Dear Barack: Follow the Money.

Barack Obama has been getting plenty of advice since that debate in Denver. Here’s mine, prior to tomorrow on Long Island. “Follow the money”. It’s an old maxim of journalism and it rarely leads you wrong.

Most basically, this is a variation on the adage that “if you’re not playing offense, you’re playing defense.” By zeroing in on money — who makes it now, who doesn’t, and where and how the Romney-Ryan money “plan” (sic) shifts any of those equations — is unquestionably the best line of attack on the Republicans’ central thesis. Which is: that they are better stewards of the economy than any liberal at any time and especially Barack Obama.

Definitive studies long ago proved otherwise. And otherwise. And otherwise. And so on.

While Joe Biden played offense better than the boss, in his debate with Paul Ryan, it was still exasperating to watch Ryan’s treadworn assertion that he was bringing “new ideas” to the table pass without a well-deserved smile, guffaw or spit-take. While moderator Martha Raddatz did at least press Ryan on whether he “actually had a plan”, the better response for Biden, and Obama tomorrow is to slap down the gauzy wall of “technic-y” sounding econo-babble, serious-sounding but vacuous noise designed to impress and amaze everyone who needs a graph to calculate their savings at a 50% off sale. The reality is that Ryan-speak is eye-rolling, used car lot chicanery to everyone who finally wised up to the reality that the Bush tax cuts, themselves a repeat of deficit-busting Reaganomics, did nothing for job creation or the wealth enhancement of the middle class.

And the Reagan-W* economic “miracle” (god help you if you’re not a hedge fund partner)  is all the Romney-Ryan (or Ryan-to-Romney) money scheme is, buffed up by a P90X work-out and no shortage of narcissistic delusion.

Point being, there is nothing older than a strategy to control government built around guarding the access and assets of the already enfranchised.

Obama is also encouraged to display exasperation with the patently and demonstrably false assertions that:

“The stimulus failed.”

“Obamacare will add trillions to the deficit“.

“Green pork [renewable energy] is a worse bet than established energy conglomerates with more lobbying power.”

“Eliminating the Bush tax cuts for the top-tier is harmful (primarily) to small businesses.”

Bain Capital created jobs and is therefore a model for the economy as a whole.”

… and on and on, with particular, disdainful emphasis reserved for the biggest canard of all, namely that the Bush tax cuts created jobs the last time we tried this same, very old idea.

Philosophically — the tone Obama enjoys most — the argument can be reduced to this:

“Despite all their hyperventilating about government spending and debt, neither the Governor or his running mate, who is supposed to be the braintrust of their economic thinking, can actually show how this grand scheme of their’s either reduces debt, most which was created after the Bush tax cuts of 2003, or avoids further penalizing the middle class. If they could don’t you think they’d take advantage of a TV audience of 70 million to make certain everyone understood what they were selling? But they can’t because what they’re selling has no intellectual basis other than as a sales pitch for your vote.

“And you know, I was very impressed with the Governor’s famous “47%” speech to those wealthy donors down in Florida. I thought it was remarkably candid of him, and I congratulate him for that refreshing breath of honesty. But what he should have reminded those millionaires and billionaires is that they too are “dependent on government” in that so much of their wealth is built on controlling how government responds to their needs, how it does or doesn’t tax them, how they gain unique access to government for lucrative contracts and so on. The Governor’s friends very much depend on government to keep them as wealthy as the are.

“Fundamentally every election, especially presidential elections, come down to who government is going to serve most — who is gets to be most “dependent”on government decisions. My argument is that the economy will fare best if the middle-class, the “customer class” has wealth restored that has drained away in the past generation. More customers will create more jobs faster than more tax cuts for a leverage buy out partner already living like king thanks to a 15% tax rate.”

It really is that simple.

Showing Up for the Show in Denver.

It is a fact of modern public life that show biz matters. Or, put another way, that when up in front of a crowd, especially a large one, you have to deliver a compelling performance. So, to pile on, Mitt Romney schooled Barack Obama in that regard last night.

Content is, of course, a whole other beast.

But, I have to tell you I hadn’t seen either of the two guys on the stage in Denver Wednesday night. Here, at long last, was Mittens Romney the super salesman, the super CEO with all his homework done and ducks in a row for the big pitch to the next company he’s going to “harvest”. The obfuscations, mathematical sleight of hand and deflective narrative all … superbly rehearsed. The only other time we got a glimpse of that guy was in the notorious “47% video”.

