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GOP Race: What A Strange, Strange Trip It’s Been…

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Now that the caucus votes in Iowa have been cast, it’s time to look back on the race for the Republican Presidential nominee so far. And what a race it’s been! In a year where the pundits tell us the electorate is looking for an “outsider”, we’ve seen a lobbyist and former central banker  (Herman Cain), a disgraced House Leader with a penchant for lobbyists’ cash and affairs (Newt Gingrich) and now the king of earmarks (at least a billion dollars) and deep friend to lobbyists who lost his seat by the widest margin in the history of his state (Rick Santorum) all top the polls at some point. We’ve seen a Governor who can’t count to three (Rick Perry), a House Representative with a tentative relationship with truthfulness (Michele Bachmann) and a candidate who dropped out before a single vote was cast (Tim Pawlenty). And another House Representative who stakes out positions his opponents refuse to even consider worthy of debate, but who received one in five votes in Iowa (Ron Paul), while another candidate changes positions with remarkable fluidity to suit the mood of the electorate and is considered the “presumptive nominee” despite seemingly incapable of rising above 25% in the polls, no matter how much money he spends, how many endorsements he gets or which position he stakes out on a particular day (Mitt Romney).

Throughout the debates we’ve seen flat out lies, and lots of them: Iran has promised to launch a nuclear attack against the United States (Bachmann, and Santorum and Gingrich, to lesser extents), the HPV innoculation can lead to brain disease (Bachmann again), a panel made up of seven Democrats and seven Republicans, and which voted thirteen to one for sanctions against the House Speaker, was a “partisan attack” (Gingrich), and many more.

We’ve learned that Newt Gingrich was in favor of a personal health mandate when that view point paid (a reported $37 million to his foundation) but is against it now (at least since March). Mitt Romney was in favor of it too, and implemented it, but now considers it unconstitutional.

Rick Santorum, we learned, wants to bomb Iran and then “publicize it”, and says not a penny can be cut from the military (while the United States spends more on its military than the next twenty countries combined). He also believes the Constitution does not confer the right of privacy to individuals, including the right to consensual relations between two people in the privacy of their home (he really believes this, including a husband and wife).

The US spends more on the military than the next 20 countries combined.

We’ve seen two candidates on, essentially, book tours who suddenly found themselves leading the pack, and just as suddenly found themselves back on book tours (Gingrich and Cain).

We’ve seen a candidate who fought hard for hundreds of millions of dollars in earmarks for a company which immediately put him on their payroll once he was trouced out of office by a disgusted electorate (Santorum). And billed taxpayers $72,000 per year for private school for his children while in office. He now runs as the “outsider” and the “true conservative”.

We’ve seen a contender who thinks any position other than “pro-war” is “dangerous”, but who repeatedly refused when he was drafted into the military (Gingrich).

And throughout it all, we’ve watched a restless electorate switch their support from one flawed candidate to another, while the political pundits label each candidate “top tier”, until their fifteen minutes are up (see Bachmann, Perry, Cain, Gingrich and, soon, Santorum). That same electorate has sent to the top of the polls some of the most deeply “establishment”, big-government, big-spending candidates who have been working the system for years.

What a strange, strange trip it’s been…

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CNN National Security Debate Revealing…

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The CNN National Security Debate between Republican Presidential nominee hopefuls, held at the DAR Constitution Hall in Washington, Tuesday, November 22, featured several important and revealing distinctions between the candidates. Moderator Wolf Blitzer did a superb job moderating the debate, giving each candidate roughly equal time (even Ron Paul had more than 89 seconds to make his positions known!) and, in several instances, followed up with candidates who didn’t answer questions directly by interjecting, “Just to be precise…” and attempted to pin down candidates on the questions. The event was held among members of the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, many of whom asked candidates questions directly.

One topic of particular interest was the candidates’ positions on cuts to military spending: the United States spends more money on their military than the next 17 countries combined, however several candidates came out against any meaningful cuts, and some candidates came out against any cuts whatsoever (most of the “cuts” which have been proposed are not, in fact, “cuts” but are instead reductions in the pace of growth: America’s Defense budget has about doubled in just the past nine years).

If you ask any insurance executive the best way to sell insurance, they’ll tell you in one word: fear. Scare the customer and they’ll buy. Many of the candidates in this debate were selling insurance, of the United States military variety.

There were some radical positions on display by the candidates. Here, then, is a summary:

Newt Gingrich

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich exhibited none of the animosity towards moderator Wolf Blitzer that he has previously unleashed against debate moderators, and presented himself well. Some of his positions, on the other hand, were surprising in some instances, disturbing in others, and flat out incorrect on at least one.

The first question of the debate was asked by Edwin Meese, former Attorney General of the United States under President Ronald Reagan, who asked whether the Patriot Act should be extended. Mr Gingrich was the first candidate to field the question, and he came out in favor of the Patriot Act and further stated he would expand it, again making a distinction between “crimes” (which should be dealt with by criminal courts) and “terrorism” (which should be dealt with however the government wishes to deal with it, which in prior debates has included torture and secret tribunals under Mr Gingrich’s vision). The most obvious problem with this notion that the protections of the Constitution do not apply to those the government deems “terrorists” is of course that the government could, at will, declare anyone a “terrorist” and thereby absolve the government of the restraints placed on it by the Constitution: the government becomes judge, jury and executioner in secret and without any restraint. That is not, of course, an example of the “rule of law”. Other countries have experimented with secret courts and arbitrary removal of citizen’s rights. It hasn’t gone well for the people of those same countries.

