The Final Debate, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Israel

(Update)

The third and final presidential debate of this election cycle was to be about foreign policy, just as the first (and the only other which wasn’t a Town Hall format) was to be about domestic policy. That didn’t really come to pass in earnest, and it also happened that this final debate was pretty flat. I think the main reason for that was the broad agreement that both candidates have on their approach to foreign policy: both love Israel, both fear and want to look tough on Iran, and both think America is the greatest thing to have recently happened to the world. This is obviously a bad position for Romney to find himself in as he attempts to convince us that we need a leadership change, which explains how much the debate pivoted back to the economy in variously clever and tired ways. A few interesting things happened, including a few zingers from Obama, but the tone after the tension of the second debate — and the last one before the election — was one of measured caution.

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Prez Debate II: The Wrath Of Mitt

If there was one conclusion most of the pundits drew from the first presidential debate, it was that Obama was functionally asleep and let Romney walk all over him. If there was a second conclusion, it was that Jim Leher was functionally asleep and let Obama and Romney walk all over him. So it isn’t surprising, especially after announcing that it would be the case, that Obama was much more aggressive and challenging for this match-up,  the first and only Town Hall-style debate we’ll see this election. Romney must have known this, so he upped his game as well, and tensions ran high. Obama won the debate by being engaged, articulate, and right on the issues. But he got help from Romney, who emphatically lost it by over-correcting and quite frankly embarrassing himself.

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Barry v Mittens, Round the First

You might not have noticed since it was pretty dull and a lot of other things were happening, but the Sitting Decider and some asshole Mormon upstart spent an hour and a half talking about basically nothing last night, the first such exercise in extemporaneous theatre of a scheduled series of three.

As is my wont, I’m going to talk a little about it.

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I’m Akin to move on

I was surprised at first by the ferocity and duration of the controversy surrounding Missouri Rep. and Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin’s embarrassingly boneheaded remarks about the female reproductive tract’s alleged powers of discernment. The excoriations you’d expect to hear in response to an aging white male wax scientific about “legitimate rape” have been in ample supply from both parties. Even the insufferable Sean Hannity called his comments “a terrible mistake” on his show Tuesday night, and the next co-president of the United States, Mittens Romney, earlier that day called upon Rep. Akin to leave the race.

But then I got to thinking about why this is such a huge flap. Why should anyone be surprised that a republican has some seriously backward views? Obviously his comment about rape was as stupidly incorrect on the facts as it was ignorantly dismissive of the horrors, but stunning ignorance is a stock-in-trade of the modern republican party. I guess that’s the point really: Akin’s mumbling struck a nerve precisely because he’s again revealed the ugly truth of the far-right pro-lifers which have increasingly become the standard bearers of the republican mainstream. They’re so tragically or willfully misinformed in order to cling to their manifestly bogus stance on reproductive rights that it was inevitable one of them would detonate a land mine on camera sooner or later.

What’s really interesting (read: disgusting) is how transparently political the fallout has been. Continue reading

fresh politicization of gay marriage

The question of whether a pair of homosexual adults ought to be able to enter a federally recognized marriage has been under debate for twenty years or so. Hawaii appears to have forced the issue in the early 90s with the interesting case of Baehr v. Miike. The Hawaii Supreme Court remanded a trial court dismissal of a suit alleging Hawaii’s ban on same-sex marriages was illegal. The Court found in 1993 that, because the ban was discriminatory based on sex, it was subject to “strict scrutiny” and hence the burden of proof that the law was sound rested with the state “by demonstrating that it furthers compelling state interests and is narrowly drawn to avoid unnecessary abridgments of constitutional rights.” This led to a remarkably childish legislative and judicial back-and-forth which culminated in the People of Hawaii enacting, by a vote greater than two thirds, a constitutional ban in 1998.

At around the same time there had also been federal wrangling over the legal status of homosexuals. Bill Clinton campaigned in 1992 on ending fifty years of refusing to allow gays in the military, which was derailed in part by then-Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell, leaving us with the widely reviled Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) policy. In 1996, Congress enacted the dubious Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which federally codified marriage as being only between a single heterosexual couple on fears that the US would be forced to recognize Hawaiian gay marriages due to the Full Faith and Credit clause in its Constitution. Many states followed suit in the intervening years; at present, 42 states ban gay marriage, 31 of them through Constitutional provision.

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why Ron Paul should win the primary

Let’s face it: no republican will become president in 2013.

That’s quite a bold claim, so allow me to defend it. The contentious republican nomination race continues without an obvious winner emerging as yet. There is still talk of a white knight coming to the rescue at the last minute, and this idea isn’t new: popular New Jersey governor Chris Christie was shamelessly pestered despite emphatic refusal to enter the race last summer, but he’s more likely to join the Romney ticket as VP; Indiana governor Mitch Daniels has been the target of speculation to fill this role, but he has also explicitly declined, and his official GOP response to Obama’s State of the Union speech in January, while popular on the far right, was quite frankly horrible in both content and presentation; even former Florida governor Jeb Bush is getting the eye, but it seems inconceivable that the republicans would risk their shot on a third Bush four years after the second one left office with the lowest approval rating in Gallup history. In short, the white knight scenario is not happening.

