Romney’s Big Dig problem

Back in October, I wrote about Mitt Romney’s problem with the Big Dig:

Today [the Boston Globe] attack[s] his record on the Big Dig and his management skills in general.

There are two significant issues here. First, the investigation may damage his 2008 chances. After all, who wants to vote for a candidate for President who is under federal investigation?

Well, it appears that this issue is still live. Last night on Boston TV, a station ran this:

Now, let’s step back a little. Here’s the framing that damages Romney. If Romney were the CEO of a company that lied in a bond filing to the SEC, he would be in big trouble. Sarbanes-Oxley made that a federal felony. Now, that doesn’t apply to governments. But a lot of things don’t apply to governments and politicians.

Imagine this statement coming in a Democratic attack ad, "If Mitt Romney ran a company like he ran the state of Massachusetts, he would be a felon."

Now, it looks like Romney’s Secretary of Transportation might just get indicted for fraud. Add this to the Democratic ad, "One of Romney’s deputies was indicted for fraud for lying to investors and taxpayers. He claimed that he was doing safety investigations. He wasn’t and xx people died."

This is going to make all those, mostly specious, questions that Ted Kennedy and O’Brien raised around about his business practices live again. And it might give room for a populist attack on Romney for being wealthy and surrounded by wealthy people.

Is it going to help that one of Romney’s signatures issues is repealing BCRA? Does a zillionaire whose staff defrauded investors and taxpayers really want to run on repealing public corruption laws?

Elephant in the mirror

Yesterday, Marc Ambinder reported about a poll taken by Fabrizio McLaughlin. Liz Mair had some of the top-line numbers. The Hill and the Boston Globe wrote a little about it, but frankly, I think that they missed the real stories in here. I got my hands on the presentation, and I thought I would write a little about it. It shows some very striking things about the GOP. So, some conclusions.

First, the GOP is getting older. Somewhat dramatically older. This is not good news. We already know that we are struggling with younger voters. These results, at the right, confirm this and point out just how old our base is shifting. This probably represents several things including, aging of the people involved in the conservative backlash to the 60s, losing the younger generation due to the war, and the dying, frankly, of the New Dealers. It also suggests that it could become increasingly difficult for the GOP to enact real entitlement reform. Related to this last point, on of the points that the MSM did notice is that 51% supported some sort of universal health care. (the specific form was not clearly defined). In addition, this found that the GOP was split 52%-44% on private accounts in social security, with the 52% for. Hardly a base to advance from on an issue that is unlikely to split Democrats.

Second, to Republicans, terrorism was seen as the unifying issue, not taxes or small government. 36% thought that terrorism or Iraq were "the issue that best defines the Republican party today." Next was immigration at 9%, abortion at 8%, national defense and taxes at 7% each, and the economy at 6%. That’s a pretty steep drop. It is also interesting that only 13% identify economic issues.

And that leads to the third observation. Whereas in 1997, somewhere between 45 and 53% of the base was understood by Fabrizio as economic conservatives or driven by economic concerns, that has fallen to 16% divided equally into two groups, "Free Marketers" and "Heartland Republicans," which loosely maps onto a group that is highly suspicious of government and a group that is much less suspicious of government. (one is more worried about tax rates, the other about deficits. One is very enthusiastic about strong entitlement reforms, the other is very supportive of the current social security model and universal healthcare)

Debates in the party are often framed as economic conservatives versus social conservatives. This poll identifies about 25% as "Moralists", who would be clearly identified as social conservatives. However, with only 16% of the base being primarily economic conservatives, this seems like an overly simplistic perspective. Another 59% of self-identifying Republicans are left including 28% between varieties of defense conservatives, about 13% split between people like soccer moms and retirees, and 14% for a group that would be stereotypically gun-owning men suspicious of government and immigrants. ("Dennis Miller" Republicans, but perhaps somewhat Buchananite?)

I suspect that these various subgroups vote at different rates in primaries, so you probably cannot take this as a map of the primary electorate.

In addition, Rudy Giuliani leads in this poll with 30% and among every subgroup. McCain is second in 4 of the 7 subgroups, while Fred Thompson is second in the remainder. (this poll was taken before the main dust-up on immigration, so take with salt)

All in all this is interesting and a little scary, I think. Polls have indicated that the GOP is no longer viewed as the fiscally conservative party. Whatever underlying phenomenon that it, this might be represented by the fact that only 16% are driven by economic issues. It seems to me that the party needs to work very hard on re-establishing its credibility on these issues.

