Saturday, July 21, 2012


As we here in Washington, D.C. prepare for the REAL Olympics – the one held on the first Tuesday in November – it is worthwhile to remember that politics is not the world’s only spectator sport; it’s merely the most interesting. This year’s competition is especially so because of how different it is from the other sports.

Consider what it takes to be a champion in football, basketball, hockey or baseball. By the time you’re ready to compete for a title, you’ve first had to prove yourself over a long season just in order to make the playoffs, and then you must dismantle one competitor after another to reach the championship round. At that point, appreciative fans take their hats off to both teams for successfully running the gauntlet. To the victors go the trophy and a “ring” they can proudly wear for the rest of their lives. But even the so-called “losers” are generally esteemed for playing their sport at the highest level and are often viewed as the team with the best chance of breaking through and winning the title the following year.

Well, that’s sports. This year’s Presidential campaign is just a tad different. We’ve narrowed it down to the championship round, but somehow, I don’t see either of the competitors getting much respect.

Perhaps that evokes memories of Rodney Dangerfield. But I’m reminded more of Jim Mora. Back when he was coach of the Indianapolis Colts and had just lost a game, he was asked “So, do you think you guys will make the playoffs this year?” And his reaction is a classic: “Playoffs?” he whined, incredulously. “You’re talking about playoffs? Are you kidding me? Playoffs?” Nobody is asking Barack Obama or Mitt Romney if they think they’re going to win the election, but if they did, they might want to practice mimicking Jim Mora and just substitute “The White House” for “Playoffs.” The thing is, though, for all their problems, one of those two is going to win, and that’s what makes this election so intriguing.

In one corner of this prize fight we have the defending champ – Barack Obama. There is no question that he is a talented campaigner, but the problem is that this go-around, it’s not enough for him to deliver oratory about hope and change. He actually has a record to defend.

Seasoned political observers will tell you that when it comes to the Presidency, the incumbent’s chances are almost invariably tied to the economy. In this case, we’ve had a struggling economy throughout Obama’s Presidency, and the hoped-for recovery has never materialized. What’s more, our nation’s infrastructure is getting more and more brittle, our weather disasters are getting more and more devastating, and our days of reckoning in Medicare and Social Security are getting closer and closer. Combine all that with a bloated national debt, which limits our future ability to use federal funds to solve problems, and it is difficult not to conclude that our best days are behind us. This is not exactly the formula our President was looking for to kick off his re-election campaign.

Much, if not most, of this mess is obviously not Obama’s fault. Only a right-wing nut would deny that. Then again, only a knee-jerk liberal would deny that he must shoulder a significant share of the responsibility. And ironically, much of the problem is that for the first couple of years of his Administration, when his party had 59-60 Senators and a big majority in the House, he spent much of his time getting pushed around by the minority party. I know my share of liberals who live well outside of Washington who still think that Barack walks on water. But I haven’t spoken to a single Democrat in Washington who, if given the choice, wouldn’t turn back the clock and vote for Hillary. Not one. And that’s largely because they think Hillary would have had the stones to stand up to Mitch McConnell, Eric Cantor and the other obstructionists (including those in the Democratic Party who failed to support the President when he needed them). By contrast, whenever McConnell, Cantor and their fellow elephants pushed back at Obama, he always seemed ready to compromise -- to meet them halfway … and then some.

Obama spent the first 2 ½ years rolling the same boulder up the same hill, trying to get everyone to sing Kumbaya together. Yes, he originally campaigned as a unifier (i.e., he promised to try to get that boulder up the hill), but after trying and failing for many hundreds of days, you really do have to wonder what motivated him to keep trying. Lack of inspiration? Lack of experience? Inability to channel his inner Lyndon Baines Johnson and kick some butt? It wasn’t until it was time for Obama to begin thinking about his re-election campaign that he decided to give up the Mr. Nice Guy act and govern like the progressive who the nation elected four years ago. The only problem is that, by then, the Republicans had taken enough control over Congress that they could largely shut down the government. And the result is an economy that is as stagnant as a mosquito-breeding pond.

No, this isn’t all Obama’s fault. But as the President, he’ll take the blame. After all, when it comes down to a White House race, the fundamental question is always the same: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” And this year, the answer is obvious. For the vast majority of the nation – and especially those families with children -- we feel a whole lot worse off. Then again, there is a small group who are actually a whole lot better off. I’m referring to the core constituency of Mitt Romney. For them, it truly is morning in America.

If Barack Obama has been the resistible force, Romney has been the movable object. On virtually every public policy issue, Mitt can be found squarely on both sides. Immigration? Check. Abortion? Check. Climate change? Check. I could continue down the list, but what’s the point? It is pretty well known that Romney supports whatever positions he think will get him elected at the time. That’s not exactly a scoop.

But there is one area in which Romney seems to have a recognizable center of gravity. He has no problem whatsoever with the ever-widening disparity in wealth between the very rich … and everyone else.

