Thursday, June 21, 2012

Obama Should Stick By Holder For His Own Good

This week, Eric Holder became the first Attorney-General in US history to be cited for contempt by a House Committee. I do not want to discuss whether this is justified—at least not in this post—but I do want to consider what the best thing for Obama to do in the context of this current campaign is.

No doubt there are some that think the House vote could cause a general perception of the Obama administration as scandal-plagued. This would certainly not be good in an election year. So now might be the time to ask for Eric Holder’s resignation or fire him.

But I’m convinced that would be the wrong move. The best thing for Obama to do would be to defend Holder enthusiastically and proclaim his full confidence in him. There is an unavoidable racial dynamic here. White Republicans are seen in some quarters of the African-American community as unfairly picking on the first black attorney-general. Obama could win himself some plaudits by standing up for Holder. You might be thinking that Obama already has a lock on the black vote, which he does. But by issuing a strong defense of Holder he might get more turnout and encourage other blacks to donate money or volunteer their time.

In addition, Obama’s campaign could paint sticking by Holder as a principled move by a principled politician and draw a not so subtle contrast with Romney who has changed positions on many issues. This could reinforce his likeability factor and his standing among centrist and independent voters.

Now of course, many staunch, ideologically committed Republicans despise holder for a variety of reasons. But these people will already vote for Romney any way because of Obama’s stands on other issues. And they already enthusiastically oppose the President.

In short, Obama has nothing to lose, and potentially something to gain politically by defending Holder.

Friday, June 15, 2012

"The Private Sector is Doing Just Fine..."

Obama’s comment that the private sector “is doing just fine” continues to drive his campaign coverage this week.

What he was trying to argue was that the reason the economy has had so much trouble has been that the public sector at various levels of government has laid off so many workers. This of course has ripple effects in the overall economy. Public sector workers who lose their jobs and are unable to find new ones are unable to spend, save, or invest at the same level they once were, which means there is less consumer spending and less capital available to private sector businesses. Conservatives might respond that taxpayers would save substantial sums of money by laying off government employees which would then allow those same taxpayers additional money to spend, save and invest.

 Obama’s argument is a reasonable one, but saying “the private sector is just fine” makes Obama look out of touch and clueless about the economic situations they are facing. Average Americans looking at businesses closing around them and think the private sector is not doing fine. In fact, they are correct. The private sector may be doing ok relative to the public sector, but it is far from being healthy enough to generate the jobs and wages the economy needs to return to prosperity.

There is no denying that these comments hurt Obama. Republicans should have the comments on an endless loop and put them in campaign ads. But they risk nullifying the benefit of the comments when Romney says things like “He says we need more firemen, more policemen, more teachers.” On balance, the public likes having policemen, firemen, and teachers. Obama has a chance to counter-attack by capitalizing on fears about public safety and fears that the educational system will continue to decline as teachers are laid off, hurting the prospects of America’s children.

Obama would be well advised to choose his next words on the economy more carefully. Come to think of it, so would Romney. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Obama's Leak Scandal

The one thing congressmen from both parties can agree on recently was that leaks from the White House about national security issues such as attempts to sabotage the Iranian nuclear program are completely intolerable. There are several possibilities for why the information was leaked.

The first is that the leaking was done on purpose by someone in the White House in order to secure political points. The information released shows that Obama has been taking aggressive steps to keep the country safe. This would portray Obama as a strong leader in a tough election year. The problem is that if this is the case, whoever leaked the information might unwittingly have hurt Obama’s chances. The White House is now being accused of playing fast and loose with national security secrets to gain political advantage. The fact that both Democrats and Republicans in Congress are upset provides poor publicity during this campaign.

The second possibility of course is that the information was unintentionally leaked by the White House. Perhaps someone in the White House was speaking off the record to a reporter, who chose to publish what he was told. This suggests that the White House is unable to keep a tight rein around state secrets which would also be unhelpful politically.

