Archive for 2011

Our Long National Nightmare is Over, Sort of

Friday, December 16th, 2011

Looking wobbly in Iowa, Newt Gingrich shattered the pander meter Thursday night by courageously attacking liberal judges, the UN and “left-wing environmental extremists in San Francisco.”

Despite his relentless grandstanding in the 857th Republican presidential debate, this one in Sioux City, Iowa, the night’s most enduring image of Gingrich was getting his face ripped off by Michele Bachmann, who savaged him for his $1.3 million influence peddling fees from the government-backed mortgage lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

“I am shocked listening to the former speaker of the House because he is defending the continuing practice of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. The speaker had his hand out and was taking 1.6 million dollars to influence senior Republicans to keep the scam going in Washington, D.C.  That’s absolutely wrong. We can’t have as our nominee of the Republican Party someone who continues to stand for Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. They need to be shut down, not built up.”

Newt’s lame response was to 1) offer a lengthy disquisition on the crucial difference between “lobbying” and “consulting”; 2) drone on about the historical role of “government sponsored enterprises”; 3) snarl that Michele just makes stuff up all the time, anyway.

He certainly had a point on that last one, but judging from the utter silence that greeted his answer, from a rip-roaring Republican audience that otherwise cheered everyone on stage just for blowing their nose, the issue could turn out to be one that bites Newt in his size 82-XXX butt come caucus night.

Beyond that entertaining exchange, the event was most notable for being the final – Thank you Lord! – GOP presidential debate before the January 3 Iowa caucuses. No worries though; right after we all get a break for the holidays, the Hawkeye State survivors will be back at it on January 7 from New Hampshire.

Can Newt go the distance? Going into last night’s event Gingrich was on the verge of the biggest short-term collapse since the Red Sox made baseball history by coughing up a nine-game lead and missing the play-offs in September.

Objective signs of impending disaster were everywhere: After drawing within two points of Romney on the wisdom-of-crowds futures market Intrade after a strong debate in Des Moines last Saturday night, the bottom fell out for Newt, who trailed Mittens by 43 points (!) at press time; polling whiz kid Nate Silver meanwhile ran the latest tracking surveys through the Univac and suggested the Great Man might be heading for a three-way tie in Iowa, at best.

In identifying the factors that changed the dynamic so dramatically in the five days before last night’s smack down in Sioux City, start with Newt’s own self-sabotaging idiocy; between doubling down on his belief that poor black kids should work as janitors and his self-important fulminating on brain science at the University of Iowa (where he was accused of having a “PhD in cheating on your wife”), he also found time to bash Romney for his rapacious company-wrecking at Bain Capital, a stance that made heads explode amid the ranks of the Frederich Hayek set, who think Romney’s brand of Darwinian capitalism is just ducky.

Gingrich was also subjected to yet another week of non-stop withering fire from the Republican pundit class, which started bashing him at the start of the month and never let up, a truly astonishing display of insult and invective.

The Wise Men speak: From the unctuous Charles Krauthammer (Newt “has a self-regard so immense it rivals Obama’s”) and the arch Peggy Noonan (“a human hand grenade”) to elitist barometer Michael Gerson (Newt’s “problem is not the weakness of a moment, it is the pattern of lifetime”) and our hero Ross Douthat (“the most compromised champion imaginable” for conservative Christians), along with the popular culture musings of Joe Scarborough (“a danger to America”) the maniacal ranting of Michael Savage (who offered Newt $1 million if he’d drop out) and th  wing nut mewing of Ann Coulter (how much of a nut case do you have to be for Ann Coulter to assail you for “endless, nutty pronunciamentos”) the Gingrich broadsides called to mind Oscar Wilde’s comment about the “excellent man” who “has no enemies and none of his friends like him.”

Not to mention the repulsive patrician George Will (“the least conservative candidate…an enemy of capitalism”) who launched a multi-platform, one-man ad hominem jihad so ferocious – here, here and here, to recall just a few ambushes – we almost felt sorry for ole’ Newt. And that was even before National Review (“he seems unable to…even govern himself”) devoted an entire issue to attacking him and the WashPost rounded up a best-of list of anti-Gingrich trash-talk quotes (“This is ‘Newtonium.’ Newt Gingrich is radioactive material. The establishment thinks if they get too close, he could kill every Republican on the ballot”).

Other than that, they really love the guy.

