WASHINGTON -- Normally, a president presiding over 8 percent unemployment and a country that sees itself on the wrong track wouldn't stand a chance. But then a candidate with Mitt Romney's shortcomings, including his failure to ignite much enthusiasm within his own party, wouldn't stand a chance, either.The combination of the two explains why this election remains close, but President Obama heads into the campaign's last phase with some major advantages, starting, as Ronald Reagan did, with a rock solid base. These voters will support him no matter what the economic...
From the remove of television, the most enlightening way to soak up the now-completed political conventions was to simply mute the sound, absorb the pictures and merely look at who was there.
This is not to slight the speeches, which were by turns stirring and clarifying. There was Paul Ryan articulating the modern-day Republican philosophy: Dismantle government and hand the spoils to people who own tennis courts! There was Bill Clinton offering a full-throated defense of collective action to address shared problems while laying out a crucial question: "What kind of country do you want to live in?"
But on your screen, in image alone, the two party gatherings delivered their own sharply contrasting answers to that question.
In Tampa, the Republicans looked like what they have become: a men's group for angry middle-aged white guys enraged by demographic change and inclined toward the politics of blame. Here was a besieged slice of America desperately seeking to maintain the privileges of a bygone era.
In Charlotte, the Democrats looked like what America has become: an often-disorganized, internally contradictory and above all racially diverse collection of people grappling with common troubles, like not enough paychecks, too many worries about bills to pay, and no reliable hold on middle-class basics like housing, health care, education and retirement. We saw military veterans in uniforms and professionals in suits; white, black, Hispanic and Asian Americans; gays and straights; Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus.
This contrast in optics was stark and meaningful, because this election confronts us with more than the question of what sort of country we want. At stake is no less than who gets the right to decide.
The circumstances of these times make this an election fraught with importance. The worst economic downturn since the Great Depression has been followed by a wholly unsatisfying "recovery" that has beggared the meaning of that academic jargon -- a reality only enhanced by Friday's crummy employment report. People without jobs have lost homes and are living in their cars. People with jobs often earn so little that they need food stamps and donated groceries to feed their families. Talk of middle-class decline may have become a cliché, yet the truth of this conversation seems to deepen by the day.
And yet, at a time when we should be debating how to reverse this decline and restore the traditional middle class bargain -- decent living standards in exchange for hard work -- we are instead having what feels like a referendum on the essential nature of American democracy and what sort of people should be entitled to participate.
The Republicans continue to deploy thinly veiled racial code to denigrate the nation's first African-American president as "not one of us," with "us" being the sort of people in abundance in Tampa: white, male and inclined to view those who require help from the government as morally degenerate parasites. This is the essential message of both the relentless questioning of Obama's American citizenship and the factually baseless claims that he wants to undo welfare reform.
All of which makes the mere spectacle of the conventions rich with pertinent information: To whom are these two competing parties speaking? What does their encapsulation of America look like?
Who was there matters, because the Republicans are trying to keep so many people away from the polls. They have a candidate who is widely and legitimately viewed as an aloof creature of privilege, a man who got rich by dismantling other people's creations, trading businesses and jobs like chips at a Monte Carlo casino table. His strategists understand keenly that if too many voices are heard on Election Day, if the balloting reflects the sentiments of a genuinely representative cross-section of the nation, their guy loses. He doesn't speak for a broad enough range of communities -- unless your version of diversity means owning both beach houses and ski chalets.
With this limitation in mind, the Republicans are doing everything in their power to limit turnout, and particularly among people who are not white and not relatively affluent. They are carpet-bombing battleground states with negative, racially divisive political advertisements that seem engineered to disgust large numbers of would-be voters, making people so beleaguered and turned off that they stay home.
In case mass-disseminated cynicism does not get the job done, the Republicans are also employing actual barriers to access, such as voter identification laws, crafted to bar minority and low-income people from voting. They are narrowing the window of early voting to limit turnout among students and people who work multiple jobs -- both core components of Obama's base.
The Republicans fear heavy minority and youth turnout because the party grasps that it is the real minority. It appeals to a narrow and aging slice of the electorate that seeks to preserve a bankrupt idea: the notion that government is for nanny state-loving losers, while free enterprise addresses all of life's problems.
It is a notion that serves two masters: wealthy people, for whom tax cuts amount to serious gobs of money, and corporations, which have exploited weak regulations to profit while harming the public.
The Democrats are hardly paragons of virtue. They are rife with corporate conflicts of interest themselves. Their rhetoric of concern for vulnerable people has often exceeded their action. (It was especially unpalatable to hear Clinton deliver such a cogent rebuke of the Republican plan to gut Medicaid by turning it into a program of limited block grants to the states: This is precisely what he did to welfare, and with predictably disastrous results.)
The Obama administration has failed to limit the foreclosure crisis by catering to the interests of giant banks, an area conspicuously absent from the president's speech at the convention.
But the president is at least speaking to the right people: virtually anyone who lives in America.
He is describing a nation governed by a spirit of inclusion. The people who gathered in Charlotte looked like that nation. In an election in which claims on American identity are themselves at issue, this is no small thing.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — There is nothing sadder than a politician without his balloons. It’s like a cowboy, hair slicked down, without a hat. It’s especially sad when the cowboy was all hat and no cattle to begin with.That was President Obama on stage Thursday night accepting his party’s nomination for re-election. He was tiny, like a stick figure with graying hair. He looked tired, not very hopeful. What a letdown it was from four years ago.
Predictably, the Romney campaign and its apparatchiks at Fox News accused the Democrats of lacking "civility" during the first day of their convention. RNC chairman Reince Priebus called the Democrats "classless" for showing a 1994 video of Ted Kennedy debating (and embarrassing) a decidedly more liberal Mitt Romney.
You know who shouldn't be lecturing the Democrats about civility? The people who gave us swift-boating, the Southern Strategy, the outing of Valerie Plame, Birthers, Reverend Wright videos around the clock, "Obama pals around with domestic terrorists," the exploitation of 9/11, comparing a triple amputee Vietnam veteran to Saddam Hussein, the booing of a gay soldier, and the party that sported Purple Heart band-aids at the 2004 convention to mock another decorated Vietnam veteran, John Kerry, who was wounded in combat. And no one on the floor of the Democratic convention hurled peanuts at an African American camerawomen, shouting, "This is how we feed the animals."
Yes, the Democratic speakers unapologetically jabbed Romney for having a Swiss bank account and for being a shameless prevaricator. They criticized his policy proposals for being the usual Reaganomics claptrap we've heard during every election and, accurately enough, how eerily similar policies caused the recession. There's a difference between taking fair shots at an opponent and the reprehensible tactics routinely exercised by the Republicans.
I totally get it: since the dawn of history, politics has always been about rigorous debate, passionate arguments, salient framing and rhetorical aggression. That's not incivility. That's politics. But the Republicans always appear shocked whenever the Democrats bring their A-game to political contest, and consequently they hilariously lean on a well-worn "civility" crutch even while the party's PR wing, AM talk radio and Fox News Channel, has made a fortune in cash and ratings by calling the president a communist, a traitor and a "little black man child."
The Democratic Party finally and thankfully stood up for its values and, most noticeably, its position on social issues. The party was unafraid to feature leaders from NARAL and Planned Parenthood on the stage. Various speakers talked repeatedly about reproductive rights, civil rights, LGBT rights and the role of government and how "we the people" ought to lend a hand to those who have nowhere else to turn. Core liberal values. Likewise, the party made it clear that Mitt Romney and the Republicans are the enemy of these values. And they are. They've pledged to repeal all of the advances in these areas upon arriving at the White House. Last night, an actual undocumented worker named Benita Veliz -- an illegal immigrant, the latest brand of "evildoer" -- spoke at the convention. On top of that, right-wing lightning rod Sandra Fluke spoke during prime time and thanked the Democrats for "amplifying" her voice in spite of brutal attacks from Rush Limbaugh and others who not only lied about her testimony to Congress but publicly and relentlessly slandered her reputation for weeks, calling her a "slut."
Tell me again about civility, Republicans.
Frankly, I think this notion of taking a firm stand on core values hit really close to home for the Republicans who've nominated a candidate whose positions change by the day, interspersed with universally debunked lies. Simply put: Romney and Ryan don't seem to stand for anything -- you know, other than doing the exact opposite of President Obama.
On the same day when American voters were talking about powerful speeches from the First Lady and Julian Castro, The Nation reported that the increasingly shaky and awkward Paul Ryan actively lobbied the Obama administration for money from Obamacare, specifically for a community healthcare center in Racine. The Affordable Care Act provides $9.5 billion for health centers and $1.5 billion for a series of brand new centers, and Paul Ryan wanted a piece of the action while demonizing Obamacare's "reckless spending" and how it's a "government takeover." We've heard this before. Ryan also requested money from the dreaded stimulus while voting against it and while using it as a cudgel to utterly skull-bash the president's agenda.