Wolf Blitzer, smartly, asked Texas Representative Ron Paul to comment next – smartly, because it brought out the enormous contrast between Paul and Gingrich. Ron Paul made a passionate argument against the Patriot Act, stating liberty needn’t be sacrificed for security and that the court system had worked in cases like the Timothy McVeigh bombing in Oklahoma. Mr Gingrich responded by pointing out that Mr McVeigh had succeeded in killing 168 people, and that the government should have the ability to pre-empt such attacks. Dr Paul responded by pointing out that each household could have a police officer and cameras placed inside it for the purposes of reducing child abuse and wife battering, and that a police state might reduce crime but in the process the government becomes the criminals. It was a telling exchange, and showed the vast differences between the candidates.

On the issue of oil, Newt Gingrich claimed that a different energy policy would allow the United States to produce enough oil to make up for all of Iran’s production and that as a result, global oil prices would plummet. Such an approach would require the United States to increase its oil production by about 50% and would require decades (and as one questioner pointed out, the United States hasn’t purchased oil from Iran for thirty years).

Mr Gingrich’s positions, evolved from his prior positions now that he is running for President (see too Mitt Romney for another example of positions of plasticity), are always conveyed with authority and plenty of (sometimes obscure) references and name dropping, but Newt Gingrich did a solid job of presenting those positions in this debate.

Overall score: A

Herman Cain

Former National Restaurant Association lobbyist Herman Cain had another poor showing, as he has in past debates on any foreign policy question. Here was a debate entirely focused on foreign policy, with nary a chance to trumpet his “9-9-9” tax plan. There was nothing in Mr Cain’s performance in this debate which can be expected to reverse his sliding poll numbers (most recently at 14% nationally[PDF]).

Herman Cain never seemed at ease during the debate, and he had that “deer caught in the headlights” look, formerly so familiar on Rick Perry’s face, on multiple occassions.

Often, Mr Cain answers foreign policy questions by saying he will listen to other people and rely upon their judgement. It’s good to get opinions, particularly on matters as important as foreign policy. But it is also important to convey the notion that, while you will seek out advice, you are the ultimate decision maker.

Rarely did Mr Cain display any of the incredible charisma he once beamed at the audience.

Overall score: C-

Ron Paul

Texas Representative Ron Paul was easily the most differentiated candidate of all those present. Coming out strongly against the Patriot Act (“The Patriot Act is unpatriotic!”), the “war on drugs” (“Another war we ought to cancel!”; “I think the war on drugs is a total failure”; “Federal government is going in there and over-riding state laws”; “I fear the drug war because it undermines our civil liberties”) and in favor of Congressional approval for acts of war (which including a rebuttal to Mr Santorum, who kept talking about the “war on terror” – Mr Paul pointed out that “terrorism” is a tactic, not a nation or an enemy or a war).

Ron Paul, for once, got some air time, and it was an excellent decision on the part of CNN producers, because the contrast was, at times, shocking. On the issue of the extension of the Patriot Act, Mr Gingrich’s argument that pre-emptive and extra-judicial actions should be permitted the government was smartly rebutted by Dr Paul’s plea that liberty need not be sacrificed for security, calling on the Founding Fathers in the process. On the issue of defense cuts, Mr Paul put the other candidates to shame, pointing out the “cuts” were only reductions in the speed of increased spending, not real cuts.

Overall, it was Mr Paul’s strongest debate to date, and even amidst the deeply establishment Republican crowd, Ron Paul drew cheers and applause for his anti-war, anti-interventionist positions. With Paul in a dead heat in Iowa, his performance in this debate may put him on top with the anti-Romney crowd in the state.

Overall score: A

Mitt Romney

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney took the hawkish approach, bemoaning defense cuts, favoring intervention in Iran and backing Israel by stating his first foreign visit as President will be to Israel.

Where Mitt Romney has been playing it relatively slow and steady, and avoiding engaging the other candidates since the Las Vegas entanglements with Rick Perry, Jon Huntsman seemed to get under Mr Romney’s skin on the issue of troop levels in Afghanistan.

Mr Romney is in a difficult bind, despite being the “front runner” in most media circles: essentially three quarters of Republican voters want a candidate for President who is not Mitt Romney, and it doesn’t appear as though anything Mr Romney says or does, or the other candidates’ rises and falls, have any impact on that cruel fact.

Mitt Romney’s best chance to win the nomination, it seems, is to split the conservative votes among the other contenders. But again, here Mr Romney is in a bind, because the voters seems to flock en masse to the most prominent anti-Romney candidate of the moment (currently Newt Gingrich). Do his performances at these debates win him any new voters? Probably not, according to the polls. So for Mitt Romney, the debates are something to get through without any obvious gaffes. That he did.

Overall score: B-

Rick Perry

Texas Governor Rick Perry, while still occassionally tongue-tied and cursed with the intellectual gravitas of Pauly Shore on a bad day, nonetheless has now marked his third consecutive debate without a major embarrassment. Mr Perry’s policy ideas still seem half-baked (as in not really fully formed, and certainly not fully articulated), like his plan to impose a no-fly zone over Syria (to which Mitt Romney replied by pointing out the Syrian government is not attacking its people with aircraft but that they do have 5,000 tanks and therefore perhaps a “no-drive” zone would be more appropriate), or his solution to Pakistan, which seemed to be some concept of creating a trade zone among several countries and forcing them to work together.

Rick Perry continues to seem like the only kid on a stage of men, but at least it’s no longer so painful to watch, almost to the point that one feels a bit sorry for the man. It’s clear Mr Perry is much more comfortable speaking one-on-one, and he often turns to whichever candidate is beside him to address a point directly to another human, rather than the wider audience. But Mr Perry is at best a puppet with deep-pocketed string masters, and it shows. His greatest accomplishment in this race may be that he has held on as long as he has – his poll numbers are certainly stagnant.

