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Political Predictor #3: Summertime

Date posted: Monday, June 18, 2012

The importance of the primary, Obama’s health care package, and WWKRD (What Would Karl Rove Do?)

Photograph via The Anvil

Photograph via The Anvil

Editor’s note: At climactic moments during Election 2012, we’ll be gathering our political columnists for a roundtable discussion. The format is this: we’ll pose a question, one columnist will answer, and the remaining three will follow. Each columnist has the chance to be the first to answer a question. Four columnists, four questions, sixteen answers, infinite possibilities.

After six months as the biggest story in American news, the Republican primary produced the result that everyone expected. In hindsight, did the primary matter at all?

Ben Hoffman: It’s generally a safe bet that the media is hyping up things that don’t really matter, and there was certainly some of that going on here. Mitt Romney was always the favorite to win, given his advantages over other candidates (among others: money, sanity, only one wife, ability to speak in complete sentences). But hindsight is 20/20, or something like that. Remember way back when conservatives were conducting a nationwide manhunt for Anyone But Romney? (What, you thought Cain, Bachmann and Trump led briefly in polls on their merits?). We just didn’t know that Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and Mitch Daniels wouldn’t answer the Bat-Signal. Or that Rick Perry would answer it so, um, oops, inarticulately. The primary did answer important questions: Would Republicans muster the cognitive dissonance necessary to nominate the grandfather of Obamacare? Would Romney be forced to take conservative positions to placate the base, or could he cruise as a moderate?

In his final analysis a few weeks ago, Slate’s John Dickerson said the primary “was a lot like a Bond film: The outcome was predictable, but you could still have fun watching it happen.” Which is a rosier version of what I wrote in early April: “This primary is like a horror movie that offers one fake twist and turn after another, except we already know who the real killer is and we just want to see the credits roll officially already.”

Ian Cheney: It depends on what one means by “matter.” If this primary didn’t matter, I’m not sure a primary has in the last two decades. With the Obama upset over Hillary Clinton in 2008, we were spoiled. That season, McCain was the favorite to be the first post-Bush GOP nominee the second he lost to him in 2000. (In May 2007, I said “take it to the bank” that McCain was the Republican nominee, and repeated my faith in his inevitability the following January.) In 2004, John Kerry was always the guy, despite the brief flirtation of the Democrats’ liberal wing with Howard Dean. In 2000, Bill Bradley and McCain made spirited but always-futile runs at uber-funded Al Gore and Bush, respectively. In 1996, it was simply Dole’s turn, especially after a freaked out party witnessed a Buchanan win in New Hampshire. Ultimately, before Obama four years ago, we have to go back to the Democratic Primary of 1992 to find a primary from either party where we really didn’t know who the winner would be.

Now, if the primary did matter, it matters in the extent to which it drove Romney to the right in an effort to win the nomination. If he loses this election because of huge unpopularity with Latinos, women, and people of color, it’s probably because of his embrace of modern conservatism. Therefore, we’ll only be able to answer this question after the general. For now, I’m going with the predictive answer of: no.

Stephen Kurczy: I’m tempted to just say “no” because it’s the obvious answer. But in honor of Bloomsday, a quote from Ulysses: “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” I haven’t read the book, but this weekend I attended a five-hour marathon through several sections of the tomb. Someday I’ll read it, and I entirely anticipate an ending that is wholly anticlimactic and predictable. Romney won. Did his primary battle matter in that—as Ian and Ben highlighted—it pushed him to the right and revealed potential weak spots? Sure. Did it matter compared to the starving kids in Africa? Eh, no. But I’m not living in Africa. I’m living in the horror movie of U.S. politics.

Anthony Resnick: If, sometime last November, every Republican politician except Romney had decided “nah, not this year,” I don’t think we’d be in a terribly different place right now. Romney had already begun moving right in anticipation of a primary, and some variation of the gaffes he committed in the primaries probably would have been made anyway in an extended general election. Yes, the primary highlighted some of the more extreme positions of the GOP—and Romney was forced to toe the party line—but my guess is those issues will fade as this election takes on a laser focus on the state of the economy (notice the narrowing of the gender gap in the wake of bad economic news).

