Anyone who grew up in Pittsburgh in the late forties and the fifties remembers Blue Laws – there were certain things no one could buy on Sundays, like booze of any kind, even if the bars were still open. In fact most stores were closed on Sundays. It was dead time, or it was a time of rest, having something to do with God having rested on the seventh day. Somehow that made its way into municipal codes – back in the day religion and the law got all mixed up together. And then things changed. Those laws have mostly disappeared over the years, although in much of Europe most shopping is still banned on Sundays, by law. Paris used to be pretty dull on winter Sundays back in the late nineties – a good day to just walk around – but with each trip back things started to change a bit. They’re slowly loosening up there, under pressure from retailers, and here we decided long ago that we’d rather make money on Sundays, as God intended, even if there are a few holdouts. Here’s a review of the few odd residual Blue Laws still on the books in some states – in Illinois and New Jersey car sales are prohibited on Sundays, and North Dakota has the strictest remaining Blue Laws – almost no goods can be sold between midnight and noon on Sunday, with all retailers closed for those hours, even the malls and even Wal-Mart. Meanwhile, back in Pennsylvania car dealerships are also closed on Sundays, by law, but hunting is also prohibited, with the exception of foxes, crows and coyotes. Go figure.
This may seem misguided – some sort of odd residue from the Puritans that makes no sense in our now wildly multicultural society, with natural disagreements about the Sabbath, the day of respectful rest. Why isn’t it Saturday, like in Israel? In fact, why isn’t it Tuesday? There must be some religion where the smug and self-satisfied Creator finished up His work on a Monday evening and smiled at His new world and kicked back. The whole business is a bit arbitrary, and we’re certainly not all Christians anymore. Still, there was something rather nice about these odd laws. Forget the religious component. There’s much to be said for forcing everyone, all together and all at once, to just stop doing so much damned stuff and slow down and chill out. Don’t buy stuff. Don’t sell stuff. Take a walk. Chat with the neighbors. Smell the roses, or whatever you like to smell. And by the way, you have no choice in the matter. Maybe that’s social engineering, but social engineering of the most benign sort.
Such things can happen by some sort of unspoken agreement too. There are natural pauses in the flow of events, and in politics there are slow news days, where everything big happened the night before and everyone somehow agrees to give it all a rest. It’s all been said, whatever it was, and everyone tacitly agrees there will be a day of rest and reflection, to step back and try to put things in perspective. It’s not that there’s no news – there’s always news – but sometimes there’s a natural day off in the political world, like the Tuesday after the third and final presidential debate this year. Call it a Blue Tuesday. There would be no more dramatic face-to-face confrontations. Pundits stopped selling and buying fervid arguments for a day. It was a day to step back and think about things.
That third presidential debate was, in fact, quite odd – previously discussed here – with a fervid reader comment too. It’s no wonder the political world paused. After all, it seems Romney agrees with Obama on just about everything regarding foreign policy, and says he never said he didn’t agree with Obama – ever. That frustrated Obama, which meant Romney kind of won, or he didn’t. All Obama could do was shout no, that’s not what you said, even yesterday, on this, and on this, and on this. Romney simple said nope – I never said those things, not any of it. And then Romney just smiled. He knows that no one reads those next-day fact-checkers and he must have hoped that America was laughing at Obama. He punked Obama – but in the end most everyone ended up laughing at Romney, who looked like a scared fool, out of his depth. Saying “me too” might have seemed clever but Obama eviscerated him, although it’s unclear that matters at this point. All but twenty-three voters in America decided who they’d be voting for long ago. All that’s left is the counting of those who decide to actually decide to show up at the polls. We’ll see.
Romney knew he’d messed up – he decided not to even mention foreign policy in his post-debate appearances. That was wise, because on his day off, Peter Beinart decided that the third debate was actually a victory for George W. Bush:
Obama, Romney and Bob Schieffer discussed foreign policy almost exclusively through the Bush prism. The focus was on countries where the United States is already at war, or soon could be…. George W. Bush’s core mistake was his belief that because al Qaeda had bloodied us, it was the 21st-century version of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.
