Circling the Drain

It seems that water drains counterclockwise in the northern hemisphere and clockwise in the southern hemisphere. It’s the Coriolis Effect of course – but then this counterclockwise-clockwise drain thing is only theoretically true – under ideal conditions that could never exist in the real world. No one has ever been able to confirm any definitive difference in which way things spin in the sink in Rio as opposed to Cleveland, and anyone who spent their life trying would be someone with far too much time on their hands. The whole thing is profoundly unimportant. The dirty dishwater slowly circles the drain one way or the other and is gone. Stare at it all you want. There’s nothing to learn there, and watching the dirty dishwater circling the drain was always better as a metaphor anyway. Someone is circling the drain, in one direction or the other, when they’ve lost whatever battle they’re fighting and they don’t know it yet. They’re circling the drain. Everyone knows it. They’re going down, as they’re the dirty dishwater. You simply need to wait a bit, watching them spin around and around, and then there’s that final kind of sucking sound and… all gone. There was nothing they could do about it, even if they didn’t think so. Everyone else knew. It’s kind of sad. Circling the drain is a useful idiomatic construction. And it’s useful now in talking about what’s happening to Mitt Romney.

Yes, Mitt Romney has been circling the drain since his trip to England, where he managed to insult our closest ally and was ridiculed by the press there and the Mayor of London and the Prime Minister, then Israel, where he accidently insulted the Palestinians and thus most of the Arab world, then Poland where his aide went off and started swearing at the press pool. The vortex was forming. Then the Republican convention in Tampa didn’t go all that well – delayed a day by the hurricane, which also sucked up news coverage, with speaker after speaker talking about themselves and not him, and his wife giving a reasonable speech to humanize him – which she did, quite competently. But that everyone agreed she had to do that was telling – it’s always bad when your wife has to attest that you’re human, really you are. And of course Clint Eastwood’s strange bit of performance art with the empty chair was startlingly surreal, but not in a good way. There was no bump in the polling after that convention. There was supposed to be, because there always is, but there wasn’t. The dirty dishwater was circling the drain. And hanging in the background was Romney’s ongoing refusal to release more than a year and a half of his tax returns, which no one but John McCain had ever tried to pull off before – that was always in the background. It still is. What’s in all those years of tax returns no one will ever be permitted to see? That kind of background noise only made things worse.

Then the Democrats had their convention in Charlotte, with rousing and well-coordinated speeches from cool people, one after the other – ending with Michelle Obama’s stunner and Bill Clinton’s folksy but devastating dismantling of every Republican talking-point, a masterful speech which even those on the right had to admit was one of the best political speeches in many decades. And that was followed by Obama, starting slow but then raising the rafters. It all came together for the Democrats and they got the bounce. The fallout in the polling was deadly for Romney. He was now really circling the drain.

He must have known something had to be done, which probably explains that whole business with the riots in Libya and Egypt and the death of our ambassador – an odd shift from his focus on how awful our economy is and how that’s all Obama’s fault. So he said Obama sympathizes with these folks who kill our folks. In essence, Obama is a traitor. He likes Muslims. He hates Americans. At least that was the implication. Romney said that’s disgraceful, and keeps repeating it. We have a tragedy wrapped in an enigma, which we do need to deal with. Things are tricky over there, and complex, and the man who would be president was talking about who acted disgracefully, and smirking, because he knew he was lying about the basic facts of what happened. He didn’t seem to know he was circling the drain, as he had been for some time. Then the reviews came in.