By contrast, here was Mr. Cool, Mr. “I Got this One”, Mr. “I’m a Great Fourth Quarter Player” Barack Obama playing man to man defense full court, refusing to slap back and down at Romney’s most egregious assertions — “that $5 trillion in additional middle class taxes or deficit may not be in your plan, Governor, but there is no way it works without one or the other or both, unless of course you’d like to offer some details”. WTF?

I seriously doubt there’ll be any significant change in the end result of this campaign based on Romney’s performance — a “win” for him — in the first (and likely most-watched) debate. But the Obama performance is disconcerting.

As much as I admire what he’s been able to accomplish in the face of a wholly obstructionist Republican caucus (and partisan media), and the way he’s restored some honor to the country’s international standing post-the Cheney/Bush debacle (the drone thing is problematic), he is still too confident in and reliant upon a Lincolnesque attitude toward adversaries. Most liberals have been driven to distraction by his willingness to concede unearned territory to the Tea Party-inspired GOP. Likewise, in Denver, his biggest mistake — the essential fault of his performance — was the unwillingness (certainly not inability) to draw some of Romney’s blood.

Had he simply brought to the show the mantra, “The devil, Governor, is in the details. So I ask again, what exactly are you planning to do?”, he wouldn’t be taking a ripping today from the full run of the ideological spectrum.

And don’t get me started on Jim Lehrer. I may be in a very small  minority when it comes to a substantial re-think of how the established media covers politics, but even Lehrer’s set-up questions were broad to the point of pointless. Did anyone watching really not think Romney and Obama have “differences” on … every issue?

Old school, heavily self-modulated moderators like Lehrer are almost genetically incapable of asserting themselves and demanding a full answer to their question (assuming they asked something that had an actual answer, instead of eliciting a stump speech). They don’t want to be part of the show.

But … they are part of the show, and a critical part at that. By refusing to flash a bit of impertinence and impatience, their old school good manners merely allows the drama to spin off into a torrent of dubious claims, lofty-sounding pitches and salesmanship.

Thank God Obama is Running the Israel-Iran Show.

About every half hour, as I remember what a colossal mess the Bushies made of everything they touched, I also remind myself that nowhere were they as dangerous as when they were screwing with foreign policy. And kids, since these are the guys who were dialing back on financial regulation as Wall Street ran wild and handing out deficit-exploding tax cuts for which they hadn’t considered even minimal budgeting, to say they were worse at negotiating and out-thinking the the bad guys in the rest of the planet is truly saying something.

So last week President Obama holds a news conference and gets a flurry of questions on what to do about Iran. “His critics”, which is to say every Republican running for office, have been accusing him of being “feckless” and “dangerous” and worse … for not revving up the B2s. With that in mind, it was reassuring to hear him remind the moths-to-confrontation press corps that gas-bagging campaign bluster is one (silly) thing, and it’s a whole other matter when you actually have to send “the troops” — who conservatives make such a big show about loving and pridefully swelling over — into lethal battle. His tacit encouragement to the press was to get your Mitt Romneys, Newt Gingrichs and Rick Santorums on record explaining not just how soon they’d flatten Tehran but what they’d imagine the blowback to be — as regards, you know, pesky peripheral issues like American standing in a Middle East undergoing dramatic self-generated transformation, oil prices and the world economy.

It isn’t something I expect the corps to follow-up on. I mean, why go there when you can always ask, “Is [insert name of next state] a make or break primary for you?” and call it a day.

But as this Iranian thing simmers, and after reading Ronen Bergman’s sobering Sunday Times Magazine piece “Will Israel Attack Iran?” a few weeks back, I am deeply thankful that foreign policy is the one facet of American government policy that today’s manifestly dysfunctional, obstructionist and counterproductive Republican party can’t screw with … much. In fact, history is already noting the startling qualitative difference between Obama’s foreign policy and domestic policy in the age of Republican pandering to populist Know-Nothingism. Where the former, foreign affairs, is a series of either remarkable successes, (hunting down Osama bin Laden, attacking a long series of other top terrorists, deftly maneuvering through the “Arab spring”) or paying full attention to morass management of coherent if unpopular policies (exiting Iraq and giving the Afghanis one serious last shot at controlling their own security), the latter, the home front, is a constant grinding misery fueled by rhetorical buffoonery, shrill and nonsensical demagoguery and ceaseless Republican obstruction.