Overall score: C+ (this is an “A” on the Perry Bell Curve).

Michele Bachmann

Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann, it is hard to believe now, was once considered a front-runner, after narrowly defeating Ron Paul in the Ames, Iowa straw poll. Since then, her poll numbers have plummeted, and she regularly polls in the low single digits. What’s a candidate to do?

Make odd statements and appear increasingly like a fringe candidate as you move towards the totalitarian territory where Rick Santorum lives, that’s what.

Some select statements:

“We won the peace in Iraq.” Yes. Iraq. That bastion of peaceful tranquility.

“Our CIA has no ability to have any form of interrogation for terrorists.” This in support of reinstating torture tactics against suspects who have never been formally charged and whose revelations while being tortured are of little to no use (CNN has an interesting fact-check on this statement).

“…most recent decision he [President Obama] made to cancel the Keystone Pipeline.” That pipeline has been delayed, not canceled, by the Obama administration.

Ms Bachmann, in short, did nothing to distinguish herself, and a few things to embarrass herself.

Overall score: D

Jon Huntsman

Former Utah Governor and Obama Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman had a strong night, in a debate focused on topics he’s most familiar with as a former Ambassador.

Mr Huntsman made well-articulated points on China and Pakistan, and at one point engaged with Mitt Romney on the issue of troop levels in Afghanistan (Mr Romney wants troops to remain longer in that country; Mr Huntsman wants to bring them home but leave a small contingent behind).

All Mr Huntsman’s marbles are on New Hampshire, and unfortunately for him, he is not polling in the top two there (positions held by Mr Romney and Mr Paul).

Overall score: A-

Rick Santorum

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum opined that people should be treated differently (read: more harshly) depending upon the religious beliefs they hold, by way of applying different standards to Muslims in security screenings and other state intrusions. Hitler, too, believed people of different religious beliefs should be treated differently. On the other hand, The Founding Fathers of the United States, most notably did not, enshrining freedom of belief in the Constitution. Mr Santorum, throughout these debates, has never shied away from the more fascist side of the spectrum, and later applauded Lincoln for “trampling on the civil rights” of Americans. It is deeply reassuring that Mr Santorum has never polled much above 1% – his positions on foreign policy, and his almost viceral disgust for civil liberties, is truly frightening.

Overall score: F (The world becomes a safer and saner place once Mr Santorum retires from politics).

4 Things to Watch For in CNN National Security Debate of GOP Presidential Hopefuls…

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Tomorrow’s (Tuesday, November 22, 2011) debate between Republican Presidential nominee hopefuls at the DAR Constitution Hall in Washington DC, and produced by CNN, will focus on National Security. Here, then, are four things to watch for in this, the final debate of November:

  1. Can Herman Cain stop the bleeding?

    Former National Restaurant Assocation lobbyist Herman Cain has seen his support plummet dramatically: the latest CNN poll [PDF] shows support for Mr Cain down almost half between October and November (from 25% to 14%). Is there any way for Mr Cain to stop the slide, or reverse the trend? There are really just three options for Herman Cain: hope one of his rivals (most likely former House Speaker Newt Gingrich) sees a substantial drop and further hope to fill the void that leaves, or hope the voting public’s memories are short and both the allegations of sexual harassment, and perhaps more importantly Mr Cain’s seemingly shallow grasp of issues outside the realm of his proposed tax plan, are forgotten, or make a bold move and attempt to recapture the lead. Notably, security/foreign policy has been a real weakness for candidate Cain.

  2. Will Texas Governor Rick Perry continue his largely gaffe-free recent debate performances?

    In the two debates since his now-famous “oops” moment in Michigan, Rick Perry has performed without any overt failures and less of struggles to articulate himself which were a hallmark of every prior debate. Still, with just 12% support in that same CNN poll, a history of heavy spending as Governor of Texas and a platform he has yet to fully articulate, it may be an awfully steep hill for Mr Perry to climb (and Perry is polling around 3% in New Hampshire, according to Bloomberg).

  3. Can Texas Representative Ron Paul, currently in a four-way tie for the lead in Iowa and in a distant second place in New Hampshire, change the perception of his security policies?

    Virtually every media account of Dr Paul’s foreign and national security policies includes the word “isolationist”. Will Ron Paul be able to successfully argue that the presence of the United States’ military in 150 countries around the globe, and the interventionist foreign policy of the past 60 years, is a cause of threats to America’s security? Will Mr Paul’s message (effectively, “If we go to other people’s sandboxes and kick down their sand castles, they will want to come to our sandbox and kick down our sand castles”) resonate with voters in the midst of six far more “hawkish” candidates (former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman’s views are similar to Ron Paul’s; the rest of the candidates are all in favor of interventionism and nation building, particularly former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum and Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann).

  4. Will other candidates label Newt Gingrich a “flip-flopper” in light of his new web site?

    The New York Times published an article about Mr Gingrich’s new web site, on which the candidate explains his reasons for changing his position on seven issues (among them, the personal mandate for health care, which Mr Gingrich used to be in favor of but now considers unconstitutional). Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has been the favored target of “flip-flopping” accusations to date; will the candidates attempt to bestow Mr Gingrich with similar accusations?

The debate begins at 8pm ET on CNN. (Note: for the complete schedule of upcoming Republican debates, as well as links to all previously aired debates, visit 2012 Election Central).

