Wednesday, September 19, 2012

How this Whole Election has Secretly been about Health Care Reform the Entire Time

Measuring "news cycles" is kind of a tricky business, largely because it's a pretty arbitrary exercise. We're constantly told that we live in a "24 hour news cycle" world, but if Mitt Romney's 11:00 PM press conference last night reminds us of anything it's that there are countless smaller epicycles within each news cycle which work symbiotically to power the revolutions around which human events turn.

But that's a rather poetic way of looking at news cycles. Let's face it: they exist so that others may use them to keep score. One thing that I've been constantly astonished by during this Presidential election is just how lop-sided the "news cycle contest" has been in favor of the President. I'm sure there are myriad reasons as to why this is that range from experience professionals on Obama's press team to dumb luck, but there also seems to be a singular moment in this campaign, one that's largely been overlooked since, that seems to have instigated a long string of news cycle "wins" for Obama.

So we decided to add up news cycles to help prove our point. This is hardly a scientifically sound, but one that suited our purposed. We decided to look at what we considered the largest evaluate-able "news cycles" to see who won each the over the course of the last six months or so. For these purposes we chose cycles that lasted a week in length.

It's kinda amusing to think about the state of the Presidential race as it existed three months ago. June was not a particularly good month for the Obama campaign. First, Scott Walker defeated his recall effort, an event that many claimed foretold bad news for Obama. This was followed by a series of ill-fated marketing and fund-raising gimmicks that seemed to fall flat. Then came the news that the rather substantial lead Obama had enjoyed over Romney had all but evaporated. Jobs and other assorted economic figures were not improving. Making matters worse was the fact that Romney was breaking all kinds of fund-raising records. Dems -- ever the electoral fatalists -- weren't quite pushing the panic button, but they definitely had their hands hovering over it.

If fact, the entire spring season had not gone particularly well for Chicago. As the campaign prepped for it's launch in April it seemed to have a hard time finding it's bearings. It was accused of being too dependent on celebrity money, a clumsy roll out of an ad touting the death of bin Laden, and seemed to get pinned with the blame after a confusing gaffe involving someone who really wasn't even involved with the campaign. The pre-kick-off was spotty enough to warrant some justifiable trash talk from Team Romney. Things did not get much better in May. There were outreach efforts that failed to connect, mixed messages from surrogates and perhaps a sense of listlessness and/or purposelessness.

In contrast, Team Romney seemed to have a much easier time transitioning from a primary to a general election campaign, and with the exception of a uncomfortable bullying story from Romney's youth, seemed buoyed by the prospect that what once looked like a suicide mission now looked like a potential path to the White House. To be sure, Boston also had its share of struggles, but for a lot of people there seemed to be little doubt that Romney "wanted it more."

That whole dynamic, however, changed literally overnight. On Thursday, June 28th the Supreme Court ruled to uphold Obamacare with Bush-appointed conservative Chief Justice John Roberts authoring the decision. The consensus among Court-watchers, at least since the oral arguments for the case in March, was that this was not going to happen. But it did, and really has come serve as the giant pivot point around which this election has turned. In the three months since the decision, Romney has lost news cycle after news cycle. It's actually worth going through a week by week tick-tock of the summer just to get a grasp of the magnitude of this devastating period for Romney.

June 29-July 8th

Health Care decision dominates discussion during the weekend following the announcement and of the following week as the Fourth of July holiday fell midweek.

July 9th-15th

Romney deals with questions about how long he worked at Bain Capital. This leads to questions about Bain outsourcing jobs, the validity of certain SEC filings and the virtue of keeping money in off-shore bank accounts -- all of which rather skillfully paint an unflattering portrait of Romney and lead up to the inevitable questions about...

July 16th-22nd

Romney's taxes. Mitt refuses to release his IRS filings to howls of just about everyone on both sides of the spectrum. By this time we start seeing articles titled "Mitt Romney's Painfully Bad Week" and "Mitt Romney's Long Hot Summer."

