Do we really need another Massachusetts senate election?

I spent a lot of time imagining an exciting Massachusetts senatorial election, with this result.  Lately reality has tried to keep up, with Scott Brown’s dramatic upset win a couple of years ago, and his hard-fought defeat to Elizabeth Warren last November.  Tomorrow we have the primary to select the nominees for the election to replace John Kerry, and no one cares.  Brown seems to have decided that there are easier ways to make a buck than trying to win elections as a Republican in Massachusetts, and all the other top-tier Republicans also gave the race a pass.  The senior Massachusetts congressman, Ed Markey, announced early and kept all but one other Democrat out of the race.

From a literary perspective, the race is dismal.  Markey is a reliable career liberal politician.  The frontrunning Republican, Mike Sullivan, is even blander — a standard-issue law-and-order Republican.  Not a hint of scandal from either of them.  The most interesting character is Gabriel Gomez, a Hispanic Republican ex-Navy SEAL businessman.  His life story is moderately compelling, but what’s fascinating about him is his utter lack of political smarts.  During the 2012 election he was the spokesperson for a group of Navy SEALs who accused Obama of endangering troops; that won’t get him any liberal votes.  After Kerry resigned Gomez turned around and wrote a suck-up letter to Govern Patrick asking to be appointed to the open seat, saying he supported Obama in 2008 and agreed with his positions on immigration and gun control.  What self-respecting conservative could vote for someone who supported the Kenyan socialist?

We’re going to get a Markey – Sullivan race, I think, and Markey should win easily.  This will be good for America, but not good for fans of political drama.

Richard Ben Cramer has died

He was the author of the great book about the 1988 presidential election, What It Takes, which I talked about here.  A flop when it came out, over the years it has become recognized as a classic of political reporting.  Here is a nice appreciation.

What explains the enduring appeal of a book about the run-up to a dispiriting election that featured the awkwardly patrician George Bush versus the awkwardly meritocratic Michael Dukakis? Cramer etched a psychologically revealing account of what it takes to run for president, and he wrote it with such brio, with such humor, that it is a delight to simply savor the words.

It must not have been easy to spend six years of your life creating a masterpiece, and then see it fail.  But Cramer must have felt some satisfaction from the recognition he finally received.  What It Takes is currently #18 on Amazon in paperback, #156 in the Kindle edition (only $9.99).  You should buy it.

What am I missing about this heartwarming Mitt Romney story?

Just when I thought I could quit Mitt Romney, the Boston Globe publishes a long analytical piece about his presidential campaign.  Most of it is standard stuff — his ground game was insufficient, the 47% remarks hurt him, his voter tracking app didn’t work on election day, he didn’t fight back against the Obama campaign’s early negative advertising . . .  But the main point the article makes is that his campaign may have made a mistake by not focusing on what a great guy Mitt Romney is.  One example the article cites is the time he helped a dying 14-year-old boy write his will:

Ann Romney, who had long pushed for more focus on her husband’s personal story, made her point directly in a convention video: “If you really want to know how a person will operate, look at how they’ve lived their life.” A Vermont couple ­appeared on the convention stage to tell the emotional story of how Romney, as a Mormon leader, helped their dying 14-year-old son, David Oparowski, write his will. “How many men do you know would take the time out of their busy lives to visit a terminally ill 14-year-old and help him settle his affairs?” Pat Oparowski, the boy’s mother, said in her speech.

So, am I missing something about Mormons, or about rich people, or what?  What kind of 14-year-old needs to “settle his affairs”?  What kind of affairs does he need to settle — who to bequeath his Xbox to?  And why does he need Mitt Romney to help him?  (To answer the mother’s question, I bet a ton of men would take the time to help a dying kid.)

There seems to be no question that Romney is personally a good and generous guy.  (On the other hand, he’s richer than God, so it’s not like his own family is going without basic necessities if he spreads his wealth around.)  But there is also just something kind of off about him.  I have a feeling that the more people got to know the real Mitt Romney, the less they would like him.  If this was the kind of story the campaign was being pushed to tell, I think they made the right decision to drop the heartwarming personal stuff and focus on lying about outsourcing Jeep production to China and whatnot.

OK, I’ll shut up now.

Rule #1: Don’t sleep with your biographer

A correspondent notes that if General Petraeus had read Senator, he wouldn’t be in this mess.

I have now added a “Life is stupider than fiction” category, but I don’t see how anything could top the Petraeus / West Point grad – Ph.D. student – jealous mistress / Tampa socialite – honorary Korean consul with a crazy twin sister and a bogus cancer charity / jealous FBI agent sending shirtless photos of himself / general with enough time on his hands to send thousands of emails story.

I know I wouldn’t be able to top it.

