Santorum sweeps Minnesota, Missouri, and Colorado further fragmenting the not-Romney camp

Santorum's wins Tuesday may have hurt the not-Romney cause.

When you think about it, there’s really only three candidates in the race: Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, and not-Romney.

Santorum pulled a string of wins in Minnesota, Missouri, and Colorado Tuesday evening, but it may as well have been Gingrich. The point is someone other than Romney (or Paul, for that matter) won.

Now this means two things. First – a problem for Romney. Second – a problem for not-Romney.

Here’s Romney’s problem: his favorability is capsizing and his unfavorability is shooting through the roof.

The problem for not-Romney is that not-Romney is not one, but rather two candidates neither of whom appears ready to drop out of the race. If not-Romney were just Newt Gingrich or just Rick Santorum, not-Romney could start raising serious money to push back against Romney’s very deep treasure trove.

But all that Santorum’s three wins did was make the Gingrich/Santorum division more pronounced. And that’s a win for Romney and a loss for not-Romney.

It’s also a win for Obama. For that matter, virtually every moment in the GOP primary has been a win for Obama. As the GOP fractures, the chances of Obama beating the eventual nominee grows.

It doesn’t help that the economy seems to be slowly dragging itself back to life – here and in Europe. The culture wars are great for the primary for GOP voters, but not so great for the general election.

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The Political Circus We Deserve

The political circus gets a bad wrap. Maybe it shouldn't.

The political circus may have finally come into its own this primary season.

We’ve all heard that phrase before of course. Last September the president used it in his jobs speech when he urged congress to “stop the political circus and actually do something to help the economy.”

H.L. Mencken once wrote that “A national political campaign is better than the best circus ever heard of, with a mass baptism and a couple of hangings thrown in.” Elections are inherently competitive, and for those who care about the outcomes of our democratic process, the stakes are compelling – entertaining even. But it’s hard to recall a time when the sport of politics has been so aptly described as a political circus. A sports game? Sure. A circus – 2012 is already taking the cake.

Indeed, for reasons partly manufactured and partly inevitable no election year has felt so much like a season of reality television. Think about it: reality-TV star and real-estate mogul Donald Trump flirted with a presidential run early on. Once-action-movie-star Chuck Norris has waffled between endorsements of Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich. Herman Cain joined Stephen Colbert for a mock rally in South Carolina. The lines between entertainment and politics are only getting more blurry as the race goes on.

The Fine Line Between Entertainment And Politics

In some ways, this has played right into the hands of politicians who can capitalize on the entertainment factor to shore up support. Newt Gingrich in particular has relied on audience participation to gain momentum in the debates. In South Carolina, Newt’s surge in the polls followed two rowdy debate performances in which the former speaker was able to galvanize the conservative audience with his angry denunciations of the liberal media, turning critical questions from debate moderators into attacks on the media.

After a subdued performance in the first of the Florida debates, in which the crowd was prevented from cheering and clapping by debate rules, Gingrich threatened to sit out the next debate if audience participation was kept to a minimum. Likening the silencing of the audience to a stifling of free speech, Gingrich complained that NBC’s decision to keep the crowd quiet was an attempt to clamp down on dissenting opinions.

“I wish in retrospect I’d protested when Brian Williams took them out of it because I think it’s wrong,” Gingrich said on Fox and Friends. “And I think he took them out of it because the media is terrified that the audience is going to side with the candidates against the media, which is what they’ve done in every debate.”

As Aaron Goldstein notes, this is hardly the case of the media attempting to clamp down on free speech. The rules in place at NBC are old ones. “The debate audiences at NBC, CBS and ABC behave like they’re at a tennis match,” he writes. “The audiences at Fox News and CNN are far more expressive and that works to Newt’s advantage. A sedate audience like the one [in the first Florida debate] at NBC doesn’t play to Newt’s strengths.”

Campaigns have always been negative – they  just haven’t always had Twitter, 24 hour news cycles, and the blogsophere.

All The World’s A Stage

Note even the language we use to describe the debates. We talk about debate “performances” as if all the race is a stage and all the candidates merely players. Blogs and new media only add to the 24/7 cable news with headlines emphasizing how one candidate has “demolished” the other, or describing debate wins as “smackdowns.” Violent imagery accompanies our descriptions of the political circus and talking points and video clips mimic the reality-TV strategy of emphasizing only the most dramatic or controversial moments of any debate.

