Has speaker of the House John Boehner really agreed to increase taxes on the wealthy in some manner to help strike a fiscal deal with President Obama? That’s a crucial question as congressional Republicans and administration officials get ready for face-to-face negotiations Friday over the so-called “fiscal cliff” crisis facing the US.
Washington’s conventional wisdom is that Speaker Boehner has telegraphed his willingness to give a bit on this issue after years of GOP insistence that it wouldn’t accept higher taxes on anyone, millionaires included. The punditocracy bases this conclusion on the public statements Boehner has made since the election, which have been carefully worded but conciliatory in tone.
Take Boehner’s public statement of Nov. 7, in which he congratulated Mr. Obama on winning a second term, and said that when it came to producing a deficit-reduction package to keep the automatic spending cuts and tax hikes of the fiscal cliff from taking effect, House Republicans would be willing to accept new revenue, under the right conditions.
“What matters is where the increased revenue comes from, and what type of reform comes with it,” Boehner said. “Does the increased revenue come from government taking a larger share of what the American people earn through higher tax rates? Or does it come as the byproduct of a growing economy, energized by a simpler, cleaner, fairer tax code, with fewer loopholes, and lower rates for all?”
Since then, both Boehner and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell have clarified this a bit by insisting that they are not in favor of letting the Bush-era tax cuts expire for those making $250,000 or more a year, as Obama has proposed. Many people in that tax bracket are small-business owners whose firms would be damaged by such a hike, according to the GOP.
“What we won’t do is raise tax rates, and kiss goodbye more than 700,000 good jobs in the process,” said Senator McConnell in a floor statement on Nov. 15.
Carefully parsed, these statements leave open the possibility that Republicans would agree to increase revenues from the wealthy through a cap on deductions or some other non-marginal-rate-increase means. As we’ve written, this is something GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney proposed as part of his own tax reform package. That might make it easier for GOP backbenchers to accept.
(Yes, Obama in his press conference Thursday replied that it’s hard to reach his goal of $1.6 trillion in new revenue, as part of a 10-year, $3 trillion deficit-reduction package, without raising rates on top earners. But that $1.6 trillion is his goal, not the GOP’s, so presumably it’s open to negotiation, too.)
Given the results of the election, many in the GOP realize that they might have a tough time resisting new taxes on high-income earners. Some conservatives outside the party, such as the Weekly Standard’s William Kristol, have publicly come out and said Republicans should accept some tax hikes as the price for getting a real deficit-cutting deal.
But the words of the GOP congressional leaders also might be read in another way: that they’d reject any increase in taxes per se, but they’d accept new revenues stemming from what they predict would be the increased economic activity spurred by wide-ranging tax code reform.
That’s how some analysts reacted to Boehner’s postelection remarks. After all, on Nov. 7 he said he'd accept new revenues that were "a byproduct of a growing economy."
“Conservative proponents of tax reform have long wanted to change the budget rules so that they get credit for bigger tax collections from hoped-for changes in economic growth that follows tax reform. The Speaker has merely restated that hope in a conciliatory tone,” wrote federal tax expert Clint Stretch earlier this month on the blog Capital Gains and Games.
Democrats call this “dynamic scoring,” and they say the heck with it. They point out that the Congressional Budget Office has studied this question and concluded that it cannot find a direct correlation between tax reform and economic growth. Obama rejected it at his Wednesday press conference.
“What I will not do is have a process that is vague that says we will sort-of, kind-of raise revenue through dynamic scoring or by closing loopholes that have not been identified,” he said.
So that’s the state of play heading into Friday’s meeting between the two sides at the White House. We’ll have a better idea about the chances of quick fiscal deal after they’ve exchanged initial positions that may provide more detail on this crucial question. Keep in mind that Boehner has to negotiate with his own party's hard-line antitax right wing as well as the Democrats he'll face across the table.
Even as the post-mortems on Campaign 2012 continue to be written, the jockeying for 2016 has already begun. And in many cases, they are one and the same.
At a press conference, Governor Jindal drew a stark contrast between himself and Mr. Romney, calling Romney’s reported comments that President Obama had won the election because of “gifts” he’d provided to key constituencies "absolutely wrong."
