GOP Must Be For Something Or Be Gone

For those of us who follow real news and actual facts about the election, it was no big surprise that Barack Obama outlasted Mitt Romney to win a second term. David Plouffe ran a disciplined, micro-targeted closing four weeks that pushed every swing state in the direction of the President, mobilized another historic turnout, and kept the party on message to bring home the prize. Mitt Romney, by contrast, sank deeper and deeper into desperation after a brief, albeit limited, post Denver surge. Game, set, match, Obama.

And this brings us to the GOP.

Basically, the GOP the day after Romney’s loss is the party equivalent of an ocean front house on the Jersey Shore after the Sandy storm surge swept through.  They are still there, but the election washed them off their foundation and scattered everything that used to be inside to the four winds–even that old stuff in boxes above the work table in the garage.  Trying to clean up would be futile.  The time has come to acknowledge the cataclysmic scope of the disaster, grieve for a short time, and then start over from the ground up.

Where to begin?

My advice is focused on one particular aspect of the current party: The GOP must be for something or it will never recoup.

Think about this: In every policy area, the current incarnation of the GOP does not advocate for, but against.  Republicans in 2012 do not talk about building a future, they obsess over dismantling aspects of American Society that have been with us for decades.  Republicans are not “conservatives” in the sense of wanting to keep what is good here. They are just demolitionists obsessed with gutting, sledge hammering, and knocking down.

The result of this policy approach is an internal party culture in the GOP that is pessimistic verging on depressing.  Republicans do not draw voters into their vision, so much as they trap voters in an endless cycle of grousing.

Just about only thing that Republicans talk about in positive terms is Ronald Reagan–but even that hagiographic narrative has a bitter tone to it.  “Things were so much better under Reagan,”  Republicans say. Or:  “There will never be another like Reagan.”

Reagan for Republicans is no longer a positive symbol. He is now the hero in an endless lament about a world overrun by debt, government, and liberal debauchery.  No wonder the GOP base was so fickle about their nominees.  The slightest hint of Reagan-esque charisma sent flocks of GOP running to this candidate or that, only to be disappointed when the newest flash in the pan turned out to be less-than by comparison to the distorted memory of Saint Ronald.

I cannot help but ask: What is it that Republicans want to actually do? I know what they want to undo–but what do they want to do?

This was a huge part of Mitt Romney’s problem.  “On day one,” Romney would say in his stump speeches,”I will dismantle Obamacare” and unravel the  tax code and gut business regulation and slash Medicare and cut loose Social Security and open public lands to drilling, etc., etc.  Given power, Romney had no blueprint for building anything that he wanted to start following.  He just wanted to stop things that were long running.

All this pessimism–all this cutting and gutting–it can garner about 25% of the vote for the GOP, maybe more in some districts.  But it cannot get them a majority of the vote in a national election because voters want to believe in something, not just stand around and grouse.

Consider, for example, the GOP position on science.  Maybe talking about science as if it is some liberal conspiracy is a good way to get partisan crowds to cheer or a good way to seed fake debates on a FOX news show.  But it does not give people a sense of being apart of something larger than themselves–of joining a party that has a payoff of accomplishment at the end.

Moreover, no child makes decisions about their future based on grousing about science.  Nobody says “When I grow up I want to complain about science.”  So, the GOP narrative of demolition fails to provide a big story inside of which young people can see themselves for a lifetime.

Now, if you present this critique to Republicans in your family or network of friends, it is very likely that you will elicit nothing but rants and raves about Obama and debt, about how the country will soon be worse than Greece, and about how “government” should not have a role in our lives. All these responses are symptomatic.

“What is the GOP for–what do they want to do, as opposed to undo? Why would a growing number of people want to be a part of a movement built on pessimism and demolition?”

It is unlikely that anything approaching an answer will emerge.

The larger problem, therefore, is that allegiance to the GOP has become less a about ideas than a way of responding negatively to anything that smacks of vision or achievement by government.

This issue, I believe, has a far greater implication than whatever problems the GOP may be causing for itself at the level of how its members talk about women, cultural diversity, and religion.

It is possible, for example, to build a far-reaching, uplifting political narrative grounded in the idea that religious principles form an integral part of American democracy.  One could argue that Martin Luther King, Jr., did just that.  The GOP does the opposite: religion becomes a way of grousing about all the things in contemporary America that need to be demolished.

The same for women’s issues and questions of race or diversity.  Democrats speak about these issues as a way of talking about the hopes and challenges of building the future. Republicans, by contrast, talk about them within a broader lament about how bad things are now compared to how they used to be. “Tear down affirmative action,” “Get rid of Title IX,”–these are the cries of a party that cannot talk about social issues in a positive light because it has no positive mode in its vocabulary.

What do you want to build? What will you do if given the opportunity to lead?

None of the leading lights of the GOP know how to talk this way anymore.

Rick Santorum and Paul Ryan, arguably the heirs apparent to the GOP 2016 field, are candidates whose entire modus operandi consists of talking demolition.  What does Rick Santorum want to build? Nothing.  He is obsessed with tearing things down.  What does Paul Ryan want to build? Zilch. He spends all his time complaining about the things we need to dump.