Add to this the flood of attack ads, YouTube video mash-ups, and talk-radio coverage and it’s not hard to see how this primary season is redefining the role of entertainment in politics. Super PACs are relentlessly attacking our airwaves and television screens. One Super PAC associated with the Gingrich campaign even produced its own Michael Moore-esque documentary to attack Mitt Romney for his time at the helm of Bain Capital. Meanwhile talk-radio and the rest of the conservative entertainment complex has grown into a seriouspolitical force during the three years of the Obama administration.

The line between political commentary and entertainment is a fuzzy one on both Fox News and talk-radio figures like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. Controversy sells tickets and makes many of these pundits bags of money. Almost as troubling, many young people have described The Daily Show as their number one source for news. As politics and entertainment grow more indistinguishable, are we losing our ability to tell the one from the other?

Stupid Rules Are Meant To Be Broken

Even the rules of the Republican primary have been changed to make the race more engrossing.

Jealous of the edge-of-your-seat quality the Hillary Clinton-Barack Obama Democratic 2008 primary, and the political enthusiasm it inspired in many Democrats and liberals, the Republican party has changed its own rules to try to capture some of that magic for their own party’s primary. Rather than a winner-take-all system, candidates in the 2012 race receive proportional delegates. This ensures that every candidate who remains in the race gets at least a few delegates, increasing the likelihood of a protracted, competitive race.

It’s a win-win for the party, the candidates themselves, and the media. Increased enthusiasm leads to more voters at the polls and a better chance that the eventual nominee can topple Obama. Candidates like Gingrich have a better chance of stealing the show from the presumptive front-runner. And the big broadcasters get more debates and more controversy to report on. Meanwhile bloggers and online media can capitalize on the extended race with more eyeballs and page views.

Newt’s threat to sit out thelast debate was indeed a childish temper tantrum but it makes sense if we look at the big picture. After all, we’re all engaged in this circus. Newt is just one of many willing participants. Reality television has been successful because enough people are willing to watch it week after week. The same is true of reality politics.

The Political Circus We Deserve

Critics of the political circus argue that it’s denigrating our political system, our leaders, and the national dialogue. All of this may be true, but I’m not convinced it’s such a bad thing. Chuck Todd complained recently that Stephen Colbert’s fake candidacy made “a mockery of the system” and the media. But a mockery is exactly what the system needs. It’s what the media needs, for that matter.

If candidates make fools of themselves in national debates then the debates have done voters a great service. If the political circus has candidates bending backwards to pander to the conservative base, well at least we have good examples of why the candidates may not be fit for political office, let alone the highest office in the land. If Newt’s demagogic acrobatics are the only thing that can propel him to victory, then at least the voting public can have examples of this at their fingertips.

It’s often said that Americans get the politicians we deserve. I couldn’t agree more. Reality politics can function as a window into the shortcomings and failures of our political class, our government, and our political system more broadly. Of course, none of it is a laughing matter. But there’s no better way to vet our future political leaders than to let them run this gauntlet of their own making.

Besides, do we really want to return to the debates of the past? I watched a Reagan-Carter debate from 1980 the other day and came away no more informed about the character of either man. The debate was certainly more substantial, but it was also a lot more boring. And there is something discomfiting about the pomp and circumstance surrounding these old debates, as if these men deserve our adoration more than our criticism.

The media has changed radically since 1980. For the most part, this is a good thing. The big broadcasters have lost some of their vice-like grip on the political discussion. The old white men who droned their questions out three decades ago to the old white men on stage no longer have a monopoly on the news.

Maybe this will someday translate into more voter participation, less apathy, and a more critical approach to how we view both our political leaders and the news. Of course, it may have the opposite effect. But the political circus is here to say. It’s the inevitable result of endless news, social media, and the internet – a true evolution of democracy playing out right before our eyes.

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Live-Blogging The Jacksonville Debate (Jan. 26 2012)

Live blog of the CNN Jacksonville debate is below in reverse chronological order. Excuse the time-stamps. I’m blogging this from Arizona.

Final thoughts.

This was a boring debate for the most part. No Newt Gingrich feasting on the moderator’s flesh. No pivotal moments where races are won or lost.

Fundamentally, Romney was much better than we’ve seen him in some time. He started out a little sketchy, but rallied early on and got plenty of kidney punches in at Newt.

Both Ron Paul and Rick Santorum sounded more sincere than either Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney. Of course I find most of the things Santorum actually says fairly repulsive, while I find Ron Paul to be a continued breath of fresh air and sanity. Yes, I find most of what Paul says thousands of times saner than what his GOP rivals say. And Paul says a lot of crazy things.

