Archive for category Paul Ryan

Joe Biden: My Political Hero

Ask me any time since 1984 which politician I admire and trust the most, my answer would be consistent:  Joe Biden.    I supported his run for the Presidency in 2008 and was delighted when Barack Obama chose him to be his running mate.

Part of the reason I’m a Biden fan is personal.  In the mid-eighties I worked as a legislative aide to Senator Larry Pressler (R-SD).   Joe Biden’s office on the top floor of the Russell Senate office building was just around the corner from where I worked, and over the course of those two years I had a number of conversations with Biden.   No, we weren’t buddies — the conversations all took place in the elevator.

The first one involved tacos.  I had gone down to the staff cafeteria where they had “make your own tacos” and built a couple very impressive tacos to eat at my desk.  Biden got in the elevator and looked at the tacos wide eyed.  “Wow,” he said, “those are amazing tacos, where did you get them?”   When I told him he lamented about how stuffy the Senate Dining Room was.   I think every time he saw me after that he called me the “taco guy.”

Our conversations were superficial.   When he found out I was working on my MA at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (now the Nitze School) he mentioned that it was an excellent institution.   But most of the time the banter was what you’d expect from people who work in the same building and see each other rarely and only on the elevator — pretty insubstantial.

That itself was impressive, however.   The Senator on the other side was John Warner of Virginia.   He’d stand aloof in the elevator and not make eye contact, puffing his Virginia cigar while standing in front of the “Do Not Smoke in the Elevator” sign.  I did get to see Warner’s ex-wife, Elizabeth Taylor.   I was walking down the hall and saw a woman walking the other way.   She looked down but as she passed glanced up at me.  I smiled and nodded a hello, she smiled back — once I saw her eyes I knew it was her (and the papers confirmed she had visited her ex-husband on the hill that day).

Yet the reason I admire Biden is because he is honest, genuine, intelligent and has never lost his connection to average folk.   He personifies the traits most people want in a leader.

Biden is on the far right, sitting with his siblings Valerie and Jimmy

Biden’s biography is well known.   He grew up as a member of the working class poor, his father struggling to make ends meet, first in Scranton, PA and then Wilmington, DE.   His father finally became a reasonably successful used car salesman and the family moved to the middle class.    A stutterer as a child, he practiced in front of the mirror to become a successful speaker.   He worked his way through law school, avoiding service in Vietnam, yet not protesting the war.

He had married Neilia Hunter in 1966, and his son Beau was born in 1969.   In 1972 everything changed.   Republican Senator J. Caleb Boggs was considering retirement, but President Nixon convinced him to run one more time.   No prominent Democrat in Delaware wanted to take on Boggs, so Biden stepped in.   He had little money or formal support, and ran on a platform of opposition to the Vietnam war and being an outsider who would bring change to Washington.

At age 29 he was elected to the US Senate, but a month later just after his 30th birthday tragedy struck

Delaware is a small state.  Biden’s youthful energy and exuberance found him campaigning everywhere, all the time.   In a shocker, Biden outsted Boggs on November 7, 1972 by just over 3000 votes.   At age  30 Biden had become one of the youngest Senators in history.

The next month tragedy struck.    His wife and one year old daughter were killed in an automobile accident, with his sons Beau and Hunter critically injured.   Biden’s world fell apart.   He considered resigning, but was convinced to stay on.   To care for his young sons he started commuting via Amtrak everyday to DC, but lacked passion and focus.    He was angry and doubted his religious faith; he had hit bottom.   His staff didn’t think he’d be able to keep up — being so successful so young, he now didn’t know where to turn.

Neilia and Joe Biden with their two sons

But he had two boys to care for.   So he trudged on.   In 1975 he met Jill Jacobs and married her in 1977.   They had one daughter together, and he threw himself into his work as a US Senator, becoming known for his expertise in both legal issues and foreign relations.   He almost died in 1988 due to an aneurysm that doctors successfully treated.

