Columbus Day Panic

Another Columbus Day, celebrating that Italian fellow financed by the Spanish monarchy who discovered the New World, which wasn’t new at all but previously occupied, and Columbus was looking for China anyway. It was odd. Columbus found himself island-hopping in the Caribbean in 1492, the same year Ferdinand and Isabella tossed all the Jews out of Spain. The indigenous people of the Caribbean were soon gone too, with the Aztecs and Mayans to follow. We took care of our own Indians a few hundred years later. We had a Manifest Destiny after all. Still someone had to “discover” America in the first place and Columbus will do. It’s just that it was a confused and nasty business, and now it’s not much of a holiday either. There are few Columbus Day Parades anymore. Everyone works except the mail carriers, and a day without mail is no longer a tragedy – check Facebook and your iPhone for messages. And really, no one wants to think about the start of the Europeans overrunning the world, then the Americans, making it safe for Wal-Mart and Disney. The revenge of the indigenous people was introducing their conquerors to tobacco. That was pretty sly.

This was also the day Mitt Romney chose to give his big speech on foreign policy, trying his best to show he knows something at all about it. He doesn’t and by all accounts it bores him silly – his advisors are split on many issues, they suspect he just doesn’t read any of their position papers and thus they have no idea what he would do about any issue, much less a crisis. He’s a businessman who made a small fortune for himself in the world of private equity, leveraging his father’s family fortune into seriously massive wealth. That’s who he is – the man who knows how the economy works, from the inside. At least that’s the general idea. The foreign policy stuff is a bother. Someone else can handle it – John Bolton and the Bush crew from the Saddam Hussein years perhaps. He hired them all.

Of course that won’t do, and now that he overwhelmed Obama in the first presidential debate, it was time to hammer Obama on foreign policy. How hard could it be? All one has to do is talk about our manifest destiny to lead the world and make everyone just like us, or wipe them out – the sort of thing that started with Christopher Columbus. That’s kind of what all American politicians say, one way or the other, even if sometimes feigning humility and tolerance. Americans expect that of their politicians – we are the best people who ever were and have the best system of government ever devised. Americans love to hear that, so politicians say that. It’s not all that hard to swagger.

So, as Politico reports, Mitt gave it a go:

Mitt Romney’s foreign policy speech Monday was filled with tough talk and slams of President Barack Obama’s leadership – but little of the clarity Romney has vowed to bring to the Oval Office.

What the Republican nominee’s campaign billed as a major foreign policy address didn’t have much new in it and left some analysts unimpressed. The speech, they said, was much like Romney’s previous swings at laying out a foreign policy: couched in broad ideology and big ambitions and lacking the specifics for how he’d bring any of them about.

Perhaps bold swagger about our manifest destiny, now tied to Israel’s own manifest destiny too, just wasn’t enough:

“There’s absolutely nothing in this speech. This is a repackaging of language that has been a staple of Romney’s campaign since he threw his hat in the ring,” said James Lindsay of the Council on Foreign Relations. “If Romney has a foreign policy strategy, he still has not told us what it is. The governor is very fond of saying hope is not a strategy, but that cuts both ways. He didn’t answer two key questions: what he would do differently and why we should expect what he would do to work.”

Romney offered neither. He argued Obama was weak and he’d be strong, even if he’d do much the same thing everywhere, and it was clear he was a tad confused:

Portions of Romney’s speech seemed to reflect a divide in Republican circles between foreign policy experts who have aggressively promoted democracy as a way to advance American goals in the Middle East and others who believe the Arab Spring movement threatens to unleash forces that could be more hostile to the United States and to Israel than the authoritarian regimes.

“The Republican Party and the conservative movements are divided between these two frameworks of analysis and Romney’s doesn’t actually choose between them – which is not to say he’s any worse than Obama,” said Steve Rosen, a conservative former director of foreign policy for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “The defense of the West’s agenda is not exactly the same as the Freedom Agenda. To some extent, the two things get confused.”

Someone does need to think these things through:

Rosen said Romney’s discussion of aid to the rebels in Syria suggested there was no danger of arms flowing from friendly forces to those who might someday turn them against U.S. forces or Israel.

“He says he will assure the rebels in Syria are armed, but he qualifies that saying he will find the people we can work with. That’s a very reassuring distinction, but in the real world you may not have the luxury of perfect information. In a war-like situation, that’s a decision you make under risk,” Rosen added.