Step back for some perspective and you see things differently:
It never was, because in the mid-20th century, what made Moscow and Berlin genuine competitors was their economic strength. The true successor to those once fearsome powers is not the mud-hut totalitarianism of al Qaeda, but China, and perhaps India and Brazil, countries that are becoming economic models for billions in the poor world. How the United States, its own might sapped by the financial crisis and wars of imperial overstretch, meets the challenge posed by countries that are converting their economic success into geopolitical power, is the defining foreign policy question of our time. Not only wasn’t that question answered tonight, it wasn’t even posed.
In short, something was wrong here. Everyone missed the point, and now, looking back after a day, the New Yorker’s John Cassidy argues here that Romney couldn’t come up with a point even if he tried, as he took his “shape-shifting exercise” way too far:
From the very beginning, you knew something fishy was going on. In his first question of the evening, Bob Schieffer, the courtly CBS veteran, brought up the recent deaths in Libya of four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens….
But no – rather than unsheathing his bayonet and ramming it into the President’s gullet, Romney said, “Mr. President, it’s good to be with you again,” and went off on a rambling discourse about the threats facing the world, taking in the Arab Spring, the carnage in Syria, the Iranian nuclear threat, the Muslim Brotherhood’s victory in Egypt, and the takeover of “the northern part of Mali” – yes, Mali – “by Al Qaeda-type individuals.”
This just confused everyone:
It was hard to know which was more shocking: Romney paying tribute to Obama, or a Republican politician saying: “We can’t kill our way out this mess.”
Daniel Larison wondered about that too:
The flaw in Romney’s mentions of Mali last night wasn’t that most voters presumably don’t know where the country is. The problem was that he mentioned Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s presence in the country without even a minimal effort to link this to the effects of the Libyan war. He simply assumed that rattling off several undesirable things from around the world would work as criticism, and he took it for granted that anything that goes wrong somewhere in the world can be laid at the door of the administration. It was an instance when he might have had a legitimate criticism to make, and he didn’t know what to do with it.
Stand down and think about what happened the night before. Things become clearer, and for Jared Bernstein, one thing is very clear about Romney now:
His mode of operating throughout the campaign as well as in these debates is to try to figure out where particular voters are whose support he needs and adopt positions solicitous of them. If that position contradicted an earlier stance, so be it.
But on America’s role in the world many voters show significant ambivalence (i.e., to the extent that they’re paying attention – foreign policy is pretty far down voters’ list of concerns, for better or worse). They want a strong America, shaping events across the globe, but they’re deeply war weary. They want a state of the art military but have legitimate budget concerns. They’re nervous about outcomes in the Middle East but are rightfully suspicious of endless occupations that lack clearly defined goals.
If you’re the guy who is a master at tailoring your position to the voters, moment to moment, you have an impossible task. The voters are deeply conflicted, as they say – so there really is nothing you can say.
In Der Spiegel, Gregor Peter Schmitz argues that this was the whole problem:
Romney’s advisors are fully aware of the mood in the country. They counseled their candidate to avoid aggressive attacks and detailed discussions. More important, they said, was to appear harmless and folksy. And he did his best. Instead of repeating his infamous line that Russia is “without question, our No. 1 geopolitical foe,” Romney simply smiled when Obama accused him of wanting “to import the foreign policies of the 1980s.” The president meant the line as a sardonic reproach and it likely helped him win the Monday night debate in the eyes of its viewers. But it leaves behind a stale aftertaste. After all, following the 90 minutes of debate in Boca Raton, 1980s US foreign policy seems modern and cosmopolitan by comparison.
This was a dumbing-down of foreign policy itself, and Salon’s Jamelle Bouie argues here that it seems both Romney and Obama wanted to talk about domestic policy anyway:
At various points during the evening, the debate shifted from foreign policy and became a fight over jobs and the economy. It was here that Romney regained a little momentum and fought Obama to a draw. Even if you believe that the president has a solid record on the economy – and I do – it remains a fraught issue with voters. A foreign policy debate isn’t the time or place to defend an economic record, and Obama risked a fair amount by bringing domestic issues into the fight. Even still, this was a clear Obama knockout.
