Friday, January 27, 2012

The GOP's Bugs Bunny Problem

The GOP’S Bugs Bunny Problem

I have a confession to make.  I’m getting bored with all these debates.

Yes, it’s true, I am a junkie, and I spend an inordinate (and possibly unseemly) amount of time reading every possible scrap of news and opinion.  I get email updates from The Hill, and eagerly await the latest punditry from Larry Sabato.  I revel in gaffes, worry about finger-pointing confrontations, check the polls as if they were returns on a stock portfolio.  I even look at the Iowa Electronic Markets, which runs a Presidential futures exchange.

But, at some point during the second Florida debate, my mind began to wander to Bugs Bunny.  And, while I love Bugs Bunny, that’s not really a good thing for the GOP.

I would vote for Bugs.  He’s smart, he’s resourceful, and he’s verbally and physically agile.  He’s got a sense of humor, but he’s not going to accept abuse (“of course, you realize, this means war!”)

The campaign might be difficult.  I’m not sure he could get on the ballot. Certainly, there would be demands for his long form birth certificate, and an admittedly not completely academic question of what the word “person” meant. There are some who worry about his Brooklyn accent as being too regional, but I think it adds to his authenticity.

I’m assuming Bugs would run as an Independent, which poses challenges for strategists of both parties.  He can be pugnacious when pushed, which might appeal to the neo-con wing of the GOP.  Democrats would also be concerned, because the Right would paint him as a product of Hollywood and a vegetarian, cutting into two critical constituencies.

But, when you compare Buggy’s intellectual prowess and his leadership skills to all the current candidates, I think he poses a real challenge.

Bugs isn’t just clever and resourceful, his foils heighten his appeal.  Daffy Duck is a hyper-competitive and greedy ego-manic.  Yosemite Sam, although strong on the Second Amendment, has some anger management problems that might not show well in a debate.  Elmer Fudd has multiple disabilities; while a hunter, he’s a terrible shot, and he’s conducted a symphony orchestra, and appeared in “What’s Opera Doc” and “Rabbit of Seville”, which calls into question his willingness to end funding for the National Endowment for the Arts.  Elmer did once score a win over Bugs, in 1955’s “Hare Brush” as “Elmer J. Fudd, Millionaire,” but to do so he had to feign madness so as not to get taken to Alcatraz over tax fraud-which may not be a perfect message for this year’s elections.  Finally, mere intellectual firepower may not be enough.  Wile E. Coyote, Super Genius, had his customary bruising failures in 1952’s “Operation; Rabbit” and the Evil Scientist in “Water Water, Everywhere” ends up without Bug’s brain for his robot and with an ether hangover.

All these images came to mind as I watched Newt, Mitt, Rick and Ron go for the early bird special last night.   And I think that’s a problem for the GOP, because the debates are beginning to blend into each other.  All their policy points are well known (Obamacare, bad, tax cuts for the wealthy good, marriage good, gay marriage, bad, etc. etc.)   And we know about all their personal miscues (which pretty much seem to cover all seven of the deadly sins.) 

If substance doesn’t matter, because Rick, Newt’s and Mitt’s substance is so similar, and Ron’s is so out there, all we are left with is the gut reaction we have from these folk on any particular night.  Is Mitt going to be cool and unruffled, or is he going to go after Newt?  Will Newt be clever and erudite, or just a hectoring, overbearing bully?  Just how much does Rick have to scowl and slash to get any attention?  And will Ron’s many moments of brilliance be overshadowed by a trip into the odder alleyways of his mind?

Elmer, Daffy, Yosemite, and Wile E. aren’t just cartoons, they are one-dimensional caricatures of particular human frailties.  You can laugh at them, you can even feel sorry for them, but sooner or later, you know something is going to blow up (sometimes literally) in their face.  That’s what all this overexposure is doing to the remaining GOP candidates-they are becoming cartoon cutouts of themselves. 