Another possibility is actually that the White House was providing the information on purpose, but not to secure political advantage. There are other objectives served by the release of the information. Israel is obviously worried about an Iranian nuclear program. Releasing details of its actions against Iran may show the Israeli public as well as allies around the world that the US is making substantial efforts to prevent an Iranian weapon from coming into operation. This could combine to put pressure on Netanyahu to avoid a preemptive strike on Iran, which the Obama administration thinks will have ruinous consequences at this point.

In the end, I still think the economy will trump other concerns on Election Day in November. If anything, this episode might provide a slight advantage to President Obama. It highlights that we live in a very dangerous world with an array of threats and that Obama has managed to keep us safe for the past four years by taking aggressive action. Any chance the Obama administration can talk about foreign policy and terrorism (highlighting of course the killing of Bin Laden and important subordinates) instead of the economy, it should take it.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

What if D-Day Failed?

This week marks the anniversary of D-Day. Every year, historians argue what would have happened had D-Day failed. This year, I’ll finally add my two cents.

I think it is clear that Germany would still have lost the war, for a failed invasion would not have changed the fundamental dynamics it faced. Germany was fighting a war on multiple fronts against enemies committed to its destruction: in the east against the Soviet Union and in Italy against a combined force of Western allies. In the occupied countries of Europe it confronted ever-more bold resistance and partisan movements. Allied bombing raids were devastating German cities day and night. And part of the German army would always have to remain vigilant against an invasion taking place somewhere in Western Europe from Norway down to France.

Supposing D-Day had failed, it is highly doubtful that the Americans or British would have given up after all they had expended to win the war and because of their ideological distaste for Nazism. My bet is that they would have doubled down on the campaign in Italy. This would have put them in a position ultimately to invade Germany from the South. I also suspect that they would have further increased bombing raids to put further pressure on the German economy, infrastructure, and morale. And of course, the Soviet army would have continued its relentless westward push into Germany.

Would Germany have been able to shift some of its army west to fight the Soviets had D-Day failed? Yes, but that number would necessarily have had to be limited. Remember, Germany was fighting the Western allies in Italy. It also needed to retain at least some forces in the occupied countries to keep order and prevent rebellion. Lastly, there would still have been a specter of an allied invasion in the West, which would have necessitated keeping some forces on alert in countries like France and Belgium. I honestly think that the Western allies led by Churchill might have considered an invasion of Greece to force the Germans to fight multiple enemies in the East, something which Stalin would normally have opposed, but which he might have come to accept it when confronted with new German armies blocking his advance.

Ultimately, these circumstances always conspired to keep Germany from winning by a late date like 1944. The next interesting possibility to consider is what the fate of post-war Europe would have been like. There are many who argue that Stalin would have conquered more of Germany and central Europe since the Western allies would not have a beachhead from which to push east. But this makes three assumptions. First, it assumes that the Western allies would not have launched a second invasion of Western Europe shortly after D-Day that enabled them to move against Germany. Second, it assumes that that the Western allies would not have made a stronger effort to move through Italy that enabled them to attack Germany from the South, a distinct possibility. Lastly, it also assumes that Germany would not have been able to transfer some manpower from Western Europe to prolong the Soviet advance (which would have given the allies more time to recoup their losses and launch another invasion).

All of this is to say that it is actually far from clear whether the Soviets would have managed to dominate continental Europe. I think the likeliest scenario is that the Western allies would have simply added to their push in Italy and looked for the soonest possible date to launch another invasion. With some extra German troops tying the Soviets up in Eastern Europe, they would have had extra time to get to Germany.

What do you think would have happened?

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

How Should Republicans Attack Obama?

On Monday, I sketched out a strategy that Democrats might use against Romney in the general election campaign. Today, I will do the same for Republicans.

For Romney, the strategy is clearer than it is for Obama. He needs to relentlessly focus on the economy. He needs to make the case that the economy is demonstrably worse under Obama than it was when he inherited (his campaign can make use of straightforward statistics such as the employment rate to do this). He also needs to make use of the fact that average Americans are still quite worried about the economy and their personal situations. He can ask Ronald Reagan’s famous question from the 1980 debate: “are you better off than you were four years ago?”  Most Americans whether they are or not will say “no.”