The economy: The big unknown in 2008

If I sit back and worry about what could happen in 2008, I don’t worry about Iraq. I worry about the economy. Here is why, courtesy of the NYT:

In the coming year, interest rates on some $850 billion in mortgages are scheduled for their first increase. Over half of that is in subprime loans. That is the dangerous financial world we live in.

While I am not sure that I agree with their solution, they certainly get the problem right:

Until now, the deepest pain of the housing slump has been felt by hard-pressed borrowers, generally low-income homeowners stuck with unsuitable and even predatory subprime loans — adjustable-rate mortgages made to people with weak credit. As monthly payments have increased, the loans have become unaffordable, while falling housing prices and tougher credit terms have made them harder to refinance. Defaults and foreclosures have multiplied, but Congress has provided scant relief.

But now the pain is being felt by Wall Street. The two big Bear Stearns hedge funds that neared collapse last week were full of tricky investments tied to subprime mortgages. To try to ensure that hundreds of billions of dollars worth of similar investments don’t also plummet, endangering the financial system, Congress may finally have to do more to help lower-end borrowers. That, in turn, would prop up the investments based on their mortgages.

Let’s just be clear how bad this is. From MSNBC:

The number of residential mortgages going into foreclosure hit a record in the first quarter of the year, with the biggest increases coming in the so-called "subprime" market of borrowers with weaker credit histories. Foreclosure rates were highest in a handful of states where home prices and sales surged during the boom, including California, Florida, Nevada and Arizona.

Two early primary states. How bad?

A separate report this week by RealtyTrac reported that foreclosures for May were up 19 percent from April and up nearly 90 percent from May 2006. In Nevada, there was one foreclosure filing for every 166 households last month, nearly four times the national average and the highest rate in the country for the fifth month in a row, according to RealtyTrac.

Just to complete the loop. In Nevada, in one month, about .7% of the households lost their homes. If that rate were to stay flat across the year, (not really a realistic assumption) around 9% of the electorate would lose their homes. And the May number was a 19% increase over the previous month. And, from the NYT piece,  interest rates on nearly $500b in adjustable rate mortgage will increase sharply over the next year. And, the impact of this is magnified through the structure of the hedge fund industry, including, possibly, into other segments of the mortgage market.

In other words, it is likely that the foreclosure rate will accelerate. It will hit two very politically sensitive states. Add in Arizona and, possibly, New Mexico and Colorado, in which real estate is booming. You have 5 swing states, totaling 56 electoral votes that could be in real economic turmoil.

What is the economic and political plan to address this?

Fred Thompson a “supporter” of BCRA

I think that all the people who thought that Fred Thompson had suddenly become a campaign finance hater are going to be disappointed. From Marc Ambinder, reporting from South Carolina:

And, addressing Monday’s Supreme Court ruling on the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform act, Thompson said that while he remained a supporter of the bill and its intentions, he thought the court’s decision was sensible because, he implied, the sham issue ad provision "hasn’t worked" as intended.

"I think Congress ought to amend the campaign finance legislation, keep the good parts, and get rid of this part."

Is this what people thought then he said that BCRA "isn’t working?"

Pandering and the movement

Patrick Ruffini makes an articulate defense of flip-flopping:

It’s easy to turn a blind eye if someone’s flip-flopping in my direction, but that’s not it. Rather, it’s that at some point, you’ve gotta dance with the ones that brung ya. Said another way, the positions Romney et al. are taking now, in the most important campaign of their lives, are the ones they’re stuck with — whether they like it or not.After his public conversion and being pilloried as a flip-flopper, do you seriously think that Romney can walk back his pro-life position without destroying himself? Does anyone actually think that Romney would be so stupid as to advance public funding of elections after running as the enemy of BCRA? If Romney runs and manages to get elected as a conservative, why would he revert to a non-winning position?

I think that there’s a lot of validity to that. Indeed, recently, I have slowed in my attacks on Mitt Romney’s flip-flopping. And, frankly, I have never been bothered so much by the shifting positions of Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani, with a couple of exceptions.  Partly because they are relatively few and far between.

