October 31st, 2008 by Rightsideup

I’ve started seeing the post-mortem pieces appearing in the media about what went wrong for John McCain, how the Republicans are out of touch and need to change, and whether Palin will be the candidate in 2012. Aside from the obvious point about doing an autopsy on someone who’s still breathing, there is a lot of muddled thinking in all that’s being written.

Firstly, the problem for the Republicans in this election isn’t too much conservatism. In fact, it’s the opposite. For president they’re running an apathetically middle of the road Republican with very little personal charm, a notoriously bad temper, serious health issues and very little track record of successfully running anything, who tried to use his VP pick as a bandaid to patch several holes in his own candidacy (youth, gender and conservatism being the obvious ones).

Meanwhile, the Republicans in Congress have been doing their best impersonation of Democrats for so long that voters figured they might as well have the real thing. Spending has increased more and more quickly under the Bush administration than under the Clinton administration, and not just because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The utter failure to use their combined occupancy of the White House and the majority offices in Congress from 2000-2006 to push through any meaningful changes or improvements in the way the country is run was reason enough to kick them out. But the fact that they also presided over such a bloating of the government with so little effort to reduce not only pork barrel but also all other forms of spending was a disgrace. They gave their natural supporters so few reasons to vote for them it’s remarkable that they still have so many seats. Of course, that will change next week too.

The idea that conservatism has had its day, or that Sarah Palin represents anything like the kind of candidate needed to revive its fortunes, is preposterous. Republicans (conservative ones, at least in theory, with the exception of Bush 1) have occupied the White House for 20 of the last 28 years. They also had majorities in Congress for a good chunk of that time period. Voters are rejecting not conservatism, but a Republicanism that’s lost its teeth and no longer knows what it stands for. If you vote Democratic, at least you know that the bigger government, higher taxes and increased regulation are all deliberate and coordinated attempts to achieve a certain goal. When Republicans enact the same policies it’s out of lassitude and spinelessness.

The Republicans in Congress were punished in 2006 for not being conservative enough and instead of learning their lesson they nominated one of their own number for President in the face of several other options with no connections to Congress (the only institution in the country with a lower approval rating than President Bush). Far from being a Washington outsider with the power and will to change the status quo, McCain was Exhibit A in all that’s gone wrong in the nation’s capital for the last few years. As such, for all his speeches attempting to misappropriate Obama’s change message, McCain was powerless to say what really needed to be said in this election: that Republicans had abused the trust of the American people and he intended to regain that trust by being true to the core principles of the party. Instead we get this misguided stuff about standing up to his own party: does anyone actually want that? Don’t we really want him to stand up against his colleagues in Congress and be true to his party, which surely consists of registered Republican voters?

Sarah Palin as a candidate in 2012? Why on earth would that be a good idea? She was a terrible and cynical choice for the VP role, simultaneously exposing McCain’s poor decision making and fondness for a gimmick, and neutralising the best attack against Obama that McCain had: the former’s inexperience. If we’ve learned anything since Palin was nominated, it’s that she has very little meaningful executive experience, she’s way out of her depth in a national campaign, and perfect SNL fodder. She has brought no lasting bounce to McCain’s campaign and arguably has hurt it considerably. If all we want for president is someone with reliable conservative instincts and two X chromosomes, there are plenty of choices out there. But if we want someone capable of not just winning an election but running the largest country in the world we surely need much more than that.

Imagine now that Mitt Romney had been either the Republican presidential candidate or McCain’s VP pick. How different things would look. Against Obama’s inexperience and the combined Democratic ticket’s Congressional background, you’d have a true Washington outsider, someone who’s only been tainted by politics for four years, with all four spent in an executive role. Someone who truly understands the economy and money, and could explain it all to voters with patience and credibility. As VP, he would be a wonderful counterpoint to McCain’s crusty maverick – reliably conservative (who wants a maverick with his finger on the nuclear button, anyway?), confidence-inspiring, with economic and executive experience, and ready to take over at any minute should McCain not last the full four years. It’s too late for all that now, of course, but why couldn’t voters and McCain see this at the time? Was McCain really that desperate?

At any rate, the post-mortems will begin in earnest on the 5th, and there will no doubt be much self-examination in the Republican party. I just hope they learn the real lessons from this campaign rather than the lessons the media wants them to learn.

January 31st, 2008 by Rightsideup

I’ve been increasingly frustrated over the last several weeks by the media’s insistence that McCain, not Romney, has been the front runner. It happened despite Mitt’s wins in Michigan and Nevada and his strong second place showing in two more states. He was leading by a wide margin in delegates until Florida, and had he captured just a few percentage points more there would now be streaking ahead instead of lying in a close second.

The usual story is that, since Romney has outspent and out-campaigned (horror of horrors) the others in some key states, that his results don’t really count. To which you have to counter, “have you seen who he is running against?” and “have you seen the stories they write on Mitt?”

First, who he’s running against. McCain and Giuliani have been the only serious candidates in this thing from the start. Ron Paul certainly has his small but vocal fan base, and Huckabee and Thompson likewise had their niches, but the front runners in national polls all along have been McCain and Giuliani. McCain has run previously and as such has high name recognition and a following built up over the last eight years. Giuliani was the high profile mayor of the first mainland American city to be attacked in living memory. These guys don’t need the advertising because if anyone doesn’t know who they are at this point, it’s not because they haven’t seen enough ads but because they are completely disengaged from the political process.

Then you look at the stories which have been written about each of the candidates from the beginning of the campaign. Paul has lots of articles about his plucky Internet supporters, Huckabee benefited from stories about his (brief) “surge” in the polls just before and after Iowa (and perhaps the occasional piece about weight loss and the Fair Tax). But all the pieces about Romney are in one of four camps: “he is outspending all the others with his vast personal fortune”, “can a Mormon really be elected?”, “Romney is a flip-flopper” and “isn’t he too perfect?” All the other candidates have at least merited a serious evaluation of their policies and achievements, but not Mitt.

So what’s he supposed to do but go on the attack, advertise like crazy to get awareness of his candidacy but more importantly awareness of his positions and achievements out there? And when through this well thought out strategy he takes, as he puts it, two golds and two silvers and leads the early running, who do the media call the front runner? McCain. Which is ultimately a self-fulfilling prophecy, since people like to vote for winners.

All of this goes back to the fact that these primary campaigns have always been about momentum, and the media has always enjoyed the opportunity to call the election by anointing front runners. Their frustration this year has been that simply calling one candidate a front runner and writing off others hasn’t been enough because it’s been such a tight race with at least two real contenders on each side. But they keep reverting to type by attempting again and again to call the election prematurely for their favoured candidate. It hasn’t worked so far (except perhaps by pushing McCain over the top in Florida) but we certainly have to hope that the electorate is smart enough to recognise that there are two front runners on both sides and vote their consciences and not what the media tells them to.