Monthly Archives: October 2012

Let Me Tell You a Likely Story

There is a man of noble bearing (having been born to a father who set a good example) who thinks he should also be an aristocrat (meaning in this case that he feels he and others like him should prosper whether they work for it or not; we’ll call this man “the Governor”).  The Governor has a castle (We’ll call the castle “the 1st Presidential Debate”).  This man is under-siege, but it’s a well-built castle in a strategic location (which we would call “the economy,” but surprisingly this turns out to be irrelevant), and the supply stores are vast because the Governor is very, very rich and knows how not pay his taxes.

But the Governor becomes overly-ambitious, and decides to meet the besieging army out on the field (which we’ll call “the 3rd Debate”).

His plan is to send his cavalry (We’ll dub this cavalry “the Romney tax plan,” though judging from the Governor’s penchant for outmoded weapons systems, we might just want to call it “the Cavalry”) on a charge against the besieging army (which we’ll say fights for a “President,” as a dynastic succession and aristocracy the likes of which the Governor fights for happen to violate both the letter and the spirit of the cherished laws of this particular country–hence the battle itself).

So the Governor sends his cavalry/tax plan/Cavalry out to meet the enemy encampment, and quickly loses most of them to the President’s hidden spike traps and camping ninjas (which we’ll call “the President’s repeated and emphatic revelation of the fact that, as is known to them both, the Governor has no plan to cut all marginal income tax rates by 1/5, make this rate cut deficit-neutral by closing tax loopholes, and avoid vastly raising taxes on the middle class simultaneously”).

Realizing too late the gravity of his mistake in listening to his Neoconservative advisers (heretofore and eternally known as “several very-familiar men and 1 woman whom are so transparently out of their depth that it would be funny they are called ‘advisers’ by the man who would be king, if only their advice weren’t under-researched with tens of thousands of lives hanging in the balance”) the Governor retreats back to his castle.  Visibly-exhausted and seeing his prospects of victory slipping away from him by steady attrition, the Governor doesn’t even realize that some of the President’s ninjas (we’ll say about 5 trillion) get over the drawbridge after the Governor’s retreating cavalry, taking the gatehouse and opening the door to the body of the President’s forces (which we’ll call, I don’t know, “the President’s constant identification of the Governor’s contradictory promises on tax cuts, deficit-reduction and military spending that the Generals and Admirals don’t want”).

So here is where it stands with them: The Governor’s storehouses are overrun (much as, as it happens, the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on pro-Republican super-PACs was wasted) and the Governor is holed-up in his keep, stoically praying that he will be allowed to depart his false high ground with his dignity intact, his plans to forge an aristocratic society having been foiled both by the superior strategy and sheer numbers of the President’s foot soldiers (which is…well, literally what just happened).

THE END

This is not a fairy tale.  We beheld it live, whether we marked the ebb and flow of the battle or not.

Self-explanatory.

Live-Blogging 2012 Presidential Debate #3: In Boca Raton, with Bob Schieffer

A man…a plan…a pants: Matthew Fox!

10:34 pm: “Go vote,” Bob Schieffer says, as is his wont invoking the words of his beloved mother, “It’ll make you feel big and strong!”

10:23 pm: …And in the last 7 minutes, Mitt thinks it would be a good idea to close-out by clarifying exactly what he meant when he said Detroit should go through a managed bankruptcy–after a broad consensus emerged that the President’s bailout of Detroit succeeded.

10:16 pm: On the question “What is the greatest threat to national security?” President Obama identifies the hollowing-out of the American middle class.  He defends his record of building up American comparative advantage (think bailout of the Detroit car companies, job-retraining programs to relocate workers out-bid by free trade).  Governor Romney makes a circumspect version of his previous attacks on Chinese mercantilism (an artificially-low-value currency, tolerance of copyright violations, hoarding of resources), all of which is quite true but which we tolerate both because American businesses think China is too big of a market to ignore, and which will overburden our efforts to achieve Chinese cooperation on other foreign policy priorities.  Romney has brought up a number of important issues and fair points during this debate, and the President has repeatedly clarified the progress made on these issues by his incremental, rarely-sexy but well-designed and consensus-driven foreign policy motions, and he has taken the Governor to task for strong-sounding policy alternatives that increasingly look built on sand.

10:13 pm: Governor Romney applauds the President’s handling of the Libya operation, his undertaking of the operation that killed Osama bin Laden, and his aggressive use of air power to rout al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Yemen.  Based on the foreign policy Debate (at least when Governor Romney has seen fit to address foreign policy), it sounds like he should be prepared to vote for President Obama.

10:08 pm: President Obama has taken his own turn to shift the substance of the debate, moving on from a defense of his timetable for our troop drawdown from Afghanistan (which Afghans seem ready for) to promote an oft-unsung domestic policy achievement of his: New and ground-breaking programs to assist our war veterans in their re-acclimation to civilian life, whether it be in medical rehabilitation, psychological services, or job training and placement programs for veterans to address their relatively-high unemployment rate.

President Obama’s pivot was better, and Governor Romney really has nothing to say in response.  Again, it’s been surreal to see the Republican Party so utterly abandon any and all care and consideration for the military personnel Governor Romney has so often expressed a readiness to deploy.

10:04 pm: Just a passing thought I’ve made to friends–I see this as a fatally-weak finish for Romney. I just don’t know how else to interpret what we’re seeing right now.

9:57 pm: Governor Romney says darkly that “Iran is 4 years closer to a nuclear weapon.”  Would this be a good time to double-down on the fact that the Islamic Republic of Iran has expressed a desire to come to the table and discuss terms over its uranium-enrichment program as soon as the Presidential contest is settled?  President Obama has already noted  that the sanctions have visibly stunted Iran’s economy, making the government desperate to maintain social safety net spending and patronage to appease its working class.  President Ahmadinejad has been brash and even alarming in his bluster in the past, but with the talk of war at play these days in both Israel and the United States, where is he now?  Going by appearances, at least, they are indeed preparing to back down.

9:49 pm: Governor Romney has promised to indict Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad through the United Nations Genocide Convention, implicitly for his Holocaust denial and his statement of his desire to see Israel “wiped off the map.”  The Genocide Convention was adopted by the United Nations in 1948 to punish acts of genocide by a state.  A leader’s comments, however disturbing, are not its purview, nor are they meant to be.  This is a subject I have some practical understanding of.  So, what the hell is he talking about?

9:40 pm: Governor Romney’s attempt to retreat to his budget and economy castle has backfired; the President seems to have followed him over the drawbridge into the keep.  He retreated into his tax plan; the President noted–without refutation–that the Governor’s proposed income tax rate cuts would be a $5 trillion tax cut and require harsh deduction cuts on the middle and working class to offset the deepening of the deficit.  The President’s counterattack on Romney’s proposed military buildup is fantastic: He pithily notes that he opposes the sequester cuts to Defense spending as much as Governor Romney does, and that he will work-out a deal so that it does not happen.  He then says that the US Navy is not part of a game of Battleship in which strength is assessed by how many ships you have.  In effect, he has told the Governor to his face that his military spending plan implies he doesn’t know what a strong military looks like, and that he has this.

9:34 pm: Governor Romney is dwelling on his 5-point economic plan.  He sounds like he has coolly assessed his prospects in a foreign policy debate, and simply doesn’t have powerful criticisms or an alternative foreign policy agenda to offer.  That’s fair; maybe a President Romney would know enough to maintain those policies of the President that have been successful and helps the United States conserve its strength.  (Granted, Governor Romney’s disturbing train of ham-fisted Neoconservative foreign policy…advisers suggest this may be too much to hope for, but the point is that he at least sounds like he aspires to the same goals that President Obama is…well, achieving.)

Bob Schieffer finally tries to corral the candidates back to the foreign policy debate…but they out-vote him!  He doesn’t seem to feel strongly that the debate should focus on a scheduled topic rather than one preferred by “popular demand.”

9:27 pm: Right now President Obama and Governor Romney are having a rational debate.  Governor Romney focuses on general principles, and President Obama extensively defends his tactical choices against critics who think he hasn’t been a forceful advocate for a US position in foreign affairs.  So far I think President Obama is winning this debate, because Governor Romney is attacking him with his heart.  He sounds like his heart is in the right place, but President Obama sounds like his head is in the right place.  So far there are no clear differences in policy goals–no clear differences in policy goals–between the President and his challenger.  Note what I just called them; so far the debate mostly flows as though an earnest critic is getting an education from a sympathetic President who is doing the best that can be done in a currently-unpredictable international system.

9:18 pm: Governor Romney starts his discussion of Syria mentioning 30,000 dead Syrians in the civil war since March 2011, calling it “a humanitarian disaster.”  I’m giving the Governor that one, as I’ve had a burning desire for us to do something for the people of Syria living in fear of a desperately-flailing government for about a year.  I’m glad he chose to mention that 1st.

President Obama offers a fair defense, however: We are engaged in the civil war in Syria.  Arming the rebels was a step we didn’t even take in Libya–the Rebels seized Gaddafi’s arsenals and were strengthened by many defections from the Libyan Army–as in both Syria and Libya it could have led to weapons transfers to Islamist terrorists or other militants.  We are building a diplomatic coalition against Assad and providing humanitarian assistance to mitigate the impacts of the civil war in Syria however possible.  The President sees Bashar al-Assad as a murderer and a tyrant, and believes he must depart; this puts him on the side of a revolutionary mainstream in Syria by default.  He contrasts the Syria question from our intervention in Libya on the grounds that a massacre in Benghazi–a city as large as San Francisco–was virtually certain at the time we threw-in with the Rebels in mid-March 2011.

9:15 pm: President Obama has scooped Governor Romney’s attack against him on his policy towards the State of Israel, calling it “a true friend and ally in the region.”  The President seems more on his toes this time; I thought the President had a substantive advantage going into this debate as the sitting Commander-in-Chief with considerable foreign policy achievements, but the energy seems nearly reversed from Debate #1, almost as if that was simply the debate Governor Romney wanted to have, and this debate is simply the one the President wanted to have, and it’s that simple.