We have armed folks who have turned around and killed us. You remember the Mujahedeen we armed to defeat the Soviets. They turned into al-Qaeda. Oops. This isn’t like snapping up cash-rich companies and harvesting their assets for your investors.

Kevin Drum reviews the ten major points Romney made – Romney would do mostly what Obama is doing but with an attitude – mess with us and you die – and Drum adds this:

Aside from a return to George Bush levels of bluster, then, Romney plans to outsource our policy toward Israel to Benjamin Netanyahu. He’ll take a defense budget that’s already fantastically higher than any other country in the world and add a couple trillion dollars to it. And he’ll supply arms to the rebels in Syria.

Will he close Guantanamo? End drone strikes? Issue an executive order banning the assassination of U.S. citizens overseas? Speak up against torture? Reform the military tribunal process? Nope. He appears to think everything is hunky dory on those fronts.

Bottom line: Romney will buy more ships, never disagree with Benjamin Netanyahu, and arm the Syrian rebels. If you’re impressed by that, I’d guess that Romney’s your man. I’d also guess that you’re easily impressed.

Romney also is appalled that we don’t still have twenty thousand troops in Iraq, or far many more, fighting on. He doesn’t seem to care what the damned Iraqis think about their fancy-pants sovereignty, getting all uppity and telling us they don’t want us there. We should still be fighting that war too. If you’re impressed by that Romney’s your man too. Yes, there may be many who have that manifest destiny mindset still – itching for all-out war with Iran, and twenty divisions on the ground in Syria, and taking over and occupying North Korea and maybe Venezuela or something. They vote too, even if there are no more Columbus Day parades anywhere.

Slate’s Fred Kaplan rips Mitt Romney a new asshole – “Mitt Romney has delivered a lot of dishonest speeches in recent months, but Monday’s address on foreign policy may be the most mendacious yet.” He tears it all to shreds, if that sort of thing interests you, which it probably doesn’t. Americans still believe in their absolute exceptionalism, and thus in their destiny to rule the world. Romney’s speech may have been nonsense, but he was on safe grounds, and he could afford to play it safe, because he will be the next president.

No, really. It’s the new Pew poll that shows this and Andrew Sullivan summarizes:

Before the debate, Obama had a 51-43 lead; now, Romney has a 49-45 lead. That’s a simply unprecedented reversal for a candidate in October. Before Obama had leads on every policy issue and personal characteristic; now Romney leads in almost all of them. Obama’s performance gave Romney a 12 point swing! I repeat: a 12 point swing.

Romney’s favorables are above Obama’s now. Yes, you read that right. Romney’s favorables are higher than Obama’s right now. That gender gap that was Obama’s firewall? Over in one night:

“Currently, women are evenly divided (47% Obama, 47% Romney). Last month, Obama led Romney by 18 points (56% to 38%) among women likely voters.”

Sullivan thinks Obama threw the election away:

Seriously: has that kind of swing ever happened this late in a campaign? Has any candidate lost 18 points among women voters in one night ever? And we are told that when Obama left the stage that night, he was feeling good. That’s terrifying. On every single issue, Obama has instantly plummeted into near-oblivion. He still has some personal advantages over Romney – even though they are all much diminished. Obama still has an edge on Medicare, scores much higher on relating to ordinary people, is ahead on foreign policy, and on being moderate, consistent and honest (only 14 percent of swing voters believe Romney is honest). But on the core issues of the economy and the deficit, Romney is now kicking the president’s ass.


By a 37% to 24% margin, more swing voters say Romney would improve the job situation. Swing voters favor Romney on the deficit by a two-to-one (41% vs. 20%) margin…. Romney has gained ground on several of these measures since earlier in the campaign. Most notably, Obama and Romney now run even (44% each) in terms of which candidate is the stronger leader. Obama held a 13-point advantage on this a month ago. And Obama’s 14-point edge as the more honest and truthful candidate has narrowed to just five points. In June, Obama held a 17-point lead as the candidate voters thought was more willing to work with leaders from the other party. Today, the candidates run about even on this (45% say Obama, 42% Romney).

Sullivan comments that lies work when you don’t rebut them live on stage. Obama just stood there and lost all possible momentum, which may be the only thing that matters now – and now more people think Romney would help the middle class. Romney said so. No one stood up to him on that:

Look: I’m trying to rally some morale, but I’ve never seen a candidate this late in the game, so far ahead, just throw in the towel in the way Obama did last week – throw away almost every single advantage he had with voters and manage to enable his opponent to seem as if he cares about the middle class as much as Obama does. How do you erase that imprinted first image from public consciousness: a president incapable of making a single argument or even a halfway decent closing statement? And after Romney’s convincing Etch-A-Sketch, convincing because Obama was incapable of exposing it, Romney is now the centrist candidate, even as he is running to head up the most radical party in the modern era.