In the end, however, the strongest push back to the Newt surge was the $3+ million dollars in paid advertising his rivals in Iowa put on the air within the last week – two ads from Romney front groups and one each from Ron Paul and Rick Perry – an effort even we may have underestimated.

And with the trend lines moving down, it’s hard to imagine Newt helped himself much with last night’s performance.

 P.S. We’re, like, so over the “Hitler learns that (something happened)” web video trope, but this one of the Fuhrer being told Newt is winning is actually pretty good.

Electoral college degrees: The professional spinners on the Obama re-elect team say they have five different pathways to get to 270 electoral votes. To the surprise of no one, Karl Rove takes a slightly different view. Oh, who knows, maybe the whole thing will end up being a tie.

Consultants: Brown’s 1st Year Not Bad, Not Great

Wednesday, December 14th, 2011

Jerry Brown’s year one performance as governor has been satisfactory – but hardly stellar, according to the collective wisdom of California’s leading political consultants.

As Governor Gandalf completes the first year of his septuagenarian third term as the state’s chief executive, Calbuzz asked our bipartisan Advisory Board of Leading Authorities on Practically Everything to assign Brown a numeric grade, with 1 the lowest and 10 the highest possible ratings.

The extraordinarily scientific result: An average assessment of 6.1.

“While very effective in some ways, the first year turned into the non-stop bitter medicine show,” said one veteran Democratic strategist. “There needs to be a positive side to that coin.”

The highest mark Brown received was an “8,” given him by one Democrat and one Republican; his lowest score was a “4,” a rating also awarded by one member of each party.

“Weak year,” said one underwhelmed GOP consultant. “He didn’t develop and use the political honeymoon capital that a governor gets his first year…Because he has zero outside political organization he’s hostage to the unions and their money…Had much higher hopes he’d have some Nixon to China moments.”

The consultanate generally credited Brown for a serious effort in trying to find a substantive compromise on the budget with legislative Republicans. But several also dinged him for being politically naïve enough to believe such a thing was possible, while others thought his performance suffered from his mistaken belief that the size, scope and complexity of the governor’s job was the same as when he held the office from 1975-1983.

Here, in order from worst to first, are the complete comments offered by our advisory board.

Rating: 4

 (D) – He spent the first five months almost exclusively chasing Republican votes for tax extensions that he was never going to get, then signed a budget with gimmicks he said he would never accept, and now is going to the ballot next year with a tax-raising measure for which he has raised no money.  Other than signing a few hundred bills that he had nothing to do with, it’s hard to see what he has accomplished in his first year.  Wilson, Davis and Schwarzenegger all did big things in their first year in office.  What does Brown have to show for his first year — except middling approval ratings?  

(R) – He didn’t develop and use the political honeymoon capital that a governor gets his first year.  He didn’t deliver on what he promised, which was a ballot measure on taxes.  Because he has zero outside political organization he’s hostage to the unions and their money.  Stunningly, he hasn’t done a damn thing about job creation even though we’re 49th in the country for unemployment.  Pretty tone deaf and he probably doesn’t know what to do.  Weak year.  Too big a government to run out of his hip pocket like he did in the 1970s.  Had much higher hopes he’d have some Nixon to China moments.

Rating: 5

(D) – He gets points for trying to deal with the budget in a straightforward way – no gimmicks, no tricks.  But I don’t think he was prepared for the way in which the political culture in Sacramento had changed in the last 30 years, making it nearly impossible to get bipartisan compromise.

Rating: 6

(D) – As with all recent new governors, with or without experience, Jerry Brown thought governing this state was something well within his skill set, only to be flummoxed by the obstructionist legislative Republican caucuses who have little leadership and less statewide perspective. His inability to secure a budget deal seemed to take all the wind out of his sails and for a while he disappeared.

 This coming year he really needs to learn how to multitask. Since he appears not to trust his tiny senior staff to make any independent decisions, leaving them pretty powerless to enforce policy objectives or cut deals (ala Susan Kennedy), he’s created an atmosphere where he must make every decision himself. There are a ton of huge issues he needs to grapple with, so things will have to give somewhere. Wishing the best of luck in the New Year. We need him to succeed.

(D) – While very effective in many ways, the first year turned into the non-stop bitter medicine show.  There needs to be a positive side to that coin.