But I suppose I'm not being civil by pointing out Ryan's obvious lack of integrity, say nothing of the top of the ticket whose home planet eradicated integrity centuries ago while purging itself of emotions and authenticity during the final epoch of the Alpha Centauri Interstellar Conundrum.
So the contrast between a strong Democratic Party and a flaky, unstable, flip-floppy Republican Party has prompted the GOP to spend the week whining and pooping their big boy pants about how the Democrats are being so mean. For a Republican Party dependent upon lies and intellectual dishonesty, the truth really hurts.
Cross-posted at The Daily Banter.
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In the tale of two party conventions, Massachusetts Republicans will find their decades-long challenge.
Not a single elected official from Massachusetts addressed the Republican National Convention. While Massachusetts' most famous Republican, Mitt Romney, became the first from the the Bay State to accept the nomination of his party since 1924, the absence of any elected or would-be elected official from the state on the program was noticeable.
It's not incredibly surprising given the dearth of Republicans in Massachusetts but the GOP contingent in Tampa made news for the noted absences. Scott Brown showed up on the last day and Richard Tisei, challenging a weakened congressman John Tierney, was no where to be seen.
Bill Weld was present but as a delegate from New York.
The only Massachusetts speakers on the dais were certified Friends of Mitt like Kerry Healy and Jane Edmonds.
Local GOP guru Ron Kaufmann seconded Romney's nomination. Republican elected officials were part of the delegation but otherwise had no prominence on the official schedule. Massachusetts had some of the best seats in the house but was not given the traditional courtesy of a place in the roll call of the states to put their former Governor over the top in the delegate count.
Well, for one, Mitt Romney is not a party man. He's not a creature of the Republican Party in the state nor did he develop close relationships with the politicos that dominate life here.
Secondly, the brand of the national GOP is simply not popular with Massachusetts voters and all involved are keenly aware. Weld was the last Republican from the state to attempt to moderate some elements of the platform at the party's 1996 San Diego Convention. He was swiftly removed from the speakers' list that year.
But look to Charlotte and the difference is striking. It's Obama's convention but Massachusetts plays a high profile and integral role. Governor Deval Patrick prime time speech electrified the crowd and Patrick seemed in his element on the first night of the Convention.
Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren was given the prized primetime slot just before former President Bill Clinton, whose popularity in the state rivaled any of our homegrown Democrats.
The Democrat's 2004 standard bearer, Senator John Kerry, will speak to the convention on Thursday, the night the President accepts his renomination.
In addition to the lineup of speakers, a good portion of the Democratic congressional delegation, statewide officeholders, and local officials are in attendance. A moving tribute to the late Senator Ted Kennedy ushered in the Convention. And while some may disagree with elements of the Democratic platform, none feel the need to run away from it or their national party.
Of course the sentiment is not universal. Republican congressional candidate Sean Bielat, one of the Republicans looking to challenge Joseph P. Kennedy for the seat of the retiring Barney Frank, showed up in Tampa. Democratic Senate President Therese Murray, currently in a tight race to keep her seat, is skipping Charlotte. And despite the possible damage the national Republican brand can inflict on the Massachusetts GOP, Senator Brown is leading Warren in recent polls, demonstrating his cross-over appeal to Democrats and independents. But that provided all the more reason for him to avoid hitching his truck to the national GOP in Tampa.
A speaker's list does not a party make. But the continued dominance of the GOP in the west and south remains a significant challenge to the party in Massachusetts and New England.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The first night of the Democratic convention will be defined by the soaring and moving speech from First Lady Michelle Obama. It will be remembered as the night San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro entered the national political stage with a speech that echoed President Barack Obama's own from 2004. For those digging a bit deeper, the most memorable lines from the undercard will be the repeated and increasingly blunt broadsides launched at Mitt Romney's business practices and personal finances.
Underneath it all, however, was a potentially significant effort to recast the debate around the president's most ambitious and controversial achievement -- one that Obama's advisers said they hope will shape voter perceptions heading into the fall.
Nineteen speakers on Tuesday night devoted at least a portion of their speeches to reaffirming the virtues of the Affordable Care Act. At least three proudly called it "Obamacare."
Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius devoted her address to explaining the law in detail. Former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who repeatedly advised the president to pare down the law during its crafting, marveled at Obama's "courage" for pursuing comprehensive reform.
Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, in one of the night's more impassioned addresses, implored the crowd, and Democrats at large, "to grow a backbone and stand up for what we believe." He then offered a demonstration: "This is the president who delivered the security of affordable health care to every single American after 90 years of trying."
Stacey Lihn, an Arizona woman, told the story of her sick children, who she said could now purchase insurance because of the Affordable Care Act. Her mention of the Supreme Court decision to affirm the law drew thunderous applause. Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) proudly embraced the term Obamacare, urging Democrats "not to run from" the moniker.
Actor Kal Penn thanked the president "for giving my friends access to affordable health insurance," and former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine and Castro applauded Obama for achieving something that seven presidents, since Teddy Roosevelt, had tried and failed to achieve. Even North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue, who isn't seeking reelection because her standing has been so battered, cheered the president for fighting "to guarantee that women have access to quality, affordable health care."
Michelle Obama recalled that her husband "refused to listen to all those folks who told him to leave health reform for another day, another president."
"He didn't care whether it was the easy thing to do politically," she said, "that's not how he was raised. He cared that it was the right thing to do."
For Democrats who had anxiously insisted that the party needed to keep trying to sell the Affordable Care Act -- despite failed effort after failed effort -- it was a dream night.
"I am not sure why it took us so long as a party to get to this point, but I am glad to see we are finally beginning to passionately defend health care reform. The haters can keep on hating, but in the meantime, more and more people are finding out how much good was in the bill," said Jim Manley, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's former press secretary, who spent more time defending the legislation than perhaps any spokesman other than those inside the administration. "Single-payer it is not, and of course we couldn't pass the public option, but the fact is we own it and we need to defend it -- because there is lots of good stuff in the bill."
Ethan Rome, executive director of Health Care for America Now, said the time devoted to Obamacare on Tuesday night was the definitive signal that the party wouldn't run from the legislation as many members had done in the 2010 election.
"The Democrats used the first night of their convention to embrace it, celebrate it and tell America how important it is,"
Rome said. "The whole evening was optimistic and focused on the future, in stark contrast to the Republicans' dark vision and obsession with fighting old battles."
Indeed, it appeared that by the end of the night, the president's health care law had gotten more mentions from the slate of Democratic speakers than it had during the entirety of the Republican convention the week prior. And it wasn't accidental. A top Obama aide said the repeated references were part of the convention's broader theme and scope.
"The focus is on how we restore economic security for the middle class, and access to affordable care," said the aide. "Accessible health care is one of the pillars of that."
Stephanie Cutter, Obama's deputy campaign manager, was more direct, arguing that the law's merits make it worth defending.
"Some of the most powerful stories we heard tonight were about the Affordable Care Act, and there’s a reason for that," Cutter said in an email. "It’s saving lives."
By BETH FOUHY AND PAUL J. WEBER, ASSOCIATED PRESS
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro's keynote speech to the Democratic convention was a spicy blend of immigrant dreams and partisan bite.
The 37-year old Castro, a rising star in Texas but little known on the national stage, roused the packed audience at the Time Warner Center with a pointed message to voters: "Mitt Romney, quite simply, doesn't get it."
Castro's tale was in part standard political fare for a party seeking to solidify its standing among immigrant voters.
Castro was raised by a single mother and a grandmother who both emigrated from Mexico, Castro and his identical twin brother Joaquin achieved happiness and success through hard work and a good education made possible by the American dream. But from there, Castro pivoted to an assault on Republican Mitt Romney, whose policies Castro said would "dismantle" the middle class if elected.
"We know that in our free market economy some will prosper more than others. What we don't accept is the idea that some folks won't even get a chance," Castro said. "And the thing is, Mitt Romney and the Republican party are perfectly comfortable with that America."
He added, "I don't think Gov. Romney meant any harm. I think he's a good guy. He just has no idea how good he's had it," – a pointed jab at Romney's considerable wealth.
Castro also taunted Romney for his shifting positions on issues like abortion rights, gay marriage and his own push for universal health care as governor of Massachusetts.
"Gov. Romney has undergone an extreme makeover, and it isn't pretty," Castro said.
The Romney campaign shot back at Castro's claim the GOP presidential nominee is insensitive to the middle class.
"Middle class families understand that they are not better off than they were four years ago because President Obama's liberal policies have failed to turn around the economy," spokesman Ryan Williams said.
Until now, Castro has enjoyed a spate of favorable media profiles, a landslide re-election last year and speculation about whether he'll become the governor of Texas or even the country's first Hispanic president. His well-received turn at the convention all but guarantees more of such chatter.