Yes, it probably was, but what we saw wasn’t about what it was supposed to be about. Sometimes you wake up on Sunday morning, hung-over and bleary, and realize what happened Saturday night was not all what it was cracked up to be, and sometimes that happens on Tuesday morning. It happened to Salon’s Joan Walsh the morning after:
Mitt Romney should be doing a walk of shame today, after reversing most of his irresponsible, hawkish foreign policy statements from the last year just to have a hot night with undecided female voters in the final debate. How does he live with himself?
But I’m having a hard time watching television coverage of Romney’s debate performance the morning after. The conventional wisdom seems to be that while President Obama won the debate, Romney’s “prevent defense” at least kept him in the race – and it was the politically wise course. Of course, Obama’s “prevent defense” two weeks ago in Denver was a debacle that changed everything. I’m not sure why Romney’s turn at it is supposed to be smarter politics.
Beyond scoring the debate on style points, though, why aren’t more people horrified by Romney’s capacity to disavow virtually everything he’s said on foreign policy and cuddle up with Obama, in order to seem less frightening to voters?
She calls Mitt Romney a man without a soul. That’s not something you want to consider the morning after, but she does:
I found it chilling. Once again I thought to myself: Who is this guy who’s trying to imitate a cautious, sober global statesman (albeit one who sweats a lot)? I just watched Doris Kearns Goodwin on “Morning Joe” say Romney did the right thing because his goal was not to scare anybody and lose the momentum he gained from Debate One, and everyone seemed to agree. But in what new realm of cynicism is it the right thing to hide your real policies in order to become president?
I suppose the media folks who are reassured by Romney’s mild debate performance think that’s the real Romney – he’s not the hawk who’d let crazy John Bolton, a key adviser, run his foreign policy. This is the same approach a lot of people take to Romney’s extremism on women’s issues – oh, c’mon, ladies, he’s really a Massachusetts moderate who doesn’t mean any of what he says about overturning Roe v. Wade or defunding Planned Parenthood. That’s ridiculous. The fact is, we don’t know which Mitt Romney would take the oath of office, and that alone should consign him to an ugly defeat in two weeks.
She seems to be in a sort of despair:
The only thing the post-debate punditry really cares about is whether Obama’s modest (by their standards) debate win can make a difference, and again the conventional wisdom is it won’t, because foreign policy debates never do. First of all, I’m not so sure about that. I’d like to see some polls before I weigh in. But most important, insisting that the debate won’t move the electoral needle almost instructs voters not to take it seriously, and downplays the extent to which Romney’s reinvention is played as big news.
Yes, in the cold dawn of the next morning what happened the night before can seem like a cruel farce. We’ve all had a Sunday morning or two like that. It’s a matter of perspective, and this just happened to be a Tuesday morning.
The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein steps back the next morning and takes an even longer perspective, thinking about what he and the other pundits have actually been doing all along:
The conceit of political reporting is that we reporters are telling you readers what the campaigns really think. In most cases, that’s little more than a conceit. Campaign staffers aren’t confused about who we are and what we do. So when we tell you what the campaigns say, we’re really telling you what the campaigns want you to think they think.
Everyone is being used:
The reality is that pretty much everything campaigns tell the press about how they’re doing is strategy. It is strategy loosely bounded by reality – it wouldn’t be credible for senior Obama adviser David Plouffe to tell reporters that Texas was in play, for instance – but it is strategy.
It may be tawdry, but Klein thinks he’s finally figured it out. He sees that the two campaigns “appear to have precisely opposite strategies” now:
The Romney campaign is emphasizing momentum. Confidence. Even inevitability. You see it in their post-debate spin: “Mitt Romney did well enough that for the first time in six years, Romney folks emailed, ‘We’re going to win.'” You see it in their Electoral College spin: “Seriously, 305 electoral votes,” an anonymous Romney adviser told Politico. You see it in their theory of the race – that we’re seeing a final break of unhappy independents toward the challenger, and that having permitted Romney to pass this commander-in-chief threshold, there’s really nothing Obama can do to salvage the election.
