What about Benghazi?

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The final presidential debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama is over, and so of course questions are being raised.

First, why hasn’t Mitt gone harder at the President on what happened at Benghazi, and what happened in its aftermath?

This one is has a several-part answer. Each is very justified on what we know of Mitt having watched him campaign over the last year.

First, Mitt’s core focus has been on independent voters and undecideds. All you need to do is look at the polls since the first debate to see the success of this in action. Mitt’s strategy has assumed that the base is secure. That, in the words of someone on Twitter today, we know who he is and we’ll crawl on broken glass to the polls, whether it be an affirmative vote for Romney or a vote against Obama. Either way, the Republican base is enthused.

Second, contrast this to the Democratic base. Here’s a well-remembered image after the first debate in Denver:

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Chris Matthews was insistent that night that the President needed to go after Mitt Romney, to get out the knives, as it were. That may rile up the base – as it did in the VP debate, and the town hall – but it turns off independents and undecideds in droves.

Third, this is, was, and always shall be an election decided on the President’s performance in bringing about an economic recovery. or lack thereof. Short of a nuclear exchange, Benghazi unfortunately pales in comparison to severe structural unemployment, crushing debt, and those elements of national (and personal) economic security vital to our daily lives. The Luntz panel last night confirmed this – while they thought Obama had the measure of the night’s debate, they still felt that economic issues were paramount, and that Romney’s message there was strongest of the two.

As a result of all this I’m not surprised to see Mitt play soft on Benghazi or on a number of other issues.

Undecided and Independent voters love a candidate who throws off a bipartisan air. In 2008, that was Barack Obama. The seas would lower. And gridlock would end. Then after assuming office and reminding the opposition “I won”, he passed a partisan health reform law.

Through all the mud of the primaries and the general election, Mitt has projected himself as the new home for disaffected Obama voters from 2008. You don’t do this with a bludgeon. Frankly, Mitt could make as direct and forceful an argument about Benghazi as he did in the town hall debate about the President’s economic performance. That being said, something – the polls, or just a feel for how little the Independents and undecideds have gone for the grin and interrupt express the last three debates – says to Romney to keep this powder dry in the most public forums. Frankly, that takes a lot of courage. Many of us would be happier, more content, to fire all cannons, to leave little behind. But those of us who know about Benghazi, we’ve already made up our minds. Those who haven’t made up their minds, to the extent they’ve heard about Benghazi, aren’t going to be swayed on their vote by anything short of a full-audio version of the drone flyover video – and that won’t fit into the structured format of the debate. Those who can be swayed will most likely be swayed by the economic argument, by the “can I see him as President?” argument.

Each of these were won in the first debate, in principle, and confirmed in this Foreign Policy debate, in two statements by Governor Romney:

  • First, that we can’t kill our way to success in the Middle East;
  • Second, that the economic security of the country is intimately tied to Foreign Policy, and vice versa.
  • In so doing Romney further confirmed the perspective of competence he laid out in the first debate for Independent voters. As I’ve discussed since the start of this blog, Independents may be only 26 or 27 percent, but they’re always that. Win them, and you’ll win even if you’re a few points back as far as base goes. Lose them and you’re Senator McCain in 2008, or George H.W. Bush in 1992. Based on the latest polling by PPP of all entities, Romney’s gains with Independents remain strong on this front, with the President having equal weakness, driven by the number one issue: the economy.

    second, what’s left?

    Two weeks of noise. Early voting is already under way in many spots. Getting the base out is vital. So is getting those Independents sold in the first debate on the economy, reassured however necessary in the debates since that Romney and Ryan aren’t the evils painted in $100 Million in attack ads.

    Finally, will we hear anything on Benghazi from here on out until election day?

    If someone’s going to make an ad on Benghazi, it’ll be a Mitt-aligned Super PAC. Mitt keeps his hands clean, message gets out. But that’s a contingency for another day at this point, as the base is active and ready to go.

    On Capital Gains and How Things Work

    At the end of last night’s debate, President Obama took an opportunity to remind voters that he really really really believes in free enterprise and capitalism.

    …I think a lot of this campaign, maybe over the last four years, has been devoted to this nation that I think government creates jobs, that that somehow is the answer.

    That’s not what I believe. I believe that the free enterprise system is the greatest engine of prosperity the world’s ever known.

