Thursday, November 8, 2012

Cancel The Trip To Canda: The Butterfly Effect

Cancel The Trip To Canada Part I: The Butterfly Effect

In case anyone took the last several days off for that annual Pismo Beach Beer, Brat and Origami Festival you couldn’t miss, it is my duty to share with you we have (finally) had an election.

Habemus Praeses.  Wolf Blitzer appeared on the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, the white smoke appeared from beneath his beard, and we have a President.  

I happen to be one of those people who can be extremely skeptical when things look too good.  On Election Night, Romney was refusing to concede.  I imagined his people were on the phone to Rick Scott in Florida and Jon Husted in Ohio telling them to launch the embedded software codes and so I took a stroll to clear my mind.  As if by some unseen hand, I found myself on East 67th Street, in front of Fox Studios.  As I approached, I saw the flags being lowered to half-mast. 

So, it was over, and a great nation had once again roused itself, marched to the polls, and exercised its unique franchise in a way that confounded many experts.  The skinny but tough guy with the big ears had been reelected.

Since there is an enormous amount to talk about and a lot of information still coming in (such as the fate of Florida, which, to no one’s surprise, is not ready for prime time) and I’m still too keyed up to write completely coherently, I am going to take this in pieces.

I start with the Butterfly Effect.  A butterfly flaps its wings and, months later, and half a world away, a typhoon blows.

Mitt Romney flapped twice, and changed the course of his candidacy, and the Obama’s.

It began with his decision to take the hard and punitive line on immigration during the Republican primaries.  I am not sure what Romney actually believes on immigration, but in public, he was harsh.  He torched Rick Perry over Texas’s allowing the children of illegal immigrants to go to state universities on in-state tuition--even though the very conservative Texas State Legislature voted overwhelmingly for it.  He gave his love to Arizona’s immigration laws.  He offered no real avenues to legal residency, much less citizenship.  And he coined the phrase “self-deport”.  While he was at it, he tossed out a gratuitous slap at the selection of Sonia Sotomayor for Supreme Court Justice.  Tactically, it may have been the smart thing to do.  The Tea Party, which is virulently anti-immigrant in both a physical and cultural way, plays such a large role in picking GOP nominees.  Once in the general election, Romney stayed consistent, finding time to blast Obama in June when the President suspended, by Executive Order, deportations of children of illegal immigrants.  I did find it curious that, given how much tacking to the middle Mitt did on other issues, he and his brain trust never, in any substantive way, revisited that baseline decision they made on immigration, even as to tone.  My hunch is that Romney’s team felt this was a hot-button issue that played well across the political spectrum of blue-collar voters, especially in swing states, and that sticking with it would yield electoral dividends.  It was the wrong choice.  He alienated a large swath of Latino voters, who not only went for Obama by almost 3-1, but also turned out in larger numbers than anticipated.  That proved fatal in Nevada, Colorado, and (likely) Florida.

The second flap of the wings is a little more counterintuitive:  choosing Paul Ryan as the Vice Presidential nominee.  This is by no means a knock on Ryan, who showed himself to be good on the stump, very popular with the base, and credible on policy.  He is well positioned to be a player both in the coming budget negotiations and even as a future Presidential candidate.   But, in this election, he might have been the wrong choice, for three reasons: demography, geography, and policy.

The demography argument is simple.  Ryan is no Jeb Bush, and certainly not Marco Rubio or New Mexico’s Governor Susanna Martinez.  Bush wasn’t going to take the job, but Martinez (although she denied having interest) and Rubio would have.  Identity politics is something that Republicans love to scorn, however, it’s more than reasonable to assume that the selection of either Martinez or Rubio would have scrambled Obama’s winning coalition.  Martinez may never have been a serious contender (one could put her in Mitt’s “binders” of possible women running mates). Rubio supposedly was.  For reasons that are not completely clear, but might have to do with personal chemistry, Rubio didn’t make the “final four” (Jindal, Pawlenty, Portman, and Ryan).  Instead Mitt made the safe and even popular choice within his party, but missed the chance to send a broader message of inclusion. And un-flap the wings.

Geography is also obvious.  Ryan was thought to have significant appeal in the Midwest, but wasn’t even able deliver his home state.  On the other hand, Portman and Rubio might well have swung Ohio and Florida, and Martinez was popular in New Mexico and well known in adjoining Colorado.  While there was a path for Obama to be re-elected without both Florida and Ohio (leaving him with 285 electoral votes) forcing him to fight harder for Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico would have been a distraction from places like Virginia.

And Ryan, for Romney, was the wrong nominee on policy.  I realize that’s counterintuitive; you pick someone for the ticket because he reflects your party’s core positions and is some other way additive.  But Ryan has more than positions.  Ryan has a “Plan”.  That Plan not only eliminated almost all discretionary domestic spending, but also made deep cuts in both Medicare and Medicaid.  That left Romney in an unexpected and unspoken bind when it came to policy. Romney wanted to appear more moderate, but too often, whether it was on taxes, social issues, or entitlements, the Romney/Ryan message was “I can’t give you details, but it will work, and it’s not Ryan’s Plan.”  While that was mostly effective with seniors, who believed Romney’s stated promise not to touch their entitlements, it led to mushiness elsewhere.

Perhaps as a result, Romney never did fill in the blanks on much of anything, and it contributed to the appearance of chronic flip-flopping.  More importantly, I think the electorate was looking for someone to fix the economy and reduce deficits, not to engage in a theoretical economic experiment. Ryan’s Plan was a physical manifestation of that experiment, and Romney, by implicitly rejecting key parts of it without offering his own specifics, took away some of the seriousness of his own approach.  A more substantial, less ideological running mate, perhaps one of the Governors, or better yet Portman, would have allowed Romney to be more positive about his own plans, and amplify his reputation as the experienced grown-up in the world.  It’s fascinating that the exit polling data gave Romney only a thin lead over Obama on the question of who would handle the economy better.   Romney should have done far better.

But, as George said in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” that’s all blood under the bridge.  It is now 48 hours since the networks called the election for Mr. Obama.  The second-guessing is well underway, the speculation for potential 2016 candidates ramping up, and, most importantly, Karl Rove himself has weighed in.

Mr. Rove believes that the President “succeeded by suppressing the vote.”

I think I feel another post coming, but I’ve exceeded my word limit for today.

Next time, with a nod to Karl, “The Echo Chamber.”