“We have got to stop dividing the American voters,” Jindal said. “We need to go after 100 percent of the votes, not 53 percent.” He also criticized the Romney campaign for focusing too much on biography, and not offering enough of a “vision.”
If Jindal – who has been frequently mentioned as a possible 2016 contender – does wind up running, then comments like these could help him stake out early ground as the Republican candidate who could best speak to middle-class voters and bring more diversity into the party.
Now, we realize that it may seem awfully early for would-be contenders to be drawing battle lines. But in this age of the permanent campaign – when a politician’s words and actions have instantaneous reach and can live forever on the Internet – the initial phase of self-definition can actually prove critical. As Talking Points Memo’s Benjy Sarlin notes, it was during this very same week back in 2008 that Mitt Romney, in an apparent effort to begin burnishing his conservative credentials, wrote his ill-fated “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” opinion article.
And Jindal’s not the only one who appears to be doing some early 2016 positioning.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio – who just so happens to be traveling to Iowa this weekend to appear at a fundraiser for the state's governor – has also been using conspicuously big-tent rhetoric, recently telling reporters that his party needs to moderate its tone when talking about illegal immigrants. How Rubio positions himself during upcoming efforts to tackle immigration reform in Congress could go a long way toward shaping a possible presidential run for him. (Interestingly, so far, he has indicated that he still believes a “piecemeal” approach makes more sense than a comprehensive reform package).
Former vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, on the other hand, seems to be speaking more to the conservative base. His recent comments crediting Mr. Obama’s win to big “urban” turnout struck some on the left as a divisive reference to blacks. Ryan will also be a key player in the upcoming negotiations over the fiscal cliff. How he navigates that turf – whether, for example, he holds the conservative line against higher tax rates, or strikes a more conciliatory pose – could go a long way toward shaping a potential presidential run for him.
On the other side of the aisle, how Secretary of State Hillary Clinton handles the upcoming hearings on Benghazi – she’s now scheduled to testify before Congress in December – could prove critical to her political future.
By the way, just in case you needed any new evidence that the next campaign has indeed already begun – well, Secretary Clinton has already received the endorsement of The Buffalo News, which this week published an editorial saying: “We hope the competing factions in national Democratic politics will coalesce to make her the nominee.”
And it looks like Clinton will be getting Warren Buffett’s vote, as well.
Stephen Colbert has closed his "super political action committee," in case you haven’t heard. The funnyman announced the move on his eponymous Comedy Central show earlier this week. He said he was disappointed that rich groups such as his “Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow” didn’t appear to have had much influence on the election. He also professed to be worried that angry donors were after him for revenge.
Yes, that’s what we said – he sacrificed a canned ham. He’s a performance artist, what can we say? If you want more background on that, read Ham Rove’s obituary, which has replaced the old Colbert super PAC home page on the web.
As the obit says, “don’t stop bereaving.”
As is often the case with Mr. Colbert, there’s a bit more substance to this bit than first meets the wallet, um, eye. When he shut the super PAC, it still had almost $800,000 in contributions, mostly from small donors who’d sent in money after watching his show. What happened to the cash?
Glad you asked! We don’t really know. It’s quite possible that Colbert has just pocketed it as a hedge against Obama actually winning higher taxes on the rich. If he had, that would be perfectly legal.
Because that was Colbert’s real point – that America’s campaign-donation laws are even more bizarre than you think. They don’t just allow groups unaccountable to the voters to gather and spend in elections unlimited amounts of cash. They also allow political entrepreneurs to take that cash and make it disappear, to be used for untraceable purposes.
Colbert showed how this all works on Monday night’s show. He had on Trevor Potter, former head of the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and Colbert’s personal election lawyer. Mr. Potter showed him how to donate a check from the super PAC to an existing 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization, which then forwarded the money to a new secret 501(c)(4), where it essentially disappeared.
Colbert illustrated this by actually writing the check, passing it through an open-ended manila envelope (existing 501(c)(4)), then putting it in a locked wood box (new secret 501(c)(4)). He waited a beat and then reopened the locked box.