I think he had a “sparkly” performance tonight, as Andrew Sullivan noted during his live-blog. But it’s just not enough. Paul talks about civil liberties, peace, and other issues near and dear to my heart. But the American electorate just isn’t on the same page, and the GOP is on a different planet.

I think if anything, this debate goes to Romney, possibly even shoring up his victory here. Newt wasn’t able to pull off the same red-meat-magic he performed in South Carolina. He seemed defensive, petulant, and insincere. His attempts to preemptively bury the hatchet with Romney and try to team up on The Media fell flat on their face, and Romney was ready and waiting to pounce – which he did quite adeptly.

Santorum may as well bow out. He did fine but he has no momentum. Sticking around is a mistake. Ron Paul has a national network and even if he never leads the pack he can make it for the long haul – which is good, because he can keep the conversations he’s started going. A one-on-one debate with Romney in Virginia could be very interesting. If Newt loses Florida, he may as well stay in for one or two more races I think, but it’s not going to be easy after a Florida loss.

Romney is probably all grins right now. A much-needed comeback for the former governor, if not anything particularly inspiring.

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7:59 PM. (Arizona time.) If this was the drinking game I would have had like four or five “fundamental” shots and at least a couple more “Reagan” shots. I’ll need to think of better rules.

The debate is over. My closing thoughts in a moment.

7:57 PM. Suddenly this leaped into my head:

7:54 PM. My timestamps are weird because I’m blogging from Arizona. I’m not going to transpose.

Nice to hear Ron Paul talk about civil liberties a bit. But civil liberties won’t win presidencies, unfortunately. Maybe some day, if we can work together toward that goal.

Romney does seem smooth tonight. Much more polished and maybe even a little personable. But his answer is rambling here on what makes him the better candidate to take on Obama.

7:52 PM. Why doesn’t CNN have ads online between breaks? Missed opportunity.

7:49 PM. I took a ten minute break to tell a story to my daughter before bedtime. Moments like this – telling a story to a four and a half year old in between segments of a Republican debate – remind me what America is really about. It’s not about all of this. It’s not about politics at all. It isn’t about all the things that make all these people so damn angry at liberals or conservatives or whatever. It isn’t even about America.

I totally lost my train of thought here, but you get my point hopefully. We fret about this stuff because it’s like a Soap Opera to us now. So much of our entertainment is derived from politics, even if that entertainment is just to make us feel angry. To feel something.

7:48 PM. Just got back. Thought that Santorum just called the Constitution the “Howl” of America. I have seen the greatest mind of my generation write a long document about the rights of individuals…

7:38 PM. The CNN plant in the audience asks about Israel-Palestine. (Okay, I kid, but c’mon.)

I have a hard time imaging any of these guys negotiating peace in the Middle East. Ron Paul holds views on the region closest to my own, but of course Ron Paul believes we have no business negotiating peace.

Newt is asked about his “invented people” remark and doesn’t really back down. They were “Arab” before he said. Does he honestly not understand what the definition of “Arab” is? Seriously? We are given platitudes about “mutual prosperity” and digs at the political leadership there. I’m waiting for Newt to attack the Israeli media next.

Newt wants to move the embassy to Jerusalem? And Ron Paul is not given a turn.

7:36 PM. “When Fidel Castro leaves this planet…” We demonize our political opponents. But the problems in Cuba go much deeper than Castro. The country won’t miraculously change when Castro is flung to the fiery depths of hell. We need to work to bring these so-called rogue nations into the global economy.

Newt Gingrich is speaking again, but I find him dreadfully dull tonight.

7:34 PM. Ron Paul isn’t going to win this race. More importantly, Ron Paul’s message is going to fall on too many deaf ears. On Cuba, Paul is once again 180 degrees away from his opponents. Common sense on better relationships with Cuba, trade with Cuba, openness. No “jihadist under the bed every night.” I wish Ron Paul could just keep running for president.

Romney wants to avoid Ron Paul’s answer even when pressed by Blitzer. Let’s attack Obama’s policy instead! He will, in the process, ignore Obama’s actual record on this.

7:31 PM. Gingrich is on the defense. Whining and squirming.

Nob Akimoto says my beer blogging is more interesting than the debate. Next time we’ll do a drunk blog. Every time anyone says “fundamentally” take a drink. Every time someone says “Reagan” take a drink. Every time someone says “freedom” take a drink. We’ll come up with more rules.

