U.S.A. Gun Politics

Posted July 23rd, 2012 at 7:27 pm (UTC+0)
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A customer checks out a .50 caliber rifle at a gun store in Fort Worth, Texas shortly after Barack Obama was elected president in 2008. This gun store and many others had record sales at the time amid fears Mr. Obama would restrict gun ownership. Photo: AP

The Rise of the Gun Lobby

We’ve seen this movie before, and I’m not talking about the latest Batman flic, “The Dark Knight Rises.”  Mass shootings like the one in Colorado last week have become all too commonplace in American culture.  Sadly, the reaction to these national tragedies has also become predictable.  Once the initial shock and horror begin to fade, earnest discussions begin about whether we’ve been lax on gun control in this country or how to keep mass killing weapons and ammo out of the hands of unstable nut jobs.

James Holmes, 24, appeared in court July 23, on charges of killing 12 and wounding 58 others in a Colorado theater showing the latest Batman movie, “The Dark Knight Rises.” Photo: AP

All of that is getting pumped up again in the wake of the shootings in Aurora, Colorado, but a lot of political experts are predicting that when the debate turns to gun control, little will happen.  In the last 20 years, there seems to have been a sea-change when it comes to the public’s appetite for more gun laws, thanks in large part to a politically astute and emboldened gun lobby, led of course by the National Rifle Association.

 

What the Constitution Says

Before we delve into all of that it might be worth it to consider some of the history of the gun control debate in the United States.  In order to do that you have to begin with the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which reads:  “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”  Gun enthusiasts always cite this passage as a kind of constitutional consecration of their God-given right to own guns.  Gun control proponents always focused on the first part of the amendment, the part that talks about a “well-regulated Militia” to argue that the right was not an individual right, but one reserved for organized militias.  The Supreme Court had the last word on this in 2008 when a majority of the high court found that the Second Amendment does in fact refer to the rights of an individual to possess firearms without infringement by the government.

Moving into the 20th century, Congress did crack down on machine guns and other favored weapons of organized crime in the 1930’s, the so-called gangster era of U.S. history.

The gun debate took on new life in the 1960’s following the assassinations of three beloved political leaders in the United States — President John F. Kennedy in 1963, civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968, followed two months later by the death of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, a Democratic Party contender for president.  Congress eventually tightened some restrictions on gun ownership and sales of guns by mail, but advocates of banning handguns were never able to marshal enough support in Congress to institute a nationwide ban.

 

1990’s Mark a Political Shift

Then President Bill Clinton made an effort to control assault weapons sales in 1994, but the National Rifle Association and its allies in Congress fought back. Photo: AP

The balance of power in the gun control debate really began to shift in the 1990’s during the administration of President Bill Clinton.  In 1994 President Clinton signed the assault weapons ban into law, a major victory for gun control advocates, especially Democrats representing urban areas around the country.  But in a matter of weeks Democrats faced a major rebuke from voters in the 1994 midterm elections, losing control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years.  Democrats from conservative states and rural districts with strong support for gun rights were especially vulnerable and President Clinton eventually acknowledged that the gun lobby, led by the N.R.A., had a lot to do with the Republican gains.

Gun control advocates did score major victory with passage of the Brady Bill in 1990 that imposed a five-day waiting period and background check for those purchasing a handgun.  The law went into effect in 1998.

In the 2000 presidential election, Democrat Al Gore narrowly lost the White House to Republican George W. Bush.  One of the keys to the Bush victory was his ability to build up huge margins of support among blue collar white voters, especially in rural districts in the South, Midwest and Mountain West.  Like so many other polarizing issues including abortion, gay marriage and the power of the central government, the divide between urban and rural voters has always been sharply visible in the gun control debate.

President Barack Obama has seemed reluctant to engage on the gun issue, even after last year’s mass shooting in Arizona that wounded Democratic Representative Gabrielle Giffords.  In the wake of the Aurora, Colorado tragedy last week, White House officials have said little about any renewed effort to shore up gun control measures.

Late last year the Gallup Polling organization reported that public support for a variety of gun control measures was at an all-time low.  Public opinion polls over the past 50 years have also shown a long trend away from gun control measures to affirming the right of Americans to own firearms.

Surveys from the early 1960’s showed that about 60 percent of people asked wanted to ban handguns.  In one poll from last year, only 26 percent wanted to do that.  A Pew Research survey from earlier this year found that 49 percent believe it is most important to protect gun rights, while 45 percent would prefer to focus on controlling gun ownership.

The National Rifle Association knows how to mobilize its supporters. These buttons and bumper stickers were passed out to potential Republican Party voters in the state of Iowa last winter. Photo: Reuters

The N.R.A. has been skillful in mobilizing its membership to work for those who support gun rights and against those who favor gun control.  As a result, many Democrats, especially those in competitive states or who represent rural areas, have decided not to press gun control issues and to avoid a hot button issue that could get them defeated.

The N.R.A.’s cohesive supporters and their ability to rally grass roots gun groups around the country to affect elections can be an intimidating factor for politicians who might consider supporting even mild gun control measures.   Even the National Democratic Party has looked away at times, believing it’s more important to keep seats in the House and Senate rather than risk a fight over gun control measures that would energize gun enthusiasts.

Nothing, and I mean nothing, impresses politicians more than the ability of voting groups to organize themselves into a potent political force that will turn out at the ballot box.  And over the last 20 years it is hard to find groups more determined to protect their interests than gun rights supporters and the national groups that back them and flex their power in Washington, especially the N.R.A.

Speculation Swirls About Romney’s Veep Choice

Posted July 18th, 2012 at 8:39 pm (UTC+0)
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Seeks to Avoid Palin Misstep of 2008

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney pauses during a speech to the NAACP annual convention in Houston, Texas. Photo: AP

Zero hour is approaching for the Romney campaign.  Sometime soon, at the latest in a matter of a few weeks, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee will announce his choice of a vice presidential running mate.  It’s always one of the most important decisions a presidential candidate can make.

Do it right, like John Kennedy did in 1960 when he asked rival Lyndon Johnson to join him on the Democratic ticket, and it can pay huge dividends.  Kennedy eked out a victory over Republican Richard Nixon in large part because the addition of Johnson on the Democratic ticket helped him carry Johnson’s home state of Texas, a key in Kennedy’s win in the Electoral College.

But the Johnson pick is seen as the exception to the rule.  The first rule of thumb most presidential nominees follow is ‘Do no harm.’  This would apply to Ronald Reagan’s choice of rival George H. W. Bush to join him on the 1980 Republican ticket and Bill Clinton’s somewhat unorthodox choice of Al Gore on the Democratic ticket in 1992.  I say unorthodox because a young centrist southern Democrat picked another young centrist southern Democrat as his running mate, and this ended up playing well with voters across the country.  I recall covering a Clinton-Gore bus trip up the Mississippi river in the summer of ’92 that became the political equivalent of rock stars cruising through the American heartland.

