign immediately seized on the clip as a way of shifting their defense of Romney’s unappealing rhetoric into more friendly terrain. Speaking to Cavuto, Romney said:

There is a tape that just came out today where the president is saying he likes redistribution. I disagree. I think a society based upon a government-centered nation where government plays a larger and larger role, redistributes money, that’s the wrong course for America…. The right course for America is to create growth, create wealth, not to redistribute wealth.

Romney’s campaign sent out the quote as part of a press release. They followed up shortly with another press release that lists their usual litany of depressing economic indicators as proof that “Obama’s redistribution plan…didn’t work.” What is missing is any proof, besides a fourteen-year-old quote, that Obama actually pursued a redistribution plan once in office.

By Wednesday, the Romney campaign had regained its footing. Reporters were being inundated with statements using the redistribution quote as a hook for all their usual talking points. For example, they released a statement headlined, “Obama’s Redistribution Didn’t Work For Small Businesses.” “Mitt Romney understands that opportunity and free enterprise create jobs and grow our nation’s small businesses—not government redistribution,” said Romney campaign spokesperson Andrea Saul. The campaign also worked the phrase into their stump speeches. Paul Ryan told a Virginia audience that, Obama is “going to try and distract and divide this country to win by default.” Then he asserted:

President Obama said that he believes in redistribution. Mitt Romney and I are not running to redistribute the wealth. Mitt Romney and I are running to help Americans create wealth. Efforts that promote hard work and personal responsibility over government dependency are what have made this economy the envy of the world.

As Slates Dave Weigel points out, it is ridiculous to blame Obama for distracting and dividing the country, and then attack Obama for something he said fourteen years ago.

Conservative pundits, though, are cheering on the Romney/Ryan campaign’s silliness. After Romney’s appearance on Cavuto, Fox panelist and Weekly Standard writer Stephen Hayes said of the attack on Obama’s quote, “[It’s] good, [he should] make the argument. Going back to 1998 shows the president has believed this for a long time.” That’s a specious argument. If you go back to 1998 and look at anything Mitt Romney said, it may be diametrically opposed to what he believes today. Generally, the older the quote, the less relevant it is. Certainly that’s the standard Hayes would use if it were Romney who long ago said something Hayes considers damaging.

More importantly, Ryan’s statement creates two false dichotomies. Contra Ryan, redistribution can promote hard work instead of government dependency. A great example is the Earned Income Tax Credit, which is a wage subsidy for low-earning households. The purpose is to make menial jobs more financially attractive relative to being unemployed and eligible for welfare, food stamps and Medicaid. It was created with bipartisan support, and by all accounts it has worked well. It also happens to be one reason that so many low-income families do not pay any income taxes, the very state of affairs that Romney decried.

It is also wrong to assume that any wealth redistribution is the opposite of creating wealth. Reasonable people can differ on the optimal amount of redistribution to generate economic growth. But a glance at countries such as Denmark and Germany shows that high marginal tax rates, with the revenue going to strong educational and healthcare systems can develop a healthy, educated and therefore globally attractive workforce. That, in turn, can yield strong rates of economic growth.

The underlying complaint against Obama is bogus anyway. Drudge misleadingly cut the quote to create a false impression. As Jonathan Chait explains in New York magazine, if you read the full quote, you see that Obama is actually expressing a very moderate, neoliberal attitude. Obama actually said that some of the backlash against government has been deserved. To revive faith in collective action, Obama argues, government programs must be more efficient. “We do have to be innovative in thinking, what are the delivery systems that are actually effective.… because I actually believe in redistribution, at least at a certain level to make sure that everybody’s got a shot,” said Obama. This is not radical socialism. But then, neither is the Affordable Care Act, even though conservatives have labeled it as such. If Romney’s incompetent campaign did not have the conservative media to invent these myths, they would truly be lost.

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