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.

June 10th, 2008 by Rightsideup

The 24/7 news cycle and constant filming and audio recording of candidates means that every utterance, no matter how off-the-cuff or insignificant the candidate intends it to be, now takes on the same aura as only a formal speech would have in the past.

Case in point: this quote from John McCain, courtesy of Reuters:

“There’s nobody who represents me better today than Mitt Romney,” McCain said.

Are you listening, governor? That could be the sound of a vice presidential offer coming down the road …

It’s not quite clear from the context whether this line was spoken during a speech or during more informal time with reporters. However, you can bet McCain didn’t want the media putting the spin on it that the Reuters reporter/blogger does here. Even if that’s the case, though, it continues to be remarkable how complete the reconciliation between the two men has been since their rancorous exchanges during some of the later debates.

April 25th, 2008 by Rightsideup

CNN has a piece today about Huckabee’s forthcoming book:

Two weeks after the next president is elected, Mike Huckabee will publish a book sharing details on his failed bid for the White House and offering his vision for remodeling the conservative movement.

It’s those last few words I take issue with. Huckabee does not represent the “conservative movement” – he represents one wing of it – Christian evangelicals (and to an extent, though not wholly, social conservative s generally).  The group he never brought on board and has virtually no appeal to is fiscal conservatives, who are famously the other half of the conservative coalition that has been winning elections for so many years. His “fair tax” plans and happy-go-lucky approach to public spending (“add an extra lane to I-95”) made fiscal conservatives hugely skeptical of both his seriousness as a candidate and his commitment to the issues that are dear to them.

As such, Huckabee can only really articulate a vision for the social conservative movement, or even more narrowly, Christian evangelical conservatives. He successfully acted as if he was the conservative candidate once Romney bowed out, but no-one but him and his campaign believes this nonsense. He carried a certain percentage of the base – arguably, a segment roughly equally as radical as the Ron Paul crowd – which refused to go for McCain even once it was obvious no-one else had a chance of winning. Do we really want this crowd dictating electoral strategy for the Republicans for the next four years. I’d much rather have Romney, who – for all his changes in position – at least now espouses solidly conservative positions across both the social and fiscal policy fields.

April 10th, 2008 by Rightsideup

Paul Weyrich, founder of the Heritage Foundation and conservative commentator, was a Mitt Romney backer when the latter was still in the primary running. However, he was recently cited as a member of a group which had started a petition to keep Romney out of McCain’s VP slot. To have gone from being a staunch Mitt supporter in the presidential race to finding him unworthy of even the VP slot was a turnaround the New York Times thought worth commenting on, suggesting a wider theme which isn’t borne out by the facts (that Romney’s “friends” more broadly have deserted him).

At any rate, two explanations – competing ones – have now emerged, both from Weyrich himself. The first is an account of a supposed conversion he experienced, which was reported by World Magazine, as follows:

Last month at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in New Orleans, several dozen leaders of the “Christian right” met to strategize next steps—but the meeting inevitably included discussion of missteps in the GOP presidential campaign. Michael Farris of the Home School Legal Defense Association, an early supporter of Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, chided the group for cold-shouldering his candidate until it was too late. Others, including Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, disagreed. The meeting quickly threatened to dissolve into accusations, rebuttals, and recriminations.

Then, venerable Paul Weyrich—a founder of the Heritage Foundation, the Moral Majority, and the Council for National Policy (CNP)—raised his hand to speak. Weyrich is a man whose mortality is plain to see. A freak accident several years ago left him with a spinal injury, which ultimately led to both his legs being amputated in 2005. He now gets around in a motorized wheelchair. He is visibly paler and grayer than he was just a few years ago, a fact not lost on many of his friends in the room, some of whom had fought in the political trenches with him since the 1960s.

The room—which had been taken over by argument and side-conversations—became suddenly quiet. Weyrich, a Romney supporter and one of those Farris had chastised for not supporting Huckabee, steered his wheelchair to the front of the room and slowly turned to face his compatriots. In a voice barely above a whisper, he said, “Friends, before all of you and before almighty God, I want to say I was wrong.”

