The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Friday, August 31, 2012

We Own(ed) This Country

Republican National Convention – Night Three

Last night, Mitt Romney did not need to deliver the greatest speech in the history of American politics nor suddenly display telegenic charisma. He simply needed to come across as competent, decent, and memorable. He passed the first two tests adeptly enough. Not so much the final hurdle. Nobody this morning is marveling, “That Romney is a lot better than I thought.” Instead, they are all wondering aloud, “What the hell was wrong with Clint Eastwood?”

Eastwood was unquestionably entertaining to the crowd in the hall and he scored some genuine political shots against President Obama. Yet once he completed his rambling, off-script diatribe I suspect the Republican National Committee was wishing their big “mystery guest” had been a little less entertaining and a little more mysterious – certainly a little more brief, anyway.

Clint Eastwood debates a
(top), Mitt Romney
accepts the Republican
Party's nomination
Florida Senator Marco Rubio gave the formal introduction of the nominee. His speech did not contain a single memorable line or new insight, in my opinion. However, it was delivered well and did a good job summarizing and reviewing most of the themes touched upon throughout the convention. Perhaps the most charming moment was at the very start, when Rubio gushed like a star-stuck fan at having sipped water from the same bottle previously used by Eastwood.

Romney’s speech seemed a microcosm of everything good and bad about the candidate himself – it was entirely competent but a little underwhelming.

I felt that Romney would be most successful at humanizing himself not through contrived personal glimpses but by addressing, head-on, the criticisms most commonly leveled against him by Democrats. To this end, the topics I felt he most needed to speak about – in order of importance – were Romneycare, Bain Capital, his personal/family wealth, and his Mormon religion. I felt he touched on all of these issues effectively, albeit briefly, with the exception of the first and most important one.

His style was not political or oratorical so much as a quiet, serious conversation with his audience. He was successful at laying out the case for President Obama’s economic and foreign policy shortfalls/failures as well as presenting himself as an experienced and proficient businessperson who could correct them.

For me, the most effective line of the speech was “President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet. My promise . . . is to help you and your family.” It nicely fit the theme that America needed less messiahs and more mechanics in its government leaders.

Romney also laid out his vision and mandate – create twelve million new jobs during his four-year term – and laid out five high-level steps to realize it.

Yet for all this there was a valium-like quality to Romney’s words. When he stepped up to the podium, the noise and excitement levels within the convention hall were as high as I had observed them during the week. By the time he finished, the crowd had quieted down and mellowed out considerably. I felt they must have strolled out the doors rather than charging through them to take up the fight for their candidate. They came expecting a fire-breathing rally and got a PowerPoint executive presentation in its stead.

Washington Post conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin loved Romney’s self-introduction, saying he showed “a side of him that was compelling and heartbreaking.” Her peers were less impressed. Matt Miller conceded it was a “successful, energetic acceptance speech” but found it weak on policy ideas. Jonathan Bernstein dismissed it as, “A generic Republican speech [from a] generic Republican candidate.” Harold Meyerson thought it rose to the ridiculous. “There is, we now know, such a thing as too much humanization . . . Romney gave a pretty fair impression of Mr. Rogers with state power . . . It’s one thing to say you’re not Ebenezer Scrooge but there were moments when Romney seemed to be auditioning for the role of Tiny Tim.”

Romney’s continuing disconnect with his base remains the biggest millstone around his candidacy. Much like John McCain four years ago, he needed to assure his immediate hard-right Republican audience, “I’m one of you” while sending a reassuring message to Independents and moderates that “I’m not one of them.” Small wonder so many across the political spectrum find him unknowable and inauthentic.

Romney entered the hall below the podium. He walked down the aisles toward it, shaking hands with member of the crowd as he proceeded, much like a President during a State of the Union Address. He smiled, laughed, talked and joked with each person he passed. He looked confident, handsome, and strong. Yet he moved strangely – not clumsy but stiff and mechanical. He looked like a man trying to walk inside a heavy suit of armor. Then it struck me that it must be grueling trying to move, let alone run for President of the United States, when your Party will not let you feel comfortable inside your own skin.

To that end, it may have been pointless for Romney to try and show us his true face when it was not him but possibly Eastwood that was the true face of the contemporary Republican Party – not a millionaire businessman but a crotchety old man, disillusioned by changes he sees as lessening the America he remembers and determined to restore it to idealized glory; a face of the Party that deals with President Obama not as an opponent or even a person but as an imagined, invisible caricature – an empty suit in an empty chair.

The official theme for the convention’s final night was “We Believe in America.” A more appropriate slogan was provided by Eastwood. In the middle of his make-believe conversation with the President, the actor suddenly turned to the crowd. “I would just like to say something, ladies and gentlemen. Something that I think is very important. It is that, you, we . . . we own this country.”

He meant, of course, that government should serve the People and not vice versa. However, for those who view the Tea Party as more pathetic than patriotic, it carried a sense of regret over lost power and influence – a fear real that it has become more accurate for them to sigh, “We owned this country.”

The Republicans in Tampa put out a compelling enough narrative for change (or perhaps more accurately for undoing change) but an insufficiently honest one to guarantee survival after refutation by Obama and the Democrats. Even more than Obama in 2008, they will need a continued insipid economic recovery to finish the job for them. They may ultimately defeat the President but they will not be able to say they built it themselves.

Grades –
     Eastwood – Absent
     Rubio – B
     Romney – B-
     RNC Night Three – B-

     RNC Overall – B

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Today's Wind

Republican National Convention – Night Two

During his speech last night, Republican Vice-President nominee Paul Ryan bemoaned President Obama and his Administration as out of ideas to fix America’s problems, comparing them to “a ship trying to sail on yesterday’s wind.” Whether you love or hate him and his policies, Ryan did an effective job not only in taking the wind out of Obama’s sails but also putting forth himself – and, oh yeah, Mitt Romney – as today’s wind.

Many speakers last night took shots at Obama that should have resonated with the Republican core. Yet the crowd in the hall remained curiously subdued. Mike Huckabee stirred a little genuine enthusiasm out of them but the tide really turned and a wave began building with Condoleezza Rice that finally came crashing into shore with Ryan deftly surfing it.

Vice-President nominee Paul Ryan
addresses the Republican convention
Rice’s speech was much praised by commentators from both sides of the aisle because its tone was statesmanlike rather than crassly political – Rice never mentioned Obama by name once. Yet it was hyper-partisan and a tribute to the neoconservative principles of the George W. Bush Administration in which Rice served as National Security Advisor and, later, Secretary of State.

