A Last Dispatch From Battleground Ohio

The soldier, winded and hunched, ran the last few yards before leaping into the Foxhole that had been dug behind the carcass of Big Bird.  “Sergeant Jones, I’ve got bad news,” he said.  “I think we’ve lost Nesser.”

Dammit!  What happened, Private Ujay?”

“He was trying to weave through that field of empty chairs when he was knocked down by a fusillade of negative TV ads.  He wasn’t wearing his ear plugs or a gas mask, and he started retching after hearing about the President’s economic record.  The last I saw of him, he was being dragged away by a team of pollsters to participate in a focus group.”

What the hell!  I’ve told everyone that they need to keep the masks on, because the noise and poisonous messages are more than any man can bear.

“He said he wanted to breathe free and watch the Buckeyes game on TV, sir.”

Well, there’s no saving the poor bastard now,” Sergeant Jones said.  She peered over Big Bird’s soiled yellow feathers, scanning the terrain.  “Get down!” she barked, as a fusillade of binders full of women rained down.

“I’ve got more bad news, sir,” Ujay reported.  “Some of the members of the platoon are saying there’s nothing to worry about and no need to get ready for the next attack.”

Blast!  Didn’t they watch that first presidential debate and see what happens when you start to take things for granted?

Another soldier appeared and saluted.  “Message from Captain Duhamel, sir.  He says the Bain Capital Brigade is approaching from the east.  He thinks they’re hoping to outsource us all to China.”

Thanks for the warning, Private Jeff — but we all know that those briefcase-carrying Bain bastards are ruthless.  They’ll stop at nothing once they’ve decided to downsize.”  The sergeant paused for a moment.  “Well, we know that we don’t have enough horses and bayonets to make a stand here.  Time to move out.

“But Sarge — if we move we’ll lose the cover we’ve got here in this Foxhole.”

You didn’t build that, Mack!  Now move!

The bedraggled platoon scrambled out of the Foxhole, past the hulk of Big Bird.  Nearby, hordes of “ground game” campaign workers were dragging reluctant Ohioans to the polls for a final day of early voting.  A black motorcade barreled past, hurling campaign literature about a five-point plan at passersby trying to dodge the Obama volunteers talking about how a 7.9 percent unemployment rate means the economy is on the road to recovery.  A crowd of “campaign surrogates” traded punches on a street corner, and a phalanx of Jeeps carrying members of the 47 Percent Regiment were advancing from the west.  Overhead, the voices of pundits filled the air, raining invective and talking points on the few remaining civilians not under cover.  And Bill Clinton and David Axelrod were spinning like tops, knocking people down as Joe Biden’s Cheshire Cat grin blinded the soldiers and his maniacal laugh echoed off the downtown office buildings.

“My God!  It’s carnage,” Private Ujay shouted, as he ran after Sergeant Jones.  “We’ll never survive this, never!”

Yes we will,” Sergeant Jones bellowed.  “We’ve done it before, and we’ll do it again.  It’s what you get when you live in Battleground Ohio.”

Dodging Incoming Fire In Battleground Ohio

Here in Battleground Ohio, we’re hunkered down.  For months, we’ve been battered by the attack ads, the ceaseless motorcades, and the haphazard, inexplicable appearance of a TV anchor or minor celebrity.

But now, with the end of the campaign in sight, it looks like the fight over Battleground Ohio is going to get even more fierce — and that is a scary proposition for those of us in the field of fire.  The ad spending in the Buckeye State has been nothing short of extraordinary, as the National Journal‘s ongoing chart indicates, and it obviously is growing.  The reason is that the roster of “swing” states seems to be narrowing, but Ohio remains squarely in the crosshairs.  With Mitt Romney’s recent surge, the Republican ticket is increasingly focused on Ohio as a state that might be the difference maker, and the Obama campaign is doing whatever it can to hold onto our state’s precious electoral votes.

So here in Battleground Ohio, we’re steeled for the next wave of attack.