What other reaction can you have to Mittens and Newt and Rick, (none of them exactly of the proud, uniformed warrior tradition) trying to out-Curtis LeMay each other over who would drop The Big One first? As I keep saying, there is nothing serious about this crowd, other than, like a heart attack, they have the ability to get a lot of people killed.

Simultaneous with Republicans laughably over-playing their righteous super-hero chops was a “60 Minutes” piece about the mysterious Stuxnet computer virus that wormed its way in to Iranian centrifuges. The story, and numerous newspaper accounts leaves little doubt that the virus was a largely U.S. concocted plot — with Israeli complicity — to slow down and frustrate Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions. It was an example of some very clever, 21st century war room thinking, with a negligible repercussion factor. The sort of think smart operators kind of want to try first.

The “60 Minutes” piece is also a cautionary tale about a dawning era of warfare by computer hacking. But, short-term, it represents a level of sophisticated thinking far … far … beyond Bushie, or GOP circa-2012 “shock and awe”, where the only viable pressure ever is full-scale, brute-force military action. Thundering Goliath stuff of the kind that invariably pisses off a whole range of peripheral players and roils international markets in the dreaded “uncertainty” that conservatives love to accuse Obama of fomenting. As with his failure to resolve the debt ceiling crisis, his failure to resolve the home mortgage modification process and his failure to stifle Iranian belligerency.

Based on their tragic record with Saddam Hussein, a far less wily and wealthy despot than the Iranian mullahs, there is no reason (that I have ever read) to believe the Bushie-era neo-cons ever considered anything like a sophisticated cyber-attack on him rather than all out warfare … after of course, first cooking the intelligence through Rummy’s DIA.

So I say again, thank God the adults are in charge. The Stuxnet virus was “outed” after doing its damage for many months. But it is the type of program that gives (good) reason to believe that companion programs are at play.

Moreover, as Obama was talking about nitwits “popping off” and getting all uber-manly — in front of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee  — about moving the fleet in to position, his reference to political/campaign posturing could and should be taken as a fresh reminder of what is really going on in the three countries most immediately involved. Boiled to its essence all three, Iran, Israell and the U.S., are in campaign season. And in each one, the usual radical, religious-baiting conservatives are thundering about apocalypse and Armageddon. The hyper-conservative mullahs and their religious zealot base in Iran. Benjamin Netanyahu and his Jewish arch-conservative base in Israel and … well, our guys here in the states.

So I repeat, be thankful every day for respite from The Clan of Chaotic Misadventures.


Go Mittens, Go.

Post-Iowa the factoid that flashed more red and brighter than every other was this: Turn-out was barely 5% greater than four years ago. Call me crazy but I can make the argument that the press and pundit corps — always in need of something to cover and gas on about — is far more interested in the GOP primary circus than the Republicans themselves. After over a year of visits and six solid months of freak show mania, not to mention the $10-plus million Mittens Romney and Rick Perry alone dropped on Iowa media, the so-called rank and file, (in actuality the semi- and totally batshit) couldn’t muster any more anger, rage and enthusiasm than 6000 more people — out of 608,000 registered Republicans. Call it a “record turn-out” if you’re into the whole hype thing. But the percentages tell a much different story.

Since last Tuesday we’ve heard (too much) about the “Rick Santorum surge”, a sudden frothing movement which in the end presents a very odd man as viable competition for Mittens and a credible candidate for … President of the United States.

Please. Neither Santorum nor anyone else is going to get anywhere close to Romney and the nomination. As Robert Reich blogged today, Romney is if nothing else, an avatar for Citizens United.  In a moment when the imbalance of wealth and influence is more vivid than any time in maybe 100 years the Republicans are moving inexorably toward another very odd guy — palpably twitchy in his own skin — who is the walking talking embodiment of “the 1%ers”. Taken further, if the Democrats want to frame the campaign as a referendum on how Republicans have responded to the beat-down of the middle-class over the past decade they could not have invented a candidate more perfect than my guy, Mittens. (My nephew in Denver uses “Mittens”. I like it. It suggests cossetting and protection against harsh elements … with a dash of parental supervision.)