Sometimes the vice presidential pick can backfire and you don’t have to go too far back in time to find one of those examples.  How about John McCain’s pick of Alaska governor Sarah Palin four years ago?  The addition of Palin to the ticket initially excited conservative Republicans who were never gung-ho about McCain and offered Republicans a fresh face to rally around.  The choice initially boosted McCain’s standing in the polls.  But once Palin started doing news interviews the bloom came off the rose when questions mounted about whether she was ready for prime time.  Still, other candidates have picked questionable running mates too, and survived.  Richard Nixon’s choice of Spiro Agnew (Spiro who?) in 1968 didn’t really hurt him in a year when Americans were looking for change.  George H.W. Bush’s surprise pick of little-known Senator Dan Quayle of Indiana in 1988 did not have much impact on his chances when he defeated Democrat Michael Dukakis by a comfortable margin.

The Contenders (We Think)

With all this in mind, here’s my quick rundown of Mitt Romney’s possible running mates, in descending order of likelihood.

 

Republican Senator, Rob Portman

Senator Rob Portman (Ohio). He’s experienced, by all accounts gets on well with Romney and could help deliver perhaps the number one state target in this year’s election: Ohio.  On the negative side he’s dull, has ties to the George W. Bush administration and would do little to help Romney win over undecided women and Hispanics.  Still, if the guiding principle this year is to avoid another Sarah Palin fiasco and pick an experienced person ready to be president on Day One, he’s probably at the top of the list.

 

Former governor Tim Pawlenty (Minnesota). Pawlenty reportedly has clicked with Romney better than anyone else, which is especially notable since they were rivals for the Republican nomination before he pulled out early in the race.  Pawlenty appeals to suburban swing voters, a group he had to court to succeed in Democrat-leaning Minnesota, and his evangelical background would be a draw for Christian conservatives who may be lukewarm toward Romney.  On the minus side, he did flame out of the presidential race rather early and at times seemed to back away from the kind of campaign attacks a running mate will have to carry out in a general election.

 

Louisiana Governor, Bobby Jindal

Governor Bobby Jindal (Louisiana). Wonky, smart on policy and tested as leader of a state that has had more than its share of natural disasters, Jindal would be an interesting pick.  The son of immigrants from India, Jindal is a favorite among economic conservatives and is an articulate advocate of the Republican party’s smaller government dogma on the stump.  But he got negative reviews for his 2009 nationally-televised response to President Obama’s State of the Union address and some Republicans still wonder how he would do in the national spotlight as Romney’s running mate.

Others mentioned but not as high on the list include former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who says he won’t take it, and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.  Christie may want it but some Republicans fear he might overshadow Romney.  Florida Senator Marco Rubio remains in the mix and could help Romney carry a crucial battleground state in November.  But there are questions about Rubio’s youth (he’s 41) and relatively little experience in the Senate, even though he excites conservatives and Tea Party followers.  Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan is also in the mix, though his authorship of the polarizing House Republican budget plan may make him a little toxic in trying to win over moderates in November.

Then there is the third tier of possibilities especially favored by journalists compiling a list of people who probably don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of being selected.  But the Romney campaign likes it when they are mentioned as a sign of political courtesy and because it’s flattering to their supporters.  They include New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte, former Bush secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez and even (gulp) New York entrepreneur Donald Trump.  The longshots are even longer this year thanks to the long shadow of Sarah Palin from 2008 and because Mitt Romney, as both a politician and a businessman, has proven to be a cautious and calculating operator who carefully weighs risks and reward.  Hence, the prediction here is a safe choice along the lines of Portman or Pawlenty.

Obama Puts Romney on the Defensive

Posted July 16th, 2012 at 9:21 pm (UTC+0)
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The Bain of Romney’s Existence

According to the Mitt Romney playbook, things were not supposed to go like this.  The Romney strategy for the 2012 U.S. presidential race was fairly simple: Make the election a referendum on the tenure of President Barack Obama, especially his economic record.  That may still happen, but somewhere along the road in recent weeks the Romney campaign has gotten off-track and now finds itself on the defensive after a fresh wave of attack ads from the Obama camp.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, leaving a fund-raising gathering in Louisiana July 16, is coming under attack by the Obama campaign over his record as a businessman and his reluctance to release information about his tax returns. Photo: AP

The Obama attacks on Romney focus on two issues:  First, Mitt Romney’s record as a businessman and head of the Bain Capital investment company in the years before he was elected governor of Massachusetts in 2002.  And second, the issue of Romney’s tax returns and why he won’t release more than the two years he has already promised.  The 2010 returns have already been released and they expect to release this year’s returns sometime in the next several weeks.

 

Defining Romney

On Romney’s business background, the Obama campaign has copied a page from the George W. Bush re-election campaign of 2004, and that is to define your opponent for the public before he or she has the chance to do it themselves.  This paid great dividends for the Bush re-election effort in 2004 when the so-called “Swift boat” attack ads went after Democratic candidate John Kerry over his supposed strength — his naval service during the Vietnam War.  The ads began running months before the election and questioned Kerry’s war record to the point that it allowed the Bush campaign to make Kerry’s character and trustworthiness an issue in the general election match-up that November.

The Obama campaign is now attacking Romney on what is supposedly his greatest strength, his record as a businessman and head of Bain Capital, a private equity firm he founded in the mid-1980’s that was successful and generated high returns for its investors.  Part of the Obama critique is that some of the companies Bain bought and sold wound up outsourcing some U.S. jobs and some wound up in bankruptcy.  Romney has claimed that during his tenure at Bain many more jobs were created than were lost.

Romney says his role at the company changed in 1999 after he was tapped to manage the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, Utah and that he had no major active role at Bain after February of 1999.

But filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission indicate Romney was still listed on official papers as Bain’s chief executive officer, president, “controlling person” and “sole shareholder.”  The Obama campaign has seized on the discrepancy and put Romney on the defensive, including on the Sunday network television talk shows.  One immediate impact of all this is that it keeps the Romney campaign from focusing on what it wants, which is President Obama’s economic record.  The Romney campaign is now trying to move beyond the Bain discussion and will keep trying over the next several days.

 

The Taxman Cometh

The other issue of attack on Romney is his reluctance to release multiple years of his income tax returns.  He has released his 2010 returns and the 2011 returns are supposed to come within a month or so.  But so far Romney is holding fast to his stance that he should not have to release any more information than that, adding in one interview that he doesn’t want to provide the other side with “opposition research.”