Des Moines, Iowa GOP Debate Features Tears from Multiple Candidates…

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The November 19, 2011 debate between hopefuls for the Republican Presidential nomination at First Federated Church in Des Moines, Iowa was at least as noteworthy for the odd sight of multiple Presidential hopefuls breaking down in tears, and the absence of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, as it was for any answers elicited from the candidates. It often had the feel of a daytime talk show more than a serious debate, with multiple candidates choosing to bare their souls for the cameras. Religious themes were prevelant throughout the debate.

Rather than our usual candidate performance overview, for this article we’ll outline the themes covered, and then we’ll address how the candidates performed against our list of five things to look for:

The Crying

The waterworks began during the second hour, with former National Restaurant Association lobbyist Herman Cain, as he struggled to recall his battle with cancer, and paused for long stretches in attempts to collect himself. Mr Cain’s tale of his stage four cancer diagnosis, his will to battle through it and his ultimate triumph were moving, and set the tone for what followed.

And what followed sometimes felt like a contest between the candidates to one-up each other with stories of tragedy and heartache and battles fought and sometimes won. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum used an extraordinarily lengthy story about his youngest daughter’s life and death struggle to argue against government health care. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich did likewise with a dramatic story of a child who is a friend of his, and who suffered from numerous medical challenges, over which he ultimately triumphed, and also a tale of Mr Gingrich’s former feelings of “emptiness”. Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann told the story of her parents’ divorce and her family’s struggle to survive thereafter. The tears flowed, heart strings were pulled (in often rather calculated ways, a cynic might say). Only Texas Governor Rick Perry and Texas Representative Ron Paul kept things upbeat, in Perry’s case recounting his rise from humble beginnings in a very small town, and in Paul’s case stating that, while he has had some difficulties, the life he’s been blessed with makes those difficulties trivial (although Ron Paul later added that he hates seeing himself on television and had a promising athletic career cut short for medical reasons).

Whether inducing pity translates successfully into votes remains to be seen – some viewers no doubt feel it “humanizes” the candidates, while others may be more inclined to think, “Ya, we all have our problems”. In any case, it was odd, unexpected, sometimes touching and at other times painful to watch.

The Comedy

Rick Perry had perhaps the best lines of the evening, starting during his story about growing up in small town Texas (“I think there were about thirteen kids in my graduating class, and I’m happy to tell you I graduated in the top ten!”) and continuing with his quips referencing his “oops moment” (As Ron Paul discussed cutting the Education Department, Mr Perry added, “And energy too!”, referring to the department he was famously unable to recall during the Michigan debate. The moderator quipped, “Governor, is there a third Department you’d like to cut?”).

Another funny line came after Rick Santorum explained how he considered it a “miracle” that he won the race for Pennsylvania Senator and that God had put him there. The moderator responded with: “What message did God have for you when you lost the last race?”

Newt Gingrich, on the “Occupy Wall Street” protestors, said, “That is why you have to tell them: go get a job, right after you go have a bath”.

When health care came up, the moderator chimed in with: “If only Mitt Romney were here.” Herman Cain responded with, “Mitt who?”

The Religion

The debate was heavy with religious topics, with candidates asked to describe when they were “called by God” and asked to reveal their personal struggles in “this sanctuary” of the First Federated Church. The first question asked candidates to elaborate on their feelings about what the words “so help me God” in the Oath of Office of the President mean to them (notably, unlike Oaths of Office for the judiciary, military, Congress and others, this is not part of the Constitutionally prescribed oath, although it has been traditionally included by Presidents). However important distinctions emerged:

  • Rick Santorum declared Muslims must “modernize” their religion as it is “stuck in the seventh century”. It is unclear if Muslims are looking to Mr Santorum for guidance on reforming their belief system;
  • Newt Gingrich argued that the United States Constitution is predicated upon Judeo-Christian principles and that the “pursuit of happiness” mentioned in the United States Declaration of Independence in fact means “the pursuit of wisdom”, and further seemed to argue that “liberty” leads to “libertines”;
  • Michele Bachmann cited a law passed by Lyndon Johnson which prohibits preachers from discussing politics (the Internal Revenue Service, which is charged with enforcing that law, has been challenged repeatedly by churches);
  • Ron Paul made the point that (contrary to Mr Gingrich’s argument) “liberty” is not the same as being “libertine” and that “liberty” comes with the consequences of decisions;
  • Michele Bachmann stated that she has a “biblical world view” and that God “created government”, and that she would like to “see what he [God] has to say about it”;
  • Rick Santorum argued that “liberty” is not “what you want to do but what you ought to do”, in comportment with God’s law.
  • Newt Gingrich argued the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution gives Congress the right, with a simple majority of Congress, to declare life begins at conception. Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment (which is presumably what Mr Gingrich is referring to) deals with citizenship.

The Courts

Perhaps the most revealing opinions came on the topic of what to do with the Supreme Court in instances whereby the Court rules in a way which does not satisfy the candidate’s point of view. The issue arose in the context of both gay marriage and abortion. Newt Gingrich, rather shockingly, called for the government to remove the Court’s power to rule on the constitutionality of certain issues. Such a plan, of course, would have profound implications: a federal government no longer bound by the Constitution where it deems itself above the scrutiny of the court. Mr Gingrich no doubt views this in light of court interference with items he supports, but such a stance would have equal power under a different administration, which might pass laws antithetical to Mr Gingrich’s views, and Mr Gingrich would have no recourse whatsoever to challenge the validity of such a law. On this issue, Mr Gingrich seems to share the view point of Minority House Leader Nancy Pelosi, who appears to believe the government can pass any law, and is not constrained by the Constitution. It was a shocking revelation by Mr Gingrich.

