Things weren’t supposed to be settled this fast. Long ago the presidential candidates were chosen at the party conventions in late summer – after many meetings in smoke-filled rooms, where the important people did their horse trading, while the party peasants did little more than mill about out on the convention floor. A few shadowy true insiders, the party establishment, decided who would run – and that was that. There used to be some drama in that – intrigue, wheels within wheels. The conventions used to mean something, even if what happened on the convention floor didn’t. But now we have the primaries – far more democratic, to be sure, but in some ways a disappointment. Things get decided early. A contested convention is rare. That last one might have been the Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968 – Lyndon Johnson had refused to run for another term, Eugene McCarthy had faded, Robert Kennedy, gaining momentum and likely to win the nomination, had been assassinated the night he won the California primary, and the party finally settled on the hapless Hubert Humphrey as their guy. That was a disaster. The Republicans, down in Miami that year, nominated Richard Nixon without much fuss. That might have been the night the party convention died, as an event that matters in American politics. Now the conventions are not news – just campaign rallies, sometimes with one or two eccentric speeches – Pat Buchanan in Houston in 1992, on fire in defense of the superior white race in his famous Culture War speech or Obama in Boston in 2004, blowing everyone away with his humanity and intelligence and drive. The Republicans were embarrassed by Buchanan – you weren’t supposed to say those things out loud, and that certainly didn’t help the Bush-Quayle ticket with the moderates at all. In Boston, Obama unwittingly made John Kerry look like a dork, or more of a dork than he already was – by simple contrast. These things happen. They don’t really matter. The candidates were already in place. The conventions were in their home states. They both lost.
And this year Mitt Romney runs against Obama – something that was decided months ago, and, in the case of Romney, something everyone knew was going to happen long before that. The Republicans were just not going to nominate Donald Trump, or Michele Bachmann, or Rick Perry after his goofy meltdown, or Herman Cain, or Newt Gingrich, or Rick Santorum. Many on the left have long considered Republicans quite crazy, but they’re not that crazy. They want to win. Displays of righteous anger, while they feel so very good, do get in the way of that.
Romney doesn’t do righteous anger. Whenever he tries everyone shrugs, so he doesn’t even try anymore. He’s just who he is – the wildly successful businessman, and not Obama, and a bit boring in his straight-arrow way. So he’s the man, and always was. The rest was just a show – some would say a freak show – to keep political reporters and wise pundits busy. Those political reporters and wise pundits should have known better.
The odd thing is that now other matters are settled too. The Supreme Court ruled that the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare, is quite constitutional – even the individual mandate is. There’s now nowhere else to turn. It’s the law – one that can only be repealed, even if that’s a long shot. The issue is now off the table – possible repeal is for the many possible futures, depending on who wins what in November. And this was a pretty clever gamble on Obama’s part – asking the Supreme Court to rule on the matter long before the election, and even before the conventions. It was a dangerous gamble, but now there’s nothing for the Republicans to talk about – save for all the what-if sputtering about next year, should the planets align for them. It’s not pretty.
The Arizona immigration law is off the table too. The Supreme Court struck that down, save for one provision, where they put Arizona on a short leash. Yes, you can detain those you arrest for other things while you check their immigration status – but if even one of them sues for being kept in jail for very long, for no good reason, you’ll have some explaining to do, and that last provision of the law will be gone too. Done – settled – and there’s no more to talk about there. Another Republican issue is gone.
That doesn’t leave much to talk about, save for foreign policy – not Mitt Romney’s strong suit. He says he’ll never apologize for America, like Obama does – even if Obama has never done that. And in a May 31 interview with CBS News, Romney said that Obama’s foreign policy deserves a grade of F “across the board” – but Slate’s Fred Kaplan takes issue with that:
What is Romney’s position on drone strikes? What’s his position on Afghanistan? During the Republican debates, he once said that his position was not to negotiate with the Taliban but to defeat them. What does that mean? Does he want to keep tens of thousands of U.S. troops there after NATO’s 2014 deadline? To what end? Doing what? He also once said that military spending should consume at least 4 percent of gross domestic product. Obama’s most recent military budget ($525 billion, not counting the cost of the war in Afghanistan) amounts to 3 percent. So Romney intends to raise the budget by one-third, or by about $175 billion a year – by more than $1 trillion in the next six years. Where is he going to get the money? What’s he going to spend it on? No details. None.
This is beyond vague, and Eli Lake searches for Romney’s foreign policy team and finds emptiness:
“One of the things that troubles me is that there is no lead foreign policy person who is traveling with the governor and who is there to talk to the press,” says Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. She says foreign policy “is one of President Obama’s biggest failings and the American people need to hear a debate about more than the economy.”