As such, Rice initially focused on foreign policy, a topic largely absent from speeches to that point. She began by asking, “Where does America stand?” Unsurprisingly, she advocated strong support for democracy and freedom abroad, including the need for future nation building activities. She tacitly acknowledged voters weariness with oversea wars and crises but avowed, “We cannot be reluctant to lead – and one cannot lead from behind.”

Then she stealthily but systematically practiced the Bush Administration trick of incorporating various domestic policy matters as important components of national security. These included promotion of the global economy and free trade, energy independence, and even education reform. In the most moving segment of her speech, she related her own story, growing up in the segregated South, to the convention’s larger meme about the American Dream. “That is the true basis of ‘American Exceptionalism’ . . . That it doesn’t matter where you came from but where you are going.”

Most importantly, she introduced the primary theme that Ryan would hammer away at repeatedly in his speech – the danger of America settling for what she perceived as failed policies. “To do anything less is to tear apart the fabric of who we are and cement a turn toward grievance and entitlement . . . The most compassionate and freest country on the face of the earth [must] continue to be the most powerful!”

Liberal columnist E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post was genuinely impressed by Rice, viewing her speech as “more serious and, yes, more Presidential than any other speech on Wednesday night. She outshined Paul Ryan.”

Sandwiched between Rice and Ryan, New Mexico Governor Susanna Martinez was presumably chosen to appeal to both women and Hispanic voters. Regardless of whether she succeeded in these objectives, she established herself as an unexpected rising star in conservative politics. Her speech had three lines that drew ovations from the hall.

In the first, she described how her parents decided to start a security guard business, in which she patroled parking lots during Catholic Church bingos at the tender age of eighteen. “Now my dad made sure I could take care of myself. I carried a Smith and Wesson 357 magnum.” The resulting roar of approval demonstrates that Second Amendment concerns carry far more widely and deeply among conservatives than the NRA.

In the second, she described losing her job as a young prosecutor after she decided to testify against her boss. “So, I took him on, ran against him for District Attorney, and beat him by a landslide.” The crowd loved it again. Beyond celebrating her own spunkiness, Martinez was illustrating a much-cherished conservative apologue that hard-working, ambitious people will ultimately always come out ahead when faced with adversity.

But her most appreciated line was when Martinez explained her conversion to conservatism. A lifelong Democrat, she was invited to lunch by two GOP officials. She and her husband attended only out of politeness. However, the issues talked about by the officials resonated with Martinez so deeply that “when we left that lunch, we got in the car and I looked over at [my husband] and said, ‘I'll be damned, we're Republicans’.” It appealed to the crowd’s smug assurance that all Americans are really conservatives at heart.

Finally, it was Ryan’s turn. Many political observers had celebrated his selection for the ticket by Romney, arguing it would turn the election into one about ideas rather than partisan attacks and fear mongering. That was certainly not the Ryan on stage last night. Ryan built his reputation as the fiscal guru of the GOP. He brought the knives he previously used to trim budgets and used them with surgical precision last night on President Obama.

He accepted his Party’s nomination for Vice President not as the usual honor but as a “duty to help lead our nation out of a jobs crisis and back to prosperity.” He made it abundantly clear that he felt following current Obama policies for the next four year would guarantee a permanent end to prosperity, opportunity, and individual liberty. He showed a definite flair for rhetoric.

“After four years of getting the run-around, America needs a turnaround,” “a Presidency adrift, surviving on slogans that already seem tired, grasping at a moment that has already passed,” “[Obama] assumed office almost four years ago – isn’t it about time he assumed responsibility?”

Perhaps his most damning assault was a true anecdote about a 2008 visit from candidate Obama to a GM auto plant in Ryan’s hometown of Janesville Wisconsin. Obama assured the crowd that government and industry, working together, could keep the plant open “another 100 years.” In reality, Ryan continued, the plant closed shortly thereafter and remains empty today.

Ryan knows the ideas he brings to the campaign are unpopular with many voters, so he simply ignored them, instead concentrating on painting Obama and his Administration as so failed and out of solutions that any change would be preferable. In this he was spectacularly successful. Near the end of his speech, he boiled down the “who owns the bad economy?” debate in terms Democrats will have a tough time dismissing. “The issue is not the economy as Barack Obama inherited it, not the economy as he envisions it, but this economy as we are living it.”

It is true, as many pundits have frothed at the mouth this morning, that Ryan often told only half the story. However, this really was not his job last night the onus is on the Democratic National Convention to counter and refute his charges next week. The story Ryan did tell, he told well.

As Michael Gerson of the Washington Post observed, “It featured not only good lines but good lines of argument . . . [Ryan] managed to make the Obama appeal — so fresh and vivid four years ago — seem used and tattered.” Dorothy Rabinowitz at the Wall Street Journal agrees. “Paul Ryan's gift is his capacity to communicate emotional force on issues that don't normally lend themselves to such things . . . Ryan's capacity to deliver the heartfelt logic that makes such [issues] strike home is remarkable.”

After the speech concluded, Rabinowitz’s Journal colleague, Daniel Henninger, enthused, “Ryan hit a 450-foot shot into the upper deck. Gives Mitt the lead and now he has to hold it.”

Unfortunately, Romney has a history of having trouble holding on. Another thing that Ryan made little effort to do was humanizing his running mate. This will leave Romney with the task of introducing himself to voters on his own as well as laying out any specific vision/policies he intends to pursue. And he must do all this with a crowd that has never warmed to him throughout the campaign. Indeed, Ryan’s very success may have more than one Republican wondering, for at least the next twenty-four hours, whether the Party has once again put the wrong name at the top of the ticket.

The challenge for Romney tonight is to avoid letting an easy grounder roll through his legs, like the error committed by Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner in the 1986 World Series. If he commits a boner play, Romney could once again deny a Massachusetts team victory and glory. Will Romney ride the wind or break wind?

Grades –
     Rice – A+
     Martinez – A
     Ryan – A+
     Night Two Overall – A

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Holding Hands with the American Dream

Republican National Convention – Night One

An unquestioned goal of this Republican National Convention is to “sell” its nominee, Mitt Romney, both to the members of the Party base within the hall as well as still undecided American voters. Even with a scheduled compressed by bad weather, I still assumed that tonight might focus on attacking President Obama, thereby building an argument as to why change in leadership is needed. The theme “We Built This” for the first night – a direct refute of an Obama quote that success is never the product of a single individual’s efforts – seemed to reinforce that idea.

