Rick Perry. Rick Ankiel. Abortion.
November 10th, 2011

Was that ugly, or what? I’ve been trying to think of a worse debate moment and the only thing that comes close is Bentsen-Quayle. There’s no telling what structural damage it inflicted, but my guess would be more rather than less.

That said, the entire episode is instructive of how unpredictable electoral politics can be. A few thoughts:

(1) There were plenty of Perry skeptics from the beginning. (I was not one of them.) But it turned out that none of the weaknesses they noticed actually hurt him. Remember, the argument against Perry was that he was prone to shooting from the hip; too bible-thumpin’ conservative; and would remind voters too much of W.

But what really damaged Perry was (a) He was too liberal on immigration; and (b) He had two debate moments (his attempted flip-flop attack on Romney and the Lost Third Agency) in which he looked old and doddering and lost.

The other thing that hurt Perry is that he emerged prepared to counter attacks from Romney, but was totally blind-sided when Santorum, Paul, Bachmann, et al took after him like he was a spliced hybrid of Nelson Rockefeller and Saul Alinsky. (This was not an unreasonable assumption on his part, since this group had given Romney a pass for several months.)

(2) Debates have never played as important a role in the primaries as they have this cycle. It’s unclear whether this is an aberration or a new reality. But try to remember a single moment from any primary debates since 1999. The only thing I come up with is “You’re likable enough, Hillary.” The gang-tackle of Perry in his early debates clearly crippled his candidacy–I’d argue more so than his one-on-one jousts with Romney.

(3) Is it fair that Herman Cain gets to say that China doesn’t have nuclear weapons and that he’s for-and-against abortion and that he’d trade hostages with terrorists, but that Perry doesn’t get to have a couple of brain blanks? Nope.

But fair’s got nothing to do with it.

(4) Unless the conversation changes between now and the convention, it would seem that immigration has replaced abortion as the key ideological litmus test in the Republican party. Now, maybe that’s just a function of the candidates needing a club to beat Perry with and immigration being the best-available weapon. But maybe it’s a more foundational shift. If the latter is the case, then this is a real tragedy for conservatism. A few reasons:

* Illegal immigration causes very real problems, but those problems tend to be economic. (Though some of them certainly have a cultural aspect.) Economic problems can be fixed more easily than cultural problems.

* The argument over abortion is–at least to pro-abortion forces–about a lot more than just the killing of babies. It’s about an absolute, iron-clad right to consequence-free sex. Which is, if you think about it, probably the single biggest legacy of the 1960s. If the left holds to anything at all, it’s that sex must never have negative consequences–no unwanted pregnancies, no diseases, no moral disapproval from third parties. That’s why the AIDS campaign was such a vital left-wing cause in the ’80s and ’90s. It’s the root of liberal support for same-sex marriage. It’s behind the idiotic claims that “love can never be wrong.”

All of this is why the only liberal cause Bill Clinton wasn’t willing to sell out for political gain was abortion. He vetoed the partial-birth ban at some real cost. But ingrained in liberal boomers is that this first principle is the cornerstone for the entire structure of sexual “freedom.” Admit that abortion (even in some cases) is wrong and you undermine a continent-sized chunk of liberal ideology and a huge portion of what has become our dominant cultural mores.

* For a host of complicated reasons (I go into this at some length in the book), illegal immigration is likely to significantly decrease in America during the next 20 years–no matter what policies we pursue. (Short version: As fertility rates go sub-replacement, a country’s outmigration dries up, as it has, for example, with Puerto Rico. Nearly all of Central and South America will be sub-replacement within 20 years.)

So debates over, say, building a fence or giving in-state tuition to illegals are more about ideological purity than actual consequence. Unlike abortion, where 50 million lives have been taken since 1973, with no end in sight.


The Pain Train
November 8th, 2011

Boy, how about that press conference. Herman Cain was using the third-person in reference to Herman Cain before the end of the first paragraph of his remarks. Also–and I may have misunderstood him, I’ll need to look at the transcript–but I think he might have suggested that some women have sexually harassed him.

But the most interesting moment, for my money, was when Cain was asked about Romney’s remarks on the situation. (He called the allegations troubling or some such.) Keep in mind, Cain is the guy who jumped all over Perry when the Washington Post tried to tar him for being racists. So what did Cain do? He alibied Romney and explained that Romney didn’t mean it the way the reporter–and everyone else in America–took it. Because Romney is a man of immense “integrity.”

I’m not quite sure what the moment meant, but it was pretty interesting.


Shorter Hugh Hewitt
October 19th, 2011

No fair! Why aren’t they still ganging up on Perry? 

(Actual analysis: “The second tier of candidates made a huge miscalculation in turning their fire on Romney before dispatching Perry completely from the field.”)


The Avengers Trailer
October 13th, 2011

And while we’re on the subject of porn . . .

So how ’bout that Avengers trailer? I want to love this movie six ways ’til Sunday. Whedon, Avengers, comic books, Downey. Throw in Tricia Helfer and you’ve got a product custom made to tickle all of my erogenous zones.

