8 Reasons Why Romney is Struggling

Posted by: Joshua Green on February 28, 2012

There's a good a chance Mitt Romney will win the primaries in Arizona and Michigan tonight, drawing that much closer to the Republican nomination. But the media's portrayal of him has been anything but that of a champion -- it's been downright withering. Take last week's economic speech, billed as a major address by his campaign. The coverage was scornful, all but ignoring the news (his proposing a 20 percent income tax cut) and focusing mainly on the empty stadium where the event took place and his latest rich-guy gaffe, when Romney bragged toward the end of his speech about owning four cars, including two Cadillacs -- his "fleet of personal vehicles," as The New York Times drily put it. Romney's advisers are furious. What's going on? Here are eight reasons why he's getting pasted -- and why his struggles will likely continue:

1) He's Hiding: Romney views the press with asperity, engaging with reporters much less often than Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich. That was a viable strategy back when his winning the nomination seemed a lock, but Romney's ahead by an inch, not a mile, and he's getting punished for pretending otherwise. Denied access or real news, reporters will write about optics and gaffes -- and do so with relish.

2) He's Trying to Run Out the Clock: Romney's stump speech is a collection of platitudes and the strange ritual recitation of the lyrics to "America the Beautiful." As one of his fundraisers put it to John Heilemann of New York magazine, "I have never seen anything more ridiculous or belittling." This creates the impression that Romney has nothing to say -- or, worse, has chosen not to say anything substantive-- and is trying to coast to the nomination. Reporters feel duty-bound to push back.

3) He'll Say Anything: Romney has a reputation as someone who will say anything to get ahead. Lately, he's been struggling, and now -- presto! -- he's rolled out a new tax cut. Romney isn't granted the benefit of the doubt, so the assumption is that this is a political ploy, not a bold policy choice.

4) He Wants to Have it Both Ways: Romney's advisers fault the media for focusing on trivialities like the empty stadium rather than the size of his proposed cut. A big reason why his tax cut wasn't treated more seriously is that he won't say how he'll pay for it -- he wants to take credit for the tax cut, but avoid the responsibility to pay for it.

5) He's Awkward: It's hard to recall a likely major-party nominee who was less of a natural politician than Romney. The constant references to his wealth -- the $10,000 bet with Rick Perry, the Cadillacs, his quip yesterday about not being an "ardent" NASCAR fan but being friends with several team owners -- have become a bizarre-but-captivating spectacle, what James Fallows has aptly dubbed "Romney's gaffe-Tourette's."

6) He's Underperforming: Turnout and enthusiasm in GOP primaries and caucuses are both way down this year. That's certainly not Romney's fault alone. But his candidacy in particular is based on the idea that he's an electable alternative to Barack Obama -- and yet his own party has obvious qualms about him.

7) He's Forfeited His Right to Complain: Last November, the Romney campaign rolled out its first ad, an attack on President Obama built around a quote taken entirely out of context. In the ad, Obama is heard to say, "if we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose." But Obama was quoting a Republican, John McCain. Oddly, the Romney campaign bragged about having done this "intentionally." This cost them a large measure of credibility with the press, which became much less receptive to the campaign's subsequent complaints.

8) He's a Mystery: Romney has been running for president for six years. He's highly accomplished in business and government. He has money, good looks, a beautiful family -- and yet most political insiders feel they don't understand what makes him tick. That doesn't appear likely to change, because Romney is so guarded and press averse, and yet at the same time apparently incapable on his own of making a strong case for his candidacy. Still, Romney supporters can take solace in this fact: practically nobody believes that he won't wind up as the nominee.

Should Obama Have Embraced Bowles-Simpson?

Posted by: Joshua Green on February 27, 2012

The New York Times has a fairly critical feature story today on why the Obama administration couldn't manage to pull off the "grand bargain" on deficit reduction that it spent much of 2011 pursuing. The article, by Jackie Calmes, takes as its launching point the Bowles-Simpson Commission report recommending $4 trillion of cuts over ten years. As Calmes notes, the White House pointedly did not embrace the report, although it quietly adopted many of the ideas therein during the subsequent private negotiations with House Speaker John Boehner -- negotiations that failed, creating for Obama an aura of "political timidity" that has stuck.