Rick Perry reiterated his argument that the terms of Supreme Court Justices should be limited (the issue of the Constitutional Amendment this would require, and whether it would pass, did not arise).

Rick Santorum would like to abolish the Ninth Circuit Courts, which he stated after Newt Gingrich declared that he would abolish the court of Federal District Judge Fred Biery of San Antonio.

The Wars

Candidates fell into their now-predictable stances on war: Mr Santorum seemed, as usual, almost eager to go to war; Ms Bachmann lamented the lack of access by the government to waterboarding and other torture methods; Mr Gingrich trumpeted his “big-government Republican” world view; Dr Paul argued for the Congressional approval required for war, and then only in defense.

The Five Things We Suggested Viewers Look For

  1. Did Herman Cain have something to offer beyond “9-9-9”? Mr Cain continued to lack the confidence and charisma which he exudes (in buckets) when on the topic of his “9-9-9” tax plan. The debate did not showcase any new planks for Mr Cain to showcase his personality with.
  2. Will the surging Ron Paul solidify recent gains with a strong performance? Dr Paul’s performance was solid. He did nothing to “hit it out of the park” but also remained consistent throughout, and drew applause often. The most important distinction Ron Paul made probably came on the topic of whether government should attempt to force a particular cultural perspective on the populace: all the other candidates seemed to favor the government peddling cultural values; Ron Paul instead argued the government should not be in the business of enforcing culture. It’s an important distinction, because the other candidates argue that the “left” is forcing a cultural viewpoint, and argue not that it is not government’s place to do so, but rather that government should instead push a different cultural agenda.
  3. How will Newt Gingrich handle his recent surge in national polls? Mr Gingrich was more subdued and less combative than he usually is in these debates, and his points were well received by the crowd.
  4. Will Mitt Romney’s absence sway Iowa voters, where Mr Romney is in a dead heat? This remains to be seen, but in a caucus state, it’s hard to imagine Mr Romney’s absence won’t have an impact.
  5. Will any of the other candidates be able to suprise with a strong showing? Rick Santorum clearly savored the opportunity to get more speaking time, and got a good opportunity to show how his candidacy is different than the others. Viewership was particularly low for this debate, however (it was only streamed online and not broadcast on television – you can find it archived here), therefore it’s unclear if Mr Santorum’s increased air time will result in a bump in the polls in Iowa. Rick Perry, too, had his best debate to date, generally articulate and didn’t exhibit the “deer in the headlights” syndrome he has so commonly demonstrated in these debates.

Is There a Path for Ron Paul to the Republican Presidential Nomination?

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House Representative Ron Paul of Texas, currently running for the Republican Presidential nomination, presents an unusual case: here is a candidate who gets the third largest amount of campaign contributions among GOP Presidential hopefuls (behind former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and Texas Governor Rick Perry), who spoke to the causes of the Tea Party long before the modern Tea Party was born (and when doing so often meant being a lone voice, and frequently ridiculed), who consistently polls higher than former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum combined (and consistently higher than Rick Perry, but for Perry’s initial surge) and who has been consistent about his positions throughout his twenty-two years in public office, rather than adopting positions for the sake of popularity among voters of the moment. Ron Paul also polls well against President Obama in theoretical head-to-head match ups, beating every other candidate except Mitt Romney (and Ron Paul beats Obama among independent voters by 48% to 39%, according to this Public Policy Poll). At the same time, Dr Paul gets an inordinately low amount of media coverage: witness his eighty-nine seconds of air time at the South Carolina candidates debate on foreign policy, or, as we previously reported, his lack of coverage after finishing second in the Ames, Iowa straw poll (missing first place by just 152 votes out of 16,892 total votes cast). This is a candidate the media, and the establishment, clearly dismisses (see too the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism study of media coverage of candidate Paul).

Most “pundits” are of the opinion that Mr Paul’s support is “a mile deep but an inch wide”. In other words, his supporters are few but passionate. It is also assumed that Representative Paul has a “ceiling” on his support, somewhere around 10%, above which he cannot climb.

But multiple recent polls show Ron Paul in a virtual tie in Iowa and in second place in New Hampshire (trailing Mitt Romney). So today we ask: are there a set of circumstances whereby Representative Paul could win the Republican Presidential nomination?

So far, the course of the nomination campaign has made clear that there are really only two votes: Mitt Romney or someone not Mitt Romney. Consider this: Mr Romney consistently polled around 23% when Rick Perry entered the race with polling numbers in the forties. After Mr Perry’s numbers receded dramatically (down to the high single digits currently), where was Mr Romney left? Around 23%. The same thing happened while former lobbyist Herman Cain experienced a significant surge and subsequent decline (thought Mr Cain’s decline appears not yet finished): as voters’ support left Mr Cain, it did not go to Mr Romney. The latest “anti-Romney” candidate has been former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has seen his poll numbers rise dramatically as Mr Cain’s have fallen (and as Mr Perry’s continue to fall). But Mr Gingrich’s period in the spotlight as the “anti-Romney” is as fragile as was Mr Cain’s, and Mr Perry’s before him: new revelations that Newt Gingrich accepted between $1.6 million and $1.7 million from Freddie Mac (the amount was previously thought to be $300,000, the figure used in the Michigan debate) could seriously harm Mr Gingrich (who claims these funds were not for lobbying purposes but rather for “historical consultation”). The former Speaker also has a style which, while initially appearing amusingly acerbic, often reveals itself to be more akin to a method of deflecting some inconvenient truths – witness Gingrich’s response when pressed by Mitt Romney about Mr Gingrich’s support of a personal mandate for health care coverage (“We got the idea [for a personal mandate in Massachusetts] from Newt Gingrich”): Mr Gingrich denied he favored a personal mandate several times, before, finally, conceding that he was indeed in favor of an individual mandate for health care (for the record, Newt Gingrich had this to say in 1993: “I am for people, individuals — exactly like automobile insurance — individuals having health insurance and being required to have health insurance.”). If Newt Gingrich’s polling numbers collapse like Rick Perry’s did and like Herman Cain’s are, where does that leave the “anti-Romney” voters?