In a quiet, brief, but passionate speech, Weyrich essentially confessed that he and the other leaders should have backed Huckabee, a candidate who shared their values more fully than any other candidate in a generation. He agreed with Farris that many conservative leaders had blown it. By chasing other candidates with greater visibility, they failed to see what many of their supporters in the trenches saw clearly: Huckabee was their guy.

Apart from both Weyrich’s statement and the telling of it being unnecessarily melodramatic, this would explain the change of tone from Weyrich – that he genuinely thought he had been wrong, and had therefore somehow abandoned the evangelical base in favor of political expediency. Fair enough – can’t agree on the merits but he’s entitled to change his mind (as Romney was…).

But the second explanation (which I can only find quoted here directly) appears to contradict it, or at least suggests that Weyrich hadn’t really changed his mind, or at least didn’t feel as strongly as that account above suggests:

Recently I received a phone call from someone asking if former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney should be Arizona Senator John McCain’s selection for Vice President of the United States.

I said, “No” because I did not think this was the best path for Romney right now; nor was it, in my view, the right fit for McCain. My understanding was that this was to be a personal letter to the Senator; it was not clear to me that this was to be an advertisement.

Thus, I now request that my involvement in this effort be disregarded as this effort to influence the Senator moves on.

So, basically, he thought it was the wrong move for both Romney and McCain but didn’t feel strongly enough it to state this publicly. Rather a different story from the dramatic conversion experience. But then things get even weirder:

I did support Romney in the early primaries and then supported former Arkansas Governor Huckabee when he and McCain were the last two candidates in the field.

That Senator McCain most likely will be in a position to select a Vice Presidential nominee is a failure of our movement, including myself, to unite behind a single candidate. In the unlikely development that the Senator would ask for my view on this matter, I would convey it to him in private as I have traditionally done.

He seems to resent the fact that McCain will be able to choose his VP candidate rather than having someone foisted upon him by the evangelical movement (at least that’s the implication – it’s poorly worded, and so perhaps he merely means that it’s unfortunate McCain is the nominee at all). I find this a little distasteful.

Yes, it would be great if evangelicals and conservatives more broadly had been able to coalesce around a single candidate for president, but we are where we are – going on about past failures isn’t really helpful to anyone at this point. There was no single candidate conservatives could coalesce around because we had a range of proto-conservatives (Huckabee the social but not fiscal conservative, Giuliani the fiscal and foreign policy but not social conservative, Thompson the lazy conservative and Romney the alleged conservative) and that’s why we ended up with McCain – the electable but slightly soft conservative, but ultimately the man everyone else’s supporters had the weakest objections to.

At any rate, none of these speaks well for Weyrich or the stability of his views.

March 14th, 2008 by Rightsideup

One assumption about Romney has been that if he (or anyone else) were selected as McCain’s VP, he would be in pole position for a run at the presidency next time around (whether 2012 or 2016). Most people trumpet this as if it’s received wisdom, but how much sense does that really make?

Incumbent VPs from the last 70 years fall into one of several categories:

  • Succeed sitting president through death or resignation (Truman, Johnson, Ford)
  • Seek and win nomination, win election (Nixon, Bush)
  • Seek and win nomination, lose election (Humphrey, Nixon, Mondale, Gore)
  • Seek and fail to win nomination (Quayle)
  • No running for presidential office (Cheney, Rockefeller, Barkley)
  • Resign while in office (Agnew)

Eight of these 13 men have therefore gone on either to be the nominee of their party or president, which seems good odds. But of those, four lost at least their first attempts to be elected to the presidency, and three became president through no fault or merit of their own. Just two of them – Bush and Nixon – actually won election in their own rights.

The records in office of those that did become president are not stellar:

  • Truman may be the exception, at least in some eyes, although he failed to win re-election for a second term
  • Johnson (who failed to be elected to a second term in his own right and presided over several miserable failures)
  • Nixon disgraced the office and his party
  • Ford replaced him and unsurprisingly failed to be elected in his own right even once
  • Bush won on Reagan’s coattails, but again failed to win a second term.

Taken together, none of this suggests either that VPs are more likely to be elected than anyone else (for example former Governors, who have been elected four of the last five times), or that they make particularly good presidents when they are elected. Romney, Huckabee and others (especially John McCain) should all bear this in mind.