9:04-9:12 pm: Governor Romney opens lightly, with a joke: Referring to a cordial comedic event he and President Obama attended last week, he informs the audience that there is a fair chance of unintentional but equally-solid comedy tonight.  He criticizes the President’s grasp on the Benghazi attack, but he pulls his punch.  He applauds the President’s actions leading up to the killing of Osama bin Laden.  He seems to have decided grace and fair play will give him more solid ground as he builds his case against the President and for himself.

The President talks his own accomplishments up–particularly his administration’s campaign against al-Qaeda but with Libya’s shaky but forward political movement as well.  The Governor and the President are agreed! the President has serious foreign policy accomplishments.

It’s interesting to watch: The national Republican party has done much to earn a reputation as the party of nasty, but Governor Romney has at least made an early indication that he wants to shore-up his image as a statesmanlike public figure.  We’re just 12 minutes in, but I’m not sure it’s profiting him.

At the moment, in the context of this debate at least, the President’s defense of his foreign policy record towards the Middle East appears fortress-like.  It isn’t elegant, but it nonetheless looks impenetrable.

9:03 pm: Bob Schieffer asks about Libya 1st, about the Benghazi terrorist attack against the US Consulate there that killed Ambassador J. Chris Stevens and 3 other Americans working for the State Department.  This question may the embarrassment for the President that refuses to die, but Schieffer literally offers so many ways to answer this question that it’s practically a gift to President Obama, if he can think on his feet.

9:00 pm: On CSpan, which is so wonderfully unfiltered, you can hear TV news reporters sounding-off to their respective nightly news anchors about the immanent opening of the 3rd Presidential Debate.  1 of them calls it “the final face-off;” am I alone in finding that a trivialization of what should be the most-momentous of all consumer choices at the very-least?

8:48 pm: In case anyone doubts that the Presidential Debates serve a positive purpose (which they shouldn’t, frustrations with the substance that sometimes gets addressed aside), Kevin Ross, President of Lynn University, seeks to take the opportunity to put his university on the map.  That’s an aim I can sympathize with; it’s exciting to be a part of a university whose reputation hasn’t yet caught-up with what it has to offer.  (Of course, Lynn will now have to stand up in the light that has been cast on it this evening, but a small liberal arts college has to find its niche somehow.)  Once every 4 years, the Presidential Debates raise awareness of 4 colleges or universities in our expensive but excellent (and crowded) secondary education market.

That said, “Lynn University: It’s what the World is coming to,” would not necessarily be my choice of promotional slogan.

8:44 pm: Frank Fahrenkopf, Co-Chair of the 2012 Commission on Presidential Debates, just thanked the International Bottled Water Association for their sponsorship of this debate.  I hope, but cannot by any means guarantee, that this debate will really pick up in about 15 minutes.

Current Election Projections (*Not* Predictions): The Triumph of Politics

There are a lot of election handicappers and poll aggregators out there; I’ve been holding off on offering a forecast for a while now.  Like all forecasts, this is not a prediction but simply a temporary offer of a prognosis based on the moving parts–and the various qualities and degrees of significance–we perceive at a given moment.  I like the term “projection” better than “prediction.”  Prediction implies that one knows what’s going to happen next.  There is, at all times, a fundamental problem with applying the term “prediction” to our best guesses even about the near-future in politics.  Those fields which pertain to politics, war, and finance both demand some level of predictive confidence and are constantly subject to Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s problem of the “black swan.”  In all 3 of these fields there are full-time professionals committed to bucking the trends you see, hoping to change the game being played to the advantage of their dark-horse cause.

You can’t always read about these attempts at break-out moments.  Sometimes it’s too time-consuming to follow the story (or stories), sometimes there’s no written story to follow.  You’d think telecommunications technology would mitigate this problem; it has observably made it far more-serious.  In an information-saturated environment, campaigns that appear to be behind try to manufacture moments to re-shuffle the deck–and leaders do the same…as do unaffiliated supporters on both sides.

But this is no cause to shirk that old game of election handicapping!  Just because I’m going out on a statistical limb doesn’t mean I can’t stand on the shoulders of professional statisticians!  Let’s not mess around with all of this “tossup” stuff; let’s get some damn election calls in here!

Note: I fully expect some of the actual November 6th election results to trump the calls made here; after all, if the pollsters, analysts and reporters I’ve relied on in arriving at these judgments were always right, that would mean political consultants and campaign advisers were helpless to deliver a come-from-behind win to their cause-celebre–and that’s something we know isn’t true from experience.  Just ask Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) after the 2010 Midterm Elections.  Actually, on that point it’s worth noting that series of unanticipated events at the beginning of this year have made it highly likely that the Democratic Party will keep its Senate majority, when it had been widely believed that they would lose it in the massive Republican wave year of 2010.  That proviso being given, without further ado let the Liberal Ironist speak above his pay grade about an important election that is certain to have some surprises in store for all of us somewhere.

President (electoral vote): Obama 303 (281-332)–Romney 235 (206-257)

President (popular vote): really, really close

There was a strong movement in the polls in Governor Romney’s favor in the first 2 weeks of October, but this appears to have stabilized and even reverted somewhat in the past week.  On October 12th, head modeler Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight forecast President Obama’s odds of winning re-election on November 6th at about 3:2; now he’s putting it around 2:1 with a slight positive outlook.  Those odds have slid enough that we shouldn’t rule-out further abrupt movement in the polls, as from October 4th (the Night of the Living Debate) to October 12th the FiveThirtyEight forecast model calculated that President Obama’s odds of winning re-election in November slid from 7:1 to 3:2.  Suffice to say that that the Presidential race is far more-competitive now than it was in the 3 weeks following the Democratic National Convention.

But you know what?  A close race does not an unstable race make.  Missouri was called a “competitive” State in Presidential Elections for years, and on the eve of the Presidential Election in 2008 no less-seasoned a political adviser than Karl Rove called Missouri for President Obama.  But Missouri remained in the Republican column, as it had in every Presidential Election since 1996, when Ross Perot was still a significant spoiler for Conservatives; meanwhile Indiana, anticipated by almost no one, turned out for President Obama in his electoral blowout.  The Commonwealth of Virginia, previously (but no more) a component in the Republican electoral base, turned-out for President Obama by the same margin as the country as a whole.  Missouri was very close that year, but it voted for Senator John McCain for President in a year when it seemed no one was doing it.

What’s my point?  Just because a State polls close–even regularly–doesn’t mean it’s actually a good target for the trailing Presidential contender.  Of course pollsters and pundits (and the presidential campaigns and the major party organizations) tend to focus on the States that poll close; don’t you get more bang for the buck campaigning in the State where you aren’t so far-behind on votes?  Thing is, that depends; some votes are harder to move than others.  What if 51% of likely voters in a high-turnout Missouri election year were committed Republicans?  Is that a top-tier Democratic campaign investment prospect?

If the elections were to be held tomorrow, I’d still call them for President Obama, with about 303 electoral votes to Governor Romney’s 235.  Most of the polls and poll aggregators reflect a consensus in which Florida is polling in Romney’s favor; a few show Romney in the lead in Virginia, Colorado and New Hampshire as well.  Romney’s prospective lead was not well-corroborated in New Hampshire, and I’m still siding with the recent Quinnipiac/CBS/New York Times poll over the other (often Republican-affiliated) polls saying President Obama still has an edge in Virginia.  Colorado had a deeper tilt away from, and a more-emphatic return to, President Obama than either Virginia or New Hampshire–but there now seems to be agreement among the more-sophisticated poll aggregators (FiveThirtyEight, Pollster) that President Obama is (slightly) favored there.  Virginia has gone back and forth in the polls a lot lately; I still think the President has an edge there.

Meanwhile, Governor Romney’s lead in the polls in Florida has received some attention, but Romney often polled well in Florida before President Obama’s post-Convention bounce, even while the President enjoyed a slow climb in the electoral forecast throughout the summer.  This suggests to me that, while many States that a Republican needs to win a Presidential election have been trending Democratic, Florida has actually been trending Republican.  Considering its 29 electoral votes this might sound like great news for Governor Romney; yet FiveThirtyEight calculates that Ohio (by far #1), Virginia and Wisconsin are the 3 States most-likely to determine the Electoral College winner this year.  That’s a bad sign for Romney; if smaller States where President Obama tends to poll in the lead are calculated to have a higher probability of casting the decisive electoral votes for President, this means President Obama’s “Electoral firewall” of support from a decisive combination of swing States is holding strong.

Other States which have shown notable poll trends towards Governor Romney since the October 4th debate are Ohio, Nevada and Wisconsin (though I still don’t think Romney will closely-contest Nevada or Wisconsin in the end).  To a lesser and ultimately-inconsequential extent, Romney also gained in the polls in Oregon and Pennsylvania–though this gain has begun to reverse itself, especially in Oregon.

If Governor Romney were to win Florida, Colorado, Virginia, New Hampshire and Ohio–which I have listed in roughly the order I believe he could win them, from greatest to least–he would have 279 electoral votes to President Obama’s 259–a very close save considering he was unambiguously behind in the polls until October and continues to trail in the swing States, but enough to win.

Silver, blogging at FiveThirtyEight, argued last week that the previous weekend’s polls foreshadowed the restoration of President Obama’s electoral standing (though less-so in Colorado and Florida, the States where he had lost the most ground in the polls).  The President has not made up the polling ground he has lost since his very-defensive performance in the October 4th debate–indeed, he hasn’t quite made up the ground he lost in a particularly bad day of polling last Friday–but the reversion to the mean in the polls has meant that Governor Romney is now trailing in the polls again, with only next Monday’s foreign policy-themed Presidential Debate to go.

Governor Romney lost his cool and had a few embarrassing fumbles during Tuesday’s Town Hall debate in the New York suburbs.  I’m sorry to draw your attention to cosmetics, dear reader, but the fact remains that this election continues to appear competitive, as it has all this month, and it has been subject to a kind of hyper-focus.  In a Gallup poll released Friday, respondents judged President Obama the winner of the 2nd debate, 51%-38%.  Independents judged the President the winner of the debate, 54%-33%.  While Gallup admitted that the impact the Town Hall Debate would have on the election was unclear, Governor Romney needed to add to his momentum of the previous debate, and between this and the Vice Presidential Debate the week before, he failed to do this.  Romney has tried very hard (and millionaires and billionaires have spent millions of dollars on super-PACs attacking the President), but it’s doubtful he can turn the tables and win this race with 17 days to go.  Governor Romney is out of ammunition.

