Wave Theory in Politics

Okay – that’s done – the political conventions are over and the real presidential campaign begins now – at least as real as it’s going to get. Realism is, of course, a tricky concept here. The conventions, the Republicans in Tampa and the Democrats in Charlotte, had nothing to do with nominating candidates and hashing out each party’s platform. The Republican nomination was decided in the primary process and the Romney pick of Paul Ryan as his running mate was a courtesy the party extends to him – the vice presidential slot has been the prerogative of the nominee, not the party bosses or the convention delegates, for the eighty years or so, or maybe longer, and the party platform has always been a pro-forma document no one had ever paid much attention to, even within the party in question. You’re supposed to have one so a committee knocks one out – but no one wants to be bound to it. The actual campaign will be too dynamic – candidates will have to pivot and adjust to what happens in real time, trying to surf the mood of the country. Think of it as a Malibu sort of thing – catch the one perfect big wave and ride it with grace and skill and aggression. You don’t want to be stuck on shore, standing there watching. Think about it. This time the Republican platform, among other things, calls for return to the gold standard, tying the value of the dollar to an hourly market price of a single commodity, traded on the world market and out of anyone’s control. That would eliminate all possible monetary policy adjustments of any kind, and perhaps eliminate paper money too. Should all financial transaction only be conducted in gold coins? That’s a thought, but neither Mitt Romney nor Paul Ryan will go there – it’s nutty. And as for the Democrats, the party with their guy in power always nominates him again, and his partner – and their party platform is the usual stuff, this year adding support of gay marriage. It too will be ignored. Obama too will try to catch the one perfect big wave and ride it with grace and skill and aggression, to victory in November. It’s a matter of sensing the nation’s mood, as the slow offshore swell builds and builds and then, as it roars in, starts to break in a way-cool way. Maybe it’s a good thing that Obama was born in Hawaii. He may have a natural advantage in such things. Surfing was invented there.

That means that each party’s convention was not a nominating convention or a working convention in any way. Each was just an infomercial of sorts, with its miracle product that slices and dices and is dishwasher safe too. And of course happy customers were trotted out and there were testimonials of all sorts. Each was a sales pitch, but at least they were for different products. In the Washington Post, Dylan Matthews found himself writing about the big difference between Tampa and Charlotte:

We’re two nights into the Democratic National Convention, and the themes could not be more distinct from those championed at the RNC last week. Whereas the RNC heavily emphasized the role of personal initiative in economic success, the DNC’s speakers have focused on the many barriers that keep success away from even determined, hard-working Americans.

All surfers know that when you watch the sets of swells, the ninth in the series is almost always the one that forms that perfect wave. It’s a matter of experience, or so those guys say. The question is which party is catching the good wave here.

Kevin Drum argues that both parties may have it wrong:

It’s a shame that Republicans think they have to extol personal initiative to the exclusion of all else, and it’s a shame that Democrats feel the same way about the value of collective action and real opportunity for all.

Neither is the one good wave, but Drum understands why this happens:

Republicans feel that personal initiative is under such withering attack from liberals that they need to fight back with no quarter given and no ground conceded. Democrats feel the same way.

There are lots of topics that display the same dynamic. Hell, maybe most of them. But it seems more corrosive than usual in this case, because it does real damage when we disparage either of these things. Personal initiative and personal responsibility really are vitally important, and we should take every opportunity to encourage and praise them. I’ve known plenty of people who have started and run businesses of their own, and they work their asses off and take plenty of personal risks along the way. It’s not an easy road.

Likewise, lots of people, through no real fault of their own, really don’t have much of a chance in life. Those of us who do should always be keenly aware of just how lucky we are and just how much we’ve benefited not just from friends and family, but from things like clean water, decent healthcare, roads and bridges, public schools and universities, food that’s free of contamination, government-sponsored basic research, public order, and, eventually, retirement security.

It’s going to be an ugly short ride for each side, with a nasty wipe-out:

Reverence for personal initiative without a sense of what you’ve gotten from others produces too much petty arrogance and unfeeling entitlement. Concern for equal opportunity and community support without a healthy respect for personal initiative produces too much lassitude and bitterness.

This is a case where we truly don’t want either side to win…

Drum does note that Obama often says he admires and respects success, which the right says he just never says even when he says it, and which dismays the hard left. The man knows that sneering at success is dumb, as is discounting all the other factors that lead to success. He’ll wait for another wave, even if his base is disappointed and his foes won’t listen to his actual words, as Drum notes:

Barack Obama is one of the best at bridging these two worlds. It’s too bad there aren’t more like him.

Well, there aren’t, and others look at the incoming swells and try to see the next good wave, but it’s tricky. Even Mitt Romney seems to sense he’d better slip out of what looked like a promising swell and choose another:

Mitt Romney rejected claims by President Barack Obama that he would sign off on more tax breaks for the wealthy if elected president, but again declined to offer specifics on how exactly he would accomplish his goal of lowering taxes for other Americans while also balancing the budget.