Castro was introduced onstage his brother Joaquin, a Texas state legislator from San Antonio now poised to win election to Congress in November
"My family's story isn't special. What's special is the America that makes our story possible," Julian Castro said. "Ours is a nation like no other, a place where great journeys can be made in a single generation. No matter who you are or where you come from, the path is always forward."
What to make of a Republican Party that celebrates upward mobility but does nothing to promote it - despite the stunning fact that it is now less likely that an American child will rise from the station of his or her birth than children in most of Europe? Call it the Rubio Paradox — for Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a sure contender for the national ticket someday after his performance last week in Tampa, and the most eloquent current exemplar of this American creed.The striking thing about the Republican National Convention was how all of the most powerful speeches invoked tales of...
What does the Republican Party or its presidential nominee think about the war in Afghanistan? Good luck figuring it out from the party's recent convention, which offered conflicting views.
When Bill Clinton takes center stage at the -Democratic National Convention in Charlotte this week, he will make a characteristically forceful case for the party's other big dog, Barack Obama, arguing thata second Obama term is a vital necessity, and sounding for all the world as if the current president has no -greater admirer than the man from Hope. Every Democrat in the arena, and many beyond, will know better.
Not since the feud between Ted Kennedy and Jimmy Carter tore the Democratic Party apart more than 30 years ago have two panjandrums of the party loathed each other quite as much as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.And yet this week, television viewers will be treated to a remarkable spectacle at the Democratic National Convention: Clinton will stand before a cheering throng of delegates on Thursday night and deliver a primetime speech nominating Obama, a man he once dismissed as incompetent, as president of the United States.
In the days following the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, Lyndon B. Johnson was left to pursue his predecessor’s unfinished legislative agenda. White House insiders considered the task nearly impossible. The civil rights bill was bottled up in the House Rules Committee, where its chairman was intent on running out the clock
until the election the next year. A critical tax cut, meanwhile, was bogged down in the Senate, where the Finance Committee chairman was holding it hostage.
Johnson surveyed the legislative landscape and knew he had to shake things up.
Rather than negotiate with Congress, Johnson turned the goodwill of the nation into a force with which to bludgeon the GOP and expand what was politically possible. He took his case to the American people, reminding them that the GOP was the “Party of Lincoln,” and flooded Washington with religious leaders who lobbied Congress.
The result was a tax cut that is largely credited with ushering in an era of high growth and, of course, the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Had Johnson stuck to inside baseball, he would have struck out twice.
Barack Obama could have learned something from LBJ. As a candidate Obama promised to change the way Washington works and he rode a wave of global support into the White House. His first two years in office have repeatedly been compared to the New Deal under Franklin Roosevelt and the Great Society under Johnson, with historic achievements on health care, Wall Street reform and other domestic priorities.
But Obama’s first term has also left many of his supporters wondering whether those accomplishments could have been bigger in size, scope and impact. The health care reform legislation was built largely off a conservative model, with millions of people shuttled into the private market. The financial regulatory reform bill contained carve-outs for the private sector and is widely regarded as not far-reaching enough to curb some of the banking industry’s worst practices. The White House made little effort to push labor priorities like the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have granted workers more avenues to form unions. The Iraq war may have ended, but the war in Afghanistan heated up, with lingering confusion as to why troops remain there.
Now, just a few months before the election, Obama is suffering from an engagement gap. According to a late July Gallup poll, only 39 percent of Democrats said they were “more enthusiastic” than usual about voting. That number was 61 percent at a similar time in 2008. Republicans, meanwhile, are more fired up now (51 percent) than they were in 2008 (35 percent).
Obama is no longer regarded by the majority of voters as a constructive reformer. An August 21 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed that only 37 percent of the respondents thought he would bring the “right kind of change” in his second term.
Although Democrats tend to like the president more than Republicans like Mitt Romney, his re-election is far from assured.
How did a candidate who drew two million individuals to his inauguration and retained a 13 million-member email list lose that magic?
According to campaign officials, White House aides, members of Congress, top party strategists, labor leaders and progressive advocates, the main reason is that Obama has come to resemble the creature of Washington he campaigned against.
Whereas FDR and LBJ marshalled the American people as weapons in legislative combat, BHO came to Washington and tried to play the game like an old hand.
A president, by definition, is an inside player, tasked with executing difficult rounds of political negotiations. But without the energy of the campaign, Obama found himself with far less power than expected. “They got to Washington and they became of the place, and assumed that by virtue of having an email come that has ‘WH’ on it, that everyone will go, ‘Oh, OK,’” said Michael Steele, the former head of the Republican National Committee.
Van Jones, a former White House official whose background in grassroots organizing gave him a different perspective from those of officials who’d come from the Clinton administration, summed up the consternation felt by many Obama supporters.
“Who killed the hope?” Jones wondered. “And what happened?”
“OUT-MARCHEDBY THE RIGHT”
Once in office, the soaring rhetoric of the election quickly gave way to legislative realities. Obama, as his top adviser David Axelrod noted in an interview, had pledged to “find and form coalitions” as president. Not doing so once in office would constitute a broken promise in its own right. But promising to pursue an era of post-partisanship and actually getting lawmakers to buy into the concept were two very different things.
“It is sometimes blithely said, ‘You had the White House and the House and after [Arlen] Specter [switched parties] you had a filibuster-proof majority [in the Senate]. Why didn’t you go more visionary?’” said Jared Bernstein, Vice President Biden’s former top economic adviser. “That’s an extremely un-nuanced view of the reality. There were numerous Democrats whose vision was far from aligned with ours.”
Addressing the challenges brought about by the recession also strained Obama in the early weeks and months of his administration, demanding the quick and secretive work he had previously decried.
“Obama knows how to swim. He’s not an Olympic swimmer, but he knows how to swim,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said in a recent interview in his office on Capitol Hill. “He found himself in this huge river, the current is all running against him. The country has lost eight million jobs, and he knows he has to come up for air once in awhile, or he’s gonna drown. And he does that, he comes up for air in the very best way he can.
“For me, he was always there, even though the stream was against him. He was always able to get out of the water and help us. I think his inside game was just trying to keep the country alive.”
But if Obama was forced to play the inside game out of necessity, the president’s progressive critics note that he never really tried to see if trying the outside game could work.
During the crafting of the stimulus bill in the winter of 2008 and 2009, for example, Obama’s top economic advisers started from the premise that there were limits to what was politically possible. When the incoming head of the Council of Economic Advisers, Christina Romer, suggested that $1.8 trillion was needed to fill the hole in the economy, Obama’s top economic adviser, Larry Summers, rebuffed her, calling the figure impractical.
According to Noam Scheiber of The New Republic, Romer pared her proposal down to $1.2 trillion, but Summers still considered it too heavy a lift to get through Congress. The memo Summers finally presented to the president listed $800 billion as the top figure.
A top White House official told Huffington that larger proposals were still debated. But by then, the official said, the president’s Hill team had been warned that moderate Democrats wouldn’t go for anything over $800 billion. They chose to operate within those political constraints rather than try to expand them.
Obama’s team worked hand-in-hand with congressional leaders to develop the actual language of the bill. The president did venture outside the Beltway to sell the stimulus, making a trip to Florida to stand alongside one of the few supportive Republican lawmakers, then-Gov. Charlie Crist. But he did not travel to Maine to convince the moderate Republican Sens.
Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe — who, unlike Crist, actually had a vote — to back the measure, as progressives urged him to do. The infrequent use of his campaign arm, Organizing for America, was also criticized.
“We did put pressure on them. We did go out and campaign. We went down to Florida and stood with Charlie Crist and he was almost never heard from again,” said Axelrod. “We made the case that we needed to intervene [to save the economy]. But as a political matter there was an upward limit for what was sellable.”
As the White House negotiated, Republicans stole a page from the Democratic playbook and took their arguments to the American people.
“We used their model, and what surprised me was they stopped using their model,” Steele told Huffington.
“I always thought that Obama would actually do both, that he would play the inside game while he was building up the outside strategy of more of a global network that he could pull the trigger on, push a button and, you know, 1,300 people would respond in 10 minutes type thing,” said Steele. “I was actually, absolutely surprised. I think they took it for granted. I think they assumed that, ‘They love me so much, they’ll always be there.’ Well, as you know, in this town, love is fleeting. It’s a very fickle thing.”
When Collins decided that the stimulus could include no money to upgrade schools, Bernstein said, the White House decided not to fight her on it. “The idea that the president would then go to Maine strikes me as a questionable strategy and one we chose not to follow,” he said.
The success of the stimulus is still being debated. Time’s Michael Grunwald’s book The New New Deal makes the case that it was a historic investment in reshaping the U.S. economy along the lines of what took place under FDR. But economists have also documented how insufficient the Recovery Act was in filling the hole the recession created. And for many Democrats, the failure to fight on the ground for a policy that met the direness of the situation remains a fatal error.