US Senate: 53 Democrats (52-55)–47 Republicans (45-48)

Considering Republicans were favored to narrowly win control of the Senate in 2010, they should take a long, hard look at themselves as the Democrats are almost certain to maintain their majority in the Senate, quite possibly by their current 53-vote majority.

I expect an independent pickup in Maine and a Democratic pickup in Massachusetts.  Everyone expects a Republican pickup in Nebraska and it is likely (though not certain) in North Dakota.  If Angus King, the independent former Governor of Maine, wins, he is expected to caucus with the Democrats (though he has not yet committed to).  With the exception of a narrow but likely win by Republican Rick Berg over Democrat Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota, I expect the current party to retain control of the other Senate seats this year–but Indiana (R), Montana (D) and Arizona (R) could go either way.  So, the likely Democratic range is 52-55 seats in the Senate (the lower end being more-likely), the likely Republican range 45-48.

The Republicans were badly-hurt by Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME)’s retirement decision, which made a sure Republican seat a solid bet for a Republican-hostile independent gain, and by Tea Party candidate Richard Mourdock’s 61%-39% primary win over Senator Richard Lugar in Indiana, which made another safe Republican Senate seat a tossup.  Senator Snowe retired because she felt rising partisanship had made it too difficult to do her job; so, since 2010 if it weren’t for the Tea Party the Republicans might be starting the 113th Congress with a 53-seat majority instead of a probable 47-seat minority.  Meanwhile Richard Mourdock, the Indiana Treasurer, is enough of a Conservative that loyally-Republican Indiana may vote to send a Democratic Congressman to the Senate.  Even if Mourdock wins, the Republican Party and the many pro-Republican super-PACs funneling cash into this election will have invested a lot in defending a seat, when they had thought they would be able to make a bid for the upper chamber of Congress.

These developments reinforce a suspicion I’ve had since the 2010 Midterms: The further you go up the ballot, the less the Conservative “Tea Party” movement has helped the Republicans and the more-manifestly it has hurt.

I haven’t written much on the subject to-date, but I think this is the implicit story of the Republican Presidential Primaries and the 2012 Presidential Election as well.

US House of Representatives: 239 Republicans (235-244)–196 Democrats (191-200)

Finally, there are the House races…Sigh.  I can only anticipate marginal Democratic gains in the House of Representatives, even with what the Gallup poll finds to be the most-unpopular Congress in history (which, in agreement with Ezra Klein, I attribute to the crass and obsessive behavior of House Republicans.)

Frankly, I just think we’re living through a phase of American history in which it’s easier, for several reasons, to elect Republicans to the House of Representatives.  Congressional reapportionment and redistricting continue to reflect the population shifts which have dominated the previous 3 rounds of reapportionment.  The Northeast lost 5 Congressional Districts (of which New York lost 2) and the Midwest lost 6 (with Ohio also losing 2); the South gained 7 Congressional Districts (with Texas gaining a recent record 4 and Florida gaining 2, though Louisiana lost 1 due to the post-Katrina exodus) while the West gained 4 (though economically-depressed and cash-strapped California bucked its own recent trend in failing to gain an additional District).  However, unlike in the past 3 reapportionments, Republicans were not able to engineer a natural increase in Congressional Districts for themselves.  This was all the more-noteworthy as Republicans gained about 700 seats in State legislatures nationwide, taking control of a net 15 State Legislatures as well as 6 governor’s offices in 2010.  Once again, Republicans were in unitary control of redistricting in many strategic States–Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina (where the Democratic Governor had no input in the process), South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, and Texas.

On yet the other hand, there are several reasons for Republicans’ relatively-disappointing performance in redistricting.  1st and most-obviously, following the 2010 Midterm Elections, the Republicans had a larger House Conference than they had at any point in their entire 1995-2007 period of control of the House.  Nationwide, roughly 53% of the 2010 popular vote for the House was for the Republicans.  This was a high that, in our highly-partisan and information-saturated political environment, Republicans could not hope to improve.

On a related count, Republicans had already squeezed almost all the water out of the stone in partisan gerrymandering.  The 5 best States for Republican gerrymanders for the 2002 and 2004 House elections–Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Florida and Texas–will in aggregate almost certainly yield a net shift of House seats to the Democrats this year, and bipartisan redistricting commissions yielded surprising projected gains to the Democrats in Washington State, California, and Arizona.  Even the very bright redistricting spots for Republicans in Republican-dominated North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia might be almost completely neutralized by the Democratic gerrymanders in Maryland and Illinois.  (In Illinois, Democrats have a shot at converting an 11-8 Republican Congressional delegation into a 13-5 Democratic delegation, which if borne-out would be the most-successful partisan redistricting of this cycle.)  Republicans do have a possible consolation prize in a surprising prospect of a net Democratic loss of 2 seats and a Republican pickup of 1 in the Boston metropolitan area; Massachusetts Democrats eliminated the District of the unpopular Congressman Barney Frank, only to see John Tierney, the Congressman from H.P. Lovecraft’s old stomping ground north of Boston, embroiled in scandal.  Making cautious judgments based on current polling, recent partisan voting indices and a few assumptions about a Congressman’s ability to run in their District, I expect somewhere around a 3-seat loss to Republicans from their current 242-193 House majority.

Of course, a few of these races are quite dynamic; while I have tentative calls for each close House race, I will be genuinely-surprised if they all turn-out as I’m calling them in November.  These are my best current guesses among campaigns that are doing their best to be both visible to the public and invisible in their movements to their opponents.  While there are just over 2 weeks to go until the election, I may nonetheless offer an update.

Governors: 31 Republicans (30-32)–19 Democrats (18-20, including 1 pro-Obama independent)

The Governor’s races are also a bit dull, especially compared to the 2006-2010 period.  This is the only place nationwide where the polls unambiguously point to further net losses for the Democrats.  4 races–North Carolina, Montana, New Hampshire, and Washington–are currently considered competitive; all are currently held by retiring Democrats, though only in Washington does Governor Christine Gregoire have a Democratic legislature to work with at present.  The Democratic candidate is polling in the lead in Washington and narrowly ahead in New Hampshire.  Contested wins in New Hampshire and maybe Montana are possible, but only in New Hampshire will President Obama’s coattails help, and in North Carolina a Democratic hold of the Governor’s Mansion is almost out of the question whatever happens up-ballot.  Come January I expect Republicans to have a 31-19 majority among Governors, counting independent Governor Lincoln Chafee among the Democrats due to his endorsement of President Obama.  This would be the largest number of Republican Governors serving at 1 time in American history.

State Senates: 30 Republican (27-31), 19 Democratic (18-22)

State Houses/Assemblies: 28 Republican (27-30), 21 Democratic (19-22)

State Government Trifectas (Governor and both chambers of the Legislature): 25 Republican (25-26), 15 Democratic (13-16), 9 split (7-11), 1 Nebraska

(Nebraska has a unicameral State Legislature in which party affiliations are prohibited.  Yes, that is odd.)

OK, we might as well do State legislatures.  I certainly don’t know how partisan control of State legislatures is going to shake-out in November, but in this age of massive private financing of campaigns and programmatic political parties–with their consequent very low levels of split-ticket voting–the partisan thrust of the anticipated Presidential vote and the local popularity of the Governor will likely make a huge difference in determining control of several State Legislatures.  Considering the tense balance between elected Democrats and Republicans in the Federal Government, control of State governments is a real prize in impacting policy.  In any case the current trend favors greater partisan consolidation of State governments–though not everywhere.

Note: There aren’t many places I’ve found to get a good nationwide view on the electoral prognosis throughout the State Legislatures.  The best I have found is Ballotpedia (whose projections are more up-to-date) and Governing.com (which actually provides context for its calls).

At present there are 29 Republican and 19 Democratic State Senates; Alaska’s is evenly-split, and Conservative Republicans in Virginia have taken the “nuclear option,” leading their evenly-split Commonwealth Senate by way of their Republican Executive Branch.  There are 30 Republican and 18 Democratic State Houses, with Oregon’s evenly-split.  Nebraska doesn’t factor-in because it has a unicameral State Legislature in which candidates run and serve without partisan affiliation–a completely-unique situation in this country which effectively prevents the Nebraska Senate from having stable policy positions.  The Republicans netted about 700 seats in State Legislatures in 2010, following modest gains in 2009 and preceding modest gains in 2011; in 2010 alone Republicans gained control of a net 15 State Legislatures.  Republicans cleaned up so massively in the greater Midwest region (by which I mean the traditional mining and manufacturing region from Pennsylvania to Kentucky, and northwest to Minnesota) that Illinois and West Virginia retained Democratic governments, Minnesota and Kentucky retained a Democratic Governor, and Kentucky retained a Democratic State House and Wisconsin Democrats gained an inactive Senate majority in June while the entire rest of the region currently has unitary Republican State Government.

There have been, and shall be, corrections to this somewhat-inflated result.  Most prognosticators doubt Democrats will be able to hold their 1-vote majority in the State Senate even while Democratic President Obama and Senate candidate Tammy Baldwin are favored to win the Badger State in their respective races.  As much as it hurts Liberals to say this, Republican Governor Scott Walker is pretty popular there.  Then there is the evenly-divided Alaska Senate: Republicans are widely expected to win control of it.  So, Democrats start out with a likely loss of 2 State Senates.

Massive outside spending in the Arkansas media market on State races could combine with Governor Romney’s projected massive win in that State to deliver 1 or both chambers of its State Legislature to the Republicans.  This would have to happen in spite of Governor Mike Beebe’s popularity–which gives the Democrats a chance.  The Democrats might have a better shot of holding the State House–the Governor was able to pull-off a favorable redistricting plan there, and the Republicans would have to pick up more seats.  In any case, either chamber could go either way.

Republicans also hope for pickups of the Nevada Senate and the New Mexico House.  It appears that redistricting was unkind to New Mexico’s Democrats, and Republican Governor Susanna Martinez is quite popular there.  In Nevada the Democrats have a 1-vote majority in the small State Senate, and this year many of the State Senate races are apparently both heavily-funded and idiosyncratic.  Handicappers have no consensus on what’s going to happen in Nevada’s upper chamber, although they call the lower one for the Democrats; I’d think Republicans are narrowly-favored to win the Nevada Senate, owing partly to Republican Governor Sandoval’s popularity, the likely weakness of President Obama’s lead there relative to 2008, and the surprising strength Republicans are polling with in 3 out of the State’s 4 Congressional Districts in what has recently been a Democratic-trending State.  So, be on the lookout for 2 Democratic-controlled Southwestern State Legislatures to become split Legislatures.

