This week, the 2012 election season finally got to pig out on an empty-calorie feeding frenzy, in which everyone in the media pretended to have some sort of lofty conversation about the role of private equity in society while actually reminding everyone else that political elites are completely removed from the real-life stakes of the lives of normal Americans. It made for a great show, though! Pundits screwed on their super-serious faces and reporters faked thoughtfulness and everyone who was pretending to know something about the subject did a fine job of acting like they were doing something interesting.
But let's face it: The only reason anyone was talking about private equity was because somewhere, some surrogate had gone "off message," and suddenly there was catnip everywhere!
In this case, it was Newark Mayor Cory Booker on "Meet The Press." While presumably attempting some sort of Obama surrogacy, Booker suddenly veered and claimed to be "nauseated" by all the "attacks on private equity." In typical "Meet The Press" fashion, no one on the show seemed aware that something that would soon be deemed extraordinary had just happened. But before long it was a firestorm, Booker was walking it back, and you just knew that everyone was going to be talking around the topic for the next week, because oh my, Cory Booker went wibbly-wobbly, on the teevee!
Some interesting conversations with the American people might have been had. (Like, maybe: "Hey, everyone, if you haven't heard, everyone in politics is, to some degree, a huge sell-out because piles of cash speak louder than your state of economic dislocation.") But to have that sort of conversation with the American people, you actually have to care about the American people. And what the media cares about is a good talking-points derailment disaster. No one's heartbeat ever quickens while everyone on the same "side of the aisle" is robotically intoning the same catch-phrase over and over again. But deviate from the norm, however, and suddenly everyone's browsers crash. (This is how a plain-spoken statement from Joe Biden about marriage equality and basic justice becomes known as a "gaffe.")
There are, of course, a few obvious things to be said about this, the first of which is -- guess what! -- Booker owes his political livelihood to donors from the financial sector. Many of the Democratic pundits who followed in agreement were Acela-stan creatures who share that quality, like Ed Rendell and Harold Ford Jr. And President Obama himself is desperately courting that Wall Street coin, as well -- he's simply hoping that the private equity set will allow him to make the occasional populist grandstand in exchange for privately whispered reassurances that he's on their side. (Leaving aside, naturally, anything his affiliated super PACs have to say about it, because after all -- wink-wink, nudge-nudge! -- he has no control over what they do. No sir!)
Of course, much was made of Booker's subsequent, awkward walk-back, which likely came to pass because Team Obama Re-Elect went bat-poop crazy when they heard his remark. But the reversal also demonstrated the Trouble of Being Cory Booker: See, he needs those Wall Street allies to fund his political ambitions. At the same time, he wants New Jersey voters to think of him as being "one of them." In seemingly protecting Romney, he flew too close to the wrong sun and risked his "of the people" authenticity. (And how concerned is Booker with "authenticity?" Let's recall that he shovels snow every winter, on Twitter.)
Does Mitt Romney's record at Bain matter in this election? To the extent that he claims it exclusively informs his expertise on economic matters, a bunch. So the Democrats are going to "go there." But we're really many months away from being able to determine whether "going there" is actually "working." And it will never be determined unless the media demonstrates an interest in the actual audience of those critiques. When the Obama campaign brings up Bain Capital's misadventures with Ampad, for example, this message is being pitched to the residents of all the decaying Rust Belt erstwhile boomtowns that dot the midwestern swing states.
The media, however, presumes that it's all about them. Witness, for example, Jennifer Rubin's "Ten ways you know the Bain attack is bombing," which appears to have been carefully researched within the 10 square feet around her desk. Most of the people she mentions, in terms of who the attack is influencing, come through a single prism: political elites and Beltway media-types.
Politico is unimpressed? Why would you expect them to emerge from behind their studied "post-concern" pose? Chris Matthews is "having a meltdown?" He blew a bigger gasket when the roads between his home and his office weren't sufficiently plowed of snow.
By the time you get to the part where she's noting that Mickey Kaus thinks that Democrats are wrong (which is no more noteworthy than water claiming to be wet), you know that somewhere, this listicle is going to derail. And, sure enough, it does:
The media is going to town on stories like this from ABC News: "The Obama campaign's latest attack tells the story of workers at an Indiana office supply company who lost their jobs after a Bain-owned company named American Pad & Paper (Ampad) took over their company and drove it out of business. Here's what the Obama Web video doesn't mention: A top Obama donor and fundraiser had a much more direct tie to the controversy and actually served on the board of directors at Richardson, Texas-based Ampad, which makes office paper products. Jonathan Lavine is a long-time Bain Capital executive and co-owner of the Boston Celtics. He is also one of President Obama's most prolific fundraisers." Oh well, then it was smart business and a good faith attempt to save the company.