The check had disappeared.
“So what do I have to tell ... the IRS about what happened with the money?” Colbert asked Potter.
“Nothing,” said Potter.
Colbert smiled like he was a Grinch in the midst of stealing Christmas. “Well, Trevor, thanks for nothing,” he crowed.
As far as we can tell, this wasn’t just an act. Colbert’s super PAC actually filed a termination report with the FEC on Tuesday, and if you scroll down you can see that it lists an outflow of $7.73 million as “other disbursements.” That’s the money that the super PAC was sitting on, going ... somewhere. Of which we know not.
Maybe Colbert’s donors should demand their money back. He wouldn’t have to give it to them. But we bet Colbert’s evil archrival, Jon Stewart, could turn that into a funny running bit.
Did the American people really “choose” divided government – by electing a Democratic president, a Democratic Senate, and a Republican House?
This may sound like a trick question, since that is, after all, the makeup of the federal government that emerged from last Tuesday’s elections.
But Democrats, as well as many in the media, have been challenging this point, by arguing that the majority of voters did not actually choose to put Republicans in control of the House of Representatives – since nationwide, Democrats appear to have won more than half a million more votes for House seats than the GOP.
As a piece in The Huffington Post put it: "If the United States were really as democratic as it aspires to be, John Boehner would be House minority leader, not speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi would be speaker, and Democrats would control the House, the Senate, and the presidency."
So how did House Republicans manage to hang onto power, despite losing the popular vote for House seats? One answer: through gerrymandering – the calculated redrawing of congressional districts to maximize the impact of their own political constituencies.
As Mother Jones recently explained: "After Republicans swept into power in state legislatures in 2010, the GOP gerrymandered key states, redrawing House district boundaries to favor Republicans. In Pennsylvania, Democratic candidates received half of the votes in House contests, but Republicans will claim about three quarters of the congressional seats. The same is true in North Carolina. More than half the voters in that state voted for Democratic representation, yet Republicans will fill about 70 percent of the seats. Democrats drew more votes in Michigan than Republicans, but they'll take only 5 out of the state's 14 congressional seats."
Others are quibbling with that thesis. Over at The Monkey Cage blog, Eric McGhee argues that redistricting likely accounted for less than half of the gap between the two parties' overall vote share and seat share. The bigger factors, he posits, were incumbency and the fact that much of the Democratic vote tends to be clustered together in urban centers, leading to huge margins of victory in those areas that essentially "wastes" votes.
Why does any of this matter? Because, as the two parties get ready to sit down for Friday’s talks on the fiscal cliff – the automatic spending cuts and tax increases scheduled to hit at the year’s end – they are both claiming a “mandate” for their own policy preferences.
Former vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan told ABC News this week that he believes President Obama absolutely does not have a mandate to raise taxes on the wealthy, “because [voters] also reelected the House Republicans.” Interestingly, though, Mr. Ryan also appeared to hedge a bit on what the electoral results really mean, when he added: “whether people intended or not, we've got divided government” [emphasis ours].
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich went even further this week, telling conservative host Sean Hannity on his radio show: “It's very wrong to suggest that only the president has a mandate. The House Republicans also have a mandate, and it's a much more conservative mandate than the president's."
By contrast, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid believes there is a clear mandate for his side's desire to raise taxes on the richest Americans. Immediately after the election, he told reporters: “The mandate was – look at all the exit polls, look at all the polling, the vast majority of the American people, rich, poor, everybody agrees that the rich, richest of the rich, have to help a little bit.”
Now it’s true that, even if House seats had been allocated by popular vote – giving control of that body to the Democrats – it still would have been a fairly narrow divide overall. So there is good reason for Mr. Obama and the Democrats not to act too confident in the size of their mandate, or too inclined to overlook the political leanings of nearly half the country. In that sense, they'd do well to heed House Speaker John Boehner's careful comments in the wake of the election, that “if there was a mandate in this election, it was a mandate to work together.”
But it’s also true that Democrats may, in fact, have received more of a mandate than the electoral results in the House would indicate.