    I believe in self-reliance and individual initiative and risk takers being rewarded. But I also believe that everybody should have a fair shot and everybody should do their fair share and everybody should play by the same rules, because that’s how our economy’s grown. That’s how we built the world’s greatest middle class.

    And — and that is part of what’s at stake in this election. There’s a fundamentally different vision about how we move our country forward.

    Of course, this was needed in light of “didn’t build that” being a lodestone. The Presidents understanding of capital, and who benefits from free enterprise, though, continues to crop up in his responses on taxes and tax rates, particularly Mr. Romney’s:

    Now, Governor Romney has a different philosophy. He was on 60 Minutes just two weeks ago and he was asked: Is it fair for somebody like you, making $20 million a year, to pay a lower tax rate than a nurse or a bus driver, somebody making $50,000 year? And he said, “Yes, I think that’s fair.” Not only that, he said, “I think that’s what grows the economy.”

    Well, I fundamentally disagree with that.

    And these points have been echoed by some (not all, some) on the left on Twitter today:

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    Every year I do my own taxes. I view it as necessary to remind myself of how much I dislike them, but I also take a look “under the hood” with the tax preparation software to see what I like to refer to as “people like me”. When you’re done, the software will show detailed averages of those who have submitted taxes in your income group so you can see where people like you get their income from.

    Most years of late, “people like me” from an income perspective have a good percentage of their income from Capital Gains. I’d say it represents about 25 percent of income in my grouping (these are typically $10,000 groupings).

    That tells me there are a fair number of the following in my group:

  • Retirees with investment income;
  • S-Corporations filing 1040s with gains; and
  • People selling houses at a gain and buying new, lower valued homes.
  • I’d say the last group is small, and the first is largest. It’s more than an educated guess: I’ve seen enough of my parents’ returns to know how investment movement creates gains.

    Now, the Twitter point above, echoing the President’s statement to Governor Romney, both essentially say

    Why won’t you pay more taxes? You cold-hearted Scrooge!

    To which I says other (a) you’re ignorant of how the economy works, or (b) you know how it works, but your desire to play class politics betrays you.

    You see, the reason why there are different tax rates for ordinary income (income, interest) and for capital gains is twofold:

    First, capital gains are on money already taxed at least once. For a person, that would be the Federal and State income, Social Security, Medicare, and other taxes paid when you earned the money you invested; even if it was an inheritance (and recall, Romney gave all of his inheritance away) it faced the inheritance (or death) tax.

    Second, capital gains taxes are lower to reflect the risk taken with capital. When you trade your employment for income, there is little inherent risk to you – the risk is the employer’s. You can give notice and move on to another paying job (providing you can find one). The same, in essence goes for basic interest as from a bank account; the account is insured by the government to a certain amount, no risk exists if you keep the amount below the limits specified). Capital Gains reflect the placement of one’s capital at risk. There is no guarantee that an investment will pan out. As commercials for investment houses say in their disclaimers: investments can and do lose money.

    So the Capital Gain reflects the amount earned above what was originally invested; the tax on that Capital Gain is lower than the tax on ordinary income both to recognize these dollars have been taxed at least once, and that their use in markets is valuable to the free flow of the economy. if you tax Capital Gains at the level of ordinary income you disincentivize investment and risk-taking in the economy. And successful investment leads to capital and economic growth (to quote Paul Ryan’s mentor, the late Jack Kemp, “the pie grows bigger”), which leads to job growth.

    Capital Gains, and investment in the economy that leads to them are, as I suggest in my review of my own tax group above, everywhere. Retirees or those planning for retirement who are living on or plan to live on a 401(k) have Capital Gains propelling the growth of their portfolios. Unions and other employers with pension plans need their investments in the economy, and in so doing in profit-seeking private enterprise, to pan out to meet planned defined benefits.

    You’ll note from HotAir in June that public employee unions had no problems with Bain Capital, Mitt Romney’s old firm; they had over $1 Billion invested through Bain because Bain has an established track record for how to make money. If the way in which that money is made is so objectionable, I’m sure someone on the left will establish a “social justice” investment firm, that invests to protect unsuccessful firms at the expense of successful ones.

    Actually, that sounds like what government has become.

    This isn’t to say that there isn’t a role for responsible capital investment. Balance is a good thing. But don’t for one minute pretend that working from a rule that says “at a certain point, you’ve made enough”, whether to an individual or to a business, doesn’t cascade to those interrelated, reliant on that amount.

    When do we get to tell government, “at a certain point, you’ve taxed enough”?

