James Fallows and Josh Barro on Romney’s Debate Chances, the GOP Blame Game, and the Curse of California

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Soon... Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Today in Instant Politics — in which a range of writers, pundits, politicians, and thinkers discuss the 2012 race for Daily Intel — the Atlantic's James Fallows and Bloomberg's Josh Barro talk about Mitt Romney's narrowing path to victory, the prospects of a GOP reformation if he loses, and whether our national politics are doomed to become like California's.

James: Greetings Josh, nice to meet you this way. Here's my starting point: I've learned over the years that you can't ever take anything for granted in politics. For a while after the 2008 GOP convention, lots of people (not including me!) thought that Sarah Palin was the genius choice that was going to save McCain. When I worked for Jimmy Carter in 1976, we thought for a while we would win in a walk, but it ended up being very close near the end. So, let's do a For the Record boilerplate that we don't know what is going to happen in six-plus weeks. With that all stipulated, can you suggest a case for a Romney win now?

Josh: Anything is possible, but I find it hard to imagine Romney winning at this point without a major external event that damages the president or a boneheaded move from Obama that would be atypical of his previous, fairly steady performance.

I think the leaked fund-raiser video was quite damaging, and the damage will become more apparent through October as the Obama campaign uses the footage over and over in attacks. One reason this is such a problem for Romney is that he's inscrutable — he's the most opaque major-party nominee since Nixon, and people have been reduced to guessing what he really believes and cares about.

This provides something that fits an already bad narrative about him: that he doesn't care about the little people, that he's an out-of-touch rich guy and that will flow through in his policies. So, I think that was something he needed to overcome, and it makes it much harder for him to do it, and the economy isn't quite bad enough for people to look past it.

As for how he could win, I don't think something like a few strong debate performances is enough. He's already had a lot of exposure and is unlikely to drastically change the public perception of him through the debates. And Obama is unlikely to make the kind of blunders that, say, Newt Gingrich did that hurt him.

I think you would really need some big event that undermined confidence in the president — something on the scale of another economic crisis. But I think we're rapidly getting to the point where we're too late in the game even for that. I'd also note that, even though the polls are still close in the presidential race, Republican Senate candidates have been utterly falling apart in the last week, according to the polls. It's weird for them to be moving so separately, but perhaps it's a sign of bad things to come for Romney in his polling.

Do you disagree? Do you see a path to victory?

James: Short answer: I basically agree down the line. Disappointing as that might be for our discussion hosts! But I will add a few elaborations.

First, about the debates: These have been on my mind because I have a big takeout about them in the current issue of the Atlantic. One of my premises there, which is aligned with what you say, is that there are elections in which these debates really do make a difference — and others in which they just don't matter.

For instance, I paid very close attention to the 2008 campaign, even though I was living in Beijing, because everything about it was so fascinating. I watched the three McCain-Obama debates — but I really can't remember a single thing either man said. (I remember Sarah Palin and her wink.) By that point, the debates didn't matter — too much else was determining the result.

On the other hand, the 1980 lone debate between Carter and Reagan (Carter wouldn't agree to any until the last minute because he didn't want John Anderson included) really did seem to solidify the anti-Carter feeling. If this election were really following the 1980-redux hope that the Romney people had been hoping for, then the debates might be really important. Vulnerable president, people losing confidence, debate appearance reassures them about the challenger. But, for the reasons you cite and others, poor Mitt Romney ain't no Reagan. (Even Reagan was no Reagan then, but that's a different, longer story.)

This is a long way of saying I agree with you that things may be moving beyond Romney's ability to change them with a debate performance. Which leads me to the inevitable "and what then" question. My hope — not so much as a one-time Democratic staff member (for Carter) but as a nationalistic pro-American guy — is that if Romney loses, the GOP might rethink the path it has been on in these past few years. The path in which it has been losing support among women, minorities, the highly educated, and so on. But my bet is that the reverse will occur. People will say, Yeah, we lost with that RINO Romney, but if we'd had Paul Ryan at the top of the ticket to start ... And we'll have a further swing toward the tea party. Sound likely to you?

Josh: I'm not sure. I think there will be a fight within the GOP. I think the conservative base, and candidates appealing to them, will try to argue (as always) that they lost because the candidate was too moderate. But I think the fact that Ryan is on the ticket undermines that argument. There will also be a case to be made that they lost because Obama was able to tie Romney to the Ryan agenda and that the question of sharp cuts to big government programs was put to the voters, and they rejected it.