So four republicans remain in the presidential primary, and one of them will be named at his party’s convention in August for the general election barring some unlikely brokered convention scenario. But whom?

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thoughts about third parties

The GOP primary battle continues to rage, but Mitt Romney continues to dominate. Let’s recap: among viable non-Romney candidates, only Newt Gingrich remains in the race. Rick Santorum won in Iowa, but just barely, and has come in third or worst in all the other states to date. Ron Paul has yet to carry a state and admits he doesn’t yet know which ones he might. Newt Gingrich has only won so far in South Carolina, a racist southern state more likely than most to find resonance with “blacks should demand paychecks not food stamps” bullshit; and even then, his victory might well be attributed to a bump from some jabs he managed to get past the inept moderator at the debate held there days before the primary.

With contests in Minnesota and Colorado tomorrow, Romney is well positioned to double his collection of wins: according to PPP, he’s the clear favourite in Colorado and is in a more or less dead heat with Santorum in Minnesota. A win for Santorum there will not breathe life into his dying, unelectable bones, but the obvious loss Gingrich is about to face will surely kill all that remains of his momentum. It seems clearer and clearer that what has been conventional wisdom for months — that Romney will be the nominee — has been right all along.

All this would be considerably less interesting if there were any other uncertainties in the race. But Obama will not be primaried, and with unemployment rates starting to seriously drop, providing cautious optimism for some that a recovery is starting to kick back in, his reelection seems all but certain. Barring some cataclysm, does it seem reasonable to suppose that Romney could beat Obama? The latter is likely to enjoy something close to a repeat of the record black turnout in 2008, and Romney isn’t too popular even among conservatives (hence the unending support for the not-Romney candidate trending up at any moment). Obama is starting to put his toe in the general race now, saying he “deserves a second term” in an interview with NBC ahead of the Super Bowl. That’s a pretty nice time to have the national airwaves, and polls are showing he would do well in a race with Romney.

But all this is very sad! We must choose between a sitting president with a dubious record and a flip-flopping venture capitalist no one really likes. This ‘fact’ was ironically highlighted for me as I was reading Federalist 66 the other day and noticed this choice bit from Hamilton:

The [House of Representatives] will be the umpire in all elections of the President, which do not unite the suffrages of a majority of the whole number of electors; a case which it cannot be doubted will sometimes, if not frequently, happen.

Ha! Of course, this did happen, but only twice out of the 56 presidential elections held so far. In 1800, before the 12th amendment changed the rules of the electoral college, the House deadlocked repeatedly and finally elected Thomas Jefferson after 35 votes. And in 1824, following the dissolution of the Federalist party, four candidates each gained a fairly significant slice of the electoral vote. Andrew Jackson beat his next closest rival, John Quincy Adams, by 10 points in the popular vote and 15 electoral votes, but missed a majority by more than 30 electoral votes. The House eventually selected Adams after Henry Clay, also running, gave the former his support; Clay was eventually named Secretary of State in what was called a ‘corrupt bargain.’

So given the Constitution has baked into it a way to resolve disputes between candidates when none obtains a majority of electors, a mechanism Hamilton thought would be used ‘frequently’, why has it remained unused for nearly two centuries? Even from the earliest days of the republic, the two-party duality has been a potent force in general elections. The Federalists and Anti-federalists were not officially recognized parties like ours today are, but they were responsible for bitter election battles in the late eighteenth century. Parties were more dynamic between that 1824 standoff and the civil war, but the formation of the Republican party in 1854 saw more or less the final manifestation of the two-party system we see today, with only a handful of serious third party bids since.

Modern laws make it harder for third parties. Ballot access usually requires meeting some minimum signature bar in a petition, which means parties need nationwide local coordination, something which requires a large establishment. Debates are basically bi-partisan affairs and usually do not include third parties. Mass defection to a third party might swing the election to the least desirable of all three (consider the charge that Nader lost Gore the election in 2000). States almost always award electors on a winner-take-all basis, so the incentive for voters in each state to make their voices heard on the national stage by picking perceived winners is high.

In that vein, I think the biggest reason that the two-party system persists is inertia. The parties are well-established and can pretty easily either gobble up any fringe third-party platform (or ridicule it as being Unserious, as has been happening to Ron Paul’s candidacy generally). Most issues are binary as far as the average voter is concerned: you’re either mostly for gay rights, or you’re mostly against them; you want increased social programs, or you want to cut them back; you mostly want to drill for oil or you mostly want to research green energy. It doesn’t help that these ideas mostly align with conservative or liberal ideologies very nicely: conservatives tend to want to stick to the ancient ways, while liberals want to change most aspects of society and government.