From the New York Times: “An extraordinary lack of presidential character”
From the Washington Post: “A discredit to his campaign”
From the Los Angeles Times: “An outrageous exercise in opportunism.”
From the Boston Globe: “His statement was offensive on many other levels…Romney’s actions raise more doubts about himself than Obama.”
From the Philadelphia Inquirer: “Mitt Romney didn’t wait for expert assessments to use the four diplomats’ deaths to launch his own verbal assault.”
From the Miami Herald: “Profoundly inappropriate”
From the Tampa Bay Times: “The Republican nominee continued to exploit the situation”
From the Ft. Lauderdale Sun Sentinel: “Irresponsible. And totally unwarranted.”
From the Sarasota Herald-Tribune: “Prematurely lobbed off-base criticism”
From the Cleveland Plain Dealer: “Mitt Romney’s trigger finger was so quick that he didn’t even get it right”
From the Boulder Daily Camera: “For someone whose campaign has been studded with tone-deafness abroad, this was stunning, undiplomatic and undemocratic rhetoric.”
From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: “Yes, it was sad and pathetic to see such callous and uninformed statements from politicians who couldn’t wait until they had the facts to use an international incident for political gain.”

The list is from Heather Parton (Digby) and she also gives the other side:

Ann Coulter: Obama’s Actions “Led To Our Ambassador Being Killed” In Libya
Fox’s Steve Doocy: The U.S. Embassy In Cairo Was Essentially “Apologizing To Al Qaeda”
Fox’s Ralph Peters On Libya Attack: “They Kill Four Of Ours, You Kill 400 Of Theirs”
Limbaugh’s Conspiracy Theory: Al Qaeda “Gave Up Osama Bin Laden” To Make “Obama Look Good”
Rush Limbaugh: “Obama Gave Us The Arab Spring, Which Has Turned Into What Happened Yesterday”
Pat Robertson On Embassy Attack: “You Wonder What It Is In These Muslims That Causes Them To Go Crazy”

That’s Romney’s small base now. That’s the dirty dishwater. And things are getting desperate:

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, an informal advisor to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, said on Thursday he and his fellow members of a state board were considering removing President Barack Obama from the Kansas ballot this November.

Kobach is part of the State Objections Board along with Attorney General Derek Schmidt and Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer, all Republicans. The Topeka Capital-Journal reported that on Thursday the board agreed to consider whether to take Obama off the ballot because they said they lacked sufficient evidence about his birth certificate.

Obama can win without Kansas:

President Obama’s national polling lead has extended to three key swing states, according to new data in Ohio, Virginia and Florida.

The surveys from Marist College, commissioned by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, show Obama leading Mitt Romney among likely voters by 7 points in Ohio (50 percent to 43 percent), and by 5 points in Virginia and Florida (49 percent to 44 percent in both states).

Obama’s management of the economy is being viewed more favorably. He leads Romney on who is seen as a better manager of the economy in Ohio, and is even in Virginia and Florida.

In the New York Times, according Nate Silver’s highly respected statistical model, if the election were held today, Romney would have an 8.4 percent chance of winning, which means Obama had a 91.6 percent chance of winning. Romney’s chances were 32.3 percent only one week earlier. He’s circling the drain, so Kansas go, and consider the situation as seen by Joe Scarborough, the resident conservative at MSNBC and a former Republican congressman from Florida in the days of Newt Gingrich’s reign, who now says this:

If we want to win the battle of ideas in the long term, we should be willing to face the fact that Mitt Romney is likely to lose – and should, given that he’s neither a true conservative nor a courageous moderate. He’s just an ambitious man. Nothing wrong with that, except when you want to be president…

That’s the key sentence from a three-thousand word screed, all about circling the drain. It may be that folks are discovering Romney simply wants to be president, simply to be president. There’s no grand plan after that. What does he want for America? How does he want America to be in the future, and do in the future? He doesn’t seem to think that way. He wants to be president. That’s it.

That means we get nonsense about the Middle East, as Peter Beinart explains:

Bush’s foreign policy, especially in his first term, consisted of a hyper-aggressive, hyper-expensive effort to use the 9/11 attacks to extend American dominance of the greater Middle East without much serious thinking about whether such an effort could succeed. Romney can’t continue that effort because Americans are sick of it and the federal coffers are empty. What’s left is bluster and apple pie. Romney rarely discusses how long he wants to continue the war in Afghanistan, for instance, but he constantly attacks Obama for apologizing too much and not believing in America.