Biden has consistently been ranked as one of the least wealthy Senators, with a net worth of about $300,000.    That itself says a lot.   Some go to Washington to make connections and build their fortune, Biden focused on public service.    The only scandal he was involved in came when he ran for President in 1988 and one of his speech writers borrowed language from Neil Kinnock of the British Labor party.   When that came out, people dug and found that he had been accused of plagiarism in his first year of law school.   That hurt his Presidential bid, but otherwise in forty years he’s had a squeaky clean record.

One  reason I’ve always admired Biden is that he connects with people.  He understands the human side of politics.  It shows in the way he’d talk to a young Senate staffer on the elevator, his famous friendships with Amtrak employees during his years of commuting to DC, and his focus on policies to help average folk.   His reputation as a foreign policy expert is immense — if he had not been Vice President, he’d probably have become Secretary of State.

He is an honest, hard working man who understands how policies affect real people in a city full of corrupt lazy and vain people who think in terms of abstract power games.   His famous gaffes are a mark that he is genuine.  He says what he thinks, he doesn’t force himself to stick to a politically correct script.

While Republicans praise Ryan’s intellect, Biden brings both intellect and four decades of experience into tonight’s debate

Tonight Vice President Biden takes the stage in what may be his last big political campaign event, debating Wisconsin Senator Paul Ryan.   Ryan is smart in an abstract sort of way, and perhaps has the capacity to become a superb all around political leader.   But he’s no Joe Biden.

Yes, I support Obama over Romney, so for that reason alone I would want Biden to do well tonight.   Yet I also hope that Biden does a superb job to cap what is likely the final campaign of a man whose intelligence, integrity and character is admired by even his political opponents.



Convention Fiasco

The balloons fell and the faithful cheered, but never has a convention shown so little about a candidate would govern

It wasn’t as bad as the Democratic Convention of 1972 which saw George McGovern give his acceptance speech at 2:00 AM, but given how conventions have become well planned and choreographed propaganda events for each party, I was shocked by how bad the GOP convention was.

Symbolic of the fiasco that blew Mitt Romney’s best chance to introduce himself anew to the American people was Clint Eastwood’s bizarre, rambling speech given at the height of prime time when everyone was tuning in.    This prime time slot is precious, and anyone planning the evening should know pretty much how every minute will unfold – nothing should be a surprise.

Now, the idea of having Clint Eastwood address the convention at this time is questionable in and of itself.   Eastwood’s appeal is mainly to older white males, a demographic already pretty much in Romney’s camp.   When an old, rich white guy says to a stadium of Republicans “we own this country,” it’s got to cause discomfort.    Some thought this move would be powerful because Eastwood had been in the GM super bowl commercial many thought friendly to Obama.     But that’s only something political junkies notice.    Eastwood earlier in the evening perhaps, but not at the height of prime time.

Curiosity turned to pity as Eastwood rambled his way, flubbed some jokes, and sometimes strayed way off message

But its political malpractice to put him out there without a script!  He was off message about Afghanistan, his discussion of Guantanamo Bay had no real point.     His manner was, well, doddering.   At times he verged on incoherence, with jokes that veered from lame to borderline offensive.    It was a train wreck.    Whoever thought it was a good idea to put him out there to try a bit of comedy without a pre-approved script and rehearsal should be fired.

Luckily for the GOP Marco Rubio gave a compelling speech, though aimed more at the base than independents

Marco Rubio, despite taking a sip of Clint’s water, helped reclaim the momentum with a very well delivered, compelling speech.   It was, in fact, the best speech of the convention (at least that was covered in prime time) and it set Rubio up for 2016 much like Obama’s 2004 Democratic keynote set him up for his 2008 run.   Rubio can still be criticized.   While he did have the most effective criticism of Obama, for a nomination speech he could have talked more about Romney’s accomplishments and vision.   But vague seemed to be the theme of the convention.