Rating: 7

(D) – With a horrible economy and Republican legislators who refuse to be adults, Jerry Brown has an impossible political situation but he has managed to press forward working on responsible solutions to California’s perpetual budget crisis. In 2012, he will have to use all his political skills to pass his tax increasing budget measure. Governor Brown also needs to play long ball and go for a two-thirds majority in the legislature and end the Republican veto of responsible governance in Sacramento.

(D) – In his inaugural address, Brown pledged to speak the truth about the budget, without smoke and mirrors or empty promises; to oppose new taxes, unless approved by the voters; and return decisions and authority to local governments.  He missed the target on the first pledge with the imaginary revenues included in the budget, but he’s done pretty well on the other two.  He gets bonus points for an on-time budget and his thoughtful consideration of bills at the end of session, with just enough vetoes to keep the legislature on its toes next year.

 Rating: 8

(R) – In his second iteration, Brown has once again shown that he understands the power of political symbolism better than most.  While confiscating cell phones and cutting other relatively small-ticket items alone won’t end California’s budget woes, it scores big points with voters on principle.  Brown is showing he’s serious about cutting waste — which he needs to continue when asking taxpayers to dig deeper.

(D) – People are still with him — and that is all that matters. They know he is putting fixing the problem ahead of any worry about his personal politics.

Got a question you’d like us to ask our advisory board? Email it to calbuzzer@gmail.com.





How Gingrich Stole Romney’s Christmas

Monday, December 12th, 2011

All you really need to know about Saturday night’s big Republican debate in Des Moines is that when it started, Mitt Romney was + 14 on Intrade. By  mid-afternoon Sunday, he’d plummeted to just +3.

A few minutes before ABC’s obviously stoned Diane Sawyer asked the six candidates her first question, a check of Intrade, the famed wisdom of crowds online prediction market, showed the probability of Mittens winning the GOP nomination listed as 47.2% to 33.6% for Newt Gingrich.

By the time the two-hour deal went down, the site’s real time futures betting had shrunk his lead to 45.6-to-35.8% over Gingrich, a downward trend that dragged him further, to 41.1-to-38.4% by the time the late NFL games kicked off.

So much for inevitability.

By now, everyone who didn’t get drunk and sleep through the weekend has seen the endless replays of Mitt’s multiple humiliations in the City of Skywalks: the Ted Kennedy bitch slap Gingrich delivered in response to his phony claim that he’s not a politician; the hideous, high-pitched chuckle that emitted from his pie hole when George Stephanopoulos asked if Newt was actually more electable; the moment of madness that seized the brain cells lurking beneath his oleaginous locks and made him think it was a swell idea to offer to bet a thoroughly baffled Rick Perry 10 Large about the words in his own book.

Conned by Ranger Rick: Contemplate that for a moment.

Where we are now: With this week’s Fox debate the only event left before the holidays freeze the race in place in advance of the January 3 caucuses, it’s hard to imagine that any conceivable number of TV ads will give Mittens enough juice to keep the Grinch from opening a can of wupass in Iowa, then blowing into New Hampshire with enough Big Mo to make Romney actually have to compete for a state that was supposed to be a walkover for him.

Then it’s on to South Carolina and Florida, where Gingrich currently holds big leads,  all of which suggests that Romney, at best, is looking at months of tough slog delegate battles against the corpulent and crafty ex-Speaker (GOP rule changes have made contests in many states proportional rather than winner-take-all, increasing the chances of an extended primary season).  None of which is to mention the potential for ongoing mischief posed by Ron Paul, the twinkling, impish libertarian who just won’t go away,

Hey, who knows, maybe this all could mean California might matter in the Republican nominating campaign after all, as our good friend Sherry Bebitch Jeffe has argued most recently, and we ourselves suggested a while back:

But it’s not inconceivable that by June 5, 2012, the Republican presidential nomination could still be in doubt. If the GOP nomination is still undecided, California’s estimated 172 delegates — the bulk of them awarded winner-take-all in congressional districts – would represent about 15% of the total needed to secure the nomination.

In any case, the way that Romney’s campaign swiftly went from sure thing to subject of what-went-wrong tick tocks affirms anew the two most unshakeable rules of politics: 1) Nobody knows anything; 2) The conventional wisdom is always wrong.

That aside, there are three basic factors that help explain how Gingrich reshaped the race in a breathtakingly short time.

Debates mattered, for once. Not since Big Dick Nixon lathered on the LazyShave in his first 1960 set-to with JFK have candidate debates seemed so important to a campaign.