We’re on to Cuba again now. It’s funny to hear so many people who pretend to advocate free trade so badly misunderstand the problems with our trade policy toward Cuba.

7:28 PM. A question on the Reagan mantle. Like we have to actually put Reagan in the questions. Come on Wolf, they’ll insert Reagan all on their own. Romney manages to be both humble and talk himself up at the same time. He’s got this whole job interview thing down.

7:24 PM. Oh goodness, I thought Newt was going to say “having gotten to know them I think all three of my wives would be great first ladies” but of course he was saying all the wives of the other candidates.

I get the feeling that this debate, unless it changes course very soon, will not change the debate in a, ahem, fundamental way; will not alter the course of the race at all except that Romney may be able to win this thing after all. Gingrich just isn’t doing his thing.

Santorum has a nice little smile when talking about his wife. He sounds more sincere than Romney or Gingrich. He and Paul are certainly more authentic than the other two. Interesting that the least sincere of the candidates is the front-runner, and the second least sincere is nipping at his heals. Ah democracy.

7:23 PM. What a dumb question. We’re asking the candidates to defend their wives? This is all fine for three of the candidates, but if Gingrich answers wrong Callista will eat his heart with a spoon.

7:21 PM. Founders Dirty Bastard Scotch Style Ale. Malty. I’m on a big hops kick so the IPA is a little better in my book. But this is still a very tasty beer.

7:17 PM. Ron Paul doesn’t name names. He wants people to understand monetary policy. He says Hispanic community should understand a non-interventionist foreign policy. Oh good it’s a break. Beer me.

7:16 PM. Rick Santorum kisses Marco Rubio’s ass from a distance. A very impressive ass-kissing if I do say so myself. What did Newt say? I wasn’t listening. Romney is ready for the answer, naming just about every Hispanic Republican in elected office in America. At least Republicans.

7:12 PM. This:

Wolf wants to move on. Santorum wants to hit Romney in the face. Romney wants to smirk. Ron Paul chuckles. He’s sort taking on a prankster shape tonight – almost Puck-ish. He’s the only one who seems like he’s having any fun, that’s for sure.

7:09 PM. I need that second beer in a fundamental and profound way. Going across the house to get the beer may be a grandiose vision that will cost me a minute or two of this riveting debate. But I am fundamentally in favor of getting a top-down beer that I can drink from the bottom-up. Or something.

7:08 PM. Damnit. The beer is gone. The fridge is all the way across the house. What can the candidates do for me to help me get my beer? Eh? Eh?

7:02 PM. Audience member asks about lack of healthcare. Ron Paul shows once again that he understands that the employer-insurance problem, but he only understand part of the problem with healthcare. Yes, subsidies (among many other factors) lead to increased healthcare costs. But what about the other factors? There are other market problems – such as a lack of price transparency – but there’s also the fact that we have a lot more medical care than we used to have back in Paul’s younger days. It would be more expensive regardless. Neither Paul or Gingrich has a good answer on how to actually get to a point where people can afford insurance on their own.

Romney is in uncomfortable territory, but he’s right so far about employer-based insurance coverage. But again, how do we get individuals on their own insurance plans?  If we have any pre-existing conditions we can’t get coverage. If we’re too old, too sick, too poor, we can’t get health insurance. Government may have made a hash out of healthcare but there isn’t a clear market way back.

6:59 PM. Roland Dodds in the comments: “I do love that in an election focused on jobs and the economy, we have now spent 5 minutes on moon colonies. Says a lot about the Republican Party.”

My thoughts exactly.

6:58 PM. Romney is talking about firing people again. This must be a favorite of his. Careful, Mitt, you may call back Donald Trump from the dead…

6:53 PM. Newt talks about the inefficiency of NASA. Wants prizes to get private companies into the space race. Gingrich knows his futurism; Romney knows it’s a bad investment. Gingrich tries to make the case that Americans should colonize the moon before the Chinese. Can we rekindle the old magic of the Cold War space race?


Santorum seems to be backing Gingrich’s enthusiasm but takes him down a peg on responsibility when it comes to spending big money on big ideas. Paul wants to send politicians to the moon. Good idea.

6:51 PM. Okay we’re on to the moon colony. I like the idea, honestly, but not the idea of Newt being behind it. This is his opportunity to shine, though. Romney is talking about cost. It’s true – it’s a costly thing to run a space program. But the Space Coasters are thinking about jobs.

6:50 PM. Ron Paul says he’d gladly race anyone on a bike. You can’t campaign with as much vitality as this guy without being in great shape, even in your seventies. Gingrich has nice things to say about Paul’s health.