On the other hand, there are 3 State Legislatures that could go from being split to having Democratic majorities–Oregon, Colorado and New York (from most- to least-likely).  This result would give Democrats a trifecta of unitary government in each of these States.  In Oregon a Democratic takeover of the split State House is probable based on the State’s undeniable growing Democratic trend; in Colorado it is aided by a more-subtle trend towards the Democrats, the popularity of Governor John Hickenlooper, legislative redistricting and the gradual decline of social Conservatism in that State.  In deep-Blue, Liberal New York State, the only reason why dinosaur Republicans maintain their majority in the State Senate is because it has the most population-unequal districts of any State legislative chamber in the country–a dated holdover from 1898 and the fear of newly-incorporated New York City’s natural majority of the State population.  So New York’s Republicans, often beholden to the State’s Conservative Party line, continue to cling tenaciously to their 32-30 majority in the State Senate, a place where Progressive legislation goes to die.  The end of their majority in that chamber is both inevitable and just; it is only a question of how long until it happens.

Finally, there are 2 States where I think Democrats have a better-than-even chance of taking control of currently-Republican State Legislatures, both because of the strength of President Obama’s support at the top of the ballot and the unpopularity of Republicans there.  Those States are Maine and Minnesota.  In Maine, Democrats are aided by the unpopularity of Tea Party-backed Governor Paul LePage, elected by a plurality in a 3-way race in 2010 and who has since governed from the far-right; in Minnesota, Republicans appear to have been badly undermined by legislative redistricting, and Democratic Governor Mark Dayton is more-popular than the Legislature.  While Democratic takeovers of the legislature in either State are not inevitable, all indicators seem to favor it in both cases.

Without Compromise, It Isn’t Going to Work

In short, after historically-dynamic national elections in 2006, 2008, and 2010, the most-likely outcome of the 2012 Elections is a big win for the status quo.  The re-election of the President–by a strong electoral margin but a competitive popular vote majority–is fairly likely.  A Democratic majority in the US Senate is highly-likely, and it could easily be as big as it is right now; the Republican House majority is even safer, and it will probably remain at roughly its current size.

Well, all those dreams partisans on both sides have of their favored man passing their favored plan expect too much.  I’m not trying to tell people to temper their expectations but to check their arrogance.  We face a roughly $500 billion default tax increase and blunt automatic budget cuts, controversially to Defense spending, if President Obama, Senate Democrats and House Republicans cannot work-out an agreement by the end of this year.  Going forward into next year, this basic partisan alignment of the Federal Government looks like it will not change.  For the last  3 1/2 of President Obama’s first 4 years in office emotions have been intensely-charged, initially by Republicans and since the 2010 Midterms almost equally among Democrats.  Stonewalling of President Obama by Congressional Republicans has not availed them and has actually yielded them fewer legislative accomplishments in the 112th Congress than the President; for his part, ducking controversy during Congressional debates may have been politically-effective but it has not endeared the President to his base and it has not mollified Republicans.  We face automatic tax increases and spending cuts, a 2013 fight over raising the debt limit and a 2014 debate over how to pay for the multi-year highway bill, a popular but expensive spending program.  If an election this polarized, this emotionally-charged, this overshadowed by upsets and attack ads and this closely-watched by the public can produce divided government almost identical to the one we have now, that means we are going to have to work together, regardless of what anyone says.

Would all those lacking the discipline to talk about politics or government without calling members of the opposing party evil, criminal or stupid kindly leave the room?

Live-Blogging the 2012 Town Hall Presidential Debate

The President has got a score to settle.  Will he wake-up and tell the assembled audience at Hofstra University that Governor Romney’s tax and deficit-reduction plans are mathematically impossible?  Will the Governor’s missionary good cheer avail him after his 1st successful direct clash with the President?  What sort of moderator will CNN Political Contributor Candy Crowley be?  These questions, and more from an undecided audience, shall be answered forthwith!  The Liberal Ironist humbly submits himself as a partial (but hopefully comprehensive) guide…

I’d say the President won this debate, but it certainly wasn’t decisive. Governor Romney was much more-brittle than he usually is.  The President’s talking points, I think, helped him more than the Governor’s did.  The “quotable” moments of the debate were generally unflattering missteps by Governor Romney.  By nature I really think the Governor is the better debater, and he is usually much more-subtle in the way he dominates the discussion; tonight he became testy when the President proved more-diligent than last time in parrying his statistical manipulations and prevarications.

Then there is the fact that swing State polling still favors the President 3 weeks before the election.  On that account, after tonight I give the President a win by default.

I don’t think Governor Romney can restore his momentum in the remaining 3 weeks.  He’s out of ammunition.

10:37 pm: Both candidates have been asked to set the record straight on who they are, and to try to provide examples.  Governor Romney calls the question “an opportunity,” and says he “appreciate(s) it.”  He notes his record of charity and his mindfulness of the needy.  President Obama probably did more to help himself politically; he specifically addresses the charge of Conservatives that the President is a Socialist in all but name, that he believes “that government creates jobs.”  He explained that his policy goals are about lifting people up, and investing in the nation’s economic vitality.  Somewhat remarkably, he went on the offensive against Governor Romney in the last few seconds of the debate, calling his challenger out for his notorious leaked comments from a meeting with rich donors in May in which he said that 47% of Americans didn’t pay taxes and thought they were victims, essentially living off of government benefits.  It was a surprise parting shot, and Governor Romney has no way to clear it from the air.

But then, several things have happened over the past hour and a half that Governor Romney would probably prefer we forget.

10:32 pm: Both candidates have retreated into their talking points.  The President’s talking points actually have some analytic depth, at least: Among other things, he notes that without government investment in basic science research and educational opportunities, the United States will lose its competitive economic edge.  Governor Romney isn’t able to do much better than to say that he will call-out China for its unfair trade practices (which the US Chamber of Commerce thinks is too risky) and cut taxes (which President Obama has actually done).

10:12 pm: 3/4 of the way through the debate, someone asks the President about the terrorist attack on our Foreign Service personnel in Libya on September 11th of this year.  The President’s initial response is a bit formalistic, but interestingly he does say that he is ultimately responsible for taking the proper measures to ensure our embassies, consulates and Foreign Service personnel abroad are secure.  What is interesting is the response.

Governor Romney has a sober start, but eventually launches back into an attack on the Obama Administration for supposedly lying about the nature of the terrorist attack on our consulate.

He screwed up big-time leaning into this attack again.  1st, Governor Romney claims that the Benghazi attack marks the 1st time our Foreign Service personnel were attacked since the Iranian Revolution and Hostage Crisis of 1979.  He has completely forgotten the 223 killed (including 2 CIA operatives) and 4,000 wounded in the massive bombing attacks on our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.  Wow, this guy wants to cast himself as an authority on national security and foreign policy, and he has completely forgotten about those simultaneous incidents.  That isn’t very confidence-inspiring.

In his response, President Obama accuses the Governor of making political hay on a tragedy.  He also asserts that he referred to the deadly attack on our consulate in Benghazi as an “act of terror” the day after the incident; Governor Romney says he has the President on the record and insists that the President didn’t call the attack in Benghazi an “act of terror” until 14 days after the fact–and the moderator corrects him.  Ooops.

10:08 pm: Governor Romney just had a very ungainly outburst in defense of his investments.  It may be the President has ribbed him unfairly for investing money in China, but his response was to curtly and repeatedly ask the President if he has read his own personal investment reports.  Both candidates have been on-edge in this debate, but to an extent that I may not have seen before, Governor Romney has lost his cool here.

10:03 pm: President Obama insists that he tried to promote comprehensive immigration reform.  He notes his support for the DREAM Act, which was a good but partial reform.

For me, the best proposal we have heard for immigration was President George W. Bush’s proposed immigration reform of 2007.  He had proposed letting undocumented immigrants apply publicly for temporary legal status and to begin, contingent upon working in 2-year periods, to apply for citizenship.  Since that failed, only half-measure reforms have been possible.

9:59 pm: We are 2/3 of the way through the debate, and a Hispanic woman just asked Governor Romney what he will do to reform our immigration system.  1st, Governor Romney spoke positively of our legal immigration system (as almost all Republicans to the left of Michele Bachmann are wont to do), and even advocated giving Green Cards to international graduates of American universities to give them a chance to remain in the United States.  He did double-down on “shutting off the magnet” in enforcing immigration laws and punishing businesses that hire immigrants without papers.  He seemed open to the DREAM Act; it isn’t clear why he makes this 1 allowance, and the President subsequently notes that Governor Romney publicly spoke-out against the DREAM Act previously.

9:56 pm: Governor Romney notes that “The economy is growing slower this year than it grew last year, and it grew more-slowly last year than the year before.”  Hmmm…Well, it’s true that 2010 was our recent best year for economic growth; the Governor’s complaint implies that it was a mistake to elect the Republicans to Congress and the State houses in such massive numbers late 2010.

9:50 pm: Governor Romney is asked how he would differ from George W. Bush.  Nothing he has to say is quite as pithy as when President Obama notes that George W. Bush didn’t want all undocumented immigrants to “self-deport,” or promise to eliminate Planned Parenthood.  He says that Governor Romney has promised to be different from George W. Bush on economic policy, but that he has made more promises to be different (as in, more-regressive) on social policy.

9:47 pm: The more Governor Romney draws on his personal business experience in order to argue that he would be better than President Obama at managing the national economy, the less confidence I have in him.  He almost never gets into particulars about what he wants to do to stimulate economic growth besides calling for tax cuts (he can’t even discuss the deductions), advocating more free trade agreements (something George W. Bush campaigned very aggressively for but in which he never passed a free trade agreement as significant as Clinton’s NAFTA), and calling out the People’s Republic of China for unfair trade practices (something that government is certainly guilty of, but which could compromise other aspects of our diplomatic agenda and which the US Chamber of Commerce opposes).

