Playing Defense

The key to winning is devastating defense. In baseball, if you have a pitching staff that can throw back-to-back-to-back shutouts, with a bunch of nasty relief pitchers that can slam the door shut on any late rally, you’ll win most of the time. Heck, you have nine innings to score that one measly run you’ll need – it can’t be that hard. In football, if you can keep the other team from ever reaching the fifty-yard line, forcing them to punt, over and over and over again, you have four quarters to work on some sort of score of your own, even if it’s a long and improbable field goal in the third overtime. A win is a win. Things are a bit more fluid in basketball and hockey – there are too many variables. But you can do your best to shut down the other guys and hope for the best – soccer is like that. None of this is much fun to watch, but it’s effective. The best offense is a good defense and all that.

On the other hand there’s the psychology of competition. If you’re always playing defense, back on your heels, you’ve lost already. You’re being dominated. You can’t score and you’re bound to start doubting yourself, losing your confidence, and then you end up taking chances you shouldn’t take. Those boneheaded desperation trick plays are almost always disastrous. They don’t call it a Hail Mary pass for nothing. You’re praying – but Mother Mary doesn’t really care one way or the other – she’s really not a big sports fan. You’re on your own, and you lose – because you were never really in control of anything. The best offense in that case is overwhelming speed and power and strength, mixed with superior cunning. Think of boxing. Rocky Balboa is the only fighter who always won by doing little but getting the crap beat out of him by the other guy, until the other guy got all worn out and had nothing left. But that was the movies – a Hollywood fantasy, an absurd allegory. The common man is always getting the crap beat out of him, but this humble man will win out, eventually, somehow. It was all nonsense. In real life Rocky Balboa would be dead.

It’s the same in politics. Spend all your time defending yourself, not attacking the other guy, and certainly not talking about your agenda of wonderful things you’ll do for the country when you’re elected, as you know you will be, and voters will sense you’re a loser. They’ll sense the desperation and fear there. You’ll be dead. Actors talk about “flop sweat” – sweating like a pig from fear, fear of failure before that live audience out there. That happens to politicians too. Sometimes, no matter what your staff and handlers and rich financial backers tell you, you sense that your political show is really a flop. But you have to go out there anyway. The show must go on.

And when the show is on Friday the Thirteenth it’s even worse:

Mitt Romney on Friday night demanded an apology from President Obama for making what he called “reckless” and “absurd” allegations about his record while repeating his insistence that he left Bain Capital in 1999 to run the Olympics.

In several network interviews, Mr. Romney said Mr. Obama “absolutely” owes him an apology for an adviser’s comment that the Republican candidate might have committed a felony by lying about his role at the private equity firm.

“What kind of a president would have a campaign that says something like that about the nominee of another party?” Mr. Romney asked during a brief interview with CBS News. Earlier, on CNN, Mr. Romney called the accusation of criminal behavior, which came on Thursday from Mr. Obama’s deputy campaign manager, “disgusting” and “demeaning” and said it was destructive to the political process.

“It’s something that I think the president should take responsibility for and stop it,” Mr. Romney said.

Romney had been on the defensive for days about this Bain business – claiming that he really had left Bain Capital in 1999 and thus can’t be held responsible for any of the stuff Bain Capital did after that – all the outsourcing and companies destroyed and jobs lost and lives ruined and all the rest. But the evidence was mounting that this just wasn’t true. There were the SEC filings and other documents and his earlier sworn testimony – when he wanted to run for governor in Massachusetts – testimony that he had been bopping back to Boston to do Bain work during that period. Now he was sweating – flop sweat – and decided he had to go on the offensive. You see, he didn’t file a false report to the SEC – even if he had filed, repeatedly, as the sole owner of Bain Capital, and President and CEO, and that he was being paid well over a hundred grand a year as the man in charge of everything. He wasn’t. You see, that wasn’t really a false filing, which would be a crime, as these things often happen in complicated businesses. So late Friday afternoon Mitt Romney was on every network demanding Obama apologize to him. It wasn’t fair. It just wasn’t fair.

When a professional athlete tries that the fans boo. Yeah, maybe you were fouled – that sneaky elbow in the ribs – but you don’t whine. You play on. You throw an elbow yourself later. And Obama sensed Romney’s flop sweat – he then told a local news anchor in Virginia that Romney should answer the “lingering questions” about what Romney’s role was at Bain really was. He was playing offense. He sensed desperation and fear, the mark of a loser:

“I think most Americans figure if you are the chairman, CEO and president of a company that you are responsible for what that company does,” Mr. Obama said on WJLA, an ABC affiliate. “Ultimately Mr. Romney, I think, is going to have to answer those questions.”