Yes, well, the reason that Romney's team is making sure everyone knows about Jonathan Lavine is because they are afraid that the "Bain attack" isn't going to bomb. (The Obama team's take on this, by the way, is overstated. And the Romney response contains dodges.)
But, by next week, this moveable mess will have found something newer and shinier to play with, and no one will ever check in with those forgotten Middle Americans from once-flourishing factory towns, who might have their own thoughts on the way Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, Cory Booker or the reporters who cover them demonstrate an understanding of their situation. And this week will be known as the week that Booker's comments were really bad for Barack Obama.
But honestly, just how bad will life ever be for Barack Obama? Or Booker? Or Romney? Or any of the people who took part in this conversation? Life inside the bubble is always sweet, and the residents of the bubble spent the whole week reminding us of that.
COAL COUNTRY LOST TO OBAMA: If it's possible to have a rough week in the Democratic primaries when you are actually going to win them all without any trouble, this was the week, because the vagaries of the Democratic primary schedule put President Obama on the ballot in Arkansas and Kentucky.
Things did not, strictly speaking, go very well. As expected, John Wolfe, who jumped into the Democratic primary as a challenger wherever he was able to do so, actually did well in Arkansas, grabbing 42 percent of the vote. On the level of raw numbers, Wolfe actually underperformed against his poll numbers, which had him losing by a mere seven points, 45 percent to 38 percent. That means Obama did manage to square away a greater share of the undecided vote. But Wolfe had never managed more than 12 percent anywhere else, so it was a minor embarrassment for the incumbent.
In Kentucky, there was no challenger to Obama other than the concept, "uncommitted," which managed the same 42 percent that Wolfe did.
But the numbers don't tell the entire story. Yet there is a story to be told, that links these results with Obama's previous bad primary night in West Virginia (where he ceded votes to a prison inmate) and Oklahoma (where he nearly lost a delegate to anti-abortion activist Randall Terry). Alec McGillis got that story:
These sorry performances by a sitting president with no real competition for his party's nomination are being taken by many as further proof of Obama's weakness as an incumbent running in hard times. Well, no. Obama certainly is a vulnerable incumbent, as suggested by the latest national polling showing him only slightly ahead of Mitt Romney. But Kentucky and Arkansas offer little in the way of affirmation. For the hundredth time, let me suggest that people take a look at this map. It shows the counties where Obama in 2008 got a lower share of the general election vote than John Kerry had four years earlier, even as Obama did vastly better than Kerry nationwide. It is a virtually contiguous band of territory stretching from southwestern Pennsylvania through Appalachia and across the Upland South, finally petering out in north-central Texas. It is, almost to a T, what Colin Woodard, in his fascinating new ethnographic history of North America, American Nations, defined as the territory of the "Borderlanders" -- the rough-hewn Scots-Irish who arrived in this country from the "borderlands" of northern Ireland and Scotland, and claimed for themselves the inland hill country, far from the snooty Northeastern elites and Southern gentry. And look more closely at the map -- where was Obama's 2008 dropoff particularly heavy? In eastern Kentucky and most of Arkansas.
Cast your mind back to 2008. Back then, Obama managed to lose this group early, when he made his famous "guns and religion" remarks. Virginia Sen. Jim Webb (D), himself of Scots-Irish extraction, performed some useful triage as an Obama surrogate, but he won't be back for an encore in 2012.
Nevertheless, as McGillis notes, as hard a time as Obama is having with these voters, they still represent a sunk cost to him electorally. He was never going to be competitive in those states, anyway. But this regional tic has a cousin in the form of working-class whites who feel like the economy is moving in the wrong direction, and Romney is running away with those voters.
GOP HEARTS ROMNEY, FINALLY: Back during the early primary season, Romney's run of success was often met by shrugs from conservative elites. Yeah, but he didn't win 35 percent of the vote. Yeah, but he has a problem with evangelicals. Yeah, but the Tea Party wants a "real conservative." Yeah, but George Will just hates him and says that the GOP should all but concede the White House to secure the Senate. And what followed from there was this constant murmuring in the background that somewhere, in some dark room, there was a team of GOP bigwigs with a super-secret plan to get some new candidate into the race, just in time to save themselves from Romney.