President Barack Obama and his campaign staff believe they have an advantage in attacking Republican opponent Mitt Romney’s record in business. Photo: AP

Well, right now the issue is working to the president’s benefit.  So much so that some prominent conservative pundits and the Republican governor of Alabama, Robert Bentley, are urging Romney to release the tax records to put the issue to rest.

What’s surprising here is that some of the conservative talking heads have said they believe the Romney camp is not releasing the tax returns because they think he has something to hide.  They don’t say what that might be and the Romney campaign is quick to push back on that, saying he has no obligation to release anything beyond the two years he has already agreed to.

But the expectation here is that the Republican pressure on Romney to release more of his tax records will only increase in the weeks ahead and the Obama campaign will try to exploit it as a way of keeping the focus on Romney’s background and wealth, and not on the president’s economic record.

Democrats believe one way the president can win this year is by making the election in November a choice between two very different candidates, and not simply a referendum on President Obama’s time in office.

Democratic strategists know that it would too easy for many undecided voters to simply turn thumbs-down on the president if they look simply at where the economy is now and where Mr. Obama promised it would be when he first took office.  So they believe they have little choice but to go after Romney’s core selling point that he is an experienced businessman who has the smarts to fix the economy and bring back jobs.

Some Republicans are alarmed at the success the Democrats have had recently in putting the Romney campaign on the defensive.  But they also caution that the election is still months away and that Romney and his allies have tens of millions of dollars yet to spend to go after the president and his economic record.

Then President George Bush used so-called “Swift Boat” TV attack ads to define his Democratic Party opponent, John Kerry, in the 2004 presidential campaign. Photo: AP

But Republicans well remember the lessons from the 2004 campaign when Bush allies went after John Kerry with the “Swift Boat” attack ads and Kerry seemed almost dismissive at first, confident that no one would take the attacks seriously. Well, those attacks did help to undermine Kerry to an extent and make him an unpalatable alternative to Mr. Bush in the eyes of some swing voters who were at least considering the Democrat in 2004.

And now Democrats are hoping to give the Republicans a taste of their own medicine this year, though most analysts caution it is too early to know whether the attacks over Bain and tax returns will be effective or not.

 

Four Months to Go and Too Close to Call

Posted July 10th, 2012 at 8:25 pm (UTC+0)
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President Barack Obama greets supporters at a stop in Pittsburgh as he campaigns for re-election in Pennsylvania and Ohio this past week. Photo; AP

Little Room for Error for Obama and Romney

Less than four months until Election Day and the 2012 U.S. presidential race still looks very tight.  The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll shows President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney tied at 47 percent each and that concern over the economy remains the driving issue in the election.

The survey also shows most voters are already leaning strongly one way or the other and that leaves a relatively small pool of pure undecided voters left to be swayed between now and November.

The Post-ABC poll found that about two-thirds of those surveyed believe the country is seriously off course, bad news for the president.  On the other hand, Mr. Obama scores much better than Romney on the issue of likeability.

Fifty-eight percent of those polled believe the president will win in November, compared to 33 percent who pick Romney. Ninety four percent of Obama supporters believe the president will win and 24 percent of Romney supporters also believe that will be the outcome, while 66 percent of Romney voters think he will emerge victorious.

The latest polls suggest that both major candidates, President Obama and his expected Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, each have some presumed strengths and weaknesses as November draws near. So now is a good time to do a bit of a rundown on both.

 

Obama’s Advantages

 

First, Barack Obama is an incumbent and incumbent presidents are tough to beat.  Since the end of World War II, only two elected presidents have failed to win a second term.  Democrat Jimmy Carter lost to Republican Ronald Reagan in 1980 and Republican George H.W. Bush was defeated by Democrat Bill Clinton in 1992.  (I’m not including Republican Gerald Ford’s defeat to Carter in 1976 since Ford was not elected president in the first place.)

Obama supporters would be wise to keep in mind that while incumbency has some advantages, incumbent presidents seeking re-election are most vulnerable when voters think the national economy is weak, as they did in the case of the Carter defeat in 1980 and the Bush loss in 1992.

If Mr. Obama is to win a second term this year, he’ll have to find a way to counter the narrative being promoted by the Romney campaign and Republicans generally that when it comes to the economy, Barack Obama is a failed president.

 

The President’s Electoral College Strategy

Another Obama advantage is the number of ways in which he can piece together the 270 Electoral College votes he needs to win a second term.

Mr. Obama won a big victory over Republican John McCain four years ago, not just in the popular vote (53 to 46 percent), but in the Electoral College tally as well (365-173).  The president can lose some states this year that he won in 2008 and still win the election because he appears to have more options in putting together the necessary coalition of states to get to that magic 270 electoral vote number.

Most experts believe the president will have trouble again this year carrying states like Indiana and North Carolina, where voters seem down on his performance and are leaning Republican.  But as long as Mr. Obama can hold onto some key battleground states like Colorado, Ohio, Florida and Virginia he should have a slight electoral advantage over Mitt Romney in November.  Of course, keeping that advantage over the next few months in the middle of a lagging national economy will be a major challenge for the Obama campaign.

Finally, public opinion polls show the president has a big advantage in likeability over Mitt Romney.  Surveys show many voters like the president personally but are disappointed in the results of his policies.  That is one reason why the Obama campaign has already spent so much money running negative TV ads against Romney in key battleground states like Virginia and Ohio.

The Obama campaign has issues TV attack ads criticizing Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney — this one over his stand on taxes and job creation. From BarackObama.com and YouTube.com

The president is trying to take a page from the re-election playbook of his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush.  In the 2004 campaign, Bush strategist Karl Rove sought to define Democratic candidate John Kerry in a negative light before voters had a chance to make up their own minds.  The strategy was effective in that it put Kerry on the defensive over what was his supposed strength — his military service during the Vietnam War — and that helped Bush prevail in a fairly close election that November.

Adding to this strategy lately are the coordinated Democratic attacks highlighting the fact that Mitt Romney has offshore bank accounts in Switzerland and elsewhere, with the suggestion he is doing so to avoid U.S. taxes.  A Romney spokesman says the former Massachusetts governor has been accountable for all his taxes and that his liability is the same as if the fund investments were held in the U.S.

 

Romney’s Advantages

He’s not the incumbent, and that’s a good thing if 2012 turns into a change election, something Mr. Obama benefitted from four years ago.  U.S. presidential elections are usually a referendum on the incumbent and if the weak economic news continues or gets worse, voters may be tempted to go “thumbs down” on the president and take a chance with someone new.

The Obama campaign is spending tens of millions of dollars trying to define Mitt Romney before the campaign hits a fever pitch and there is evidence suggesting the negative ads are hurting Romney in some key battleground states like Florida, Ohio and Virginia.  However, all of that will be forgotten on Election Day if voters decide that the economy is bad and that Mr. Obama is simply not up to the job of fixing it.  The Romney campaign is banking on a majority of independent or swing voters to come to that very conclusion and tilt the election in his favor.