Obama twisted the knife. Romney was playing defense, pretending it was offense, and Andrew Sullivan argues he’s got nothing:

A false SEC filing is a serious offense; to say so is not disgusting. So is potential perjury in 2002 when Romney detailed his continued involvement in Bain-owned enterprises in the period he retained the CEO title – and now says he had nothing whatsoever to do with Bain. The SEC filing rules apply to everyone – except, it seems, to Romney, and his well-paid legal and accounting team. They may have so internalized this immunity from any accountability that Romney may indeed genuinely feel disgusted by being called to follow the normal rules, or called out on logical inconsistencies.

But that’s not the half of it:

I’m getting the feeling that Romney thinks he is above the level of accountability required in a presidential candidate or even in an average ethical businessman. He seems genuinely offended to be directly challenged with facts – which he still won’t address or rebut in detail. So he simply huffs and puffs and uses words like “disgusting” for a perfectly valid charge in the big boy world of presidential politics.

That’s telling. In the big boy world of presidential politics you don’t whine, and earlier Sullivan had offered this:

Romney has basically said what was the most convenient for his self-interest at every juncture – and finally all the contradictions and changing stories caught up with him. When you have it both ways on policy matters – we’ll increase defense spending, lower taxes even further, AND cut the debt! – you only look shifty. When you have it both ways on the simple facts about your life, you look like an opportunistic liar.

Campaigns have a way of revealing the truth about people, don’t they?

One of Sullivan’s readers adds this:

What scares me is the realization that the Romney apologists are not simply being political here. They seem honestly perplexed that people are making a big deal over the fact that Romney said under oath that he was the CEO of a company for three years that he also said under oath he wasn’t managing.

Because, to them, it is not a big deal! It’s just how things work when you are dealing with a “complicated” business and annoying government regulations. Those who work in (and report about) corporate finance have completely bought into the idea that what they do is way too important and complicated for the general public or a bunch of government regulators to understand. So they play by their own rules – which are only tangentially related to the actual laws on the books meant to keep the system running and protect the public.

And that’s how you end up with the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression.

That broadens things a bit. You have a player who says the rules don’t apply to him, playing for a team that says the rules don’t apply to them either. If that’s so then there’s no point in even playing the game, as there is no game possible. The fans walk out. What’s the point? And only real losers say the rules don’t apply to them – because they’ve got nothing else.

At the Swampland blog, Joe Klein sees what’s going on here:

Back in June of 1988, Lee Atwater took me aside and showed me some stuff that Bush the Elder’s campaign had developed against Michael Dukakis, who was then enjoying a 17-point advantage in the polls. The “stuff” seemed laughable. Dukakis hadn’t signed an order requiring schoolchildren in Massachusetts to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. He had once said that he was a “card-carrying member of the ACLU.” The most damaging bit was that he’d run a weekend parole program for prisoners, which had been abused by several inmates. (If I remember correctly, Atwater didn’t lay out the sordid details of the Willie Horton case.) In any event, I thought these “issues” were fairly pathetic – and they were.

But those very things turned out to be devastating:

Part of it was the Dukakis campaign’s ineptitude when it came to responding – a consequence that led directly to the establishment of Bill Clinton’s famed “War Room” in 1992. But more important, this coordinated campaign “defined” Dukakis as an out-of-touch, soft-on-crime Massachusetts liberal, a prisoner of the “Harvard boutique” etc. etc. etc. He spent the entire summer on the defensive. I still think the pledge of allegiance stuff was pretty silly – Dukakis had refused to require children to say the pledge in order to honor the beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses – but it was a nail in a brilliantly constructed coffin.

When you have to explain yourself you’re well on your way to losing, and when you whine it’s all unfair and you want an apology, you’ve lost. Lee Atwater did hammer those nails in Dukakis’ coffin.

And Klein sees the same thing happening now:

The Obama campaign has also constructed a brilliant coffin, custom-made for a turnaround artist. There are many nails in this coffin, some more important than others. The nails are being hammered in a natural progression. There is a logic to this. The current controversy over whether Romney was or was not running Bain capital during the years 1999-2002 is a relatively minor nail – the functional equivalent of the Pledge of Allegiance. Bain was involved in the global economy during those years. This meant outsourcing jobs to places like Mexico and China, which meant the creative destruction of obsolete jobs here at home. Whether Romney was directing them or not, these activities were perfectly legal. That doesn’t matter, though: there is confusion about why he was still listed as the boss if he wasn’t really the boss, which seems shifty. And there’s the question of why he was making tons of money if he wasn’t the boss, which is what this is really all about.

Klein calls that a Willie Horton argument:

Democrats were appalled by the Horton ads (the most devastating was produced by an “independent” committee, “unrelated” to the Bush campaign). They were, allegedly, racist. Horton was black. But they cut to the heart of a significant problem the Democratic Party had at the time: it was sort of soft on crime, in the midst of the post-Vietnam left’s “they’re depraved because they’re deprived” delusion.