    On the second debate: questions

    UPDATE at the bottom.

    Last time around, I suggested a selection of nine or so questions I thought would be included in last night’s town hall debate at Hofstra University. Time to self-grade:

    The questions I thought we’d see included the following:

  • One on abortion, focused on costs (namely, free for poor women);
  • One on birth control, Sandra Fluke and/or Todd Akin;
  • One on the immediate withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan;
  • One on the evils of outsourcing and companies making profits;
  • One on maintenance of “good loopholes” in the tax code;
  • One on pre-existing conditions;
  • One on the loss of Medicare or Social Security benefits posed by the Ryan Plan;
  • One on money for schools or student loan debt (if that hasn’t been addressed already as part of the “good loopholes” in the tax code question; and
  • One question out of left (or right) field: perhaps on The Fed (to represent a random undecided Ron Paul voter).
  • In the end, Candy Crowley got in more questions – but only because there were no opening or closing statements. How did I do in guessing the questions themselves? Some of my guesses were spot on, others were indirectly covered, and a few areas were covered which needed covered which I didn’t think would be. I’ll give myself a Ding for spot-on items, a Ping for areas where a questioner didn’t address but the candidates brought it up, and a Clang for total misses. Details:

    Continue reading

    The questions that remain unasked

    So tomorrow brings us debate number three: a “town hall” style debate between the Presidential principals at Hofstra University, directed by CNN’s Candy Crowley. I say directed because whole the questions posed will be given by the audience, a panel of likely voters identified by Gallup, the questions asked will be selected by Crowley. In discussions about the debate documented elsewhere, Crowley has been, shall we say, direct about her desire to out-Martha Raddatz Martha Raddatz. For those of a hockey persuasion, Ms. Crowley is ready to be Kerry “I am the game” Frasier:

    “Once the table is kind of set by the town hall questioner, there is then time for me to say, ‘Hey, wait a second, what about X, Y, and Z’?”.

    The debate will run 90 minutes; figure about 10 of that is gone for opening and statements and for the basic “hellos” up front. That leaves 80 minutes. Each question will feature

  • an introduction of the questioner by Ms. Crowley (figure 15 seconds);
  • the question itself (figure 1 minute);
  • a first response (2 minutes);
  • a second response (2 minutes);
  • a “follow-up” by Ms. Crowley, for clarity, and subsequent responses (figure 3-4 minutes).
  • That means each question will take 8:15 to 9:15, meaning that in 80 minutes there’ll be time for 8 to 10 questions from the whole of the room. In this format, the moderator already has structural control, the ability to filter out “unimportant”, “repetitive”, “irrelevant” questions. So what questions are likely to make the cut of the eight to ten, and what questions are to be left behind? Let’s take a look at the odds a bit:

    Benghazi: this is on Foreign Policy, which no one cares about unless a Republican is in office and is in trouble. It was discussed at length at the start of the Vice Presidential debate last Thursday. It will probably be discussed at the last debate, which is to be Foreign Policy-focused. Odds of a question: 25-1. No way there’s a question in this debate. If you’re undecided (and I think that’s a requirement of the LVs selected by Gallup) you probably haven’t heard of Benghazi; if you have heard of Benghazi, it’s unlikely you’re still undecided.
    UPDATE: So, now that Hillary has taken responsibility for security at Benghazi, does this change this item? Minimally. As tomorrow may be the first time Benghazi goes A1 of the New York Times, it may be an ancillary, follow-up from Ms. Crowley. Maybe. But I’d still stick to my premise above: those undecided don’t have an opinion on Benghazi or don’t know about it.

    Afghanistan: As mentioned on Benghazi, a question here is to be expected, as though no one cares about Foreign Policy, a token question must be asked; and if a Foreign Policy question is asked, it will play to Republican weakness with the electorate. Biden’s line of leaving in 2014 without conditions played well with CNNs dials; expect a question here. Odds of a question: Even. 1-3 it’s from a wife/mother of someone deployed.