Perhaps it was fatigue, and perhaps it was my sister’s (who adores the rabbit) upcoming birthday, but at the conclusion of last night’s festivities, I couldn’t help but thinking of Yosemite Sam in “Ballot Box Bunny” (1950).  Sam is running for mayor of a small town and promises to rid the town of all rabbits.  Bugs, needless to say, takes up the challenge, and runs against him.  Sam and Bugs (without the help of Superpacs) engage in continuous one-upmanship.   They try channeling TR, army ants at a picnic, exploding cigars, and booby-trapped pianos.

As you might have guessed (spoiler alert!) there’s an October Surprise. They both lose to a (real) dark horse who becomes the town’s “New Mare” and Sam mutters to end the cartoon, “I hate that rabbit.”

So, as to the future, the next time there’s a debate, spend a few minutes first on YouTube enjoying some cartoons.   And let your kids watch with you-they will have a blast.

Happy Birthday, Meesh


Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Newt Gingrich, God of Anger

Newt Gingrich, God of Anger

South Carolina has spoken, and selected a Newt to slay the dragon.  Florida’s alligators await.

The toothy, carnivorous beasts aren’t the cute Disney types, not are they kissing cousins to the loveable Lyle The Crocodile, who did circus tricks and ate only Turkish Caviar and lemon ices.

These are serious man-eaters, effete, dissolute, elitist media types, sybarites all.  

But Newt is here.  Newt will carry the banner before him, and with limitless strength and implacable purpose, with a voice like Joshua’s trumpet; he will bring righteousness among men and nations. 

Newt is like Ares, the son of Zeus and Hera, the God of Anger and the God of War, the patron of warriors, of city defenders, of courage and of rage.  His symbols are the spear and magic helmet.  He rides a chariot led by four fire-breathing horses.

There is a powerful undertow to watching Newt work a crowd.  It’s the same sort of pulse Garry Wills described at a George Wallace rally in “Nixon Agonistes.” Newt is more polished than Wallace, more educated, uses more complex sentence structure.  But the effect is the same.  Newt is tapping into the inchoate anger of the discontented. 

The Republican Party is changing.  More and more, it is drawing older voters and blue collar, lower income and less educated ones.  It’s too simplistic to draw blanket conclusions, but these are people more rooted in time and place, more needful of stability and a social order and more resistant to the demographic and cultural changes that are happening around them. And they are angry-angry they’ve been left behind or displaced, angry that their institutions seem to be under attack.  When the attack on that order appears to be coming from the government, they turn that anger there.  In many ways, Mr. Obama is the physical embodiment of a change they cannot abide.  Exit polling in South Carolina indicated that Republican voters didn’t just want to win; they wanted a candidate who would bloody up Obama and knock him out.  They need a vessel for their discontent. 

Mitt isn’t that type of person.  In many respects, he is as much a stranger to them as Obama is.  He’s cool, while Newt is hot.  He’s groomed, while Newt is rumpled.  Mitt is a consultant and a manager at heart, a re-arranger of people and assets.  He adapts to a changing business climate-when the local market asks for health care, or conservation, or personal privacy rights, he provides them, when it demands a different product, he locks the old merchandise in the basement and trots out new wares.  Mitt’s store is always well-lit, bright, and clean, stocked with well dressed, polite employees.

Newt’s place doesn’t waste time with blonde wood and polished glass.  It’s the cracker-barrel store down the block, behind a gate, with a sign that says “Member’s Only.”  It sells interesting tools and magazines, canned goods, guns and ammo.  There’s candy for the kids, and if you know the proprietor, he will let you downstairs to have a sip of some of the good stuff. 

The primary campaign and nearly twenty debates so far have been an extension of this-they reflect the tension between the desire to merely win, and an outgrowth of an anger that goes beyond ritual policy criticism.  In this environment, Pawlenty and Huntsman never had a chance-they were too tempered to break through.  Bachman and Perry channeled the heat, but they brought nothing else to the table and so they failed.  Santorum seems to have enough bile in him, but there’s a sense he’s a bantamweight rooster, more cackle than kick, more scold than avenger.

