southernbeau

Making sense of the non-sensical world of American politics

The Day Mitt Romney Lost The Election

On Monday, September 17th, 2012, Mitt Romney’s electoral prospects spiralled from grim to non-existent.  For this was the day that Romney lost the 2012 presidential election.  A video shot at a private donor fundraising event surfaced surreptitiously in which Romney explains to those present that approximately half of all Americans will not consider voting for him due to their reliance on government handouts.  President Obama, according to Romney, has all of these folks locked in the proverbial bag.  The problems with these ridiculous statements are copious; however, I will focus on the two most egregious.  First, Romney’s assertions are utterly and completely false from a factual standpoint.  Secondly, from a political one, his statements (or misstatements) are as inarticulate and, well, stupid as any that could possibly spill from a presidential candidate’s mouth. 

“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what,” Mitt Romney told the room full of donors.  “All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.”

While these statements are factually inaccurate (which I will explore below), I can imagine a scenario in which Romney is able to convince himself, and others, that they are true.  Imagine you’re Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee:  For the past year you’ve been unable to grab a clear lead in the polls against someone you view as incompetent and who has been unable to get unemployment below 8 percent or reach a reasonable debt-reduction deal with Congress.  Which would you prefer to believe?  That you’re not good enough, not smart enough and doggone it, people just don’t like you?  Or that the incumbent Democrat has effectively bought off half the country with food stamps and free health care?

What Romney said next, however, is harder to explain.

“These are people who pay no income tax,” he continued, “47 percent of Americans pay no income tax.”

For starters, let’s disregard the completely asinine myth that 47 percent of Americans are tax-evading moochers.  Of the 46 percent (not 47%) of Americans who were expected to pay no federal income tax in 2011, more than 60 percent of them were working and contributing payroll taxes — which means they paid a higher effective tax rate on their income than did Romney — and an additional 20 percent were elderly.  So more than 80 percent were either working or past retirement age.  Allow me to borrow a recent phrase from Bill Clinton, Romney’s contentions don’t pass the “arithmetic” test.  But, of course, why let the facts get in the way of a good story?

In my view, however, the comments winning the dubious award for “most damaging of the day” were as follows: “My job is not to worry about those people.  I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

Oh no he didn’t!  Romney gone wild!  When Romney said this, he didn’t just write off half the country behind closed doors.  Far worse, he confirmed the worst suspicions that voters possess about who he is: an entitled rich guy with no understanding of how people who aren’t rich actually live.  Not to mention that he suffers from the chronic and deteriorating condition known as “foot in mouth disease.”  Put the two together and you can hear the grand dame herself, Ann Richards, quipping “Poor Mitt, he can’t help it.  He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”

The hidden paradox here is that having less money means you have to take more responsibility for your life.  You can’t pay people to watch your kids, clean your house, or build your family a car elevator.  You can’t necessarily afford a car at all or a washing machine or a home in a good school district.  That’s what money buys you—goods and services that make your life easier.

That’s what money has bought Romney, too.  He’s a guy who sold his dad’s stock to pay for college, who built an elevator to ensure easier access to his multiple cars and who was able to support his wife’s decision to be a stay-at-home mom.  As we say in the South, “God bless him!”  No one begrudges Romney his wealth.  That’s the dream.

The problem is that he doesn’t seem to realize how difficult it is to focus on college when you’re also working full time, how much planning it takes to reliably commute to work without a car, or the agonizing choices faced by families in which both parents work and a child falls ill.  The working poor haven’t abdicated responsibility for their lives.  They’re drowning in it.

So this begs the question: Why do the poor around the world so often make decisions that befuddle the rich?

The underlying answer, in part, is this: The poor consume an enormous amount of their mental energy just scraping by.  They’re not dumber, lazier or more interested in being dependent upon the government.  Put simply, they’re just cognitively exhausted.

As economist Jed Friedman wrote in an online post for the World Bank, “The repeated trade-offs confronting the poor in daily decision making — i.e. ‘should I purchase a bit more food or a bit more fertilizer?’ — occupy cognitive resources that would instead lay fallow for the wealthy when confronted with the same decision.  The rich can afford both a bit more food and a bit more fertilizer, no decision is necessary.”

The point here isn’t that Romney is unfamiliar with cutting-edge work in cognitive psychology.  It’s that he misses even the intuitive message of this work, the part most of us know without reading any studies—it’s really, really hard (and not much fun) to be poor.  That’s because the poorer you are, the more personal responsibility you have to take.

Romney, evidently, thinks it’s folks like him who’ve really had it hard.  “I have inherited nothing,” the son of a former auto executive and governor told the room full of donors—apparently with a straight face.  “Everything Ann and I have, we earned the old-fashioned way.”  These are either the words of a man blind to his own privilege or who will say anything to get elected.  Either way, it ain’t pretty.

Now let’s turn to the reasons that Romney’s ill-fated diatribe will also prove to be political suicide.  Many of those voters housed within Romney’s 47% are seniors and veterans—two constituencies who have been reliably Republican in recent elections.  The truth is many of these folks have absolutely no intention of voting for President Obama at all.

One major reason for the growth of the federal government in recent years has been that entitlement spending per beneficiary has increased, and so has the number of beneficiaries as baby boomers have retired.  Yet senior citizens — who benefit from federal programs, on average, far more than younger people — have become more Republican over that same period.  Seniors actually voted for John McCain over Obama in 2008 by a slightly higher margin than they did for George W. Bush over John Kerry in 2004.