While there was plenty of Obama criticism, the blitzkrieg I expected did not happen. Yet neither did speakers extoll Romney’s virtues beyond the usual boilerplate endorsements, usually toward the end of their speeches. Instead, of begging voters to love their nominee, Republicans seemed more comfortable asking voters to love their Party. Because, make no mistake, the GOP repeatedly avowed its love for America and the American Dream.
Ann Romney basks in the love.

The three speeches that most interested me were those by former Pennsylvania Senator and Presidential aspirant Rick Santorum, current New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and Ann Romney, wife of the nominee. I thought all of them were generally good speeches, with moments of obvious sincerity and passion for their topics at hand. Love was the common theme shared by them.

Santorum spoke first and was discernibly the voice of social conservatism for the evening. He spoke of the importance of marriage, strong family values, and a good education in building strong societies and decried their perceived lack in contemporary America.

He was most moving when speaking about his youngest daughter, Bella, who was born with Trisomy 18, a rare genetic disorder. Ninety percent of children diagnosed with the condition do not survive their first year of life. Those who do survive suffer significant health complications.  Santorum related how doctors explained this to his wife and him, suggesting Bella “would not have a life worth living” and urging them to “prepare to let go.”

“We didn't let go,” Santorum then thundered, “and today Bella is full of life and she has made our lives and countless others much more worth living.” He then parlayed the palpable good feelings generated by his story into a plug for the Party’s pro-life platform plank. “ I thank God that America still has one Party that reaches out their hands in love to lift up all of God's children . . . to live the American Dream.”

I celebrate Bella’s short, beautiful life but wonder if it occurred to Santorum that it was made possible only through the freedom of his family to choose it for her, even in defiance of what might seem ethical, medically advisable, or economically prudent to others. Moreover, Bella is a miracle but even she did not build her existence by herself.

Santorum repeatedly exhorted the American Dream, lionizing his grandfather, who brought his family to America from Wales. “My grandfather, like millions of other immigrants, didn't come here for some government guarantee of income equality or government benefits to take care of his family. In 1923 there were no government benefits for immigrants except one – Freedom!” Apparently, opportunity allows no room for compassion. Santorum also noted, with apparent pride, that his grandfather “mined coal 'til he was seventy-two years old.” Opportunity allows no room for Social Security or Medicare either.

Christie’s speech was much anticipated and he did not disappoint. His address held a curious duality to my ears. While it was a paean to conservative principles, it also stressed many concepts that rose beyond partisanship – such as shared sacrifice, compromise, and truthfulness. It often seemed as much a lecture at Mitt Romney as an endorsement of him.

Nowhere was this more evident than when Christie proclaimed, to huge applause, “Real leaders do not follow polls. Real leaders change polls.” This seemed at odds with Romney’s tendency over his political career to morph chameleon-like into whatever icon the situation and his would-be followers demand.

However, Christie had an answer to the problem that Republicans just cannot seem to bring themselves to love their nominee. “Tonight, we are going to choose respect over love,” he reassured the crowd. It was just part of being responsible. He remembered his mother had taught him that “respect could grow into real and lasting love.” Christie gave a credible show of respect for Romney. His love was reserved for the American Dream.

Yet his love was filled with anxiousness that aligned with the Tea Party’s deepest fears. “I don’t know about you, but I don’t want my children and grandchildren to have to read in a history book what it was like to live in an American Century . . . I want them to live in a second American Century.”

Although Christie repeatedly avowed his belief and optimism in the American Dream, it took Santorum to state an unequivocal certainty in it. “America is still the greatest country in the world – and with God's help and good leadership we can restore the American Dream. [While campaigning,] I held its hand. I shook the hand of the American Dream.”

For all its forcefulness and positive reception, Christie’s speech was not universally acknowledged as brilliant. Jennifer Rubin, a conservative columnist for the Washington Post labeled Christie “a force of nature,” who “repeatedly had the crowd on its feet, making a virtue of unpopular, tough-minded politics. On a scale of 1 to 10, his [speech] was an 11.”

Yet her colleague Jonathan Bernstein dismissed the speech as “empty platitude after empty platitude.” Another fellow columnist, Matt Miller, took issue with Christie as a self-described truth-teller. “For Republicans, that means acknowledging the truth that taxes must rise above their historic levels as the boomers age and we double the number of people on Social Security and Medicare. You cannot qualify as a truth-teller without speaking this truth. Christie fails this test . . . So does the rest of the GOP.”

Moreover, Christie’s speech did not contain the single largest applause line of the evening. That distinction went to Ann Romney.

Her speech also held a dual quality for me. It was as though it were in two parts. The first one, which she was presumably ordered to write by the Party leadership, was meant as an attempt to offer a glimpse of the real Mitt Romney and humanize him to a suspicious base as well as voters in general. She was largely unsuccessful in this attempt. Cute stories about how they ate off an ironing board during their first year of marriage did not convince that the Romneys share/understand the problems of many middle class and impoverished families.

However, the speech had a second half that seemed to come more from the heart and it was highly effective, in my opinion. It was not an insight into her husband but a testimonial to him. She defended his success and wealth and praised his generosity and work ethic. “This is the man who will work harder than anyone so that we can work a little less hard. I can't tell you what will happen over the next four years. But I can only stand here tonight, as a wife, a mother, a grandmother, an American, and make you this solemn commitment . . .”

Mrs. Romney paused, locked her eyes on the television cameras, and then delivered the line that brought the house down.

“This man will not fail.”

The ovation that followed seemed to flow out of a sense of relief as much as anything else. It had taken most of the evening and the guy’s own wife to do it, but here was at least one Republican ready to declare, with absolute certainty, that the rest of them had not made a mistake in picking their standard bearer for November.

Ross Douthat of the New York Times posits this part of the speech “portrayed the Republican nominee for President as a man for rather than of the people.” I am dubious Romney can be sold as the conservative equivalent of a Roosevelt reformer – in the spirit of Teddy and FDR – but it is a starting point to finally begin defining him for voters.

After Christie’s speech, syndicated columnist and PBS commentator Mark Shields noted that, in thirty minutes, the keynote speaker had told him everything Shields needed to know about who Christie was as a person and what principles drove him. In comparison, continued Shields, Christie had told him nothing of the sort about Mitt Romney. Paul Ryan is up Wednesday night. Perhaps he can do the job.