We recognize that if you are going to walk outside, you have to be prepared to dart across a no-man’s land of pollsters, candidates flipping burgers at your favorite diner, random campaign “surrogates” cluttering every street corner, and insistent campaign volunteers.  We understand that the next call on our phone will almost certainly be part of a broad-based robocall assault and that the next commercial on the football game will be part of a new offensive.  We know that we can’t express any political opinion without catching some serious flak from friends and colleagues who support the other guy.  We’re tired and shellshocked, and when you walk down the street you see fellow citizens with that grim-faced, wild-eyed, had-enough-with-campaigns-and-ready-to-snap-at-any-moment look about them.  We just want the fighting to stop so we can be relieved of our hellish duty and go back to our normal lives.

I’d say we’re all in our foxholes, but some of my Ohioan friends on the left might take offense at being associated with a TV news channel they despise.

The Veep Candidates Square Off

Tonight the second of four national campaign debates takes place.  Vice President Joe Biden and Republican candidate Paul Ryan will go at it for 90 minutes.

I know many conservatives have been slavering for this match-up, and I imagine many Democrats are hoping that Biden can right the ship after President Obama’s underwhelming performance during the first presidential debate.  The veep debate will cover both domestic and foreign policy issues, and will consist of nine 10-minute segments.  The moderator will ask a question, each candidate will have two minutes to respond, and then the moderator will guide the discussion of the issue for the remainder of the time period.  Martha Raddatz of ABC News is moderating, and given the uproar about Jim Lehrer’s laid back approach during the first presidential debate, I expect that she is getting lots of free advice about how she should discharge her moderating duties.

Conservatives are looking forward to this match-up because they believe that Ryan is knowledgeable and capable and Biden is a gaffe machine who inevitably will stumble into some blunder.  That could happen, of course, but I think it’s equally likely that Biden will more than hold his own.  He’s an experienced national figure who’s been through lots of debates before, whereas this will be Ryan’s first time all alone on the big national stage.  If the Democratic ticket wants to bounce back from the President’s poor showing in the first debate, Biden needs to deliver a strong performance.  I’m sure he’s been very focused on making sure that he is adequately prepared.

In the end, I’m not sure that the vice presidential debate means much of anything.  I don’t think anyone votes for a ticket based on the veep — but tonight’s debate should be interesting.

On Early Voting In Ohio

In Ohio, early voting already is in full swing.  Voters here will have more than a month before Election Day to cast their ballots.  It’s one of the reasons why the Obama and Romney campaigns have been so active here recently, with visits from the candidates and their surrogates, lots of TV ads, and extensive “ground games” and door-knocking efforts.  (For an interesting Cleveland Plain Dealer article that attempts to assess the relative strength of the Romney and Obama “ground games” in Ohio, see here.)

According to the Ohio Secretary of State’s website, in 2008, more than 1.7 million Ohioans cases either early “in person” ballots or traditional mail-in absentee ballots.  That’s about 30 percent of the 5.77 million votes cast overall in Ohio in 2008.  The conventional wisdom is that early voting favors Democratic candidates, because Democrats tend to have jobs that cause them to work odd hours.  (How would anyone test that little bit of CW, by the way?)  Given the size of the “early voting” bloc, is there any wonder that the campaigns are trying to make sure that they maintain a strong presence in Ohio throughout the early voting period, in hopes of catching wavering undecided voters who can be persuaded by the dedicated campaign volunteers at their doors to fill out and send in their ballots?

I like voting in person on Election Day.  It’s one of the true common communal experiences we have in our diverse and sprawling nation, and the quiet act of voting with my fellow citizens always makes me feel good about living in a democracy.  But I also think that early voting is curious, because it means that citizens are voting on the basis of different sets of information.  People who vote on October 7 obviously can’t consider what happens in the remaining month before Election Day.  What if there were some huge scandal, or game-changing incident during that intervening period?  Wouldn’t you want to wait until you have all of the relevant information before you cast your ballot?

This year, I wonder how many people have cast their ballots on the basis of the first debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney.  If you’re President Obama, aren’t you hoping that early voters at least hold off until after the second debate, when you have a chance to improve upon your initial performance?