In the 2010 midterm elections, their Republican margin increased even more, to a whopping 21 points.  And in the latest Rasmussen poll, Romney still leads President Obama among seniors by 19 points.  But in light of Romney’s recent comments stating his belief that 47% of Americans are stigmatized by their dependence upon government, how many seniors will he lose?  My guess is that the hemorrhage among seniors will be significant, particularly in crucial battleground states such as Florida and Ohio.

As the conservative commentator, William Kristol, wrote in the Weekly Standard: “It’s worth recalling that a good chunk of the 47 percent who don’t pay income taxes are Romney supporters — especially, of course, seniors (who might well believe they are entitled to heath care, a position Romney agrees with), as well as many lower-income Americans (including men and women serving in the military) who think conservative policies are better for the country even if they’re not getting a tax cut under the Romney plan.  So Romney seems to have contempt not just for the Democrats who oppose him, but for tens of millions who intend to vote for him.”

Ouch, lambasted by Billy Kristol.  That’s like Obama getting slapped down by Oprah in the New York Times editorial page.

Mitt Romney’s hopes of becoming president have become precipitiously dimmer following each gaffe throughout the summer and into the fall.  However, on Monday, September 17th, his presidential aspirations became officially defunct.   My mom used to tell me that if I didn’t have anything nice to say, say nothing at all.  I think my mom would advise Romney that if he didn’t have something reasonable and well thought out to say, say nothing at all.  Of course, if followed, that advice would make for an awfully quiet campaign.  I don’t think I’m going out on a flimsy limb here when I say: Stick a fork in ole Mitt, he’s done.

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September 20, 2012 Posted by | 2012 Presidential Election, 47 percent, Mitt Romney, Obama, Republican Party | , , , | 1 Comment

The Hand Iowans Were Dealt

It’s easy to complain about the Iowa caucuses – easy and completely justifiable. Iowa’s caucus-goers have given us the presidency of Jimmy Carter, lent credibility to Pat Robertson’s political ambitions and created a permanent constituency for ethanol subsidies among Democrats and Republicans alike. As friendly and civic-minded as Iowans may be, there’s no reason why a low-turnout contest in a small, rural state should play such an outsize role in every presidential nominating process.

But in the wake of Tuesday night’s Romney-Santorum photo finish and Ron Paul’s strong third-place showing, it must be said that this time around Iowans have discharged their responsibility impressively. Presented with the weakest presidential field of any major party in a generation, they made the best of a bad situation, punching the three most deserving tickets without handing any of them a decisive victory.  It’s as if Iowa collectively screamed, “this year, all you other states have to help us put lipstick on this pig!”

This isn’t what you’ll hear from the many disappointed conservatives who dislike all of Iowa’s top finishers – Romney because he’s too moderate, boring and phony, Paul because he’s too libertarian and anti-interventionist, and Santorum for all sorts of reasons (his aggrieved personality, his lack of electability, the taint of Bush-era “big government conservatism,” to name three). But on substance and strategy alike, Iowa’s top three deserved their joint quasi-victory, and the losers likewise deserved their plight.

This was particularly true of Rick Perry, who managed to spend $6 million advertising in Iowa without laying a glove on his competition, and whose reputation as a stud campaigner evaporated in the dead air of his atrocious debate performances. But Michele Bachmann and Newt Gingrich also squandered significant opportunities: Bachmann by never finding a message more compelling than her promise to make Barack Obama a one-term president, and Gingrich by wallowing in the mix of grandiosity and disorganization that his former colleagues in Congress remember all too well.

At one time or another, all three of these also-rans – as well as Herman Cain, lest we forget – seemed well-positioned to win the caucuses. In ultimately rejecting their candidacies, Iowans rejected a cascade of gimmicky tax plans, flagrant pandering (Gingrich’s denunciation of “big city attacks” on ethanol subsidies took the cake), and desperate appeals to identity politics. And they rejected, as well, the attempt to dress up in the mantle of True Conservatism records that were either threadbare or checkered by cronyism and corruption.

It’s not that Romney, Santorum and Paul ran campaigns free of gimmicks or pandering or that they boast untainted conservative records. And do your best here to separate the fact that it is slightly unnerving that Rick Santorum could fare so well in any election – even if it is the Republican caucuses in Iowa!  But at least Santorum and Paul had a message that set them apart from the rest of the field.

For all the talk about how Santorum’s social conservatism was ill-suited to a campaign focused on the economy, the former Pennsylvania senator’s emphasis on social mobility, family breakdown and blue-collar struggles spoke more directly to the challenges facing working Americans than any 9-9-9 fantasy or flat-tax gambit. From the opposite wing of the party, Paul’s libertarian and anti-war campaign scrambled partisan categories in useful and unexpected ways and supplied an alternative to the ritual chest-thumping that sometimes passes for Republican foreign policy debate.

Meanwhile, Romney’s cautious, calculating campaign managed to simultaneously stake out a plausible domestic agenda while ruthlessly exploiting the weaknesses first of Perry and then of Gingrich. Romney took few risks and inspired almost nobody, but his mix of substance and savvy largely confirmed the impression that he would be both the field’s most effective general election candidate and its most plausible president.

In an ideal world, Romney’s coronation would be postponed long enough to have a vigorous argument between Romney, Paul and Santorum (with Jon Huntsman getting in on the action as well, perhaps). They would debate foreign policy, domestic policy and the future of conservatism, with the recent losers and their gimmicks cleared off stage. In the real world, however, some of the defeated will hang around – like that clingy friend that can never take the hint to leave the party – and last night’s results probably just set the stage for the swift Romney victory that’s been coming all along.

But give the people of Iowa credit: They did their best with the hand dealt.

January 6, 2012 Posted by | 2012 Presidential Election, Iowa Caucuses, Michele Bachmann, Mitt Romney, Politics, Republican Party, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment