Thursday, September 13, 2012

Correlation v. Causation: The Romney Campaign's Only Hope

In his convention speech, Obama said more about Mitt Romney’s foreign policy with a slight pause than Mitt Romney managed to say in a whole week of free advertising:

OBAMA: Now my opponents are … new to foreign policy.


Evidently this stuck in Romney’s craw. He’s now so trigger-happy to attack the President on foreign policy that he couldn’t hold his wad until the 9/11 moment of silence was over. Or until he knew what had actually happened in Libya.

Slate’s John Dickerson has been a strenuous apologist for Romney lately and the apology runs something like this: sure Romney got the Libya timeline wrong. But we should respect the “larger truth” of his critique. The Arab Spring saw a handful of countries begin the democratic overthrow of their longstanding dictators. In Romney’s view, this rash of democracy happened because Obama has “apologized” for America. In the absence of relevant questioning, one is left to suppose Romney preferred the dictators. Certainly Sarah Palin does, as evidenced by her ever-classy remark, “How’s the Arab Spring working for you now?” The “larger truth” that Dickerson and others are trying to sustain is this: Obama may not have apologized for America after the embassy attacks, but we should seriously consider that his non-existent apology tour caused the attacks.

By my count, Romney’s latest snipe is the third in a string of desperate associations. First, we had the welfare-to-work attack. Sure, the apologists say, it was factually wrong from start to finish. But come on! Black man want welfare money. That’s a larger truth! Second, the Obama-wants-to-take-God-off-our-money attack. Sure, the apologists say, Obama never did that and actually intervened at the convention to restore God language to the platform. But come on! Socialist Obama hates Jesus. That’s a larger truth! And now, the embassy “apology.” Sure, we’re told one more time, Obama did no such thing. But …

Come on. Each of these attacks has one thing in common besides their outright falsity: they are flimsy associations. Impressions. Correlations in place of causation. You may have noticed that ice cream consumption and murder both spike in the summer. Well, according to Romney we must fight crime … by prosecuting Ben & Jerry. I know, I know. He never said that. But consider the larger truth.

Then there's the biggest association Romney needs to make, the one central to this election: the economy isn’t good, so ditch the guy in office. Snapshot A: the current economy. Snapshot B: the current president. Set your Skinner Box to “stun,” repeat A and B with hundreds of millions of dollars in funding, and await your victory.

This is the same shallow trendsmithing that gets George F. Will and Charles Krauthammer out of bed in the morning. Perhaps you’ve heard this breathless warning from Will already:

"If Barack Obama wins a second term, this will be the first time there have been three consecutive two-term presidencies since Jefferson, Madison and Monroe between 1801 and 1825."

Holy shit, that’s right! After Bush squeaked his way into one term and scared his way into a second – a string of catastrophes most Americans would gladly fix if they had the chance -- it’s only fair that we should fire Obama because, you know … Monroe. What on earth is the point? And why should Romney get the crown instead? This is what goes for historical analysis now. Simply elide all sense of history – of one event causing another – and stick to the slippery cosmetics of impression-making.

Krauthammer works even harder to forge such impressions. So hard, in fact, that the overweening impression one gets from each of his columns is the sad spectacle of a former Mondale aide using every ounce of his intelligence to advance the most cynical and stupid thesis he can muster. Here he is on Obamacare:

"What did he suggest to address the plague of defensive medicine that a Massachusetts Medical Society study showed leads to about 25 percent of doctor referrals, tests and procedures being done for no medical reason? A few ridiculously insignificant demonstration projects amounting to one-half of one-hundredth of 1 percent of the cost of his health-care bill."

Damn, sounds pretty bad! Except tort reform is a matter of law, not resources.  Which is why that reform is in the Act, not the price tag. But that doesn’t stop C-Kraut from comparing the cost of the bill’s premium subsidies with the cost of … the paper it takes to print better tort law.

Mitt Romney ran in one of the silliest primary fields in living memory and still never managed to crack 25% of his own party’s vote. Time and again, he offers a haircut in place of an argument. Because when that fails, you can always drown a Santorum or Gingrich in an avalanche of negative ads. He’s really hopes to do the same against Obama, using whatever easy impression comes to hand. Welfare! Embassy! Misplaced Antecedent to the Word “That”! After all, you can’t make Obama’s “you didn’t build that” quote work without a jagged cut in the middle of the footage. No matter! The larger truth transcends the omission of truth.  The impression is what counts. And so we had to watch the RNC convention pin its whole case … on a jump cut.