A Big Audience For A Big Debate

Last night’s debate was popular with viewers — which probably is good news for Mitt Romney, who is generally regarded as having performed very well.

According to the overnight ratings, 58 million people tuned in to watch the candidates spar over the issues — a number that doesn’t include those who watched on PBS, Univision, or CSPAN or on-line.  Surprisingly, more people watched this debate than watched the first presidential debate in 2008, when President Obama was at the height of his popularity.  The TV audience also was far larger than the viewership for this year’s Democratic and Republican conventions.

I’m glad to see that the American people are paying attention to this election.  I wonder whether the significantly increased viewership for this debate may have been influenced, at least in part, by a desire on the part of some fed-up voters who are sick of silly attack ads and the squawking of the punditocracy, the pollsters, and the spin jockeys, and just wanted to see President Obama and Mitt Romney in their unfiltered state, going toe to toe.  I imagine that most people who watched the debate thought it was a worthwhile and interesting experience, and will encourage their friends to watch the next one.  I’ll bet that the audience for the second debate will be larger still.

I hope that is the case, and I hope that the viewers also are reaching their own conclusions — not about who won or lost a mere debate, or who looked more “presidential,” but about which candidate is best suited for a very tough and important job.  After all, that is the ultimate question that voters must decide.

Thoughts On The First Debate

An interesting debate — despite the odd, phony start in which the candidates talked about the President’s anniversary, and the somewhat flaccid closing statements — in which the moderator lost control almost immediately, and some good points were made by both candidates.  On balance, I think Mitt Romney bested President Obama.

I think it helped Romney to be on the same stage as the President.  It helped to legitimize Romney, and made the efforts by the Democrats to depict him as some wealthy nut seem silly.  The President treated Romney with respect, and treated his proposals as serious; at times he even nodded at points Romney was making.  I think that has to help Romney seem viable.  The President, on the other hand, seemed to filibuster and seemed distracted by a desire to get the full spread of talking points into his answers; that approach made some of his answers seemed disconnected.

Romney started off on the defensive on his tax plan, as the President pressed him on specifics, but Romney got his bearings.  I thought he seemed knowledgeable, and gave some great answers along the way.  His answer about the role of government, and his references to the Constitution, were just terrific, as was his answer about working with Democrats in Massachusetts to get things done and his answer about why he thinks “Obamacare” is not the right policy notwithstanding Romney’s approval of a Massachusetts health care plan.  The President talked a lot more than Mitt Romney did — but did he make wise use of his time?

Those are my thoughts, without listening to any pundits or spinmeisters.  Now, we’ll see what the American people think, as the points discussed in the debate sink in, and people talk about the candidates and their presentations over the kitchen table and the water cooler.  I’d be interested in hearing what the other Webner House contributors think.

Hey Harry, Mitt Paid Taxes!

Today Mitt Romney released his 2011 tax returns.  They show that the Republican nominee earned more than $13.5 million — mostly from investments — and paid $1.9 million in taxes.  He has his wife also gave generously to charities.

In addition, Romney also released a summary of his taxes going back to 1990.  The summary reported that, during the period from 1990 to 2009, the Romneys paid taxes every year, with an average annual effective federal tax rate of 20.2 percent.  Romney has now provided information about 23 years of tax returns, including releasing the tax returns themselves for 2010 and 2011.

Let’s not forget that the abominable Harry Reid claimed back in August that an anonymous source had told him that Mitt Romney had not paid taxes for 10 years.  It was appalling that the Senate Majority Leader would rely on an unnamed source to launch such serious and slanderous accusations, which have now been shown to be false.  Do you think there is any chance that Harry Reid will apologize to Mitt Romney for making such reckless and unfounded accusations?  That’s what any decent person would do.  Unfortunately, any person of character would never have made the unsupported accusations in the first place, so I wouldn’t bet on old Harry doing the decent thing.  Instead, he’ll just endure another blow to whatever shreds of credibility he might still possess.