Along those lines, Ms. Pelosi actually made a (perhaps Freudian) slip in her press conference Wednesday announcing her intention to remain as the House Democratic leader: “I said yesterday, we did not have the majority but we have the gavel," she said. "Excuse me. We don’t have the gavel,” she then corrected herself, to laughter, adding: “We have something more important: we have unity.”
Whether these disgruntled folks are just conservatives venting about President Obama’s reelection, or whether they really believe they’d have a brighter future in the United State of Georgia, say, is an open question. But they’ve received a lot of media attention in recent days, to the point where some on the right are asking this question: Are these people just helping the left?
That’s because the whole thing goes beyond the appearance of sore losing and nears the outer rings of planet lunacy. It makes conservatives look unhinged and foolish, in this view, setting them up as easy targets for the mockery of liberals. Take Jon Stewart, who on his “Daily Show” Tuesday night said he now understands why so many Southerners still fly the Confederate flag.
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“It’s like keeping your fat pants after you lose some weight. You’re happy for now with the new you, but ..." Mr. Stewart said in a segment titled in part “Whine Country.”
Let’s back up a bit, shall we? The White House has a “We the People” forum section on its website that’s intended to allow online viewers to start or sign petitions on issues. If the petitions attract enough support, the administration is supposed to respond, although there’s enough fine print to allow the Obama team to wiggle out of taking up this issue. It’s the administration's website, anyway – not a constitutional convention.
Many of the 34 states that have petitions up are indeed red states won by Mitt Romney, though now voters from some Democratic states, such as Nevada and even Massachusetts, have them up, too. We would not be surprised if angry voters from all 50 states eventually start petitions since there are some irritated citizens everywhere, after all.
The one that’s gotten the most attention is the Texas petition, partly because it has the most signatures (more than 95,000 at last check) and partly because it’s Texas, and it used to be a separate nation, if you remember. Plus, Gov. Rick Perry (R) has dabbled in light secession hinting in the past.
So Governor Perry should be behind this, right? Wrong. His spokespeople are out there making clear he’s got nothing to do with this drive.
“Gov. Perry believes in the greatness of our Union and nothing should be done to change it. But he also shares the frustrations many Americans have with our federal government,” spokeswoman Catherine Frazier said in a statement to The Dallas Morning News.
Other conservatives have been blunter in their defense of the integrity of the nation that was kept together by Abraham Lincoln, a Republican. Over at the RedState blog, editor Erick Erickson – no softy, given that he wants to oust Speaker John Boehner in favor of Rep. Paul Ryan – scoffs at the whole effort.
“We here at RedState are American citizens. We have no plans to secede from the union. If you do, good luck with that, but this is not the place for you,” he wrote on Tuesday.
At the National Review, Charles C.W. Cooke writes that he shares the anger and frustration of many conservatives with the election results, but the answer isn’t loose talk of ripping apart the Constitution. It’s focusing on continuing to push for a smaller federal government and more individual freedom within the existing federal structure.
“Talk of secession is asinine, counter-productive, and distracting,” he writes.
One of the best pieces of evidence supporting Mr. Cooke’s above conclusion is that these petitions are still up. They’re on a White House website, remember. If the Obama administration thought this movement truly undermined the White House, don’t you think it’d find a reason to take them down?
Representative Ryan said that he and presidential nominee partner Mitt Romney entered election night full of confidence, since the poll numbers they were looking at showed they had “a pretty good chance of winning.”
Then electoral numbers came in running the other direction.
“When we saw the turnout that was occurring in urban areas that [was] unprecedented, it did come as a bit of a shock. So those are the toughest losses to have – the ones that catch you by surprise,” Ryan told WISN in Milwaukee, a CNN affiliate station.
Ryan was taking some heat in the blogosphere Tuesday for the “urban areas” part of the above comment. Some saw it as a coded reference to “blacks.” We won’t bother to quote this discussion – if you want to see it, just search “Paul Ryan” in Twitter and read the vitriol that appears.
But we’re surprised that Ryan says he was surprised by the urban turnout. After all, most of the battleground states ended up voting pretty much as the average of pre-election polls indicated they would. That’s how New York Times polling analyst Nate Silver ended up calling the results in all 50 states. With predictions that were pretty darn public at the time.