Grades –
     Santorum – A
     Ann Romney – B
     Christie – B+
     First Night Overall – B+

Thursday, February 16, 2012

In Civil Loneliness

Religion and the U.S. Government Have Long Coexisted But Not Always Harmoniously

A recent decision by the Obama Administration to include religious healthcare providers in an existing Department of Health and Human Services mandate has resulted in a firestorm of protest. The mandate states employers must provide women employees with health insurance that covers contraceptives at no cost.

The American Catholic Bishops, social conservatives, and most of the Republican Presidential candidates have all accused the President of declaring “war on religion.” They call the mandate illegal and Unconstitutional, claiming it violates religious freedom as guaranteed by the First Amendment. They say the issue is not about contraception but the intrusion of federal government into freedom of religious expression.
Religion and the U.S. government have
long coexisted but not always harmoniously

A review of history suggests Obama’s mandate is both legal and Constitutional. It may well be a war on a religious principle/practice but history also vindicates this so long as it is not a war against a specific religion(s) in order to promote other religion(s).

The First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Its literal interpretation prohibits the establishment of a national religion by Congress. A more general interpretation prohibits preference for one religion over another by the U.S. government. However, the Supreme Court has never interpreted it to prohibit civil authorities from exercising control over practices effecting society just because some people see those behaviors as part of their religious beliefs.

Anyone who thinks U.S. history is free from government intrusions into religious freedom is unfamiliar with the story of Utah’s admission to Statehood. This example seems particularly germane since Mitt Romney, a practicing Mormon, is one of the Obama Administration’s critics on the matter of contraception.

Utah was designated an official U.S. territory in 1850, with Mormon leader Brigham Young appointed its first territorial governor. A few years later, the Church’s position on “plural marriage” (i.e. polygamy) became widely known. Public reaction was strongly negative.

Aversion to polygamy had some roots in lurid stories regarding women coerced or tricked into plural marriage, the marriage of girls as young as ten to much older men, and even incestuous marriages. Some documentation suggests instances of these charges actually occurred. Other documentation reflects a carefully regulated system overall.

However, the bulk of objections centered on such marriages as disrespectful and even abusive to many of the women who participated in them, even if they did so for reasons of duty. They were compelled to submit to religious law even though it violated their personal principles/feelings. The Mormon historian Todd Compton documents the sufferings of these women in his book In Sacred Loneliness.

Another objection arose because the Mormon men most likely to practice polygamy were older, wealthier, and often in high Church positions. Their tendency to marry younger women reduced the number of eligible females and left more young Mormon men bachelors. This underscores the fundamental importance of marriage to society as a means of creating stable families over that of procreation.

By 1856, President James Buchannan replaced Young with a
non-Mormon governor and dispatched twenty-five hundred federal troops to Utah to ensure his authority. Mormons resisted this fiercely, resulting into the so-called Utah War.

In 1862, Congress passed the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act, which forbade plural marriage in all U.S. territories. President Abraham Lincoln signed the bill into law but told the Mormons he did not intend to enforce it. Tensions slumbered for many years until 1879, when the Supreme Court upheld the Morrill law in the case of Reynolds v. United States. Then, in 1882, a Mormon Church leader was denied a seat in the House of Representatives as Utah’s territorial representative because he was an active polygamist.

Congress responded to outrage by Mormons over this slight with the Edmunds Act. This draconian law raised polygamy to a felony, punishable by a $500 fine and five years in prison. Mormon polygamists earned a status similar to modern day enemy non-combatants. The law forbade them to vote or hold office. It provided for punishment without due process – forcing wives to testify against husbands and witnesses to appear in court without subpoenas. The law revoked rights not only for practicing polygamy but also for failure to swear an oath renouncing it.

When even this failed to budge Church leaders, Congress responded with the 1887 Edmunds-Tucker Act. This law dis-incorporated the Mormon Church, confiscated its properties, and even threatened seizure of its temples. This caused a variety of Mormon elders – including one George Romney, a distant relative of Mitt – to sue the federal government for overstepping its bounds and impinging on their religious expression.

In 1890, the Supreme Court ruled in LDS Church v. United States to affirm Edmunds-Tucker by a six-to-three majority. Even the dissenters, led by Chief Justice Melville Fuller, agreed that declaring polygamy illegal was Constitutional. As regards the First Amendment, Justice Joseph Bradley had this to say about the rights of the government to act over religious objections in his blistering majority opinion –

One pretense for the [Mormon Church’s] obstinate course is that their belief in the practice of polygamy, or in the right to indulge in it, is a religious belief, and therefore under the protection of the Constitutional guaranty of religious freedom. This is altogether a sophistical plea.

No doubt, the Thugs of India imagined that their belief in the right of assassination was a religious belief but their thinking so did not make it so. The practice of suttee by the Hindu widows may have sprung from a supposed religious conviction. The offering of human sacrifices by our own ancestors in Britain was no doubt sanctioned by an equally conscientious impulse. But no one, on that account, would hesitate to brand these practices, now, as crimes against society, and obnoxious to condemnation and punishment by the civil authority.

The state has a perfect right to prohibit polygamy, and all other open offenses against the enlightened sentiment of Mankind, notwithstanding the pretense of religious conviction by which they may be advocated and practiced.

Later that year, Mormon Church president Wilford Woodruff issued a Manifesto banning plural marriage. The Church insisted the ban resulted from divine revelation in a dream on Woodruff’s part. However, it seems clear the U.S. government saw an objectionable practice occurring in one of its territories and used ever harsher and more intrusive means to force its abolishment, despite its religious nature.

Nineteenth Century Mormon policies regarding polygamy have obvious similarities with present-day Catholic polices regarding contraception. In both cases, they were/are intensely unpopular with many Americans outside their respective faiths. In both cases, a majority of these religions’ actual adherents did/do not follow the official policy – best estimates are that no more than twenty-five percent of Mormons engaged in plural marriage and most modern U.S. Catholic women say they have used/use contraceptives.

There is one big difference, however. Traditional Christianity, the majority religion in this nation, did not approve of polygamy. It was in rapport with the U.S. government on abolishing the practice. In the case of contraception, it is a traditional Christian sect’s principles that are discordant with civil authorities.

As Sarah Jaffe notes at AlterNet, “When white evangelicals and Catholics claim that Obama’s declaring a war on religion, they mean on their religion.” Apparently, this is less about religious freedom and more about contraception than those objecting to the mandate care to admit, perhaps even to themselves. Yet the legal principle remains the same and is perfectly Constitutional. As Justice Bradley voiced so long ago, a law that is objectionable to a religion is permissible so long as its primary intent is not attacking that specific religion but promoting the common welfare.