I hope Romney’s release of his tax returns takes that silly issue off the table, and lets the candidates and the American public focus on the big issues in the race — like who is better equipped to get our economy going, and how we can get people back to work and bring this unending recession to a long-overdue end.

This Election, Ohio Truly Is The Heart Of It All

Ohio used to call itself “the heart of it all,” because of the state’s purported heart-like shape and central location.  This presidential election, Ohio truly seems to be the heart of it all.

You can’t walk around downtown Columbus without hearing about a political event.  This afternoon, Florida Senator Marco Rubio gave a speech at the Ohio Statehouse for Republican candidate Mitt Romney.  President Obama showed up a bit later for his own event in German Village.  I was working at my desk when I heard the distinctive sound of a presidential motorcade rolling past, with sirens blaring and deep klaxon-like horns barking. The President stopped at the hotel a block from my office, where the street was blocked off by police cars and motorcycles and those huge black Secret Service SUVs.

Hey, Mr. President!  Could you keep it down the next time you come to town?  I’m trying to wrap up a conference call here!

Some polls have indicated that the President has a growing lead in Ohio.  If that is true — and I’m a bit skeptical of polls — I’m not seeing it.  More importantly, the campaigns certainly aren’t acting that way.  I think we’re going to be seeing a lot more of President Obama and Mitt Romney, Joe Biden and Paul Ryan, and their high-profile surrogates, here in the heart of it all.  From all appearances, President Obama and Mitt Romney are going to be fighting tooth and nail up until Election Day to try to win the Buckeye State.

Many Questions To Be Answered, Publicly And Quickly

The more we learn about the deadly attacks on our diplomatic installations in Cairo, Egypt and Benghazi, Libya, the more questions arise.  Those questions need to be answered — and quickly.

Was the attack in Benghazi really just a spur-of-the-moment response to an obscure, homemade movie posted on the internet, or was it a planned, coordinated attack by a trained group of well-armed men?  Why was the security at the Benghazi consulate so inadequate — on 9/11, of all days?  Were U.S. security forces really equipped with guns with no bullets?  Did the U.S. receive any intelligence that warned us that an attack might be forthcoming?  Why didn’t the State Department respond to the attacks on the U.S. embassy in Cairo by immediately increasing protection at our other diplomatic outposts in the Middle East?  Was there an intelligence leak that allowed the attackers in Benghazi to determine where the ambassador was?  How did the U.S. somehow lose track of where Ambassador Chris Stevens was during the attacks?  How much sensitive information was lost when the Benghazi consulate was overrun?

The Justice Department and FBI are investigating and the State Department now is declining to answer questions about what happened in Benghazi because it considers the situation “a crime scene.”  The State Department won’t talk, it says, until the Justice Department investigation is concluded.  In my view, that’s not acceptable.  The Benghazi incident wasn’t a domestic criminal act, it was a foreign affairs fiasco that resulted in the first murder of a U.S. ambassador in more than 30 years.  The decisions that produced the death of Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans need to be examined publicly, not hidden behind the guise of a “criminal investigation.”  The Senate Homeland Security Committee apparently has called for hearings, and the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Senate Foreign Relations Committee should do likewise.  Those hearings should move forward quickly, so that we can determine how to prevent these kinds of incidents from happening again.

What happened in Benghazi and Cairo, and more recently at other U.S. diplomatic missions elsewhere in the world, is not a political issue — it is a crucial, threshold matter of national sovereignty and national security that shouldn’t be swept under the rug or deferred because we are in the midst of a presidential campaign.  We need to promptly determine where we fell short and decide what the United States must do to be able to adequately protect its embassies and diplomats on foreign soil.

Remembering 9/11

Today is the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.  There will be memorial services across the country, and in recognition of the anniversary the two presidential campaigns have promised not to run any negative ads against each other.  Good for them!  We all need to remember this day, and those who have fallen on that day and since in the battle against terrorism, in our own way, and without the noise of unseemly political attacks.

We visited the 9/11 Memorial last December, and it was a moving moment.  My report on our visit appears here.

