The Underdog’s Game

It’s a David and Goliath thing – everybody roots for the underdog. You see it in sports all the time – the older and slower team, playing for the last time together, with one more shot at glory, faces the young and quick and fast team of brash would-be superstars – and you naturally root for the wily geezers. There’s something about that one last stand against the inevitable, against time itself. So this last weekend you probably rooted for the Boston Celtics, the old guys, facing the young guys, the imposingly athletic Miami Heat. And the Celtics lost. They took it to the full seven games, but they lost – they just ran out of gas. And they were dismantled by the heavy cruiser of basketball, the ridiculously talented and massively intimidating and immensely unlikeable LeBron James. He really is an insufferable and unaware jerk, but the best player in the game – and happy about it, and hurt and offended if you don’t agree. The folks in Cleveland will never forgive him, not for leaving the Cavaliers, but for how he left – an odd half-hour special on ESPN where, in the last seconds of the last minute, he proudly announced that he was going to “take his talents” to South Beach. No one cheered. Many laughed, and hoped he would go down in flames.

But this year he took over two key games against the Celtics, and ignoring his lesser and seemingly insignificant teammates, singlehandedly ran through and over those old guys from Boston and won those games. The wily geezers, who knew more than a few crafty things about the game, didn’t stand a chance. Boston has won lots of championships – they were kind of the incumbents – but incumbents lose. And now the Heat will face the Oklahoma City Thunder – even younger and faster and quicker than the Heat, but inexperienced. Those Oklahoma City guys are now the underdogs, and people will root for them – a balanced team with many amazing players, not one insufferable and unaware jerk, however talented. That should be interesting. But everyone knows that the too-perfect insufferable and unaware jerk almost always wins. Life’s like that. You get used to it.

And politics are like that. The crafty and wily incumbent, Obama, is now the underdog, facing the insufferable and unaware jerk, Mitt Romney. And Republicans are now realizing they have the upper hand:

Republicans riding high from a string of breaks in their favor are increasingly optimistic about Mitt Romney’s chances to claim the White House in November, even among conservatives who had qualms about making him the party’s nominee.

The bullish take is reflected in interviews with party strategists and activists, including people who supported Romney rivals during the primary season. Mood matters because it can fuel fundraising and volunteer hustle.

They’re on a roll:

The chest-thumping follows a GOP victory in last week’s Wisconsin recall election that saved Gov. Scott Walker’s job. The race galvanized Republicans who saw it as an early 2012 referendum on conservative fiscal principles in an election that was likely to hinge on the shape of the economy.

Even Rick Santorum, who spent a primary season casting doubt on Romney’s ability to succeed in a general election, says things are looking up for Romney.

And Obama may be running out of gas, and like the Celtics in those last two games, making what might be called unforced errors:

On Friday, Obama exposed himself to GOP ridicule for an ill-cast appraisal that the “the private sector is doing fine.” He later clarified that he meant there was “good momentum” lately, but the earlier remark had already become GOP ad material. Romney released a Web ad Sunday slamming Obama for the remark by contrasting it with eight people who tell how they’ve struggled despite the recovering economy.

Obama is getting steamrolled, and Zeke Miller puts it succinctly:

President Barack Obama offered up a gift to Republicans Friday morning declaring “the private sector is doing fine,” at a White House press conference.

“Where we are seeing weaknesses in our economy, had to do with state and local government, often times cuts initiated by governors or mayors who are not getting the kind of help that they have in the past from the federal Government, and who don’t have the same flexibility as the federal government in dealing with fewer revenues coming in,” Obama continued, calling on Congressional Republicans to take steps to help local and state governments create jobs.

Yeah, so what – that’s the situation, but the Romney folks said this:

The 23 million Americans who are struggling for work are not “doing fine.” Job creators and small businesses are not “doing fine.” The middle class is not “doing fine.”