Then there’s the related issue of bipartisan consensus. Perceived political realities force politicians to cave to certain positions, which then silences debate. Look to Clinton’s welfare reform, “tough on crime” laws which had led to unprecedented incarcerations, the jingoism of the runup to Iraq war that seems to have returned but this time against Iran; and of course, the notion that taxes should not go up except maybe for the other guy. When both parties largely agree on so much, it can be difficult to see what the usefulness of a third party could be. Is there a third major platform in American politics today? Evidently not.

And that is the main problem. The Tea Party was swallowed by the Republicans since they aligned closely enough to allow it. Obama has already begun to adopt of the rhetoric of Occupy and might win several of its less aware and passionate members. But this is too bad. An adversarial third (or fourth, or fifth) party would make this election battle a lot more interesting than the inevitable “lesser of two evils” Obama-vs-Romney scorched earth, no-holds-barred steel cage match. And if more people demanded better at the ballot box, they would get it: that’s a political reality. Consider that before holding your nose for Obama (or Romney if you have no soul) in November.

the GOP primary disaster

It isn’t news that the republican party doesn’t have many hopeful options. Romney, the only major candidate from 2008 to try again, is widely reviled and failed to surge at any time, unlike his fellow candidates, in this incredibly drawn out process. But don’t the republicans realize yet that he must be their guy?

All the other candidates are either unelectably crazy/extreme (Santorum for being too dogmatic about nuclear families and hating gays; Paul for not being a “team player” and towing the neocon imperial line, not to mention his array of crazy ideas that are either unpleasant to the right, or the left, or both at the same time; and Bachmann for being almost certainly insane), or else have the kind of baggage that has either forced them out already (Cain, with his multiple sexual harassment allegations, likely years-long affair, and hilarious policy proposals) or is bound to (Perry’s debate gaffes, HPV vaccine waffling, and general unpopularity with his own state; Gingrich’s own affairs, House ethics violation, racial insensitivity, and suicidal mean streak against Romney). The only halfway decent major republican candidate left is Jon Huntsman, the ‘other’ mormon in the race who bet the farm on New Hampshire and came in a definite but distant third.

So given all this, and as this politico analysis makes clear, Romney is pretty close to tying this thing up. Current polls (Rammussen and PPP [pdf]) have Romney in first in South Carolina with at least a 5 point lead over Gingrich, and he’s probably only doing that well given his status as a good old boy from Georgia. This inevitable development has evangelicals who are afraid of Romney desperately scrambling to get behind a non-Romney candidate, and since Santorum is the latest of the non-Romneys to enjoy a polling surge and did well in Christian hicktown Iowa, he’s their man. In truth, we will need to wait at least until South Carolina is decided to know who is likely to be the republican candidate, since South Carolina has a history of being a violent contest that helps zero in on a winner for the ticket (though this would seem to favour Romney since Wikipedia claims that, while the primary has chosen the eventual nominee every time since 1980, it is also “considered a firewall to protect frontrunners.”)

But let’s remember the function of the primaries! It is to choose a candidate for president that the republicans both want to and think can win in the general election. Even suspending disbelief long enough to suppose that Santorum might win the GOP nod, I leave it to the intrepid reader to consider how much of a chance he will have at unseating Obama, who remains inexplicably popular (hovering around the mid-to-high 40s despite war crimes, an intransigent congress, and sustained economic hardship — more on these in coming posts). Romney, for all his faults, seems like the only candidate with any chance of having broad enough appeal to seriously challenge the sitting president, a fact which his team has been betting on for some time.

But that’s just the problem. Romney is deeply unpopular among republicans for the same reasons he will be unpopular generally. He has flip-flopped shamelessly on important topics like abortion and health care. He is an unlikable millionaire thanks to his prowess at aggressively reorganizing businesses, often by firing people and retaining large payments even when he failed. A sign of desperation among his opponents is that even they are attacking his record at Bain Capital. If republicans think they can get away with attacks like those, surely democrats will be able to. And in the present climate, that sort of attack is likely to resonate with a lot of moderate voters, if not a few out-of-work conservatives. That means the impending Obama-Romney matchup is not going to be the slam dunk for the challenger we’d expect it to be with high unemployment and simmering civil unrest.

All things considered, the republicans have wasted a perfect opportunity to unseat a failed incumbent, and all because no one was available or willing to rise to the occasion. In a nation of 300 million people, is this disaster the best they could offer?

UPDATE: Hours after posting this entry, Jon Huntsman’s staff leaked that he will be withdrawing tomorrow. This is not surprising given his finish in New Hampshire, but it does make his bizarre enthusiasm on finishing third even more cringe-worthy, and it is quite sad in light of the fact that The State, a South Carolina newspaper, just endorsed Huntsman earlier today. Given that I just named him the only other half-decent candidate, Romney is that much closer to securing the nomination and probably losing the election. Barring further economic decline or some spectacular disaster (imagine an analogue to the gulf oil spill that people might actually care about), it just doesn’t seem possible that Romney could win, unless of course millions of center-left nonpartisans commit suicide out of abject hopelessness.