Archive for May, 2012
In 1991 while living briefly in Berlin I received a message to pick up a package at the post office located at “Gelehrter Stadtbahnhof,” the final S-Bahn (light rail transit) in West Berlin before crossing to the East. I went there and found an old sleepy station with two tracks in a quiet neighborhood. Alas, all the pictures I took that year, including many rolls of film from old East Berlin (still mostly unchanged a year after unification) were lost when I stupidly shipped home 27 rolls of film because I wanted to develop them more cheaply in the US. The box went missing and never arrived. However, I found a photo online of that old station:
That sight is now the home of the Hauptbahnhof. Lehrter Bahnhof has gone from an old sleep S-Bahn station to a modern marvel. Most train stations in Europe have a similar design, coming out of the late 19th and early 20th Century. Because train stations are necessary and can’t be easily relocated like airports (due to track layout), they get refurbished or upgraded, but keep the same basic design. In Berlin the new territory gained from the wall (which in most places was two walls with a good chunk of space between them) allowed them to design a completely modern train station, with multiple levels, shopping and an open glass theme.
The design of the train station is as unique as the city. Regional traffic departs from the lowest level, while S-bahn trains serving the Berlin area and high speed trains going to destinations all over Europe and Germany depart from the upper level. Inbetween are three levels of shops, food and services.
The Lehrter Stadtbahnhof served the city from 1871 on, originally as a terminal station for traffic from Hamburg and Lehrte, then after World War II simply as an S-bahn stop. Renaming it Hauptbahnhof was controversial. There had been a Hauptbahnhof in East Berlin, but that station had no historical claim to the name. It had only been called that since 1987 and had gone by a number of previous names. It is now called Ostbahnhof (East train station), the name it during most of the Cold War and is the third largest station in the city.
Most people wanted to keep Lehrter as part of the name, but fearing that would confuse people, it gets referred to simply as the main train station – though the signs do give homage to the past.
The station is perfectly located; it is within a short walk of the Reichstag building and Brandenburg Gate.
The area was sparsely populated because of the wall, and thus building new track connections and expanding the station was no problem. It is now part of a stretch running to the Potsdamer Platz that demonstrates the core of new Berlin – the Chancellery, Bundestag, Brandenburg gate, and Unter den Linden.
Over the coming days or weeks I’ll be blogging about my recently finished Germany trip, including reflections on other ways Berlin has changed, my view that the sovereign state is becoming obsolete, and how the Euro crisis is going to get solved — and create a stronger, more united Europe. But to start, I think the Berlin Hauptbahnhof is a real symbol of how the city has changed — and the process of transformation continues!
My computer is dead. I must now rely on internet cafes. That means my regular blogging from Germany will cease. I was writing in my room off and on, but will likely not have time to post from an internet cafe, using a German keyboard. I also can´t download pictures. We´re now in Bonn and all is going well! I have to use my short free time here at the internet cafe to re-research places we´re going, etc. That was all on my computer! Cést la vie!
Wednesday was a beautiful Munich day and we headed out on the S2 train to the Munich suburb of Dachau, also the home of the first Nazi concentration camp.
Usually when you think of the Nazi era the Germans are the bad guys, causing war and slaughtering innocents. But at Dachau the experience is slightly different – Dachau represents a true German tragedy. Germans who stood up to Hitler, who refused to go along with the Nazi seizure of power, and who tried to save their country from a fateful path based on fear and violence were sent to Dachau.
Dachau is not like Auschwitz. It wasn’t a death camp. Most of its prisoners were political or religious prisoners, though to try to avoid making them pitied lots of hardened criminals were sent there too. 30,000 died, many of them near the end as provisions ran out and the war was being lost.
The Nazis won a struggle for the German soul, though the Germans didn’t really understand what they had supported. The National Socialists promised to make Germans proud to be German again, to reject the hated Versailles treaty and to reinvigorate German values that had supposedly been weakened by democracy and capitalism. Once they took power, their propganda machine gave the German people the story they wanted to believe. And if you were tempted to dissent anyway Dachau was a symbol of what could happen to you if you didn’t take the path of least resistance.
Go along with the propaganda, believe that the National Socialists were saving Germany, and you’d be fine. Be foolish enough to defy the conventional wisdom and call the Nazis out for what they were, you’d be arrested, humiliated, beaten, and forced into slave labor, underfed and abused. Psychologically the impact was clear – people closed their eyes to what they should have been able to see, and then justified their actions because their country later on was “at war.”