That seems to be a slam-dunk, although Kevin Drum offers this:

There’s no question that Obama left himself wide open to this attack. It’s an unusual gaffe from someone who’s usually more careful with his words. Still, whether Republicans like it or not, Obama is more right than wrong. The private sector may not be “doing fine,” but it’s doing okay. Meanwhile, the public sector continues to struggle badly, shedding jobs and cutting back on spending, and this has been a big contributor to our anemic recovery.

And he refers to charts from Paul Krugman and offers one of his own:

As you can see, the private sector has indeed rebounded from the depths of the recession and is now adding two million jobs per year. That’s not great, but it’s not terrible. The public sector, conversely, started cutting jobs even before the stimulus money ran out and is now shedding about 200 thousand jobs per year. That may be good for conservative small-government ideology, but it’s a significant drag on an already fragile economy.

Obama was right, but he loses, but Obama did use these words:

We’ve created 4.3 million jobs over the past 27 months. Over 800,000 just this year alone. The private sector is doing fine. Where we’re seeing problems is with state and local government, often with cuts initiated by governors or mayors who are not getting the kind of help they’re accustomed to from the federal government.

And Slate’s David Weigel suggests context is everything:

This isn’t even particularly clumsy phrasing. The stimulus bill, passed three years ago and change, included $53.6 billion of aid meant to help states fill in budget gaps and avoid laying off workers. (Because teachers and fire-fighters are popular, Democrats like to say that this money was for “teachers and fire-fighters.” People with less-beloved government jobs got it, too.) It was pure uncut Keynesianism – creating debt to hire people so they could keep consuming.

Smash cut to 2011. The stimulus money was spent; voters had elected new state and local leaders who promised to cut the fat, and a Republican House whose members winced at state “bailouts.” Public sector lay-offs sped up. In the Bush era, the public sector had added nearly 1 million jobs. In the Obama era, it’s down 600,000 jobs and counting.

Republicans were pretty clear about this – they wanted to shrink the public sector. That’s their philosophy. Grow the economy, de-regulate, privatize services, and you can have higher overall employment with fewer people on the public teat. But this is a sort of complicated argument to make…

And Weigel looks at the Romney attack ad:

The video, shockingly, cuts out right before Obama mentions the public sector. Trivia question: Does the unemployment rate include public sector as well as private sector jobs? Indeed, it does! But explaining this takes some time. It’s easier to pretend that the president doesn’t care about the private sector, and unemployment, and hope that the media runs with the zinger instead of explaining some pretty rudimentary macroeconomics.

And they did. And Andrew Sullivan picks up the thread:

This is a big black eye for the president – not because what he said is in context that outrageous. It’s a black eye purely because what he said is outrageous out of context and not in a self-evidently false way. So it’s a pure political gift to his opponents – and the GOP will clip the quote to make it as damning as they can. They will try to identify a president whose administration inherited and was consumed by the worst recession since the 1930s as a man who has no idea there is a recession at all. And with low-information swing voters, it will be horrible.

Of course, I do not believe for a second that Romney actually believes that Obama believes the private sector is doing fine. He knows, as we do, that what Obama was trying ineptly to say is that compared with the public sector, the private sector is doing fine, which is not the same as great, right now. But watch Mitt up there, all shocked and stunned. He’s just incredulous that Barack Obama genuinely believes that the private sector is doing fine. Amazed. Staggered. I mean: gee willikers, can you believe it?

But when you’re on a roll you’re on a roll, and Sullivan argues that Obama knows the damage:

All I hope is that it doesn’t get into his head. Or our collective head.

There are some real choices in this election: how to work off a recession created by a financial crisis, a housing bubble, and a debt overhang? Whether to tackle the debt with spending cuts alone or whether to include tax increases in the mix? War with Iran or not? More stimulus or more austerity? And none of them can usefully be engaged in by any reference as to whether the president actually believes that the private sector is booming. He doesn’t. It’s obvious he doesn’t. It came out wrong. If we cannot make the distinction between those kinds of arguments – real ones or phony ones – then we will get the government we deserve.