Michele Bachmann, who won the Ames, Iowa straw poll, but who has seen her polling numbers shrink dramatically since, doesn’t seem a viable alternative to Mitt Romney. Statements like this one, from the South Carolina debate, don’t help: “It seems like the world is gearing up for a world wide nuclear war against Israel.”

Jon Huntsman, former Ambassador to China under President Obama, is running on a platform somewhere to the left of Mitt Romney. That’s hardly going to appeal to that significant portion of Republicans who are opposed to Mr Romney for being too far to the left.

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum hasn’t often polled above 1%, and when he lost his re-election bid for the senate, he lost it very convincingly: his loss to Democrat Bob Casey Jr. was by the largest margin of defeat ever for an incumbent Republican Senator in Pennsylvania (which makes Mr Santorum’s statement at the Las Vegas debate particularly amusing: “I can win Pennsylvania, and if we win Pennsylvania, we win the election!”).

That brings us back to Representative Ron Paul.

There are currently somewhere around three quarters of Republicans who do not wish to see Mitt Romney as their candidate for President. Many of those same Republicans do not wish to see Ron Paul as the candidate. If the only real options come down to Mitt Romney and Ron Paul, the race will be decided by three things:

  • Will the “anti-Romney” Republicans be more likely to hold their noses and vote for Mitt Romney, or similarly hold their noses and vote for Ron Paul?
  • Will other “anti-Romney” candidates like Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich siphon off enough votes from Mitt Romney to allow Ron Paul to squeak out a win with 20% to 25% of the vote (it seems far easier to imagine a Romney supporter switching to Gingrich or Cain than it is to imagine a Paul supporter making that same switch)?
  • What role will independents play?

If, as it increasingly looks like, Tea Party supporters are left with a choice between Mitt Romney and Ron Paul, and the remaining candidates take votes from Romney but not Paul, and enough “anti-war” independents register as Republicans and support Ron Paul, there may indeed be a path for Dr Paul to the nomination.

Largely, this race has come down to “establishment versus anti-establishment”, with Mitt Romney firmly representing the “establishment” and other candidates temporarily (but ultimately unsatisfactorily) representing the “anti-establishment”, except for candidate Ron Paul, who has been “anti-establishment” for over two decades now (with about 99% of his campaign contributions coming from individuals, versus 56% for Mr Romney).

Can Ron Paul pull off a surpise upset? We’ll start to find out in less than seven weeks.

Michigan GOP Debate: Atrocious Moderators and Perry Implosion…

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The Michigan debate between the GOP Presidential nominee hopefuls, Wednesday, November 9th, was notable first and foremost for Rick Perry’s implosion (which we’ll get to later), but also for the behaviour of the moderators: CNBC inexplicably decided to include Jim Cramer among the rotating panel of moderators (yes, it apparently takes at least six CNBC people to moderate a debate, because it is important for a no-name network to get as much exposure as possible for its “talent”). Mr Cramer, he of the “I’ve had too much coffee and must yell in all instances” schtick, annoyed immediately and repeatedly, starting off by insisting that the Italian economy is “too big to fail” in making his own case for a US bailout while attempting to bait candidate Representative Ron Paul. Each time Mr Cramer opened his mouth, the credibility of CNBC took a hit. Mr Cramer is, quite simply, rather too buffoonish and far too much the cartoon character to ever be permitted a role (much less a speaking role) in an important thing such as a debate.

Moderator Maria Bartiromo rolls her eyes as Newt Gingrich responds.

The next low point arose almost immediately: in a debate ostensibly focussed solely on the economy, moderator Maria Bartiromo instead asked Mr Cain about the various allegations recently leveled against him. The audience, rightly, booed. The next question remained on the topic, when moderator John Harwood followed up by asking Mr Romney if he would fire Mr Cain, were Herman Cain the CEO of a company Mr Romney had acquired. The audience booed more loudly, candidate Romney shook his head in disbelief and responded by saying that Mr Cain was the one to answer that question and that he just had. The moderator then announced the focus would return to the economy, and the crowd erupted into applause. This, it seems, is the level to which CNBC has sunk in attempting to grab headlines in lieu of taking their debate responsibilities seriously. This was, by far, the most poorly produced debate to date, and two of the many moderators (Mr Cramer and Ms Bartiromo) seemed far, far out of their depth. Rick Santelli, meanwhile, with his extremely long-winded questions and pedantic delivery proved himself well suited for work outside the realm of television.

Here, then, is a summary of how the candidates performed:

Herman Cain

Mr Cain, former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza and former lobbyist for the National Restaurant Association, focused heavily on his now famous “nine nine nine” plan whenever possible (to the point that Mr Cramer asked him not to include “nine nine nine” or any other numbers in one of his final responses).

When asked about the recent allegation against him, Mr Cain made a forceful case against having one’s character put on trial in the court of public opinion via unproven allegations from, in at least three cases, anonymous sources. Shortly thereafter, Mr Cain made the perhaps imprudent decision to refer to former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as “Princess Nancy” – something which will no doubt be analyzed in the context of the allegations he has been facing.