9:37 pm: On the subject of pay equity, President Obama refers to a real example of a woman who hit the “glass ceiling” of stunted corporate ambition; he also mentions the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, a statutory response to a Supreme Court decision against a major pay equity lawsuit.  Governor Romney focuses most of his response on (reasonable but inoperable) personal sentiments and then shifts to our relatively-high unemployment rate.  A friend asks, “Um, what about equal pay?  What about the question?

President Obama, in response, notes that when Governor Romney was asked about the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, he said “Let me get back to you about that.”  “These are not just women’s issues.  These are family issues, these are economic issues.  Everybody benefits when more people have an opportunity (to prosper in the workforce)…”  President Obama’s defense of pay equity between the sexes is the most-passionate single moment of this debate thus far.

9:36 pm: Governor Romney, you can only interrupt and/or argue with the moderator so many times before people start to suspect you are a jerk, whether that is a fair impression or not.  You’ve been warned (figuratively-speaking).

9:34 pm: President Obama has added up Governor Romney’s most-basic commitments:
A $5 trillion new tax cut;
$2 trillion of new Defense spending (as much as a $300 billion underestimate, by the way);
About $1 trillion in extended Bush tax cuts for the rich.

The President finds $8 trillion in new deficits the Governor has committed to the Federal Government (I find more like $9 trillion with a more-aggressive Defense spending figure and $716 billion in inessential Medicare spending the Governor has promised to restore to that program).  Oh, and then the President mentions that Governor Romney has also promised to cut Federal deficits by trillions.  Will Romney say anything to get elected?

That’s not a rhetorical question; what wouldn’t he say if he thought it looked good?

9:28 pm: President Obama points out that President Clinton’s 39.5% top marginal income tax rate was our last period of sustained real economic growth, and the last time at which we had balanced Federal budgets.

Governor Romney says he can reduce income tax rates by 20% across the board and still reduce tax deductions to the point that the top 5% of income tax payers pay 60% of Federal income tax revenues.  He cannot do this.  He’s sticking a little more to his talking points.  He has said that he has long private sector experience and wants to use tax policy to help small businesses; President Obama already said he has lowered taxes on small businesses and the Governor didn’t say anything to gainsay this.

9:27 pm: Everyone wants to cut taxes on the middle class, apparently.

9:20 pm: Governor Romney is trying to win points through statistical manipulation.  He said the Federal Government has reduced the number of mining and drilling leases on Federal land; the President explained that the Federal Government has been terminating leases by energy companies that didn’t use the lease to obtain resources in a timely fashion.  Governor Romney said that the price of gas in Nassau County has nearly doubled since President Obama’s inauguration; the President points out that this is true–because gas prices were deeply-depressed in the midst of recession in January 2009.  Romney has become very brazen in his dishonesty in this debate; he is also becoming visibly more-impatient when the President draws attentions to these half-truths and untruths.

9:16 pm: Keep an eye on Governor Romney’s promises.  He has promised to create 12 million new jobs in his 1st term through his tax plan; 12 million new jobs is the default job creation anticipated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  Romney has promised to make the United States “energy independent in 8 years,” which in such a large consumer economy is probably not quantitatively possible at this time.

9:14 pm: The 2nd question was pretty good, too: Should the Department of Energy be in the business of lowering gas prices or no?  The President touted both the success and the future prospects of our domestic natural gas supply to alleviate pressure on other fuel sources.

Governor Romney decries the costs supposedly imposed by Federal regulations on American energy companies.  It’s weird that Republicans have made such a political fuss on this issue, considering Republican Governors frequently tout their own ability to exploit their State’s fossil fuel resources; all of that was authorized by Federal agencies.

9:10 pm: Governor Romney now tells us that his plan for Detroit was no different than President Obama’s successful bailout!  Governor Romney is trying to establish equivalence between his own call that General Motors and Chrysler experience the hard lessons and discipline of bankruptcy and the President’s active capital investment in and restructuring of those companies!  This is hilarious!

Oh, I hope Governor Romney continues with this sort of shoddy, slippery reasoning.  He should really be careful with this kind of dissembling if he knows what is good for him.

9:04 pm: The 1st question is a straightforward one, if difficult to answer: When I graduate from college, what sort of work could be available for me?  This borders on an existential question for all of the educated but unemployed young Americans today.

Governor Romney goes 1st.  Damn, he is working on connecting with this young man.  He emoted, he expressed his commitment to Pell Grants, he talked-up programs like those in Massachusetts or run by Yale University that guarantee top-placing students admission to local colleges.  He has some good ideas (and on a cosmetic note Governor Romney has clearly internalized warnings that he is too distant), but he cannot get past talking points in actually addressing the issue of the economy.

President Obama focuses on 5 million jobs recently created.  He also proposes greater domestic energy production and energy efficiency and talks up the importance of deficit-reduction.  I’m a little surprised he scooped Governor Romney in advancing these ideas.  Not surprisingly, he emphasizes the idea of spending more money on domestic infrastructure development rather than spending it on a massive Defense buildup.

9:01 pm: The Gallup polling organization selected 82 undecided voters in the New York metropolitan area to offer questions to the candidate.  Having many years of experience with very-decided Democrats and Republicans in this region, I ask myself: Just who are these people?

8:48 pm: Stuart Rabinowitz, President of Hofstra University, said that 6,550 students registered for the preferential lottery to attend the Town Hall Debate, which is being hosted by the University.  The University was only able to provide several hundred seats in total; so, now you know why the Liberal Ironist gave up on trying to get seats early.

President Rabinowitz has generously offered to give his seat to a student, and watch the debate by video link from elsewhere on-campus.

Live-Blogging the 2012 Vice Presidential Debate

Vice President Joseph Biden won that debate.  He cannot do as much to benefit President Obama’s campaign as Governor Romney did to benefit his own last week, but he has set the terms of President Obama’s counter.  “The Governor has no clothes,” seems to be the line the Obama campaign is taking in response to the 1st Presidential Debate.  This is a winning position, considering Governor Romney’s tough-sounding stands but fundamentally-contradictory proposals on health care reform, tax and budget policy and the deficit, and in particular Romney and Ryan’s potentially-dangerous “tough talk” and lack of serious policy alternatives on Iran and other foreign policy issues.  The immediately-following CBS News poll found the Vice President beat the Congressman, 50%-31%.  That was my impression, but that’s just 1 poll.  In any case, the town hall debate at Hofstra University next week probably won’t provide such an opportunity, but whenever the President faces a string of promises of tax cuts that aren’t paid for or tries to score political points by offering health care reforms that are already law under the Affordable Care Act, he now has the theme in which he should frame his counter:

The Governor has no clothes.

10:28 pm: The closing statements were an interesting recapitulation of what preceded in the debate: Vice President Biden said that this election is about people like his veteran son, his parents, and his blue-collar former neighbors back in Scranton, PA.  He attacked Congressman Ryan for calling 30% of Americans “takers,” a crypto-Randian characterization, and Governor Romney for calling 47% of Americans entitled for not paying any income tax and living on government benefits (a conflated and confused allegation on the Governor’s part).

Congressman Ryan focused on Republican talking points, looking directly into the camera.  He made a case for the need for a leadership change and claimed that the current policy course is fiscally unsustainable.  He looked directly into the camera as he spoke, explicitly asked for our vote for the Romney-Ryan ticket, and closed with “Thank you.”  If I may veer into a discussion of optics again, I think Ryan sounded too rehearsed–a product, in part, of his relative inexperience at the top level of exposure in national politics.

10:22 pm: Vice President Biden answers the question about the nastiness of the campaign thus far by saying people in government have 1 sacred obligation–to protect soldiers going into war and to take care of them when they return; the rest are matters of politics and policy.

Congressman Ryan says again that the President Obama is running against Governor Romney because he won’t run on his record.  I myself wish the President would run on his record; I for one am happy to vote for him on account of it.

10:15 pm: Ms. Raddatz asks the 2 candidates how their Catholic faith will inform their role in a Presidential administration.  Both do the usual thing: Ryan believes Catholicism means defending the principle that human life begins at conception, while Vice President Biden claims that his faith informs his sense of a social mission.  Congressman Ryan makes the argument–popular with Conservatives this year–that the Obama Administration’s contraception coverage rules under the Affordable Care Act constitute a violation of “religious liberty.”  The Vice President goes into the attack against the Romney-Ryan ticket’s opposition to abortion in all but “emergency” cases of rape, incest or danger to a woman’s health.  He sounds the more-passionate, though I feel he went further on the limb in making his answer into an attack.  Congressman Ryan has been strong on the Republican talking points; Vice President Biden seems more off-the-cuff and passionate, but he sounds like he thinks about these issues in their particulars more-often.

10:10 pm: The Vice President asks Congressman Ryan what he proposes we do differently with regard to the civil war in Syria; Ryan fumbles it.  Ryan, who is smart and a legitimate policy wonk, has not managed to carry that substance into the debate.  This is his fault, and Governor Romney’s.  They are getting hit on issues–tax reform, hard lines on foreign policy–where they have not actually fleshed-out serious policy proposals.  Hilariously, Ryan 1st suggests a Romney Administration would go to the United Nations.  Vice President Biden interrupts with a gasp, and argues that the Administration has already helped the Rebels in Syria–through humanitarian assistance that lightens the material burden on the rebels.  In my heart I actually lean towards Ryan’s disgust with Assad–but the Vice President makes his argument more-clearly and responsibly.

10:01 pm: Vice President Biden defends the Administration’s timetable for withdrawal of our soldiers from Afghanistan.  Ms. Raddatz asks Vice President Biden if the troop drawdown from General Petraeus’ “Surge” in Afghanistan was politically-motivated; the Vice President claims that the surge timetable was plotted-out in advance.

Congressman Ryan raises an interesting objection: The final troop drawdowns in Afghanistan will leave that country to defend itself against the Taliban while the intense summer “fighting season” is still underway.  The Vice President probably won this exchange in the eyes of the public with his assertion that properly-trained Afghan soldiers have got to do this job for themselves.  He makes note of the rise in “Green-on-Blue” (Afghan-on-NATO) military killings in Afghanistan, and says that it is time for Afghan soldiers to step up.  I lack confidence that this “take responsibility” strategy is going to have a positive ultimate outcome, but then I don’t see what more can be done to stabilize Afghanistan after 11 years.  Vice President Biden said 9 years ago that Afghanistan warranted more attention and a large troop commitment from the W. Bush Administration; it wasn’t done under that Administration, and the Obama Administration’s large commitment to that country, driven by military planning rather than political optics, has had an ambiguous impact on that country.