The Supreme Court has reinforced this doctrine as recently as 1990. In Oregon v. Smith, Justice Scalia, a Catholic, states in his majority opinion, “The right of free exercise does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a valid and neutral law of general applicability on the ground that the law proscribes (or prescribes) conduct that his religion prescribes (or proscribes).”

In the case of polygamy, the common welfare was the decent treatment of women within the institution of marriage. When announcing the earlier mandate for employer-provided contraception, DHHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius explained, “Scientists have abundant evidence that birth control has significant health benefits for women and their families, is documented to significantly reduce health costs, and is the most commonly taken drug in America by young and middle-aged women. This rule will provide women with greater access to contraception by requiring coverage.”

Religion and the U.S. government have long coexisted along lines of mutual respect. However, that coexistence has not always been harmonious and while the government has deferred to religious liberty in many situations, there are others when it has used the full force of its authority to oblige compliance.

Critics of the new mandate certainly may continue to argue that contraception is immoral. However, this is not the current law of the land nor perceived as benefiting the common welfare. In a twist on the Mormon women of polygamous unions, this law's critics are doomed to suffer in civil loneliness until they can change perceptions. Their legal argument that the First Amendment protects them from complying with any laws they deem immoral has no practical, historical basis.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Insanely Great

It Is “Equal Opportunity” These Days Because Almost No One Has Any

Despite his deserved reputation for moderation, New York Times columnist David Brooks is still a conservative at heart. As a result, he has despaired lately of President Obama’s move toward populism as well as the lack of traditional values and work ethic in American society. However, his fairness also causes him to do some serious self-contemplation from time to time. The story of Madelyn “Maddie” Parlier, featured in an article written by Adam Davidson, co-host of NPR’s Planet Money, in the current issue of The Atlantic, moved Brooks to just such introspection.

Parlier is a twenty-two year old woman who labors as an unskilled worker in the “clean room” of Standard Motor Products’ fuel-injector assembly line in Greenville South Carolina. Parlier grew up in the area. Her father abandoned their family when she was young, ultimately dying drunk in a car wreck that he caused.
Madelyn “Maddie” Parlier in the
“clean room” at Standard Motor Products

Parlier grew up poor but principled. She was a good student and a regular churchgoer who did not drink, do drugs, or have run-ins with the law. By her senior year in high school, she already was taking a few classes at a nearby technical college, with plans to earn a four-year college degree after graduation. Unfortunately, she also met a boy her senior year and got pregnant.

Parlier kept her baby and graduated from high school with honors but the father of her child soon left her. As a single mother, she could not afford daycare while she attended classes and her remaining family members were all too old, sick, busy, and/or poor to give her much help. She got a temp job at Standard Motor Products washing walls. Her work ethic so impressed plant supervisors that the company offered her a job.

Parlier makes about $13 per hour in a non-union shop. She works hard and does a good job. She would love to advance to a skilled position, which would enable her to earn enough money to own her own home, travel somewhere nice on vacation, and save for her child to go to college. Sadly, the knowledge gap between unskilled and skilled workers is so great that Parlier needs schooling or training to bridge it. Standard cannot cost-justify extensive training for someone who might not succeed and school is already inaccessible to Parlier for reasons already mentioned.

Parlier does not have a bad attitude and is not looking for a handout. She freely admits her own bad choices as a teen helped place her where she is today. She does not whine about bad breaks that were beyond her control, such as the loss of her father. In spite of this, she is unable to realize her American Dream and break out of the working poor into middle class affluence.

As Davidson concludes, “Maddie represents a large population – people who, for whatever reason, are not going to be able to leave the workforce long enough to get the skills they need.” Brooks concurs, “A good attitude and hustle have taken Parlier as far as they can.”

Even worse, Parlier’s situation demonstrates how disadvantaged households tend to pass on a negative legacy to future generations. Brooks writes, “Across America, millions of mothers can’t rise because they don’t have adequate support systems as they try to improve their skills. Tens of millions of children have poor life chances because they grow up in disorganized environments that make it hard to acquire the social, organizational and educational skills they will need to become productive workers.”

Brooks goes on to rue that neither Republicans nor Democrats have policies to help Parlier. He condemns liberal populism for “having shifted [Democratic] emphasis from lifting up the poor to pounding down the rich.” But he also finds fault with conservative populists as Pollyannaish. “Most of the Republican candidates talk as if all that is needed is more capitalism. But lighter regulation and lower taxes won’t, on their own, help the Maddie Parliers of the world get the skills they need to compete.”

In fact, some conservatives seem ready to argue that Parlier does not have a problem so much as she is part of the problem, as her wages are ten times those of unskilled workers in China. However, in the same issue of The Atlantic, financial editor Jordan Weissmann debunks low wages as the sole or even primary reason for China’s competitiveness. “China's labor advantage goes well beyond the low-skill workers . . . The country also excels at educating middle-skill ‘industrial engineers’.”

Chinese universities graduate roughly six hundred thousand engineers a year, versus only seventy thousand in the United States. Yet as Weissmann points out, their education is akin to a two year degree from a community college. This gives them exactly the skills necessary to work in high-tech production lines.

Brooks posits that “successful training programs like Job Corps” will be required in order for the U.S. to achieve something similar and regain our global competitiveness. Alas, many on the far right condemn such government intervention as socialism, not to mention also unaffordable at a time of massive deficits. Moreover, Davidson shrewdly observes that such programs “suffer from all the ills in our education system; opportunities go disproportionately to those who already have initiative, intelligence, and – not least – family support.”

Tweaking educational/training policies as well as how to pay for them may be necessary but at least these are attempts at real solutions to a complicated problem. It may feel comforting to say that anyone can do anything in this land of plenty if they just try hard enough but bootstraps only pull up so far. I agree that America should not guarantee equal outcomes for all but we must face the fact our country is increasingly unable to provide equal opportunity either. What is more, the average to which most can aspire is slipping into the less-than-rosy standards of bygone days.

A retreat into the past is exactly what some think is the solution. This makes Brooks sigh in another recent column, “I sometimes wonder if the Republican Party has become the receding roar of white America as it pines for a way of life that will never return.” I find his self-honesty interesting because I once issued a similar diagnosis about the Tea Party, although, in my case, I saw age rather than race as the key demographic (i.e. substitute “an older America” for “white America”).