Mitt can’t summon up the demons; his passion seems synthetic, a strategy rather than a personal quality.  Mitt wants to win, not to offend, and his demeanor and his background is a quiet whisper to socially and temperamentally moderate “elites” and independents that change will be gentle and whatever social engineering he supports to get the nomination won’t apply to them. Mitt’s not sending the “orthodoxy police” to their doors.  Mitt is “soft power” personified.

But Newt has it all-the anger and the lack of discipline, the willingness to cross any and every line because he sees no lines.  His weaknesses are his strengths, his excesses taken as signs of virtue.   He is an Old Testament figure, a conqueror who vanquishes his enemies.  He cleanses the sin with fire and blood and restores the world to a simpler and more virtuous place, where only believers are left.  It is his elemental appeal, that of a warrior in a millennial battle.

Newt or Mitt?  Insurgent, Biblical avenger, or incoming Chairman of the Board?  It some respects, it depends on what America you want to live in. Democracies are messy, and have a habit of rebounding from excesses.  Change needs leadership, but it needs some consensus, or it won’t be accepted and lasting. In effect, that is Mitt’s approach. Newt’s promise, however, is to reject compromise and be transformative-his change will be an irrevocable purging.

The story goes that when Noah stepped from the Ark after the flood, he opened his eyes and saw the devastation, and he cried out to God.  God reproaches him; when He told Noah of the coming destruction, He lingered and delayed, so that Noah would speak on behalf of the world. But when Noah knew he would be safe, the evil of the world did not touch him, and he thought of no one but his family. The passage ends, in effect, by God saying, “and now you complain?”

Newt’s a historian.  I wonder if he read that part?  I wonder if he cares?


Friday, January 20, 2012

Newt Bares His Teeth and Mitt Flashes The Cash

Newt Bares His Teeth and Mitt Flashes The Cash

The Republicans held yet another debate last night, in what is becoming a fascinating black tie version of demolition derby for the principles they hold so dear.

To start with, the moderator, John King asked Newt the inevitable question about his second wife’s accusations that Newt wanted an “open marriage.” King had to ask it, Newt knew it was coming, and like the steroidal (if not to say hormonal) slugger Newt is, he hit it 600 feet.  The crowd went absolutely wild.

Newt’s response seems to be an entirely novel variation of the Twinkie Defense.  He knew (he’s a transformational figure who thinks big thoughts) that one day the liberal media, hoping to re-elect a Democratic President, would try to bring him down by raising infidelity.  So, as a service to the nation, he set a trap for them. He started an affair with his aide while married to his second wife, leaving her bitter and open to leveling wild (and entirely baseless) accusations.  Last night, after decades of preparation, the trap was sprung, and hapless John King fell right into it. 

With the crowd eating out of his hand (moral relativism is a wonderful thing) Newt moved on to bigger game. An aide back at the Gingrich campaign’s nerve center simultaneously posted his tax returns, King announced it, and Newt pivoted from righteous outrage with King, to demand that Mitt release his tax returns.

Watching the color drain from Mitt Romney’s tanned face is something I’m not likely to forget.  Nor is hearing him stammer, as finally, painfully, haltingly, grudgingly he agreed to release his returns after they are prepared (presumably in April, after he’s won the nomination.)  Then, after being goaded by King he (perhaps) agreed to release as many as 12 years.

Wow. My mind immediately leaped to visions of the event itself.  Formal, I would imagine, with a lot of focus on what various GOP luminaries would be wearing on the red carpet.  Prada, Givenchy, adorned by Harry Winston and Van Cleef & Arpels?

And the emcee?  Probably not Jon Stewart.  Definitely not Bill Maher.  Mike Huckabee would be an inspired pick-one part country, one part reverent, but all just plain folk. 

The press might be a problem.  Once you’ve filled the Murdoch wing of the auditorium, do you really want to waste valuable space on the lamestream media?  Especially since Mitt’s returns are going to be treated like the Dead Sea Scrolls-placed in a bombproof, airtight, climate controlled room, with limited access to scholars granted beginning ten years after Mitt leaves office.