The Nazis were bullies. They were heartless. They rejected non-conformity. If you didn’t act like they thought a true German should, then you were worthy of humiliation and brutality. Such a mentality is driven by fear. It’s a base fear, a fear in the soul that one has no value and is adrift in a sea of meaninglessness. To counter act that, fearful people grasp towards conformity and a belief that proper behavior is the key to self-worth. They project all their self-loathing on-conformists and free thinkers as a way to purge themselves of their existential fears.
For such people, empathy plays no role, strength is the ultimate virtue, and humility is debasement. That is what the Nazi movement represented. It was the playground bully in charge of the state, demanding obedience and conformity in exchange for an emotional sense of belonging. Implicit was the threat that non-conformity meant suffering.
The Nazis never won a majority in a free election. Many Germans secretly opposed them, but felt they had to put country first in a time of war. The German tragedy is that many good people found excuses not to stare into the evil engulfing them and fight back. Instead they conformed, bought the narrative the National Socialists were selling (even if they deep down had doubts) and pushed aside the moral dilemmas.
The opponents – Christian activists, socialists, communists, and people from across the political and social spectrum, tried to shout out a warning. Even as the clouds gathered, they were making headway, as the Germans in 1932 started to move away from the National Socialists. Their vote declined by the end of that year and if not for inside deals to try to create a conservative majority government, they may have failed. Instead Franz Von Papen convinced President Hindenberg that Hitler could be trusted given his party’s weakening status.
Hitler was made Chancellor on January 30, 1933. The Reichstag burned on February 27, 1933. Hitler took that as a reason to demand dictatorial powers to respond to the terrorists threatening Germany. In a mood of fear and nationalist fervor, most parties, even those who opposed Hitler, voted to grant him that power. He used it. He arrested those who voted against that “Enabling Act,” and a host of other political opponents across Germany who had been trying to shine light on the truth of the Nazi party.
So many were arrested that local prisons filled. In late March 1933 Dachau opened as a concentration camp to house these people. Officially they were in “protective custody” until the state could investigate whether they were truly a threat. But they had no rights and they were humiliated and abused.
Dachau was the model for the other Nazi camps. The death camps were run much like Dachau.
At the end Germans saw what had been done in their name. When locals witnessed the corpses and near death condition of the inmates they were horrified. Only then did they realize how evil their leaders had been, and how wrong they were to support them and believe the propaganda. Many deep down knew that they should have known better.
Germans take those lessons seriously. All German school children watch Schindler’s List and visit concentration camps. They learn of the holocaust. They learn to understand the horrors that happened. They learn not to trust nationalist rhetoric or the politics of fear.
But it can happen again. The politics of fear represent an emotional theme that often succeeds. People close their eyes to what they should see, and believe what they deep down know to be wrong. The heartless bullies can grab power. Learning the history of the German tragedy is one way to help us try to assure it doesn’t happen again.
Tuesday was a rainy day in Munich, so we took in the Deutsches Museum, an awesome monument to technology and the role of Germany in creating the world we live in now. When we arrived the students went into the first room and I went to use the toilet. I didn’t see any of them again until our arranged meeting time three and a half hours later. None of us were hiding, the museum is that immense!
Visiting the museum really helped me put into context the age we are living in, and how it marks the transition of one kind of society to another. We are leaving the machine age and entering the digital age!
I’ve never been to a museum with so many parts and sometimes full airplanes and cars on display, including jet engines, models of different types of planes, smaller plans parked or hanging from a ceiling. They also had a full display of wooden ships, both models and a full size fishing ship.
Yet more interesting to me is getting a sense of how technology has changed lives. There was an entire display on the printing press, including a replica of Gutenberg’s original, how it was improved on over the years, different styles, linotype machines, up to modern digital methods. There was an exhibit on film and camera, with hundreds of cameras up to modern digital cameras there. Kitchen equipment, electric generators, motors of all sorts, musical instruments, metallurgy, mining, tunnel building, toys, nano and bio technology, oil and gas, energy in general, space flight, glass blowing, genetic research, industrial machinery, tools, optics, atomic physics, pharmaceuticals, ceramics, astronomy, telecommunications, agricultural technology, radios…and more (even Zeppelins!)
I thought I was perhaps pushing it when I told the students to meet back in three and a half hours – I’ve seen students “do” the Uffizi in Florence in 20 minutes. Yet this was so massive you couldn’t do it properly spending the whole day.
Each of these eras had its own cultural and political structure. From the cottage textile weavers to the first factories, both politics and every day life changed dramatically as technology improved. I imagined the huge factories of the mechanical era. Or accountants working with mechanical calculators, so large and complex. The era of machines!
There was a model of the DC Douglas plane that formed the first fleet of Pan Am jets, which could go from New York to Frankfurt in 13 hours.