Even the American Enterprise Institute wishes that Romney had some front-man with at least something to say, but Daniel Larison says Romney is just being careful:
Whenever Romney has tried to make foreign policy into a major issue in the election, he has blundered on the policy substance and undermined his already very weak credibility on these issues. It isn’t possible for him to say absolutely nothing about foreign policy, but it would be a very good idea for him to say much less than he does right now.
Well, good idea for him, but for us? We need to know how Romney can possibly balance the budget while ramping up military spending, and cutting taxes on the wealthy, if he is not to end the safety net as we have known it since FDR. We also need to know if the next Republican president will both take us into another Mid-Eastern war and explode the debt.
The one question I wish a reporter could ask Romney is a simple one: What aspects of George W. Bush’s foreign policy do you disagree with?
Does Romney believe the things that he’s said about arms control, Russia, the Middle East, the defense budget, and the rest? Who can say? He has no experience on any of these issues. But his advisers do; they represent, mainly, the Dick Cheney wing of the Republican Party (some, notably John Bolton, veer well to the right of even that). While not all presidents wind up following their advisers, Romney has placed his byline atop some of his coterie’s most egregious arguments – not least, several op-ed pieces against President Obama’s New START with Russia, pieces that rank as the most ignorant I’ve read in nearly 40 years of following the nuclear debate.
Read about that last item here – the man may be quite dangerous – and dangerous men should choose silence. There’s no point in scaring the crap out of all the world’s leaders, and scaring the crap out of the American people – if you want to be president. Just shut the hell up.
So let’s see. Foreign policy is off the table – too dangerous. So is healthcare reform – the matter is settled for now. So is immigration reform – the Arizona law is all but dead. Now what? Damn, things weren’t supposed to be settled this fast.
Now add this:
Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign on Monday rejected a Republican attack on the Affordable Care Act, repudiating a contention made in last week’s Supreme Court decision that the law’s requirement that individuals carry medical coverage amounts to a tax.
The Romney team’s refusal to invoke the word “tax” with regard to the individual mandate puts the candidate at odds with others in his party at a moment when Republicans are attempting to capitalize on the Supreme Court’s decision, which deemed President Obama’s health-care law constitutional. Some Republican-led states are trying to thwart the legislation’s effort to cover the poor.
In an interview Monday on MSNBC, Romney campaign senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom said the former Massachusetts governor “disagrees with the court’s ruling that the mandate was a tax.”
That was odd, and the National Journal is not pleased at all:
For an issue that’s supposedly potent against Democrats, Romney’s campaign is declaring a cease fire. This, even as the law polls unfavorably and it proved to be a motivating force for Republicans and disaffected independents in the 2010 midterms.
It’s becoming clear that Romney has decided to focus on the economy at the expense of everything else, even issues that could play to his political benefit. He’s avoided criticizing the administration’s handling of the botched Fast and Furious operation, even as it threatens to become a serious vulnerability for the president. He’s been silent in responding to Obama’s immigration executive order, not wanting to offend receptive Hispanics or appear like a flip-flopper. He appears more likely to tap a safe, bland running mate like Ohio Sen. Rob Portman or former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty who won’t do him any harm but won’t benefit him much either. If the economy continues to sputter, that safe strategy might be enough. If not, his options are limited.
The Weekly Standard reports this:
Congressional Republicans are reluctant to speak on the record, not wanting to take shots at their nominee, but it’s clear that many of them are not happy. “Romney is quickly proving himself to be what some of us expected, very reactionary without a clear alternative to Obamacare,” said one Republican congressman.
That can be put more succinctly:
This ain’t Etch-A-Sketch, Mitt. Go hard or go home.
Andrew Sullivan tries to sort it all out:
Romney’s nothingburger on immigration and restrained response to the ACA ruling make sense with respect to the swing voters. But his fundamental problem, so to speak, is the gulf between them and the base who reluctantly nominated him. The Romney team’s decision to accept that the mandate is a penalty rather than a tax is yet another moment of excruciating positioning: because it’s obvious why Romney won’t call it a tax. It would mean he’d raised taxes in Massachusetts, in pioneering Obamacare on a state level.
So it comes down to this:
He’s pinioned by his nothingness. At some point a candidate of so many contradictions understands he just has to be silent to get through to November. His entire candidacy rests on the notion that anti-incumbency in a depressed economy is enough.
It may be. But if that’s the campaign, and he loses, the right will go bananas. Yep: even more bananas. That’s one reason I preferred Santorum. A failed, bland, hollow campaign from Romney would settle none of the core issues behind the Republican crisis.
Maybe it’s best not to settle those core issues, or even address them. The idea is to win, which of course is now turning out to be winning for no particular policy or political-philosophy reason – just to win. That’s an odd campaign pitch to voters – Elect me because I want to win! In hard times that might not be a winning message.