Calmes's piece makes clear that the White House never considered embracing Bowles-Simpson:

For all of its subsequent import, Mr. Obama's initial response to Bowles-Simpson was little debated at the White House, aides say. Not one adviser supported embracing it.

But what's notable about Calmes's story is that even though the administration failed to win a deal through its preferred course of low-key negotiations, White House officials appear utterly convinced that their strategy was the correct one. Calmes has Obama himself explaining to Erskine Bowles, the commission co-chair, that if he had "put his arms around" the plan immediately, it "would have been savaged by Republicans, and that would have killed it."

Really? Republicans certainly would have attacked the president, but it's not clear to me that this would have killed the plan. In fact, the very public fight over the payroll tax cut textension last December -- a fight the White House won -- offers an intriguing counter-example of what might have happened had Obama publicly embraced Bowles-Simpson.

The key factor in the payroll fight was that it wasn't simply a battle between Democrats and Republicans. Many Senate Republicans supported the extension, so when the White House took the fight public, it did so with bipartisan support, which isolated House Republicans. It helped, of course, that the battle was over tax cuts, which most voters perceive as desirable. But in the end, House Republicans' obstruction and obstinance wasn't sustainable.

What would have happened had Obama embraced Bowles-Simpson? We know that he'd have had some serious Republican supporters on his side, such as Sen. Tom Coburn, a commission member who voted for the plan. He'd probably also have had public support -- cutting the deficit isn't quite as popular as tax cuts, but it's something most voters would like to see happen. And as in the payroll fight, his public embrace would have isolated House Republicans. White House officials are adamant that Republican attacks would have scotched any deal. And perhaps they would have, although the payroll fight suggests that's no sure thing. But having struck out in private talks, it's hard to see how the president would be worse off today had he chosen this course. He'd at least have gotten credit for trying.

UPDATE: Good Ezra Klein post making the often-missed point that rejecting Bowles-Simpson was a strategic, rather than an ideological, decision.

Dow 13,000? Thank Democrats

Posted by: Joshua Green on February 22, 2012

Stock-chart.jpgYesterday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average briefly peaked above 13,000 before dipping at the close. Like all Dow milestones, this one touched off the usual celebration. It may be no coincidence that the market is rising under a Democratic president. In a Bloomberg Government article out this morning, Bob Drummond examines the historical record and finds that the stock market (the S&P 500, in this case) performs much, much better under Democrats than Republicans. The story is subscription-only for now, but I'm allowed to post the accompanying chart, above. How big a difference does the president's party make on investors? As Drummond shows, $1,000 invested in a hypothetical S&P 500 tracking fund beginning when JFK was president and measured only during subsequent Democratic presidencies would have yielded $10,920 by the time the market closed yesterday. Alternatively, $1,000 invested when Richard Nixon was president and measured only during Republican presidencies would have yielded $2,087 on the last day of George W. Bush's presidency.

Barack Obama, "Greatest Gun Salesman in America"

Posted by: Joshua Green on February 21, 2012

Last fall, I wrote about a surprising trend: gun sales have skyrocketed since Barack Obama became president. During that time, the stock of gunmaker Sturm Ruger (RGR) has outperformed gold. Analysts aren't quite sure what's causing the trend. Many anticipated a boost in sales after the election from gun owners fearful that Obama might outlaw assault weapons -- the so-called "fear trade." But they expected a brief spike, no more. Instead, gun sales kept rising, and they've continued to rise even since last fall. Ruger, which was up 400 percent at the time, is now up more than 500 percent.