Klein then defines Mitt Romney’s Willie Horton:

His tax returns. He has only released one – for 2010, with estimates for 2011. Standard operating procedure for 21st century presidential candidates is: you release everything, more or less. And Romney will be plagued by this issue until he does.

And when he does we’re likely to find that he made a lot of money and paid very little taxes. It’s possible that the 14% was his high water mark. It’s possible that there were years when he paid much less. And this will make the Obama campaign’s larger point: the Republicans are defending an economy that has been distorted by financial games-playing over the past 30 years, in which the rich make deals, not products, and pay very little taxes on their curiously-gotten gains.

There is a response, even if it’s a bit defensive in nature:

The Republicans will say this is an argument against capitalism. It isn’t. It’s an argument against plutocracy. It isn’t a nuanced argument. (Bain Capital made an awful lot of productive investments, saved a lot of jobs by making companies more efficient. It was a class act in an industry marked by a critical mass of bottom feeders and low-life.) But the argument may well prove to be an effective one – especially if Romney continues to behave as Dukakis did, refusing to respond to the larger issues raised by the very well-constructed demolition job that has been visited upon him.

But at the site Business Insider, Henry Blodget says he doesn’t think Mitt Romney is trying to hide anything illegal by refusing to release his tax returns:

As the days tick by and Mitt Romney remains the only Presidential candidate in recent history (including his father) that refuses to release all relevant tax returns, the speculation is growing as to what Romney is hiding.

Some people think that Romney might have cheated on his taxes in some way, despite his assertion that he has paid every dime that he owed.

Some people think that Romney might have abused offshore accounts, shell companies, and other sophisticated tricks.

People think lots of things – his list goes on – but Blodget thinks something else is going on here. We’re dealing with someone who “structures” his income:

This “structuring” of income has likely taken full-advantage of things like the ludicrous “carried interest” tax exemption that allows private-equity investors to pay capital gains taxes on income that is actually fees [This tax treatment is one of the most outrageous and unfair elements in the entire tax code. There is no logical basis for it, and it benefits only the richest people in the country.]

This “structuring” has also likely taken advantage of offshore accounts, the contribution of hard-to-value securities at low valuations to Romney’s IRA (whereupon they exploded in value), and other sophisticated tools. These tools are, theoretically, available to anyone, but, in practice, are available only to those with tens of thousands of dollars to spend every year on tax-and-estate planning.

This structuring, which (let’s be honest) is done primarily to avoid paying taxes, will look bad to most Americans, who will know instinctively that it’s done to avoid paying taxes and that it’s not something they will ever be able to afford to do – and, therefore, will seem unfair.

That’s the real story here:

In short, by not releasing his returns, I think Romney is trying to avoid calling more attention to the fact that he is a card-carrying member of the 0.01%, a group of Americans who deserve to be proud of their success but who are also understandably viewed with suspicion and frustration by most other Americans right now, especially when they argue that they’re still paying too much in taxes.

That’s what I think Romney’s hiding.

And I can understand why some of his advisors are telling him he can just hold on and weather the storm – because they know it won’t help him to have those details out there.

Blodget argues, however, that it will help the country:

It will help us assess Mitt Romney as a Presidential candidate – and a person.

It will also shed more light on just how much some of our tax laws favor the super-rich. If those tax laws are reasonable, they should withstand such scrutiny – and Romney should proudly stand behind him. And if those laws are unreasonable or unfair (which the “carried interest” exemption absolutely is), then maybe Romney’s tax returns will help rally support to get them changed.

Either way, America deserves to see them.

Of course what’s in them will come out eventually, even if Romney chooses not to release them. Reporters still do dig into things. Romney probably has not done anything illegal, and probably not anything that’s even close – he’s no dummy and there’s no doubt that he hires only the very best people to do his taxes. But Romney is on the defensive, and whining it’s not fair and demanding an apology.

You can practically see the flop sweat. But really, if you’re always playing defense, back on your heels, you’ve lost already – so get ready for some boneheaded desperation trick play, the kind that are almost always disastrous, a high-risk high-reward political Hail Mary. John McCain’s game-changer, to stop playing defense and finally go on the offense once and for all, was to choose Sarah Palin to be his running mate. She was his Hail Mary pass. As Romney knows all too well, that didn’t work out.

Don’t worry. Romney will think of something. The best offense is seldom a good defense, and a whining pathetic defense is even worse. We may be in for a surprise.


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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One Response to Playing Defense

  1. Russell Sadler says:

    You are simply today, Alan. Your work is appreciated — daily.

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