Playing Catch Up

Okay, we need a catch up post here – to bring everyone up to speed after a crazy political summer.  Even though the campaign is only officially beginning now – with the Republican convention set for this week and the Democrats for the week after – the campaigning has been going on all summer and most Americans’ views are pretty well set.

So here is what you need to know, abbreviated version.

After a divisive primary season, Mitt Romney secured the Republican Party nomination (which he will officially accept this week in Tampa.) To win that nomination, he had to take many positions that were more conservative than those he had taken in the past. The Republican Party is itself more conservative than it has been since the 1960s, and many observers thought he would try to moderate some of his more conservative positions once the general election began.  However, his choice of Paul Ryan, a Republican congressman from Wisconsin, as his running mate, makes that unlikely.

Ryan is, in words Romney once used to describe himself, “severely conservative.” He has sponsored legislation that would give a fertilized egg all the constitutional rights of a U.S. citizen, criminalizing not only abortions under any circumstances, but also many forms of birth control, and he sponsored other legislation that would restrict federal funding to abortions for pregnancies resulting from “forcible rape,’ but not other kinds (language that was dropped after women’s groups objected.)  His budget, which the Republican-led House (but not the Senate) has voted to adopt would shrink government dramatically, converting Medicare from a guarantee of health coverage for older Americans to a voucher system, and cutting or eliminating programs that have traditionally formed an economic safety net for poor Americans while cutting taxes for the wealthy.

While Romney and Ryan are both clear that Romney is the head of the ticket and that his policies will be the policies of a Romney administration, Romney’s refusal to spell out details of his own program leave a vacuum that analysts fill with Ryan’s.

Why hasn’t Romney spelled out his own policy proposals?  Every time you get specific, you lose people who hear something they don’t like.  In a candidate’s ideal world you could be vague about your proposal and please everyone, but usually that doesn’t work as voters demand to know what they are being asked to vote for.  Romney’s hope was that he could make this election a referendum  on President Obama rather than on what he, Romney, would do as president, and his own proposals would not matter as much. Good piece on this here. With a painfully slow recovery, that wasn’t a bad plan – incumbent office holders usually lose when the economy is bad and unemployment is high.

Knowing that, the Obama campaign has tried to make this an election about choice – about whether voters want Obama’s policies or Romney’s – because they know that even though the economy has been slow to recover, voters are closer to Obama’s position on issues like Medicare, and taxes  than they are to Romney’s – especially since Romney has run so far in a conservative direction. To this end, the campaign ran commercials all summer that tried to take away any advantage Romney might have because of his business background – questioning why he has located some of his money in off shore accounts and challenging his reputation as a businessman.

Romney spent the summer running ads that tried to shape how voters saw Obama too, including commercials that claimed that Obama is against small businesses and capitalism and that he wants to gut welfare reforms so that the poor can get benefits without having to work.

Polls at the end of the summer – after all the ads and the Ryan pick – are pretty much where there were at the start of the summer.  They show a small but persistent lead for Obama, with most people having made up their minds already.  On questions of who voters trust on various issues, they give an edge to Romney on the economy but believe that Obama cares more for everyday people.  They also show that people like Obama and perhaps believe that the bad economy is not entirely his fault. Generally speaking, however, the polls show that voters see the election more as Obama wants them to – as a choice between two visions for American – than as Romney wants them to – as an up or down vote on Obama.

And while Romney would desperately like to get the national conversation back on to the economy, the focus has been on everything but – the last several weeks have been spent debating Medicare and now in the preconvention days, the topic is turning to some ill-advised words from Congressman Todd Akin, the Republican running for the Senate from Missouri.  Akin claimed the other day that in cases of what he called “legitimate rape” women’s bodies shut down and pregnancy does not occur.  While Akin’s views are not unusual among social conservatives and in some ways are shared by Paul Ryan, with whom Akin has sponsored prolife legislation, they are not mainstream views and they threaten to exacerbate the so-called “gender gap” in American politics, which is that women are more likely to support Democratic than Republican policies.  Republicans tried to get Akin to bow out of the race but he refused, ensuring that national attention will be focused  more on social issues than on economic issues.  Two good things to read on that here and here.

An article in the New York Times this last weekend shows that the Romney campaign is giving up on making the election solely about the economy, and is adopting a harder edge.  This is apparent in the welfare ads he has been running that accuse Obama of gutting the work requirement of welfare and just giving checks away. While fact checkers universally point out that this claim is false (it gets four Pinocchio’s from the Washington Post  and a “pants on fire” from Politifact) and that Obama has toughened rather than loosened the work requirement of welfare where he has given governors latitude to craft their own programs, Romney continues to make the claim.  That in conjunction with his use of “birther” language last Friday when he pointed out that no one had ever asked to see his birth certificate suggest that his campaign is getting off the economy track and trying to persuade Americans that Obama is not who they think he is.

There is another important catch-up post about changes to voting laws in the states, but we’ll save that for another day (aren’t you glad?)

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