“The one thing that I learned when I was at the White House was that we thought we had everything we needed to govern: Obama, Pelosi — best Speaker ever — 60 votes in the Senate [Specter would switch parties after the stimulus passed],” said Van Jones, who, since leaving the White House, has become active in outside progressive organizations.
“Turns out we had a third of what we needed. You need media on your side — for-real media, like [Republicans] have with Fox. And you need a movement in the streets like they have with the Tea Party. It turns out if you don’t have the media or the movement, you’ll get beat to butter on the government level.”
Jones told Huffington he was stunned to see conservatives out-organize the White House.
“How was it that for two years the right wing in America had a monopoly on both the ground war, street protests, and the idea war? That’s almost unprecedented,” he said. “I mean, how are we going to get out-marched by the right in an economic catastrophe?”
The mad dash to pass a stimulus may have forced the White House to not let the perfect be an enemy of the good. But the health care bill it began pursuing soon thereafter made clear the extent to which the president was willing to engage in transactional politics.
The decision to tackle health care reform itself was born from an un-inspirational premise. While Obama had talked frequently during the campaign about the moral obligation to expand access to the uninsured, it was basic accounting that convinced him to move forward in the spring of 2009. Rising health care costs are one of the biggest drivers of the national debt, and curbing the rate of growth was not just a policy objective, but a governing necessity.
“He was persuaded to do health care, I believe, by Peter Orszag [the budget director], not Ted Kennedy [health care reform’s righteous champion],” explained one top ally in the fall of 2010, who requested anonymity in order to speak frankly.
Having reached this conclusion, Obama and his advisers made a set of strategic decisions that would define the subsequent health care reform process. The first was that everything had to be paid for. There was little appetite for more deficit spending after the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the stimulus and the auto bailout. The second was to grant Congress a huge say over the legislative process.
“There was a view — and I don’t know how accurate the view is — that in ‘94, Clinton didn’t spend a lot of time dealing with all the stakeholders, and they all came out against it. Because they didn’t feel brought into the process,” explained a top administration official shortly after health care passed, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the deliberations. “So we brought them all in.”
At first, openness meant hosting public forums where groups ranging from the unions to private insurance companies could voice their visions for reform, from the need for preventative services to the pitfalls of fee-for-service care.
Behind the scenes, however, the White House went out of its way to ensure that any group or lawmaker with relevance to the bill wasn’t alienated by the negotiations. According to Democratic officials close to the situation, the administration decided not to enlist its massive email list to fight for the public option — a government agency to provide insurance coverage — because they worried that the measure would inevitably be traded away, disappointing those who fought for it.
“He was husbanding them for the political battles to come instead of releasing them to go nuts,” said a former top Senate leadership aide. “He had built up this vaunted [grassroots machine], they had spent years building this thing, and it wasn’t released on health care, for instance, his top priority.”
Meanwhile, the White House cut deals with some of health care reform’s traditional opponents in order to try to buy their support — or at least dull their criticisms. They assured private insurers that the final reform bill would have a large private-sector component. In exchange, AHIP, the insurance industry’s lobbying arm, kept their reservations quiet, albeit while secretly funnelling money to the Chamber of Commerce for its anti-health care reform ad campaign.
PhRMA, the lobbying group of the pharmaceutical industry, agreed to chip in $100 billion over 10 years towards health care reform (a figure they lowered to $80 billion) in exchange for an expanded pool of customers. The administration also promised not to use its purchasing power to lower prescription drug prices, and to oppose the re-importation of cheaper drugs from Canada and elsewhere, key PhRMA priorities.
Emails obtained by GOP investigators on the House Energy and Commerce Committee and provided to Huffington show just how closely the White House and PhRMA were working together. In August 2009, after The Huffington Post obtained a memo detailing the bargain on health care, officials at the two agencies swapped ideas on how best to deny the allegations.
“Clearly, someone is trying to short circuit our efforts to try and make health care reform a reality this year,” wrote Ken Johnson, a top lobbyist for PhRMA, in an email to the White House’s top health care communications official, Linda Douglass.
“Excellent. Thanks Ken,” replied Douglass.
The White House also denied the memo’s accuracy, but the final bill by the Senate Finance Committee produced followed the agreement almost precisely.
On the Hill, the chair of that committee, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) had been granted a huge leash to negotiate with Republicans. The negotiations dragged on for months as the public — with a heavy assist from congressional Republicans — soured on reform. Throughout the summer of 2009, angry crowds at town hall meetings berated Democratic lawmakers on everything from government overreach to death panels.
By the fall, with Democrats acting skittish, the president chose to go big, delivering a speech to a joint session of Congress laying out the virtues of large-scale reform. In it, he returned to the lofty rhetoric that he had featured on the campaign trail.
“We did not come here just to clean up crises. We came here to build a future,” he said. “So tonight, I return to speak to all of you about an issue that is central to that future — and that is the issue of health care. I am not the first president to take up this cause, but I am determined to be the last.”
He chastised lawmakers for using the health care debate to score political points and declared that the “time for bickering” was over. But when it came down to actually securing votes, Obama and his allies continued to employ a carrot-centric approach.
Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) was granted the infamous “cornhusker kickback,” in which Nebraska would be granted 100-percent matching federal funds for the Medicaid expansion to be required under the law. When the deal engendered howls of outrage, Nelson had to ask that it be taken out of the final legislative language. Then-Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) was offered a provision that benefited medical device manufacturers, who have heavy influence in his state. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) was given millions in Medicaid money for her state.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), who had promised the Democratic leadership that he wouldn’t be a nuisance on domestic policy in exchange for keeping his post as chair of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, ended up being just that. When he objected to the public option, he was offered a provision he previously supported: a Medicare buy-in, allowing consumers from the ages of 55-65 to pay a premium for the coverage. When he rejected that too, Reid was apoplectic.
“He just wasn’t honest with me,” Reid muttered at one point.
But nobody pressured Lieberman to drop his pledge to uphold a filibuster of the bill. Asked by The Huffington Post at the time whether he was willing to give up his gavel in the fight over health care, Lieberman said “Oh, God no. Nobody’s asking me that.”
In fact, when Obama addressed the Democratic caucus at the height of the debate, as the public option and Medicare buy-in were teetering on the brink, Lieberman said the president told him simply to work it out.
“When he came to the caucus he said, ‘Just try to work this out as you get to the end here.’ And I said, ‘OK,’” explained Lieberman.
And when Lieberman made his objections to the Medicare buy-in provision known, then-White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, a notorious political knee-capper, kept his cool.
“Find a way to get to yes,” he told the senator during a meeting in Reid’s office.
The final bill expanded Medicaid eligibility, improved access to health insurance by allowing children up to age 26 stay on their parent’s plan, and banned discrimination against patients with pre-existing conditions. It capped the amount of money insurance companies could spend on non-health care functions, helped seniors with their prescription drug coverage, and promoted preventative care.
But it did not include a public option — with could have saved tens of millions of dollars, according to the Congressional Budget Office — or the Medicare buy-in provision. And the administration had limited the ability of the government to negotiate directly with drug companies.
“I think they made pretty naive mistakes, trying to cut a deal with PhRMA. They gave PhRMA too much in the process,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told The Huffington Post in the spring of 2010, shortly after the Affordable Care Act passed. “They didn’t talk to us about it. They made that deal off the record.”
“And then when he started talking about jettisoning the public option, that’s when we started saying ‘This is ridiculous.’ It’s almost like they didn’t know how to negotiate,” Trumka added. “[Obama would] say ‘It’s not important.’ And anybody who’s been around a negotiating table knows, if they say it’s not important, consider it gone. You don’t even concern yourself with it. But if he was going to give it away he should’ve gotten something major in return for it. He got nothing.”
Politically, moreover, the president’s brand had been damaged by his own party.
“I think part of the sad commentary that is unusual for Obama is that he had overwhelming Democratic majorities and was still having to play an overly inside game,” said Andy Stern, the former head of the Service Employees International Union. “He should not have been having to play an inside game with his own team. Even on procedure. Not just on substance. They wouldn’t even give him a vote just to close down filibusters. ... I’m sure he was frustrated. He thought he was going to be bringing Democrats and Republicans together, not just Democrats together.”
Among Obama’s advisers, Axelrod was perhaps the most aware of this dynamic. At a caucus meeting in early February 2010, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) laced into him and others for not showing enough spine and leadership.
“The fact is, when you have a party that expands from Ben Nelson to Bernie Sanders that is a lot of territory,” Axelrod conceded in an interview.
USING THE BULLY PULPIT
For the president and his defenders, there is a ready rejoinder to complaints about the inside game he played. In the end, the stimulus was passed and the economy was saved. Health care reform got done and tens of millions of people were granted access to health insurance. Obama, unlike any of his predecessors, notched that historic achievement.