Why did Barack Obama spent all his political capital pushing through a controversial health care overhaul when he could have instead pushed through a massive jobs bill that would have reduced the unemployment rate and much improved his chances of reelection, at which point he could have then rammed through the controversial health care overhaul?

Anthony Resnick: There’s the non-cynical answer, the semi-cynical answer, and the cynical answer. The non-cynical answer is that the administration simply saw health care reform as the right thing to do: huge Democratic majorities provided a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to achieve the elusive progressive goal of universal health care and improve the lives of millions, political consequences be damned. The semi-cynical answer is that the administration underestimated how politically vulnerable they would be by 2012: they expected the stimulus to be more effective and the economy to recover more quickly, allowing them to campaign both on an improving economy and the achievement of universal health care. The cynical answer is that the administration completely misread the politics and thought health care reform was the best political move: they thought that in the short-term they could campaign on the more popular provisions while in the long-term they would be creating a popular policy that voters would both give Democrats credit for and trust Democrats more to protect. If I had to guess the motivation, I’d go with the semi-cynical answer.

Ben Hoffman: This question presumes that Obama “could have instead pushed through a massive jobs bill that would have reduced the unemployment rate and much improved his chances of reelection.” And if you believe that, I’ve got some land to sell you. Oh, it’s tempting to think it all could have been different, and easier, and we could now be cruising toward a certain second term. But does anyone else remember how hard it was to pass the first watered-down stimulus? Once Republicans’ initial panic over the economic collapse passed, have they given any indication whatsoever that they’re willing to lift a finger to improve both the economy and Obama’s chances of reelection? Massive jobs bill? We can barely extend unemployment benefits! But also: everything Anthony said.

Ian Cheney: I’m with Ben here. Like the Democrats with President Bush, Republican Congressmen are sent to Washington to stop the Obama agenda. It’s what makes their constituents happy. Every significant initiative the President would have proposed would have been fought tooth and nail by the Republican House. It’s in their interest to gum up the works of an opposing administration. In a speech to both chambers of Congress last September, for example, the President proposed the American Jobs Act. The Republicans complained it was the “Son of Stimulus.” I’m not sure they would have felt much differently were the proposal earlier in the administration and before the health care proposal.

Stephen Kurczy: Sell me that land, Ben! (But only if it’s a land with low unemployment.) The Obama administration really fucked up here, it seems to me. Both the $800-billion fiscal stimulus (passed in Winter 2009) AND the Obama health care overhaul (passed in Spring 2010) won by a near-split Democratic-Republican vote BEFORE the Republicans seized control of the House. There was no cross-party compromise on either of those bills (as would now be needed for an American Jobs Act), and it didn’t matter because there weren’t yet enough Republicans in the House or Senate to stop the Obama agenda. That implies that Obama and his Dems could have passed almost anything they wanted during the first two years of the presidency. Why didn’t Obama tackle unemployment with more stimulus? Anthony’s semi-cynical answer makes the most sense to me: Obama either didn’t understand or couldn’t accept the depth of the economic crisis. Others did. Paul Krugman was one of many economists calling for up to a $2-trillion stimulus package, which might have given America something closer to the The Big Deal with a notable Hoover Dam-like project. Instead, Obama pivoted to a highly controversial health care overhaul that spurred the Tea Party’s House takeover. Now, Obama’s two biggest reelection liabilities are his failure to reduce unemployment with a more effective stimulus package AND his insistence on ramming through a defective health care bill. It makes no sense to me. “A lot of the legacy for presidents is how they handle the hand they were dealt as opposed to what they might have thought their agenda was going to be.” Bill Clinton said that back in the ’90s. I wish Obama had listened.

What would Karl Rove do if he were running Obama’s reelection campaign?