There’s nothing there. People are beginning to see that, although John Judis in this item isn’t so sure Romney is all talk:

Some cynics argue that you should ignore what a presidential candidate says about foreign policy. But this analysis makes a rule out of exceptions. Over the last four decades, presidents have generally attempted to do what they said they would. It is only when they have encountered impediments that they have changed course. Bill Clinton promised to emphasize geo-economics over geo-politics and did so until he was brought up short by Japan’s resistance to trade pressures and by the outbreak of genocide in the Balkans. George W. Bush vowed to conduct his foreign policy with “humility” and to oppose “nation-building,” but he was confounded by the September 11 attacks.

James Joyner isn’t buying it:

The Romney campaign’s foreign policy approach ultimately suffers the same basic flaw as its domestic policy approach: in trying to be all things to all people, it ultimately satisfies no one. Those of us in the increasingly marginalized Realist foreign policy camp are left clinging to the hope that the appointment of seasoned hands like Bob Zoellich to the team signals that Romney will be the serious pragmatist that he was as governor of Massachusetts. But the empty saber rattling and cozying up to Netanyahu and John Bolton are attempts to satisfy the neoconservative wing that Mitt’s one of them. The net result is that no one really knows what a Romney foreign policy would look like. Increasingly, I’m not sure that even Romney knows.

This is a mess, but there are the debates, where Romney can suddenly come up with a grand vision for America and reverse all the poll numbers by saying what he actually believes in but was hiding all this time. That’d be cool, but in this item John Sides argues things just don’t work that way:

That presidential debates can be “game changers” is a belief almost universally held by political pundits and strategists. Political scientists, however, aren’t so sure. Indeed, scholars who have looked most carefully at the data have found that, when it comes to shifting enough votes to decide the outcome of the election, presidential debates have rarely, if ever, mattered.

The small or nonexistent movement in voters’ preferences is evident when comparing the polls before and after each debate or during the debate season as a whole. Political lore often glosses over or even ignores the polling data. Even those who do pay attention to polls often fail to separate real changes from random blips due to sampling error. A more careful study by political scientist James Stimson finds little evidence of game changers in the presidential campaigns between 1960 and 2000. Stimson writes, “There is no case where we can trace a substantial shift to the debates.” At best, debates provide a “nudge” in very close elections like 1960, 1980, or 2000. An even more comprehensive study, by political scientists Robert Erikson and Christopher Wlezien, which includes every publicly available poll from the presidential elections between 1952 and 2008, comes to a similar conclusion: excluding the 1976 election, which saw Carter’s lead drop steadily throughout the fall, “the best prediction from the debates is the initial verdict before the debates.”

In other words, in the average election year, you can accurately predict where the race will stand after the debates by knowing the state of the race before the debates. Erikson and Wlezien conclude that evidence of debate effects is “fragile.”

If you were circling the drain before the debates you’ll still be circling the drain after them, and Time’s Joe Klein is not kind at all:

I first met Mitt Romney in 2005. I was very impressed. I described him in this magazine as “informal, conversational, enthusiastic and speedy.” Mitt Romney? Yes, indeed. But then, we were talking about something he really believed in, or seemed to: his universal health care plan for Massachusetts, which included an individual mandate–an idea I’d admired since it was proposed by Stuart Butler of the Heritage Foundation in 1989. Romney’s plan wasn’t the Full Butler, which would eliminate the deductibility of employer-donated health care benefits. But it was a huge step in the right direction, and Romney had mastered every detail of it. He seemed a near Clintonian policy wonk, a guy who certainly wouldn’t have offered the disingenuous comments about health care that Romney did Sept. 9 on Meet the Press. In an attempt to sidle toward the center, Romney said he would embrace aspects of the Obama health care plan, like the mandate for insurance companies to cover all comers, including those with pre-existing conditions.