6:45 PM. Since when is Gingrich an advocate of the flat-tax and the gold standard? Is this a new thing tailored specifically to this election or has Gingrich had these ideas listed out before somewhere?

Santorum is taking a slightly more populist approach. He calls it the Reagan approach.

Ron Paul says he wants to get rid of the 16th amendment. Then he talks about having sympathy with the 99%. He’s the only Occupy Wall Street fan who talks about sound money and a sound currency. It’s sort of wonderful, this Austrian take on income inequality. No reason why libertarians and progressives can’t work toward common goals.

6:41 PM. And….we’re back. On to taxes and tax returns because Blitzer wants everyone to know everything they can possibly know about these guys. Newt gets in his first viper-strike at the media when Blitzer asks about his attacks on Romney. “This is a nonsense question.” Blitzer strikes back, unlike John King, pointing out that Gingrich made the accusation. Good for Blitzer, but the crowd boos. Romney hits Gingrich hard again, saying that it would be nice if Gingrich would stick by what he says in an interview rather than try to dodge the question. Romney is picking Newt apart tonight. Is the speaker’s shtick wearing thin?

6:38 PM. I’m drinking a Founders Centennial IPA for the first part of the debate. Something tells me I will need to resupply very soon. It’s a hoppy, delicious, strong brew.

6:35 PM. Paul gives a clear answer, at least, to the question rather than just slam the other candidates. You know how I can tell he’s not serious about running for president? He’s not nearly interested enough in scoring cheap points against the other guys. He wants to actually answer the questions – a rare quality in a politician and something nobody who is serious about winning ever does.

6:34 PM. Gingrich is comparing investment size. He describes his as a tiny mouse and Romney’s as a giant elephant. Is this a pissing contest? Why yes…it is.

6:31 PM. Gingrich is indignant. Trying to spin his work as a lobbyist for Fannie by pointing out that Romney has investments in Fannie and Freddie. Sort of a big difference, though. Romney hits back by pointing out that Gingrich also has investments in Fannie and Freddie. Gingrich is off his game tonight. No opportunity to slam the media so far.

6:28 PM. Wolf Blitzer changes the subject from South America to housing. A question about phasing out Fannie and Freddie. This is a lovely softball.

6:25 PM. Santorum rises to the occasion. Hitting Obama on Honduras. Says we need to support freedom in South America. Ron Paul has another good answer to American force and arrogance. Santorum pretends like he doesn’t understand the history of American involvement in the region.

6:23 PM. A good answer on South America from Ron Paul. Paul gets very few cheers for promoting trade with Cuba. A Florida crowd, after all. But yes, we should expand free trade to as many South American countries as possible. Paul is forthright and honest as ever on the issue. Get ready for some tough talk on Cuba from the others.

6:21 PM. Now that I have the formatting figured out…so far I think Romney is scoring some points but he seems too outraged. I mean, how dare Gingrich call him anti-immigrant. Gingrich is hardly better, of course, but neither of them sound as hard-line as they have in previous states.

6:12 PM. Sorry, I meant to start this at the opening but between helping with kids, getting a beer, and technical difficulties I’m late to the game. Apparently I’ve been missing some immigration debate. There’s never much debate on this subject – at the moment we’re discussing the utterly absurd topic of “self-deportation.” It’s impossible to have this debate when the premise is so off the mark.


Gingrich threatens to sit out next debate if audience can’t participate

Newt Gingrich is threatening to sit out the next debate

Want more proof that Gingrich’s entire shtick is completely dependent on riling up the audience? Look no further:

Mr. Gingrich, a former House speaker, on Tuesday morning threatened not participate in any future debates with audiences that have been instructed to be silent. That was the case on Monday, when Brian Williams of NBC News asked the audience of about 500 people who assembled for a debate in Tampa to hold their applause until the commercial breaks.

In an interview with the morning show “Fox and Friends,” Mr. Gingrich said NBC’s rules amounted to stifling free speech. In what has become a standard line of attack for his anti-establishment campaign, Mr. Gingrich blamed the media for trying to silence a dissenting point of view.

“I wish in retrospect I’d protested when Brian Williams took them out of it because I think it’s wrong,” Mr. Gingrich said. “And I think he took them out of it because the media is terrified that the audience is going to side with the candidates against the media, which is what they’ve done in every debate.”