Yeah, but! As it turns out, the GOP has finally learned to stop worrying and love Mitt. Per Jonathan Martin:
Top Republicans, long privately skeptical about their presidential prospects, are coming around to a surprising new view -- that Mitt Romney may well win the White House this November.
Margin-of-error polling, fundraising parity last month, conservative consolidation around Romney and a still-sluggish economy has senior GOP officials increasingly bullish about a nominee many winced over during a difficult primary process.
Interviews with about two dozen Republican elected officials, aides, strategists and lobbyists reveal a newfound optimism that with a competent, on-message campaign, Romney will be at least competitive with a weakened incumbent. That's a dramatic shift from the fatalistic view many party stalwarts shared mere weeks ago.
The real question is: what took them so long? Romney is today the same man that entered the primary -- a person with no particular desire to put his personal stamp on the nation and whose convictions are one-hundred-percent fungible. His closest competitor, Rick Santorum, while possessed of the needed conservative bona fides, had plans and convictions. He wanted to restore the middle-class manufacturing sector, for example. Romney places no such demands on anybody. He is quite literally a figurehead that can be browbeaten into taking a position on whatever you want.
As Grover Norquist sized it up: "We are not auditioning for fearless leader. We don't need a president to tell us in what direction to go ... we just need a president to sign this stuff ... Pick a Republican with enough working digits to handle a pen to become president of the United States." It took everyone else in the GOP a long time to get up to speed on this, we guess!
ROMNEY ON UNEMPLOYMENT: This week, Romney picked his spot on unemployment, and pointed at it. In an interview with Mark Halperin (that was precisely as Andrew Sullivan described it), Romney said, "I can tell you that over a period of four years, by virtue of the policies that we put in place, we get the unemployment rate down to 6 percent, or perhaps a little lower."
The first turn of this story went like this: It was an interesting move for the famously risk-averse Romney, especially considering the fact that the Obama administration had made a bold promise on unemployment when they took over the White House. Their failure to do so has dogged them ever since.
On the second turn of the story, things got more interesting, because that's when everyone realized that Romney wasn't promising anything at all. As First Read noted: "The Congressional Budget Office, in its baseline projection of the economic and budget outlook, said it expects the unemployment rate to drop to around 6 percent naturally at some point in 2016, coincidentally toward the end of what would be a hypothetical first term for Romney."
Assuming the CBO's forecast is accurate, Romney's projections would seem to somewhat undercut the central premise of his candidacy -- namely, that only he, and not President Obama, knows how to get America back to work. Now he's telling us that it won't make much of a difference who America chooses, which isn't the most impressive pitch in the world. It's kind of like proposing to your girlfriend with, "If you marry me, I promise that I will make you just as happy as most other guys could, and definitely not less happy."
DOWNTICKET RACE RADAR: The Associated Press has the lowdown on a competitive race in North Dakota, where Heidi Heitkamp is the Democrats best hope to hang on to the retiring Kent Conrad's Senate seat. She goes up against state Rep. Rick Berg, described by Salon as "a successful real estate developer and longtime state legislator elected to the House just two years ago with strong tea party support." In Arizona, Ron Barber is in a tough race to keep the seat occupied by his boss, Gabby Giffords, in the Democratic column. Something that connects both races? Both candidates are a bit slow to embrace the Obama administration. (Barber had to go through a Cory Booker-like "clarification" this week over this.)
SUPER PAC TRACTION: Steve Kornacki notes that "the real power of super PACs probably isn't at the presidential level but rather in lower-profile Senate and House races." This is something we've previously discussed in terms of the Nebraska Senate primary that Deb Fischer won, and Kornacki has the skinny on how the same super PAC influence was seen in this week's primary for the House seat in Kentucky's 4th District.
WHAT THEY SAID ABOUT BAIN: They said that Bain's business model was "not what [their party] was about." They called it "exploitation." They called them "vultures." They found it "pretty hard to justify rich people figuring out clever legal ways to loot a company." They said that Romney's work at Bain was a killer of jobs. They said that "getting rich off failure" was "indefensible." They said Mitt Romney was "not telling the truth." They even said that "the ultimate insult" was Romney telling South Carolinians that "he feels your pain," because "he caused it." And "they" were his fellow Republicans.
VEEPSTAKES: InTrade's top five prospects for Romney's running mate, in order: Rob Portman, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Mitch Daniels and Tim Pawlenty. But Mitch Daniels says to forget about it, he won't even take the call.
[Got an interesting downticket race, you'd like us to cover? Tips are always welcome. Would you like to follow me on Twitter? Because why not?]