Ian Cheney: Exactly what the Obama Campaign is doing. Divide the country into Us vs. Them and hope to win 51 percent. Rove is a master of the divisive issue. The Rich vs. Everyone Else paradigm would be right up his alley. Doesn’t “class warfare” sound positively Rovian?

Stephen Kurczy: Two things, both gleaned from a nice 2003 New Yorker profile. 1. Find the still-unfound voter groups. As the article points out, Rove’s “mind is engaged in looking for groups that other consultants haven’t discovered yet, and then figuring out what their particular passions are.” 2. And more generally, the articles states: Rove offered this formula for winning elections: “Have a robust domestic and foreign agenda. Don’t trim your sails. Be bold. People want to hear big, significant changes. They don’t want to be fed small micro-policy.”

Anthony Resnick: I’m struggling to get my head around the idea of Rove being evil on the side of good instead of evil on the side of evil. I’m guessing Rove would have approved of the president’s Dream Act announcement last week. Rove tried to moderate the Republican Party’s stance on immigration, recognizing the growing importance of Latino voters. That strategy would be an even more natural fit if he were on the Democratic side—seeking to increase an advantage rather than lessen a disadvantage.

Ben Hoffman: Anything he could that would (A) be divisive and (B) bring out the base. So yes: class warfare and the Dream Act up the wazoo. And we’d be hearing nonstop about Romney’s time at Bain, about how elitist Romney is. (Remember when Rove conceived of Obama as the too-cool guy at the country club? In this scenario, that would be Romney, minus the cigar and martini.) Finally, there’s no way around it: a whisper campaign about Romney’s strange and scary Mormonism would be making the rounds (not that we’d be able to connect it to Rove, of course).

Which statistic/number/barometer deserves the most monitoring over the summer?

Stephen Kurczy: I’m stealing what I assume will be Ian’s answer, since he argued it so well in April: “The only stat that matters is: ‘Voting intentions in swing states.’ That’s it.” To get more granular, the most important of the swing states is Colorado, as Andrew Sullivan has pointed out. And right now, the latest poles show Colorado is a dead heat. All right guys, come up with a better stat than that!

Anthony Resnick: Can I just cheat and say people care about whatever numbers Nate Silver tells them to care about? Unemployment rate is kind of important, too.

Ben Hoffman: Anthony, always good to listen to what Nate Silver says. I’m a fan of political scientist Jonathan Bernstein, who says not to pay attention to state-level polls until after Labor Day. I’ll follow that maxim here, which I guess rules out swing state stats for the summer. (I agree with Stephen and Ian about swing states in that I’ll be keeping a close eye on them come September and October.) I’d go with unemployment rate, and I’m also interested in how much voters trust Romney and Obama when it comes to the economy. If the economy is so awful that it’s impossible to imagine the incumbent winning, but voters end up trusting Obama to fix it much more than they trust Romney, then what?

Ian Cheney: When it comes to predicting the winner, nothing tops voter intentions in swing states. It’s what’ll determine the election. Everything else feeds it, and therefore everything else is just a piece of the whole. The whole will be decided by voters in swing states. Now, when I say that voters decide elections, I assure you I’m not falling victim to some quixotic “12 Angry Men” delusion of democratic America. I understand that voters are pawns in the game of campaign architects. But actually that’s kind of the point.

The reason it’s never too early to look at swing-states is because that’s where the campaigns are. I live in Connecticut, a state that will vote for the President. Do you know how many ads I’ve seen for the election? Zero. The campaigns and Super PACs aren’t unleashing their ads on us, because why should anyone care how the President and Romney are polling in Connecticut, or what the unemployment rate in Connecticut is, or what Romney’s favorability numbers in Connecticut are? They shouldn’t. Those numbers by themselves are irrelevant. Moreover, Connecticut’s contribution to national approval and favorability ratings obfuscate the national numbers. It becomes distracting noise in our prediction game. The campaigns know this and, therefore, are putting relatively little into the non-battlegrounds, which marginalizes these states even more, because our numbers aren’t getting affected by the war chests (which manifest in commercials, for example) of these campaigns.