More than any major politician in my lifetime, Romney seems to be at peace with being an aristocrat. We’ve had other aristocrats – the Kennedys, for example – but they went out of their way to lift up the common people. Mitt seems just fine with the status quo. You remember that line of his about how he wasn’t concerned with the poor because they have their hand- outs? Or his comment about how he enjoys firing people? Those lines have certainly helped to cement the impression that he is as callous as he is unprincipled. But what is even more telling is how he failed to table his plans to build a car elevator at one of his mansions. Talk about conspicuous consumption. Who could possibly need a car elevator? It’s reminiscent of that scene from Eddie Murphy’s “Coming to America” when Murphy, an African prince, employed beautiful women to join him in the bathroom and scrub his family jewels. Does Mitt not realize that this is America? We don’t have princes. And if we want private car elevators, we don’t run for office.

Nor we do roll back the clock on democracy. More than 40 years ago, Mitt’s own father, George Romney, set a precedent that Presidential candidates release years and years of their personal tax returns. Being a multi-millionaire, George realized that the country had a legitimate interest in making sure that he made his money appropriately. What’s more, George recognized that in order to demonstrate the bona fides of his extreme wealth, he was obliged to release more than just a year or two of tax returns – for even the worst crook can live cleanly for a short period of time if he’s running for office.

That all makes sense, right? And yet, still, Mitt won’t follow his father’s lead. He won’t release more than a couple of years of tax returns. Republicans are now coming out of the woodwork asking Mitt to back down and take his medicine. But still, he won’t budge.

Amazing, isn’t it? This is the issue Mitt Romney has picked to draw the line. This is the one principle that he will not compromise. If you don’t like Romney’s stand on social issues, just wait – that stand will change. If you don’t like his environmental or immigration positions, be patient – he’ll come around for you. If you don’t think he has anything to say on foreign policy, no problem – he’ll come up with what he thinks you want to hear. But if you want to know (a) the extent to which he has used overseas tax shelters to avoid paying U.S. taxes, (b) whether there are years in which he has made millions of dollars in income and paid virtually no taxes at all, or (c) whether he has fully complied with the tax laws throughout the last ten years … you’re just going to have to remain in ignorance.

No, my friends, Mitt Romney’s campaign won’t play in Peoria. Nor, for that matter, will it work in my own hometown of Bethesda, MD. We’re pretty damned affluent here – but most of us don’t have money in the Cayman Islands or in Swiss bank accounts. And I don’t think any of us have our own personal car elevator. Even some of the members of our prestigious country clubs (like Congressional and Avenel) probably have trouble relating to this guy. And speaking as someone who lives in the merely-upper-middle-class part of Bethesda – and who attended two of the same colleges Romney did – I can’t relate to the guy at all. I just don’t see myself as a feudal lord. And in light of that fact, I don’t see what’s in it for me to vote for the guy.

The truth is that I believe Romney probably didn’t break the tax laws. The whole point is that rich people don’t need to break them, because there are so many absurd loopholes for rich people that they can avoid paying much tax without breaking the law. Clearly, we need to have a national conversation about taxes. And it should start with a study of these ridiculous tax shelters and other loopholes. Romney, in my view, has a moral obligation to do his part in that conversation and show us how he has avoided paying taxes over the years. I suspect that he has known for years that he wanted to run for President, and he sure knew the precedent his own father had set. He can’t now claim that as a matter of privacy or principle, he shouldn’t have to follow his dad’s lead. That’s just hogwash.

Amazingly, though, despite all his problems with flip flopping, putting his foot in his mouth, coming across like a feudal lord, and being tone deaf, Romney is still in a dead heat with Obama in the polls. This is the equivalent of a Super Bowl game in which each team has thrown three interceptions and fumbled four times … and accordingly, it’s a close game. I’ve watched professional sports for over 4 ½ decades and I’ve never seen such a mess.

In the poorest played football games, the team that has the ball at the critical time usually loses (due to a turnover). My assumption is that despite the miserable economy, since Obama is the more skilled political athlete, it will be Romney who will make that fatal turnover. So far, the political odds makers agree with me – Intrade has given Obama a 58/42 chance of winning. That sounds about right. But it also means that Romney has a chance. And given how horribly he has done so far, that tells you just how far Obama has fallen in the public’s esteem since his glorious inauguration of January 2009.

Somehow, I don’t think the winner of this particular Super Bowl will be wearing any ring to commemorate the victory. But at least it will be entertaining. And I suppose that’s all a sports fan can ask for.

1 comment:

Mary Lois said...

I never thought Obama walked on water and he's certainly proved that he doesn't. On the other hand I cannot imagine why Hillary's fans think she could have handled the Republicans so well since she has never been good with people. She couldn't get a health care bill through when she tried and she is confrontational, maybe a tad paranoid, and her management of her staff during the campaign--none of her personality traits bear out her fans' claims that she would be able to keep the opposition party in line. I for one think the best thing that ever happened to her was not getting the POTUS job. I think Obama has failed on many levels but she would have been mincemeat.