Now, Obama will argue that the portrait Romney is painting is unfair, and that he in fact inherited a terrible economic situation from the crash of the financial sector in 2008. He will also argue that the steps he took prevented a depression from taking place. But I think that will be a hard sell with voters. He will essentially tell them “yeah things are bad, but they could have been worse. Please vote for me.” Romney’s message is much simpler: “the economy is terrible, and President Obama failed to fix it. Let’s try something different.”

President Obama will no doubt try and tout his record in the realm of foreign policy (such as the killing of Bin Laden), but whenever he tries to do so, Romney should stay focused on the economy. He can say that the best way for American to remain strong in the international arena is to have a strong economy, which Obama has proven unable to fix. Obama will also try and counter-attack on the economy by talking about Romney’s economic performance as Governor in Massachusetts. But Romney’s retort is clear. When Obama says that employment grew at a much slower than average pace in Massachusetts, Romney can say “Yes, but at least we gained jobs when I was Governor. We can’t say the same for you as President. Besides, why are you going back almost ten years ago to attack me, when most Americans are worried about whether they’ll have a job tomorrow?”

Of course, the success of this strategy depends on how the economy does in the next several months. If it follows the path suggested by last week’s job report, it will be extremely potent. Even if the economy starts improving, it is hard to see it doing so enough to completely allay the concerns of voters. And it depends on events. Perhaps something will happen that will cause the focus of the election to shift to foreign policy or terrorism, something that might suit Obama better. No matter what though, the strategy I outlined needs to be a crucial part of Romney’s message.

Monday, June 4, 2012

How Should Democrats Go After Romney?

Deteriorating economic conditions and a week where the Obama campaign’s Bain attacks were questioned even by fellow Democrats have Obama supporters wondering how they should try to portray Romney.

The right way to attack Romney (if we must concede that the campaign has to descend into attacks) is to call into question his campaign’s central message. Romney is running on the idea that he is the one with the competence to improve the economy because of his business record and his record as Governor of Massachusetts. Obama strategists will have ample material here. Romney’s time at Bain produced many claims of companies Bain took over where jobs were lost or the companies were left saddled with untenable debt.

Of course, Romney and his team would argue that on net, Bain’s involvement with companies produced jobs and that the financial sector is vital to the nation’s health. But Obama need not convince voters that Romney was heartless or that he always caused jobs to be lost. Instead he just needs these voters to wonder if Romney’s claims that his time as a businessman gave him particular insight in how to create jobs given that they are continually reading stories of how Bain destroyed jobs. Now, the last time this line of attack was deployed, Democrats such as Cory Booker and Bill Clinton objected. If the Obama campaign uses such attacks directly, it could risk another episode where important surrogates are off-message and it could lower Obama’s personal favorability ratings by making him look like another calculating politician.

The right way to bring up Bain is to do nothing at all and instead leave the job to outside Democratic groups. I am sure someone will come up with the idea to consolidate all the anti-Bain attacks in the Republican primary into an effective ad, which would have the helpful side effect of blunting attacks that criticisms of Bain are Democratic class warfare. When Obama is asked what he thinks of the attacks, he should say that he will not be revisiting the Bain issue and looks forward to offering a positive vision to the American people. When pressed about whether he agrees with the attacks, he might even digress and say that he wishes that outside groups could not raise unlimited sums of money to use on attacks, which is one reason he opposed the Citizens United ruling which most Americans do as well (but which many Republican politicians support).

As for Romney’s time as Governor, it has already been pointed out that Massachusetts ranked 47th out of 50 states in job creation. In fact, Obama strategists might gleefully point out that Obama has a comfortable lead in the state where voters are most familiar with Romney’s economic performance. They could say something like “in the one place where Romney had a chance to implement his economic vision, voters are overwhelmingly choosing Obama.” Now, this fact obviously owes to Massachusetts’ Democratic tilt, but that will escape those who are not avid political junkies. Romney might argue that the above job creation statistic owes to factors beyond his control such as national economic conditions, or opposition in the state legislature to his policies by Democrats. But this brings an obvious retort: “If Romney couldn’t turn the economy around in his state, how will he do so for the whole nation?”