Let us leave aside for a moment the well-known fact that Obamacare is, at its core, Romneycare taken national – and Romneycare taken national was the fondest hope of the fellow I met in 2005. What annoyed me was that, for the umpteen-hundredth time in this campaign, Romney was playing dumb on a subject he knew extremely well. His health care scheme and Obama’s were dual-mandate plans. The insurance companies had to cover everyone, and the government had to require everyone to buy into the system. The insurers needed the larger pool of healthy policyholders to offset the cost of covering those who were already sick – and so I was prepared to whap poor Romney upside the head for this phony concession.

But then Romney retracted it. Or an anonymous campaign aide did, saying Romney “was not proposing a federal mandate to require insurance plans to offer those particular features.” And there, my fellow Americans, you have it: the Romney campaign in full flight yet again, embarrassed yet again.

The man disappeared in a cloud of his own ambition. Suddenly there was no one home, and Klein argues that absence of any human presence, and the two wildly different conventions, allowed the Obama folks to invent a guy and a campaign they wanted to run against:

The Romney campaign was inept, insubstantial, panicky, heading down the drain, they said, sounding almost as the Democrats did about Kerry in 2004. It was premature, of course. Kerry won the first debate with George W. Bush that year and made the race close for a minute or two. Romney could do the same this year; he might even win. The Obama cool-train could suffer from exogenous setbacks. The economy could tank. October is sometimes a volatile month for the stock market. Joe Biden could run off with that biker woman who sat on his lap.

It’s just that none of that is likely, even if vaguely possible, so what Romney has left is the debates, and Klein sees no hope there:

I suspect Romney won’t do so well in the debates for the same reason that he didn’t do so well on Meet the Press. It’s hard to be effective when you’re biting your tongue and swallowing your pride at the same time. Romney has dumbed himself down to fit a Republican Party that has become anachronistic, hateful and foolish. He has never once stood up to the party’s extremist base in this campaign – not even when asked whether he would accept a deficit deal with $10 in spending cuts for every $1 in new revenues, not even on immigration and contraception, issues that sent women and Latinos scurrying toward the exits. His has been a shameful, shameless campaign.

The public will occasionally turn out an incumbent President, but only when offered a real alternative. Mitt Romney has offered them only a mirage.

Well, maybe it wasn’t a mirage, just dirty dishwater circling the drain, counterclockwise of course.

What about the lousy economy? Romney says it’s lousy, but the stock market just hit a five-year high – your retirement funds are safe again – and the Fed just announced their massive new move to save the economy – because Congress won’t do a damned thing or can’t. Things are looking up, which means things are looking down for Romney, who of course says forget all that and be worried sick about the deficit. Everyone is.

They are? See Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson:

A majority of Americans have consistently told pollsters that creating jobs is a much higher priority than tackling the deficit. And when asked how deficits might be reduced, the public strongly endorses increasing taxes on the wealthy and cutting defense spending. The problem is not that these ideas couldn’t guide policy. It’s that they have almost no political traction in Washington. The most influential Republican budget plan – the blueprint put forward by Representative Paul Ryan and given even greater prominence by his selection as Mitt Romney’s running mate – would do just the opposite of what most people say they want. The plan would add to the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy; increase, rather than cut, defense spending; and enact huge cuts in social programs for the poor and middle class, including Medicaid and Medicare. These are changes that polls show Americans (including, at least with respect to Medicare, even Tea Party supporters) strongly oppose.

While the Ryan budget is at odds with the stated priorities of the majority of Americans, one group appears quite supportive of its general thrust – the superrich. Most polls reach few if any extremely wealthy Americans. But thanks to a pilot poll recently commissioned by a team of political scientists, we now know that the very rich are indeed different from the rest of Americans: They place much higher priority on deficit reduction and cutting spending, and much, much lower priority on reducing unemployment.

And they run for office, for president, but someone is circling the drain, in one direction or the other, when they’ve lost whatever battle they’re fighting and they don’t know it yet. And it is kind of sad.

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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