On immigration it is clear to me that all of our top-tier candidates with the exception, possibly but probably not, of Thompson would sign a bill different only in mostly insignificant minutaea from the one that the Senate is debating now. Rudy would add a totally unworkable exit surveillance program that would fail. Romney’s position seems to be to oppose the bill in name, but support it in substance, and just play politics. But they would sign it. So, for me, these people are playing politics, quoting Jeb Bush, "pounding their chests," on the 2nd most important moral issue that will be faced in the 110th Congress. (I find blather about amnesty to be deeply, deeply un-American and un-Christian. And, like Huckabee once said, I see more than a little racism in it. But that’s a digression, and I just had to get it off my chest.)

But, my point wasn’t flip-flopping. It was pandering. So far, the strategy that the various campaigns are following seems pretty clear:

  1. Giuliani will basically keep his old position and shade it a little. On immigration, he would add more surveillance, but maintain the "amnesty". On abortion, he doesn’t think that "strict constructionist" means "pro-life", but you’ll get "strict constructionist" judges, perhaps just like McCain would build a fence?
  2. McCain will just tell you what he thinks, and you may not like it. Unless, it seems, your positions resemble those of an average American rather than a partisan activist.
  3. Romney will mince his words so finely that you won’t know what his saying. His problem is that the base can’t figure out if he is selling conservatism or the same sort of mushy, corporate centrism that he and his father spent their entire careers celebrating. (Gee whiz, sound like Bush, the other Harvard MBA President? How’d that work out for ya?)
  4. Thompson. Who knows? He is still playing games and winking at everyone. I don’t have a clear idea what his policies are other than a sort of channeling of common sense and anger at Washington that you can project your hopes on to.

Where are the promises and commitments that Patrick is talking about? Where’s the substance?

Returning to my point in the previous post, my concluding question was:

Is that a healthy way for a political party or a political movement to behave? What does this say about our intellectual class?

The answer may be "yes". Our party seems to operate by deciding on what we think and then figuring out good ways to communicate it. Perhaps our primaries do not select the "most electable conservative" so much as they select the best communicator of conservative ideas. This would give us a sort of beauty pageant style because we are looking for advertising expertise. Reagan was "the great communicator." Bush’s "compassionate conservatism" bottled up mostly old ideas in significantly new packaging, but he did add in education and immigration reform. And isn’t a beauty pageant really what this primary is looking like?

(In contrast, the Demcrats seem to operate by using issues to build coalitions. Sometimes, but rarely, this looks reasonable. More often it just looks unprincipled, or worse, a sort of legalized public corruption of using the treasury to buy votes by passing legislation. Unions get to raise prices on consumers to cover for the fact that their workers don’t have the skills to compete. Trial lawyers get their broken legal system to get rich off of. Minority "leaders", but not their constituents, get on-the-books and off-the-books bribes and subsidies, allowing them to maintain their political machines but provide little-to-no value to their constituents other than identity politics. And more, more, more spending for this or that group that "needs" help. Etc.)

This works if the people, or even the base, really likes the package. But what is Thompson’s, and to some extent McCain’s, real message? That the people don’t trust Washington anymore. The base doesn’t trust the party. Whether it is spending, immigration, or Iraq, they just don’t believe any of us, Republican or Democrat. But most of "the movement" in Washington seems to think that if we recycle the packaging, that should be enough. But isn’t that transparently false?

At the same time, the partisan or ideological press seems to be sitting it out or shilling for their candidate of choice. Has anyone mentioned that 3 of the 4 major candidates do not fit the criteria for a pro-life endorsement in most states? At the very least, that is an interesting article on the transformation of the pro-life movement. Has anyone pointed out how clearly politically silly it would be to push to repeal BCRA? (And how much money some Romney think that a corporation ought to be able to give to the RNC anyways? $100m? $200m?)  Why do we tolerate people people attacking closing a tax loophole by calling it a tax increase and then praising Romney’s not cutting taxes by saying at all the revenue measures just closed loopholes? Is it now acceptable to be politically and/or intellectually empty as long as you are saying the right words?

If the pandering was accompanied by honesty, then perhaps I could stomach it. But as policy expertise and politics have been replaced by punditry, what are we left with? Who knows, in our consumerist age, perhaps marketing is all it takes. Perhaps the inspiration for our candidates should be Tommy Hilfiger for whom the only difference between a golf player and a gang banger is how you cut the ads.

Ask an honest question?

Get an honest answer:

"When we walked through the series of measures that are being proposed, we got 77 percent of Republicans, 72 percent of Democrats, and 70 percent of independents supporting it," says Goeas (pronounced GO-as). "There’s not a piece of research I’ve seen that, if you explain each one of those pieces, you don’t get a majority saying they approve it." Several issues are at play, Goeas says.