9:54 pm: Martha Raddatz, this debate’s fantastic moderator, just noted that Governor Romney wants to increase Defense spending while cutting tax rates and supposedly reducing the Federal budget deficit.  Congressman Ryan claimed that he merely opposes cuts to Defense spending under the “sequester” mandatory cuts imposed to the Federal Budget last year.  Congressman Ryan is wrong; Governor Romney has proposed about $2.316 trillion in new Defense spending over the next decade above what President Obama is proposing for that period–and President Obama wants to stop the sequester cuts and increase Defense spending as well.

9:49 pm: OK, I just got why people were unhappy with Jim Lehrer last week.  I have decided that I really like this moderator.  She is not willing to let claims go if she thinks they are really unsubstantiated.  She has laid down a challenge for the Congressman, asking which tax loopholes he and Romney are proposing to close while reducing all income tax rates by 1/5 without reducing Federal tax revenues.

Ryan had nothing.

9:48 pm: Congressman Ryan is posing tax reform as about small business.  He claims that “8 out of 10 businesses file their taxes as individuals, not as corporations.”  He also notes that about 2/3 of our jobs are provided by small business.

What he doesn’t note is that lowering tax rates for small businesses is not stimulative; small businesses do not drive the economy.  They need consumers, which means they have to grow on orders from big business and government, as well as those already employed in large numbers through the rest of the economy.

9:44 pm: Congressman Ryan had a clever counter, quoting the President at the beginning of his term: “If you don’t have a record to run on, you present your opponent to run from.”  He wants to argue President Obama is overwhelmed and has lost his way.  The Vice President focused on the needs of seniors who would be financially-stressed by Romney and Ryan’s Medicare proposal, saying his old home town has a lot of seniors who wouldn’t be able to pay for their health care expenses.

9:38 pm: “We will not, repeat, we will not privatize Social Security.  Imagine where we’d be if we’d listened to Romney and Ryan in the Bush years.  Their ideas are old, they are bad…”

Vice President Biden has countered many charges by Congressman Ryan.  After Ryan claimed Medicare Advantage would be underfunded by the Affordable Care Act, the Vice President noted that more seniors signed-up for Medicare Advantage after the Affordable Care Act was passed into law.  Congressman Ryan claimed that Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Alice Rivlin (Clinton’s former Budget Director) were supporters of his Medicare voucher plan; the Vice President notes that both of them have disavowed the plan.

Even in its current, restrained form, Biden calls the proposed voucher plan for Medicare a hidden cut on Medicare benefits for the elderly.  He notes that Romney and Ryan both want to arbitrarily restrict Medicare expenditures without instituting needed structural reforms.

9:32 pm: Vice President Biden is winning this debate so far.  He countered an account of Governor Romney’s charitable character with a doubling-down on the successful and popular 2009 bailout and restructuring of Detroit.  He bull-rushed the Congressman at a sensitive juncture without attacking the Governor’s character, and brought the discussion back to actual policy.

Greatly to his credit, the Vice President noted Congressman Ryan’s 2009 requests to the Obama Administration for millions of dollars of stimulus funds through the ARRA (which Ryan received).  Remember, Congressman Ryan voted against the Stimulus and called it 1 of the President’s most-disastrous policies.

9:30 pm: We just witnessed a fascinating exchange, in my opinion.  A very sensitive juncture in the personality contest was just resolved in President Obama’s favor.  Congressman Ryan gave a bittersweet account of 1 of Governor Romney’s personal acts of charity; the Vice President counters with a reference to his personal tragedy which was eerily-similar to that suffered by the target of Romney’s goodwill; he then moves on to discuss Detroit.  Acknowledging that Governor Romney has done good as a private citizen, he brings the focus to Detroit: Governor Romney may be there for his neighbors, but we have it in writing that he would never have been there for Detroit.

9:25 pm: Now on to economics: The Vice President charges that Governor Romney and Congressman Ryan are complicit in a separate set of preferential rules for Wall Street; Congressman Ryan has focused on unfavorable macroeconomic statistics.  Both of these points are essentially talking points (though the Vice President has of course identified the reason we are in this slump in the 1st place).

9:18 pm: Congressman Ryan issued the allegation that President Obama declined to meet with Iraeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the UN General Assembly meeting in New York last month; calling Prime Minister Netanyahu a friend of 39 years, the Vice President insisted that the President has met with Netanyahu as frequently as any foreign head of state.  He insists that Iran will not be allowed to build nuclear weapons, but that Congressman Ryan’s sense of the timetable is hyper-accelerated (a charge the Congressman incidentally concedes!), and says that while military action must remain an option, it is a serious option.  Fools rush in where angels fear to tread, the Vice President seems to say.  The issue is hyped, and the Romney-Ryan tough talk on Iran is just loose talk–irresponsible and heedless of risk.

I like the way this is going.

9:15 pm: Congressman Ryan is talking-up Iran.  He has already charged that the Obama Administration dropped the ball by not taking a rhetorical (and perhaps more-active) stand on the failed “Green Revolution” there in 2009, now he is charging the Obama Administration with caving in to Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

Vice President Biden says that the international community has imposed the toughest sanctions Iran has ever faced, and that they are starting to cripple that country’s economy (and he is right).

9:11 pm: Wow, this moderator seems interested in provocative questions.  She started by asking whether the Obama Administration downplayed a terrorist attack in Libya; now she is asking Congressman Ryan if Governor Romney’s “No apologies” platform of American greatness is appropriate considering that our actions abroad sometimes cause hardship, and the occasional war crime.  That’s a tough question for a running mate with mostly-domestic policy experience; Ryan turns to his talking points about the Administration’s weakness–a losing proposition, but an understandable one.

9:07 pm: Congressman Ryan mostly handles the same question well, aside from the fact that he’s focusing on minutiae.  It’s a bit ironic (and possibly hypocritical)–

Hah! Vice President Biden has interrupted Ryan, calling his lines about the President’s kowtowing around tyrants “a bunch of malarki!”  Nice scoop, Joe!

9:03 pm: Vice President Biden gets Question #1 first.  “Wasn’t this (murderous assault on our Ambassador and Foreign Service personnel in Benghazi, Libya), rather than a riot, in fact a terrorist attack?”  Ouch.

Biden counters well, saying it is 1st and foremost a tragedy.  Not wanting to be equivocal, he then immediately vows we will find those responsible and bring them to justice.  He rightly notes that killing Osama bin Laden was about more than “getting” 1 man; it was about restoring order and demonstrating our means and commitment to find those who kill Americans.

Live-Blogging 2012 Presidential Debate #1: In Denver, with Jim Lehrer

Note: It’s already been a busy publication day at The Liberal Ironist…
For today’s entry on how post-revolutionary progress in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya has been sold short, click here.
For today’s entry on President Obama’s deferential approach to Congress, how it has been more unfortunate than disastrous, and indications that he may take a more-assertive role after the election, click here.

Come one, come all!  Gather ’round for the main event–Mitt Romney’s probable presidential point of no return!  Will out-of-practice so-so debater President Obama flounder before the rhetorical powers of the man who bested Texas Governor Rick Perry and Godfather’s pizza magnate Herman Cain in intellectual agonism?  Or will Governor Romney indeed lose his nerve before Barack Obama, whom we are told is one of the most gifted orators in modern American history and before whom surely no other Democratic President in living memory can claim to have a more-Dionysian mastery of his audience?

Let’s watch and find-out!  If you take each campaign’s word for it, the other guy is just stunning in a debate

10:32 pm: President Obama’s closing statement: I will work tirelessly for you–all of you. This means the Federal Government actually doing things for you, in case there was some confusion about this.

Governor Romney’s closing statement: Not bad in any way, but he promises things he really isn’t in a position to deliver.  The epitome of it, I think, was his promise not to let cuts to Defense spending happen under forced sequestration; but how does he propose to stop it?  There is no chance of the Republicans getting near 60 votes in the US Senate to force a break on sequestration, and President Obama as a lame-duck President would have the power to spike the extension of George W. Bush’s temporary tax cuts, forcing any discussion of permanent tax cuts into the 113th Congress.  Democrats absolutely would not work with Republicans to repeal the Affordable Care Act–especially considering what it would already have cost them politically–and they will not have any motivation to help a President Romney cut taxes and increase military spending steeply entirely at the expense of trillions of projected Federal program cuts over the following decade.  I don’t question the Governor’s intentions (outside of health care reform, where it is painfully clear that he has no coherent plan), but he will have no traction to pursue his positive goals considering his intention to go on the offensive–eliminating the Affordable Care Act, eliminating the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, cutting tax rates on the rich, and cutting Federal spending deeply–on Democratic policy priorities.  In short, Governor Romney promises to make all the bad things go away and all the good things happen.  Outside of health care reform I do believe he has an idea of what the end product should look like, but considering the rosiness of his speech at the close I’m convinced he has no plausible plan for achieving any of it.

10:25 pm: Governor Romney has promised to sit down with Democratic Congressional leaders to hash-out the way forward on the budget.  President Obama did just that in early-2009; that didn’t shake-out so well, and is an event recalled with notoriety in Republicans’ books these days.  Governor Romney would probably be all ears to know how Congressional Democrats could tolerate his proposal for revenue-neutral (at best) tax reform, trillions of dollars in new spending cuts and massive increases in Defense spending, so I’m not surprised he wants to meet with them to hash that out.

The President notes that Congressional Democrats aren’t going to be very receptive at their 1st meeting, considering he will be in the midst of his effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act.  What can the Governor possibly think they will want to negotiate on?  The President has a much more-interesting answer to this question: Part of being a responsible elected official is also saying “No” and not just laying down when the opposition has demands.  He has a much more-sober view of what can be achieved in this charged partisan environment.  I really do think the President’s re-election, in halting the past few years’ electoral volatility, represents the best prospect for bi-partisan cooperation on the budgetary and economic issues immediately on the docket.