When Meaningless “Advisory Councils” Attack

Politicians asked to make a tough decision often resort to “advisory councils” and “task forces” as a way to defer making the decision.  Convince people that the decision involves a complex issue, pledge to appoint a “blue-ribbon panel” filled with the finest “subject-matter experts” who will make recommendations, and then lean back and enjoy the respite for however long it takes the panel to investigate, and talk, and hear from other subject matter experts.

It’s pretty foolproof, unless you forget that it’s a double-edged sword.  You’ve argued that the issue is a vital one, meriting careful analysis by this top-notch council of eggheads, so you can’t blow them off or fail to meet with them.  If you do, you’re either communicating that the issue isn’t really that important, or that the creation of the panel was an obvious dodge — or both.

That’s why the news that President Obama’s “Jobs Council” hasn’t met in half a year is such a dumb, self-inflicted wound for the President — one that should cause staff heads to roll.  You can’t expect the President to remember the name of every pointless commission, panel, and advisory group currently examining various issues or federal governmental functions, much less think about how often they’ve met.  When the President’s “Jobs Council” was formed, a staff member should have calendared a meeting every two months, no exceptions, and scheduled the President’s other events around that standing meeting — at least until the election occurs. The President would be bored for an hour or two, but that’s a small price to pay for the political value of the “advisory council” device.

Instead, the President looks like he’s more interested in fund-raising and making speeches to high school students than meeting with the experts to hear their thoughts on how we can get the economy moving again and create the significant jobs that accompany economic expansion.  That’s not a great message to send during an election year, when high unemployment and economic issues are weighing very heavily on the minds of huge numbers of voters.

Dead Calm

The 2012 presidential election is less than four months away.  You’d expect there to be building excitement among voters as the campaigns criss-cross the country, holding rallies and sounding their campaign themes.

The campaigns are, in fact, holding those rallies and running their ads and trotting out their reliable talking heads, but their doesn’t seem to be much building excitement, or even much movement.  President Obama and Mitt Romney are stuck in the same place they’ve been for a month or more — in a dead heat.

Pundits and reporters covering the campaigns are talking about the election, but it doesn’t seem like many other people out here in the heartland are focused on politics.  It’s as if everyone wants to take a breather, complain about the ongoing heat wave, go to a state fair or two . . . and then think about the upcoming vote later.  It’s not that people don’t care, it’s just that most people don’t want to think about politics, 24 hours a day.  How many of us have switched the radio from a news station to a music station, for a while at least, so we don’t have to hear the campaigns’ talking points, again, during our daily commutes?

I feel like this is the period of dead calm before a storm.  The water is glassy and placid, the boats are holding their positions, but the storm is coming.  When the dead calm breaks, I wonder if this won’t be an election where the voters decide, seemingly en masse, to go one way or another, and take a race that now appears to be a dead heat and turn it into a rout.

Dissing The Stay-At-Home

The latest campaign snit involves a statement by Hilary Rosen, a Democratic “campaign strategist”  — i.e., one of the endless parade of never-themselves-elected talking heads that appear regularly on TV “news” shows — about Ann Romney, the wife of the presumptive Republican presidential candidate.

In an appearance on CNN on Wednesday, Rosen dismissed Romney’s comments about seeking his wife’s views on issues of interest to women, stating:  “His wife has actually never worked a day in her life.  She’s never really dealt with the kinds of economic issues that a majority of the women in this country are facing.”  Both Republicans and Democrats, including President Obama, have criticized Rosen’s comments, and Rosen herself has apologized for them.

I think Rosen’s apology should be accepted — but I also think her comment on CNN probably reflects her actual views about stay-at-home parents.  She doesn’t think rearing children is “work” in any meaningful sense, and she doesn’t think that people who are stay-at-home parents could really have much to say about the real world issues that are of concern to the rest of us.  It’s as if Rosen has bought into the most demeaning stereotypes about stay-at-home Moms and Dads sitting on the couch all day, eating chocolates and watching soap operas.