Maybe the GOP campaign’s internal polling showed something different, and maybe the candidates believed it. But you think they’d at least have taken a glance at something outside their own bubble.
Obviously, the minority vote went heavily for President Obama. That’s a big reason he won. But this was a fairly predictable element. Plus, though final numbers aren’t really in yet, it doesn’t appear that there were more minority voters overall in 2012 than you’d have expected from a straight demographic prediction.
With the exception of 1992, when Ross Perot’s third party candidacy reshaped the electorate a bit, the white share of the vote has simply been on a steady decline. This is due to the pattern of the population, not urban turnout numbers, writes Matthew Iglesias on Slate’s Moneybox blog.
“There’s no discernable ‘Obama surge’ of minority voting here at all,” according to Mr. Iglesias.
It’s true that some battleground states saw a surge in overall turnout, which might have been powered by urban-area minorities. According to ballot counts as of Nov. 12 compiled by the aforementioned Nate Silver, turnout in Nevada was up 4.5 percent, for instance, when compared with 2008.
But Nevada has long been a fast-growing state, albeit one battered by the decline of the housing economy. And North Carolina, a state Romney won, also showed a turnout increase, of 3.6 percent.
Meanwhile, overall turnout in Pennsylvania and Ohio appears to have declined, according to preliminary figures compiled by Silver. Yet Ryan singled out Ohio as a state where he was especially “shocked” by the results.
Maybe the Romney campaign thought urban turnout in Ohio would plunge sharply, and it didn’t. But all indications are that what really hurt the GOP in the Buckeye State was Romney’s inability to explain his position on the auto bailout in a way that appealed to Ohio's white working class voters.
Everyone was expecting this to be a week of high drama in Washington: In the wake of his reelection, President Obama would begin official negotiations with congressional Republicans to fix the so-called “fiscal cliff,” the combination of automatic spending cuts and massive tax increases scheduled to hit at the end of the year.
Both sides have indicated a desire to work together, but the policy preferences between them remain stark, and a deal is far from certain. If they fail to find a solution, the ramifications would be potentially disastrous for the nation's economy.
Under normal circumstances, this kind of high-stakes maneuvering would be the subject of intense media scrutiny, with nonstop cable news coverage, and partisans on both sides trying to gain leverage in the press and behind the scenes.
Instead, what we got this week was a different kind of drama entirely – one that’s more reminiscent of high school, but that has sucked up virtually all the oxygen in the nation's capital.
We’re referring, of course, to the adultery scandal involving former CIA Director David Petraeus and his biographer, Paula Broadwell – a mess that has now expanded to ensnare other officials, with the discovery of a trove of apparently inappropriate e-mails between Gen. John Allen, the top US commander in Afghanistan, and another woman, Jill Kelley, who was also on the receiving end of threatening e-mails from Ms. Broadwell.
It has all played out like a real-life episode of “Homeland,” Showtime’s popular CIA drama. As New York Rep. Peter King (R) commented in a recent television interview: “It has the elements, in some ways, of a Hollywood movie, or a trashy novel.”
And naturally, it’s the kind of story the chattering class simply cannot resist. That’s primarily because it involves sex, but also because there’s a suspicious timeline (who knew what when) involved. Most important, because of the critical nature of Mr. Petraeus's and General Allen’s positions, it has raised real questions about whether national security might have been put at risk – or, at least, whether these high-level officials were unduly distracted from their extremely important, taxpayer-funded jobs.
The scandal has created a big, unexpected problem for the president, who now has to scramble to fill two top personnel gaps on his national security team.
But there may be one silver lining: It is, so far, allowing the fiscal cliff maneuverings to proceed with only a fraction of the attention they would otherwise have received. And that may ultimately be more conducive to getting a deal.
As The New York Times’s David Brooks writes Tuesday: “The liberal left wing, like the Tea Party types, has an incentive to build television ratings by fulminating against their foes. But President Obama and John Boehner have an incentive to create a low-decibel businesslike atmosphere. The opinion-entertainment complex longs for the war track. The practitioners should long for the deal-making track.”