I don’t blame him for being upset. His extraordinary victory in South Carolina was built on the back of his demagoguery there in the debates. Newt managed to whip up the crowd’s anger and frustration into a frothy mix of, er, well fervor. Fast-forward to the last Florida debate and Newt was off his game. No whooping or cheering from the audience. No opening to stick it to Brian Williams. And the former speaker fell on his face, taking blow after blow from Romney.

Could Newt actually sit out the next debate? I don’t buy it. It’s a lot of sound and fury from a man who expects such a threat will move mountains. And perhaps it will. The networks want to put on a good show. This is reality television at its very best. Why not let the crowd run wild?

This isn’t 1980, after all. We’re not watching Reagan debate Carter. We’re just watching a bunch of guys who want to be Reagan debate each other so that they can beat the “worst president since Carter” or some such nonsense.

Doug Mataconis has more.

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Mitch Daniels and ‘trickle down government’

Mitch Daniels gave the 2012 State of the Union GOP response.

Mitch Daniels actually gave a pretty decent SOTU response tonight. None of Jindal’s tragic, loping performance, though that’s a low bar to cross. Perhaps I was too quick earlier to dismiss the Indiana governor. His line about “trickle down government” was extremely clever. Kudos to his speech writer.

Daniels manages to be folksy and fairly likable without sounding insincere. That’s a good quality to have in a politician. Romney would give his left leg to have a bit of that natural, low-key charm.

Still, I find the opposition response to the State of the Union address mind-numbingly boring and, perhaps more importantly, extremely unnecessary. Even a pretty good, pretty positive, upbeat response has me nodding off. After sitting through an entire speech from the president, it’s hard to muster the strength to sit through yet another – albeit shorter – follow-up. Besides, you never know when you’ll pull a Jindal.

If I believed that Republicans were serious about actually reforming entitlements the way they say they want to, I might even find a few things to agree with in Daniels’ response. We do need entitlement reform. We do need smart government and pro-growth policies. The problem is that the grown-ups have by and large abandoned the Republican party. I have many quibbles with the Democratic party but at least they attempt to govern well.

I have no doubt that Daniels qualifies as a grown-up in his party, but it must be an awfully lonely experience.

Instead we have Newt Gingrich toppling expectations in South Carolina – a man whose ego is childlike in its grandiosity.

Daniels did fine, but conservative dreamers like Bill Kristol should avoid getting their hopes up. A fine SOTU response doesn’t build a political organization out of thin air. Daniels still has no organization. He’s still leagues behind his would-be rivals in just about every sense except, perhaps, sounding and acting like an adult. We should know by now that qualities like maturity are hardly important when electing a president. We elected George W. Bush twice, after all.

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Why the president succeeded with his State of the Union address tonight

Obama cut a presidential figure, especially compared to his rivals.

President Obama gave a pretty good speech tonight. American exceptionalism and the emergence from darker times were the interwoven themes of the evening. Scattered throughout were some decent ideas on Senate reform and tax policy, but overall it was still a pretty low-calorie affair. Nothing too wonky or deep. Nothing to sink our teeth into.

Still, I think it’s important to remember the intended audience when we listen to these sorts of speeches. Most Americans, after all, don’t obsess over politics the way we bloggers and denizens of the internet do. Most Americans like to hear a positive, rousing speech that isn’t too long.

Just as importantly, it’s remarkable to watch Barack Obama speak about his vision for America. He cuts a striking contrast with his opponents in the GOP primary. There’s not a lot of visionary material in the speech itself – nothing particularly detailed – but he sure looks like a president doesn’t he?

After several months of the GOP primary circus, listening to Obama give a rousing speech about the American dream, the American promise – the indispensable nation that is us – well, it’s hard not to compare him to the dimensionless Mitt Romney, or the bristly Newt Gingrich and his aura of self-importance. Obama looks dignified. He has gravitas. He’s eloquent.

Still, Andrew Sullivan was disappointed:

I was hoping for a vision. I was hoping for real, strategic reform. What we got was one big blizzard of tax deductions, wrapped in a populist cloak. It was treading water. I suspect this will buoy liberal spirits, but anger the right and befuddle the independents. It definitely gives the Republican case against Obama as a big government meddler more credibility. I may be wrong – but the sheer cramped, tedious, mediocre micro-policies he listed were uninspiring to say the least.

We voted for Obama; now we find we got another Clinton. The base will like this. I’m not sure independents will. As performance, he did as well as he could with the thin material he had in his hands. As a speech, I thought it was the worst of his SOTUs, when he really needed his best.