    “Women’s Issues”: And by this I mean access and the free, unadulterated supply of birth control, abortifacients, abortion services, tampons. Also the federal funding of Planned Parenthood. While abortion was discussed at the Vice Presidential debate, this topic space has been, to the media’s perspective, wildly underrepresented in the debates so far. All that focus on the economy. Debt. Things comparatively irrelevant to “all things vagine”.Moreover, there’s not a lot of room for this topic in a Foreign Policy debate (beyond UN funding and the Hyde Amendment. Odds of a question: 1-20 of one question; 1-4 of two questions. 2-1 of three or more. This is the vagina warriors’ last stand. Ever since George Stephanopolous’ strange questioning during the Republican Primary debates on the settled matter of Griswold v Connecticut, this area has been one to paint Republicans in a negative light. if Todd Akin is to be brought up, it will be by a questioner, not the President. Remember: these “town hall” formats are historically easy to have “uncertain” voters who are later found to be

  • campaign donors;
  • volunteers for a campaign; and/or
  • well-defined partisans (e.g., union members).
  • The economy/jobs:while an emphasis in the first debate, and a point of discussion in the second debate, total exclusion of questions on the economy and jobs, by far the most important topic in the public’s eyes, would show the moderator to be derelict in her duty. Besides, there’s fertile ground not yet covered by prior discussions. Odds of a question: 1-8. But the question will come from someone afraid of the loss of their job due to outsourcing/off shoring. The only way for the President to discuss Bain without looking like as much of an ass as Biden is for someone to bring it up for him. Same goes for 47 percent references though to a lesser degree.

    Taxes: In the media’s mind: God, haven’t we discussed taxes enough? Still, there’s always someone out there who might be offended by the Republican plan. Odds of a question: 2-1. Probably from a 40-something who is part of a married couple, earning around $150,000 a year, who doesn’t want to lose their mortgage exemption or their tax credit for student loan payments, whom the President can reassure while accusing Romney of wanting to maintain “tax cuts for the rich”.

    Debt/deficit: Again, media’s perspective: Enough! Of the core economic questions, the least likely to be asked as it is the “anti-ponytail-haired guy” question. For those who don’t remember, weren’t paying attention, or we’re too young at the time, the “ponytail-haired guy” references a question posed at the 1992 town hall debate where a 40-something guy with a ponytail asked a question of Clinton, Bush, and Perot, the essence of which was “what can you do for us, as children of a beneficent government”? Odds of a question: 5-1. Most of the questions at town halls focus on things which increase the debt, rather than decreasing it.

    Health Care: again, last chance to discuss. Got plenty of talk at the first debate, a little more at the VP debate. Always a topic in these town halls, because there’s always someone who is ill, or who knows someone who is ill. Odds of a question: 1-3 in general; 20-1 on HHS Mandate, or concerns over IPAB. Likely from someone who has, or has a family member who has pre-existing conditions. Unlikely to be from someone concerned about religious freedom. Also unlikely to be from someone who (a) had breast cancer and is worried about loss of early screening, or (b) worries about end-of-life benefits. No mention of “Liverpool Care Pathway” will be made.

    Medicare/Social Security: Questions here are popular, as (per Debt/deficit above) they play to what our benevolent government will grant unto us. Odds of a question: 1-2 on one; Even on two. Figure most likely from some about 50-54, who is “concerned” about being cut out of benefits under Ryan’s plan.

    Education: Romney’s discussion of de-funding Big Bird certainly raised the cackles of the left, didn’t he? This, and a general lack of discussion on student debt issues is likely to create need of a question centered on one of the classical “I attended a $20,000 a year liberal arts school, can’t find a job in my major of medieval lesbian basket-weaving, and need help with my debt” questions. Odds of a question: 2-1. Likely to be from an educator worried about loss of money for schools, or a student worried over Pell Grants or student loans. Less likely to be someone indignant at the loss of funds for Big Bird.

    Random: Guarantee there’ll be a question on a non-issue that everyone looks at and goes, “why did that get brought up when we could’ve discussed Benghazi/the Debt/the deficit!!” Odds of a question: Lock.

    So there you have it. In a nine-question debate I see:

  • One on abortion, focused on costs (namely, free for poor women);
  • One on Birth Control, Sandra Fluke and/or Todd Akin;
  • One on the immediate withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan;
  • One on the evils of outsourcing and companies making profits;
  • One on the maintenance of “good loopholes” in the tax code;
  • One on pre-existing conditions;
  • One on the loss of Medicare or Social Security benefits posed by the Ryan Plan;
  • One on money for schools or student loan debt (if that hasn’t been addressed already as part of the “good loopholes” in the tax question; and
  • One question out of left (or right) field: perhaps on the Fed (to represent a random undecided Ron Paul voter.
  • We’ll track tomorrow how well we guesstimated.