At the moment, this so-called “opinion-entertainment complex” is currently getting all its entertainment needs (and more) supplied by reports of thousands of apparently inappropriate e-mails sent between Allen and Ms. Kelley, as well as an unnamed FBI agent who was removed from the case for sending shirtless photos of himself to Kelley, and new details on how Petraeus and Broadwell tried to hide their own communications by using a pseudonymous Gmail account in which they drafted, but never sent, racy emails to each other.
And that giant distraction may, in fact, be providing both sides in the fiscal cliff negotiations with an unexpected respite from the spotlight. The issue's not being ignored, of course, and it will likely gain more attention toward the week's end, as Obama and congressional leaders actually sit down together. But for now, the fiscal cliff story is on the back-burner – and the absence of a media feeding frenzy surrounding the negotiations may be the best thing going for those who hope a deal will actually get done.
At first glance this seems unlikely – Democrats often accused Mr. Romney of making vague assertions instead of actual policy proposals, particularly on fiscal issues. But at one point the GOP nominee did float the notion of a cap on income tax deductions. Some experts now say such a limit could be an important element in a deficit-reduction agreement palatable to both parties.
“A cap just might be a Republican-friendly way to get what Democrats want,” writes Matthew O’Brien, associate editor for business and economics at The Atlantic.
If you recall, during the campaign the cap thing came up in the context of how to pay for Romney’s proposed across-the-board 20 percent tax rate reduction. The former Massachusetts governor vowed that this reduction wouldn’t cost the US Treasury anything, in part because he’d eliminate deductions and close loopholes to keep tax revenue up.
But he wouldn’t say which deductions in particular would get whacked – probably because many are popular, such as the mortgage interest deduction and the deduction for charitable donations. Eventually, he said that perhaps people would be allowed a certain dollar figure of deductions they could take as they choose, say $28,000.
For Democrats, the appeal of this idea is twofold. One, it’s a tax increase on the wealthy that doesn’t depend on actually increasing the tax rate, which remains a red flag for many Republicans. Two, it’s got tremendous mathematical power. A hard cap on deductions would hit the wealthy much, much harder than it would hit the middle class, or even the upper middle class.
Let’s raise the cap to $50,000, just to be generous. As Mr. O’Brien points out, this would raise $59 billion in 2015 if tax rates otherwise remain the same. Fully 73 percent of this revenue would come from households whose income exceeds $1 million. Households making less than $200,000 would pay essentially zilch in extra bucks to Uncle Sam.
Wow! Way to zap the car-elevator set, Mitt. And it’s a Republican idea. So how could the GOP now object?
We’ll tell you how – by objecting. This is a tax hike in sheep’s clothing, and the question is whether the GOP congressional leadership will treat it as such. Yes, conservative William Kristol over at the Weekly Standard on Sunday said it’s time for Republicans to give on the question of higher taxes on the wealthy. But not everyone in the party is willing to make that sort of retreat.
House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio has said he’s still opposed to anybody’s tax rates going up. But he has suggested he’s open to new revenues through “tax reform.” Would a deduction cap qualify here? That’s not yet clear, and it’s one of the most intriguing questions hanging over the fiscal cliff negotiations, which begin in earnest this week.
Furthermore, President Obama proposed a version of a deduction cap in 2011 to help pay for his American Jobs Act, which Congress didn’t pass. At the time, institutions that benefit from charitable deductions, such as universities, art museums, and so forth, objected strenuously to the limit, since they depend heavily on millionaires’ contributions. If charity isn’t excluded from a cap proposal, expect to see this opposition rise up again.
One last point: Any cap on deductions would have to be part of a larger deficit-reduction package. It wouldn’t raise nearly enough money to solve the problem by itself. Mr. Obama’s cap by itself would have generated $164 billion over 10 years, points out Suzy Khimm on The Washington Post’s WonkBlog Tuesday. In contrast, allowing the Bush-era tax reductions to expire for those making more than $250,000 would generate a whopping $1 trillion over the same time period.