Oh sure, there are iconic moments from certain events – “there you go again,” “where’s the beef?” Bush I checking his watch while Clinton droned on in 1992 – but rarely if ever have debates so fully defined and driven a race.

Saturday night’s affair was at least the 17th of the Republican contest and, having covered scores and scores of these things, Calbuzz can testify that not many change a campaign narrative in a major way. But this turned into a full-season, full-blown reality TV series, with a cast of colorful characters that kept millions tuning in week after week: Would Herman finally put the moves on Michele? Would Huntsman light his hair on fire just for laughs? Would Rick Perry pee in his shoe?

All of which aligned perfectly with Gingrich’s circumstances and skill set; the guy didn’t have the money to slug it with TV ads, and he certainly lacks the charm or warmth to do retail effectively, but showing up week after week to blowhard and foghorn it while one rival after another committed seppuku suited him just fine. As starboard ink-slinger Fred Barnes laments:

 It adds up to this: Republican candidates and their minions have devoted the past six months to preparing for debates, debating, then talking about how the debates went. The president has concentrated on fleshing out a self-serving narrative for his reelection and now is trying to impose it on the campaign. Whose time was spent more productively?

 Besides aiding Obama, Republicans have hurt themselves in numerous ways by letting the debates be the organizing events of the campaign. The stronger candidates have been diminished by appearing, debate after debate, on equal footing with also-rans whose chances of winning the party’s presidential nomination are nil.

 With debates so frequent, peripheral candidates have no incentive to drop out. Fundraising, building an organization, developing policy papers—these aren’t needed to qualify for debates. The willingness to show up is sufficient. For also-rans, availability is their strong suit.

The Tea Party wants a bomb thrower. The most important exchange of Saturday’s debate was the Gingrich-Romney clash over Newt’s incendiary comments about the Palestinians being an “invented people.” Said Our Mitt:

If I’m president of the United States, I will exercise sobriety, care, stability, and make sure that in a setting like this, anything I say that can affect a place with rockets going in, with people dying, I don’t do anything that will harm that process…I’m not a bomb-thrower, rhetorically or literally.

Having already torpedoed 40 years of American peacekeeping efforts in the Mideast, Gingrich won the hall by indulging his Ronald Reagan self-delusions and doubling down on his own bombast against the Romney challenge that he is too irresponsible and too dangerous to be president:

 Reagan believed the power of truth, restated to the world, reframed the world. I’m a Reaganite. I’m proud to be a Reaganite. I will tell the truth, even if it’s at the risk of causing some confusion, sometimes with the timid.

News flash to Mitt: The Tea Party isn’t actually looking for, um, sobriety, care or stability.

Beyond the familiar issues that outrage Tea Party Republicans about the Democratic president – Obamacare, Keynesian economics, deficit spending – lies a more primal and passionate antagonism, which has far less to do with policy differences and far more to do with culture – a visceral antipathy to all the bicoastal, elitist, Chablis-sipping, latte-swilling, Whole Foods-shopping, Volvo-driving, gay-rights advancing, multicultural Planned Parenthood diversity he embodies.

From this perspective, it’s bad enough that Romney is a perennial flip-flopper who parses words more punctiliously than Bill Clinton and who practices a religion many evangelical Christians consider a cult. He’s also a wealthy and entitled rich man’s son, who hails from the homeland of the late Ted Kennedy and who, when he had the chance, sponsored his own infernal, Obama-like universal health care plan.

Compare to this to Gingrich who, regardless of his serial adulteries, multiple marriages, endless re-inventions and shady ethical record, is first and last a red-faced choleric movement conservative with a zest for bombast and invective (what other national leader would say, as Newt did, “people like me are what stand between us and Auschwitz”?), who won’t shy from assailing Obama as a “socialist” and will do his best to tear the presidents face off. As Jonathan Chait wrote in New York magazine:

It is not that Republicans won’t vote for Romney. It’s that Romney does not capture their fundamental attitude toward Obama.

Electability schmecktability. In going along with the Republican debate game, Romney’s play was to keep it low key, sound articulate and smart and come across as just conservatively correct enough so that when the members of the cuckoo caucus predictably fell one by one, there would be old reliable, smiling Mitt and his bright sheen of inevitability.

The problem was, he seems never to have seen Gingrich coming. And now that Newt has ripped away his mantle of inevitability, there doesn’t seem to be all that much else there.