On topics outside of taxation and the economy in a general sense, Mr Cain (as we noted previously) seems far less certain of himself, and occasionally struggles to answer. But when he gets into territory he is more comfortable with, he is routinely able to hit it out of the park with his delivery. The “nine nine nine” refrain is wearing awfully thin, however, and he’ll need to get some new material to keep things fresh.

Overall score: B

Ron Paul

Representative Ron Paul of Texas had a reasonably good showing. Asked about his plan to eliminate student loans (which currently total an astonishing $1 trillion), and how students would pay for their tuition, Dr Paul answered, “the same way they pay for their cell phones and computers.” He went on to point out that every sector of the economy the government gets involved in faces substantially higher rates of inflation, and gave as examples housing, health care, education and stocks.

Representative Paul continued his common themes of the need to audit the Federal Reserve, and then abolish it, made the distinction between “crony capitalism” (current GOP buzzword) and plain old “capitalism” (while avoiding an attack on Governor Perry, which is what the moderator seemed to set up the question for) and emphasized his plan to cut $1 trillion from the federal budget in his first term in office.

Overall, Ron Paul fared well, but will be lost in the attention Mr Perry is going to receive, which is going to be overwhelming, given his massive gaffe (see below).

Overall score: B+

Mitt Romney

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney gave a middling performance, and clearly has an ongoing and serious problem with the health care issue and his imposition of a personal mandate in the state he previously governed. It is a problem that both won’t go away (and will only get worse if he ever goes up against President Obama) and can’t be solved, because Mr Romney’s arguments are logically inconsistent and there is no possible answer that logically reconciles his insistence on repealing “Obamacare” with his actions while Governor in instituting a materially similar plan. Mr Romney looks rightfully pained when the topic comes up, but he can’t possibly believe it isn’t going to come up in every single debate and many interviews too.

The moderators pointed out inconsistencies in Mr Romney’s position on bailouts (he was against them before he was for them before he was against them again) to question his consistency, which Mr Romney rebutted unconvincingly.

Not the best performance for Mr Romney, but with Mr Cain dogged by scandal and Mr Perry accelerating his implosion, Mitt Romney gains simply by running in place.

Overall score: C+

Newt Gingrich

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was in a testy mood, and took the moderators to task repeatedly. The first instance came when he scolded the media for their poor job of educating the public on matters economic. Moderator Bartiromo seemed to take that remark personally, and was clearly irritated by it.

Later, the moderators asked each candidate in turn to spend thirty seconds explaining their plan for health care once “Obamacare” is repealed. Mr Gingrich was the sixth candidate to respond, and he started with, “My colleagues have all done a fine job answering an absurd question”, before pointing out that a topic which consistutes eighteen percent of the economy and affects every person in America requires a more elaborate answer (and plugged one of his books in the process). Moderator Bartiromo told the former Speaker to take all the time he needs, to which Mr Gingrich clumsily demurred, claiming the other candidates would object.

Overall, though, Newt Gingrich had a fairly strong performance, and once again came across as the most intelligent (and most belligerent) of the people on the stage.

Overall score: A-

Rick Santorum

Rick Santorum continued to push his plan to eliminate the corporate tax for the manufacturing sector. While this may play well in his home state of Pennsylvania, and perhaps Michigan too, the moderators (in one of their few redeeming moments) pointed out the logical inconsistency of being opposed to the government picking and choosing individual companies as winners and losers in the economy while being in favor of the government picking and choosing individual sectors of the economy as winners and losers. The point seemed lost on Mr Santorum, but it is an important one, because he seems to be arguing not that government should not pick winners, but rather that the government should pick winners in a different way: “the federal government should indeed meddle in the economy, and here’s how I would do it” is what his position amounts to. That’s a strange position to take while strongly arguing the federal government has no busines in mandated health care.

Mr Santorum, like Mr Huntsman, is seriously short of money and typically polling in the bottom single digits, and is unlikely to be in the running much longer.

Overall score: C-

Rick Perry

Another horrible performance from Perry – it is becoming physically painful to watch Governor Perry attempt to keep up with the grown ups in the room. Mr Perry’s worst moment of all the debates so far came when he announced his plan to shut down three Departments, and began to list them off. “Commerce”, he said. “Education. And…um…ah…” One of the other candidates finally threw out the EPA as a helpful suggestion, and Mr Perry said, “Ya!”. The moderator then asked if the EPA was indeed one of the departments Mr Perry would eliminate: “No.” The moderator then followed up by asking if Mr Perry really couldn’t remember the third Department he would shut down. Mr Perry couldn’t.

The only reason Mr Perry is taken even remotely seriously as a contender is because he has raised an awful lot of money. He is not a serious contender, and never was (as we previously noted, “…it’s hard to imagine a scenrio whereby he recaptures the lead in the polls, or comes anywhere close to the Republican nomination”) – he is of the school of politician which believes policy positions are incidental to obtaining power: pick whatever positions your crack support team thinks will get you in office, then you can do what you want. In a more intelligent politician, this can work (see Obama; Bush). Not so Mr Perry.

Rick Perry’s run is done, and no amount of money can help now – that clip is going to be viral on Youtube by the time this article is posted. And so the political system shows its strengths: given enough exposure and opportunities to hang themselves, many frauds inevitably reveal themselves. Mr Perry is one such fraud: the former chair of Al Gore’s Presidential campaign in Texas; the Governor who increased spending over 80% during his time in office but campaigned as the “true conservative”; he of the tongue tied moments, repeatedly, and cursed with an inability to clearly articulate the time of day has been exposed as little more than a political opportunist.

Overall score: F (is there a lower score available?)

Jon Huntsman

Back on stage after boycotting the Las Vegas debate, former Utah Governor and Obama Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman didn’t have any notable moments, but thankfully didn’t try too many of his usual poorly delivered jokes.