But the trailer leaves me a little cold, for three reasons. In ascending order of importance:

1) I liked Captain America: The First Avenger and thought it got lots of fundamental stuff about the character very right. The only places it really faltered was in the action. And the reason I think it didn’t nail the action sequences is because it misunderstood the most interesting aspect of Cap’s powerset: He’s a tactical genius. The movie hints at this, showing pre-Cap Steve studying up on tactics manual. And then by noting that the serum increased his metabolism to the point where he can’t get drunk. But they never showed that the enhanced brain activity turned Cap into the tactical equivalent of Napoleon. And that is, for me, Cap’s most interesting ability. He can see around corners, finding solutions to problems no one else can. (He’s a little like Batman in this way.)

In other words, Cap doesn’t kick ass just because he’s bigger/faster/stonger. It’s also because he’s smarter. He’s a floor general. And with all that, comes the idea that Cap is a young guy, but an old soul.  I’d hoped that Whedon would take something like this read on the character. But instead he looks kind of petulant, the way he gets chesty with Downey’s Tony Stark.

(2) If Avengers is going to work, I suspect it’ll do so by exploiting Cap-Stark tension. They show some of that in the trailer, but none of it seems very compelling. I’d think that, on this score, they’d want to get the punchiest stuff out front.

(3) Scarlett Johanson is, again, horribly miscast as Black Widow. At least three times in the trailer–twice in action sequences–she’s essentially posing. She crouches all fancy. She flicks her hair back. She looks like she’s trying to sell a Wu Ping move. I love her as an actor–love her. Think she’s great. But she does not have the physical presence for this role.

But worse–the thing that really bothers me–is that the kind of physicality on display is the kind of simple, off-the-shelf, comic book stuff that we should no longer have to endure in a comic book movie. It’s fine for Thor to pose and strut because he’s Thor and that’s what he does. But Natalia Romanov should be more like Jason Bourne. What makes her character work, both physically and emotionally, is that she just kind of moves through space like a shark. Totally decisive; pure economy of force. Compact and brutal. No flourishes.

Of course this is just a trailer. Of course Whedon isn’t showing his hand. Of course it’s not fair to judge a film by its trailer. And I hope the movie is great. But in terms of the aesthetic, and what it means for character, I’d hoped for more in this first real look at what they’ve got.


Guess Who’s a Squish on Immigration?
October 3rd, 2011

I’ve got a piece in the Standard about the Texas illegal immigrant in-state tuition law. It’s so carefully nuanced that I won’t bother to try to summarize it here. But if you must have a take-away, it’s something like, Romney: Boo!


JVL at The Daily
September 29th, 2011

My Daily column this week is on the Perry fade and they’ve let this one off of the tablet and into the wild–you can read it here.


Debate Post-Mortem
September 23rd, 2011

Rick Perry had a pretty tough night; the worst moment of which was his attempt to paint Romney as a flip-flopper which meandered and faltered, eventually making Perry look tired, confused, and old. It was pretty grim. But I’m not sure it was more than a tactical victory for Romney, because Bachman keeps shrinking and Perry wasn’t structurally harmed. So the essential dynamic of the race remains.

(For the record, Romney had three–I counted!–moments where he genuinely seemed like a real human being and would have fooled even the most sophisticated Voight-Kampf test. Also, he had one truly great line: “I want everybody to be rich.” Pitch perfect.)

But here’s the problem with Romney: Perry landed one solid blow on him, the line about Romney removing a line on healthcare from the hardcover to the paperback edition. (How’s that for detailed oppo?) Romney’s response was to claim that this simply wasn’t true, implying that Perry was either confused or a liar.

Yet in the spin room immediately after the debate, a Romney aid quickly fessed up that actually, it was Romney who was wrong. Perry was right. The line he quoted had been deleted from one edition to the other. The problem for Romney is that for a guy who has such a command of everything else at the debate, it’s hard to believe that he was just confused on this point. It seems much more likely that he was bald-facedly lying.

Which wouldn’t, in itself, be a problem. All politicians lie. (Wouldn’t you like to see some evidentiary proof of Rick Santorum ever having stood at the Texas-Mexico border?) Except that part of the whole rap against Romney is that he’s been lying about everything since the day he first decided to seek elective office back in 1994. This latest little debate fib just feeds into the underlying problems with his trustworthiness as a candidate. So far as I can tell, nearly every Romney supporter in the conservative establishment makes their peace with the idea of being on Team Romney by thinking to themselves, “Well, he’s on our side now, so at least he’ll stay bought.” Unlike all those other times when he flipped.

And maybe he will. Maybe this time will be different.

Caveat: I feel compelled, again, to reiterate that I don’t have anything against Romney personally. In fact, I think one of the great mysteries about him is why his political persona seems so crazily divorced from his real character. Here’s a guy who has been married forever, seems to have a great family; and seems to engender nothing by admiration in those he encounters in life. (I know a bunch of people who’ve worked for him or around him; to a person, they all like him.) But he has this weird political persona where he acts like a snake when he runs for office. He’s the mirror-opposite of the typical politician. It’s a conundrum.