Looking at the first cars — some really attractive models were produced by auto companies in the 1920s — innovative, often strange, showing that there was not yet a standard design for cars.
Now we’re in the digital era, even the electronic equipment (record players, radios, etc.) was obviously from a different time. In fact, one can put a date on it. For most (but not all) the exhibits the 1980s marked the start of a shift to technology driven by our vastly expanding computer and information technology.
We’re at the start of a change that will have as dramatic an impact on our lives as the rise of industrial era had. It will change politics, culture and life in ways we can only imagine (and much is outside what we now are likely to imagine!)
And that’s probably a good thing. The era of the machine needed vast quantities of power to reshape the world. With oil running low and concerns about global warming, how we get the energy to run whatever world will emerge will have to be different. But seeing the range of innovations of the past, created often as solutions to problems of their times, I end up optimistic that the era just beginning will be better than the one just ending.
A very short post today. Our flights last night were good, we got in today, found our way into the city and our hostel, and then went for a walk tonight at the English Gardens, though rain came at the end. Most of us had Doner Kepabs for dinner and now we’re trying to stay up until 9:00 to avoid jet lag.
Three thoughts occur to me as I read through really solid articles about the current crisis in Greece:
1) Germany benefits from this in a very real way. The Euro is weak due to weaknesses in Greece, Spain and Italy. Germany has a strong, productive export economy and it’s growing. If the D-Mark was the currency of record for Germany, it would be much stronger than a Euro pulled down by Greece. That would make Germany relatively more expensive and weaken its growth.
2) There is a real wall of separation between concern for the future of the Euro and concern for the EU. The EU is safe and still something Germans and Europeans prize. The Euro is safe among a core set of countries. Germany will never go back to the D-Mark again, the Euro is the German currency now.
3) Students note how much less run down German cities are than American ones, and how the infrastructure is strong here. That’s right – America is in decline. You notice it when you travel.
Too tired to write more. Good students, a fun day, and its nearing bed time!
On Monday I leave for Germany along with 14 students for a two week travel course starting in Munich, moving on to Bonn, and ending in Berlin. The focus of the course is on Germany twenty years after unification – have East and West come together, or are they still quite different? Added to that, of course, will be history and culture.
Last year I blogged extensively during a similar travel course to Italy. I’m not sure if I’ll be as prolific this time.
Germany is special to me. Besides the fact most of my ancestors are from there (I’m 3/4 German 1/4 Norwegian), I’ve lived a year in Bonn and Berlin, have traveled there frequently and its my area of expertise – German foreign policy and more generally the European Union. I’m fluent in German, but rusty. When I lived there all year I was thinking and dreaming in German.
I first visited Germany when WWII and the holocaust was more keenly felt than now. True, over 35 years had passed, but I’d see elderly folk with missing limbs and realize that the war generation was still there. I watched the mini-series on “The Holocaust” with young Germans (odd seeing an American series about Germany synched into German).
In those first visits (taking place during breaks from my year studying in Bologna, Italy), I saw Chancellor Helmut Schmidt fall from office when his coalition partners ditched him for Helmut Kohl’s Christian Democratic party, and a radical new party called “The Greens” entering the Bundestag for the first time. I was there on March 6, 1983 to witness that election, it was exciting. At that point German TV had three or maybe four channels. Trains were efficient, but relatively slow. Seating was in compartments of six, with smoking cars outnumbering non-smoking ones!
Perhaps one of the most powerful experiences I had was on a train heading north in 1989. I was heading to the Netherlands from Munich to visit a research partner. I found an empty compartment, but a ways north a group of elderly women entered. I was reading Der Spiegel and one of them asked me a question. “Wie bitte?” I replied (“Excuse me?”) She repeated it, it was something about the train. I explained I was an American and didn’t know.
She complimented my German and asked what I was doing in Germany. I said I was working on research (at that point comparing German and Dutch foreign policy). At some point we were talking about Germany in the world and they started talking about the war. It was amazing. I heard stories how one hid in a haystack to avoid being raped by Russians, another talked about how her brother had been active in the Hitler youth “and never really recovered.” The talked about difficulties of the war and its aftermath.
One mentioned the holocaust; all shook their heads. I asked “Did people know what was happening.” The four chatty women went silent. One finally said, “no, but it was a choice. We could have known. We should have.” The others agreed, and talked about how Jewish people disappeared. They heard rumors. But it was war, it was easy to say we have to support the troops and the fatherland, Germans could never do anything so evil. The conversation continued until they had to disembark in Dortmund. One woman grabbed my arm as she left and said “I’ve never talked so frankly about those years with anyone, not even my own children.” I thanked her and wished her well.
