Monday, October 29, 2012

What Romney Won't Run On: Mass Governor

On October 9 I posted the first of what are to be several articles on what Romney won't run on. At the time I said:
We have seen a curious pattern with Mitt Romney's campaign style over the months. Earlier in the year, Romney pointedly told us how qualified he is to be president and how proud he was of his accomplishments. And what have been his examples? 
Well, Bain, of course, except when people started to look into what private equity actually entails; more on that another day. Romney is positively bipolar regarding his single biggest achievement as Governor of Massachusetts, a state-wide health plan informally called Romneycare. More on that later, too.

And what about that stint as Governor of Massachusetts? Besides Romneycare. That was real executive experience, was it not? Look, he says, at his solid record of competence, and in a state dominated by Democrats. That's got to be a big plus.

Have you stopped to think about how little Mitt Romney actually talks about his record as Governor? Or to be more precise, how little you know about his four years at the helm. Romney is not shy to proclaim he created jobs, or he balanced the budget,but like so much else on his campaign stops, his declamations regarding his time in Massachusetts have a robotic, incomplete, Powerpoint feel to them. The man mindlessly recites focus group-approved bromides. In so doing, he often impatiently dictates to the listener, as if staying on message and getting your pet phrases into peoples' heads ––to do what? Show you have disciplined campaign?–– is more important that letting people actually get to know who you are. It is a campaign that is incredibly sanitized, so much so that Romney as a person cannot help but look stiff, unnatural, and aloof. Ask the man substantive questions and think carefully about how little is in his answers.

So how do the people of Massachusetts feel about their former governor? Are they behind his presidential effort? Voters there know him pretty well, and they remember his record. Jason Schwartz from Boston Magazine recently posted a lengthy piece on that state's recollections of Romney. Let's just say when Mitt tells his story, he's leaving a lot out. And before anyone starts foaming about how Massachusetts is full of socialists who hate freedom, it was they, not teabaggers from down south, or Utah, who decided that Romney had a message and actually voted him into office.

Schwartz reminds us that Romney was governor just six years ago. "Today he’s so unpopular here he’s barely bothering to campaign in the state. There are reasons for that—and they could spell doom for his presidential campaign."  Schwartz continues:
When he does talk about his time here as governor, it’s usually to pump up his bipartisan bona fides or brag about how he balanced the budget without raising taxes. (Strictly speaking, this is true, though helpfully devoid of context: All Massachusetts governors are constitutionally required to balance the budget, and while Romney technically may not have raised taxes, he did hike fees on a variety of government services.) What he does not discuss are the hugely successful bills he passed, like universal healthcare and an assault-weapons ban. Obviously, he also does not mention just how unpopular he was when he left office.
Schwartz understates Mitt's fee-raising spree. Romney was determined to not raise taxes but he had no qualms about hiking fees, often dramatically, on a wide range of services, licenses, permits, and the like.
So please, America, pay attention. There’s been too little talk about Romney’s time as governor of Massachusetts, and now that you’re deciding whether to make him our next president, it’s worth understanding just how and why he alienated the voters who know him best. Because the big problems that have been plaguing Romney on the campaign trail—that he’s personally inaccessible, that he’s had trouble unifying his party, that he’s become known as a flip-flopper—all have their roots in Massachusetts.
Schwartz goes on to relate the many people in Massachusetts who were taken aback by Romney's aloof unwillingness to communicate with mayors and other state officials. His activity seemed invariably orchestrated for political effect (not unique to Romney, of course). The problem was not the occasional grandstanding; it was the indifference and unwillingness to talk. 
Nor did Romney appear to connect any better with voters, despite what seemed like an auspicious start to his term...Romney created a bubble for himself, very similar to the one he’s employed while running for president. Out on the trail, he often seems robotic when trying to relate to people, and almost never answers impromptu questions from the press. When he does go off-script, the results are often poor...Given Romney’s obvious national aspirations while governor, it’s somewhat curious that he didn’t practice off-the-cuff exchanges more often. Apparently he believed that life outside the bubble was just as perilous for him then as it’s proving to be now.
Schwartz notes, as have others, that Romney has pretty much written off winning Massachusetts. He had lost interest in the state even while still governor. After a strong start in 2003-4, Romney "basically checked out of Massachusetts. He planned 78 town visits in 2005, and just 25 in the first 10 months of 2006 (the final two months of his 2006 schedules were missing from the records in the state archives). That year he spent all or part of 219 days outside the state, building his national profile."

Elected to run his state but loses interest halfway through? Who else does that remind you of?