In an interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Romney said he would offset his proposed 20 percent tax cut for all Americans by eliminating loopholes and deductions for high-income earners. He argued that his plan would in effect lower taxes for middle class Americans while keeping tax rates the same for wealthy Americans.

“People at the high end – high income taxpayers – are going to have fewer deductions and exemptions. Those numbers are going to come down. Otherwise they’d get a tax break,” Romney told NBC. “And I want to make sure people understand, despite what the Democrats said at their convention, I am not reducing taxes on high income taxpayers.”

Romney argued that limiting deductions and exceptions would keep government revenues up and “encourage more hiring” and “encourage growth” in the economy. He said he wants to “makes sure we don’t put any bigger burden on middle income people.”

The tax rate for millionaires and billionaires still drops from thirty-five percent to twenty or twenty-five percent, but that’s not a tax cut for rich guys. It’s not just for them – it’s for everyone, or something, and yes, it makes no sense. It starves the government. We’d have to shut the country down – unless there really are deductions and exceptions that could be eliminated to make up the shortfall. That would be cool, and we all would like to know how that would work, or if it would really work. He’s getting off the free-the-rich-folks-from-their-burdens wave for a better one. Let’s watch him hang-ten on that one:

But asked about “the specifics of how you get into this math,” Romney declined to offer any additional details, suggesting the “principals” of his plan should be enough for Americans to judge his tax proposals.

He won’t say how any of this will actually work, mathematically. You just have to trust him that he has a plan, and that he is a man of principle, or principles. He’ll reveal to us what he’ll really do once he’s elected, or he’ll work it all out with Congress, letting them decide on specific deductions and exceptions and all that. This is odd, but it seems he did make an adjustment here, trying to catch a new wave. He may have misjudged the mood of the country. “I won’t tell you how it would work – it’s a secret!” He’s not saying that, exactly, but something like that.

Okay then – back in 1963, when Surf Rock was the big thing, the Safaris had that hit song Wipeout – and this may be one of those. Surfing the nation’s mood, trying to catch the wave, is damned hard. Still, you do have to make adjustments, and it seems that Mitt Romney doesn’t hate Obamacare nearly as much as he’s been telling the Tea Party crowd for the past year:

“Of course there are a number of things that I like in health care reform that I’m going to put in place,” he said in an interview broadcast Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press. “One is to make sure that those with pre-existing conditions can get coverage.” Romney also said he would allow young adults to keep their coverage under their parents’ health-insurance.

Wait. As early as a January debate he was for “complete repeal” and kept at it for months. Of course he’s also been for, in the same debate, some sort of unspecified plan “that does care for people that have preexisting conditions.” That was this – “If they’ve got a preexisting condition and they’ve been previously insured, they won’t be denied insurance going forward.” If you’ve had insurance you can get it again, but if you have not been insured before you’re shit-out-of-luck. Whatever, dude. He’s for the repeal of all of Obamacare, every single bit of it – on record. And now he isn’t. Sorry, wrong wave.

Kevin Drum comments here:

Under normal circumstances, I’d write a long post about how ridiculous this is. If you guarantee that people with preexisting conditions can get coverage, people will game the system by getting coverage only when they get sick. To avoid that, you have to create a stable risk pool for insurers by mandating that everyone maintain coverage all the time. And, if you have a mandate, then you need to subsidize poor people – which in turn means that you have to have a funding source for the subsidies.

You get Obamacare, like magic. Drum has explained all this before and now doesn’t feel like explaining it again:

Like I said, that’s what I’d do under normal circumstances. But host David Gregory didn’t bother asking Romney about any of these pesky details, and I guess I can hardly blame him since Romney wouldn’t have answered. This is just another one of Romney’s secret plans, like which tax loopholes he’ll close, how he’ll win the war in Afghanistan, and who will pay the price if Medicare costs rise faster than his growth cap. Romney has diligently refused to answer any of these questions, and he’s even been fairly honest about why: if he explained all this stuff, some of the answers would be unpopular and the Obama campaign would point that out.

So there you have it. Don’t ask. Don’t tell. And he’s not even gay.

Of course it’s absurd, but he was trying to catch the right wave. Folks do like the provisions of the Affordable Care Act even if it’s sneered at as Obamacare. This surfing stuff is hard, and a few hours later, a Romney spokesman quietly “clarified” what he meant:

In reference to how Romney would deal with those with preexisting conditions and young adults who want to remain on their parents’ plans, a Romney aide responded that there had been no change in Romney’s position and that “in a competitive environment, the marketplace will make available plans that include coverage for what there is demand for. He was NOT proposing a federal mandate to require insurance plans to offer those particular features.”