First, at that point I realized that learning a foreign language had been priceless. I had heard first hand the experiences of people who had lived history – the side we usually don’t hear, from people who usually don’t want to talk about it. I sometimes think of that as I ride on the 21st century high speed ICE trains where compartments have given way to “airline” seating.
1989 was a dramatic year. I spent a lot of time that summer interviewing members of political parties including a young upcoming Horst Seehofer, who is now Minister President of Bavaria. I interviewed academics. I asked about the possibility of German unification and was told by everyone it would not come fro a long time, if ever. Maybe after a long period of American-Soviet reconciliation. The dramatic events that would change the world would begin just weeks later, but no one saw it coming.
The highlight was early August. I had an interview with Dr. Michael Staack at the Freie Universitaet in Berlin. Should I keep it? He was (and remains) prestigious, but it cost 50 extra D-Marks to cross through East Germany into East Berlin. Would it be worth it? I decided to go. En route zipping through the East I was at the window the whole time. I’m seeing real existing communism! Tiny cars puttering about, houses with antennas, train stations looking a bit run down. It wasn’t a hell hole, but it clearly wasn’t vibrant. On the way back it was 95 degrees and we went through the industrial region – Bitterfeld, Wittenberg, etc. Huge factories belting soot into the sky – towns where people had to wipe soot off the windshields of their cars like we do snow. The train had no A/C but we closed the windows – stifling heat was better than adding the soot from the air.
I got to walk through East Berlin that trip. I crossed at Friedrichsstrasse, enduring two and a half hours of lines before getting into the city. I had gone from the hussle and bustle of vibrant West Germany to a city that seemed like a different world. The historic buildings were magnificant, but the traffic light, the cars miniscule, and it seemed almost sleepy. I had lunch at a cafeteria, then a beer, later a bland ice cream sundae. I went to the central store, which bragged the best merchandise in the East (since it was visited by anyone who crossed to Berlin). It had nothing worth buying, I got some cheap post cards.
I walked Unter den Linden, the historic boulevard over to the eastern end of the Brandenburg gate. I saw people in the West on a platform looking over to the East. I had been there the day before. So close, and yet a world away. It was then I realized how insane the division of Germany was, how painful the Wall was for Berliners, and how Communism was an obvious failure. “Das ist Wahnsinn,” I muttered, “es muss geaendert werden.” This is crazy, it has to be changed.
I am so glad I made that trip. A few months later I had tears running down my cheeks in my Minneapolis apartment as I watched on a small TV the events unfold as the Wall started to come down. The story of how it happened is amazing too. I’ve visited Berlin many times since then, watching the city transform itself at an unbelievable pace.
Hopefully I’ll find time to reflect on that and integrate my past experiences in this blog over the next couple weeks. Germany is a different country than it was. United, with hundreds of cable and satellite television channels, an economic and political leader of Europe and one of the stronger economies in the industrialized West. The best part is that I can share my thoughts, experiences and expertise with students, many of whom will be out of the country for the first time!
The last decade has seen support for gay rights and same sex marriage increase dramatically. With the President coming out in favor of same sex marriage (though recognizing that states makes laws on marriage) the debate has shifted. Before the onus was on proponents of same sex marriage to prove why it was desirable. Now opponents have to demonstrate what is gained by denying homosexuals the same rights as heterosexuals. The culture is shifting, and there is no turning back.
But was this a good move for President Obama now, in 2012? Many people claim he was pushed into it by Vice President Biden’s comments saying he was “comfortable” with gay marriage when he appeared on “Meet the Press.”
Some in the GOP are claiming that Obama did this for political gain along — pandering to win votes or gain money. That is an amazing claim. If true, that would be a huge victory for those who support gay marriage. Once poison, apparently now it is a popular thing to do! Alas, I don’t think the GOP is sincere in those claims. More likely it’s designed to convince their base that Obama is pandering to a mass army of gays and their fellow travelers, and thus they must support Romney and give to the Republicans to counter that.
Others like Rush Limbaugh claim that Obama is engaged in a “war on marriage,” and appeals to those who think that the culture shift we’re experiencing is the loss of core American values and ideals. These people are shocked and scared of what’s been happening, ranging from the election of someone like Obama, who seems to them “un” or “anti-” American, to the acceptance of homosexuality as normal.
Within Democratic circles the reaction is mixed. Almost everyone thinks Obama did the right thing morally, but was it the right thing politically? I think it is, and will be seen as a very positive aspect of Obama’s legacy.