True to its instincts, the media will enable any development, no matter how frivolous, so long as it keeps the conflict amplified and the election close. This is their biggest quadrennial ratings draw, after all, so what good would it do to evaluate the candidates on their stated intentions and larger record? Anytime we get that kind of analysis, the polls only tilt further towards Obama and reiterate that he can and should proceed with a final four years as President. But there’s nothing new in that news. So if Romney wants to make another schoolyard taunt, in escalating magnitudes of mendacity, reporters and the general commentariat are all too happy to let him.

Recall the cynicism that attended every reaction to the American Jobs Act. Romney wants to spend $5 trillion on rich people again, with the promise that this time -- this time -- it will really work.  All you need is the impression and amnesia. Obama wants to spend one-tenth of that putting 2 million people back to work immediately. In one stroke, we could drop unemployment to 6% and boost GDP by two points, to boot. And the commentary ran like this, “Sure Obama’s plan is good, inexpensive, and economically smart. But Republicans in Congress will never allow it, so mark it down as another failure for Obama.” This same attitude now attends predictions about the next four years. “Sure, Obama would have a mandate for a grand bargain in his second term, but Republicans in Congress will still obstruct him, so we may as well give them the keys instead.”

With cause and effect restored, the simple fact is this: Obama can broker a far better deal with his veto pen than Romney can advance with the rabid caucus of Boehner and Cantor at his side. Starting next year, those same Congressional Republicans will finally have to go back to worrying about their jobs (and ours) instead of the president’s. We should deliver them from that which so distracts them, by keeping Obama on the case.

A final word for the biggest and most hilarious impression of the lot -- that Obama is Carter and Romney is Reagan.

I mean, my god! Look at the R’s in their names! And also did you notice that Romney’s logo is a not-so-subtle anagram for R-MONEY?

Say what you will about the guy ... he’s got the dyslexic vote locked up.

Back to cause and effect: Jimmy Carter inherited a bad scene and made it worse. Obama inherited a catastrophic scene and made it better. Meanwhile, Ronald Reagan was a charismatic man harvesting a nascent political movement that he had shepherded for decades. He was also riding a larger sea change against a half-century of dominant liberalism. By contrast, Mitt Romney is at best a walking word cloud. And the sea simply ain’t changing in his direction. Not on immigration. Not on gay rights, women’s rights or progressive taxation. Like each of his attacks so far, brute shallowness defines both the man and his cause. Nevertheless, for the press in general and Romney in particular, it’s much easier to show history repeating through a sequence of familiar impressions than it is to show history unfolding according to the very contingencies they’re supposed to be reporting in the first place.

In an election where so much depends on amnesia, we do well to remember that this is the same press and the same party that gave us the fabulous impression -- excuse me, the “larger truth” -- that Saddam Hussein ordered the 9/11 attacks.

Snapshot A. Snapshot B.

Hop in the Skinner Box, kids, and brace for many more shocks to come.

Romney may have enough cash and credulity behind him to wage a campaign on nothing more than special effects.

But Barack Obama actually has a cause.


Anonymous said...

Ah Karl, Obama Biden '12 should've hired you. You do a better and more thorough job presenting their talking points than they do.

By this point in the campaign I'm sick of the talking points on both sides and am probably reciting them in my sleep. This campaign has become so predictable I can probably tell you what will happen next. However, regardless of who "wins" this election I have a feeling of serious pessimism.

From my reading of history and experience working nearly 8 years in Congress we've become a nation/government/culture that cannot solve/manage crises. The last four years have been especially depressing (and not just from my partisan leanings). My party has allowed extreme individuals to have too much influence on the functions of Congress. Do they run it? No, but they have made it completely uncomfotable to try to reach any sort of fair compromise to address big issues. The Democrats as well have shed that "New Democrat" smell that President Clinton had sprayed them with in the 90's and now don't seem to care what the GOP thinks because they are right and just and people who disagree with them are Nazis. There is no trust anymore.

As far as President Obama is concerned, he's a good politician but frankly a very lousey leader. Bob Woodward's latest book is very damning. How can a president get almost completely shut out of a debt conversation when national default/calamity is on the line? How can a presdent/one party insist on a massive healthcare program and not get one member (not one) of the opposing party to go along with it? You may look at him with rose-colored glasses Karl, but he has let Congress lead him during his term and not the other way around as it should be. He has left this country more bitter and divided now than when he got elected. By definition most historians would consider that to be a bad president.