There you have it. If people want really want something the market will provide it, because where there’s an eager market there’s a ton of money to be made, even if it’s in providing affordable health coverage for preexisting conditions that would bankrupt any company that tried to provide it. Maybe this guy doesn’t understand free-market capitalism after all, and now we find Kevin Drum perplexed:

As it happens, we already have a competitive market for individual insurance. In addition, we already have demand for coverage of preexisting conditions. And yet, the marketplace doesn’t make policies available to people with preexisting conditions.

Why? Because policies that cover preexisting conditions are big money losers unless you charge premiums high enough that no one could afford them. Because of that, nobody bothers to offer them in the first place. That’s how the free market works. It would be nice if Romney could explain how he intends to square this circle.

This is getting absurd and seems like another wipeout. He needs to choose another wave, so he has:

So far, the Republican nominee has mostly – though not entirely – steered clear of the culture wars, relentlessly framing the election as a referendum on President Obama’s economic policies. But on Saturday, days after the Democratic National Convention ended and a new round of punditry gave the president higher odds of winning re-election, Romney hit the campaign trail with televangelist Pat Robertson and all but accused Obama of turning his back on God.

“That pledge says ‘under God.’ I will not take God out of our platform,” Romney told a roaring crowd in Virginia Beach, after reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. “I will not take God off our coins. And I will not take God out of my heart. We’re a nation bestowed by God.”

The candidate was capitalizing on a snafu at the Democratic convention wherein party chieftains sought to add the word “God” to their platform after being criticized for omitting it. The document was amended despite loud opposition from many delegates. His campaign operatives sought to play up the flap to reporters during the week but Romney himself did not zero in on it as an issue until Saturday.

So this will give us a month or more of group emails and Facebook postings, and hundreds of hours of talk radio, on Obama’s super-secret plan to remove “In God We Trust” from all our coins and bills, with marches and screaming no doubt. But Romney and Ryan are in favor of bringing back prayer in public schools of course – Ryan says it’s a matter of states’ rights as you would expect. They’re riding a small wave that they’re pretending is larger.

That may not be working. Andrew Sullivan has been following the post-convention polling and Obama is pulling ahead quite nicely, and the New York Times’ resident statistician, Nate Silver, sees Obama’s post-convention bounce just getting bigger and bigger:

On average between the four polls, it appears that Mr. Obama must have held about an eight-point lead since Mr. Clinton’s speech in order to have gained so much ground so quickly.

Silver notes that Romney has never been ahead of Obama this year in the poll of polls, ever – only tied with him once or twice – which is unusual and instructive:

John McCain held occasional leads in 2008; John Kerry led for much of the summer in 2004; and Michael Dukakis had moments where he was well ahead of George H.W. Bush in the spring and summer of 1988… The cases where one candidate led essentially from wire to wire have been associated with landslides: Bill Clinton in 1996, Ronald Reagan in 1984, Richard Nixon in 1972 and Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956.

Some catch the one big wave and others don’t, and Andrew Sullivan adds this:

Silver dismisses the idea that this could happen this time, because of deeper polarization. He’s probably right. Objectively, given the economy and the closeness of the race thus far, Romney has remained the narrow favorite in my mind up till now, as I fought against my own epistemic closure. But subjectively, I couldn’t see how Romney’s arguments – more war in the Middle East, more tax cuts while allegedly trying to cut the deficit, turning Medicare into a premium support model option, banning abortion and marriage equality in every state in America, denying climate change, etc. – could possibly best Obama’s. So Romney’s enduring polling strength impressed me, given how far out there he is on policy, and how unappealing he is personally.

Sullivan thought Romney was riding some wave Sullivan couldn’t see, but now he’s not so sure:

Well, it has also occurred to me that most sane Americans may not have been obsessing about this election until around now, when attention is paid. What we may have seen so far is a very stable default election, in which low-information voters are essentially backing their party in reserve before truly focusing. They’ve been putting a partisan marker down. But now that the actual policy comparison has been made, and Romney agreed to a choice election with Ryan, and the GOP bungled its message in Tampa so badly and the Dems did so well in Charlotte … well, we see the first true shift of any magnitude since Romney became the nominee.

The ocean was flat, and now it’s not:

The logic of the Obama argument – so pellucidly laid out by Bill Clinton last week – is so compelling, the GOP positions so extreme, the Republican brand still so tainted if it isn’t merely a protest vote (as in 2010) … that a landslide is possible, if still unlikely. Anything is possible. But, trying not to get too excitable about this, it cannot be encouraging for the Republicans that after the first real apples-to-apples focus on the choice, Obama has surged.

And you wonder why Romney is now saying he wants to keep parts of Obamacare. If that doesn’t depress his base, what would? His own shape-shifting could now alienate his core voters and still lose the center that Clinton won for the Democrats on Wednesday night.

Sullivan is smiling. Surf’s up! And you don’t mess with the cool dude from Hawaii, unless you think he was born in Kenya. He wasn’t. And yes, the whole metaphor may be lame, but so is most of politics. They’re all surfing the public mood.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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