Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

23 October 2012

The Great Salesman Strikes Again


[For my view on how to squeeze all this into a bumper sticker, click here.]

The third and final presidential debate last night was the most even of all three. Each candidate had good points. Each candidate showed aggression and moderation, toughness and reason. The President had the best jabs, but there was no knockout punch.

So the recurring question—“who won?”—is hard to answer. It depends on your perspective and what you were looking for.

On substance, the President won, as you might expect. He is, after all, the President.

The debate’s subject was ostensibly foreign policy. (Both candidates actually “pivoted” to the economy several times.) That’s something on which any president has to be the best expert in government. It’s also the only field in which he has a free reign, unencumbered by midgets in Congress.

In that field, our current President knows personally everything of importance that’s happened in the last four years. So you would expect him to know the facts better and state his case more clearly than Mitt, and he did.

Mitt had a different task, more emotional than analytical. He had to convince a skeptical public that he’s not the reckless warmonger and anti-diplomat that his primary campaign and many gaffes revealed.

Surprisingly (to me at least), he did a pretty good job at that, despite the President’s effort to tag him as “reckless.”

As PBS commentator Mark Shields noted after the debate, Mitt used the word “peace” more often than the late George McGovern. He repeatedly qualified his jingoistic primary positions with reasonable nuances, showing (belatedly) both intelligence and moderation. In fact, he often repeated and emphasized the nuances of moderation, softening his earlier strident image.

Mitt also strengthened his claim to presidential qualification by agreeing with several the President’s actions and policies. These included sanctions on Iran, the necessity of preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, strong and undying support for Israel, the use of drones to kill our enemies, and pushing China to level the manufacturing playing field.

But each time, Mitt followed up his agreement by trying to one-up the President. He claimed he would have done the same thing faster and better, and he would do so again if elected. That’s a hard claim to refute. Several times, he accused the President of failing to provide stronger leadership, without saying how. And he managed to curb his earlier overuse of the first-person singular, also many times, by referring generally to the need for new leadership.

So once again Mitt proved himself a consummate salesman. He sold himself and multiple promises about who he would be and what he would do. He also proved, I think, to be a better actor than the President. On occasion, he looked reasonable, almost chummy, while the President stared dagger-eyed at him for whitewashing his own earlier extremist rhetoric yet again.

Whether Mitt’s sales job hit home depends on who you are. For people like me, who look only at his record and don’t believe a word he says, it fell flat. I wouldn’t buy a used car from him, let alone four years of governing my country. And I certainly wouldn’t vote for a man with his utter lack of experience to handle the difficult issues of foreign policy discussed in that debate.

For me, Mitt’s slick performance only made him more dangerous. So I doubt he won any Democratic votes. Nor do I think he convinced any Democrats to stay home.

The real question is his salesmanship’s effect on Republicans and independents. That’s hard for me to tell. Since he hasn’t really done anything in foreign policy, his assurances amounted to a series of bald personal promises. No doubt inadvertently, he emphasized that very point by reciting his mantra “I know what it takes . . .” in his closing statement.

But I can try to put myself in the shoes of folks who would vote for a self-salesman for the most important job in the world. If I do so, I have to acknowledge that many of them hate Obama for reasons having nothing to do with substance. The debate last night didn’t change their minds, and won’t convince them to stay home. So Mitt did no damage to his “base.”

Independents seem much the same. Those leaning toward Mitt probably saw nothing to change their minds, certainly nothing decisive. Those leaning toward Obama for reasons of Mitt’s dismal credibilty probably won’t change their minds either. Mitt’s empty promises amount to “I’m the better leader; trust me,” as they did in the second debate. And most Obama-leaning voters have probably already rejected that plea.

Mitt may have gained a tiny bit of ground among voters who were genuinely undecided before last night. They may have included some women. To the extent that foreign policy matters to them, Mitt’s convincing denial that he would “press the button” his first year in office may have won them over.

Another group may possibly cancel these independents out: voters who resent Mitt for seeking moderation and for having thrown the Tea Party under the bus. These voters certainly won’t vote for the President, but they might stay home in disgust. The problem is that many of them are not high on the intelligence scale. They may not have sensed Mitt’s new moderation. They may not even have watched the debates.

With no track record to prove it, Mitt has assured us many times that he would be a better leader than the President. That’s mostly what he did last night.

He looked and sounded sincere. You had to know something about his history and the world beyond the latest Tweet to disbelieve him. He now seems a better salesman than Ronald Reagan, and he has more analytical intelligence. Surprisingly (and terrifyingly) to me, he now looks and sounds enough like a president to win this election.