We should pause to consider how bizarre that belief is, and on so many levels.  In our modern society, we are quite properly encouraged to be accepting of all manner of alternative lifestyles — and yet a “strategist” for the Democratic Party cannot even credit a woman who chose what would now be called a “traditional” approach to her family obligations.  Similarly, we are told repeatedly of the importance of children and how “it takes a village” to rear them properly, and yet a woman who has elected to focus her efforts exclusively on her children is depicted as some kind of nincompoop.  Many of us grew up with stay-at-home Moms who arbitrated fights between siblings, took us to doctor appointments, helped us with homework, and saved us from crushing boredom on rainy days; I always thought it was a tough job and appreciated that my mother was there.  (Thanks, Mom!)

I’m sick and tired of people like Hilary Rosen, whoever she is, passing judgment on a woman who, with her husband, made a decision about what they thought was best for their family.  Every family deals with such issues.  Their decisions are their own business and shouldn’t be the subject of sneering condescension by operatives looking to deliver punchy sound bites in a political campaign.  Hilary Rosen may have apologized, but more fundamentally she should be embarrassed for herself, and should do some careful soul-searching about her hubris and her willingness to sacrifice simple decency on the altar of politics.

Eye Of Newt

There’s a new flavor of the month among the Republican presidential candidates — at least, according to the polls.  Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House and intellectual gadfly, apparently has become the frontrunner.

The Republican campaign, if you can call these tedious months of “debates,” fund-raising, straw polls, and polling a campaign, seems like an exercise in Fortune’s Wheel.  Every so often the wheel is spun, the candidates at the bottom move to the top, and the former front runners tumble to the bottom.  Right now, it’s Gingrich’s turn at the top of the wheel.

It’s not surprising that Gingrich should get traction.  He’s glib, has performed well in the debates compared to the stumbling performances of other candidates, and has a track record as Speaker of the House that features balanced budgets.  Of course, his record as Speaker includes other, less positive actions and ethics claims, he’s had some personal issues over his lifetime, and his activities during the years after his tenure as Speaker have yet to be fully explored.  We know he shopped at Tiffany’s, wrote books, was involved in some kind of work for Freddie Mac, and was part of the stew of consulting firms, advocacy organizations, tax-exempt groups, commissions, and task forces that are found everywhere in Washington, D.C., but that’s about it.

Now that Gingrich is at the top, his record as Speaker and his activities since then will get lots of attention — and we’ll see if the scrutiny causes another turn of Fortune’s Wheel.

Another Reason Why No Rational Person Would Ever Want To Run For President

Kish brought this story to my attention.  It’s another example of why running for President in America would suck.

Mitt Romney is flying coach class to Boston and is seated next to Carolyn McClanahan of Jacksonville, Florida.  He poses for a photo, then puts on headphones, reads a newspaper, and works on his iPad.  But Ms. McClanahan has other ideas.  She’s a doctor who “heads a financial planning company” and boasts of having read every page of the “health care reform” bill.  She decides to tell Romney of her idea for improving health care by “switching to an electronic billing system.”  Romney says “I understand” and goes back to his reading.

What is the lesson from this episode?  Why, according to Ms. McClanahan, it is that Romney is “out of touch” and “wooden” — all because he didn’t listen appreciatively to her views.  Indeed, the New York Times blogger who reports the incident says it offers “a glimpse of a widening gulf between Americans and politicians.”

Huh?  I get just the opposite message.  I applaud Romney for ignoring some droning busybody who wanted to lecture him about her health care ideas.  If Romney were wooden and programmed, he would have let Ms. McClanahan monopolize his time.  The fact that he ignored her bad manners shows he isn’t a robot.

Any criticism should be directed at Ms. McClanahan, for pestering a fellow passenger who just wants some down time.  Any business traveler knows how frustrating it can be when the total stranger in the next seat over is dead set on boring you with their views, despite every non-verbal signal you are sending.  Perhaps Ms. McClanahan has never had that experience.  I hope that the next time she flies she is seated next to a hypochondriac who learns that she is a doctor and spends the entire flight talking about his bowel problems.  Maybe then Ms. McClanahan will learn some manners.