Shocking. Confirming all the evidence, Republicans support immigration reform.
So, instead of leading, the naysayers are not bothering to educate their constituents…

Pandering better than authenticity?

Jennifer Rubin, over at Race42008, wrote a summary of the 2008 candidate responses to yesterday’s SCOTUS decision. At one point, she said:

Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani issued statements applauding the decision. Romney made no mention of prior support of campaign finance reform but his ringing endorsement of the Court’s decision was clearly welcome news to the conservative base which seems less concerned with consistency than with vocal support for their favored positions. Giuliani delayed comment until he had actually read the opinion and only after a review issued a careful statement making clear that on this point – issue ads in the heat of campaigns– he sided with the Supreme Court. As he did on partial birth abortion he seems to be taking reasoned steps which strengthen his position with conservatives without a wholesale repudiation of prior views.

Like support for comprehensive immigration reform, prior to running for President, all the major candidates were supportive of BCRA-style campaign finance reform. Indeed, Mitt Romney even went much, much farther. Now all but John McCain have backed away. And many conservatives pundocrats have demanded that he pander and flip-flop too.

So the pattern is clear. Run on some positions your whole life, then change them to win the nomination. Then what?

Is that a healthy way for a political party or a political movement to behave? What does this say about our intellectual class?

Republicans and Bush

The Influence Peddler says:

For some years, it’s been difficult for conservatives to figure out when to stand with President Bush and when to draw distinctions. On judicial appointments, executive privilege, the War on Terror, and most social and ‘values’ issues, conservatives have seen Bush as an ally. On Iraq, entitlement programs, spending (until recently, at least) and immigration, they’ve at least sought to put some ‘daylight’ between themselves and the President.

But it’s starting to look as if the immigration fight has become the straw that broke the camel’s back. Conservatives oppose the White House on the substance and deeply resent the charges of nativism and ignorance coming from Bush’s team. Now Mitt Romney has apparently decided that it’s time to begin the process of disowning the President:

I agree with this assessment, but, did people not believe him on immigration in 2000 and 2004? Are conservatives so angry that Bush is trying to govern on what he campaigned on?  Isn’t that bizarre?

And isn’t Congress really the cause of the spending problem? I mean, the President could have vetoed the transportation bill, but didn’t Congress write a bill with 15k earmarks or so in it?

And when did increasing executive power become a conservative rallying cry? I mean, I remember the Ayn Randites and the radical libertarians. I remember the various Christian groups. I don’t remember the study groups on increasing executive power.

If IP is right, and I think that he has a correct diagnosis of the symptoms, isn’t the real problem the underlying disease? Is that a movement we want?

Rocky and Mitt breakup!

Mitt Romney endorsed Rocky Anderson for mayor of Salt Lake in 2003. Here’s the ad:

Turns out that Rocky is unhappy with Mitt now. From the Deseret News:

Anderson told host Amy Goodman, "This is not Mitt Romney. If you asked Mitt Romney, sat down and got the real Mitt Romney, first of all, he would say we never should have been in Iraq. Never would Mitt Romney and his wife — and they’re a team, believe me — they would never support the concept of kidnapping and torturing human beings. They have always stood up for human rights, fundamental human rights."

So Rocky says that the Mitt Romney we see isn’t the real one. His evil twin?

"He was very clearly supportive of Roe v. Wade," Anderson said. "He said that as he ran for governor, as he ran for senator in Massachusetts. He told me, going into that race, that Roe v. Wade is working, we need to get beyond this issue." Romney has since moved to the pro-life camp, citing a personal realization during the debate over stem-cell research.

Isn’t that kind of like what Romney told NARAL in 2002? Anyways, more Rocky:

From the war in Iraq to gay issues, Anderson said he believes Romney "has caved into his handlers" and is adopting a viewpoint that "sells to the right-wing Christian Coalition. … This is not the Mitt Romney I knew, and it really saddens me."

In fact, if not for the "flip-flopping," Anderson said he could get behind Romney’s campaign.

"He needs to be himself," Anderson said. "If Mitt Romney would be himself, true to himself, true to the people of this country, I think he would be a great president."

The Romney campaign has tried to spin this as an ideological difference. But that’s not how I read this. This is a character judgment from a self-described "great friend." And a damning one.