The fiasco started on the first night.   Ann Romney gave a decent speech trying a bit too hard to claim that she and Mitt were “just like any other family with problems.”     Yeah, but you also had a lot of money — that helps!   Still, she gave a good “first lady like” speech.   Then Chris Christie’s keynote, designed to make him the 2016 favorite (or for optimistic Republicans, 2020), was a belly flop.   Given Christie’s belly, that’s gotta hurt!

Chris Christie’s speech seemed more about himself than this election

Christie did launch some good hits on Obama, but otherwise failed to give an overall vision of what was different about Mitt Romney’s Republican party.    Much of what he said could have been said in 2004 about what Republicans stand for. Given that Romney’s chances to beat Obama are best if he stakes out new territory for the GOP – we’re not going to repeat the mistakes that created the collapse in 2008 – it isn’t that effective.   Moreover there was again little talk about Romney, and lots of red meat for the audience.   Conventions should motivate the true believers, but prime time is also when you have to reach out to the undecideds.

So what about Romney and Ryan?   Paul Ryan gave a moderately good speech, though not as powerful as Palin’s 2008 effort.   He inspired the base, but the discussion the next day was mostly about fact checkers and Republican claims that they don’t want to be limited by fact checkers.   The trouble with that is that it sounds like they’re saying they don’t want to be limited by facts.   Given that Ryan’s appeal has been that he is smart and honest, his foray into rhetoric stretches (to be favorable — others would say lies) damages his brand.    It also was formulaic and again seemed aimed more at the base than independents.

Mitt’s big chance squandered

The big disappointment, however, was Mitt Romney’s much anticipated effort to re-introduce himself to the voting public.  First of all, he delivery was poor.   He spoke too fast, swallowed some syllables, and his intonation was robotic and nervous.  He’s no Ronald Reagan obviously.   But of all the prime time speeches, his delivery was the least effective and engaging.   Clearly, Romney is who is his, he was never about to become a silver tongued orator.   But he’s good enough that he should have been able to have precise intonations, speak slower and with purpose, and try to connect.  It felt like he was simply trying to get through it.   He didn’t connect.

His content was vague —  again, a theme of the convention.   He launched attacks on Obama, but the attacks were generic. Any President in power during a global economic crisis could have been hit with the same charges.   Unemployment is high, are you better off than you were four years ago, he’s not done enough, etc.   He mentioned health care only twice, and vaguely – ‘we will repeal and replace Obamacare’.   OK, how?   He hardly mentioned foreign policy, and when he did it was vague, or in code.

For instance, there was an open mike incident over a year ago when President Obama told then Russian President Medvedev that he’d have more flexibility after the election.   Romney last night said (I’m paraphrasing)  that unlike being flexible with President Putin after the election he’d be tough from the start.   First, open mike incidents are only really noticed by political junkies, that reference went way over most peoples’ heads.  Second, what exactly does he mean?   Is Russia our enemy now?

He didn’t mention Afghanistan and his promise for a tough foreign policy was reminiscent of the kind of talk we used to hear from Vice President Cheney — though to his credit, Cheney tended to give details.    Romney finally got to his five point plan, but…it wasn’t a plan.   It was a list of promises – create new jobs, become energy independent, etc.   No plan, no policies, no hint of what he’d actually do, just a promise that he’d fix things.     His conclusion was a tad surreal:  “President Obama promised to slow the rise of the oceans and to heal the planet. My promise is to help you and your family.”

He said that with a mocking tone.   That sounds good to the base, but it seemed an odd way to try to seal the deal with independents — mock concern about global warming and claim concern about our families.  Huh?

The vague content, poor delivery, and general weakness of most of the rest of the speakers means that the GOP squandered its opportunity to define a new Republican party, one ready to avoid the mistakes of the Bush era and instead prepared to implement an effective pragmatic economic policy to do the job Obama failed to accomplish.