There's so much more in the article. By all means, read it in its entirety.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Vote Suppression

Perhaps you have seen the news of a young political operative in Virginia named Colin Small who was caught dumping completed voter registration forms in a dumpster. You can see his picture, and the story, here. He looks like a surly, sullen little prick, doesn't he? But who knows? Maybe he was just having a bad day. After all, when you work for Republicans and are caught in a criminal act, and then find your mug plastered on national media, you wouldn't feel like smiling either.

Virginia's Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli will not investigate Small's attempted destruction of voter registration forms because the State Board of Elections doesn't recommend one. Virginia Registrar Brandi Lilly says, “There’s no way to tell by party when people fill out these forms, what party they’re affiliated with, so I don’t think there’s any political motivation.”

Ferchristssake, Brandi, give your brain a chance. How can you know there was no political motivation if you don't bother to even investigate? Note we are not talking prosecution; that is difficult decision and prosecutors will often decide to not file charges because a provable case is just not there. Fine, but you are not even going to investigate? I can think of many reasons why a politically motivated and partisan operative, which Small is, would dump the forms. He may have identified the registrants as black, or they appeared to be students, or they were young women. And if that doesn't make sense to you, you haven't been paying attention to Republican voter suppression in Virginia and elsewhere.

I can understand the Republican party doesn't want any more of this kind of news. All the same, the word now is that the local sheriff's office has indeed arrested Small and is considering prosecution. I'm guessing that sheriff is going to hear from Republicans much higher up than Colin Small, and they won't be asking if he is registered to vote.

I have a big problem with all of this, aside from the likelihood, despite Ms. Lilly's inane observation, that Small's action is not isolated. And that is the casual way the media is playing this. That may change of course, as events unfold. But I am not counting on it. Recall, in contrast, the orgy that concern trolls had over ACORN, especially after Republicans, including those in Congress, beat them over the head with it. Republicans wanted ACORN to be a story. Never mind that ACORN followed the letter of the law and reported the registration irregularities, as required. That is a shameful story I should revisit sometime.

Here's a picture of Small's page. He looks a little happier in this one. 

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

What Romney Won't Run On: Mormonism

We have seen a curious pattern with Mitt Romney's campaign style over the months. Earlier in the year, Romney pointedly told us how qualified he is to be president and how proud he was of his accomplishments. And what have been his examples? Romney repeatedly touted his business acumen, specifically his record at Bain Capital. It was, he claimed, a clear indication not only that he knew how to successfully run a company, but that he would take those same clear-eyed instincts to turn the country around. The oft-stated implication is that running a business is very much like running a government;  meeting payroll, balancing the books, and all that. Many seem persuaded by this analogy. 

But hey, Romney has real political experience too, as Massachusetts Governor. Look at his sensible record in a very blue state. It shows, Romney says, that he knows how to work with the Democrats and that he has executive experience. Notice also his difficulty in deciding whether or not he still stands behind Romneycare. He wants to denounce Obamacare, wants to trot out his own health care plan while Governor of Massachusetts, but doesn't want voters to realize how similar the two programs are. He cannot decide to run on Romneycare, and it shows.

And let's not forget his private-sector executive leadership as chief executive of the 2002 Winter Olympics Organizing Committee. Did that not show his poise under pressure? His turn-around skills? His ability to bring people together and attain goals? That was the message. As with the rest of his record, he hoped voters would take his narrative on the Salt Lake Olympics at face value. However, he not only has felt compelled to frequently alter that narrative, he flat-out runs from his record whenever he senses the need.

Why is that?

That brings us to his religion. The other issues above, Bain Capital and the rest, will be revisited in the coming days and weeks. For the moment, I want to examine Romney's, and his party's, messaging on how they want voters to think about religion.

We were supposed to be over the religion issue, weren't we? Don't worry, Romney is one of us. Isn't that what Republican officials have been saying in an effort to rally the Evangelical base? Too bad conservatives still foam at the mouth when it comes to Obama; Muslim invective is still acceptable and is still an effective campaign tactic. But don't ridicule our Mormon candidate, you wouldn't want to be a bigot.

Republicans have finally nominated "the other." Suspicious types were only supposed to reside in the Democratic Party. Real Christians are Republicans, but Mormons? They're some type of cult, aren't they? Apparently not any more.

Some people had a fit when Jack Kennedy ran for president. They figured he would take his orders from the Pope. I personally grew up around people who believed Pope Paul VI was the antichrist, said you could see the mark of the beast on his forehead if you looked closely. And, of course, a new crop suggests that Obama may be the antichrist. Some shit never ends.