A second Romney advantage appears to be money.  The fundraising totals for June showed the Romney camp brought in $106 million, well ahead of the Obama campaign total of $71 million for the month.  That makes two straight months that Romney has outraised the president.

Four years ago, Republican John McCain was badly outspent by a Democratic fundraising machine behind Barack Obama that helped him roll up impressive wins not only in key battleground states, but in places Democrats hadn’t won in decades such as Indiana, North Carolina and Virginia.

But this year, the Republican fundraising machine is cranking out the cash and the influence of the so-called Super Pac groups could prove to be hugely helpful to Romney’s efforts in November.  The Obama campaign has spent a lot of money lately trying to run down Romney’s record as a businessman and governor, but that effort is burning through available cash.  Romney and his allies are stockpiling their money arsenal for later when they are expected to make a late push on voters with a variation of the famous Ronald Reagan line from his 1980 debate with President Jimmy Carter—are you better off now than you were four years ago?

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, speaking at a campaign stop in Colorado this week, is counting on party supporters to get out and vote in November. Photo: AP

 

Voter Enthusiasm a Big Factor

Romney’s third advantage will be voter enthusiasm.  Republicans are much more excited to get to the polls this year than they were in 2008, primarily because they want to run Mr. Obama out of office.  Conservatives may not revere Mitt Romney as a Republican candidate, but they will come out in droves for the chance to deny the president a second term.

Tea Party activists led the way in 2010 with anger over the bank bailouts and the health care law. That helped Republicans win back control of the House of Representatives and pick up seats in the Senate.

The Tea Party activity reached fever pitch two years ago and it may be hard to replicate this year.  But President Obama and the Democrats are sure to have an even greater challenge in getting their supporters out to the polls again this year, especially the young college students and minority voters who turned out in 2008, many voting for the first time.

Some of these folks are disappointed in the Obama term so far and will need extra prodding to get out in November.  I don’t think many Republicans will need that kind of encouragement. So to some extent, the 2012 election is shaping up as a mobilization election — a get-out-the-voters election —  for both parties, with relatively fewer undecided voters in the middle ready to swing one way or the other in the final weeks.

 

 

 

 

Supreme Intervention Saves Health Care Law

Posted June 29th, 2012 at 6:52 pm (UTC+0)
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Supporters of President Barack Obama’s health care law celebrate outside the Supreme Court in Washington after the court’s ruling. Photo: AP

How Both Obama and Romney Could Benefit

Few people expected the legal battle over President Barack Obama’s health care law to play out like the way it did.  Most of the experts predicted that a majority of the nine-member Supreme Court would strike down at least part of the sweeping reform law, with most betting that the so-called individual mandate provision would be deemed unconstitutional.  That’s because the court generally leans to the right with five justices more often than not taking a conservative view of cases before the high court, while the remaining four are seen as the more liberal bloc.

The mandate in the health care law requires Americans to buy health insurance by 2014 or face a penalty levied by the federal government.  Chief Justice John Roberts formed an unusual alliance with the high court’s four reliably liberal justices that led to a five-to-four decision to uphold the health care law, including the individual mandate.  Roberts’ reasoning was that the government’s penalty scheme for those not buying insurance was similar to the government imposing a tax, like the one on cigarettes, and is therefore valid under the Constitution.

 

Prohibiting the denial of insurance coverage for pre-existing medical conditions is one of the law’s popular provisions. Photo: Thinkstock

The four conservative justices meanwhile wanted to strike down the entire health care law, even those provisions that have proven popular such as keeping young people on their parent’s health insurance until the age of 26 and blocking insurance companies from denying coverage based on pre-existing medical conditions beginning in 2014.

Roberts did join his conservative colleagues in rejecting one key argument made by the Obama administration — that Congress does have the power to require most Americans to buy health insurance.  This part of the ruling could limit future attempts by Congress to regulate business activities under what is known as the ‘Commerce Clause’ of the Constitution.  But after first siding with conservatives on this point, Roberts then proceeded to save the president’s signature law by forming his alliance with liberal justices to find that the individual mandate is constitutional as a tax on those who do not wish to buy insurance.

Political Impact

There’s something here for both sides.  It’s an unexpected legal victory for the president and his Democratic supporters, many of whom were bracing for bad news from the high court and even the possibility that the entire law would be struck down.  So on that score, the Obama campaign hopes the ruling will energize the president’s supporters in November.  Obama supporters voted in record numbers in 2008 and the campaign has long feared that a drop-off in Democratic intensity could deny him a second term this year.

But the Supreme Court decision could also light a match under Republican supporters of Mitt Romney.  Many conservatives felt betrayed by the high court ruling, expecting at the very least that the individual mandate would be thrown out and at most that the entire law would be struck down.  Some of them are already directing their ire at Chief Justice John Roberts for his key role in fashioning a narrow majority on the court that saved the health care law.  Anger can be a powerful force in politics since strategists always like to say that it’s easier to get people to go out and vote against something than for it.

The ruling has sparked renewed intensity among Tea Party supporters, and House Republicans are already plowing ahead with a plan for yet another vote to repeal the health care law on July 11th.  They have already voted 30 times to repeal either the full law or parts of it, only to have the Democratic-controlled Senate block them each time.  Republicans know that repealing the law is a longshot this year but they hope to force as many Democrats as possible to vote for the law in both the House and Senate and then use those votes against them with negative ads in advance of the November election.

Tea Party supporters came out in force in 2010 and helped Republicans win back the House of Representatives and make gains in the Senate, but there was concern among some party activists this year whether they could match those turnout and intensity levels.  The health care ruling could help the Republicans get those activists to turn out in November.

So yes, this is good political news for the president to an extent, but it will probably also fire up that conservative base even more since they now know that no court will save them from “Obamacare” and that the only way to undo the health care legislation is to turn the president out of office in November and elect more Republicans to Congress to help kill it.

It could complicate things for Mitt Romney, though.  Romney was the author of the individual mandate provision in the Massachusetts health care law passed when he was governor, so that could continue to be part of the discussion if the health care issue is re-debated in this campaign.  Secondly, Romney wants to focus almost exclusively on the economy and make the argument that Obama had his chance to fix things but failed.  Shifting the debate to issues like health care and immigration takes him off target and could cost him in November.

Impact on the Roberts Court

This is clearly one of the most important Supreme Court rulings since the 2000 case that ended the squabble over the presidential election that year between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore.  That ruling went in Bush’s favor, but public opinion polls showed that the court’s reputation was damaged because many people thought it was becoming too politically driven.