Romney still has the debates, and hundreds of millions of dollars to spend on the campaign.   Given the state of the economy the convention woes aren’t fatal to his candidacy.   However, given what was at stake, it must be worrisome for Republicans just how poorly team Romney planned and executed this convention.

UPDATE:  In judging from other critiques of the convention I may have seen it with a bit too much bias.   No one gives it glowing reviews, but most seem to think Romney did good enough.   In trying to judge political efficacy one is always biased to think others see something in the same way oneself does – the art of political analysis is to try to recognize it and adapt.


Team Obama: Ruthless

Romney pleads for Obama to talk only about the issues, not about his taxes or business record

Democrats remember Michael Dukakis complaining about the Willie Horton ads, or John Kerry indignant about the swift boaters.  Each called out the other campaign for going too far, and each pleaded for more civility.   The result: Dukakis and Kerry were both seen as weak and whiney.   The attacks against them, whether fair or not, worked.

The Democrats learned the lesson.   In politics you do not want to be the one whining about the tactics the other side uses, you want to be the one using those tactics.   When the other side hits you unfairly, you don’t just complain, you punch back.

Unfair and a tad racist, the Horton ad was effective against Michael Dukakis.   Horton received weekend passes from prison and committed rape/murder while out.

Take the recent flap about President Obama supposedly saying “you didn’t do that” about successful business owners.   Romney’s team jumped on that with a vengeance, snipping the sound bite to change the President’s meaning.   A lesser President might go out and say “they’re being unfair, they’re taking my words out of context.”   Instead, Obama and his campaign let pundits analyze.   They also hit back with ads attacking Romney’s tax plan and philosophy of government.

Mitt Romney, on the other hand, is clearly rattled by the constant pressure to release his taxes and explain the tactics used by Bain Capital when he was at the helm.   He doesn’t want to talk about those things, he wants to talk about the economy.   More specifically, he wants to talk about how Obama hasn’t fixed the economy, and how he should be given a shot given his pragmatic business experience.

But his record?   His personal affairs?   Off limits.   The election should be about whether or not we’re satisfied with President Obama.   He went public to say he wants a truce, he wants only talk about the issues, not about personal affairs, his business career or his taxes.   Romney entered Dukakis territory, whining that the other campaign was being too personal.

Romney has been Mr. Cellophane so far – if he is to have a chance, he has to step up his personal game and become a better candidate.

What Team Obama realizes — just as Atwater did for George H.W. Bush back in 1988 — is that Americans don’t elect a list of policy positions.   Americans elect a man (or hopefully someday soon a woman) to lead the country.   They will vote for someone whose positions they don’t agree with if they trust the leader.   In 1984 poll after poll showed that Americans sided with Walter Mondale on the issues.    Yet Ronald Reagan won in a landslide.    Romney pleading to be left alone feeds into the “wimp” meme and creates that sense that he is secretive and probably disingenuous.

Lest one feel any sympathy for Romney, he was equally ruthless in dispensing with Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry and Herman Cain in the GOP primaries.   He spent massive amounts of money on extremely negative campaigns to demolish his opposition.   When they whined (or in the case of Gingrich, screeched and howled), Romney and his team showed no remorse.   This is hardball politics.

Romney unloaded without mercy on the GOP field in the primary — he can dish it out, but can he take it?

That’s what makes their incompetence in handling team Obama so far all the more hard to fathom.    They are no less ruthless than Obama — indeed, their attacks and rhetoric against the President are just as intense.

Having mowed over a weak set of Republican opponents, they bought their own wishful thinking that Obama would be easy to defeat due to the economy.    Just as they defined Gingrich and Perry in the primaries, they sent media surrogates out to talk about how “desperate” Obama was and how his Presidency was failing.   The Washington Times led this effort to emasculate Obama, with Joseph Curl winning the award for “most over the top” propagandizing.  This image of Obama as a weak failure was to be contrasted with the successful and trustworthy Mitt Romney:  He can fix what Obama could not.