July 23rd-29th

Foreign Policy Fiasco week. Given how stunning Romney's first day in London was, it's easy to forget that the missteps started days before he even boarded his plane to Heathrow. First, he rather inartfully used the words of the Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr to bolster a point he made at a fund-raiser; a mistake Romney could have avoided had he known Carr is a member of Australia's Labor Party and not an ideological bedfellow of the American Right. Then came an adviser's ill-advised "anglo-saxon heritage" comment. This was followed by an excruciatingly painful tour of London, which involved a minor kerfuffle over the hosts of a fund-raiser. Romney arrived in Israel to a minor controversy over allowing the press into a -- wait for it! -- high-dollar fund-raiser, during which he mused haphazardly on the nature of Palestinian culture ... and was latter rebuked for his comments by the very source from whence he claimed they came.

July 30th - August 5th

Romney closed out his European tour with a press aide losing his cool at reporters, only to return home to find Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid accusing him of not paying taxes for 10 years, reigniting a debate that had gone dormant only while commentators gawked at Romney awkwardness abroad. Reid's remarks conveniently occurred right around the same time think tanks and news outlets started giving Romney's tax policy some serious scrutiny and finding his positions wanting. While Romney was busy tending to the ongoing issue of his personal taxes, the Obama campaign had women all to themselves. Most of the positive press coverage of Romney revolved around his impending running mate selection.

August 6th-12th

The VP selection speculation continues through the next week while Dems continue to bring up the matter of Romney's personal taxes. Boston's plan appears to be just to ignore the calls for him to release his filings. Obama's campaign keeps appealing to women. Team Romney declines to fight back, but decides to change the topic to a brazenly untruthful attack on Obama's record on welfare reform, a crass strategy whose shameless appeal to the worst elements of the GOP base escapes no one. The effort is so ham-handed that it begins to cause Romney serious credibility problems. The only saving grace that this period allow Romney is his selection of Paul Ryan to be his running mate late on Friday, August 10th. The weekend is full of mostly soft and positive "getting to know you" press surrounding the decision, and most reporters seem to forget about Romney's taxes.

August 13th-19th

Romney is praised on the right for the Ryan pick, and numerous pundits on the left hope for a "serious" policy debate. As if to make these very hopes flesh, Romney speaks to a crowd at a rally on the 16th with the help of a white board. It doesn't work. But it's at this rally that Romney just can't seem to help himself and he announces that he looked through his records and hasn't paid lower than 13% each year for the last decade, thus reviving the issue of his tax returns which most of the media had gotten over in the wake of Paul Ryan joining the ticket. It's a moment that does a great deal to negate much of the good will Romney had earned from the Ryan pick. The next day, Chicago reaches out to make a "deal" with Romney, explaining that they'll be cool if he only releases 5 years worth of tax returns. Romney refuses. The issue persists. By the 19th, Team Romney has decided it will finally start talking about Mitt's faith and plans to put the matter front and center during the upcoming convention to combat growing "likeability" concerns.

August 20th-26th

The first part of the week is dominated by MO-Sen candidate Todd Akin's idiotic remarks on rape. Team Romney asks Akin to stand down, but is mostly overshadowed by the ensuing debate as only a few people bring up Mitt's alternating views on the topic. In a rare bit of good news, Romney announces a great summer of fund-raising and Dems start to worry about Obama's burn rate. But the Akin issue persists and rather than continue to sit on the sideline, Romney once again tries to change the conversation and spends a day talking about energy policy, but not without making a relatively small gaffe. As luck would have it, the conversation does change, but not how Romney envisioned it would, when Gawker posts a large dump of internal Bain files that ultimately don't yield much new information, but still arrive with a thud loud enough that Romney finally responds in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal after seven weeks of being attacked on Bain.

Romney's article may have put out one fire, but later that day (August 24th) he started another one while delivering an otherwise innocuous "let me tell you about how I grew up" speech in his home state of Michigan, during which he made an errant birther joke. Later on in the day, Romney's convention speech is rescheduled amid concerns about Hurricane Isaac hitting the Tampa area.

The robust debate that Paul Ryan's presence on the ticket was supposed to bring doesn't materialize amid inconsistencies between statements Romney has made during the campaign and Ryan's voting record. Nor does the bounce the pick was supposed to bring happen. Over the course of the next few weeks, Ryan adopts Romney's policy ambiguity and evasiveness.

August 27th - September 3rd

Convention week. The Holy Mother of missed opportunities. The autopsies on the catastrophe are only now being conducted and the results appear to be total. If the goal of the RNC was to humanize Romney and elaborate for the American electorate how his policies would pull the country out of the current economic rut, it failed miserably -- both in and of itself and especially when compared to the DNC.