“Knowing him, my suspicion is that he was a very smart, intuitive man who was looking towards what the best deal he could get would be for those issues,” said Steve Hildebrand, who served as deputy national campaign director for Obama’s 2008 campaign but has been critical of the president on legislative matters. “And he sort of moved beyond some of the aspects that he just didn’t think would ever be able to pass. I think there is some sense that having served with these relatively crazy people in Congress that he had a pretty good understanding of what was going to be acceptable and what wouldn’t fly.”
But that only raises the question of what Obama might have gotten had he done more to drum up support for his proposals outside Washington.
Long after Obama and Democratic leaders on the Hill had given up on the public option, progressive groups, working with two freshmen on the House side — Maine’s Chellie Pingree and Colorado’s Jared Polis — brought it back to life.
Democrats lost their 60-vote majority in the Senate in January 2010 when Scott Brown won a special election in Massachusetts to fill the late Ted Kennedy’s seat. Emanuel urged the president to whittle down the bill into small pieces that could pass through Congress. Pundits across town thought the whole enterprise was dead. It was the outside game that revived it.
The only possibility was to use a process known as reconciliation, a controversial legislative maneuver which requires only a majority vote. Pingree and Polis urged Reid to use reconciliation and put the public option on the floor.
But instead of lobbying Reid alone, the freshmen partnered with outside progressive groups who ran national petitions and lobbied other members to sign. Hundreds of thousands of people signed the petition, along with scores of Democratic members of Congress. Each time a new senator signed on, momentum grew. Eventually, more than 50 senators were on record supporting the public option through reconciliation.
Responding to the pressure, a Reid spokesman issued a statement saying that if the caucus wanted a vote, he would consider moving forward on it. It was a direct challenge to the White House, which had little desire to reignite what they thought was a hopeless debate.
A few hours after Reid’s office put out the statement, Emanuel met senior Reid aide Jim Manley and a few reporters from The Washington Post and The New York Times for dinner and drinks at Lola’s, a Capitol Hill bar and grill. Seeing Manley at the table, Emanuel, who was desperately just trying to get a bill through Congress, offered a response to Reid’s gesture with one of his own: a double-bird, an eerie sight given his half-severed right finger.
The public option never got a vote. But the outside game changed the fortunes of the seemingly dead health care bill.
Obama himself, with his signature effort on the brink, broke with the inside game playbook and used his bully pulpit in one of the most effective ways a president ever has. His aides demanded that cameras record his appearance before the House Republican Caucus retreat in Baltimore, during which he publicly called those lawmakers out for knee-jerk opposition and intellectual dishonesty. A month later, he held open meetings at the Blair House, debating congressional Republicans on the merits and shortcomings of their pieces of reform.
The Blair House summit was deemed a draw by the Capitol Hill press, but what the media missed was that Obama had redirected the nation’s attention to health care and away from the Brown victory. The momentum shifted. The party decided to move forward with reconciliation. Democrats had the space and capital they needed to get the Affordable Care Act passed.
The renewed push for the public option, though ultimately unsuccessful, helped save the bill, according to Democrats on the Hill.
“It helped a whole lot,” said Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), the man then charge of whipping votes, of the Pingree-Polis letter. “The base getting fired up helped a whole lot. We could feel it out there.”
In an interview in his office the week the House passed the final piece of reform, then-Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said he agreed. “It added energy to the effort to get to where we wanted to get,” he said, leaving open the question: Could it have been more helpful, earlier?
THE LINCOLN FACTOR
The outside game also helped progressives achieve other legislative victories that might have otherwise eluded them.
With health care complete, the Senate moved to finish Wall Street reform in the spring of 2010. The White House and its allies were still calling it “finreg” at the time — a bit of insider jargon short for “financial regulation” that typified the approach to that point. The House version of the bill was the handiwork of a master legislator, Financial Services Chair Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who worked hand in hand with senior White House and Treasury officials. As such, it was shot through with carve-outs and loopholes for the banks.
A strange thing began happening in the Senate, however. With consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren and a coalition of progressive and labor groups taking the fight to the public, the bill got stronger in the upper chamber. The White House, for its part, seized on a major Goldman Sachs scandal, as the bank was charged in April by the Securities and Exchange Commission with defrauding investors. Republicans and bank lobbyists found the timing of the announcement suspicious, but it worked to reignite public outrage at Wall Street. Rechristened “Wall Street reform” — much catchier than “finreg” — the bill started steamrolling.
Democrats saw a chance for a political win-win: Harry Reid took financial regulatory reform to the floor, knowing it didn’t have 60 votes, but daring Republicans to brave the headlines that would come from defending Wall Street. As cloture vote after cloture vote (the 60-member threshold vote needed to end debate) failed, Reid grew impatient. He wanted to pull the bill off the floor and move on, said Chris Dodd, then chairman of the Banking Committee.
“There have been times when he’s raised questions about whether or not we can actually go forward, and I’ve had to convince him that I thought we could go ahead and get the bill, but it was right to ask the question,” Dodd told The Huffington Post at the time. “A couple of times on financial reform, when they thought maybe we just ought to go on to something else, when we had so many cloture votes on it, but I and others were able to convince him that no, that we thought we could win the issue and we ought to keep it up.”
With White House backing, Senate Democrats kept it up. Every attempt by Republicans or bank-friendly Democrats to rip out or water down Warren’s brainchild, the Consumer Financial Protection Agency, was met with fierce resistance. “My first choice is a strong consumer agency,” the Harvard law professor told The Huffington Post in March 2010. “My second choice is no agency at all and plenty of blood and teeth left on the floor.”
Meanwhile, in Arkansas, online liberal activists teamed with Big Labor to challenge Sen. Blanche Lincoln in a Democratic primary. Lincoln had long been one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress, and as chair of the Agriculture Committee, she was charged with writing the piece of Wall Street reform that dealt with derivatives.
She shocked K Street and the Washington establishment when, six weeks before her primary, she released tough legislation that tightly regulated the derivatives market. The move sapped her progressive challenger, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, of momentum. Lincoln beat back most efforts to weaken her language.
The night of Lincoln’s victory in June 2010, a senior White House official got in touch with POLITICO reporter Ben Smith to snipe. “Organized labor just flushed $10 million of their members’ money down the toilet on a pointless exercise,” the official said. “If even half that total had been well-targeted and applied in key House races across this country, that could have made a real difference in November.”
Labor may have lost that specific vote to oust Lincoln, but by taking the fight outside, it won legislative language that strictly regulated trillions of dollars of financial transactions. Considering the end result, the price tag was cheap.
A LOSING STRATEGY
Voters delivered a firm rebuke to the president in the November 2010 midterm elections. Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives, and the president’s health care law proved to be a rallying point for Republican voters. Obama’s top advisers concluded that they needed to demonstrate the appropriate humility.
This attitude only bogged the White House down further within the inside game. The lame duck session saw major victories on a nuclear non-proliferation treaty and an end to “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the longstanding military policy that prohibited gay members from openly serving. But even with the public in favor of letting tax cuts expire on high-end income brackets, the administration bowed to concerns from within their own party and negotiated a deal with Republicans to extend all the Bush tax cuts for two more years.
In strategy sessions, the president and his advisers looked at ways to move various agenda items, from immigration reform to additional stimulus, through a divided Congress. Top officials believed that if they could earn the public’s trust on the deficit and remove that issue from the table, Republicans would join them on other items.
And so, in the spring of 2011, as congressional Republicans threatened to shut down the government unless Democrats agreed to steep spending cuts, the White House looked for middle ground. Without prior warning, then-White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley offered House GOP leadership a higher level of cuts then what congressional Democrats were prepared to offer, according to multiple sources involved in negotiations.
“Our intent was to avoid the shutdown of the government,” Daley told Huffington. “The president was committed to getting spending under control, and that’s why we agreed to the deal that ended up passing.”
Privately, the administration had determined that the president would be hurt badly if the government shut down. Bill Clinton had won that battle in the mid-1990s. But he had benefitted from having a tempestuous Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, as his political bete noir.
“[House Speaker John] Boehner was not going to become the enemy,” said one top Obama aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss those internal deliberations. “He was not going to be the guy who people emoted anger towards.”
The two sides eventually reached an 11th-hour agreement to keep the government open. But the White House’s hope that these types of deficit-reduction negotiations could produce a detente on other items was quickly dashed. House Republicans began plotting how to use a historically mundane vote to raise the debt ceiling as a means of extracting even more from the administration.
For months, the administration believed that the debt ceiling fight would ultimately be resolved with only moderate drama. For all the talk of a frosty relationship between the president and Boehner, top White House aides considered the Ohio Republican a reasonable individual amidst a caucus of crazy. On June 24, 2011, the staffs to the president and the speaker held the first in a series of secret meetings to hammer out a grand bargain.