Now, part of the problem is the kind of men chosen as VPs, often more for the states they can bring in, their unlikeliness to challenge the candidate in the personal dynamism stakes, and the balance they bring to the ticket rather than any admirable qualities they possess in their own rights. Romney might prove the exception to that rule, although Huckabee arguably fits the mold better in some ways. But anyone assuming that the Vice Presidency is the best path to the presidency is making a shaky assumption at best. I’m glad to see that Romney is also setting up a PAC to elect Republican candidates as a way of shoring up his other main option for setting himself up for 2012.

March 12th, 2008 by Rightsideup

There has been a growing stream of articles over the past couple of weeks talking about Romney as a possible VP candidate. My own view has always been that he wouldn’t accept it – he’s been running the show wherever he was (Bain Capital, the Olympics, Massachusetts, his Presidential campaign) for 20 years or so, and playing second fiddle to a guy with whom he shared so much animosity during the campaign just seemed unlikely.

But, it appears that he may be willing after all. The reason must be that he wants to position himself as the leading contender for the presidency in four or eight years’ time, and thinks this is the better approach. Regardless of whether he and McCain won or not, he’d get lots of time in the public eye, be seen as someone willing to do what’s best for the party (that’s the tone of his remarks in this interview). This is certainly a cheaper and in some ways easier option than the alternative of spending four years in the wilderness burnishing his conservative credentials by starting a foundation of some kind. But he’ll be miserable being the VP unless he’s given some sort of substantive role after all his executive experience over the last several years.

And all this also begs the question of whether McCain would even ask him. But with Rove and others pulling for it, it’s not such a long shot at this point.

February 23rd, 2008 by Rightsideup

Jonathan Martin of Politico has a piece up about Huckabee and what his real reasons are for staying in the race. While everyone else has been suggesting (in my opinion rightly) that Huckabee is staying in the race to keep pressure on McCain for favors down the road, or possibly just for vanity’s sake, Martin appears to have swallowed large mouthfuls of what the Huckabee campaign has fed him, to whit: he believes it’s really about 2012.

I have a draft post that’s not ready for publication yet on the 2012 field on the Republican side, and my comment about Huckabee was this:

Of this year’s candidates, few are likely to run again apart from Romney…

Of the rest, Huckabee appears to be burning his bridges by staying in the race this long – many party leaders are annoyed that he isn’t stepping aside when it’s clear he has no chance of winning. He appears to concede this fact himself too.

That link in the second paragraph is to a CNN article quoting Huckabee as saying he’s probably doing himself more harm than good, and I agree.

If you take apart Martin’s article, the comments suggesting Huckabee will be a force in 2012 come from the following people:

  • “Huckabee strategist Ed Rollins”
  • “Former Sen. Tim Hutchinson (R-Ark.), a top Huckabee ally and frequent surrogate”
  • “Joe Carter, an aide at the Family Research Council who briefly worked for Huckabee last year”

Note, three Huckabee supporters. “Republican strategist Craig Shirley, a McCain backer and author of a book on the 1976 presidential race” is also cited, but only describing the Huckabee strategy, not subscribing to it. So all the people on whose opinions the article is based are Huckabee supporters. No independent voices, no-one from outside the Huckabee circle. And yet Martin reports it as if it’s gospel. There are one or two contrary comments, but it would at least have made sense to contrast this with the wide swathe of people who have suggested that Mitt Romney is now well positioned in 2012.

There are those who want to see silver linings on every cloud, and others who are conspiracy theorists, who believe Huckabee staying in the race is good. The only good argument for this point of view is that McCain is getting more coverage because there’s still a nominal race on the Republican side. But how does this benefit McCain? Is there anyone out there who hasn’t heard of him at this point who somehow will between now and when the general election starts?

And on the negative side, finite resources are being spent on McCain’s primary campaign instead of being saved up or put in the bank for the general election campaign. Huckabee is the largest remaining barrier to the conservative wing of the party swinging behind McCain, and only gives them false hope that McCain’s nomination is not inevitable. Huckabee won’t be the nominee, McCain will, and Huckabee staying in the race smacks of egotism and vanity more than anything else, no matter how much he dresses it up in the language of giving voice to would-be primary voters. No previous candidate in recent memory has dragged out a primary campaign this far once it was clear who the front-runner was, and even Ron Paul has had to face reality and essentially drop out at this point. Why should Huckabee be any different?