So the outcome, in my view, now turns on how well the Democrats’ campaign ads can destroy his credibility with undecided voters. If they buy the used car, we are done, and so is our democracy. An utterly unqualified man “from the middle of nowhere,” backed by a party of extremists that nearly destroyed our country only four years ago, will have won a mandate to govern again by blaming it all on the current President.

Suppose a man promises you the Moon. You might think it easy to point out that the Moon is big and far away.

That’s what the President tried to do—in all three debates—by showing how Mitt’s tax numbers don’t add up. Even there, you might have trouble if history’s most effective propaganda machine had convinced voters that the Moon is small, made of green cheese, and in Mitt’s refrigerator.

But what do you do when a man promises you that he has changed, for the nth time, and will be even better in the future? You either believe him or you don’t.

Here Mitt’s past flip-flops may actually help him. Undecided voters, who are not the brightest bulbs in the marquee, may think he can transplant his whole character at will. Or they might see his most recent character transplant as the real thing.

To win now, the Dems must do two things. First, they must destroy Mitt’s general credibility by showing his flip-flops again and again, ad nauseum. The airwaves must become a cavalcade of flips and flops. Second, Dems must ape Karl Rove and saturate every Tea-Partier precinct with ads showing how Mitt’s latest character transplant betrayed them. The goal is to keep them home.

I don’t like negative campaigning, and I detest Karl Rove, for the best of reasons. But there are times in war and politics when you have to do things that your enemy does so well and that, in an ideal world, you would never consider.

So if you think you’ve seen the worst of this campaign, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Combined with the Great Salesman’s shape-shifting, the GOP’s Big Lies have reduced this race to a near tie. The same folks that nearly destroyed us less than half a decade ago are threatening to take over again. They leave the Dems no alternative but to attack relentlessly until November 6.

“DOER, NOT SALESMAN”

For months, I’ve been thinking about how to squeeze the difference between the President and Mitt into a bumper sticker. Last night, Mitt gave me the answer.

We still have our old house in Ohio, in a solid, middle-class, well-integrated neighborhood. There are lots of yard signs for judges and other local candidates, but few for either presidential ticket.

Obama-Biden signs predominate over Romney-Ryan signs by about three to one, as you might expect in a neighborhood like ours in a university town. The President’s yard signs have small and understated lettering, superbly in character. The Romney signs have larger and more flashy lettering, on a white background, also in character.

The Dems local campaign HQ here has moved since 2008, and we’ve been procrastinating getting our yard signs. But I had an old one in the garage, left over from the 2008 primary campaign.

It doesn’t have Biden’s name on it, but he’s not my choice for President. It has “Obama” in large type, bigger than Romney’s and Ryan’s. The only problem with the old sign is that it had a line saying “Vote March 4,” the date of the 2008 Dem primary.

So I sat at my computer and printed out a cover for that line. Where it used to be, in black on white, the sign now reads, “DOER, NOT SALESMAN.”

I can’t think of any three words that better encapsulate the difference between the candidates and the source of most, if not all, of our current troubles. If you look at my old 2008 table on presidents’ experience, you’ll notice something strange. Ever since Nixon and Ford, our presidents’ resumes in office have been getting shorter and shorter.

The odd man out was Dubya’s father, who had been Vice President and CIA chief before becoming president. For a Republican, he wasn’t bad. He raised taxes after promising not to, and he took Colin Powell’s sage advice not to invade Baghdad.

Barack Obama was in the less-experienced league when he took office as president. He had more total years in elected office than Carter, Reagan, or Dubya, but most were at the state level, and he had no experience as governor.

Now he’s the grizzled veteran of killing OBL, winding down two wars, removing Qaddafi, and passing health-insurance and finance reform—among a bunch of other things. All his domestic feats he accomplished over the figurative dead bodies of the most ornery and recalcitrant Congress in memory.

So is he a doer? You bet! Is he experienced now, whatever his deficit may have been when he took office? You bet!

And how does Mitt compare? Well, his Mormon Mission in France—two years trying to sell his religion to Catholics—made him a great salesman. It sure shows. But what else has he done? Nada that we, the people, should care about, except make himself rich and reform health insurance in Massachusetts. He disclaims the latter feat, so he’s left with getting rich.

From Ross Perot in Bill’s day to Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina in California, the people have always had the good sense to reject rich folk with little or no political experience who are bored and want to run something new. I fervently hope they’ll do the same this time. I’m voting for the doer.

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