With barely any input from fellow Democrats, Obama placed sacred cow after sacred cow on the block: massive cuts to discretionary spending ($1.2 trillion over 10 years), gradual changes to the retirement age for Medicare, changes the premium structure for Medicare Part B and D and changes to the way Social Security benefits were paid starting in 2015. In exchange, the White House demanded $800 billion in revenue increases.
As negotiations continued in private, pitfalls emerged on the Hill. A group of senators known as the Gang of Six began reviving their own debt-reduction formula. It had similar features to the deal Obama and Boehner were laying out, but also called for roughly $1.2 trillion more in revenues.
Those Democrats who were bound to have been angered with the president’s proposal, would be apoplectic now, knowing how bad a deal he had struck. The grand bargain was effectively dead. Obama went to Boehner looking for more revenues, but the speaker walked away.
The president had narrowed an inside-game strategy even further, in the hope that direct one-on-one negotiations might be more fruitful. It had nearly worked. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), now the presumptive Republican vice presidential nominee, reportedly warned Boehner that a deal wasn’t just bad policy but would have effectively guaranteed Obama’s re-election. And Obama got credit for his willingness to reach out to Republicans, who, in turn, took a hit in the polls. But his own party was alarmed by what he was willing to give up in the process.
For progressives, the White House’s inability to see the unbending recalcitrance of congressional Republicans remains the biggest, most inexplicable shortcoming of the president’s first term in office. The problem, as Andy Stern, the former SEIU president, put it, was not just that Obama attempted to play the inside game. It’s that he did so time and time again without recognizing the utter pointlessness of the endeavor.
“We were watching the administration lose, and that’s when I think people began to appropriately ask: ‘What in the world are we doing here?’” said Stern, before listing his examples. “The public option, the lack of a plan about deficit reduction, the Republicans’ willingness to take the country over the cliff, and the president trying to cut a back door deal with Boehner as if he was going to be different than the rest of the extremists.”
AN ENGAGEMENT GAP
After the debt-ceiling debacle, the White House’s approach changed. The administration concluded that legislative negotiations with House Republicans would forever be an act of frustration unless they shaped the public debate first.
“You don’t want to date these people,” one exasperated top administration official told reporters on July 22, 2011, the night that the Boehner-Obama deal imploded.
“I think it was obvious by the end of the summer 2011 that the leadership in the House was not going to go anywhere further than the minimum amount needed to avoid fiscal calamity,” explained Daley, who left the White House in early 2012.
Led by economic adviser Gene Sperling and with a push from Axelrod as well, the president turned his focus from debt reduction to job creation. He put together a package of proposals — targeted tax cuts, infrastructure investments, money for teacher retention and first responder hiring, to name a few — and barnstormed the country to build up support.
The administration launched a “We Can’t Wait” campaign highlighting the executive actions the president was taking to stimulate the economy on his own.
“I need your help,” Obama told an audience in Denver in October last year. “Some of these folks in Washington still aren’t getting the message. I need your voices heard. I especially need you young people, I need you guys involved. I need you active. I need you communicating to Congress. I need you to get the word out. … Tell them, ‘Do your job.’”
While the efforts did little to dissolve GOP opposition — only a minor chunk of the president’s jobs bill ended up being passed — the outside game achieved its desired results. Congressional Republicans were left defensive and battered as the president assailed them to pass a year-long extension of his payroll tax cut. Boehner eventually folded his cards, agreeing to extend the rates without requiring spending cuts to offset the cost. It was the type of victory that had escaped the White House for months, if not years.
“I think [the debt ceiling debate] was a watershed event, because it was clear that ... these matters weren’t going to be easily resolved within the four walls of the cabinet room, or the conference room on Capitol Hill,” Axelrod said. “There’s no doubt that the lesson of that was that more, rather than less, public engagement was absolutely essential.”
Suddenly, the image of a president making progress began to emerge. And it was furthered along when he announced his support for same-sex marriage and a new administration policy that would end the deportation of undocumented immigrants who had advanced degrees or performed military service.
But for all that, the engagement gap facing the Obama campaign persists. Much of it is a product of a stagnant economy, which has sapped voters of the political energy they had in 2008. But even Obama’s defenders admit that his time spent governing as an insider has altered the perception of him as a change-agent.
“What you have is an incumbent president who naturally grew into the role of the presidency, away from a fire and brimstone candidate,” said Obama’s old deputy campaign manager Hildebrand, explaining the difference between 2012 and 2008.
Added Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, who has served as a business-savvy surrogate for the president’s re-election campaign: “This is a less romantic time, a less romantic campaign.”
“Maybe [Obama]’s had to do some more things you would term traditional,” Markell added. “But there’s no question his vision is more along the lines of where most Americans are in the terms of a strong middle class. He’s laid out a specific plan to get there, and you see it already, people really feel like he will fight for them more than Mitt Romney would.”
That may be true. Certainly, polls indicate that the public is aligned with Obama on the majority of issues, from Medicare to taxes to foreign policy.
Playing the outside game, however, requires enjoying the fight. As Jared Bernstein said, it means going to someone’s backyard and telling them to their face that they’re wrong. It means using political force to win with a bare majority rather than reaching consensus. It means letting go of the illusion that the Republican Party is looking to work with you.
For Obama, whose brand remains very much tied to the idea that partisanship can be overcome, it remains unclear whether he’s comfortable with that type of politics.
Explaining this spring how he would manage to enact his agenda in a second term, Obama was still looking forward to sitting down and cutting deals. This time, he said, Republicans would be nicer because he’s not running for re-election.
“I believe that if we’re successful in this election, when we’re successful in this election, that the fever may break, because there’s a tradition in the Republican Party of more common sense than that,” he said. “My hope, my expectation, is that after the election, now that it turns out that the goal of beating Obama doesn’t make much sense because I’m not running again, that we can start getting some cooperation again.”
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- A game of political chicken is playing out among the nation's top Republicans and Missouri's embattled GOP nominee for the Senate.
Will Rep. Todd Akin eventually cave to party leaders' demands and drop his challenge to Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill? Or will the Republican establishment conclude that their effort to take control of the Senate is too important and reluctantly support him, despite his inflammatory remarks about rape and pregnancy?
Two weeks after the remarks, each side remains stubbornly insistent that the other should blink.
If Akin refuses to quit, and deep-pocketed Republicans refuse to finance him, "it's pretty much a done deal that we have given this race to Claire McCaskill," said Carol Thomas, one of many Missouri Republicans who backed Akin in an August primary but now bemoan the party's predicament.
The GOP quandary is this: Party leaders no longer believe Akin can win, so they have abandoned him and vowed to pull millions of dollars of planned advertising. But Akin, who still thinks he can unseat McCaskill, will have a much harder time doing so without their help.
In an interview with conservative activists this past week at the Republican National Convention, party Chairman Reince Priebus remained firmly against Akin – even if Akin is locked in a close race as the Nov. 6 election draws near.
"He could be tied. We're not going to send him a penny," Priebus said in the videotaped interview that was publicized by Akin's campaign.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee and the conservative Crossroads group have insisted they're not bluffing about revoking the money for anti-McCaskill ads.
Akin has been equally firm in his commitment to stay in the race. He believes Republican leaders need to change their minds and says many voters are welcoming him back as he resumes campaigning.
"I'm sensing, as I'm on the road, a deep resentment of the people at the grassroots level of Missouri of being pushed aside and the party bosses wanting to appoint their own person," Akin told The Associated Press. "There is an increasingly coalescing base of support for my race in Missouri."
Public opinion polls have varied, with some showing Akin still roughly even with McCaskill and others indicating he now trails.
Missouri's Senate race had been considered vital to the Republicans' goal of picking up the four seats necessary to regain control of the Senate. But those chances diminished after Akin remarked in an interview that aired Aug. 19 on St. Louis television station KTVI that women's bodies have ways of avoiding pregnancy in cases of "legitimate rape." He repeatedly apologized, but many Republicans urged him to quit so the party could pick a replacement candidate.
"I think he's selfish. If he cared about his party, I think he would have dropped out," Thomas said.
Akin denies any selfish ambitions.
"This decision is not about me at all," he told KTVI this past week. "America faces a choice of two entirely different futures. This is about our country, and doing the right thing for our county. And that has been the only thing that I've considered."
Stephen Nowels, a member of the Republican committee in St. Louis, said he will probably leave the Senate box blank or vote for a third-party candidate because of Akin's comments.
"Voters tend to forget stuff," said Nowels, who runs a violin store. But "I don't think they're going to forget this one."
As Election Day approaches, it's more likely that Republican powerbrokers will give in than it is that Akin will budge, said longtime political scientist Richard Fulton, a professor at Northwest Missouri State University.
If Akin is within 5 percentage points in the polls in October, "I think the big-money conservative PACS will find a way to get him some money," Fulton said.