You want a sense of how “odd”? Read this live-on-the-plane report from The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank.

The divide between Santorum’s social conservative crowd and Romney’s “he might be able to beat Obama” crowd is stark … deep and wide. But the social conservatives, the anti-gay, you’ll-be-marrying-turtles, or going all “man on dog” and maybe polygamist to boot bunch has no standing in Romney’s Citizens United Super PAC wonderland. Santorum’s Biblically-directed tinfoil hat brigade wouldn’t even recognize Romney’s $500k per pop hedge fund Super PAC-ers as being of the same species … and vice versa.

This of course is old news. The inevitability of Romney has been established for months, despite all the bovine bloviation on cable TV. Likewise the stunning lack of enthusiasm for Mittens.

But as this thing gets serious (post the comedy candidates like Bachmann, Cain, Trump, Palin and, hell, Rick Perry) we are getting a much better feel for … the terms of the choice.

Despite three solid years of hyperbolic messaging not even the Republican base is convinced enough that Barack Obama is a Kenyan Muslim anti-christ to drop everything and spend two hours with their like-minded neighbors voting to stop the apocalypse. More significantly, with the economy showing some actual green shoots (Mitch McConnell has to get back to D.C. and stamp that crap out ASAP!) in terms of manufacturing and employment, Obama has every good reason to double down on, as I say, a referendum on the Republican Congress … the Congress that out-nothinged the Do Nothing Congress of Harry Truman’s era … at a time when more middle class voters than ever expected it to do something … other than obstruct and play sophomoric procedural games.

I say again; clear, visible, bona fide support for the plight and interests of the middle class will be the crux of the choice. Who can make the most plausible case that they’ve done everything they can?

Romney, though not a member of Congress, is a Central Casting caricature of the class that owns Congress. I see Karl Rove is delighted to see Romney set up so well. Rove, now arguably the country’s premier Super PAC salesman has to regard a Romney presidency as a kind of restoration for him and the whole crowd of hedgie-cronies who installed and sock-puppeted George W. Bush for eight years.

This particular choice, Obama (with his billions for Super PAC) or Romney presumes that the Republican social conservatives will allow themselves to be stuffed back into their sound-proof kennels, as they are every election cycle when the Republican money machine has finished exploiting them. Given Rick Santorum’s absolute fealty to the K Street powers that restored him to an upright and lucrative position after being destroyed in his Pennsylvania reelection bid, I can’t see him playing spearchucker for a third party.

Ron Paul, 76 years old and figuring he’s riding the biggest wave he’s ever going to get, is a whole other story. The social conservatives appear to be leery of the geezerly old doctor. Legalize heroin!?  But he has enough semi-anarchic, pot-loving, middle class college kids willing to rattle cages for him that he might just say, “WTF? It’s now or never!” (Lacking Paul’s fans — 21% — the Iowa turn-out would have been a complete face-plant for the party.)

At which point the geezerly doctor will get a call from one of Mittens’ and Karl Rove’s hedge fund guys offering to pay off all his campaign debts if he changes his mind … for health reasons, you understand, or to spend more time with his family.

Give the Enemy a Name.

Ok, I’ve settled down. But there is nothing to be happy about. My biggest problem in constructing a response to the debt ceiling debacle and the “bi-partisan” deal that put a momentary end to the recklessness and nihilism is trying to say the same thing in a different way. Because, frankly, I’ve pretty much melted down my thesaurus over the argument that there is nothing … nothing … “bi-partisan” about the modern conservative political strategy. The Republicans are playing a zero sum game, in D.C. and in virtually every state, and Democratic leaders are looking like feckless chumps as they maintain their “adult in the room” posture.

In the final days of the debt ceiling idiocy I was fascinated by the ethical dilemma facing Barack Obama. While I was personally in favor of an LBJ-style move, like invoking the 14th amendment and basically saying, “Fuck it, sue me”, that is exactly what the GOP would have done. They would have launched another all-out, all-consuming impeachment crisis, led by Rush Limbaugh and the echo chamber, with Teabaggers clogging DC for months to come. Talk about a steroid speedball for the semi-literate.