Chief Justice John Roberts has vowed he will decide cases on legal, not ideological, grounds. Photo: AP

John Roberts was well aware of that criticism when he was nominated to the high court by President Bush in 2005.  During his Senate confirmation hearings Roberts insisted that he was not an ideologue and that he would decide cases on pragmatic legal grounds, not political arguments.  Roberts also indicated he would not be aggressive in looking for reasons to overturn acts of Congress, and all of these factors seem to be present in the health care decision.

By first agreeing with conservatives on the court that Congress overstepped its bounds by adding the health insurance mandate, Roberts pleased those who see the health care law as a classic overreach by the federal government.  But then, by joining the liberal justices in saving the law by arguing that the mandate could be construed as a tax, he seemed to pull the court back from the brink of overturning a law passed by Congress, no matter how flawed that process may have been politically.

So it looks as though the Roberts era has now begun on the court.  One way to look at it is as a philosophy of limits, of trying to balance the power of the central government, the power of the states and the power of the courts to rein in Congress and the Executive Branch when conflicts arise.

 

Immigration Politics

Posted June 26th, 2012 at 7:44 pm (UTC+0)
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U.S. Supreme Court justices sitting for a group photo at the Supreme Court Building. Photo: AP

 Could SCOTUS Help POTUS?

We now turn to the latest chapter in the long-running American saga known as “Immigration Nation,” and the Supreme Court ruling on Arizona’s controversial law aimed at stemming the flow of illegal immigrants from south of the border.

The ruling had something for both sides.  The champions of the Arizona law claimed victory because the high court unanimously upheld the most contested aspect of the statute—the requirement that police check a person’s immigration status if they have reason to believe that person is in the country illegally.

But the Supremes struck down three other provisions of the law that dealt with employment and police powers, reasserting the primacy of the federal government to decide immigration matters, not the states.  This will have ramifications for the five other states that have enacted laws similar to the one in Arizona, and for several others in the process of trying to enact such laws.

Police ride by on bikes as members of an Arizona group in Phoenix hold a prayer vigil prior to the U.S. Supreme Court decision on Arizona’s controversial immigration law. Photo: AP

Essentially, the high court is telling the states they do have the power to check on the immigration status of people stopped by police for other reasons.  But the justices also put limits on the states on how far they can go in trying to stop illegals from trying to find work and in giving police even broader powers of arrest without warrants.

Even in upholding the “show me your papers” aspect of the Arizona law, the high court majority suggested there would be limits on state attempts to detain someone on suspicion of being in the country illegally.  Critics of the Arizona law continue to insist that by upholding this part of the statute, police officers will open themselves up to allegations of racial profiling as they go about the business of checking immigration status based on vague concepts such as “reasonable suspicion”.

 

Political Fallout

Overall, I think you can make the case that the Supreme Court ruling on immigration might help President Obama, at least slightly, in this year’s election.  The president is absolutely dependent on a strong turnout from Hispanic voters in November.  Four years ago Mr. Obama won 67 percent of Hispanic voters in his race against Republican John McCain and a repeat of that performance this year would go a long way toward making up what is expected to be a loss of support among white and independent voters this year.

As Democratic political strategist Mark Penn points out in the latest issue of Time Magazine, Hispanic voting power has been growing for years and that trajectory is expected to continue for the foreseeable future.  In 1992, the first time Bill Clinton was elected president, Hispanics made up two percent of the U.S. voting electorate.  That figure is expected to rise to more than ten percent this year.  The biggest unknown for the Obama campaign and Democrats is whether Hispanic voters will be motivated enough to get out and vote in November, and that’s where the Supreme Court ruling and the president’s recent decision to halt the deportation of some younger illegal immigrants could help.

Hispanic activists have long complained that the president has not done enough to follow through on his campaign promise of comprehensive immigration reform, which remains bottled up in Congress.  But there was a decided change in tone from leaders of Latino and immigration organizations I spoke to at a recent rally celebrating Mr. Obama’s decision to unilaterally go ahead with a light version of the Dream Act, allowing hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants brought to this country when they were children to stay.  That action alone is likely to boost support within the Hispanic community and act as an incentive for Latinos to turn out and vote in November.  Add to that the Obama administration’s decision to fight the Arizona law in court, and all of a sudden Hispanic voters might be feeling a little more warmly toward the president than they have been.

 

Impact on Voter Turnout

The key question remains what if any impact will all this have on Hispanic voter turnout in November?  And this applies not only to Hispanic voters but especially to younger and first-time voters who came out in droves for Barack Obama four years ago.  That’s why when you hear the experts talk about a “turnout election”, it has to do with the Obama campaign mobilizing their supporters to make up for the expected slippage in swing voter support because of the president’s poor  approval ratings on his handling of the economy.

Mr. Obama’s expected opponent in the fall campaign, Republican Mitt Romney, finds himself in a tougher political spot on the immigration issue.  You may recall all the harsh rhetoric about illegal immigration at the Republican debates during the primary campaign when the candidates were basically united in support of the Arizona law.   Romney in particular seemed intent on not being outflanked on his right on the immigration issue, even going after Texas Governor Rick Perry for granting young illegals in-state tuition rates and financial aid to attend state colleges and universities.

Hispanic Protestors

Romney now faces the challenge of saying to Hispanic voters and other immigrant groups, ‘Don’t worry, we’re not that bad!’   But he can only go so far before he’ll be yanked back to the right by Tea Party activists and other conservatives for whom border security and removing illegals from the country remain high priority issues.

Hispanic voters will also get a lot of attention this year because their numbers are rapidly increasing not just nationwide but in a number of closely contested so-called ‘battleground states’ that likely hold the balance of power in the election.  While Latinos vote in force in solid Democratic states like California and New York, they are also growing in importance in more competitive states like New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada.  Democrats believe that the growth of the Hispanic voting population could even make them competitive one day in solid Republican states like Arizona and even Texas, though they acknowledge that day may be years away.

In general, I think the immigration debate helps the president more than Romney.  Plus each day spent on issues like immigration is one less day the Romney campaign gets to focus on the weak economy, which they believe is their best path to victory in November.

The Obama-Romney Matchup: Closer Than You Think

Posted June 20th, 2012 at 6:52 pm (UTC+0)
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Polls Suggest a November Nail-Biter

Still wondering if this year’s presidential election will be close?  Well, how about a look at the latest Gallup polling numbers over the last several days.

Since the beginning of June, the key numbers in the Gallup Daily Tracking poll are 46 and 45 percent.  In that time period, President Obama scored 46 percent support on six days, to 45 percent for Mitt Romney, his expected Republican challenger.  Romney has hit 46 percent seven times, and each time the president came up short with 45 percent.   In other words, even though we are months from the election, this race is looking really close and any number of factors could make a difference in November.