And what are they going to show that we don’t already suspect?  Mitt makes a lot of money. Mitt pays a substantially lower tax rate on his earnings than the person who empties his office’s wastebaskets-he told us he paid at a 15% rate.  Mitt probably has a great deal coming in from past business deals, liquidating trusts, Bain payouts, etc.  Mitt uses an offshore tax haven. 

Mitt is rich. He can afford expensive attorneys and tax consultants to minimize his “burden.” His tax returns are going to reflect that.  And I would hazard a guess that they are scrupulously prepared, and disclose all his income, while taking advantage of every legal deduction.  Why should we care at all? 

We shouldn’t begrudge Mitt his wealth.  He earned it.  You may not like some of what Bain did (and express that at the ballot box) but that’s a moral evaluation, not a legal one.  Mitt played by the rules at Bain-the good, and the bad, and for all the angst, the lost jobs, the impaired pensions, that’s just capitalism.  It’s messy and sometimes there are real losers, but Mitt was a winner.

If Mitt files and pays his taxes on time, and if his money was made legally, what’s the problem?  It’s certainly not how much he has or how much he makes.  A considerable number of our Presidents were wealthy, a number were even aristocrats.  Wealth has never and should never be a disqualifier. 

So, why is it that the Republican Establishment is having a fit about Newt and Rick’s focus on Mitt’s tax returns?  Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer, in “The GOP’s Suicide March” doesn’t mince any words. These are the Democratic arguments, Team Obama arguments, and “class warfare” arguments.  Newt and Rick (and Perry before them) shouldn’t be making them. 

Apparently, just as an attack on Bain is an attack on free enterprise, scrutiny of Mitt’s tax returns is an equal apostasy.  Mitt’s returns are going to show, in black and white, just how much preferential treatment the tax code gives certain segments of society.  And in the quiet hallways of the lobbying firms, and the flocked-wallpapered partners’ conference rooms, for the power people who really run the country, this type of attention is not welcome. 

The Democrats have been floundering about (their usual state) trying to frame the debate on spending and taxes as the one percent vs. the ninety-nine percent.  It’s not working.  They haven’t figured out what Newt Gingrich has; that when he (and a lot of other taxpayers) pay 31% and Mitt pays 15%, some people in the electorate might not like that, and they may start talking about it, and asking why.

Mitt Romney’s tax returns are the roadmap for that discussion.  Charles Krauthammer thinks so, and doesn’t want to have it.  Newt Gingrich thinks so, and does.

Shhh.  Let’s hope no one notices.  Who cares what Newt thinks?  He’s a little crazy. 


Friday, January 13, 2012

Mitt's Bain Pain

Mitt’s Bain Pain

New Hampshire is now in the books.  Put it into the fairly big win column for the “Massachusetts Moderate.”

Nice little state; excellent place to visit, green and pleasant, but now it’s time to move on, pack up the SUV, stow away a few trinkets and mail a postcard, and head South before the winter sets in.

What did we learn in New Hampshire?  Well, old rocker Ron Paul still has a rabid fan base. Perry continues to show that Texas beef doesn’t travel well (maybe pack in dry ice before shipping?)  Huntsman is bright, articulate, experienced, handsome, and completely without any chance of getting the nomination.  Santorum’s “Faith and Family” needs a larger congregation. Newt is really, really mad (I’m not sure this is a new revelation.)  And Mitt, on top of running a very effective ground game, is a vulture capitalist who stripped assets from vulnerable companies, threw people out of work, looted their pensions, and had the Sherriff of Nottingham evict them from their modest (but dignified) homes and lives.

Who would have thought that the general election campaign would have started this early? Typical Lib-Dem criticism, running down free enterprise.  Class warfare.  Regrettable, but what can you expect from a foreign-born unbeliever in American Exceptionalism who wants to install European-style socialism and make us eat Brussels’s Sprouts?  For breakfast, with organic skim milk.