As for Obama, he’s been hazed before; he will be hazed again. This election campaign is going to turn him into a piñata of projection and distortion and blame. It will be like the battle with Clinton only far, far more brutal. His only option is to do what he did then: relentlessly counter distortions with truth. He needs to tell the story of the last three years clearly and honestly, and to make the case for what he will do in the future, without being distracted by the 24-hour nonstop chatter that now convulses the attentive body politic. He has a strong case on the content of his record and on what he plans to do going forward and how it all fits together. He has to make it. Again and again. With ever more clarity and concision.

To be more precise, he must make it plainer that, in this country’s politics, he is still the change agent. If he weren’t, why would they have done so much to stop him?

The answer is that they want to win. You might not like that James fellow from Miami, but the guy wins. And Michael Tomasky deepens the problem Obama faces:

Well, let’s just say Barack Obama hasn’t been on his game this week. The Friday-morning stumble at the press conference – “The private sector is doing fine” – is going to live on in thousands of 30-second attack ads. But that isn’t the biggest problem by a long shot. In fact, it merely draws attention to his biggest problem… the campaign isn’t telling a story. And there is a story to tell, even about the private sector. It’s a slightly more complicated story than the one Mitt Romney is telling, and more complicated means harder, but it doesn’t mean impossible. The story, in a nutshell, is this: we inherited a total disaster, things are getting better, and Romney will bring us back to disaster. The last part is the most important: putting the emphasis back on the challenger.

That may be a longshot, but Tomasky, who probably didn’t watch the Celtics games, thinks it can be done:

About the gaffe, there’s no question that it was bad, and liberals and Democrats shouldn’t be complaining that it’s unfair that so much be made of it. If Romney had said it, the liberal blogosphere would be hooting and howling, me included. So conservatives are entitled to their fun on this one.

And the data are clear of course, as if that matters:

But the media overplay these things. I’m reading comparisons to John McCain’s infamous “The fundamentals of the economy are still strong.” Could be. But even so, that comment really didn’t end up hurting McCain that much. What hurt him was that silliness of suspending his campaign to ride to the rescue. And Sarah Palin, of course. No one voted against him because of that utterance (which, interestingly, was made in the context of calling for greater bank regulation – those were the days, eh?).

But he sees that the bigger problem with Obama’s press conference was that there wasn’t any news in his prepared remarks:

This really makes me shake my head. If you’re going to call a press conference, you have to give beat reporters something new. New is the root of news. If you don’t say something new, a misstatement is bound to dominate, or an answer to an off-message question. …

But it seems that the White House doesn’t have any argument right now:

Ever since the jobs report, Romney’s got all the momentum. The White House has tried but then dropped arguments… and it sounds a little whiny and ineffectual when Obama urges Congress to pass something that everybody knows Congress isn’t going to pass. And by the way, he ought at least to say “Republicans,” not “Congress.” I’m sure there are risks associated with sounding too partisan – but to me, he has little choice but to lump Romney and the GOP Congress together.

That is a crucial part of the story Obama needs to tell. Romney’s story is easy. The economy is bad, he’s had four years, it’s his fault. Boom. Simple. Obama’s story takes longer to tell and goes something like this: “We inherited a disaster from George Bush (yes, he should use the name – people still do not like him). We were losing 800,000 jobs a month. But since early 2010, we’ve been gaining, and we’ve now created more private-sector jobs than were lost early in my term. So things are turning around. But if you elect Mitt Romney, with his promised huge tax cuts for the wealthy and his support for Paul Ryan’s extreme budget, which are both even more right wing than anything Bush tried, we’re going right back off the cliff that I’ve steered us away from.”

Obama sort of did that Friday morning, but not really. He limited his case to public-sector employees.