But if top Republicans want to double-down on their opposition to Akin, there is another alternative. Missouri law allows write-in candidates to file for office until Oct. 26. That possibility gained steam last weekend when Republican strategist Mary Matalin suggested the GOP could field former state party Chairwoman Ann Wagner as a Senate write-in candidate.
Waging a write-in campaign would require Wagner to drop her bid to succeed Akin in his suburban St. Louis district, something that Wagner's campaign manager flatly rejected.
Missouri law prohibits the losers of party primaries from later filing as write-in candidates for the same office. That means the Republican candidates who lost to Akin last month can't resume their campaigns.
Saint Louis University political scientist Ken Warren said it is "virtually impossible" for write-in candidates to win. Strom Thurmond did it in South Carolina in 1954. But since then, only one Senate candidate has done so: Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski won re-election as a write-in two years ago after losing in the Republican primary.
A write-in campaign would also carry a distinct risk: In a three-way Senate race, another Republican could split the vote with Akin, allowing for an easy McCaskill win, Warren said.
Associated Press Writer Jim Salter contributed to this report from St. Louis.
Liberals wanted nothing more than to see a divided Republican Party this week, sputtering out of Tampa and limping across the country. They didn't get that.Â What they got was a party united behind their nominee and in purpose.Â This unity has caused even more panic than normal.Â While waiting to interview former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, I listened to a reporter from CBS ask him three questions in a row about how he's out of the mainstream of the party because of his pro-choice, pro-gay marriage views. Giuliani, being too smart to give the reporter the attack on his fellow...
TAMPA, Fla. -- As the parade of witnesses to the godliness, charity and grace of Mitt Romney at the Republican National Convention Thursday night reminded us, Romney was a leading bishop in the Mormon Church. If he wins in November, he would be the first high-ranking religious official to become president of the U.S. in modern times.
The one-time president of the Boston Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Romney is thus part of a presidential candidate trend that began in the modern era with Jimmy Carter, a lay preacher in the Baptist Church; television evangelist Pat Robertson; and Mike Huckabee of Arkansas.
Before the nominee's own speech on Thursday, the Romney campaign gingerly unveiled a new emphasis on Mitt Romney's Mormon faith and service -- an important, inescapable and perhaps helpful thread in the effort to turn him into a sympathetic, empathetic figure.
"Mitt taught faith in God, self-reliance and service to humanity," said Grant Bennett, who succeeded Romney as president of the Boston Stake.
Advisers have long urged Romney, who felt burned by the response to his talk of Mormonism four years ago, to return to the theme. "You'll learn more about Mitt as a person tonight," predicted speechwriter Stuart Stevens before the big speech.
There's no way that can happen without Romney's talking about his deep involvement in the church and his commitment to its teachings.
The GOP has become in essence a faith-based party. Ironically, the best evidence of that is the nomination of a man whose church is viewed as an anti-Christian cult by many voters in the party.
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
TAMPA, Fla. — Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida says Mitt Romney knows what makes America exceptional.
Rubio told the GOP convention Thursday night that Romney understands prosperity doesn't happen because the government spends more money, that it happens because people use their own money to open businesses.
Rubio says the problem with President Barack Obama isn't that he's a bad person – it's that he's a bad president who favors tired ideas like big government.
The first-term senator and Cuban-American is a rising GOP star and a tea party favorite. He was reported to be among Romney's running mate choices.
Republicans hope Rubio can boost Romney, who is having a tough time winning over Latino voters.
Rubio introduced Romney as the former Massachusetts governor prepared to formally accept his party's presidential nomination.
TAMPA, Fla. — Clint Eastwood, the Hollywood filmmaker who knows all about sticking to the script, turned in a bizarre, unscripted endorsement of Republican Mitt Romney Wednesday night.
Standing on the convention stage with an empty chair, Eastwood carried on a sometimes rambling conversation with an imaginary President Barack Obama. The Oscar-winning director of "Unforgiven" and "Million Dollar Baby" criticized Obama for failing to turn the economy around and for wanting to close the Guantanamo Bay prison for terror suspects.
"How do you handle the promises you've made? What do you say?" Eastwood asked the imaginary Obama. "I know even some of the people in your party were disappointed you didn't close Gitmo," the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
"What do you mean `shut up'?" said Eastwood, acting indignant. "I thought it was just because somebody had a stupid idea of trying terrorists in New York City."
At another point, the 82-year-old Eastwood acted as if he were listening to the imaginary Obama unleash a diatribe against Romney, poking Vice President Joe Biden and letting the convention audience guess what the president said.
"He can't do that to himself. You're absolutely crazy!" Eastwood responded. "You're getting as bad as Biden. Biden is the intellect in the Democratic Party. It's just kind of a grin with a body behind it."
The actor and director talked about Oprah Winfrey, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and lawyers. Eastwood said Obama has failed to deliver on his promises and it's time for Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan, to take over.
At one point, Eastwood talked about the need for change.
"When somebody doesn't do the job, you gotta let `em go," Eastwood said. The tough-guy actor of "Dirty Harry" fame drew a finger across his throat.
The crowd cheered Eastwood's entrance and shouted his famed catchphrase, "Go ahead, make my day." The freewheeling performance was a sharp contrast to the highly choreographed convention in which the Romney campaign has vetted the speeches.
Backstage, stern-faced Romney aides winced at times as Eastwood's remarks stretched on. The actor was the only speaker not reading from a teleprompter as he spoke. The machine was blank.
Twitter was instantly ablaze with comments mocking Eastwood's rambling speech.
Howard Kurtz, host of CNN's "Reliable Sources," tweeted that "Clint's empty chair act" was the "weirdest convention moment I have ever seen." Joe Scarborough, the conservative host of MSNBC's "Morning Joe," declared "a great night for Mitt Romney just got sidetracked by Clint Eastwood. Wow. That was bad."
Minutes after Eastwood began his speech, someone created the (at)InvisibleObama account on Twitter. It already has 17,000 followers and counting.
"Clint Eastwood is now backstage arguing with a vending machine," joked Canadian comedian Daryn Jones.
Film critic Roger Ebert didn't give the speech two thumbs up.
"Clint, my hero, is coming across as sad and pathetic," tweeted Ebert. "He didn't need to do this to himself. It's unworthy of him."
Comedian Roseanne Barr put it simply: "clint eastwood is CRAY."
Not everyone agreed.
"Clint Eastwood made my day," tweeted Southern rocker Charlie Daniels. The Hollywood trades gave it positive marks, perhaps a reflection of the movie world's appreciation for genuineness.
Eastwood endorsed Romney earlier this month at a campaign event in Sun Valley, Idaho.
Associated Press writers Kasie Hunt and Steve Peoples in Tampa, Fla., and Derrik J. Lang in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
Tampa, Fla."” Listening to Paul Ryan's acceptance speech in the convention hall last night evoked a similar transformative moment I witnessed in 1980 when Ronald Reagan reset the agenda for the Republican party.Then-candidate Reagan took his pledge to cut taxes by 30 percent across the board, and he gave the Republican party a new mission. Instead of being stuck as the "tax collectors for the welfare state," the GOP became the party of economic growth and opportunity. And Reagan's policies did just that "” spurring two decades...
BY DAVID ESPO, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
TAMPA, Fla. — Seizing the campaign spotlight, vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan accepted "the calling of my generation" to help lead the country at age 42 and told roaring Republican National Convention delegates and a prime-time TV audience Wednesday night that Mitt Romney and he will make the difficult decisions needed to repair the nation's economy.
"After four years of getting the runaround, America needs a turnaround, and the man for the job is Governor Mitt Romney," the Wisconsin lawmaker declared in what amounted to his debut on the national stage. He spoke at a convention dogged by Tropical Storm Isaac, downgraded from a hurricane but still inflicting misery on millions along the nearby northern Gulf Coast.
"We will not duck the tough issues; we will lead," Ryan promised in a speech that was part attack on Democratic President Barack Obama and part spirited testimonial to presidential candidate Romney, warmed by a loving tribute to his own 78-year-old mother, Betty.
"To this day, my mom is a role model," Ryan said as she beamed in her seat across the hall and exchanged smiles with one of his children. Delegates cheered their approval.
A generation younger than the 65-year-old Romney, Ryan emphasized their differences as well as their joint commitment to tackle the economy, an evident appeal to younger voters who flocked to Obama's side in 2008.
"There are songs on his iPod which I've heard on the campaign bus – and on many hotel elevators," he said to laughter in the hall.
As for his own favorites, he said Romney "actually urged me to play some of these songs at campaign rallies. I said, `I hope it's not a deal breaker, Mitt. But my playlist starts with AC/DC and ends with Zeppelin."
Romney, in a secondary role if only for a moment, accused Obama of backing "reckless defense cuts" amounting to $1 trillion. Addressing the American Legion in Indianapolis, he said, `There are plenty of places to cut in a federal budget that now totals over $3 trillion. But defense is not one of them."