One more time: (Political) life is stupider than fiction

Lots of stories have started to come out delving into Romney’s defeat.  One of the most interesting is this CBS article reporting that Romney and his senior advisers had no inkling that they were going to lose:

“We went into the evening confident we had a good path to victory,” said one senior adviser. “I don’t think there was one person who saw this coming.”

I always believed that the Romney strategists were just blowing smoke when they talked about momentum and expanding the playing field and whatnot.  They were telling a story for Fox News and Limbaugh and the rubes, so that no one would give up hope.  Create the illusion of momentum, and maybe the illusion becomes reality. They must have understood that the Nate Silvers and public polls of the world weren’t wrong, that Obama had multiple paths to victory and Romney almost none.  That’s the way I’d set it up in a political novel; in Senator, the campaign manager and the pollster are the ones who see through the fog of the campaign war and understand exactly what has to be done to win. Here’s an article by Steve Benen from six weeks before the election that makes the case that this had to be what was going on inside the Romney campaign.

Indeed, if internal Republican polling, which presumably wouldn’t be part of the larger conspiracy, showed Romney with a consistent lead, he and his campaign wouldn’t feel the need to constantly reboot itself with new messages. Just the opposite is true — if they were confident they’re winning, Team Romney wouldn’t see the need to change course at all.

But apparently Steve Benen and I got it wrong; Republicans, even at the highest levels of the campaign, believed their own message, and they mentally “unskewed” the data so that it fit their narrative.

As a result, they believed the public/media polls were skewed – they thought those polls oversampled Democrats and didn’t reflect Republican enthusiasm. They based their own internal polls on turnout levels more favorable to Romney. That was a grave miscalculation, as they would see on election night.

Those assumptions drove their campaign strategy: their internal polling showed them leading in key states, so they decided to make a play for a broad victory: go to places like Pennsylvania while also playing it safe in the last two weeks.

The mistakes they made in their assumptions were obvious even to me, who just follows politics as a sideline.  For example, the fact that Romney was winning independents simply meant that more Republican were calling themselves independents nowadays; therefore, there was no reason to think the polls were undersampling Republicans.

There is a natural tendency in an election race to want to believe in your own cause, as Matthew Yglesias points out. But these strategists are presumably paid to have a clear-eyed view of reality.  Did they fail because they just weren’t very good strategists?  Or did they fall prey to what Benen and others refer to the “epistemic closure” of modern Republicanism, in which people seem to “unskew” reality so it aligns with their own deeply held beliefs, constantly reinforced by Fox News and talk radio.  Tax cuts raise revenue.  Voting fraud is rampant in America.  Obama is an America-hating socialist.

If the strategists at the top can’t get it right, what hope does the Republican party have?

Anyway, the next time I write a political novel, I’m clearly going to have to dumb down my characters; these people just aren’t as smart as I thought.

Random election thoughts

I voted in the high school gymnasium in my little town with my wife and son.  It was my son’s first presidential election.  Had to wait in line half an hour–the longest I’ve ever had to wait, I believe.  I approve of mail-in ballots and disapprove of multi-hour waits, but there is something very uplifting about waiting in line with your neighbors to perform your civic duty.  Alas, my (affluent) little town went for both Romney and Scott Brown, which made me feel a little less kindly towards my neighbors.

I work in the next town over from Belmont, where Mitt Romney resides.  One of my co-workers had just voted in Belmont when Romney arrived to vote, and the Secret Service cleared out everyone who had been in line for half an hour, so Romney could vote in privacy.  This didn’t win him any friends.  Belmont went for Obama.

To follow the election, I watched TV, mostly with the sound muted.  I followed my Twitter feed on my iPhone, and I consulted my favorite web site on my iPad.  How did I manage in the old days?

Elizabeth Warren, of course, defeated Scott Brown for the Senate.  Scott Brown gave a rambling but pleasant concession speech.  Brown has bobbed along on the currents of history for a couple of years, unable to become the master of events.  He won because he ran against a bad candidate at a time when the Tea Party was riding high.  He lost in a presidential election year in a highly Democratic state against a strong candidate.  He had to go negative against Warren, which made him look small, and he never had a good answer for why we should send him back to Washington and risk having the Republicans take over the Senate.  He just never made himself that important.  But he retains a lot of good will, and if John Kerry becomes Secretary of State, he would be a favorite to win Kerry’s seat — which probably makes it less likely that Kerry will become Secretary of State.

Unlike Brown’s, Mitt Romney’s concession speech was short and quite eloquent.  Unlike Brown, he didn’t talk about how he was going to keep fighting for the little guy — he didn’t talk about policy at all.  How could he, when it was so clear that he had no particular policies he wanted to fight for?  And, unlike Brown, he has no electoral base, no residual good will to call upon.  The pundits I watched spent a few minutes saying nice things about him before the speech, but now he’s gone, and I can’t imagine that he’ll be back.  Like Michael Dukakis (the other Massachusetts governor who ran for president), he’ll fade quickly into history.