Even more diabolically, in a remarkable act of political ventriloquism, those nasty words all appeared to emanate from the mouths of Newt, Rick, and Sarah (Sarah, oh, no, not Sarah!!!) No wonder Stephen King sets his novels in New England; a cold, creepy place of long shadows, colonial-era graveyards, and fading towns filled with closed factories and the odd Kenyan shaman.

There’s a point in most of the horror genre where someone (usually a clever child or astute teen) starts to put the pieces together.  Our appealing hero/heroine shows great presence of mind and pluck, and mobilizes the town to fight off evil.  Since this is story about the GOP, that role is apparently has been taken by the Editorial Board of the Wall Street Journal and Karl Rove, with the financial community serving as the town-folk, which, admittedly, is a little less romantic, but someone has to expose the truth.

The facts are actually pretty straightforward.  Mitt was a principal in Bain Capital.  Bain looked for undervalued assets, bought them, financially restructured them, loaded them with debt, paid itself handsomely, sometimes fixed them up and made them more efficient and profitable, and at other times engaged in “creative destruction” that used the mulch of the deceased to grow something new and more profitable.  Bain was successful and Mitt played an important role in that success. Both made a great deal of money.

Well, as we say here in New York, “it’s a business.”  It’s fair to ask, what type of business?  The economist Saskia Sassen has been critical of the emergence of an “extractive” economy in the US, where a few people control large assets and liquidate them without providing collateral benefits to the community.  At least some of what Bain did is exactly that.  They found an undervalued asset and extracted as much out of it as they could before liquidation. 

But our economy is productive when we do more than extract-it’s productive when we add value.  You can add value by inventing and selling an iPhone, you can add value by digging it out of the ground and selling it, and you can add value by rearranging the relationships of assets and people and capital.  It’s simply a question of what the collateral effects are.  Mitt famously said corporations are people, but, in truth, corporations have no immortal soul-they exist to make profits, and to the extent those profits benefit the communities they do business in is collateral to their existence.  Also collateral is the negative impact of plant closings and insolvent pensions.

So, are Newt, Rick and Sarah right?  Is Mitt a vulture, preying on the carcasses of weak companies and, having engorged himself, leaving their bleached bones by the side of the road?  Or, is that characterization what Mitt calls “the politics of envy.”

The answer is not relevant as it relates to the efficacy of a business model.  But it is relevant to the politics of 2012, and has real repercussions for the country afterwards.  What would a Romney Presidency look like?

The conservative columnist David Brooks sometimes talks about “communitarian conservatism” one that is not just reflective of conservative social and economic values, but also contains a moral and economic safety net rooted in community.  The community enforces a code of behavior, but also supports and protects.

That is not what Bain did, and it’s not Bain’s job to do it.  But Bain isn’t running for President, Mitt is.  And Mitt, for all his talk about his fealty to conservative values and his love of Ronald Reagan, is basing his candidacy on his private sector experience and managerial skills.  It’s institutions, and not people, that are his strong point. Ironically, for all the flag-waving, he’s exactly the type of person who would fit well with the EU’s technocratic leadership.

Which leaves us with an uncomfortable question, and one having very little to do with the “politics of envy.”  We aren’t picking a CEO; we are picking a President.  If Mitt’s our man, are we getting a “communitarian conservative” or one who is detached from ordinary people-the same ordinary people most likely to be the collateral damage of “creative destruction.” 

Since none of us (except maybe Mitt) know the answer to that question, I guess we head off to South Carolina, where the climate is balmy, the Palmetto Bugs large, and the politics often scorching hot.


Friday, January 6, 2012

Iowa Dreams and New Hampshire Nightmares

Iowa Dreams and New Hampshire Nightmares

The Romney Express was rounding the bend and roaring towards the Iowa Caucuses.  Along the way it's kissed babies, worn shirt sleeves like regular folk, talked traditional social values, trampled over the barrage balloon that was formerly Newt Gingrich, thrown a little napalm at the increasingly fringe Ron Paul, and begun to settle in like a gourmand in anticipation of a catered all-you-can eat buffet. 