Josh Barro wanted Obama to talk about monetary policy and was disappointed when he didn’t. Indeed, there was little policy meat in tonight’s speech.

But isn’t hoping for a vision sort of missing the point? Isn’t hoping for concrete policy a little like wishing for unicorns?

This is the first of many campaign speeches Obama will give. Will it anger independents? I don’t think so. Most independents are actually just undecided low-information voters.

The point of a speech like this one – an election year State of the Union Address – is not to lay out a grand vision. To be honest, the time for grand visions is over. What the president needs to do – and what he didn’t do enough tonight – is lay out in stark terms why his presidency is important and distinct from the hypothetical presidency of Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich.

But none of that really matters. Obama looked like a president tonight. He sounded like one, too. For that matter, Mitch Daniels actually sounded a bit like a president.

Both men sound a lot more like presidents than Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich. This is a really bad sign for the Republican party. And since it’s too late for Daniels to get into the race, it’s a really good sign for Obama.

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Newt Gingrich and the politics of frustration

Jay Cost makes an astute observation:

Conservatives are very frustrated, and rightfully so. Their feeling is that they play by the rules – they work hard, pay their taxes, raise their kids right – but what do they get for it? Their values are mocked on television and the movies, the media castigates them as a bunch of extremists, they pay taxes while half of the country does not, and the Obama administration took to demagoguing them virtually from day one of his tenure. I know of what I speak – a few months back I was driving down the road and saw a sign in front of a business lamenting, “Where is the America I grew up in?” I nodded my head in approval.

Enter Newt Gingrich, the person on the debate stage who finally speaks truth to power. ‘Not so fast, John King!’ ‘Hold it just a damned minute, Diane Sawyer!’ ‘How dare you talk to me like that, Brian Williams!’ These are the sorts of thoughts that millions of conservatives have every week. And now here is Newt Gingrich actually saying it right to them. Never mind the fact that he is expressing indignation at liberals while sometimes offering not-so-conservative policies, or using it as a form of misdirection to turn attention away from his own questionable deeds. Conservatives everywhere love to hear somebody finally stick it to the elites.

This explains why they are excited about the prospect of an Obama-Gingrich debate. They love the thought of someone finally standing in front of Obama and saying, “How dare you, sir!”

The problem with Gingrich, of course, is that he comes with a cargo ship full of baggage – ideological, financial, and personal. Gingrich has made a career since leaving the House as a well-connected insider; he has bona fide ethical scandals on his resume. His personal life is a total mess, and he has turned off the broad middle of the country for the last 15 years. And on top of that, it’s doubtful that all of this outrage is genuine. Consider, for instance, Gingrich warmly complimenting John King after the CNN debate this week. How do we square that with King having done something so “close to despicable” just 120 minutes earlier?

You can’t because you can’t square Newt with Newt. He’s an imprint of the things conservatives want in a candidate, but he’s not in any way a good standard-bearer for the values and ideals which conservatives say they hold. He is merely a capsule for their anger and frustration. This is problematic for GOP voters. The question is whether they’ll realize this in time for the Florida primary.

I would quibble, naturally, with Jay’s argument that conservatives are “rightfully” frustrated. Is there really a reason for this? Huge strides have been made by conservative state governments across the country to turn back the clock on public labor unions, reproductive rights, and education spending. Meanwhile, taxes are lower than ever and the military is just about as big as ever. This secular-socialist-machine that Newt keeps warning about seems as much a figment of our imagination as anything else.

If anything, it’s civil libertarians and progressives who ought to be frustrated.

In terms of the broader culture, Jay does have a stronger footing. It’s true that conservatives are largely presented as caricatures in modern popular media, though this is far from universally so. Actually, I think the problem is that conservatives are trying too hard when it comes to pop culture. They want pop culture that explicitly advocates a conservative world view. Too often this leads to “conservative” films that are just awful, or bad Republican rap videos.

This is an unfortunate turn for conservatives in the arts. After all, many great works of conservative literature and music have been produced. The Lord of the Rings is in many ways a great tome of conservative fantasy (though perhaps a very different sort of “conservative” than what we have today.)

In any case, the politics of frustration certainly helps explain Newt’s appeal. Whether it will be enough to fuel him all the way to the convention is much harder to say. The conservatism of wanting-to-win might take over. In that case, Republicans will need to rally around Romney. Newt doesn’t stand a chance in the general, where the politics of frustration won’t play nearly as large a role.