Catholics backed Obama over Romney 50-48, despite the warnings of many bishops.  That’s a lot of people risking eternal damnation.

In my one election prediction, I figured that physician-assisted suicide would go down to a narrow defeat in Massachusetts, despite being initially very popular.  I was right!  The anti-suicide folks had a 5-1 spending advantage, plus media support, and that was enough to change enough minds.  I would not have anticipated that medical marijuana would win so easily, however.

Finally, here is the best election story I came across:

“I was filling out the form as were an elderly couple sitting at a nearby table,” said Houston on Tuesday. “His wife, who was helping him fill out the ballot, asked him a couple of questions but he didn’t respond. She screamed for help and I went over to see what I could do.”

Houston laid the victim on the floor and went to work.

“He was dead,” Houston said. “He had no heartbeat and he wasn’t breathing. I started CPR, and after a few minutes, he revived and started breathing again. He knew his name and his wife’s name.”

What happened next astounded Houston and the victim’s wife.

“The first question he asked was ‘Did I vote?'”

He did vote.  But I like it that we don’t find out who he voted for.

Death with Dignity

Massachusetts has a “Death with Dignity” or “Assisted Suicide” ballot question this year.  The discussion about it didn’t get much oxygen for a while, with the focus on the presidential and senatorial election here.  But now we’re seeing the ads run on both sides, and the Globe has an article about it this morning.  The Ballotpedia article I linked to above gives the details of the procedure, which involves a diagnosis of six months or fewer to live, confirmed by two separate physicians, two separate requests fifteen days apart, and confirmation that the patient is mentally capable of making the decision.

From what I can tell, the ballot question has run a predictable course.  Polling shows people strongly in favor of it.  But now most religious groups and professional medical associations have come out against it, as have the Globe and the Herald.  The opposition appears to have much more money to spend, and I expect the measure will probably lose.

The religious argument against it is, of course, that life is a gift from God and it’s not up to the patient or the physician to decide when to end it.  Well, OK, if that’s what you believe, don’t do it.  But why prevent others, with different beliefs, from acting differently?  In this sense, the religious argument against assisted suicide goes further than it does for abortion, where a second life is at stake.

Here are some medical arguments.

  • The doctor’s role is to heal, not to harm.  Well, OK, but I have the same response as I had to the religious argument: If you don’t want to participate in assisted suicide, don’t.  Don’t prevent others with different beliefs from doing so.
  • Medicine isn’t an exact science, and who’s to say that any particular diagnosis will turn out to be wrong?  Obviously the bill includes a safeguard against misdiagnosis, but miracles happen.  The question is whether we should forbid all patients from taking their own lives because of the possibility of miracles or misdiagnosis.
  • The patient could be depressed. I don’t really know what to say about this one except: well, duh!  Maybe a skilled clinician can sort out someone who has a medical case of depression from someone who is just depressed because, you know, he’s going to die in a few months of a horrible disease that will rob him of all his mental and physical abilities and cause him incredible agony.  I personally would find that difficult to sort out.
  • The patient could be pressured into killing himself.  To avoid expensive medical bills, for example, and preserve the estate for the heirs.  This makes some sense to me.  On the other hand, two doctors must verify that the patient has the mental capability to make health care decisions.  This isn’t really that much different from the current situation, where the patient gets to say whether or not heroic lifesaving measures should be taken on his behalf.  The problem to me is the pressure, not the financial concerns themselves–seems to me that, in a country where healthcare costs can easily ruin a family, you can’t ever just ignore them.

This kind of issue is hard, morally and practically.  For me, the best argument in favor of the ballot question is the relief it will give a lot of people just knowing that the option is there if they need it.  But, as in Oregon, relatively few people will actually end up taking advantage of it.

Jonathan Chait on Romney

I remain puzzled about what makes Mitt Romney tick.  Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine has a clearer perception of the man than I’ve been able to come up with.

Undoubtedly, what Romney believes in above all is himself. As a friend of his told Politicolast month, at a moment when his campaign appeared hopeless, Romney approaches politics like a business deal: “Just do and say what you need to do to get the deal done, and then when it’s done, do what you know actually needs to be done to make the company a success.” (This was the reporters’ paraphrase, not the friend’s own words.)

He meant this not in the spirit of exposing Romney’s fraudulence, but in an elegiac way — a lament for a great man who would do good if only given a chance. From a certain perspective, there is an understandable and even admirable elitism at work. Romney truly believes in his own abilities and — unlike George W. Bush, who was handed every professional success in his life — has justification for his confidence. He is a highly intelligent, accomplished individual.

Chait also talks about the weird (to me, at least) anger among the super-rich against Obama:

The vast industry devoted to exploring the unknowable question of Romney’s true beliefs has largely ignored a simple and obvious possibility: That Romney has undergone the same political and/or psychological transformation that so many members of his class have since 2009. If there is one hard fact that American journalism has established since 2009, it is that many of America’s rich have gone flat-out bonkers under President Obama.