Barack Obama is 51 years old. People of his generation (which is also mine) grew up at a time when gays were only starting to be open and argue for equal rights. The idea of same sex marriage was theoretical only, raised by libertarians and other radicals. In practice over 90% would have opposed it. OK, maybe it’s wrong to mistreat gays, we should tolerate them…but marriage? Guffaw! Civil unions? Not possible.
Even if Obama didn’t have that view point, his “evolution” reflects a journey many of his generation are taking. The push for accepting gay marriage comes from the youth — young people overwhelmingly favor it, often young conservatives think it odd to oppose what seems like an obvious expansion of liberty. They’ve grown up in a culture where the message has been the importance of equality and acceptance of alternative lifestyles.
To older folk, there is fear that this somehow harms the culture, that it goes too far in changing how we look at sex and marriage. Civil unions maintain a distinction, many believe they’d be a better choice. The rapidity of cultural change — around 2003 or 2004 it reached a tipping point — has taken the older generations by surprise. It’s forced them to reconsider. People around Obama’s age used to think support for civil unions was a bold move. Now it’s seen as not only inadequate but often the choice of conservatives.
When President Obama was born to a black man and white woman his parents’ interracial marriage was still illegal in 23 states. Over 90% of the country opposed interracial marriage, it was seen as perverse, against God’s will, and abnormal. In 1967 the Supreme Court overruled those prohibitions and now the child of such an “unholy” union is President.
While this will garner energy among Obama’s base and may help influence people on the fence to support same sex marriage, it could damage his quest for re-election. States like North Carolina, once within reach, may sip away. However, it’s not 2000 any more, or even 2008. The culture is changing. The deep south won’t be on board but Obama won’t win there anyway. And given high divorce rates and the ease in which people drop their ’till death do us part’ partners when the excitement declines and tough times start, same sex marriage is arguably not the most dangerous threat to “traditional” marriage.
Marriage is a social construct. It reflects cultural views of the times. It was very different in Biblical times than it is now (there are lots of things floating around the internet about what ‘traditional’ marriage used to be – some of it very bizarre). Mitt Romney’s great great grandfather could have 12 wives. In much of the world polygamy is the norm, in the Islamic world its four wives.
At one point marriage in the US was for a lifetime, with divorce exceedingly rare and looked down upon. As bigotry against gays declines and homosexuality is increasingly accepted as “normal,” it is inevitable that the institution of marriage will change as well. President Obama’s ‘evolution’ on the issue symbolizes the path of the nation on this question. Moreover, who he is — the son of parents whose marriage was similarly rejected as perverse a half century ago — is a poignant reminder that he is on the right side of history.
Socialist François Hollande defeated conservative Nicolas Sarkozy 52% to 48% to bring the Socialists back into the Presidency for the first time since François Mitterrand left office in 1995. Angela Merkel’s partnership with Sarkozy – Merkozy, as it was called, had defined the plans to save the Euro and prevent the financial crisis from escalating. Now that is in doubt.
Meanwhile in Greece elections look to show the two main parties, PASOK and New Democracy, could well fall short of having the capacity to build a coalition. They are the only parties supportive of the bailout plan for Greece. The rise of the far left and far right against the plan suggests that Greece could face a future without the Euro, especially if Hollande scuttles the “Merkozy” plans. Financial markets in Europe are gripped with uncertainty as the Euro falls in value from about $1.33 to $1.29. What does this mean?
Americans and Brits tend to look at the EU with a jaundiced eye. Americans especially don’t get it. They don’t see how countries can link their destinies like that. Others don’t like the EU and want it to fail so they hyperventilate over every crisis or bit of bad news. That’s been going on for nearly 55 years and so far the EU has managed to grow and expand rather than fail. Talk of the EU collapsing or even the Euro disappearing are way overblown. The EU is not in danger, and the worst I can imagine for the Euro is that the number of participants could decrease by one or two.
What this means is that the Europeans will shift from an austerity focused German led recovery effort to one that is more nuanced and willing to challenge financial markets and big banks. Austerity hasn’t been working out too well anyway. Germany’s been the healthiest but Great Britain’s austerity has caused a second dip into recession and Greece is enduring a downward spiral. The German economy is fundamentally healthier than others in Europe (and arguably our own), so they’ve avoided that kind of pain.
Ultimately, a shift away from a Germanocentric policy is good for the EU. German led austerity is not sustainable. It will lead to resentment of the Germans, anger at the politicians, and the rise of the far right and far left. Hollande will force Merkel into a partnership of the right and the left, and that’s always been good for Europe.