President Obama gets only a slight edge in some daily tracking polls. Photo: AP

With all that said a new Bloomberg poll is getting some attention.  Bloomberg gives the president a huge 53 to 40 percent lead over Romney, one of the largest gaps seen in recent national polls.  The question will now be debated whether the Bloomberg survey is an aberration in the ongoing series of polls or whether it hints at some sort of major shift in the race.  Too early to know but stay tuned.

The Economy Will be Key

Obviously, the biggest factor remains the economy.  It is the president’s weakest selling point, but also the area where even a little improvement in the months to come could pay huge political dividends.  The economy has been in a down cycle of late, with the unemployment rate creeping back up to 8.2 percent and a decline in public optimism about where the country is headed.  The more the economy remains weak, the more you can expect the Obama campaign to try and make Mitt Romney the issue instead.  One TV ad getting a lot of play is an attack on Romney’s economic record as governor of Massachusetts that highlights the fact the state was 47th out of 50 states in job creation during part of Romney’s tenure.

But the experts I’ve talked to of late say that tactic will only go so far.  The Romney campaign wants the vote in November to be purely a referendum on Mr. Obama’s economic record, not a choice election as the Obama campaign would prefer.  The Romney camp believes they can replicate Ronald Reagan’s 1980 focus on incumbent Jimmy Carter, with the same devastating (for Mr. Carter), bottom-line question for voters:  Are you better off today than you were four years ago?

Polls show independent voters are worried about the country's future

Independent Voters Are Pessimistic

Romney also seems to have opportunities to make inroads with independent voters, many of whom supported the president four years ago.  Charlie Cook of the Cook Political Report was parsing some recent polling data from one survey on independent voters the other day and it was stunning how few believe the country is headed in the right direction (15 percent) and how many believe it is headed in the wrong direction (81 percent).   OK, granted, it’s just one poll.  But yikes, if you’re in the White House reading that.

It’s clear the president has a lot of work to do to convince swing voters who remain undecided that he should be given another four years in the White House.  That’s why there is a huge push going on among core Obama voters to make sure they get out and vote this year.  Turnout among African-American voters, young people and Hispanic-Americans was a major reason why Mr. Obama piled up a huge victory in 2008.  But getting those same voters out again, especially young people and Hispanics, will be a major test for the campaign.

For example, Mitt Romney is doing well with older white voters but faces a huge deficit with the president in terms of Hispanic support.  Down the line, the growth of the Hispanic community should help Democrats and could penalize Republicans, particularly if they continue to insist on strict immigration enforcement along with the tough kind of rhetoric that tends to turn off Hispanics around the country.

But unless the Obama camp can light a fire under Hispanic community activists, Romney could benefit from an upsurge in older white voters who are lining up against the president and seem determined to get out to the polls.  Older voters are much more reliable in getting to the polls than younger voters anyway.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney mixing it up on the campaign trail. Photo: AP

The Swing States

Also, take a look at Mitt Romney’s recent campaign bus tour.  It began in New Hampshire and hit five other so-called “swing states” that should be pivotal in this year’s election.  They include Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Iowa, Ohio and Michigan.  President Obama won all six of these states four years ago, most by healthy margins over Republican John McCain.  But the Romney campaign is convinced most of these states are in play this year and victories in Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan in November would go a long ways to making Romney the next president.  Expect both candidates to focus on these states in the months ahead plus a handful of others including Florida, Colorado and Virginia.

The next big event to watch for will be Romney’s selection of a vice presidential running mate.  Romney knocked down an ABC News report this week that Florida Senator Marco Rubio is not being vetted as part of his short list of vice presidential possibilities, insisting Rubio is under consideration.  But I still believe the Romney camp will choose someone more experienced who will first and foremost be seen by voters and the media as ready to be president right away, a direct contrast with McCain’s much-panned selection of Sarah Palin in 2008.  With that factor in mind, the favorites at the moment appear to be former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, who is working hard for Romney’s campaign, and Ohio Senator Rob Portman, who served as budget director and trade representative under President George W. Bush.

 

Watergate at 40

Posted June 15th, 2012 at 6:56 pm (UTC+0)
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President Richard Nixon defends his record during a speech in 1974, the year he resigned. Photo: AP

The Scandal That Took Down a President Still Resonates

Ah, the summer of ’73 — for me the summer between high school and college.  So what do I remember?  Day after day of the Senate Watergate hearings, broadcast live on U.S. television.

The Watergate anniversary is pegged to the break-in at Democratic Party headquarters on June 17th, 1972.  But the Watergate saga dragged on for more than two years and eventually forced Richard Nixon to become the first U.S. president to resign from office on August 9, 1974.

There are many chapters to Watergate.  The early reporting by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein that first brought the scandal to light.  Then there was a television phase that began with CBS and Walter Cronkite devoting time to the scandal based largely on the Post’s early reporting.  Next came the Senate Watergate hearings with its multitude of characters, both senators and witnesses, that transfixed the nation during the spring and summer of 1973.

The hearings produced so many great moments to recall.  Republican Senator Howard Baker asking witnesses over and over again, “What did the president know and when did he know it?”  The revelations from White House aide Alexander Butterfield of a White House taping system that would play a crucial role in the eventual downfall of Richard Nixon.  And the testimony of White House aide John Dean, a key figure in the White House efforts to cover up administration involvement in the break-in and other nefarious activities, especially his warning to Nixon that Watergate had become “a cancer growing on the presidency.”

I was only a spectator to all of this but one of my VOA colleagues, David Dyar of the VOA English Web desk, covered Watergate as a young reporter for United Press International.  I asked him for recollection of what it was like to cover the most consequential political scandal in U.S. history.

VOA Reporter Remembers

 

“I was able to witness many of the events surrounding Watergate as the scandal slowly implicated President Nixon and his White House staff,” Dyar says. “I was a reporter covering the courts in Washington for UPI when the scandal began unfolding, and as luck would have it, the federal court house in the capital became the prime focus for many of the key events that led to President Nixon’s resignation.

“One of the key figures in breaking open the scandal was Judge John Sirica.  I sat in numerous sessions in his court room as he faced a wall of silence from the Watergate burglars who were being paid hush money by Nixon’s aides,” Dyar continues. “The day in 1973 that he ordered severe prison sentences for the burglars if they didn’t start talking was one of key events in the unraveling of the cover up.

“After that, the court house became what was in effect ground zero for news coverage as we were able to witness many of the most powerful people in the Nixon administration being brought to the court to testify before the grand jury.  It was one of the most exciting beats a reporter could have at that time.