But Republicans have been busy sanitizing Mitt Romney and his religious faith. I suppose it's progress in a way; Mormonism will likely never again be a major electoral issue. So if America's right wing can swallow hard and accept Mormons as fellow Americans, then who am I to object?

Well, maybe. Bigotry is alive in the US; it is merely suppressed when required, only to express itself when it suits political operatives and even then only when the right combination of emotional triggers is reached. That combination was not reached with Romney, though it seemed that it might early in the primaries, because his religious beliefs were not entangled with other key triggers, such as race, sexual orientation, or political party. Obama's Christianity would not have been unchallenged had he been a white conservative. That is to say, he would have been seen for what he is, and not accused of being the ultimate conservative bogeyman; a black Muslim. It was the combination of race, party, political views, combined with unprincipled doubts on religion, that has brought out the worst in redstate America. Romney, by comparison, only has had to contend with doubts over his religion. His feckless pandering on policies is of his own making. 

And yet...  One of my own yardsticks on religion has not been the specific doctrines of the person's faith, because none can escape the trap of implausibility and their obvious human origins, but whether candidates take that stuff seriously. Jack Kennedy got past the Catholic issue in part because he was perceived as being a cultural Catholic, decidedly secular and modern. It wasn't all for show, but his Catholicism was also not something that inspired unthinking adherence to doctrine and dogma. There were no other significant triggers that were able to create an insurmountable roadblock to his presidential quest. His religion did cause him grief for a time, of course, and undoubtedly cost him some votes.

Fast forward to this year's Republican primaries where we witnessed religious warriors like Rick Santorum who were not just deeply religious, but were often in your face with it. Santorum in particular wore it on his sleeve, and proudly proclaimed that conservative Catholic dogma informed his policies. Others, to varying degrees, including Newt Gingrich, Michelle Bachmann, essentially all of them, did not just ask that voters tolerate their religious faith, but aggressively insisted that conservative evangelical Christianity be given primacy in public life.

You see the difference? We were once told to accept politicians and their religion precisely because there was no discernible influence, at least not of anything objectionable. Joe Biden and Barack Obama fit that category. So did Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Bush the Elder, and Clinton. Bush the Lesser represented something of hybrid or transitional figure. Now many candidates want you to vote for them precisely because they are conservative Christians, even the Catholic guy.

Rick Santorum represented a bold push consistent with the ongoing right-wing lurch of his party. He wrapped his campaign in religiosity that made him seem more like a revivalist preacher, a Jeremiah prophesying doom because of our moral failings, as defined by him. In so doing, Santorum made it clear he would support policies that would punish and criminalize behavior that is legal but that he personally did not approve of.

But what about Romney? He won the nomination, not Santorum. Romney is not in your face with his beliefs. He doesn't thump his Book of Mormon. But he also doesn't want to field questions about it. We are to respect his religion while he, in turn, chooses to not discuss it, except to say how wonderful it has been for him. In short, we are to respect his Mormonism, a creed that was never seen as truly Christian, but hey, close enough.

But here is the deal; Republicans have unrelentingly argued that most everything in President Obama's past ought to examined; what has been they don't like. Too exotic, not American enough, a neo-colonial mindset that explains, they tell us, why Obama is fundamentally un-American.  For many on the right, Obama is either a Muslim, or if he is a Christian, he's the wrong kind. Just look at that Reverend Wright fellow; another angry black man. Books, films, and endless pseudo-investigations have been launched in an effort to discredit the man and raise suspicions in any way possible. Many of these attacks make no substantive effort to examine the actual policies Obama supports, which are decidedly mainstream and moderate.

Republicans have successfully snuffed anti-Mormon bigotry, which one could argue is commendable, but in so doing they have also squelched any critical examination of a breathtakingly bizarre set of beliefs and assertions. One is at pains to explain anything credible about the origins of the Mormon faith. And for those who might think the preceding sentences represent bigotry, I don't defend any religious doctrine, so I avoid the hypocrisy of denouncing one set of beliefs while asking forbearance on my own. No special pleading is needed nor is it allowed. Instead, one must recognize the very thick line that separates unprincipled bigotry from critical examination.

Romney, I would argue, is well aware of this country's tentative embrace of his secretive religion, especially from those on the religious right. He has dodged a bullet, if you will. The less he needs to talk about Mormon doctrine, the better it is for his campaign.

Romney has been allowed to campaign on unexamined religious claims because Republicans found no alternatives to him in the Republican primaries. They are stuck with him, so rallying around your candidate now means to shut up about the Mormon stuff.

No similar restraint is required for President Obama. Muslim or Christian, it doesn't matter. He wasn't born here anyway, right?