Although a decorated war hero, the GOP used “swift boat” attacks (later proven false) to question Kerry’s character — he was defined early and never recovered

On paper it sounds good – assuming Obama would be like Gingrich and Perry, unable to mount a strong counter offensive.    But not only could Obama hit back with Bain and tax attacks (which Romney should have expected) but the Supreme Court health care ruling undercut the GOP claim that Obama had pushed an unconstitutional plan on America.  He looked strong, like a winner.

On top of that, Romney had hoped to stay vague.  Yet every time he veered a bit to the center the right wing was on his case.    He became trapped by his base, unable to stray far from his primary red meat rhetoric.    This allowed a dual narrative to emerge – Romney is a dangerous elitist who cares for the rich more than the middle class and would embrace a radical right wing agenda…OR…Romney is a flip flopper who will change positions if it helps him win.   Either narrative is unflattering.

The only way for Romney to overcome that is to become a strong candidate.   He has to go out and convince the American people he’s sincere, principled and trustworthy.   But gaffe after gaffe, talks where he sounds robotic and out of touch, and a thin skin when criticized, make him seem small and even whiney.   Again, Romney joins his fellow former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis in that territory.     If the economy was purring nicely Obama would be in a commanding lead.   As it is, a weak economy keeps Romney in the race.

Can he overcome these problems?    Picking Paul Ryan was probably the best Veep move he could have made, but it alone won’t change the campaign.   If Romney is to have a chance his campaign team needs to completely retool their strategy and show that they are ready for the big leagues.   They have time to do this, and Team Obama could still stumble.  Most importantly, Mitt Romney has to find a way to connect with the American people.   He needs to convince the public that he has what it takes to lead.    He can’t hide behind advertising and vanilla bland rhetoric.   He can’t count on votes simply going against Obama.   He has to become a stronger candidate.

Can he?   I don’t know.  Dukakis and Kerry couldn’t turn things around after they looked weak early in the campaign.   Early mistakes are hard to overcome (Dean’s scream, or way back to Muskie’s tears, looking even at primary season).    And ultimately a person can’t become something he is not; Romney just isn’t a natural politician.   So my guess is he can’t – Team Obama is just too good at campaigning, and Romney isn’t charismatic or especially engaging.

But it’s a campaign – and in campaigns anything can happen.


Romney-Ryan – RYN

Romney – Ryan, the GOP ticket

Ever hear the theory that books are magic?   If you ask a question and have faith that you are guided, supposedly you can open a book to any page and it will have an answer for you (albeit one you need to interpret, especially if the book is about something very different than the question).

Being a good Political Scientist I decided to test the theory.   While sitting atop my porcelain reading chair I grabbed Bill Bryson’s “Notes from a Big Country,” which happened to be in the little reading basket next to the reading chair.    “OK,” I said to the book and the spirits at large, “guide me, tell me, who will win the Presidential election, will Obama get re-elected?”   I thought about the question, put my faith in the universe and opened the book.

Right away, I saw a big “O” standing alone on the sixth line.   How many solitary O’s are in the book?   The page number was 200 — second term.   Then on the first two lines he describes calling the social security office and having the phone answered after 270 rings.   Get that – 270 is the number of electoral votes needed, and Paul Ryan’s views on social security are likely to be driving Obama to victory.

Well, who can argue with a book that opens itself to a page so obviously predicting an Obama victory?   At this point I can stop following the horse race, rest assured that the spirits of the netherworld have given me inside knowledge on the result, and focus on other things.

Page 200 of Bill Bryson’s “Notes from a Big Country” was where I turned after asking the universe if Obama would be re-elected.  By the way, though slightly dated its also a fun read.

Seriously though, here are my initial reactions.     One caution — in 2008 after McCain chose Palin I wrote a post gushing about how she was a smart choice, published August 30.   At that time I knew about as much about her as John McCain did when he chose her.    A couple days later on September 2 I labeled her a dumb pick.  Initial reactions can be wrong.