Mr. Rove, of course, ran two of the biggest outside-donor groups this cycle, Crossroads GPS and American Crossroads, whose primary tasks were to help defeat President Obama and take back the Senate for Republicans. He raised hundreds of millions from wealthy Republican donors – and in the end, those donors got very little for their money.
Republicans not only failed to take the White House, but only two of the Senate candidates backed by Rove’s groups won. As a report for the Sunlight Foundation estimated, American Crossroads got a 1.29 percent return on its spending. Crossroads GPS fared slightly better, with a 14.4 percent return.
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Rove also publicly predicted that Mr. Romney would win with 285 electoral votes (he wrongly assumed Romney would take Ohio, Iowa, Virginia, Colorado, and Florida). And he was the center of a bizarre episode on Election Night when, live on Fox News, he accused the network of prematurely calling Ohio for Romney (he was wrong there, too).
Needless to say, this has all given the Left a gigantic case of schadenfreude. After Democrats suffered bitter defeats at the hands of Rove in 2000 and 2004, and then heard him endlessly referred to as a “mastermind” strategist and a political “genius,” many can barely contain their glee.
New York Sen. Chuck Schumer said at a Monitor breakfast with reporters on Thursday: “Karl Rove’s reputation is going to take a significant hit. If Crossroads were a business and Rove was the CEO, he’d be fired for getting a poor return for his investors.”
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) of Ohio – one of Rove’s top targets, who nevertheless won reelection Tuesday – couldn’t resist taking a direct shot on Election Night, crowing: “Karl Rove had a bad night.” And top Obama strategist David Axelrod said that if he were one of Rove’s donors, he’d “be asking where my refund was.”
Even many conservatives are taking Rove to task. Donald Trump, who was so upset about the election results that he called for a “revolution” on Twitter, was almost as unhappy with Rove’s performance, tweeting: “Every race @CrossroadsGPS ran ads in, the Republicans lost. What a waste of money.” Likewise, Richard Viguerie, a veteran GOP operative, wrote that "in any logical universe, establishment Republican consultants such as Karl Rove ... would never be hired to run or consult on a national campaign again – and no one would give a dime to their ineffective Super PACs, such as American Crossroads."
Rove’s defenders have been arguing that his efforts prevented the presidential election from being a blowout, putting Romney and other Republicans in a position where they had at least a chance to win. The beleagured Jonathan Collegio, chief spokesman for American Crossroads, has been on cable television nonstop in recent days, pointing out that the Obama campaign outspent the Romney campaign on TV ads by more than $150 million, and – with the exception of a few self-funded Republicans – most Democratic Senate candidates outraised their GOP counterparts this cycle, leaving it to outside organizations to make up the difference.
Rove himself, in his weekly Wall Street Journal column, blamed the election results on a number of other factors, including hurricane Sandy, for “interrupting” Romney’s momentum, The New York Times headline writer who titled Romney’s 2008 op-ed on the auto bailout “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt,” and the hotel worker who surreptitiously recorded Romney’s now-infamous remarks about the 47 percent.
But in an appearance on Fox News on Thursday, Rove created yet another mini-controversy when he said that President Obama won reelection “by suppressing the vote.” (It turns out he was not referring to any actual attempts to prevent people from voting, but rather the Obama campaign’s efforts, through negative ads, to paint Romney as an unacceptable alternative – something Rove himself was accused of doing to Sen. John Kerry in 2004, and a tactic that has pretty much become par for the course in modern politics.)
The real question, of course, is how much any of this will affect Rove’s reputation and position as the GOP’s premier strategist and fundraiser going forward.
Our prediction? Not a whole lot. For one thing, politics is littered with operatives whose track records never seem to get in the way of future opportunities. Remember the famous “Shrum curse” – referring to Democratic strategist Bob Shrum, who worked on no fewer than eight losing presidential campaigns? And of course, if you put this election aside, Rove’s track record is still pretty good.
In addition, one of Rove's biggest past accomplishments was helping George W. Bush win 35 percent of the Hispanic vote as part of his 2000 victory – a share that today seems positively colossal for a Republican (Romney won just 27 percent of Hispanics). That's a particularly relevant success story, given the need for Republicans to bring more Hispanics into the party fold in the future. If the GOP decides that a new Hispanic strategy will be key to its success going forward, who knows, Rove might just be the one to spearhead it.