Consider: Social Democrat Helmut Schmidt and conservative Valery Giscard D’estaing helped put aside the crises of the 70s and forge a stronger community. Conservative Helmut Kohl and Socialist François Mitterrand were the forces behind the creation of the Euro and the expansion of the EU. Europe does best when its Franco-German engine powers a vehicle with a wheel on the right side and one on the left. Both wheels on one side make it unstable.
François Hollande is not a raging ideologue. His first moves after the election was to contact Merkel, assure financial markets, and receive an invitation from President Obama to visit the US. As President Obama learned, it’s easy to rail against the system when you’re on the outside; once you have power there are many subtleties of policy that have to be considered.
Expect Hollande to fortify the resolve of those who want to reject austerity as the primary policy for the EU. It’s not that there isn’t a debt problem; Hollande notes openly that at 80% of debt to GDP, France has a debt problem. Rather, solving that and getting out of this crisis by focusing on austerity and budget cuts alone is economic foolishness.
Merkel and the Germans are very influenced by economic theories that emphasize avoiding debt and accepting recession as “necessary medicine” to correct economic imbalances. To them high debt precipitated this crisis and it will not end until debt is reduced and a proper balance is restored to the economy.
Hollande and others argue that a country in recession could be unable to get out of it if there isn’t something to stimulate economic growth. One can imagine setting budget priorities to stimulate growth but cut unproductive spending.
This is not in direct opposition to Merkel. Germany’s success has focused on stimulating job creation in other ways and restructuring the German economy. She has never proposed austerity along as a solution; rather, budget cuts and debt reduction have to be part of a broad range of plans. This means there are plenty of areas for Hollande and Merkel to find common ground.
Moreover, Hollande’s approach requires international cooperation. No one state alone can handle this, the EU and even cooperation between the EU and the US is more important than ever. The problem is to assure currency stability despite high debts and the messy process of economic rebalancing. For Hollande would throw a grenade into the works of the EU would be self-defeating and he knows that.
On top of that, Merkel faces an election in 2013, and her party has been hurt in recent state wide elections in Germany. The political reality within Germany suggests that she needs to take into account the need to take seriously the negative implications of budget cutting alone. Germany’s economy has been the envy of the industrialized world since the crisis started in 2008, but austerity within the EU would drive down demand for German exports and could cause a contagion recession for Germany.
Up until now the EU has had an unsustainable plan to handle the impact of the financial crisis. It’s relied on German money and German leadership but hasn’t addressed the need for countries who have had inferior economic policies to rejuvenate growth as part of the solution. The focus has been too much on debt reduction and too little on the costs of austerity. With Cameron’s UK sinking into a double dip recession, his “debt reduction first” model is in severe doubt.
François Hollande is in a position to help nudge Merkel and the EU into a more broadly accepted path forward. If the Greeks don’t want to participate, fine — let them have the drachma back. At this point European banks are better prepared for a Greek default than they were a year ago, the system can handle it. If that happens, the inevitable disaster that will hit Greece will pressure other troubled states to avoid the Greek way. That, plus a set of policies more sensitive to the dangers of austerity will make it an easier sell. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Hollande’s election will aid EU efforts to handle this crisis, help stymie the rise of the far left and far right, and may push Merkel in a direction that will help her win re-election.
I was re-reading Game Change, a book by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin. Two passages struck me:
“The candidates lined up at the urinals, Guiliani next to McCain next to Huckabee, the rest all in a row. The debate was soon to start, so they were taking care of business — and laughing merrily at the one guy who wasn’t there. Poking fun at him, mocking him, agreeing how much they disliked him. Then Willard Mitt Romney walked into the bathroom and overheard them, bringing on a crashing silence.” (Pgage 293)
“Unlike Guiliani, Romney had no reticence about slashing at his rivals. But the perception of him as a man without convictions made him a less than effective delivery system for policy contrasts. The combination of the vitriol of his attacks and his apparent corelessness explained the antipathy the other candidates had towards him. McCain routinely called Romney an ‘asshole’ and a ‘fucking phoney.’ Guiliani opined, ‘that guy will say anything.’ Huckabee complained, ‘I don’t think Romney has a soul.’ (Page 294)
Granted, that was in the heat of the 2008 race, but consider that even then Romney had a huge money and organizational advantage and he ended up succumbing quickly to John McCain — a man who had been considered dead a few months earlier due to a backlash in the GOP base against his stance on immigration reform. McCain had even said “why would I want to lead a party of such assholes” (page 284). But despite intense attacks from Limbaugh, Hannity and Glenn Beck, McCain emerged on top.