Despite the fact that Obama hasn't made the slightest feint toward regulating guns, firearms enthusiasts have whipped themselves into a paranoid frenzy, convinced that this is all just part of some elaborate conspiracy. Don't believe me? Here's how Wayne LaPierre, head of the NRA, put it to the audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) two weeks ago:

Lip service to gun owners is just part of a massive Obama conspiracy to deceive voters and hide his true intentions to destroy the Second Amendment during his second term. We see the president's strategy crystal clear: Get re-elected and, with no more elections to worry about, get busy dismantling and destroying our firearms' freedom, erase the Second Amendment from the Bill of Rights and excise it from the U.S. Constitution...When the sun goes down on election day Barack Obama will have America's gun owners to thank for his defeat.

Note the twist: It's no longer Obama's election that poses a mortal danger to the liberty of Americans who want to assemble arsenals -- it's Obama's re-election. I'm no financial analyst, but you'd have to imagine that that line of reasoning isn't going to do anything to depress gun sales.

One thing I hadn't appreciated when I wrote my original piece was the breadth of the trend -- it's not just gun sales, but ammunition, and all those new firearms have brought the government a lot of revenue in the form of federal excise taxes. The website Ammo.net (what, you don't have it bookmarked?) has an eye-popping graphic on just why Obama is, as they put it, the "greatest gun salesman in America":

The Greatest Gun Salesman In America: President Barack Obama [INFOGRAPHIC]
Via: Ammo.net

Public Financing: A 'Scarlet Letter' for Presidential Candidates

Posted by: Joshua Green on February 20, 2012

A guest post from Bloomberg's money-and-politics whiz, Jonathan D. Salant (follow him on Twitter @JDSalant):

All the attention on Super PACs has overshadowed another, no less important story about how presidential campaigns are being funded: the post-Watergate campaign-finance program is on its death bed. This year, only one major-party presidential candidate, Republican Buddy Roemer, has agreed to limit his spending during the primary season in exchange for federal matching funds. As recently as 1996, every major-party candidate took federal funding, including Bill Clinton and Bob Dole.

Even after George W. Bush in 2000 became the first nominee to shun federal funding, other candidates continued to rely on it in the primaries -- including, in 2008, the eventual vice-presidential nominee, Joe Biden, and five others. Under the federal financing system, the government this year will match up to $250 from an individual donation, with the maximum total amount set at $22.8 million, a number that rises every four years with inflation.

But that system has become a detriment, rather than a boon, to most presidential candidates. "Taking matching funds has really been seen as the scarlet letter,'' said former Federal Election Commission Chairman Michael Toner, now co-chairman of the election law and government ethics practice at Wiley Rein LLP. "It says you're not viable and you're not going to be nominated by your party.''

Roemer's national campaign manager, Carlos Sierra, countered with a more positive spin. "If more candidates went the matching funds route, that would mean fewer Wall Street and K Street fundraisers, and less favors candidates would have to promise to their big donors," he said.

As a candidate in 2008, Barack Obama became the first major-party nominee since Watergate to opt out of federal funding in the general election. His opponent, John McCain, did not, thereby agreeing to forego private funds (except for some legal and accounting costs) and limiting his campaign to the $84.1 million the government provided. McCain was significantly outspent, and Toner said he believes he'll be the last nominee to accept federal funding.

"Absent a major legislative overhaul, no serious candidate is going to take public funds for either the primary or general election,'' Toner said.

Twice last year, House Republicans voted to pull the plug on the campaign finance system, though advocates argue that a better solution is to provide more federal dollars.

"Our current system is broken,"  said Craig Holman of Public Citizen. "It does not justify getting rid of the public financing program; it calls for fixing the public financing system."

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Led by Bloomberg Businessweek's Washington correspondent, "Joshua Green on Politics" is a blog devoted to national politics and public policy issues, from Congress to the 2012 Presidential campaign trail. A special focus will be the intersection of business and politics. Follow the author on Twitter (@JoshuaGreen). To book for television or radio appearances, call Patti Straus, 212-617-3279, or e-mail pstraus@bloomberg.net.

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