If nothing else, Rove's longtime connections to the Bush family are likely to keep him in a prime position: Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's name is often mentioned as a potential 2016 presidential candidate. And now it appears that Governor Bush's son, George P. Bush, is preparing to run for office in Texas –with many already calling him a future star of the party.
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In 1992, Democratic strategist James Carville immortalized the phrase: “It’s the economy, stupid,” making the point that in the end, most presidential elections come down to something pretty simple.
And as we wade through all the post-mortem analyses about what went wrong for Republicans this year – They've permanently marginalized themselves as a party of old white men! They got schooled by the high-tech Obama turnout operation! They were sunk by the loony-tunes gaffes of tea party types! – well, we just keep coming back to something much more basic: “It was the candidate, stupid.”
We take no pleasure in piling on Mitt Romney here. Running for president is hard, and losing (twice) is obviously a bitter pill. We hope Mr. Romney can take some solace in the knowledge that, as he said in his concession speech, he left it all on the field.
And there's no question that there are larger issues for Republicans to think through here – above all, how to win more support from Hispanics, the nation's fastest-growing voting bloc.
But we can easily envision a 2016 race featuring, say, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, in which the GOP's share of the Hispanic vote suddenly, magically rises. Or a 2016 race featuring, say, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, that somehow manages to attract more young people and women.
Notably, as Sean Trende points out in a trenchant analysis in RealClearPolitics, Romney’s loss may actually have had more to do with white voters who chose to stay home than it did with the increased turnout among minorities. And in the end, we think Romney’s lack of appeal to both whites and even many non-whites wasn’t just about policy – but about personality.
Because, let’s face it: Romney was not a great candidate. He won the nomination because every other potential top-tier candidate decided to take a pass. Let’s not forget, during the GOP primary season, we in the media actually spent weeks covering Herman Cain as the field’s frontrunner. Rick Santorum, the sweater-vested ultra-conservative former senator from Pennsylvania, who compared homosexuality to bestiality and had lost his own seat by a whopping 18 points, wound up being Romney’s stiffest competition.
We agree with the pundits who say that, in retrospect, it was incredibly ill-advised for the Republicans to nominate – during a cycle that was likely to be dominated by tales of economic hardship – a multimillionaire who had made his fortune in the kind of investment activity many Americans associate specifically with the crisis at hand.
But Romney’s biography wasn’t the biggest problem. It was Romney himself.
He was never able to connect with voters on the trail. Worse, he wasn’t ever able to deliver a speech that sounded like he had any genuine political convictions. It always felt mechanical, artificial, like a series of talking points he’d just memorized. In a way, Romney’s political biography – with its moderate-to-conservative-and-back-to-sort-of-moderate-again path – may have been the bigger problem, if only because it seemed to reinforce the overall sense that there was no there there.
True, Romney had that one good debate performance. But even that, in hindsight, seemed to conceal Romney more than it revealed him, since he spent most of it blurring differences between himself and the president.
And an inordinate (perhaps unfair) amount of the campaign wound up being devoted to Romney's awkward, off-script remarks. There was the infamous “47 percent” comment. The insult to the Brits during the Olympics. The “I have some friends who are NASCAR team owners” and “Ann drives a couple of Cadillacs.”
The problem with those types of comments weren’t that they highlighted Romney’s wealth, his plutocrat image. Rather, they highlighted his inability, in various types of social circumstances, to muster up appropriate responses. You can call it a lack of emotional intelligence. Or you can call it a lack of acting ability. (MSNBC actually had James Lipton, of Inside the Actor’s Studio, on as a guest repeatedly throughout this cycle to critique Romney’s style on the stump, and needless to say, Mr. Lipton was never impressed.).
Modern politicians are, for better or worse, performers – and to be successful, they must establish a genuine connection with their audience. Of course, they have to be serious too (Herman Cain was a natural performer, but he had nothing of substance to back it up). But they must get the public to buy their performance, and above all, seem comfortable in their own skin. Romney never did.