One rather senses that Martin just regurgitated what he was told by Huckabee’s campaign rather than challenging it more thoroughly, in the hopes of having an interesting story to tell about what is becoming a tedious campaign. It rather falls flat in that aim.

February 15th, 2008 by Rightsideup

Lots of speculation at the moment about what Romney has planned next, with the most obvious option being running again in 2012. Some have suggested that 2008 was the equivalent for Romney of Reagan’s 1976 campaign, when he lost but then came back four years later to win the first of his two terms. Others have rightly pointed out that there are a lot of differences between 2008 and 1976, and the biggest is surely that Romney hasn’t proven himself as a conservative champion. Although he belatedly became the conservative standard bearer as it became clear McCain would likely win, this was mostly a victory with the conservative radio hosts, not the public (or Republican primary voters) in general.

As such, Romney now has to spend a good chunk of the next four years burnishing his conservative credentials so that he is well positioned in 2012. There are several risks with this strategy:

  • If his Mormonism was a major obstacle this time around, it will be again in 2012, especially if there is an evangelical Christian running with otherwise similar (or better) conservative credentials
  • Other well-regarded conservatives who weren’t quite ready this time around will have four more years of experience under their belts as Senators or Governors in 2012 and could make a strong showing. Some of them at least would have more consistent conservative records in both campaigning and governing / voting
  • There will be two elections between now and then – this November’s presidential and Congressional elections and the 2010 Congressional elections. It is possible (though not necessarily likely) that there will be a backlash against conservatism during that period and that the Republican party will go through a period of low self-esteem similar to what the British Conservative Party has been going through since the early to mid 1990s.

None of these is a foregone conclusion. Polling will answer the first question one way or the other and ought to be taken very seriously. No more “would you vote for” questions but lots of “why did/didn’t you vote for” questions. Get to the nub of what it was that people liked or didn’t like about Mitt Romney in 2008.

Secondly, he has to really put in a lot of work over the next four years, and the best suggestion is funding and leading a MoveOn.org for the right wing crowd. An organisation that ordinary conservatives can really rally behind, that will campaign for their causes, and that will provide him with a natural base which can rally around him in 2012 as it didn’t in 2008 (at least until the last week of the campaign). Hold regular events, champion conservative causes, build a consistent conservative platform and hold politicians accountable by rating them against it, and so on.

Doing that is still no guarantee that someone else won’t show up by 2012 who seems a more natural fit, or that McCain himself will win in 2008 and decide to go for a second term in 2012. Romney doesn’t need the age question on top of the other questions but it would undoubtedly be asked if he had to wait until 2016.

Lots to play for, and lots of money to do it with – that’s the good news. The bad news is that, as Harold Wilson once said, a week is a long time in politics. If that’s the case, four years is an eternity, and anything can happen.

February 10th, 2008 by Rightsideup

There have been a lot of stories in the papers this week dissecting Mitt Romney’s campaign, but a lot of them have focused in particular on the Mormon connection. Those that have done so have focused on one of two things:

  • Whether Mitt’s Mormonism hurt his campaign
  • Whether Mitt’s campaign hurt Mormonism

The first question has had far more coverage during the course of the campaign, with polls showing percentages ranging from mid-teens to over half of certain groups saying they wouldn’t vote for a Mormon candidate. Now, we all know the stock answer to these polls, which is, in Mitt’s words, “If you’d asked people in the late 70s whether they would vote for a divorced actor for president, they’d have said no then too.”

Ultimately, people make up their minds based on the candidates which are available, despite their theoretical preferences (and it is for this reason that McCain will get the support of most Republicans even though many would say he wasn’t their first choice). But prejudice does matter, if it’s strong enough, and especially when there is an alternative candidate with some of the same desirable qualities but not the one that gives them pause.