Romney delivers his own nationally televised acceptance speech Thursday night in the final act of his own convention. The political attention then shifts to the Democrats, who open their own meeting on Tuesday in Charlotte, N.C., to nominate Obama and Vice President Joe Biden for second terms.
Deep into a two-week stretch of national gatherings, the race for the White House is in a sort of political black hole where the day-to-day polls matter little if at all as voters sort through their impressions.
Criticizing Obama, Ryan said of the president and Democrats: "They've run out of ideas. Their moment came and went. Fear and division is all they've got left."
He pledged Republicans would save Medicare from looming bankruptcy, despite constant accusations from Democrats that the GOP approach would shred the program that provides health care to more than 30 million seniors.
"Our nation needs this debate. We want this debate. We will win this debate," Ryan declared. But he offered no details of the remedy Republicans would propose.
Earlier, delegates cheered a parade of party leaders past, present and – possibly – future.
The presidents Bush, George H.W., elected in 1988, and his son, George W., winner in 2000 and 2004, were featured in an evocative video. Arizona Sen. John McCain, the party's 2008 nominee, spoke on his 76th birthday and said he wished he'd been there under different circumstances. And an array of ambitious younger elected officials preceded Ryan to the podium, Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and John Thune of South Dakota among them.
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice praised the Republican ticket in a speech that made no overt mention of Obama. "Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan will rebuild us at home and inspire us to lead abroad. They will provide an answer to the question, `Where does America stand?'"
The congressman's speech skipped lightly over inconvenient facts.
He assailed the stimulus legislation that Congress passed at Obama's request in 2009 to help stabilize the economy but neglected to mention that he asked for some of the resulting funding, which eventually went to two Wisconsin energy conservation companies in his home state.
He also accused Obama of taking more than $700 billion from Medicare to help finance the president's signature health care law. But he didn't mention that a pair of tax and spending plans he authored as chairman of the House Budget Committee retained the cuts and put the money toward deficit reduction.
Ryan said he was accepting "the calling of my generation to give our children the America that was given to us."
He added, "The present administration has made its choices. And Mitt Romney and I have made ours: Before the math and the momentum overwhelm us all, we are going to solve this nation's economic problems.
"And I'm going to level with you: We don't have much time."
As he spoke a pair of electronic boards tallied the nation's growing national debt, approaching $16 trillion overall and more than $5 billion since the convention opened.
Romney tapped Ryan this month as his running mate, a selection that cheered conservatives who have doubted the presidential candidate's own commitment to their cause.
For all of the attack ads and inflammatory rhetoric of their race, the two campaigns tiptoed carefully around the storm ravaging the Gulf Coast, vying to demonstrate concern for the victims without looking like they were seeking political gain.
Obama told an audience in Virginia he had spoken on the phone with governors and mayors of the affected states and cities while aboard Air Force One earlier in the day. Romney's aides let it be known he might visit the region once the storm had passed.
Romney's reference to $1 trillion in defense cuts was a 10-year figure that combined reductions already enacted by Congress and reductions scheduled to begin next January as a result of Congress' failure to reach agreement on a broad plan to cut deficits.
He did not say so in his speech, but most Republicans, including Ryan, voted for the first installment as well as the second.
And another convention speaker, Sen. Paul of Kentucky, pointedly disagreed with Romney on defense spending.
"Republicans must acknowledge that not every dollar spent on the military is necessary or well-spent, and Democrats must admit that domestic welfare and entitlements must be reformed," he said.
Democrats spent part of their time working to tarnish the Republican brand. They pointed to an ABC News report that said Romney's campaign had held a reception in Tampa Tuesday night aboard a yacht flying the flag of the Cayman Islands.
Romney has been criticized for having investments there by Democrats who say the effect is to reduce his taxes.
In an appearance before University of Virginia students, Obama said he understood Republicans didn't have much nice to say about his tenure in office. He told his listeners the GOP hoped to disparage him so much that they would either vote for Romney or sit out the election.
Associated Press writers Steve Peoples in Indianapolis, Julie Pace in Charlottesville, Va., Jim Kuhnhenn in Washington and Philip Elliott, Beth Fouhy and Tamara Lush in Tampa contributed to this story
Mitt Romney should be grateful that party nominating conventions have not been abolished, as some commentators argue they should be. Without the Republican National Convention, Romney would have lacked a national stage on which to introduce his campaign's greatest asset: vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan.Before this week, Romney had spent months casting November's election as a fundamental choice between two different views of America. Yet most voters would have been hard-pressed to identify the nature of this difference. Romney's image as a technocratic problem-solver...
TAMPA, Fla. -- Who knew? In the hall-of-mirrors parallel universe where the Republican National Convention is taking place, the GOP stands tall and proud as the party of Medicare.I'm still a little confused about the historical timeline in this alternate reality. Was it President Goldwater who signed into law the nation's health care guarantee for seniors? Was it President Dole who made sure the program remained solvent? Did John McCain win in 2008?
TAMPA, Fla. -- If there was one thing Republicans sought to make clear at the start of their national convention in Tampa on Monday, it was that the party would not allow Missouri Rep. Todd Akin's "legitimate rape" comments to lead them into a dialogue on women’s health issues, but rather would remain focused on the "issues that matter," namely the economy.
In the prior week, national attention had focused on how Akin’s controversial statement -- that women who suffer "legitimate rape" have a way of shutting down their bodies to prevent pregnancy -- might impact both presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney and Republican congressional candidates with women voters. Scrutiny of the Republican Party’s handling of women's issues further intensified when draft platform language, released in the wake of the Akin furor, included support for a constitutional ban on abortion with no exceptions for rape or incest.
Nonetheless, Republicans were noticeably unwilling to discuss Akin, their abortion platform or any kind of polling gender gap, despite being prodded on the subject throughout the first day’s events in Tampa.
"I know that the DCCC likes to talk about a lot of things other than Obama's economy, but this is what we're voting on ... We’re voting on Obama’s economy," said Guy Harrison, executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, in a briefing with reporters. Harrison was reacting to a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee effort, launched Monday morning, to tie Republican members of Congress to the "extreme agenda" they share with Akin.
"Anything else they're talking about, any other issues, they're just wasting their time and space," he continued, adding later that most Republicans had called on Akin to step down, even though the congressman himself "made a different choice."
"If [Democrats] want to talk about that for the next two months, feel free," Harrison said. "We'll be talking about the economy."
A total of four questions on how the party planned to grapple with women's or social issues were virtually dismissed.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) offered a similar deflection toward the economy when asked about the aftermath of Akin’s remarks at a lunch hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.
"This is another distraction," Boehner said. "The American people aren't asking questions about Akin. They're asking the question, 'Where are the jobs?'"
If national polling among women voters is anything to go by, however, the issue is hardly a distraction. According to a survey conducted just last month, President Barack Obama's support among single women nationally is nearly double that of Romney's, a gap that could be exacerbated if Akin continues to stand his ground in the Missouri Senate race and Republicans keep trying to portray abortion as a non-issue.
Romney's own discomfort with the whole matter was made apparent the previous Thursday, when a reporter for Denver's CBS affiliate KCNC said she was instructed not to ask him any questions about abortion or Akin as a condition for a one-on-one interview. Vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, who once co-sponsored anti-abortion legislation with Akin in Congress, has spent the week sitting through interviews heavy on women, abortion and his definition of rape, as opposed to his budget plan, Medicare and how a Romney-Ryan ticket planned to create jobs.
Conservative activist Ralph Reed, who heads the Faith and Freedom Coalition, told The Huffington Post last week that as much as the election might be about the economy and jobs, Republicans can't run away from the social questions, including those that resonate with women, such as contraception and abortion.
"These issues never go away," Reed said. "They are evergreen and they don't go away because of the size and vibrancy of the community that cares about them on both sides of the ball."
Republicans might succeed in setting aside the gender debate for the next 72 hours, but with the Democratic National Convention just around the corner -- during which the president's Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and women's health issues will play a big part -- dodging the issue until November looks very unlikely.
Former Sen. Arlen Specter has been hospitalized with a "serious illness," friends and family of the Pennsylvania lawmaker confirmed to Philly.com on Monday.
According to the Philadelphia Daily News' Dan Gross, sources declined to comment on the nature of the 82-year-old's condition.
In 2005, Specter was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease. The cancer returned in 2008, but was detected early. Specter returned to the Senate shortly after the cancer went into remission.
Specter, who switched party affiliation from Republican to Democrat in 2009, retired from the Senate after losing his 2010 Democratic primary to Joe Sestak. He served in the Senate for 30 years.
UPDATE 11:20 p.m. ET:
CNN reports that Specter is being treated for a "serious form of cancer" and is fighting for his life, according to a source close to the former senator. According to the source, Specter was diagnosed six weeks ago.
This is a developing story.. Check back for updates..