“But covering the White House on the night President Nixon ordered the firing of the special prosecutor who was seeking oval office tape recordings on Watergate was truly a case of being a witness to history,” Dyar concludes. “That decision opened the flood gates for demands that he be impeached. And President Nixon resigned nine months later.”

 

Nixon was always the main character

Richard Nixon and his wife, Pat, say goodbye to the White House staff on the day he resigned as president, Aug. 9, 1984. Photo: AP

As Dyar notes, the central character in the Watergate drama was always Richard Nixon and so many of the video images of Watergate feature him.   As the scandal unfolded, the true Nixon came out under the glare of klieg lights.  “I am not a crook”, he famously declared at one news conference.  And then with the release of the White House audio tapes, including all the deleted expletives and insulting characterizations of friend and foe alike, the public began to get a very different view of a man who often appeared controlled but uneasy in public.

Nixon was elected in 1968 as America was buffeted by political assassinations (Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy) and nearly at war with itself over civil rights and the conflict in Vietnam.  In his first term, Nixon had opened up ties to China and fostered détente with Russia and was a strong favorite for re-election in 1972.   But this was the same man who lost by a hair to John Kennedy in the 1960 election, and then was humiliated in a gubernatorial election in California two years later, ending a press conference by telling reporters that “wouldn’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.”  Nixon never forgot where he came from, resented elites and always felt insecure about his political standing and his political enemies.

 

Like scenes from a movie

 

Carl Bernstein (L) and Bob Woodward, the Washington Post reporters who broke the Watergate story, shown here in May of 1973. Photo: AP

The final acts of the drama unfold in memory as if scenes from a film.  The Supreme Court rules that Nixon must turn over the White House tapes to the special prosecutor.  Once Nixon’s involvement in the cover-up becomes clear, several Republicans turn on the president and join Democrats in beginning the impeachment process in the House of Representatives.  Senator Barry Goldwater leads a group of senior Republican lawmakers to the White House to deliver the news that Nixon’s position was politically untenable, leaving it to him to finally reach the conclusion that the fight was over and he must resign.

Vice President Gerald Ford was never elected president, but he too played a key role in the drama with his pitch-perfect speech in the wake of Nixon’s departure.

“Our long national nightmare is over”, Ford said following his swearing-in as president.  “Our Constitution works.  Our great republic is a government of laws and not of men.  Here the people rule.”

Simple, eloquent and exactly what the country the needed to hear at a time of great political stress and uncertainty.

Ford, of course, paid a dear price for pardoning Nixon, narrowly losing the 1976 election to Jimmy Carter.  But Ford will be forever remembered as one of the heroes of Watergate, along with reporters Woodward and Bernstein and FBI official Mark Felt, unmasked years later as Woodward’s key source known as “Deep Throat.”

I remember from my college years during Watergate there was a surge of interest in journalism, especially the investigative kind practiced by Woodward and Bernstein.  Newspapers and television stations rushed to set up investigative or “I-Teams” determined to root out official corruption and serve the public interest.

Unfortunately, Watergate also spawned a more cynical national consciousness about all things government.  Some political analysts also believe the scandal was a major factor in the polarization of the two political parties that has grown worse over the decades.

Watergate also led to sweeping reforms in campaign finance laws, though some of that has been undone by recent Supreme Court rulings.

But at its core, Watergate is still seen by most as a victory for the democratic process and the rule of law and a testament to the power of a free press.  Those of us who lived through it will never forget the tension and drama of a political scandal that played out on television over a two year period and ultimately changed the course of American history.

 

 

 

Conservatives Push Rubio as Romney’s Running Mate

Posted June 12th, 2012 at 7:35 pm (UTC+0)
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Republican Veterans Want to Avoid Repeat of Palin Fiasco

If conservatives get their way, they will try to force Mitt Romney to pick Senator Marco Rubio of Florida as his vice presidential running mate.  Two recent opinion polls of conservative groups sponsored by the Washington Times newspaper found growing support for Rubio to join Romney on the Republican Party ticket, despite betting from more senior Republicans that Romney will go with a more established, safer choice like Ohio Senator Rob Portman.

Senator Marco Rubio of Florida is the favorite of many conservative Republicans to be their vice presidential candidate. Photo: AP

A poll of those attending the Conservative Leadership Conference in Las Vegas and another survey of activists at the Conservative Political Action Committee in Chicago both found the most support for adding Rubio to the Republican ticket.  Twenty-eight percent of those meeting in Las Vegas mentioned Rubio as their top choice, while 30 percent of those at the CPAC event in Chicago chose Rubio.

Others who did well in the two polls were New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.  But some other notable Republicans did not fare as well, including Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, fresh of his recall victory last week, and Senator Portman Rob Portman of Ohio.  Portman mustered only 2 percent of the vote in the Chicago poll despite the fact he is one of the contenders most often mentioned by Republican insiders as their pick to be on the ticket with Romney.

Rubio’s charisma and Cuban-American roots excite a lot Republicans looking for a new, younger option who could appeal to Hispanic voters, a growing constituency that at the moment overwhelmingly supports President Obama.  Rubio was also elected with Tea Party support in Florida and his selection could further energize an important voting bloc within the Republican Party for November.

Will presumptive Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney take the safe path in choosing his vice presidential running mate? Photo: AP

But detractors question whether Rubio has enough government experience. They argue that Romney needs to choose a more seasoned politician as vice president, especially in the wake of John McCain’s controversial decision four years ago to pick the untested governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin.

Conservative activists love Rubio and insist he would be a much more exciting choice than contenders like Portman, Senator John Thune of South Dakota, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell or former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, who some in the Romney campaign see as a comfortable fit in the number two slot.  Some Republicans pushing for Rubio deride the safer picks as “boring white guys.”  They argue that Romney should do something more to shake up the race before the Republican National Convention gets underway the last week in August in Tampa, Florida.

Beyond the usual vice presidential suspects, there are lesser known Republicans Romney could choose from.  They include Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez and Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire.  The problem with many of the lesser-knowns is that they will invite comparison to McCain’s choice of Palin four years ago — and that may be the number one thing the Romney folks want to avoid at this point.

I think it’s still more likely than not that Romney will choose the safe path, the one that abides by that old maxim of picking a running mate that says, “First, do no harm.” But it’s also likely that many names will get mentioned either directly or indirectly by the Romney campaign between now and when the choice is revealed to maximize the exposure of some of the other contenders who will be campaigning on Romney’s behalf in the fall campaign.

No harm in mentioning a lot of names and getting some up and coming Republicans national exposure.

Some of the better known names that have been bandied about might not be a good fit because they might overshadow Romney. That applies to the occasionally bombastic New Jersey Governor, Chris Christie.

Another prominent Republican, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, has taken himself out of the running, though given the continuing negative hangover from his brother’s administration — among even some Republicans — that may not be a big issue.