How can Obama come back? By ensuring people know that Romney was and is a shameless liar and opportunist? That doesn’t work for a sitting president. He always needed a clear positive proposal… as well as a sterling defense of his admirable record. Bill Clinton did the former for him. Everyone imaginable did what they could for him.

Sullivan says Obama himself did nothing, and cites this nugget from USAToday:

With President Obama holed up in a Nevada resort for debate practice, things can get pretty boring on the White House beat right now. Pretty boring for Obama too, apparently. “Basically they’re keeping me indoors all the time,” Obama told a supporter on the phone during a visit to a Las Vegas area field office. “It’s a drag,” he added. “They’re making me do my homework.”

Sullivan’s assessment:

Too arrogant to take a core campaign responsibility seriously… Too arrogant to give his supporters what they deserve….

Or maybe, just maybe, Obama can regain our trust and confidence somehow in the next debate. Maybe he can begin to give us a positive vision of what he wants to do (amazing that it’s October and some of us are still trying to help him, but he cannot). Maybe if Romney can turn this whole campaign around in ninety minutes, Obama can now do the same. But I doubt it. A sitting president does not recover from being obliterated on substance, style and likability in the first debate and get much of a chance to come back. He has, at a critical moment, deeply depressed his base and his supporters and independents are flocking to Romney in droves.

Sullivan is in panic mode:

I’ve never seen a candidate self-destruct for no external reason this late in a campaign before. Gore was better in his first debate – and he threw a solid lead into the trash that night. Even Bush was better in 2004 than Obama last week. Even Reagan’s meandering mess in 1984 was better – and he had approaching Alzheimer’s to blame.

I’m trying to see a silver lining. But when a president self-immolates on live TV, and his opponent shines with lies and smiles, and a record number of people watch, it’s hard to see how a president and his party recover. I’m not giving up. If the lies and propaganda of the last four years work even after Obama had managed to fight back solidly against them to get a clear and solid lead in critical states, then reality-based government is over in this country again. We’re back to Bush-Cheney, but more extreme. We have to find a way to avoid that. Much, much more than Obama’s vanity is at stake.

Ah, that Romney foreign policy speech didn’t matter much at all. Romney could say anything. It’s in the bag, unless you consider Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog:

Look, the new Pew poll caught the race in the middle of a Romney bounce and a wave of Romney enthusiasm, which is why a lot more Republicans were willing to answer Pew’s questions than in previous polls, and why Romney leads the poll by four. Gallup had a poll out today showing Obama up by 5, and, as Kos notes, even Rasmussen shows Romney coming back to earth – but the press and blogosphere and Twittersphere are ignoring those polls and obsessing over Pew.

Look at it this way:

This just tells me that the press is, for the moment, on Romney’s side – that’s the real story here. Yes, I think Romney got a bounce, but I think the bounce brought the race more or less to parity, which is where it is in the Real Clear Politics poll average. (Talking Points Memo still has Obama up by 2.7 – and oh, look, Mitt’s still down by nearly 4 in RAND’s multiple-decimal-point poll.)

Steve M’s assessment:

I’m sorry, but Romney hasn’t done anything to build on that strong debate – his foreign policy speech was a flop and no one except his base wants to hear a Republican rabble sabers. It will worry me if we’re still talking Obama’s-in-trouble by the end of the week, and it will worry me if Obama and Biden have any more bad debates.

But Mitt Romney is still a weak candidate. Obama’s advertising and messaging have defined him as such, as have Romney’s own words and deeds. Polls in the next few days should confirm that.

We’ll see about that, but the master statistician Nate Silver, considering the new Pew polling, is remaining calm:

Polling data is often very noisy and not all polls use equally rigorous methodology. But the polls, as a whole, remain consistent with the idea that they may end up settling where they were before the conventions, with Mr. Obama ahead by about two points. Such an outcome would be in line with what history and the fundamentals of the economy would lead you to expect.