So what if he does wins another 4 years? Historically the second term is worst than the first in every case. He likely will have a divided or opposite party control Congress for the duration of his presidency. He seems to think the GOP will work with him since the burden of his reelection will have past. Really? Will THIS GOP all of a sudden go along with raising taxes and signing off on his agenda? He's let Congress lead him in his first term, can you honestly believe he's going to grab the mantel for his second when his only obbession seems to be getting a second term? Where are his ideas? He has visions of course but that and a nickle will yield you five cents.

And what if he doesn't win? Romney likely gets a favorable Congress, but an angry one. The Dems will be just as preeved as the GOP is now and will not cooperate on anything. My party is likely to act the way the Dems did in 09-10 and cram serious bills through Congress that will divide and anger the country. Maybe they'll help but the big stuff wll still be there.

The bottom line to this rambling post is when are we going to stop being occupied with winning the next election and address our crises. When do we reach the breaking point? When do the parties give up their sacred cows? We can't afford four more years of the last two, which is what we'll get if Obama gets reelected.

Your brother-in-law

Karl Miller said...

Well, if leadership is the art of tricking your opponents into voting for what they already wanted, then yes, Obama's a pretty lousy leader. Clinton offered his own health care bill, as you'd prefer, and that went promplty nowhere. Letting the bill emerge from Capitol Hill was agonizing, but in substance the bill is a more balanced piece of legislation because of it.

I've only read the Woodward chapter on the debt ceiling, but regarding health care: since when did a Hertiage Foundation model become unworthy of Republican votes? That fight wasn't about substantive objections, it was about party unity for the Republicans, their stated strategy from the get-go. For all the talk of "repeal and replace" they've never gotten around to the "replacement" part yet. Where's the leadership there?

No one leader can guarantee bipartisanship; we should judge them by the bipartisanship of their policies. On that score, the ACA is perfectly moderate.

On the debt ceiling, Woodward shows a) that it was a manufactured crisis to begin with, b) Obama and Boehner actually had some rapport until Cantor skunked it, and c) Boehner refused to answer the president's phone calls for 18 hours at the end, when a deal that was 3-1 one in his favor sat waiting. Such behavior, together with the unprecedented filibustering, is ridiculous in the face of the balanced deal that was being forged and the stakes of the moment. It is possible to promise bipartisanship, as Obama did, and blame the other party for not following through, as most Americans do now.

Please remember that Congressional Republicans didn't even want Simpson-Bowles to be formed in the first place. When Obama said too bad we're having one anyway, they refused to let its recommendations come to the floor for a vote without amendments, which made it a great brainstorming session, but pretty much dead, politically. Then Paul Ryan voted against it because it failed to overturn the ACA in one stroke. How much more is a leader expected to do? He offered an S-B model again at the convention ... and I think we could actually get it. But the simple fact remains: Obama has been far more flexible on the spending and cutting front than Republicans have been on the taxing front. Because like a good leader, he doesn't have to kowtow to the Norquists or beg for forgiveness from the Limbaughs of his party. The fever will break when congressional republicans finaly do, I'm sorry to say. We simply cannot get to the next level of growth or debt reduction without higher revenues. And that's the only sacred cow that hasn't come close to being slaughtered, wouldn't you agree?

You're a hard worker and a devoted student of history. Would you tolerate the sneer "government job" for what you do? We have 700,000 government jobs that need filling in this country, but we can't get them filled because of that sneer. I acknowledge I have rose-colored glasses for Obama -- and, yes, I'm totally saying shit I wish they'd say so I wouldn't have to! But I don't believe I have blood-colored glasses for Romney or the Tea Party faction right now and that's what I'm complaining about in this particular post.

You also have a view on all this that I simply don't, so if there's more to the backstage story that I'm not understanding, I could really use the help! I don't believe, and I don't think Obama believes, that the problem with this country is Republican voters or Republican ideas. We wouldn't have had a stimulus that was 1/3 tax cuts if the problem was republican ideas. Or a Hertiage Foundation ACA if the problem was republican ideas. Or a debt deal that was more cuts than taxes if the problem was republican ideas. Respectfully, the problem isn't republicans or their ideas; the problem is ... some of their leaders.

Anonymous said...