Fast forward to 2012. Williard Mittington Romney again has a huge advantage, this time having the GOP establishment in his pocket moreso than in 2008. Yet it seemed as if the Republicans were looking to find anyone else. If there had been a man with the record and character of John McCain in the running, he’d no doubt have managed to overcome Romney. But there wasn’t.
First was Bachmann, but she had no substance. Then came Perry, and he turned out to be embarrassingly unable to hold his own in debates and public grilling — a male Palin, if you will. Then they turned to Gingrich who, despite his numerous faults, was gaining traction and looked set to take down Romney. Romney used his money advantage to go hyper-negative on Gingrich and destroyed him. Gingrich was easy prey, to be sure, but still Romney couldn’t beat him by staying positive. Then last was Santorum who stuck around despite being an improbable candidate who had even lost his Senate seat in an election that wasn’t close. The Republicans had nowhere else to turn. But Santorum was simply too out of touch and weak. Romney emerged on top.
Simply, Romney hasn’t won by being himself or standing for something, he’s won inspite of the fact he can’t connect with voters and neither inspires nor excites. Where he did win in the past — the Governship of Massachusetts — he did so by embracing traditional northeast Republican pragmatism. He was pro-choice, pro-gay rights, and he created a health care program for the state that inspired much of what became Obamacare. That path is gone. However competent he may be for the office, he’s simply not a good candidate. He’s speeches are boring, if he goes off script he sounds out of touch, and as a candidate he seems like a phoney. Hardly anyone believes he meant all of what he said during the primary season.
Republicans try to console themselves with bouts of wishful thinking:
1. It’s a referendum on Obama. Here the thinking is that it doesn’t matter who the GOP candidate is, people are going to vote about the economy and whether or not they’re happy with Obama’s performance. As long as Romney doesn’t implode, he can simply allow all the negative ads to work against Obama and eek out a victory.
The problem with that argument is first that Obama isn’t that unpopular. His job approval rating is about 50%, which is on the low side for an incumbent (much like President Bush in 2004), but his personal approval remains high — Americans generally like their President. While he’s not the rock star he was in 2008, he has a record and has disproven the “he’s a radical left wing extremist” rhetoric the GOP tried to use last time.
Second, the economy is enigmatic. We’re growing, but growing slowly. Jobs are returning, but returning slowly. Obama didn’t fix it yet, but it was the GOP who broke it. The economy really hurts a President when things look pretty good when he takes over and then fall apart on his watch. That’s not the case with Obama. This means that people aren’t simply going to vote one way or another in a knee jerk manner based on the economy, they’re going to consider the candidates.
2. Obama’s lost his luster. Here the thinking is that reality has bitten the young President, whose hair is now turning grey and who no longer arouses hope and the excitement of 2008. As such, he’s vulnerable and weak.
The reason this would make a difference is that it could create an enthusiasm gap — Democrats won’t be as inspired and enthused as in 2008, while the Republicans will be focused on removing him from office. Both look unlikely at this point.
Obama’s speeches are still powerful, and the Republicans have given him some assistance. The extremist agenda and rhetoric of the tea party and the red meat primary campaign have galvanized Democrats. Obama can point to achievements and skewer a “do nothing Congress.” Obama would be in a lot more trouble if the Democrats had kept the House in 2010.
On the other hand, Republican enthusiasm for Romney is weak. Voting turn out in GOP primaries was meager — sometimes in the single digits. It’s not clear what the evangelical base will do in response to Romney’s Mormon faith. At this point the “enthusiasm gap” looks almost certain to favor the President.
It’s early, things can change, but right now Mitt Romney looks to be a very weak candidate. He’s never shown a capacity to connect with voters or inspire. He’s relied on attacks and weak opposition. Obama’s weathered just about every attack one can imagine. His capacity to come out of nowhere to win in 2008 show that no matter what you think of Obama as President, he certainly is a strong candidate.
The Republicans are shooting themselves in the foot in response to an Infographic on the Obama website that demonstrates how Obama’s programs compare with Romney’s in the life of a fictional woman named Julia.
It starts at age three, when she gets to participate in a head start program to help prepare her for Kindergarten. Romney’s plan would cut Head Start by 200,000 spots. The idea behind Head Start is to identify children who might fail to make the grade in school and give them support so they can succeed, this usually involves children in poverty or who have some developmental problems.
Next Julia benefits from quality public education and prepares her SAT. Romney, we are told, wants to cut spending in public education. Julia then goes to college, with her family benefiting from a tax credit and Julia earning a Pell grant. Romney wants to eliminate the tax credit and cut Pell grants. (To be fair, a lot of people qualifying for Pell grants may not benefit from the tax credit.)