If that’s true, then this follows:

Seen in this light, Romney’s belief in himself as a just and deserving leader is not merely a form of personal ambition free of ideological content. His faith in himself blends seamlessly into a faith in his fellow Übermenschen — the Job Creators who make our country go, who surround him and whose views shaped his program. To think of Romney as torn between two poles, then, is a mistake. Both his fealty to his party and his belief in his own abilities point in the same direction: the entitlement of the superrich to govern the country.

This is good stuff.  Read the whole thing.  All that’s missing is an explanation of why Romney’s favorite novel is Battlefield Earth.  That, of course, is reason enough to disqualify him for any position of authority over anyone.

Polls and Pundits

One of the interesting aspects of the presidential election is the gap between the reporting on the horse race and the way statistical nerds view the race. Today’s New York Times has an article about the narrowing presidential race, based on an analysis of a single national poll.  But at the same time on the Times’s 538 blog, Nate Silver shows what he’s been showing for some time — the odds of Obama winning are about three to one, and they’ve been growing steadily since a dip after the first debate. Sam Wang of the Princeton Election Consortium is even more certain that Obama is going to win, giving a probability of over 90%.  Here is another site run by a political science professor that comes up with similar results.

These guys aggregate polls and apply sophisticated mathematical models to the results.  And they have been successful. 538 correctly predicted the results in all but one state in 2008; the Princeton Election Consortium doesn’t predict individual states, but they came within one electoral vote of the actual result in 2008.  But with the success has come criticism:

[David] Brooks doubled down on this charge in a column last week: “I should treat polls as a fuzzy snapshot of a moment in time. I should not read them, and think I understand the future,” he wrote. “If there’s one thing we know, it’s that even experts with fancy computer models are terrible at predicting human behavior.”

On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” today, Joe Scarborough took a more direct shot, effectively calling Silver an ideologue and “a joke.”

But it is self-evidently not true that experts with fancy computer models are terrible at predicting human behavior.  They do it all the time, as Silver and Wang have proven.  Statistics works — that’s why polling works.  Prediction is imperfect — that’s why none of these sites say with certainty that Obama is going to win; but data-driven prediction is surely better than Morning Joe talking to a bunch of other media types about the enthusiasm level at Romney rallies and the rising confidence level of Romney advisers.

I was watching TV at the gym today without the sound, and I saw a brief report on the presidential race on the local news.  There was one statistic displayed–Romney ahead by three in the latest national poll from the station’s network.  This was followed by brief clips of Obama acting presidential in the hurricane aftermath and Romney lifting a case of bottled water that had been collected for hurricane relief at his rally; then there was a 15-second comment from some Politico pundit.  And that was it.

There are many reasons why I don’t watch TV news anymore, and this is one of them: it just makes you stupider.  Silver, Wang, and others like them may end up being wrong, but ignoring them or mocking them just seems stupid.  About as stupid as thinking that Mitt Romney’s latest position about anything is what he really believes.

Mitt Romney and Moderation

There was an article in today’s Boston Globe (not available on the Internet) about Mitt Romney’s move towards moderation in the late phases of the presidential campaign.  It’s not a bad article, but it’s typical of mainstream media pieces of course it completely lacks a moral dimension.  The article mentions the word Etch-a-Sketch about fifteen paragraphs in, and it quotes opponents decrying Romney’s cynicism, but it also quotes wily political veterans approving the pivot to the center.

What else can a reporter do?  Apparently you can’t say that someone so utterly lacking in core convictions, so self-evidently willing to say whatever he has to say to get elected, is therefore manifestly unfit for office.  In the same paper, though, the Globe editorial endorsing Obama gets it right: “Identifying the real Romney on any major issue — social, economic, or foreign — is impossible.”

I have been watching Romney for eighteen years now, and as far as I can tell, he has only one core conviction: taxes for rich people need to be lower than whatever they happen to be at the time.  Absolutely nothing else seems to matter.  This doesn’t mean he can’t get things done in a technocratic, numbers-driven way.  But at this point, how can you believe anything the man says?

Barney Frank, in his delightful over-the-top way, gets it right. Seven years ago he called Romney the most intellectually dishonest person in the history of American politics.  He stands by his statement today, except he’d strike the word intellectually.

I think politicians are by and large pretty interesting characters — that’s why I wrote a novel about one.  Obama is a deeply interesting guy.  The Clintons surely are as well.  So are Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin, in their own ways.  But Romney somehow just makes me sad.  He’s obviously smart, and a decent guy in his private life.  But beyond that, he’s got nothing.  If he’s elected, I may have to retreat to my Arctic Fortress of Solitude and rethink my obsession with politics.