Mitt Romney, for all the wealth and jobs and opportunity he supposedly created in the career that made him a millionaire many times over–he was never able to talk about the GOP vision in a way that would get people excited about building the future.

Be for  something or be gone.  That is the choice facing the GOP the morning after the re-election of President Barack Obama.

Ready it or not, Republicans, the bulldozers are on their way.

Polling Talk: What’s Really Real In This Election?

If you are like me and you check Nate Silver’s blog a few times a day to see the state of the most current election polling, you will have noticed that the “polling” narrative has not just taken over the election, here in the closing period, but has invaded each our minds.  emotional well-being.  So, with just a few days left, I wanted to consider why “polling”–not in terms of mathematics (I will leave that to Nate), but as a narrative component of the race.  Why is polling talk so, well, everywhere right now?

Endgame Optimism: Advantage Obama

With less than a week to go, this close election comes down to a tug of war between big narratives, where the pulling is done by the Obama and Romney closing teams. In the last election, team Obama had a vast network of volunteers marching door-to-door on the logic that undecided voters tend to be convinced by an actual encounter with a human being. This was contrasted by the GOP strategy of trying to sway voters with a minimum of 3 robocall “contacts” in the last 72 hours.  Ultimately, though, what these closing teams are pushing–either through recorded calls or a knock at the front door–is a closing argument.

What are those closing arguments?

It is easy to get lost in the media maelstrom at this point.  Too much time watching cable TV would convince anyone this is an election about what really happened in Benghazi versus whether or not Mitt Romney will admit that he wants to de-fund FEMA. In fact, neither of those cable news topics are the closing arguments of this election.

Both closing arguments have a spoken and unspoken aspect.  It is important to consider both because it helps us to see why this election is so close–why last-minute voting decisions are leaning in one direction or the other.

Romney’s unspoken argument is: Obama wastes money.  There are many, many, ways Romney has tried to invoke this argument, many spoken arguments that all support this one overarching unspoken big story.

In attempt to connect with voters, Romney has argued that Obama has spent huge amounts of federal revenue–and yet (so Romney’s argument goes), the economy has gotten worse at every step (which is a lie, but…). For people worried about healthcare, Romney has said that Obama has wasted money on healthcare reform.  For people skeptical about climate change, Romney has said Obama has wasted money investing in green tech startups.  For people worried about their manufacturing jobs, Romney has said that Obama has wasted money helping companies outsource jobs to China.

Voters have heard Romney in different ways.  Some have heard him say that Obama is wasting money, meaning wasting time (i.e., I need help now, Obama is wasting time by spending money on things that have not helped me).  Others have heard Romney say that Obama is wasting their money, specifically (i.e., I am doing fine, but want to be doing better, Obama has spent my taxes on things I do not support).  There are ugly versions of all these, invoking race, gender, fear of foreigners, resentment towards urban dwellers, and so forth.

Given his unspoken big argument and his many ways of invoking it, Romney has–curiously–chosen a closing argument that spreads fear of Obama wasting money and in collusion with foreigners.  Romney’s misinformation campaign about various aspects of the auto industry abandoning Ohio to move all manufacturing to China is an all-in closing argument that attempts to tie an image of a spendthrift president so out of control that he has tossed his hat in with America’s biggest foreign economic challenger.

If I had to paraphrase Romney’s closing argument in one sentence it would be something like this: Obama’s spending is so out of control it has become treasonous.

It’s outrageous, it stands on mountain of misinformation, but it is Romney’s end game narrative and it is persuading enough people to keep the race close.

Obama’s unspoken argument at the end of the election has been: Our approach is working, continue to stand with us.

Interestingly, in order to invoke this big argument, the Obama campaign has used smaller stories about the ways Romney would derail the recovery and the ways Romney’s approach to the economy would not have worked in the first place.  If you are concerned about a manufacturing job, the Obama campaign has reached out by showing how destructive Romney’s past at Bain has been to working communities.  If your main concern is access to healthcare, the Obama administration has demonstrated how devastating it would be if Romney were allowed to repeal Obamacare.  If your main concern is covering family expenses, the Obama campaign has emphasized how much Romney’s policies would favor the wealthy at the expense of the Middle Class.  These arguments, too, have had racial, gendered, and ethnic variations.

In particular, the Obama campaign has emphasized how out of touch the Romney campaign is with the important role women play in the economy.

Not surprisingly, given that Ohio is again a key battleground state, the Obama closing argument has emphasized how callous and destructive Romney’s economic policies would be to working families–the “Let Detroit go Bankrupt” meme.  It is a logic choice, and it has worked.

Why is Obama’s closing narrative better than Romney’s”

This is a very subjective reading, but my sense is that Romney is weaker in the end because he has chosen to emphasize pessimism in an election where people are looking for optimism.

Where Obama is going around telling people that he believes in the capacity of the American spirit, the value of American manufacturing, the strength of our communities, and so forth–Romney is going around spinning conspiracy theories based on a nefarious side of President Obama that only exists in Mitt Romney’s ads and robocalls.