As Jonathan Chait notes, it’s not like Romney or any of the Republicans are offering their own healthcare plan:
The interesting thing about these conservatives’ arguments is that they are all committed, to varying degrees, to upholding the pretense that the Republican Party really wants to impose a more technocratically sound version of health-care reform. To be sure, they insist they are advocating a vastly different philosophical vision centered around self-empowerment and free markets and other wonderful things. But all of them say, or imply, that they share the basic goals of the Affordable Care Act, which is to make coverage available to all Americans and to control cost inflation.
But this is nonsense:
The mythical Republican reform plan is really hard to pass. Conservatives may think they have a cheaper way to fix the system, but it still costs money. And Republicans have never appropriated any money to cover the uninsured. Indeed, all their plans divert money that already exists to cover people who need health care for other purposes. Conservatives hopefully propose turning the health-care tax deduction into a more progressive tax credit. Great idea! Except the plans put forward by Romney and Paul Ryan plow the savings from eliminating that tax deduction back into lower tax rates. And it leaves no budgetary provision for high-risk pools or any other mechanism to subsidize coverage for the poor and sick. …
If Republicans really wanted to replace Obamacare with some more “market-friendly” alternative, then there’s a simple way they could go about it. They could promise to repeal the law only if they packaged the repeal with a replacement that did not increase the number of uninsured. But they’ll never do that, because the magic, cheaper free-market alternative does not exist, and the GOP has no interest in diverting resources to cover the poor and sick.
And there’s this:
Although the Supreme Court upheld Obamacare, the ruling complicates an important element of the law by making the Medicaid expansion optional for states. States will no longer risk losing all their Medicaid funds if they opt out of the expansion, which is projected to cover some 17 million low-income people.
Most states will be hard-pressed to turn down the infusion of federal funds to help cover their uninsured residents, despite incurring new costs down the road. But Republican governors face a genuine political predicament because if they accept the Medicaid expansion, they open themselves up to potentially resonant right-wing attacks for buttressing Obamacare.
Screw those seventeen million low-income people – Iowa and Florida and South Carolina and Missouri and Wisconsin and Louisiana and Kansas won’t take the money. Those low-income losers can do without healthcare, as it’s the principle of the thing.
David Dayen comments:
I keep seeing these confident predictions from health care experts that no state would be so foolish as to reject the Medicaid expansion for their state. I want to set up a poker game with these people, to provide for my family in retirement. How many times can you say “well that’s so radical and extreme, it could never happen!” and be wrong before you review your assumptions? …
The idea that you can just point to a set of numbers and say “but it’s almost all paid for by the federal government!” and convince ideologically motivated conservatives with that reasoning is really rich. The consensus opinion on the right is that giving free services to poor people puts them on the road to serfdom and crushes their innovative spirits and shackles them rather than allowing them to grow and succeed. Really, they don’t want rich people to pay for “others” to get free stuff.
And see EmptyWheel:
Medicaid expansion in Red States is not going to be argued as “extending health insurance to uninsured adults,” but rather, “giving free stuff to people of color” (though that won’t be the phrase used) …
Already, my anecdotal experience is that a proportion of voters in the states in question claim that the first black President has spent his first term making sure that people of color get more than their fair share of benefits (I think they make this argument based on expanded food stamp usage, though of course the argument is not coherent). The GOP frame for the Medicaid argument will not focus at all on insuring the uninsured. It will not breathe a word of how insured people subsidize uninsured people who use emergency rooms for care. Rather, it will extend and enlarge on this argument about a black President giving free stuff to black people (or Latinos in states like Texas). And I believe that will remain true even if Obama loses in November.
There are things Romney can’t talk about, but others can:
How could radical Republican governors not love engaging in that fight? It’s a damn good way to keep working class whites in the GOP party. It’s a damn good way to keep the base enthused. It’s a damn good way to distract from larger economic failures. It’s the same logic, of course, that has already led some of these fire-breathers to embrace “Papers Please” laws that lose their states a lot of money.
It seems that we are hearing echoes of Pat Buchanan back in 1992:
My friends, this election is about much more than who gets what. It is about who we are. It is about what we believe. It is about what we stand for as Americans. There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself. And in that struggle for the soul of America, Clinton and Clinton are on the other side, and George Bush is on our side. And so, we have to come home, and stand beside him …
And then his side lost.
The odd thing is that this time some key issues have been put to rest – healthcare reform and immigration – so that screaming about them now looks like whining about what’s already been settled, when everyone else just wants to move on. And the candidate on that side of things this time has decided it’s wise to just be silent on most matters – hoping the economy will tank, or something will go really wrong for Obama, because he’s got nothing.
Things really weren’t supposed to be settled this fast.