Fear that America’s best days may be (nearly) past was a potent and prominent theme from Republican Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana when he delivered the Republican response to the President’s State of the Union address last week. “When President Obama claims that the state of our union is anything but grave, he must know in his heart that this is not true . . . In our economic stagnation and indebtedness, we are only a short distance behind Greece, Spain, and other European countries now facing economic catastrophe.” Daniels warns America is ready to “drift, quarreling and paralyzed, over a Niagara of debt.”

Daniels also evoked the late Steve Jobs of Apple as a capitalist hero, proclaiming he had “created more [jobs] than all those stimulus dollars the President borrowed and blew.” I wrote last time how Jobs once blew off an Obama query on how to bring back Apple factory jobs from oversea. Yet he also made it clear at that time he did not share Daniels’s doom and gloom outlook. “I'm not worried about the country's long-term future. This country is insanely great. What I'm worried about is that we don't talk enough about solutions.”

Part of the reason we do not talk enough about solutions is that we too often ignore problems standing right in front of us, like Maddie Parlier, preferring to look at them though the rose colored glasses of our personal wishes and political ideologies. To continue doing so by the justification that America is “still the greatest country on Earth” ignores that we are increasingly becoming a kind of insanely great and not in the good way meant by Jobs.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Tea and Biscuits

Our Outrage Over America’s Inability to Compete with Cheap Foreign Labor Is Misplaced

The New York Times recently ran a story about globalization that focused on the use of factories in China by Apple Corporation. Today, the Times followed up with a story about unsafe working conditions in those factories.  As recently as ten years ago, Apple based most of its manufacturing in the U.S. Today, most of its manufacturing takes place overseas. For example, Apple does not produce a single iPhone domestically. At a business summit last year, President Obama asked the late Steve Jobs, “What would it take to make iPhones in the United States?” Jobs’s reply was candid to the point of brusque – “Those jobs aren't coming back.”

Many conservative economists and politicians blame two factors for the permanent exodus of manufacturing jobs. First is the high wages paid to U.S. workers, as demanded by labor unions. Second is the excessive regulation of industry by the federal government. These twin pressures drive Apple’s costs too high, forcing them to seek relief elsewhere. There is truth to these charges but they oversimplify why Chinese factories meet Apple’s needs so much better than American ones.
Rural workers rescued from an unsafe
factory in the village of Linfen in N.E.
China.  They might have gotten tea
and bisuits (insert) at an Apple factory.

While wages for Chinese factory workers are only ten percent of their U.S. counterparts, Jordan Weissmann, financial editor for The Atlantic, points out that direct labor costs represent only ten percent of the full retail price for the cheapest iPhone 4S. He quotes a former high-ranking Apple executive that factories in Asia “can scale up and down faster” and “Asian supply chains have surpassed what's in the U.S.” It is as much about flexibility as it is cheapness. And the chief product savings come from removing all those pesky worker benefits and protections.

In an example that Apple executives love to cite, the company made a sudden, last minute iPhone design change. Their Chinese factory received the new plans in the middle of the night. It immediately roused more than eight thousand workers from their dormitories, giving each worker a cup of tea and a biscuit, and set them to work retooling to meet the new specs. Within four days, the factory was producing over ten thousand iPhones per day.

Tea and biscuits? Dormitories? Yes, dormitories.

China builds multiple factories, each complementing the other, to create large industrial complexes that become cities unto themselves. Rather than have homes, workers are housed in dormitories. The factory provides food, shelter, and medical attention for workers. The Chinese government underwrites the construction of these factory cities.

We celebrate the rise of free market capitalism in China. Yet if the U.S. did what China has done in order to compete, most Americans – and certainly most conservatives – would revile the practice as socialism and the intrusion of big government into private enterprise. The idea of workers as citizens within their company/factory has a creepy Orwelian quality to it.

The federal regulations cited as excessive in this country are largely missing with the Chinese government. However, keep in mind the intent behind most U.S. regulations is ensuring worker safety and generally providing a decent, dignified working environment that is often lacking in Chinese factories.

When confronted with conditions at Apple’s Chinese factories in 2010, Jobs feigned bewildered innocence. “It’s a factory, but, my gosh, I mean, they’ve got restaurants and movie theaters and hospitals and swimming pools, and I mean, for a factory, it’s a pretty nice factory.” In spite of this, “Most people would still be really disturbed if they saw where their iPhone comes from,” contends one former one former Apple executive.

Chinese workers who will talk to reporters say they routinely work under harsh conditions, including excessive overtime, in some cases seven days a week. Their jobs require them to stand so long that their legs swell until they can hardly walk. Under-age workers are common. All activity takes place under wall banners that warn, “Work hard on the job today or work hard to find a job tomorrow.” Oh, and factory dormitories sometimes contain as many as twenty people stuffed into a three-room apartment.

Worse still, Chinese factories display systematic disregard for workers’ health. Improper disposal of hazardous waste and falsified records have resulted in serious injuries and death from poisoning and fires/explosions. Apple insists that it conducts audits and requires corrections when it finds problems. However, a consultant at Business for Social Responsibility, which Apple has retained twice for advice on labor issues, finds that claim disingenuous. “They don’t want to pre-empt problems, they just want to avoid embarrassments.”

That may be too harsh. Some former Apple executives insist management would genuinely like to improve conditions within oversea factories but faces constant push back for fast delivery of new products and maximizing profits. Then again, Apple just reported one of the most lucrative quarters of any corporation in history, with over $13 billion in profits. It could have made even more, executives said, if its overseas factories had been able to produce more. Could Apple not use a little more of it to ensure livable working conditions for Chinese laborers?

The amoral nature of capitalism and free markets is exactly what makes them so efficient at producing the highest quality products at the lowest cost. It also has caused many to realize that government regulation of them is necessary and just. Sometimes consumers are the ones demanding improvements, as they did against Nike and The Gap, when western media exposed appalling conditions at those companies’ Chinese factories.

Unfortunately, American appetite for evermore innovative and cheap shiny electronic gadgets has not placed the same pressure on Apple or other high tech companies employing overseas workers, such as Dell, Hewlett-Packard, I.B.M., Lenovo, Motorola, Nokia, Sony, and Toshiba.

As one Apple executive cynically summed up, “You can either manufacture in comfortable, worker-friendly factories or you can reinvent the product every year, and make it better and faster and cheaper, which requires factories that seem harsh by American standards. And right now, customers care more about a new iPhone than working conditions in China.”