It’s all so weird.  It’s a little like going to your boss’s very nice house, joining others on his very nice tennis courts for a non-competitive and perhaps alcohol-enhanced set or two, watch the great man come out dressed in perfect whites, casually volleying with his guests, and winning every game, his strokes coming with metronomic perfectness, each slightly harder than absolutely necessary for a friendly match. 

He’s got good hair, a good handshake and a good chin.  But he’s a little cold, a little scary, a little businesslike. You admire his savvy but you aren’t sure you want to have a beer with him.  Iowa was the contract he wasn’t going to win; he wasn’t even going to bid on it, but there he is, snatching it up and stowing it away in his wallet. 

I wonder if Iowa wasn’t a tactical mistake by Romney-if he exposed himself more than he needed to. Bachmann is gone, pushed out by her own mistakes, lack of organization and emerging irrelevance.  Perry, who was probably the most legitimate threat, is now taking a step back, pinning his hopes for a revival on the friendly confines of South Carolina, where love of the military and a nearly 200 year-old fixation on nullification of laws they don’t agree with make it prime hunting ground for the man from Texas.  Newt is wounded, and has the look of a loser.  Huntsman seems to morphing into Woody Allen in “Sleeper”-his candidacy doesn’t seem to be of this time and place.  Ron Paul continues to be Ron Paul-he’s the scaly patch of eczema on the GOP’s elbow; annoying, continuously around, unsightly, but not necessarily dangerous, even if untreated.

But Mitt’s not quite there yet.  He’s going to do quite well in New Hampshire, but that’s expected, so it’s hard to say whether that gives him a real boost.  Gingrich is angry, and while his chance of getting the nomination is now nil, he’s got enough polling support to stay in the debates and wait in the tall grass to knife Mitt around the ankles.  And there are other hints of frost in the air.  Later this month in Texas, a gathering of social conservatives, including people like Tony Perkins of the influential Family Research Council, are going to conclave to consider alternatives.  Mitt, for all his business acumen, his steely-eyed competitiveness, hasn’t closed the sale with those folk.  I’m betting he never will.  If absolutely necessary, they will buy a ticket on Romney’s train in order to beat Obama.  But they aren’t going to enjoy the ride.

Could they turn to Santorum?  Well, in the last couple of days, several conservative columnists, Charles Krauthammer, Mark Gerson, and David Brooks, among them, have spoken admiringly of him.  But Santorum is underfunded and under-organized (for now) and lost his last election by 18 points.  He has a history that is open to criticism; he monetized his job while inside the Senate, and then had a very soft and lucrative landing into the arms of friendly contributors and supporters.  Still, none of that is going to matter if the machine decides to back him.  But these are not stupid people, and they have no desire to back a loser.  Santorum has to demonstrate he can win, and for that he has to survive the vetting, the spotlight, and catch the imagination for more than fifteen minutes, and none of those are a given. 

There are no such things as perfect candidates.  Everyone has a past that can be deconstructed and distorted.  It’s just another tool in the toolbox, now amplified by Superpacs.  Newt was the perfect target.  But negative ads aren’t always effective, particularly against a certain type of politician, regardless of their positions.

And, maybe, therein lies a problem for both Mitt and Rick.  It’s their personalities.  Both have one thing in common-their passion is limited to their personal interests.  They lack a joyous component that some of the best candidates have that insulates from the worst that others can throw.  Reagan had sunshine, Clinton enormous charisma.  But if Mitt is the local bank President who would turn you down for a loan, Rick owns the dry-cleaner and is head of the School Board-he’s the one responsible for keeping your 13 year old from reading Catcher In The Rye.  In a word, both are what my grandparents would have called “farbissen” -a little cold, a little sullen, a little remote.

Will New Hampshire notice?  It’s grey, and flinty, and tough.  Maybe it doesn’t care about warm and fuzzy? Too early to tell, but the early returns aren’t promising.   College students booed Santorum when he compared same sex marriage to polygamy.  And Romney trucked in John McCain for a macabre dog and pony show endorsement.

Times are tough, and the country is angry and searching for answers.  Does “farbissen” sell?  I guess we are going to find out.