But that aside, Obama had two choices, neither of which served the best interests of the country, which is pretty much what he swore an oath to do.

1: Beat the Republicans at chicken and let the country/world experience what they wrought. Sean Hannity, Michele Bachmann and the other intellectual leaders of modern conservatism were convinced that nothing really so bad would go down. A few delayed checks to grannies (who would blame “the government”/ i.e. “Obama”) but none of the rest of that hysterical stuff about inflating mortgage and revolving credit interest rates. (Not that they really knew or cared.) If you take the view, as I do, that none of this obstructionist stuff is going to stop until a calamity stamps it on the public mind as the indisputable result of the work of Eric Cantor, Americans for Prosperity, FreedomWorks and Mitch McConnell we are doomed to repeat these self-inflicted crises month after month after month after … .

But given that Obama takes his oath and responsibilities seriously, and there was no way of knowing every consequence of a default, he couldn’t, within his Constitutional code of ethics, allow such a thing to happen.

2: With any unilateral action unavailable to him, the ethics of conceding to a budget negotiation over the debt ceiling became Obama’s principal challenge. He knows, like every responsible economist, and hell, even the reliably cynical analysts at J.P. Morgan that about the worst thing you can do to the country at this point is suck still more money out of the economy, whether through entitlement “reform” (which is code for replacing lower-cost government services for much higher-cost, but well-lobbied, private coverages) or even defense spending. The latter needs no end of reform, but the sad fact is that it pays for a lot of high-tech, professional jobs, a better proposition than the GOP’s vision of full-employment via McDonalds and Wal-Mart greeting. (What we need is a WPA-type project that converts the tech-savvy industries away from building yet another aircraft carrier or joint strike fighter to reconstruction of the energy grid and any of hundreds of long-overdue economy-boosting infrastructure improvements. Same tax dollars, much bigger bang.)

Given the votes, Obama chose the latter. No default. Life functions “stable”. Live to fight another day. I get that.

But as in Minnesota, where Mark Dayton essentially let the GOP walk away singed but not scarred, Obama continues to fail at use clear, precise and entirely fair and accurate language from the bully pulpit. (Not that he ever comes close to being an actual bully, unfortunately.) Hell, even yesterday he’s on TV describing the FAA shutdown as a problem of “Congress leaving town without doing its job”. No … when you’re the President of the United States and you have the microphone you tell the public that airline safety is imperiled, thousands of workers — “jobs”! — at airport/infrastructure construction projects are left without a paycheck, and the Treasury is losing millions of dollars in revenue, because THE REPUBLICAN PARTY is playing the hostage game again, this time because it wants to bust up union rights within the FAA.

Put another way, you stop pretending that eventually, if you maintain your dignity, the Republicans will come to their senses and return to the spirit of the 1960s and 70s. They won’t. Especially when they’ve tasted blood like they have in this latest fiasco. As long as you, the face of the government, continue to let them off easy as, “part of the Washington problem”, or “Washington playing politics” or whatever the gauzy euphemism-of-the-day, the 60% of the public who have no idea who John Boehner is, much less Cantor and — no chance here at all — Karl Rove’s FreedomWorks, have no other name to fix their animosity on … other than you, Mr. President, for not doing something about it all.

The opposition, which Obama persistently refers to as “having the best interests of the country at heart”, is single-minded. It has one goal, and one goal only. His defeat. What consequences ensue are acceptable collateral damage. And Obama continues to behave as though he is unaware of that.

Damned blood pressure.

Not Intended to be a Factual Statement.

Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart and others have been merciless towards Arizona Republican Sen. Jon Kyl’s assertion — on the Senate floor mind you, not over cocktails at The Phoenician — that “90% of Planned Parenthood” funding goes for abortions, when it is really only 3%. The merciless meter buried its needle though with the “explanation” from Kyl’s office that his remarks — on the Senate floor, I repeat — “were not intended to be a factual statement”.

You can’t make it up … other than when you are just, you know, making it up.

If ever there was a gift-wrapped present to merciless satirists it was that one.

But what the Kyl incident says about the Grand Old Party, and what Team Obama has clearly calculated, is what makes it so truly, deeply, lover-ly … delicious. It is well known that Obama was preparing a speech on the “debt crisis” for sometime this spring, but wanted the Republicans, in the form of their guru du jour, Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, t0 lay out their “plan” first. Why? Well, because obviously it meant that at long, long last the Tea Party-driven new Republican majority would have to get into … details. And those details would be coming from a guy the Republicans are touting as their best-est, deepest thinker on really serious adult thingies, like money.