For voters who are paralyzed by fear already, Romney’s approach will work.  But for voters sincerely still mulling over their options–of which there are far more than most of us allow–I suspect Obama’s optimism at the end is working better.

And this is where Obama’s approach to Sandy has fit in well with the closing phase of the election.

From a narrative standpoint, hurricane Sandy allowed President Obama to set a positive tone in the final stretch of the campaign.  Yes, Romney lied about Chrysler.  Yes, the amount of mudslinging has been unprecedented.  But in a time of crisis, Americans pull together, stand arm in arm, and truly believe that we can get rise from a crisis stronger than we were before.

And there is President Obama as the symbol of that narrative.

Do not get confused, here: the vast majority of voters are no longer being pushed in one direction or another by the closing arguments in the election.  May people simply reject the President’s leadership after Sandy as opportunism.  But those voters decided months, if not years ago that they were voting for Mitt Romney.  The challenge is to see this last week from the perspective of that small, but important pocket of voters who are still weighing their options.

Ultimately, then, I give the advantage to Obama in the final week.  I believe the swing state aggregate polling will show a solid advantage for Obama by Monday and that the big story going into election morning will be that the Obama campaign has managed to pull within the margin of error in Florida.

Optimism in uncertain times makes the difference in the end.

The Drowning Man

Close your eyes for a moment and imagine a man drowning: arms flailing wildly, desperate gasps for breath, the struggle to climb out of the water as if it were a pile of blankets, the cold indifference of the water as it reaches up to pull the head down again and again. OK–keep that image in your head as you open your eyes and read this article about Mitt Romney trying yet again to claim that his position on the auto industry bailout was that government should offer help:

Mitt’s Dilemma: More He Stumps, More He Slumps

With polls now showing a steady trend in favor of the President, the election narrative will undoubtedly converge on a talk of why Romney’s debate bump did not seem to close the deal for him.  This is a dangerous time for Democrats because the reality oft the polling trend does not match the reality what actually happens in the final stretch.  Depending on who you ask, the GOP final push of robocalls & PAC ads has the ability to drive key districts by 3, 5 or even 6 points in the final 72 hours.  A lead is not a lead for Obama unless it can outlast the Karl Rove blitz.

But still, it is worth looking at Mitt Romney’s situation and asking why he is moving away from victory, rather than towards it, again.

Simplest observations are the best, in this case: the more Romney stumps, the less voters like him.   With nothing left but the grind of the campaign trail, Romney is now trapped in the situation that sunk him in the primaries and in the first leg of the race against Obama.

To see this better, it may be helpful to break the candidate’s job in the election into three kinds of narrative tasks: stumping (speeches, fundraisers, media spots, etc.), pageantry (conventions, dinners, etc.), and debates.

Of these three categories, everyone always claims Obama is a great speaker, but what they really mean is he excels at pageantry.  Obama is very good as a speaker in Conventions and gala fundraisers.  At stumping, Obama has been solid, but not great.  For most of the campaign, he has not shown enough fire on campaign stops and his media spots, in particular, are often bland. His last two debates have been solid, but nobody is going to teach a class on debating by pulling out Obama as a role model.

Romney is just the opposite.  His debate performances have been an oddly effective in the contemporary, media hype environment that defines much of this election. On stage with Obama, Romney’s twitchy, uncomfortable public persona found a home and his rapid-change of positions had the impact of throwing his opponent of his game (at first).  At the other two narrative tasks, however, Romney has been atrocious–possible the worst ever. The GOP convention, this year, was a comedy of errors and missteps.  And that brings us to Romney’s absurd inability to give a stump speech.

For some reason, Romney has decided that he is supposed to look off-the-cuff and spontaneous, rather than scripted, on the stump–that, somehow, this makes him look “authentic.”

In fact, Romney’s attempts to speak off the cuff on the campaign trail have not produced that desired authenticity for him even once.  Instead, it has elicited a string of weird blurbs from Romney that seem to come from either a pocket of Dada word association deep in his subconscious (think “trees are just the right height”) or racism (“Who let the dogs out.”) or just plain contempt for humanity (“47 percent”).

I actually think at this stage that Romney’s handlers are more afraid of what might happen when he goes on the stump than Palin’s people were at this same stage of the game last time out.  They probably send him up there, hold their breath, and silently pray that Mitt will not throw the whole thing in the toilet by blurting out some ridiculous sound bite.

Well, the pageantry and the debates are over.  All that’s left is the stump.

In other words, it may not just be that Romney’s debate aura has faded, but also that the 10,000 pound anvil of his stumping style is again starting to bear down on his polling trend, particularly in the swing states where he is gracing those votes with the majority of his time.

For those of you keeping score, make note of the next time you hear a news spot or see a headline discussing Romney giving an inspiring or even strong speech in Virginia, Ohio, Colorado, or Florida.  Then, balance those instances against the number of media spots that either directly or indirectly draw attention to how poorly Romney does on the stump.  Therein lies the trend that will never be picked up by any one poll in particular, but is crucial for Romney in the home stretch.

The more he stumps, the more he slumps–that is Mitt’s dilemma.  And it’s a pickle.

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