10:15 pm: President Obama insists that the role of Government is to enrich our economy; railroads were beneficiaries of Federal land grants and regulation, and land-grant universities eventually brought a university education within everyone’s reach.

Governor Romney insists that he agrees that public schools are a government responsibility; he avers that it is “primarily at the State and local level.”  He doesn’t attack the idea of a Federal role in spending or regulations on primary and secondary education; again, this seems to be an area of a lot of policy continuity between President Obama and Governor Romney.

The rest of Governor Romney’s response to this question is a little “out there,” focusing on government’s role to protect us through Defense (that’s pretty basic) and to defend religious liberty.  I like the sentiment, but is there really disagreement between the President and Governor Romney on religious freedom?  Is this about the (largely-resolved) issue of religious institutional employers’ provision of contraceptives for employees? the video riots and the Middle East and freedom of speech?  Governor Romney has shown an occasional desperation to score “points” with the Republican base that are already going to turn-out to vote for him; he’s getting the points in, but I feel like he’s wasting time on them rather than speaking to broader appeal.

The President suggests that Governor Romney’s proposed Federal budget cuts would have to slash education spending to meet his tax, Defense spending and deficit-reduction goals–which is almost certainly true, particularly in dealing with a very-Republican House of Representatives.

10:07 pm: Grand Moderator Lehrer turns to Romney, asking what he would do about health care reform nationwide if the Affordable Care Act were to be repealed.  He promises all the good, popular regulations instituted in the Affordable Care Act but also insists that “the private sector is always better.”  He rejects all of the Federal cost-saving measures and the Federal individual mandate to buy health insurance that actually pay for the popular far-reaching regulations he is promising he wants to institute himself; again, he has promised to repeal the Affordable Care Act and start over, thus taking away all the regulatory benefits he has promised to insurance customers.  Frankly, Romney is all over the map on this issue.  This is a mess, by far Romney’s worst answer to any of Lehrer’s questions, and he continues to contradict himself constantly on the health care issue; Romney, like the Republican Party generally, has no idea what to do next about general health care, and is just blowing smoke.

10:02 pm: Governor Romney has said “I like what we did in Massachusetts!”  Governor Romney has again embraced the individual mandate to buy health insurance for Massachusetts, but not for America as a whole.  His reasoning remains opaque, though there remains no evidence that it is complicated.  He said he worked with Democrats to get health care reform passed in Massachusetts (undeniable since the Commonwealth Legislature he worked with up there was 85% Democratic); he accused the President of dismissing Republican input when drafting the Affordable Care Act.  This is ridiculous; the President’s health care reform is clearly largely-predicated on health care regulations originally proposed by Conservatives–as President Obama points-out!  The President also notes with some humor that Governor Romney advanced what was achieved in Massachusetts as “a model for the nation;” the President agrees that it was.

9:58 pm: Question #4: Health care.  Governor Romney focuses entirely on the anxieties of small businesses; small business remains the most-trusted “institution” in America, which is probably more of a testament to declining social capital nationwide than it is to the competence of all small businesses as such.  President Obama keeps the focus on the failures of health care provision by insurance companies, and argues that he has made pragmatic adaptations to insure more people and prevent insurance companies from abandoning those who have already paid for care.

9:53 pm: Governor Romney assures us that sound regulations are essential to markets.  (Maybe he believes this; however, we also know that he is a master manipulator of loopholes, so I am hard-pressed to believe he firmly feels this way.  I don’t mean to say that he is insincere in calling for basic market regulations, but that I wouldn’t count on Romney for probity into determining just which regulations we do need.)

President Obama notes that he has instituted the strictest new financial regulations since the Great Depression (invoking the October 1929 Stock Market Crash by allegory).  Governor Romney attacks the President for the ongoing ambiguity of regulations that were authorized 2 years ago but which remain unspecified.

In my opinion, this would have been a good time for President Obama to get a little hot under the collar and say that Senate Republicans should have approved his appointee for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau so that the business of writing and implementing the new regulations could actually end.

9:48 pm: Governor Romney embraces the Ryan-Wyden compromise that followed the mid-2011 “Ryancare” debacle, assuring us that we will retain the choice whether to go on the private health insurance market or remain in the traditional defined-benefit program.

President Obama notes that Medicare has lower administrative costs than private health insurers, and that health insurers, as a business, are going to seek greater efficiency in ways that increase their own profit margin, not pass on cost savings to the government or senior citizens or hospitals or anyone else.  This conversation got heated; in the end, 50 minutes in, Lehrer reasserted control, getting the candidates to agree, much like an iconic episode of King of the Hill, to simply coexist: RESOLVED, the candidates offer a sharp contrast on Medicare.

They finish with Question #3 5 minutes over-time.

9:44 pm: OK, we’re on to Medicare now.  Both men take off their gloves.  Governor Romney attacks President Obama for cutting $716 billion in 10-year Medicare outlays through the Affordable Care Act (though Congress actually managed to do this without cutting seniors’ benefits!), and now President Obama attacks Governor Romney for proposing a version of his running mate Paul Ryan (R-WI)’s proposal to replace Medicare’s defined-benefits with a voucher for new senior citizens to buy health insurance.

9:40 pm: President Obama says the policy differences between himself and Governor Romney are probably small.  The President has a well-developed sense of fair play; the Governor is generally on the attack (as he probably has to be), but he hasn’t really violated the spirit of fair play thus far.

That said, President Obama made reference by allegory to Governor Romney’s “47%” comments, saying that those who consider themselves entitled to Federal assistance are not his concern.  I don’t know if I should think of that as a pulled punch, or if the message was received.

9:39 pm: “States are the laboratories of democracy.  Don’t have the Federal Government tell them how to (administer their spending and regulatory decisions).”  It’s like the philosopher Martin Heidegger once said, “Only a Republican Governor can save us now…”

9:34 pm: When President Obama takes the opportunity to scold Governor Romney for being ideological, he claims a victory.  Romney probably sees the setup but he sticks to his guns–as he probably has to.  President Obama gets Governor Romney to agree that he won’t raise taxes overall at all in order to reduce the deficit; Romney continues to use the pitiful supply-side defense to argue that tax cuts will more than offset concurring spending cuts and bring the budget closer to, rather than further from, balance.  The supply-side proposition has never borne-out in practice; he is clearly playing to his base, and since independent voters seem skeptical towards what Republicans have to say about lower overall tax rates on the rich now, I suspect that doubling-down on his tax proposals here will lose Romney some of the ins he got on the President by scolding him for inaction on deficit-reduction.

9:32 pm: Romney is on the offensive on the deficit discussion.  The President gave a good account of the initial deficit reduction achieved since early 2010–the spending reductions in Medicare through the Affordable Care Act, the initial round of Defense spending cuts.  But Governor Romney scolds the President for not supporting the Bowles-Simpson Deficit Commission’s recommendations, or proposing his own $4 trillion deficit-reduction plan.

9:27 pm: Governor Romney jokingly assures the President he means nothing personal in promising to repeal “Obamacare;” he says the same to Jim Lehrer regarding his intention to eliminate Federal spending on PBS.  He even adds that he likes Big Bird (and Lehrer).  He is trying to angle the cosmetic perspective.  Partisan dissembling aside, I really do think Romney is a good, comfortable debater.

9:25 pm: I don’t want to spend much time analyzing the optics of the 2 candidates’ behaviors, but President Obama tends to look down when Governor Romney is speaking to him.  Romney speaks testily at those times, though it seems more like a product of anxiousness than animosity; still, he looks directly at the person he is talking to.  The President is normally very loose; he needs to get back into the debate swing.  Governor Romney, on the whole, seems to embrace the pressure.

9:22 pm: Governor Romney repeats a charge I’ve heard before, that many small business-owners have to pay the top marginal income tax rate, which can inhibit their ability to invest in new capacity or employment.  He accuses the President of proposing to raise their income tax rate from 35% to 40% (he means 39.5%) by letting George W. Bush’s top marginal income tax rate expire.  That is probably his best line of attack against the President on taxes; President Obama responds with a skeptical account of the initial efficacy of the George W. Bush income tax cuts in 2001 and 2002.

9:21 pm: Grand Moderator Jim Lehrer admonishes the candidates that they are waay past their first 15 minutes, which is true.

9:17 pm: We just heard the 1st of Governor Romney’s zingers!  I’m sure of it!  He accused the President of repeating the same favored accusation over and over again and hoping it becomes true.  (That’s a bit hypocritical considering the party convention that nominated him a month ago was literally themed on a frequently-repeated misquote.)  He claims he wants to lower tax rates and eliminate tax loopholes; he doesn’t address the fact that it is not deficit-neutral to lock-in low income tax rates on the rich in an era of chronic large budget deficits.

9:13 pm: Governor Romney is doing well.  He has gone point-by-point on President Obama’s criticisms, adding in a few of his own.  He is stronger on some points than on others.  Romney insists he wants to target “tax relief” on the middle class; he continues to withhold specifics.  Is there a reason why he cannot offer any specifics about the tax loopholes he will close?  That’s a bit weird.

He tells us that the rapid growth in drilling and mining has entirely occurred on private rather than Federal land; whether that’s true seems irrelevant, since it seems to concede the point that the Obama Administration is not obstructing domestic energy production.

9:10 pm: President Obama responds by saying that the differences between himself and Governor Romney on energy policy are mostly-illusory, though he notes that he is more-committed than Romney to investment in renewable energy such as solar and wind power.  He attacks Governor Romney for a $5 trillion top-heavy tax cut; he also attacks Governor Romney’s proposed military budget as being far in excess of what the Generals have asked for, implying that it is pork-laden.

9:08 pm: “I know what it takes to get small business growing again…”  Mitt Romney doesn’t spend a lot of time discussing particulars, but he does mention what he considers the current hostile regulatory environment and the trade violations of the People’s Republic of China, simultaneous with a typical pitch in favor of more free trade.

9:05 pm: President Obama takes Question #1 first; he starts his discussion about economic management noting the bailout of Detroit, which worked-out for him, the United Auto Workers, and the General Motors and Chrysler Corporations.  He follows-up with a discussion of the investments he wants to make in public goods such as basic education and scientific research.

9:04 pm: President Barack Hussein Obama and Massachusetts Governor Willard Mitt Romney (heh, Willard…) come out.  It’s on.