The economy is in a painfully slow but obviously steady recovery, and Obama may have simply thrown away a big lead for a small lead, returning to where he was long ago:

If past trends hold, that analysis predicts a very narrow victory for Mr. Obama – by 2.1 percentage points over Mr. Romney, similar to Mr. Bush’s margin of victory in 2004. …

Incumbent presidents just aren’t that easy to defeat. Mr. Obama’s approval ratings are now hovering around 50 percent and don’t seem to have been negatively affected by his performance in Denver. Although Mr. Obama’s approval ratings may be slightly lower among those most likely to vote – meaning that Mr. Romney could win with a strong turnout – historically that number has been just good enough to re-elect an incumbent. (Mr. Bush’s approval ratings were in the same range late in 2004.)

In some ways, then, the election might not be quite as unpredictable as it appears. There was reason to believe that Mr. Obama’s numbers would fade some after his convention – and the first debate has quite often been a time when the challenger drew the race closer.

Keep calm. Carry on. Andrew Sullivan, that means you. Everyone trusts Nate Silver and he sees that Obama’s chances of winning reelection have dropped from ninety-eight percent down to a bit over eighty-two percent, at least for now. That’s not the end of the world.

But Sullivan won’t let it go and cites Michael Tomasky with this comment on Obama:

There’s no doubt that he did envision himself as transformational…. He also believed, I think really genuinely believed, that he was and could be a post-partisan figure. He thought this because he wasn’t a product of the ’60s, and he said so explicitly on occasion, noting at one point in 2008 that we didn’t need to “re-litigate the ’60s” anymore.

Well, maybe he didn’t. But someone did. Conservatives did, because they believe that’s when it all went sour, and for them, it’s good for business besides. I doubt Obama had ever been hated by anybody in his life. Now, 40 or so million Americans hate him. It must be stunning to him, still.

And Sullivan cites Byron York with this:

A look at the president’s career shows he has never stayed in a job four years without looking to move on to something better…. Now Obama has been president for nearly four years. Aided by a huge Democratic majority from 2009 to 2011, he achieved some big things – massive stimulus, Obamacare, Dodd-Frank. He even won the Nobel Peace Prize, essentially for showing up.

But he hasn’t achieved, and won’t achieve in four more years, the “fundamental transformation” of American society that he envisioned. And his entire career suggests that by now he should be angling for a bigger, better job.


That we are having this discussion at all reflects the enormity of Obama’s implosion. This race is now Romney’s to lose. Not just because Romney is shameless liar and opportunist, but because Obama just essentially forfeited the election. In the first match-up between the two candidates, one was a potential president; the other a dithering wonk. I’m still reeling. I’m sorry if these are not things an Obama supporter should say at this point. But the demoralization is profound.

Snap out of it. It’s only Columbus Day, a day that confuses and depresses everyone, if they think about it at all, which they don’t. Carry on. Smoke ’em if you’ve got ’em.


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 Columbus Day Panic

  1. Rick says:

    I think the next debate is a minefield for Obama.

    His policies, such as they are, are probably fine but defending them before a nation that doesn’t give that much thought to — and has pretty “American Exceptionalist” opinions about — foreign affairs could be fairly hard to do.

    Which is essentially the problem he had in the domestic policies debates. While in fact many of us see an obvious difference between the candidates when it comes to the economy, neither of the candidates themselves seem to be able to articulate it.

    Yes, I suppose Romney actually believes he can, but Obama seems to shy away from specifically stating what he thinks needs to be done. If he were only an out-and-out Keynesian — saying out loud what, at least until recently, most economists had been saying they believed ever since the Depression proved it, that deficit spending is what a country needs to do when the economy goes south — it would be a lot easier for people to get behind him.

    But is Obama a committed Keynesian? I tend to doubt he’s a committed anything when it comes to economic theory.

    And therein, I think, lies the reason for Obama’s hesitancy during the first debate: He doesn’t want to take a chance at saying something that conservatives will jump all over. I just hope he doesn’t become a shrinking violet during the next two debates.

    And I, too, go to Nate Silver’s site for solace. I hope he’s right. But I tell you, if Romney wins, it will be not only a great blow to Silver’s sterling reputation, it will destroy all faith in election statistics for years to come.


    PS — By the way: Remember how annoying it was in the days of lowering expectations just before the debate hearing every reporter saying Chris Christie “obviously didn’t get the memo” when he told us to wait until the day after the debate, and we’ll see the whole campaign rebooted because Romney will have done such a great job?

    And so, as much as I hate asking this, how come none of those reporters (at least that I’ve heard) has since pointed out that Christie alone was absolutely right?

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