Having won a big victory last fall on a campaign strategy of blaming Democrats for the ’08 recession and promising to “cut spending” and get a grip on the “debt crisis” (while ignoring it was largely a crisis of their own making) they never at any point hinted at whose spending they were going to cut. Just “government waste”. Which of course could be anything and nothing. What Obama, a supernaturally patient character, understood/understands is that at some point they’d have to get into the hows and the whats. The Tea Party rabble would demand actual numbers, actual blood in the dirt. He also knew that the “how” of the Republican solution would be anathema to the vast majority of voters, even the huge chunk of them that sat out the off-year election.

It is pretty clear that far from shrinking from a fight over national finances, Obama relishes it. This is it. This is the central issue for 2012. His speech in Tuesday, with its campaign-perfect tone and “bring it on” rhetoric about how no one’s going to gut the social safety net, “while I’m president”, along with its emphatic defense of a liberal-progressive vision of society clearly rattled the GOP’s young Turks. (Ryan himself was in the audience at George Washington University.)  They may genuinely believe that their victory last fall gave them a mandate to eviscerate all sorts of social programs. (All of them created by liberals and all of them opposed at the time of their creation and ever since by conservatives). But outside their caucus bubble they had to know — or had to be warned by guys like John Boehner — that  there lurked a far, far different reality. A reality where the brittle rubber of “not intended to be a factual statement” hits the hot asphalt of every day life and disintegrates.

Given The Sixteen Stooges-cast of characters poised to compete against him, I doubt Obama is losing a lot of sleep worrying about any one-on-one debates. Hell, in the rally-the-base realm where, “not intended to be a factual statement” is a completely viable campaign strategy, where Donald Trump can spike to the top of the “likely Republican voters” poll by covering himself in birther lunacy, where Michele Bachmann has to be regarded as a contender because her cred with “values voters in Iowa” and where a profoundly creepy character like Rick Santorum can make news with his “exploratory committee”, Obama would have more serious competition from Larry, Moe and Curly Joe.

Still, he needed the crucible issue defined … by his opposition. The Tea Party’s late-dawning obsession with the “debt crisis” — long, long after the two unpaid for Bush-era wars, the Bushies’ unpaid for prescription drug benefit and the Bushies’ unpaid-for multi-trillion dollar tax cuts for Warren Buffett, Jay-Z and the Wall Street sharks — is the perfect issue to win reelection on. It is made even better by the haplessness — the let’s not even bother with “intended as a factual statement” — of the Tea Party tail, which is wagging the Republican dog.

A debate on money, social programs and who pays for it is perfect because it invites a serious, highly-relevant choice every voter can understand. If Ryan and the GOP candidates want to actually engage Obama on the specifics of what a voucher system means to Medicare as we know it … bring it on … please. Every pensioner in every Ft. Lauderdale condo will have their hearing aids on high gain. Likewise, those tax cuts — without which there would be no “crisis” in “debt crisis” — if you really want to go out in public again shrieking about Democrats raising “your taxes” and/or “stifling our job providers” — let us prepare a red carpet for your appearances. We’ll even do a sound check on the equipment and touch-up your eye shadow.

Perhaps the most revealing thing about John Kyl’s “Dubious Achievements”-worthy lapse into comical demagoguery is that he, like John McCain, was once regarded as a respectable, rational, albeit old school professional country club Republican.  But now, under the irresistible influence of the Tea Party zealots, for whom “factual statements” are anything that sounds good on Sean Hannity and gets a roar out of the crowd at a Tucson gun show, even he feels obligated to publicly debase himself with instantly demonstrable idiocy. (How much do you think the John Kyl of five years ago ever thought about Planned Parenthood, much less confused it as an all-abortion service?)

The “not intended as a factual statement” crowd is the controlling influence on today’s Republican party, and they have pushed out into the bright light of day a “reality-based” issue that every average voter can easily understand and on which they have clear, well-documented opinions. Barack Obama could not be happier.

And as a liberal who has been waiting for Obama to take on the big fight, I thank them.