If Mike Huckabee hadn’t been in the race, Mitt might have captured more of the votes of Southern evangelicals than he did, because those most likely to baulk at voting for a Mormon wouldn’t have had an obvious alternative. Would their distaste have been strong enough to get them to vote for a candidate with a weaker position on the values issues that are most important to them? And would their churches and pastors have been as vigorous in slamming Mormonism if he was their best hope of putting a social conservative in the White House? Mitt Romney and his people need to do some serious, statistically significant polling, especially in the South, to determine how much this was a factor, because there’s no point running again in four or eight years if this is a major sticking point. It’s not going to just go away, and I’m not sure there’s anything Mitt can do to change perceptions even if he’s proactive about it.

So, on to the other question – whether his campaign hurt Mormonism. I’d argue that it had three primary effects:

  • It raised Mormonism’s profile, with far more positive, negative and neutral articles appearing in the press than in any other similar period since (and perhaps even including) the Salt Lake Olympics
  • It highlighted both to members and non-members the uglier side of the Mormon question – all the objections that other religious groups but also atheists, all kinds of journalists and various activists and professional anti-Mormons have to the Church.
  • It forced the Church to take a stand about how active to be in defending itself and spreading its own message while a member was running for President.

The first point can be taken either way. The old trope about all publicity being good publicity is over-simplistic, but missionaries certainly got more questions than before, which likely presented them with more opportunities to teach. It got profiles of the Church, some of them neutral, some positive (which was a pleasant surprise), and of course some negative (the PBS series being a prime example), in front of people who knew little or nothing about the Church, and likely stimulated missionary opportunities in that way too.

One of the less pleasant side-effects was the way in which the extra publicity the Church got presented some of the more virulently opposing views to Church members who are normally sheltered from them. Any Church member who spends any time on the Internet looking for information about the Church outside of the official site knows how much of this stuff is out there. But for many members, lds.org has everything about the Church there is to know on the Internet (and all credit to the Church for the huge steps it’s taken since it first had a simple holding page for the first few years of the Internet just 10 years ago).

For them it was unsettling, and some reacted by rejecting everything they were told, even those things with a basis in fact. They flooded the comments sections on blogs and articles, where their relative ignorance about the more nuanced elements of Church history was perfect fodder for opponents who used this as further evidence of the sheltered existence Church members sometimes live. I doubt any of this did huge damage to Church members and their faith, and it probably did them some good in that it forced them to know a little more about our history and therefore make more informed decisions about that faith.

Lastly, the Church leadership took a studiously neutral position during the campaign, and in some ways was too quiet, as it has itself acknowledged this week. It was so careful not to be seen to be endorsing Romney’s campaign that it said very little other than restating some of its core doctrinal positions and the occasional press conference. Elder Ballard’s call to action at BYU Hawai’i went some way towards giving members of the Church position to answer the critics in a way that arguably carries more authority, but we’re all still amateurs at this game and I’m not sure how much impact it has had yet.

I think the most positive thing to have come out of all of this, though, is that Romney’s campaign hasn’t done the Church any lasting damage, and in fact has probably prompted members to come out of their shells and do a better job of telling our own story. I’m not sure the rest of the world comes out of it as well, since there is considerable evidence of real bias exhibited by voters. There’s still a lot to do, but there’s also been some good progress.

February 8th, 2008 by Rightsideup

A two-fer from the WSJ today, but this one was actually via the Freakonomics blog, which had a shorter and more interesting take. Stephen Dubner suggests that there are still some biases which are more acceptable than others, as he originally suggested in the Freakonomics book. Among these are biases against Mormons (he also illustrates that bias against Hasidic Jews may be another example).

As we wrote in Freakonomics, evidence from the TV show Weakest Link suggested that bias against women and blacks was considered less acceptable than bias against Latinos and the elderly… Based on today’s newspapers, at least, it looks like Hasidic Jews and Mormons probably wouldn’t have done so well on Weakest Link either.

The WSJ article itself is a little long-winded and unstructured but cites lots of people talking about the problem without much insight. But this will be a theme well worth revisiting in a few months. If Romney is going to come back, that makes sense if his main problem was his perceived lack of commitment to big ideological stances. But if this was the real reason he didn’t win, he might easily pour millions more dollars down the drain if he ran again.