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Chuck Todd takes on Stephen Colbert for ‘making a mockery of the system’

Comedian Stephen Colbert makes Chuck Todd uncomfortable.

I’m not really sure what Chuck Todd was thinking when he said this:

“Is it fair to the process? Yes, the process is a mess, but he’s doing it in a way that it feels as if he’s trying to influence it with his own agenda, that may be anti-Republican. And we in the media are covering it as a schtick and a satire, but it’s like, ‘Well wait a minute here…’ he’s also trying to do his best to marginalize the candidates, and we’re participating in that marginalization.”

Apparently marginalizing the GOP is a problem for Todd, as are Colbert’s and Jon Stewart’s attacks on the media:

Todd said that the “mainstream media” (his quotes) has a responsibility to exercise some caution and question what Colbert’s agenda is. “Is it to educate the public about the dangers of money in politics and what’s going on?” He asked, “or is it simply to marginalize the Republican party? I think if I were a Republican candidate, I’d be concerned about that.”

While expressing admiration for how Colbert has exposed a lot of the idiocy involved with the marriage of politics and money, and saying he enjoys his show, Todd went after both Colbert and Jon Stewart for mocking members of the media, then backing off and saying “we’re just comedians” when the members of the media call them out on it. “Actually, no you’re not [comedians] anymore,” Todd said. “You are mocking what we’re doing, and you want a place in this, then you are also going to be held accountable for how you cover and how you do your job.”

How dare they mock the mainstream media. The media never does anything ridiculous, obviously, as the total lack of material for The Daily Show and The Colbert Report prove.

Honestly, this is sort of like picking a fight with the South Park team. It’s not going to work. You have to be wittier and more clever or you’re just going to look like a jerk. Chuck Todd’s indignation over his industry being made fun of makes him look thin-skinned and way, way too serious.

I say the more mockery the better. The press has been far too easy on the political system and nobody has ever really taken on the press before. Until the rise of the internet, new media, and comedy shows like The Daily Show, the media was able to basically snooze at the wheel. Well we’ve all paid the price for that. If Todd doesn’t want the news to be made a mockery of, he should encourage his colleagues and the networks to do more serious news and less fluff. He’s focusing his ire on the wrong target entirely.

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Jon Huntsman Is Out – Is He In A Better Position To Run In 2016?

James Fallows thinks that Huntsman’s exit was graceful enough that despite some bruises, he comes out a lot stronger than before:

We can’t tell anything about politics in real time, but my guess at the moment is that the run will have left him somewhat better off, bruised and rejected as he and his (attractive) family and staff must be feeling now. He has trivially embarrassed himself in a way he’ll easily be able to make fun of next time, with his Tourette’s-style interjection of Mandarin one-liners at debates and on the stump. This will be the equivalent of Bill Clinton making fun of his embarrassment at the 1988 Democratic convention, where he was mocked and practically hooted off the stage for an interminable speech nominating Michael Dukakis. Huntsman embarrassed himself with another split-second decision he’ll have time to reflect upon and learn from. That was when he raised his hand, along with everyone else, in saying that he, too, would reject a budget deal skewed even 10-to-1 for budget cuts rather than tax increases.

But he also had a flash he can build on, when he dressed down Mitt Romney in the last New Hampshire debate for derogating Huntsman’s “service to country” as ambassador to China. And he had many more moments when he seemed to be making high-road (if occasionally wackyappeals than showing anger, bitterness, a willingness to pander, or other traits that will grate and make people dread the sound of his name four years from now. To illustrate the contrast: who, except the Democrats, would truly relish the prospect of Newt 2016? Or Cain?

So, sympathies to Team Huntsman on a race that was a long shot and that didn’t work out, but which he managed with a lot of dignity.

Indeed, although it is almost certain now that Romney will be the nominee – the troops will rally round him soon enough; Ron Paul is too much of a threat to the status quo – it is much less likely that Romney will beat Obama in November. He is the inevitable GOP candidate, but not a well-loved Republican among the base he needs badly behind him. A lot may ride on his vice presidential pick, though it’s hard to imagine that choice being as influential as it was for John McCain’s campaign in 2008.

Still, while Romney may be the nominee one has to wonder if Huntsman is still better situated to become president some day. He will be a more familiar figure over the next four years. Assuming Obama wins, 2016 is an open race. Huntsman comes into it popular and better known than in 2012. There’s plenty of unknowns, of course: the economy, the Iran situation, etc. But I’d wager that just about any Republican has a better chance in 2016 against a non-incumbent Democrat than they do toppling Obama in 2012.

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