Mr Huntsman has all his marbles on New Hampshire, and doesn’t have much cash on hand. Not a signficant contender, and did nothing to persuade viewers otherwise.

Overall score: C-

Michele Bachmann

Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann, normally one of the stronger debaters, didn’t have a particularly strong showing by her standards, nor was her performance particuarly poor. Her explanation of her opposition to cuts in the payroll tax wasn’t fully formed, and much of her answers were recycled in whole from prior debates.

Overall score: C

Is Ron Paul Getting a Fair Shake in the Media? Watching the Watchers…

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This is the first in a series of articles examining media coverage of the run up to the 2012 US Presidential election. Today we examine the media response to the Iowa Republican straw poll and attempt to find an empirical answer as to whether the media is under-reporting Ron Paul’s candidacy.

Ron Paul, one of the Republicans hoping to become his party’s Presidential nominee, is an interesting candidate: an obstetrician / gynecologist who has been a member of the House of Representatives on and off for 22 years (1976 to 1977, and again from 1979 to 1985, representing Texas’ 22nd District; 1997 to present representing Texas’ 14th District), Dr Paul has for three decades been considered “on the fringe” of the Republican Party, holding views centered on liberty, freedom and the supremacy of the United States Constitution. Recently, it seems his party is coming around to his views: witness the sudden clamoring for an audit of the Federal Reserve (something Dr Paul has been proposing for many, many years now) and the likewise anti-foreign war tilt of many (but not, notably, all) Republican Presidential aspirants.

But is Ron Paul getting a fair shake from the media? Here is a candidate who set single-day fundraising records in 2007 (and 99.42% of his funding came from individual contributors, with not a cent from federal funding), who has been ahead of the curve on several key issues (notably economic bubbles caused by federal monetary policy and the sagacity of foreign military adventures) and just today finished an extremely close second to Michele Bachmann in the Iowa Republican Presidential straw poll (Mrs Bachmann beat him by just 152 votes). Yet there are more media mentions of Tim Pawlenty, who finished a distant third, receiving fewer than half of Dr Paul’s votes. Does it just seem like Ron Paul isn’t getting the recognition he deserves with a second place finish in the straw poll, or is the media actually giving the Paul campaign the cold shoulder?

To examine this in further detail, we compared the results of the straw poll with media coverage of that same poll by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, CNN, the Huffington Post and Fox News, which we picked arbitrarily. We examined each article and counted the number of references to each prospective Presidential candidate, as well as the number of paragraphs in which each candidate’s name appears, and then expressed these numbers as a percentage of all candidates’ numbers of mentions and paragraphs.

Here’s the executive summary:

  • Every single one of the news sources we chose gave a disproportionately low number of mentions and paragraphs to candidate Paul, and in some cases, substantially;
  • In every case, Tim Pawlenty, the third place finisher, received more mentions and more paragraphs than Ron Paul;
  • The discrepancy between Mr Paul’s straw poll result and subsequent article mentions was the largest in the Los Angeles Times article: despite garnering 27.65% of the Iowa straw poll results, the LA Times article mentioned Mr Paul just twice, in a single paragraph. By comparison, Tim Pawlenty received half as many votes as Mr Paul but received three mentions. Mitt Romney, who wasn’t even part of the straw poll, likewise received three mentions, over three separate paragraphs;
  • After the Los Angeles times, the publications with the greatest disparity between Mr Paul’s Iowa showing and the coverage they afforded him were (in order of largest disprepancy to narrowest): New York Times, Huffington Post, Washington Post, CNN and Fox News;
  • Rick Perry’s attempt to distract attention from the Iowa straw poll worked: Mr Perry received 49 mentions in the articles we surveyed, compared to 47 for the straw poll winner, Michele Bachmann, and just 18 for Ron Paul;
  • Herman Cain received fewer than one-third of the votes Mr Paul received, however CNN mentioned him as many times, in the same number of paragraphs, as Dr Paul;
  • Fox News came closest to giving each candidate a number of mentions and paragraphs proportional to that candidate’s poll showing (but Ron Paul was still substantially under-represented).

*****Update 1: strange too how the results of the Ames straw poll were announced by the organizers – or rather, weren’t:  Michele Bachmann was announced as the winner, and that was it – no announcement of how the rest of the field fared, which is particularly strange given that Ron Paul came in second by just 152 votes. You can see the announcement here (see also around the 2:35 mark, as Paul’s numbers are shown on the board and the crowd reacts).

*****

*****Update 2: today (Sunday, August 14th, 2011) the New York Times ran an article titled, “After Iowa, Republicans Face a New Landscape” written by Jeff Zeleny and Michael D. Shear. The article spends 27 paragraphs discussing the remaining potential Republican Presidential nominees in light of Tim Pawlenty’s withdrawal from the race. In those 27 paragraphs, the candidate who missed winning the Ames straw poll by just 152 votes is given this single sentence, in the second-to-last paragraph: “Representative Ron Paul of Texas, who finished a close second in the straw poll, could also influence the race with his strain of libertarian views that have become more popular in this economic climate.”

*****Update 3: Jon Stewart ran an excellent segment about the concerted effort to ignore Mr Paul:

Here is the data in chart form (in order of largest “Ron Paul discrepancy” to least): red lines indicate percentage of votes received in the Iowa straw poll by the candidate; white lines indicate percentage of paragraph mentions for the candidate (as compared to total number of paragraphs in which all candidates’ names appear, ie not to the total number of paragraphs in the article); blue lines indicate total number of mentions of the candidates’ names in the article:

LA Times Iowa Straw Poll Coverage