1.   Romney’s campaign is in trouble.   Rasmussen daily tracking notwithstanding, most non-partisan polls show Obama with a clear lead, both overall and in the swing states.   Romney’s strategy to try to make the election a referendum on Obama failed; by defining Romney through attacks concerning taxes and Bain, Obama has made the election a choice. Romney is ditching his original strategy.

2.  Romney’s campaign is in BIG trouble.    Choosing Ryan is not just a rejection of his old strategy, but an embrace of a dangerous new approach.    Ryan’s budget is full of political vulnerabilities — the Obama team already was going to try to hitch Romney to that budget, now it’ll be easier.

That is red meat stuff to conservatives, but until now the Romney camp figured conservatives would vote for him because, well, what choice do they have?   Independents and swing voters would be the target, and the plan was to take out the Etch a Sketch and paint a centrist, pragmatic picture.   They would make it vague enough not to piss off the base, but credible enough to convince those not happy with the direction the country was going.

That meshed with the rest of their original strategy – attack Obama, and then make Romney seem like a credible, safe, alternative with knowledge of economics.    In dumping that first strategy they’ve also chosen to make this a campaign about ideas and ideology, something Romney has been loathe to do up until now.

Democrats may be celebrating too early – the dynamics of Romney’s pick are unclear

3.   Romney won’t be releasing his taxes.   This isn’t a surprise, but think of what this means.   Given how the Bain and tax issues have hurt Romney, the only reason NOT to release his tax returns is if he felt they’d be deadly to his campaign.   Perhaps Harry Reid is right (after all, Romney’s denials are always ‘I paid a lot of taxes’ not ‘I paid a lot of federal income taxes’).   Perhaps there are nefarious things involving off shore accounts that would damage him.    In any event, he needs a major change of focus, and the only way to do that is to offer the Democrats a more lucrative target — ‘don’t go after me on taxes, go after Ryan’s budget.’   At least they can respond on that – the tax issue leaves them flat footed.

4.  Romney needs a game change, not just help in Ohio or Virginia.    If he thought it were close and he needed one of those states to improve his odds, he’d have safer picks with Portman or McDonnell.    Ryan is a high risk/high reward type pick.   Romney needs to change the conversation and the tone of the campaign.

5.   Team Obama will try to link the two at the hip – Romney and Ryan represent the same values.   That’s why I have RYN there, taking the letters common to their last names.     This will be meant to diminish Romney (have him either overshadowed by or on a par with his young VP pick) and link Ryan’s very controversial budget and medicare positions to Romney’s campaign.

Will it work?   Was this a smart pick?   My first instinct is yes, it was a smart pick.   Romney’s campaign has been a fiasco so far, his assumptions about what it would take to beat Obama have proven false — and team Obama has been ruthless and effective against him.     This gives the country a real debate about the future and how to respond to the economic crisis.   Rather than a vague “he had his chance, now give me mine,” the Romney campaign will defend their vision.

This will definitely NOT be a Palin like disaster.   Ryan is already tested; he was at the President’s health care round table, he’s defended his budget and he’s been on stage at the national level, impressive and at ease.   There is no chance he’ll bomb like Palin did — Romney isn’t impulsive like McCain, he thought through this choice.   This adds youth and energy to the ticket.

On the other hand, Ryan’s a big target, and Team Obama isn’t about to change the conversation just because Ryan’s there.   I suspect, however, it won’t make much of a difference.   Intrade still has Obama’s chances at 59%, and usually the choice for number 2 doesn’t alter the fundamental dynamics of the race.   While Palin was a negative pull on McCain, it’s hard to remember when a VP choice really made a difference in a positive direction.   One reason this could be different is because it’s more than a change in personnel, it’s a change in strategy.   The campaign just got more interesting.

So, we have our tickets:  Obama-Biden vs. Romney-Ryan.