I'd say that if the fever breaks only when Congressional Republicans do then we're in for a long sickness. When I refer to the sacred cows I mean taxes for the GOP and entitlements/social safety net for Dems. Obama's proposal to just let some of the Bush tax cuts expire for the rich doesn't come near to the kind of revenue he wants- It's just a gimmick and the super rich would probably get around it anyway (I know what you're thinking). Serious restructuring of the tax code is what is really needed. Tax breaks and loopholes should be limited or eliminated, corporate tax rates should be slashed from their current 35%. I think the would help creat a more business friendly climate, but it also probably isn't just that simple either. As much as Dems do not want to think about it, programs like Medicare/ Medicaid will have to be changed considerably in order to remain solvent and not crush this country further in debt.

Speaking of debt crisis you're right in one sense that last year's crisis was manufactured in that if Congress just simply raised the debt ceiling like it routinely did there would have been no fuss. However, when people like the joint chiefs of staff and the Secretary of State go on record before Congress and say that one of the top national security concerns of the country is the skyrocketing debt maybe it's time to try to do something about it. It's unfortunate what happened and put so many people on edge, but if it at least tries to force the administration to take it seriously then some good came out of it. Yes, both parties are guilty for the rapid increase, but both parties should try to fix it hopefully in a balanced way.

The founders were on to something when they insisted that there could be no "no" votes when it came to independence or when they made the "grand compromise" when forming the constitution. My reading has made me long for the days when big stuff like that could happen, though I have not lost complete faith that it still could, but I disagree that it has to be just one side that yields.

Karl Miller said...

I'm with you on the corporate tax rate -- that has implications for international investment and it should be much lower. Obama says 27%, Romney 25%. I fear that change there is even more intractible than the income tax debate: the corp rate will only change when the numerous lobbies get together to make trade-offs. I can't imagine wrangling them into place, but we certainly should somehow.

On income tax, the system is essentially flat now, when you account for deductions and loopholes. It would be great to do a big clean house, and here there are fewer blocs to negotiate with, just bigger blocs. In any case, the central perversity of the income tax code is not just its complexity but that it rewards investment before it rewards work -- ownership before productivity. If we're as serious about work as we say, we shouldn't give preferential tax rates to investment income. Whatever the final rates are, that gap should be closed on principle, don't you think? The guys who work the trading floor are some of the hardest working bastards out there and they deserve the lion's share of their salaries ... for that work.

On the entitlement front, major structural reform is needed, too, without a doubt. But I would still argue that the left has offered more there than the right has ever offered on revenue and we just can't get there without both. That Obama's request for upper-income tax hikes is insufficient only underscores just how little the other side is willing to concede. Remember the $800 billion in new revenue Obama and Boehner had almost agreed to? That wasn't even real revenue! It was projected, "dynamically-scored" revenue, if you will. They weren't even raising taxes to get it. And still they said no. Because now the word "revenue" is just as toxic as "taxes" apparently.

I wish Obama would float some more specifics about structural reform, like the retirement age or eligibility age -- that's low-hanging fruit for S.S. and Medicare. It's not lost on me that the original eligibility age for S.S. happened to be the life expectency age! Surely we can split the difference and make sure it goes to the people who really need it. Obama has offered some of these at different points in different negotiations, but we've yet to hear any republicans offer substantial revenue. Simpson-Bowles would have done exactly as you wish, but it would have raised taxes on the upper-income folks, when you add it up.

The ACA, assuming its markets go live in 2014 as planned, could have huge dividends downstream, when a generation of healthier and better-covered people enter Medicare. And people squatting on jobs just for the benefits will be able to move and loosen up the labor market. At the heart of all of this is the belief -- deeply ideological, I'm afraid -- that the government should be determining the cost of health care instead of simply paying for it or letting the market handle it on its own. That's the heart of our Medicare problem (and the debate over Obama and Ryan's cuts to it). Unfortunately, people aren't "rational choosers" when it comes to health care. My insurance reimburses me if I go the gym or abstain from smoking, but if the government offers similar incentives, all of the sudden we're dictating people's behavior. Beyond all that is the simple moral obligation to say that accident and illness are collective problems better solved by a collective risk pool. It's smarter and beyond that it's a duty, frankly.

Jesus, and you said you were tired of talking points! Believe me, I am too. We must find a sporting event to watch together sometime instead. In any event, thanks as always for the informative back and forth.