So, I stand by closely monitoring swing states, mostly because that’s what the campaigns are clearly focusing on as well. All other numbers are just pieces to the whole. As far as what the biggest piece is, unemployment is definitely up there, but I think I want to see if Obama and the Democrats can recapture their fundraising advantage of four years ago. We saw how well negative ads moved the polls during the Republican Primary. Which side can more convince the voters in the swing states that their own side is right and the other side is wrong? Probably whichever side can spend more, and use the other pieces (unemployment, favorability, etc.) to their advantage.

Bonus Question: Which article from a fellow Construction political columnist has been your favorite?

Ian Cheney: Who came up with this question?! It’s impossible. I try to give straight answers with minimal hedging, but here it’s impossible. Steve’s Etch A President series was (IS, I hope!) hilarious (with the Limbaugh edition as the highlight). It’s great having that creative colt in our four horsemen. Anthony’s material on the ACA has probably been our best pedagogical writings. And with Ben we’ve been fortunate enough for someone to catalogue the scintillating battles in the media. I really can’t choose. It’s like asking me to pick my favorite parent, historical period, Star Trek captain, or Mountain Dew flavor. It can’t be done.

Stephen Kurczy: Ben’s ode to Dennis Kucinich after the eight-term U.S. House representative lost in this year’s primary election due to Ohio’s redistricting. Ben voted for him in the 2004 presidential primary over John Kerry. Kucinich is a unique/legendary/weird politician, and after some thoughtful introspection on the Democrat’s quirks and UFO sightings, Ben boils down his vote to this humorous line: “It was funny to tell my very serious political roommate that I was voting for the antiwar dude who had seen aliens.”

Anthony Resnick: Two of my possible answers—Ben’s Kucinich column and Stephen’s Etch A President series—have already been taken. The semi-fictional nature of Stephen’s series reminds me of a great passage from Hunter Thompson’s obituary of Richard Nixon about the limits of objective journalism for a politician like Nixon. Romney has made an art form of exploiting the blind spots of objective journalism—you have to get subjective to see him clearly. Ian’s analysis has been spot-on throughout, but going back through I was particularly struck by the prescience of a passage from this pre-Florida Gingrich column, in which he correctly predicted that an anti-Gingrich movement would emerge as soon Gingrich rose to co-frontrunner status.

Ben Hoffman: This is like trying to choose a favorite Newt Gingrich quote. How can you pick? My fellow bloggers are always a pleasure to read, because everyone has such different styles and takes on the campaign. Among many others, I particularly liked Anthony’s The Race Card Card, in which he took a dominant current event that was impossible to avoid—the Trayvon Martin shooting—and tied it not only into the 2012 campaign but into the intersection of race, American identity, and political strategy. And he did it without succumbing to the sort of hyperbole (this will decide the election!) and overstatement (all conservatives are racists!) that often accompany discussions of said topics.

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Ian Cheney, Connecticut resident, writes the Presidential Politics for America blog, which took a close, ongoing look at the historic primaries of 2008. He earned his M.A. in American Studies at Trinity College writing his Master’s Thesis on the Election of 1948. He teaches honors history in southeast Connecticut. Ben Hoffman was a Teach For America corps member in Washington, D.C., where he also worked for several think tanks. He now lives in North Carolina, where he teaches and writes. Stephen Kurczy is a New York-based journalist for the Financial Times Group. He is a former desk editor for The Christian Science Monitor, contributor to The Economist, and associate editor for The Cambodia Daily. He blogs and tweets. Anthony Resnick is a lawyer representing labor unions in Southern California. He previously worked as a community organizer for Working America, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO. Josh Lawson is native of Raleigh-Durham (via D.C., via Los Angeles). He occupied positions in the public and private sectors, before transitioning to law. He holds a graduate degree in Political Management, a J.D., and is presently completing an advanced law degree at Duke. He is a former Coro fellow in public affairs and White House editor, and he has worked at the private practice of former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft.

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