Jim Lehrer did not have to submit his 6 questions to the Commission on Presidential Debates for approval; this could be interesting…

8:59 pm: At 1 minute, 36 seconds to go, silence is now enforced at Lehrer’s command…Gods, why is it so tense?!

Oh, right, I’m watching on C-Span; nothing to block out the angst of a day of unfiltered politics.

8:49 pm: Jim Lehrer comes out to lay down the law.  He’s pretty imposing.  He promises to single-out any one who hisses, or boos, or even who cheers or applauds.  No one is to interrupt the debate and the ability of the public to view it.  He says that the only reason he doesn’t normally warn people he will expel them for making noise or contaminating the vibe is because “I’ve done this a few times, and now everyone knows the drill.”  Stay out of the way of this train (by which I mean the series of 2-minute responses and rejoinders the candidates are allotted to answer Lehrer’s 6 prepared questions).

8:39 pm: A Co-chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates implored the audience to turn off their cell phones…People are watching 2 Presidential candidates debate right before them, and the Co-chairman of the Debates felt sufficiently-concerned about cell phone interruptions that he felt obligated to tell the assembled audience that “Surely we can make it for 90 minutes without these things”?  I have no deeper thought to offer about this absurdity at this time than “Saddening, and maddening.”

The Arab Spring’s Unappreciated Progress

POLITICAL PROGRESS IN LIBYA: Mohammed el-Megarif, the President of the Libyan National Assembly, eulogizes United States Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens on September 20th. The Arabic on the picture reads “Thank you, Chris.” Some of the more-ignorant and reactionary among us will tell you that violent protests in the Middle East means that the Arab Spring is a front for the march of radical Islamism; those who are actually paying attention see elected leaders decrying violence and promising the United States–and their own people–that they will enforce the law. Associated Press photo by Abdel Magid al-Fergany.

I’ve heard my fill of all the very solemn prognostications about the Arab Spring.  We have to take the long view, Conservative skeptics solemnly say; implicitly the long view is that the revolutions we have witnessed in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and still in process in Yemen and Syria are just way stations towards Iranian-style Islamic Republics.  Thaddeus McCotter (R-MI), in an opening volley for an embarrassingly-short presidential campaign bid last year, warned us in early 2011 that failing to support Egyptian President-for-life Hosni Mubarak would deliver that country over to the extremist enemy.  In an odd bit of McCarthyism, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (R-MN) told us there were Islamist radicals in the State Department; Congressman Louie Gohmert (R-TX) featured prominently among the few in Congress sufficiently quagmatic in their ignorance to double-down on these suspicions.  Gohmert, for his part, saw fit to warn us following mid-September riots and the Benghazi militant attack that these events marked the emergence of “a new Ottoman Empire” in the Middle East, a hysterical narrative that won fittingly-epic derision from The Colbert Report last week.

At the very least, we need not listen to admonitions about taking the political long view from people who can neither observe nor imagine much difference between a dozen countries with millions of people apiece and a single very-different country 33 years ago, namely Iran in the twilight of the Shah.  These are Muslim countries in the midst of revolution, after all; to small minds the threat they pose is exactly the same–the absence of explicit anti-Americanism or an extremist religious figure remotely approaching the importance of Ayatollah Khomeini to Iran notwithstanding.

After mid-September’s violent protests against an anti-Muslim video produced by a private citizen in the United States–and the militant plot in Benghazi, Libya that occurred under their cover–some have argued (rather obtusely) that the Arab Spring has devolved into Islamist mayhem.  These people exhibit a lack of historical perspective about such events.  The “Cartoon Riots” which followed the publication of mocking images of the Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper exceeded the scope of these protests; early this year in Egypt soccer riots in the city of Alexandria claimed 74 lives–followed by large protests in Cairo against the lack of security provided by the Ministry of the Interior.  But no, there were some protests against a video 2 in mid-September, so now those who always looked askance at the capacity of Muslims to form a government for themselves for reasons of ideology or prejudice conclude that Egypt is about to be submerged in a new Caliphate.

Then there’s Libya.  Initial reports of a riot killing US Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, another member of his diplomatic staff and 2 Americans in diplomatic security at the US consulate in Benghazi–the power base of the 2011 Libyan Revolution–brought to mind that the revolution there was in fact some kind of a brilliant cover for al-Qaeda to seize power.  Now it appears the attack on the Consulate was the premeditated work of Ansar al-Sharia, a local terrorist organization, with the assistance of a regional al-Qaeda affiliate.  The elected Libyan government tipped us off to this finding itself.

The elected Libyan government: Less than a year after the Rebels killed the brutal Colonel Muammar el-Gaddafi, Libyans elected a National Assembly in July that has appointed a new President, Mohammed el-Megarif.  In spite of the still-tenuous security situation, Libyans are forging a legitimate government for themselves.  Now that elected government is voluntarily taking on the militias that haven’t agreed to incorporate into a national paramilitary force.  Mohammed el-Megarif, the President of the Libyan National Assembly, spoke at a memorial service for Ambassador Stevens on September 22nd, and Libyans themselves took to the streets in open opposition to the country’s teeming militias, regarding them as a foreign body in the new Libyan body politic.  Again, Libya remaining unlawful militias, grumbling Loyalists and large chemical weapons stockpiles all remain serious concerns, but the people seem to have their hearts in the right place, and both the interests and the sentiments of their elected politicians tend towards accountability and diplomacy.  Last but not least, the government is gradually establishing a monopoly over military force, finally initiating a you’re-with-us-or-against-us policy towards the country’s many militias.

Egypt seems to be in a scarier state of disorder, but the signs from its elected parliament and from Mohammad Morsi, its elected President, are similarly if not equally encouraging.  It’s certainly worth mentioning that Morsi was elected President on the Muslim Brotherhood’s party line; among his noteworthy political maneuvers were calling the Egyptian Parliament back into session after a questionable attempt by the country’s highest court to invalidate the recent parliamentary elections, the appointment of a generally-boring cabinet, a successful demand of some high-profile resignations from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and the reversal of an earlier decision to loosen controls on the border with Gaza and the launching of a campaign against Islamist and separatist militants in the Sinai Peninsula region.  Far from the fanatical vanguard of some emerging pan-Islamic what-have-you, these measures suggest that President Morsi is a low-key nationalist and a democrat.  Islamic Conservative though he may be, the evidence suggests that he is trying to consolidate, not hijack, Egypt’s 2011 revolution.

While the Presidents of Egypt and Yemen called for restrictions on the freedom of expression that some publics find offensive, they nonetheless renounced violence in the name of their religion and implied that they were taking as liberal of a political stand on the issue as they could at the time. Governing nations trying to break free from quagmatic despotism, their renunciation of violence and expressions of even qualified sympathy for free expression on behalf of their people already give the lie to the most-pessimistic accounts of the political sentiments of their countries. Left, New York Times photo by Chang W. Lee; right, Associated Press photo by John Minchillo.

It’s true that Morsi and Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, the new President of Yemen, just called for curbs on free speech at the meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.  This call is not likely to have much of an impact on the domestic policies of other nations, nor should it.  Salman Rushdie’s understandable concerns about a chilling effect aside, the recent and heavily-broadcast outrage of citizens of historically-unfree countries over the provocative private acts of citizens in free countries has not reduced the pace of such provocations; it seems to have increased it.  Modern technology has made the adjudication of what counts as impermissably-offensive speech and whom is answerable for it under which jurisdiction a problem of almost irreducible complexity.  But leaders like Morsi and Hadi are doing in this case is communicating the position of a broadly-held sentiment within their societies.  I am not saying this out of some cultural relativism but to excuse the leaders of those new governments–whatever their motives may be–the moment’s political caution.  Defense of free speech at home and abroad, oddly, may be both the more-principled stand to take and the only politically-practical position in the long run…but for now the only political tack towards this event that will build legitimacy for the new governments of Egypt and Yemen is to plead “cultural sensitivity” towards their own publics.

Even the reason why this is so indicates why democratic government should be strongly-preferable for their societies today.  With the anti-Muslim video recently produced by an Egyptian-American, as with offensive drawings of the Prophet Mohammed published by a private Danish newspaper, protesters in Muslim countries have interpreted images that offend their sensibilities as the policy of governments.  Their demand that the offending expression be outlawed reflects their experience with an oppression even deeper than outlawed forms of speech: Many of those in the Middle East who protested the offending art actually think that these provocations were the product of the governments in question themselves–or at least that they received government pre-approval.  This naive assumption is a vestige of the dictatorship which is the only form of government most of these societies have ever known.  While he railed against what he called “hateful speech,” President Morsi–the political leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt’s 1st truly elected President–denounced the violence committed in the name of his religion, and offered a qualified defense of “freedom of expression that is not used to incite hatred against anyone.”  While this position is too compromised in principle for those of full Liberal sentiment, it represents as great of an acknowledgment of our fuller freedom of expression as Morsi had the political space to give.  In context, it is unprecedented.

In Tunisia the elected moderate-Islamist government, through Foreign Affairs Minister Rafik Abdessalem, apologized for damage done to the US Embassy and the American Cooperative School in the capital Tunis.  He also apologized for threats made to the US Ambassador.  He said his government would pay for any damage incurred to US Government property in the country during the riots, and reaffirmed that it was the responsibility of the host country to protect the diplomatic assets of foreign governments.

Just 2 days ago, hundreds of people went on strike out in a province in central Tunisia–not to protest the anti-Muslim video but rather a lack of economic development in the region since last year’s democratic revolution.  The protesters spoke-out against the country’s Islamist government–over bread-and-butter issues.  While the ongoing protests and lack of economic progress may be frustrating or disconcerting, the very fact that protests continue under the new government is a compelling repudiation of the suspicion that these countries’ democratic transitions have somehow been coopted by Islamist dictatorship.

Speaking at the United Nations General Assembly 4 days ago, Moncef Marzouki, Tunisia’s President who himself hails from a moderate-Islamist party, warned that a small group of Salafists–he estimated a few thousand in a country of 10 million–wanted to enforce their mores through violence and were bad for business.  Salafist violence is bad for business: If this sort of Islamist becomes president of an Arab country through democratic means, we should not view this with suspicion but with relief–and encouragement.

It’s equally encouraging that, during his address at the United Nations General Assembly, President Marzouki said that “dictatorship is a disease.”