Archive for May, 2012

A Good Election for France and the EU

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?

The Greeks suspect that the severe cost of “austerity alone” simply means they’re paying to protect the big banks.

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.

David Cameron ponders “what next” after his budget cutting helped push Great Britain into a double dip recession

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.

Celebrating Hollande’s victory

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.

Hollande was not Merkel’s choice, but they will be forced to work together

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.

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Why Romney Will Lose

MItt Romney has spent more money, made more attacks, and has inspired less excitement and enthusiasm than any candidate of recent history

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)

and

“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)

Romney was not well liked by Huckabee, Guiliani, and McCain!

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.

Unenthused

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.

Obama’s 2012 campaign ‘take off’ rallies were enthusiastic and large

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.

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There’s Something About Julia

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 GOP just can’t help but obsess on Julia

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!

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Obama Not so Different After All

GOP annoyance that President Obama uses the raid that killed Osama to defend his record is driven by the fact that this action undercuts some of their core arguments against Obama as President.

To many in the Republican party, the election of Barack Hussein Obama to the Presidency was a shocker.  It wasn’t just his race, though that clearly added to the “different” factor.  It was his background and the fact that he had a very different heritage and image than any other American President.   Ever.

This opened the door to fantasy.   Maybe he wasn’t a real American – hence the birthers.  Others were convinced that he was an anti-American anti-colonialist at the core (Newt Gingrich played that card recently), bent on destroying America from within.   Still others thought he was a radical leftist, more socialist than liberal, bent on leading the country into some kind of massive wealth redistribution plan.   He would be soft on foreign policy because his heart won’t be into defending America.    Perhaps very telling early on was the claim that he was “apologizing” for America — even though when pressed, not one instance of an apology could be found.

Four years later it’s hard for some Republicans to give up the convenient “Obama as radical/strange” image that spurred them to mobilize for the 2010 off year elections.   But President Obama has a four year record, and it’s nothing like those scary images of Obama as some Manchurian candidate with a nefarious hidden agenda.   In fact, if you have to run on “he’s been faking it for four years his real plans will come out after re-election,” you’ve lost.

That doesn’t mean that that Mitt Romney doesn’t have a case to make for himself, or against Obama.   Every election is about an exchange of ideas and discussion of plans.  There should be disagreements and debates.   It’s just that they need to let go of the image of Obama as somehow strange, different or dangerous.   That’s been utterly disproven.  Obama has a record.

Republicans will chaffe at some of the claims made in this Obama video, but clearly the President’s team wants to run on his record, arguing that he’s accomplished a lot despite the GOP being the “party of no,” obstructing action.   The most damning clip is that of Senate Minority Leader McConnell saying the biggest priority for the Republicans is to prevent the re-election of President Obama.   That’s always a priority for an opposition party, but one would hope the biggest priority would be to fix the economy and move the country in a positive direction, working with the President if possible.

A deeper issue isn’t only that many conservatives over reacted fearfully to a man that appeared different, but that Obama is the future.   Not him personally, but what he represents.      Even if Romney were to pull off an upset and unseat Obama, the 21st Century is going to see a country more open on social issues and with white Europeans becoming less prominent.  Right now these demographic changes help the Democrats because the GOP has embraced fear.

Fear of Obama has led to over the top accusations that make the Democrats look moderate by comparison.  Fear of immigration and demographic change — the idea that America is somehow being “lost” — have led the GOP to reject President Bush and Senator McCain’s vision of sustainable immigration reform and become seen as anti-immigrant.  And though Romney may have trouble walking back the anti-immigration bravado he displayed during the primary campaign, future Republicans will no doubt switch directions.    A cadre of the GOP is lingering in the 20th Century and holding their party back.

The Democrats have their 20th Century ghosts to banish as well.   An emphasis on special interest groups, big government solutions to problems and rejection of any entitlement reform ultimately will hold them back.    Obama’s pragmatic approach has kept those forces at bay, at least for now.   Still, many on the left attack Obama precisely because he’s not different in the way they hoped he’d be.   Many liberal activists hoped he’d bring radical change and the very things the right feared; he has not.

This means that contrary to the perception that might arise in the media — especially on the more sensationalist websites like Drudgereport or The Huffington Post, this election is at base a rather boring contest between a moderate Republican and a moderate Democrat.   If Obama wins a second term, don’t expect major changes in policy.   Not only will he be unlikely to have a Democratic Congress, but second terms are usually for consolidating changes made in the first term, not bold initiatives.   If Romney wins there will be symbolic attempts to change things like health care reform, but the changes of the last four years will likely prove resilient.    Democrats will probably stay in control of the Senate, but would have filibuster power on big issues in any event.

While it is distressing to see the nastiness flow or watch the waves of attack ads, often from nefarious groups supposedly outside the control of the campaigns, there is something heartening to the fact that there really isn’t much to fear about either candidate winning.   In fact, an Obama win might push the GOP to more quickly embracing changes that can make it competitive for the long term.

President Obama on the left and former President Bush on the right pose with Roman soldiers to demonstrate 'panem et circenses'

The Romans said that politics was “bread and circuses – panem et circenses.”  The circuses may now be rowdy, and there does seem to be a dsyfunction in our political discourse.   These are serious.    But the fact we have two competent moderate candidates leading their parties into the election is a sign that the American political system can work through these issues.

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