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush has taken himself out of the running for the vice presidency. Photo: Reuters

Also, Bush has further annoyed some of his Republican colleagues lately, telling an audience in New York that even former President Ronald Reagan would struggle in today’s party with what he called “an orthodoxy that doesn’t allow for disagreement.”

What seems to be clear at this point is the interest in joining Mitt Romney on the ticket as the number two Republican is growing, primarily because more and more party members now believe Romney can beat President Obama in November. In that context, being Romney’s running mate would be a worthwhile.

Conservatives and mainstream Republican stalwarts alike are beginning to express confidence about Romney’s chances this year. That confidence is reflected in Romney’s fundraising prowess, and in the increased focus on several so-called battleground states this year, states that Mr. Obama won handily four years ago.

Romney’s upcoming bus tour will begin in New Hampshire and then move through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan, all states the President Obama won in 2008 and states that will likely determine the winner of this year’s contest.

The Romney camp is looking to make inroads with independent voters in those states who may be on the cusp of abandoning Mr. Obama because they are frustrated with the state of the economy.

 

 

 

 

Romney Rising, Obama Slipping

Posted June 7th, 2012 at 6:36 pm (UTC+0)
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As Economy Weakens, Romney’s Chances Improve

So here we are now less than five months before Election Day and the Obama-Romney race is shaping up as extremely close.

The less than stellar recent economic news followed by Governor Scott Walker’s recall election victory in Wisconsin mean an uptick in Romney’s chances, at least for the moment.

President Obama: Will November be a referendum on his presidency? Photo: AP

I realize that between now and November there will be many ups and downs for both candidates.  And I think it’s important to track them because I really do believe we are looking at a very close election, maybe something close to the 2004 race between President George Bush and Democrat John Kerry that came down to one state—Ohio.  Possibly even as close as the 2000 Bush-Gore match ultimately decided by the Supreme Court — not that anyone wants a repeat of that scenario.

More than anything, this year’s election will probably be decided first of all how people feel about the economy, and secondly, how they feel about the candidates.

We know the Republicans seem unified in their dislike for President Obama and a strong desire to throw him out of office.  This anti-Obama feeling will likely trump any conservative hesitation about Mitt Romney not being enough of a true-believer to turn out the party faithful.

The best thing Romney has going for him right now is how negatively Republicans feel about the president — and not any enthusiasm they may have for the former Massachusetts governor.

On the economy, the latest meager jobs numbers and a looming sense that the country may be headed for more rocky times in the months ahead are clearly bad news for the president.  This will help the Romney effort to make the election simply a referendum on President Obama, a simple thumbs-up or down on his first three years in office.

A Referendum or a Choice?

The Obama team, on the other hand, wants voters to look at the election as more of a choice than a referendum. So the president and surrogates like former president Bill Clinton continue to warn that electing Romney will be turning the reins of power back over to the same crowd responsible for the economic meltdown in the first place.

The president desperately needs better economic news at some point, either on jobs, economic growth or housing.  Minus that, the Democrats will really need to fire up their base supporters and try to replicate the massive turnout they had in 2008 that propelled then-candidate Obama to a comfortable victory over John McCain.

But few believe that the Democrats can get a repeat of the turnout among young people, especially in 2008, so they have their work out for them in the months ahead.

So yes, five months is a long time for the voters to decide.  But recent presidential election history shows that many voters begin to make up their minds at this point in the election cycle, and that relatively few minds can be changed between now and Election Day.

If it’s true that the cement is beginning to set, the Obama White House may not have a lot of time to change the dynamics of a race that shapes up as a straight up or down vote on how this president has handled the national economy.

 

Lessons from Wisconsin

 

Republican Scott Walker’s relatively easy win in the Wisconsin recall election has a lot for Republicans to cheer and just as much for Democrats to be concerned about.  Walker became a lightning rod for union activists and Democrats after he pushed the Wisconsin legislature to strip away most union collective bargaining rights.

Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin: Does his state point the way for November's vote? Photo: AP

The showdown over Walker’s efforts to cut the state budget energized Democrats both in Wisconsin and around the country and sparked a recall effort to try and oust him from office. But the recall attempt also energized Republicans.

Walker has become a conservative folk hero around the country for taking on unions and their Democratic allies in the legislature, just the kind of fight conservatives and Tea Party supporters were spoiling for.

The New York Times reports that some conservative activists are already talking Walker up as a possible candidate for national office one day. It says some might be tempted to push him as Romney’s running mate this year, though that seems unlikely.

Democrats first were divided over who should run against Walker, eventually settling on Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who was not a favorite among the union activists.  It then came down to a turnout fight and in a possible harbinger of what may come in November, Republicans rallied to Walker’s side with help from independents and even a few Democrats who opposed the recall.

… For Both Republicans and Democrats

Some of the analysts I’ve talked to say there are lessons for both parties in the Wisconsin vote.  Republicans should be encouraged they were able to best Democrats in terms of turnout and keeping the support of a majority of independent voters.  They should also be optimistic that the public does seem to have an appetite for cutting the size of government and dealing with debt and deficits, a theme we can expect the Romney campaign to focus on in the months to come.

For President Obama and the Democrats, the best thing to come out of Wisconsin may have been an early warning that 2012 will not be a repeat of 2008 when Republican turnout was depressed and the Democrats came out in record numbers to support Barack Obama.  Democrats now have fair warning that they will need to redouble their turnout efforts this year to compete with an energized Republican Party determined to deny the president a second term.

The Democrats also are going to have to find a way to appeal to the dwindling number of independent swing voters still undecided. Those swing voters tend to be more conservative on budget and fiscal issues and more liberal on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage.

Finally there is the issue of money and outside fundraising groups that can have impact.  Walker and Republican allied groups outspent Democrats by about Seven-to-one in the Wisconsin showdown.

Romney seems a very able fundraiser and the mega-fundraising unleashed by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision two years ago means the most expensive presidential race ever is now in the offing for November.

Democrats had better wake up to this.  Their challenges are now clear both in the area of spurring voter turnout and in being able to match the Republican money machine in what is likely to be a costly and very negative race for the White House in 2012.

 

 

 

 

 

Jim Malone

Jim Malone

After a stint in the Peace Corps in Swaziland, Jim joined VOA in 1983 as a reporter and anchor on English broadcasts to Africa.  He served as East Africa correspondent, then covered Congress in the early 1990’s.   Since 1995, Jim has served as VOA national correspondent responsible for coverage of U.S. politics, elections, the Supreme Court and Justice Department.  Jim has been involved in VOA’s election coverage since the 1984 presidential campaign and has co-anchored live VOA broadcasts of numerous national political conventions, candidate debates and election night coverage.

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