The twin forces for globalizations and technological advancement demand changes to the U.S. model if we are to regain competitiveness. Nevertheless, the Chinese model is no basis for a return to American exceptionalism. Rather it represents a descent to an infamous era that authors like Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser once chronicled.

“If Apple was warned [about Chinese factory conditions], and didn’t act, that’s reprehensible,” fumes Nicholas Ashford, a former chairman of the National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health. I agree. For all his innovative brilliance, I once noted that Steve Jobs was also noteworthy for being something of an asshole.

Many wish the U.S. would do more to condemn the Chinese government for its human rights abuses. It seems quite a few U.S. companies deserve the same scorn for their business practices. Instead, we condemn U.S. workers as too fat, lazy, and pampered as well as unions and government for acting as their advocates. If we follow the Chinese model, our grandchildren may have jobs but ones without dignity, decent working conditions, or healthcare. On the other hand, there will be no shortage of iPhones . . . or tea and biscuits.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Vultures In Quiet Rooms

Romney Won’t Convince Voters He Isn’t One by Refusing to Talk About It

Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney scored a striking precedent by co-winning the Iowa Caucuses and then winning the New Hampshire Primary by a substantial margin. Romney’s fellow candidates continue looking for barbs to jab at him and the somewhat hapless Rick Perry seems to have found one that sticks. It has to do with Romney’s tenure as CEO at the venture capital firm Bain Capital.

“I understand the difference between venture capitalism and vulture capitalism,” Perry told a crowd in South Carolina. “I happen to think companies like Bain Capital could have come in and helped these companies if they were truly venture capitalists, but they're not. They're vulture capitalists . . . They’re vultures that are sitting out there on the tree limb waiting for the company to get sick, and then they swoop in, they eat the carcass, they leave with that and they leave the skeleton.”

Vulture Capitalists – watercolor
by Canadian-born artist and
illustrator Anita Kunz, 2001
Newt Gingrich, still holding a vendetta against Romney attack ads that sank his chances in Iowa, was quick to agree. “I think there’s a real difference between people who believed in the free market and people who go around, take financial advantage, loot companies, leave behind broken families, broken towns, people on unemployment.” A super PAC backing Gingrich plans to spend $3.4 million in South Carolina airing a documentary that rips Romney as “more ruthless than Wall Street.”

Romney’s initial reaction to such criticisms has been to condemn them as unfair to him personally but also for placing “free enterprise on trial.” Other conservatives are equally uncomfortable with the larger implications behind this line of attack against Romney and jumped to his defense. “It is bad enough for Barack Obama to blame folks in business for causing problems in this country,” bemoaned Rick Santorum. “It’s one other thing for Republicans to join him.”

“That is the miracle of free-market capitalism,” explains Washington Post conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin. “The pursuit of profits – by creating real value – benefits the rest of society through better products and services . . . and jobs and higher incomes.” Her colleague Kathleen Parker asks, “Since when in a free, capitalist nation is it a sin to buy a company and turn a profit?”

It is true that some of the criticisms against Romney on this score have been over-the-top and even dishonest. In particular, the much cited Romney quote, “I like being able to fire people” was taken completely out of context. The candidate was clearly not expressing his economic/business preferences but rather advocating choice in selecting healthcare providers. The Obama campaign will come to rue any attempts to make mileage out of this quote in the general election.

However, Romney has also been over-the-top at times about his business acumen, particularly as a job creator. During his 2008 candidacy, Romney tended to focus on his tenure as Governor of Massachusetts. However, that period of Romney’s career is verboten in 2012 because it invites unwanted comparisons between Obamacare and Romneycare. Therefore, Romney has chosen to stress his private sector experience, including his time at Bain, this time around.

By doing so, Romney “invited voters to look at what he did there and determine if they believe it was both (a) admirable and (b) germane to the Presidency,” as Jonathan Last points out in the Weekly Standard.

The presumption that experience as a CEO translates to Presidential competency is questionable. Robert Samuelson of the Washington Post believes “Romney better understands – and identifies with – business” than President Obama.” However, he concedes, “Whether this becomes a political advantage is unclear.” New York Times columnist David Brooks concurs. “If you look back over history . . . there’s little correlation between business success and political success.”

Brooks’s colleague, Paul Krugman, attempts to define the crucial difference. “Even giant corporations sell the great bulk of what they produce to other people, not to their own employees – whereas even small countries sell most of what they produce to themselves.”

While Romney misleads by portraying himself at Bain as some superhuman job creator, his critics equally overstep categorizing him as a job-killing vulture. “Private equity doesn’t consciously strive to create jobs,” admits Samuelson. “But it’s also true that employment practices at companies backed by private equity don’t differ dramatically from other similar non-private-equity-owned companies.”

The intensity of the pushback against criticisms of Romney’s time at Bain derives from recognition by Republicans that this charge could come to haunt their likely nominee. Conservative blogger Erick Erickson at RedState acknowledges far-left liberals are not the only ones who view venture capitalism as a colossus of greed “There are, frankly, a lot of Republican primary voters who view it that way too.” The Wall Street Journal’s Fred Barnes calls the attacks “an explosive issue . . . the greatest threat to [Romney’s] quest for the Presidency.”

Free markets are, by their nature, messy things. There will always be room in their margins for venture capital firms, like Bain, to perform necessary and useful cleanup. The key term here is “margins.” In the recent past, such firms have moved out of the margins to become center stage players. They generate vast amounts of wealth not by creating products (and value) but often by gaming around the rules under which markets operate – rules often put in place by the federal government they claim to want to shrink and whose regulations they wish to curtail.

As E.J. Dionne observes in the Washington Post, “Capitalists of Romney’s sort never want to acknowledge how much their ability to make money depends on what government does.”

In many ways, Romney is lucky to have this issue raised now and by his fellow conservatives. It should blunt the force of the charge when Democrats raise it again in the general election. However, this assumes he uses the opportunity to develop a politically viable defense. His initial efforts at condemning critics as anti-capitalist are unimpressive.

During an interview on NBC’s Today Show, host Matt Lauer challenged Romney whether he genuinely felt any questioning of Wall Street and financial institutions, as well as the growing U.S. wealth gap, were out of bound. What about basic fairness?, Lauer questioned. Romney refused to budge. “You know, I think it is about envy. I think it’s about class warfare,” he replied. “I think it’s fine to talk about those things in quiet rooms and tax policy and the like. But the President made it part of his campaign rally.”

Quiet rooms?