PS: Between the audience cheering over the death penalty a couple debates ago, and then cheering the idea of letting the hypothetical young guy with the deadly disease who chose not to buy insurance die (was that the same debate? I forget), and then last night booing the out-and-proud gay soldier, it’s enough to make you think Republican voters are kind of unserious and mean-spirited. Or at least make you really, really uncomfortable.


President Zero
September 21st, 2011

With Pawlenty out of the race, Michael Bay has put his considerable talents behind Rick Perry. But it’s better than you think. The killer? The jump cut with the line “I’m just gettin’ started.” Ouch.



Perry v. Bachmann
September 13th, 2011

Last night was something new in the recent history of presidential debates, I think. I’ve never before seen a debate where the entire field dog-piled on the leader like that. Not in 2008 (on either side), nor 2004 against Dean, nor 2000 against W, or 1996 against Dole or 1992 against Clinton. I don’t know that the big pile-on Perry show means anything; I just don’t think we’ve seen something like it before, where the field doesn’t feel even the slightest need to be fake-pleasant to the leader.

Romney did pretty well, by his standards. But the performance fed into his structural liability as a candidate: Voters don’t quite know what to make of him when he’s sunny and positive. When he goes negative, he’s even more unappealing, because even his attacks are transparently manufactured.

Perry did okay, considering that he had to stand there and take it on the chin for two hours and that the debates are going to be the weakest of his campaign modes. That is, he did okay with one big exception.

I don’t quite get Michelle Bachmann’s strategy of trying to get to the right of Perry by painting him as being somehow inauthentic. Voters might buy that she’s more monolithically conservative than he is, but does she really think she can sell the idea that Perry is a fake–which is what her attacks last night seemed designed to do. I don’t think that dog hunts and, worse, it positions her as a Jacobin who refuses to acknowledge anyone else as a “true” conservative. In the long run, I don’t think that’s where she wants to go.

All of that said, she goaded Perry into one huge mistake, his bizarre, off-putting response that he was “offended” by the insinuation that he could be bought for a mere $5,000 because–hey, didn’t you know?–he raised $30 million.

There’s no way to look at this response that isn’t damning. And her rejoinder about being offended on the part of all the poor, innocent little girls (whose parents couldn’t understand an opt-out) was classic. Memo to RomneyBot 4000: That’s how you go negative.

What Perry should have said was something like this:

“I’ve said I made a mistake. And I’m not afraid to admit it. That’s part of being a leader. Now, I’m glad to know that Michelle has never made any mistakes–and good for her. But maybe if she’d ever been in a position of responsibility where she had to make executive decisions and hard choices, she wouldn’t be so lucky.”

It highlights her weaknesses (that she’s just a backbencher) and it diminishes her, instead of elevating her. Also, it keeps him on the mea culpa line for the HPV issue–which is where he should be, instead of trying to link it up to anti-abortion language.

This isn’t a mortal wound or anything. But it’s a sign of what Perry looks like when things go sideways for him. And its the first moment since he announced where his political instincts have actually been wrong.


Post-Debate Memo to Jon Huntsman
September 12th, 2011

Tonight Huntsman managed to be the least likable guy on a stage that included Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Ron Paul. No small feat.

The only thing people dislike more than a smug smart-ass is a smug smart-ass worth $16-$71 million.

The insult-comic gimmick may go over great with Vogue correspondents, but with Republican voters it’s probably not enough to pull Pawlenty numbers.

P.S.: What would have been more bizarrely stilted, his Kurt Cobain name-check, a Korn Kidz shout-out? It’s such a weird reference, not (just) because it was totally ill-suited, but because Nirvana isn’t culturally relevant, but isn’t old enough to be classic, either. He might as well have tossed out Cracker or Harvey Danger or Soundgarden.


When the Friend of My Friend Is My Enemy?
August 31st, 2011

Watching the various comments tick in on the big Romney post, I’m struck by one thing: The Romney boosters seem to be of two camps–people who believe Romney is a real-deal conservative and people who believe that Romney is the only sane person in a Republican party dominated by crazy, real-deal conservatives. Essentially, Romney-supporting commenters represent the two divergent views of David Frum  and Hugh Hewitt concerning Romney.

I wonder if the presence of the other side under the Romney banner gives either one pause, since Frum and Hewitt see each other as representing everything wrong with the GOP/conservatism. After all, they can’t both be right about Romney, can they? Either he is a Frum Republican or a Hewitt Republican.


And We’re Back
August 29th, 2011

A bunch of catch-up items:

* I’ve got another longish essay on Obama’s vanity. I’ll stop writing these pieces when he stops giving me material.

* Galley Friend Mike Russell has a long, angry, awesome defense of David Foster Wallace.

* President Obama wants to remind Americans that just because they elected him president three years ago, they’re not off the hook for being a bunch of racists yet.

* The history of the Nature Boy’s legal and financial problems is yet another depressing chapter in the story that is professional wrestling. Styling and profiling have their costs.

* That over-under we had going on when Perry would overtake Romney in the RCP average was a sucker’s line. Perry passed Romney on 8/24. The next question is, when does Perry open up a double-digit lead? Before, or after, Ron Paul passes Romney? We’ll have more–lots more–on Mitt Romney . . . coming up next!