At 22 she needs major surgery and luckily has her health care covered. This would not happen if the Republicans repeal Obamacare. Having known students whose educational path was severely rocked by such health problems (some never finished), this is definitely a very real possibility.
She then goes to work and gets a job as a web designer, helped by the Lilly Ledbetter fair pay act. I suspect web designer positions are not those which suffer large gender pay gaps, but OK. She also benefits from lower interest rates on her student loans (Romney, the site says, would have interest rates double). And of course her insurance covers birth control and preventive care. As much as the GOP harps on “religious freedom,” the idea that insurance might cover viagra but not contraception or preventive women’s health makes this a winning issue for the Democrats.
She has good pre-natal care when she has a child. As a web designer she might have good insurance anyway, but a lot of women now don’t get that care, which increases infant mortality and adds to the burden of poverty. Romney would repeal Obamacare, which guarantees such coverage. When she’s 37 her son starts Kindergarten, benefiting from better funded schools than the GOP budget that would supposedly take money away from public education.
When she’s 42 the entrepreneur mom wants to start her own web design business. She qualifies for a small business loan, a program Romney’s budget would supposedly cut by 20%. When she retires she has medicare and full coverage, rather than the voucher the Republicans support, which Obama’s camp says would add over $6000 per year to the cost. In retirement her social security benefits are solid (the GOP, the ad claims, wants to cut them by 40%). The final slide concludes: From cracking down on gender discrimination in health care costs to fighting for equal pay, President Obama is standing up for women throughout their lives.
What’s interesting is how this reflects the dynamic of the campaign.
First, the Obama campaign knows it has an advantage with women and wants to keep it. Gaffes like the Hillary Rosen remark have very short half lives, real policy differences endure. Second, note who Julia is — a web designer who becomes an entrepreneur raising a child. Single, married or divorced? We don’t know, it presumably doesn’t matter. This is an “every woman” kind of life, but Julia is also a hard working business woman – no leeching welfare queen.
The emphasis on health care is also telling. The Obama team hasn’t been talking alot about Obamacare (except to take ownership of the label the Republicans slapped on it), but is trying to subtly send messages that get people to like what it does. Given how bad the US system was in comparison to every other industrialized state, this should be a winning argument for the Democrats if they frame it well.
But where the Republicans show their weakness is the knee jerk response by many on the right. Pundits and even the RNC jumped on it as a “socialistic” narrative of a woman needing the ‘nanny state’ to succeed. This, they claim, is Obama’s vision, success only through big government handouts. Typical is a response from Michelle Malkin: “I will read Life of #Julia to my kids to show them how NOT to live their lives – tethered to Nanny State.”
Really, an enterpreneur mom is ‘tethered to the nanny state?’ But that’s not the point. That kind of response is red meat for the core Republican constituency, it’s the kind of reply you’d make in a GOP primary campaign. People ready to buy that “socialist nanny state” rhetoric have already decided long ago against Obama. That kind of rhetoric helps the Democratic narrative that the Republicans are ‘out of touch ideologues’ so focused on abstract ideology that they forget real people.
Another reaction is to say things like “Julia will have no job in the Obama economy.” OK, it’s hard getting jobs now, though the economic debate is a murky one since Obama inherited an economy in collapse and most people don’t blame him for its condition.
But the GOP could approach it another way. They could say the facts are wrong and otherwise ignore it. There are many claims about what Romney would do that are indirect at best. They come from statements made in the primary campaign (when Romney was trying to prove he was a ‘true’ conservative) supporting things like the Paul Ryan budget, not from actual Romney campaign positions. The point is that much of what Julia gets are things that Romney would not cut.
By calling the programs listed ‘socialist’ or ‘nanny state,’ it makes it sound like Republicans think prenatal care, spending on schools, and small business loans are things the GOP opposes. The GOP response makes it seem like the Republicans oppose any assistance, thereby advancing the Democratic narrative. Again, they seem to have forgotten that the general election has a different audience than primary season.
Finally, if I were in the RNC I’d just ignore this. It’s an infographic on a campaign website. Big deal. The Republicans already have a problem with women’s issues, and the more this gets talked about the less time people spend on issues the Republicans want to talk about. By making it the ‘subject of the day’ and taking it seriously, they elevated Julia’s importance and her efficacy.
The way the RNC and conservative pundits have botched their reaction to this shows a fundamental weakness of the Romney camp in this election cycle. They’re clumsy at messaging and they’re reacting to the Obama campaign rather than guiding the discourse. Or maybe there’s just something about Julia. Maybe she’s just too enthralling to ignore!