During the height of the Iraq War and its counter-protests, many argued that dissenters should get off the streets and into quiet rooms. They insisted that criticizing the war was tantamount to a lack of patriotism, dishonoring the troops, and providing aid and comfort to terrorists. The latest mantra from conservatives seems to be that calling bad capitalist practices into question is synonymous to questioning capitalism. It is the politics of fear and jingoism all over again.  Personally, I do not think Romney is a vulture. Romney’s practices at Bain bother me far less than his current contention that they are not legitimate topics for discussion and raising them is essentially un-American in nature.

Perry has backed off the term “vulture.” However, he refuses to concede the matter as a non-topic. He told FOX News, “This process is about winnowing out individuals and testing whether or not they're a flawed candidate or not. And I will tell you when people can point to where you made a quick profit and kicked people out of their jobs, that is an issue that has got to be addressed.” Gingrich adds, “Criticizing specific actions in specific places is not being anti-free-enterprise. And raising questions about that is not wrong.”

As Romney’s defenders point out, capitalism is not a pretty thing sometime. Neither is democracy, for that matter. So what is the harm in discussing them frankly? American exceptionalism holds little value if gained by sweeping its limitations and weaknesses under a rug or by hiding its vultures in quiet rooms.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Candidate Who's Near

Mitt Romney Can Win Iowa But Not Republican Hearts

My heart's in a pickle,
It's constantly fickle
And not too partickle, I fear.
When I'm not near the girl I love,
I love the girl I'm near.

One of the characters in the whimsical Broadway musical Finian’s Rainbow is a leprechaun named Og, whose pot of gold is stolen by the show’s title character. Og is anxious to get his gold back because its absence is transformational, literally changing him from magical creature to mortal being. He fears losing his powers and identity. Unfortunately for Og, his burgeoning humanity stirs romantic impulses and he falls hopelessly in love with Finian’s vivacious daughter, Sharon.

At least somebody loves him –
GOP Presidential candidate Mitt
Romney is hugged by his wife
after co-winning the Iowa Caucuses
Yet by the end of the story, Og has settled down with Susan, a mute girl so reserved and bland she was largely unnoticed by all. The reason for the switch is that Sharon does not reciprocate Og’s feelings. Caught up in her own problems, she pays him little heed. That leaves no eligible girl around but “Susan the Silent.” Therefore, in a combination of pragmatism and desperation, Og forsakes the girl he loves in order to love the girl who is available and marriageable. He explains his predicament and adopted solution in the song, When I'm Not Near the Girl I Love.

Og seems a fine metaphor for Republican voters. They want to regain the White House after losing it in 2008. They see this as a transformational moment, with America’s descent from a world power into socialism hanging in the balance. In order to do so, they must commit to a GOP candidate as their nominee. Much like Og, they keep falling in love only to find rejection.

Republicans have just completed the Iowa Caucuses, the first formal step in their 2012 Presidential Primary season. The result was a virtual tie between erstwhile frontrunner Mitt Romney and a surging Rick Santorum, with a surging Ron Paul a close second. Actually, Santorum and Paul are but the latest is a long line of GOP surgers.

The first sweetheart was Michele Bachmann, who GOP voters hoped could work a little Sarah Palin north woods magic again. Alas, she was all nowhere and no bridge. Then voters swooned over Rick Perry’s executive experience, Christian values, and big hair. Sadly, he proved unable to defend his own positions among his peers and had too many “senior moments” for a man of only sixty-one years.

Next, voters flirted with Herman Cain, drawn to his bad-boy outsider status and CEO experience. They left in droves when he proved better cast in Felini’s than his own 9-9-9. He just wasn’t the kind of candidate you brought home to meet mother . . . unless you wanted him to date her. Finally, voters returned to an old flame in Newt Gingrich. He was a legitimate GOP elephant, rather than a RINO, but he had too much trunk (i.e. baggage).

Given all this, one might think Santorum and/or Paul are the “candidate who’s near” – a fickle Republican electorate’s latest passion. However, the key is the key here is that Santorum and Paul, like the others before them, inspire actual passion in voters’ breasts. It is actually the lackluster but omnipresent Romney cast in this role. Voters like him, they just don’t “like” like him. Even his Mormonism is un-exotic – he is Donny Osmond with less charisma (if that is imaginable).

Voter polling by NBC News and other groups confirms this phenomenon. Romney did best among affluent non-Evangelical moderates over forty-five years old, especially senior citizens. In short, he appealed to the same traditional Republican establishment that long has been his base. He did not make necessary in-roads among other Republicans. Santorum took the far right and social conservatives. Paul won young Republicans, poor Republicans, and libertarians.

Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus got similar results when informally talking with voters in Johnston Iowa. Those backing Santorum, Paul, and Gingrich used words like “prefer,” “heart,” “excitement,” and “change” when describing reasons for backing their candidates. Romney supporters were more likely to mention “most electable” and “most likely to win” for their reasons.

There is some good news for Romney out of Iowa. In 2008, he invested huge amounts of time and money in the state, only to finish a disappointing second that virtually knocked him out of the race. In 2012, he gave it far less attention and drew the same percentage of the vote for a first place tie. This suggests he has created a well-established brand among voters if not necessarily a growing one.

The other good news for Romney is that if he prevails in the primaries, he will face a candidate in the general election who is far less beloved by his Democratic base than in 2008. Obama is also the “candidate who’s near” for many liberals. This is even truer for Independent voters, likely to play a key role once again in choosing a Presidential victor.

However, this is where Iowa has bad news for Romney again. Paul was the big winner among self-described Independents and first-time voters (including Democrats participating in Republican caucuses), garnering forty-three percent of this group. Romney is never going to win the Republican nomination and the Presidency by being a consensus candidate about whom everybody is apathetic.

Romney picked up an endorsement yesterday from 2008 Republican candidate Senator John McCain of Arizona. This seems a mixed blessing at best. For many archconservatives, McCain is the poster boy for what can go wrong when they place electability above purity and principles. In today’s Wall Street Journal, columnist Daniel Henninger declares, “The Republican divider is the Party's frontrunner, Mitt Romney.” It cannot be a pleasant position for Romney and it cannot be a pleasant situation for Republican voters either.

Og the leprechaun ultimately gave up attempting to retrieve his gold, deciding that being human is not so bad after all. Of course, that is because he was willing to settle. Republicans seem poised to settle too. They just do not seem to be especially willing.  And Romney waits quietly in the wings as the candidate who's near.

For Sharon I'm carin',
But Susan I'm choosin'
I'm faithful to whos'n is here.
When I'm not near the girl I love,
I love the girl I'm near.