September 4th-9th

Team Romney is completely overshadowed by the DNC and the nostalgic warmth that followed Bill Clinton's speech.

September 10th-16th:

Romney drops the ball on the Libya embassy riots and the subsequent murder of four American diplomats with a response to the event that leaves even supporters on the right mystified at his callous tone and transparent opportunism. This leads to a number of GOP activists, old hats and at least one official to openly question the direction of the campaign in the press (what took them so long?), culminating in the ruthless Politico piece assigning a good deal of blame for the campaign's dismal performance on adviser Stuart Stevens. That Sunday afternoon blockbuster would have likely dominated the conversation this week were it not for...

September 17th-Today

The Secret Fundraiser Tape. This thing is bad news for Romney. This is exactly the kind of political voyeurism that people eat up -- a candid glimpse into an otherwise impenetrable dark, smokey room where movers and shakers share their true thoughts and feelings about those they seek power from. It's certainly a body blow, but one that could be recovered from had it been an isolated incident. Given all that we've just run through, it's obviously not, but rather yet another episode in a series of related missteps that seem to be converging at the worse of possible moments for Romney. These types of incidents hasten the rats from a sinking ship, who tend to create more trouble during their exit.

***

There. By my count Team Romney has lost the last 12 consecutive new cycles. That's almost three months of unrelenting bad news for the GOP nominee and no end in sight. It's certainly true that news cycles are weighted and that those close to Election Day are undoubtedly worth more than those further from it, but Team Romney have simply not demonstrated any evidence that they can pull out of the death spiral their campaign has become. There is simply too much inertia for them to overcome.

For Boston, that started when the Supreme Court handed down it's Obamacare decision, but what is easy to forget is that Team Obama also went through an extended rough patch earlier this year, as we mentioned at the very beginning of this post. And when did that slump begin? There's a strong case to be made for March 27th of this year. That was the second day of oral arguments at the Supreme Court and the scene of a largely derided performance by Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, one that earned him the scorn of Court-watchers everywhere (but one which may have won over Roberts in the end). Verrilli's performance was so criticized that "expert" opinion that initial believed the Court would uphold the law instantly did a U-turn and was now sure the Court would strike it down. The Obama campaign seemed to lose a lot of the wind in it's sails following oral arguments and just couldn't seem to find the mojo it had demonstrated in 2008 and for good reason: losing the President's signature piece of legislation, the very cause which came at such an enormous political price, looked to have been all for naught. Those types of moment's can cause an existential crisis in even the most cocksure of politicians. During the three months that followed, the White House was noticeably down in the proverbial dumps.

Largely thanks to Mitt Romney's past experience with health care reform, the issue hasn't really been front and center during this election, and yet it really does seem to be the metaphysical force, for lack of better phrase, driving the momentum behind each campaign, if only on some unseen astral plane. We can talk all day about strategies and demographics and fund-raising numbers and a million other things, but in any competition it's never wise to understate the importance of the fight -- that is: the confidence, the desire to win, the swagger -- of the combatants. It should be clear that Justice Roberts' judgment changed the dynamic of this race in profound, but largely unquantifiable ways; and that, even though health care reform has not been much of an issue for almost three months now, it's at the very heart of Election 2012: the prime mover that set this year's political world in motion.

That's an, admittedly, romantic explanation, but one that essentially attributes the causes of Romney's declining fortunes to political voodoo. A more humanistic account probably goes something like this: Team Romney bought into the prognosticators premonitions regarding the doom of Obamacare and just didn't bother to prepare a contingency plan for when the result didn't shake out their way. Caught flat-footed, they may have been initially pleasantly surprised by how the decision riled up the based and fed their campaign coffers, and this might have lulled them into a false sense of security since, hey, most things had been going their way for a while anyway. But what they didn't take into account was the extent to which the decision galvanized the Obama camp, who came back from the Fourth of July holiday ready to crack skulls. Chicago seized the moment, and unleashed a previous attack -- the Bain gambit -- with more spirit and vigor then earlier and this time it began to snowball.

There are yet larger issues at play here, specifically the role of government in the individual lives of Americans who have been told for the last generation that government "is the problem," but the health care reform debate rather tightly encompasses that whole discussion. That's a topic for another day, however.

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