The Obama campaign is emphasizing how tight it is. How hard they’re going to have to fight this one out. How possible it is that the president might lose. Their latest fundraising e-mail, for instance, reads as desperate. It’s supposedly from Obama himself, and the headline is, “Stick with me.” The first line is even graver: “I don’t want to lose this election.” Remember that this is coming from the campaign that won last night’s debate and clearly leads in the Electoral College. They could just as easily have written an e-mail entitled, “We’re going to win this thing!”
In the cold light of day it now seems obvious that this is just a way for each campaign to play psychological games with the base:
The Romney campaign believes – and polling confirms – that Republicans are fired up to fire the president. They don’t need to worry about voter enthusiasm. But they do worry about voter confidence. If Republicans don’t believe they can win, they may not turn out to the polls. They don’t like the former Massachusetts governor enough to turn out on his behalf. So as they see it, confidence is their friend: Every Republicans wants to say they helped turn Obama out of office.
The Obama campaign believes – and polling confirms – that Democrats aren’t particularly fired up about the president. But they’re very fired up by the idea that Romney might become president. For the Obama campaign, then, voter enthusiasm can be squelched by voter confidence: If Democrats don’t think Romney can win then they may not be motivated to vote.
Until recently, this had Chicago [Team Obama] pretty worried. Democrats have long seemed to believe they’ve got this election in the bag. That changed with the first debate (in part because the first debate really did make it likelier that Romney would win the election). So rather than comfort worried Democrats or strut about their debate win, the Obama campaign, in the final weeks of the election, is trying to scare its base, to persuade them that Republicans really could retake the White House. That gives their people a reason to go vote. And if their people have a reason to vote, the Obama campaign’s ground game will do the rest.
All that Klein now sees is fear:
The bottom line is that Boston [Team Romney] fears scared Republicans won’t vote and Chicago [Team Obama] fears confident Democrats won’t vote. And so, in this final stretch, Boston wants Republicans confident and Chicago wants Democrats scared. Keep that in mind as you read the spin.
Step back and things become clearer, even if they’re not pretty at all. Everyone’s being jerked around.
Salon’s Alex Pareene steps back and points out things are even uglier than that:
The Republicans have now convinced themselves of Romney’s inevitable victory based solely on their own gut feelings and the results of two national tracking polls, one of which is currently a major outlier and the other of which has a documented conservative bias. If Barack Obama wins reelection, it will almost certainly be by a slim margin, and I imagine conservatives have already convinced themselves that that margin will consist entirely of fraudulent votes. Obama’s victory in Ohio would obviously be because of the removal of the billboards in Cleveland and Columbus warning (certain) people not to commit voter fraud. At least one 2009 poll found that a majority of Republicans were at least willing to claim that they believed the 2008 election has been stolen by ACORN, and the 2008 election was not actually particularly close.
It doesn’t matter that voter fraud essentially does not exist, and cannot actually exist in any form large enough to change the result of a presidential election: High black and Latino turnout will be considered de facto proof of fraud, and the New Black Panther Party will be repeatedly welcomed back to Fox News to reenact their polling place intimidation masquerade. A belief in pervasive “voter fraud” is already a pretty mainstream right-wing view. If Obama wins by a slim margin, it’ll be Republican Party dogma.
On the other hand, liberals see, basically, a race in which Obama has never really trailed, and in which he has a decided Electoral College advantage. If Romney wins, the massive and growing crusade against “voter fraud” will certainly receive some of the blame. Republicans have passed laws making it more difficult to vote in a dozen states, including Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida. These laws (specifically and intentionally) target poor and minority voters, who may not have readily available government-issued photo identification, or who may have trouble getting to the polls without the benefit of early voting.
It comes down to this:
No matter the results of the election, I can guarantee one thing: The winner will be widely considered to be completely illegitimate by the losing side.
Chaos follows that, of course.
And there you have it. The debates are over. There are no more big events and suddenly there’s enforced time off, a Blue Tuesday, a day to step back and really think about what’s going on. Maybe that’s not a good thing after all. Maybe it’s time to go hunt some foxes, crows and coyotes, even if it probably is illegal. Too much time on your hands and the world can turn very dark indeed.