Of course Romney countered with a startling comment – just look at that vote in Wisconsin – Scott Walker wasn’t recalled, showing that no one, no voters anywhere, believe that states and localities could use more cops, firefighters, and teachers. Who needs them? That’s what that Wisconsin vote was about. Get rid of the leaches so Real Americans can get back to work. And Tomasky plays referee:

Romney hasn’t been making many unforced errors lately, but I think that was one. People want those workers to contribute more to their pensions, but that’s a different question from whether people want them around. Romney was over-interpreting the Wisconsin result there, and in the states that matter, it may yet end up being today’s bigger gaffe.

But he sees the writing on the wall:

But be that as it may, the fact is that the Obama campaign is in a hole right now, and until they figure out how to tell a story that makes Romney answer some questions, it’s going to get deeper. When you’re not playing offense, you’re playing defense.

And that doesn’t work well. Ask the Celtics. But after Romney spent the day amazed that Obama was so “out of touch” by saying the economy was just fine, which actually wasn’t quite what Obama said, one of Obama’s guys went back on the offense, showing that Team Obama can still play the game:

On Sunday, Obama campaign adviser David Axelrod acknowledged that the private sector needs to do better, then quickly moved to offense.

“The president is out of touch – out of touch? We have lost 250,000 teachers in the last” couple of years, he said on Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.” “So I would suggest he’s living on a different planet if he thinks that’s a prescription for a stronger economy.”

On CNN’s “State of the Union,” Axelrod added that laying-off teachers is bad for education. “What planet is he living on where he thinks that we can take this kind of hits in our education system and progress as a country?” he said.

And on the other end of the court:

“Teachers are great, we love teachers,” Santorum said on ABC’s “This Week.” “But if anybody believes that hiring more teachers as we did over the many, many years in this country, under President Clinton, even President Bush and under the early part of President Obama’s administration, if that’s dramatically improved the quality of education, you got to show me the numbers because it’s not. … What we need to do is have education reform, not throw more money at teachers. And Mitt Romney understands that.”

Yes, never throw money at teachers. They’re overpaid as it is, and if they really loved teaching they’d work for minimum wage or for free – or something.

But others on Team Romney rebelled:

Two top surrogates said Sunday that Mitt Romney cannot defeat President Obama in November simply by attacking him, and needs to run on a strong vision of his own.

Appearing on “Fox News Sunday,” Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) agreed when asked if his party’s presidential nominee “needs to offer a bold, affirmative agenda” in order to win.

“The American people will rightly, I think, demand to know something more than he’s not President Obama,” Daniels said. “He’s got to use this fall as an opportunity to build a consensus across, I hope, a broad spectrum of Americans to make the big changes we need. … He better have an affirmative, constructive message, and one of hope.”

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), who comfortably won his recall race last week, made a similar point Sunday.

Hey, even LeBron James’ teammates sometimes think LeBron is a showboating jerk. But Andrew Sullivan says the same thing about Obama that Daniels and Walker say about Romney:

So far, the Obama campaign has seemed to me overly negative and tactical, as opposed to positive and strategic. I’m not saying the Bain ads should be pulled; they’re legit and they appear to be working. I’m not saying that Romney’s extreme wealth and privilege should not be highlighted. But I am saying that Obama’s core strength must stay what it was last time: sane, centrist, profound reform. He can say in his first two years, he made a massive down payment but has been stymied ever since. This election is about empowering him to finish what he began. And to have voted for him in 2008 and not vote for him now makes no sense at all.

We all knew there would be brutal resistance to real change. So are we really going to bail when resistance makes its strongest counter-attack? Or will we push the president to keep his promises while mobilizing to ensure he can recapitalize in this election and finish the job? I know where I am on this. Do you?

Well, some of us are still with Obama – but worried. And all of us hope, against hope, that the guys from Oklahoma City make a fool out of LeBron James. But that’s not likely either.

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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