Romney may in fact have clever responses for the charges. But the point would be that he is on defense regarding his central claim. Is it fair to hold Romney alone responsible for job creation in Massachusetts? Probably not. Many factors lay beyond a Governor’s control in a four year time span. These include the composition of the work force, business climate in other states, and the amount the opposition party will work with him or her. BUT, it is not more unfair than laying blame for all of the economy’s problems at Obama’s feet, or criticizing him for not fixing all of them in the past three years.

If Obama can nullify Romney’s advantage on the economy, he can turn the election into a referendum on who has the best ideas going forward and on other factors such as personal likeability. He has a much better chance of prevailing on those grounds than he does if it becomes purely a referendum on the economy.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Give Romney His Due

Amid poor news on the economic front and Donald Trump’s “birther” comments, it has been little noted that Mitt Romney officially won enough delegates to claim his party’s nomination for President. In so doing, he made history as the first Mormon nominee for President of a major party.

I freely admit that I am surprised to see him doing so well as I had expressed some skepticism about his chances on this blog. At the outset of the 2012 primaries, I thought that Romney possessed few if any of the qualities of someone who would claim a major party nomination or contend so seriously for the presidency. For starters, Romney did not seem to offer a unique, compelling vision in the way that Bill Clinton did as a new Democrat in 1992 or Ronald Reagan did as the leader of the conservative movement did in 1980.

The absence of such a vision meant that his greatest claim on the nomination lay in his perceived competence and electability. But as I have written before, Romney’s term as Governor was not particularly compelling. There were not great strides made in education or economic development. Perhaps his biggest achievement was one he was particularly reticent to discuss on the campaign trail: Romneycare.

I also found fault with the idea that he was particularly electable. The logic behind this claim must be appealing for Republicans. He had managed to win the governorship in a state that reliably votes for Democrats at the national level in 2002. But what is not often mentioned is that when he was leaving office in 2006, he was polling poorly enough that there would have been a distinct possibility of him losing had he run for reelection.  The handful of electoral surveys shows Obama in a comfortable position in the state. The case for electability then rests not on his ability to bring along his home state or indeed any state in New England save perhaps for New Hampshire. The case rests on the idea that Romney will play well with moderate and independent voters in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.

Now it is true that Romney was the most electable Republican of those running in the primaries. But that does not say much given how unelectable much of his competition was. Herman Cain made his name on the much ridiculed 9-9-9 tax plan (remember that?) and then dropped out amid allegations of inappropriate sexual advances. Rick Perry struggled to remember which departments he wanted to eliminate. Newt Gingrich carried more personal baggage than the other candidates combined. Rick Santorum managed to reignite a debate about contraception, one struggle in the culture war that conservatives have little hope of prevailing on. I could go on.

Romney is polling well against Obama but the question now is, who wouldn’t be assuming he were a credible candidate? The economy is adding jobs at an anemic pace and has voters worried. The federal government had its credit downgraded. There is a very real chance that President Obama’s signature accomplishment (Obamacare) might be declared unconstitutional in the coming weeks.

That Romney won the nomination was due in some measure to luck, but it also reflects positively on his character. He has been dogged in pursuing the Republican nomination since at least 2005. He overcame the inevitable disappointment of coming up short in 2008 to refine his message and run a tighter, more disciplined campaign this time around.  In winning in Massachusetts in 2002 and clinching the nomination this year he managed to successfully win with two very different electorates: moderate New England Republicans in 2002 and disproportionately Southern and Western tea party conservatives in 2012.

Whatever else you think of Romney, give the man his props. And Democrats, take note. A man who is this persistent and skilled—and yes lucky—has a very real shot at winning in November.