I think this will be the fight that dominates the 2016 elections. The side of the establishment that thinks the party needs to move toward the center to survive will get behind Chris Christie, who is better positioned than anyone else to sell that message to Republican voters, because he is able to use volume as a substitute for conservatism, and because he so irritates unions and various other Democratic constituency groups, such that conservatives are inclined to trust that he is one of them.

And there will likely also be several prominent candidates arguing that the party needs to return to its ideologically pure roots, or whatever. But one thing that may tip the scales toward Christie is that it looks increasingly like Republicans might do quite badly in House and Senate races this year. If Romney not only loses but Republicans do poorly in Senate races and lose a bunch of seats in the House, that undermines the argument that it was a "Romney problem" rather than a "Republican problem."

The tea-party policy vision is only going to get less and less saleable over time, so the party will eventually figure this out, the question is whether they're going to figure it out by the 2016 cycle or not.

On the subject of the debates, if I can step back to that. I think part of the reason they are likely to be sort of uneventful is that Romney and Obama have somewhat similar, defensive debating styles. Their strength in debates is mostly about not making mistakes, rather than landing grand knockout punches. I can't remember anything Barack Obama said in the debates in 2008, primary or general. Romney did have a couple of memorable moments in the primaries — "helping" Rick Perry remember the names of cabinet departments, listing the shifting set of pork-barrel panders that Newt Gingrich would tout depending on which state he was in. But that was sort of shooting fish in a barrel.

James: Let me go through this LIFO style, starting with debates. I have a slightly different way of coming to the same conclusion, that the debates are not likely to be hugely dramatic — apart from the fact that at the moment it looks as if the gap may be wider than a debate performance or two could close. What was interesting to me in going through tapes of Romney's old debate performances, starting with the Teddy Kennedy race in 1994 and going through this year's interminable slog, was that, among the various elements that go into effective political performance, this was by far the area of Romney's greatest skill.

There is a crueler way of putting it, which is that he is weak in most of the other performance skills: adequate but not great speaker, often clumsy press-conference answerer, genuinely ill-at-ease in normal meet-other-humans encounters.

Josh: Heh.

James: By comparison, he can be — when well briefed — effective in getting his points out and rebutting predictable lines of criticism. It's when anything is unexpected that we see his difficulty in improvising. And, without going into all the details, it strikes me that debating is near the lower end of Obama's range of performance skills.

Very effective set-piece orator, usually effective at press conferences and so on. But at least against Hillary Clinton, not really that memorably effective. So we have the high end of Romney's skills and the low-average range of Obama's. And ... we'll see! Now, on to Chris Christie.

Your argument that Christie represents a kind of sweet spot is an appealing one — by which I mean, it makes sense, and I would like it to be so. Sweet spot not as a backhanded allusion to his health-and-fitness issues but rather that he might be able to sound tough enough to appeal to today's tea-party/tough-guy constituency, while also knowing what it would take to appeal to a more centrist constituency. And sometimes in politics, movements or trends that depend on a single person do in fact take place. But ...

As someone who is obviously not in the middle of the tea-party movement, I do wonder and worry about what has come to be called "epistemic closure." To the extent that Fox News, in particular, shapes the GOP's sense of what is happening to it, and why, I wonder whether they will be able to present a narrative saying, "Yes, we went too far with Social Security and Medicare, plus we're going to need some Latino votes ... " Your case for a move back to the center is entirely sensible and convincing — to me! But how will that message get to the people who need to receive it? What will be the channels for Christie and others to make that case?

Josh: Well, you can't hide from election results. I think conservatives felt emboldened by their big congressional wins in 2010, both in primaries and in the general election, and assumed that they can get what they want if they just push hard enough. But if Romney/Ryan lose badly and the congressional results are bad, I think that indicates that the Republican message hasn't sold.

It's sort of similar to what gave rise to George W. Bush and "compassionate conservatism." Republicans had a huge win in 1994 and thought they were going to change Washington forever. They impeached the president. People always talk about politics now as being more divisive than ever, but I remember that period as being awfully acrimonious. And then Republicans were sort of flabbergasted to lose seats in Congress in the 1998 elections. And I think it created an opening for the idea that the Republican message was too hard-edged and, for better or for worse, the idea that we should have some sort of big-government conservatism.

Now ,obviously after Bush won, we had 9/11 and two foreign wars, and he'll be mostly associated with foreign policy, and the party reverted back to the right partly as a reaction against him and his unpopularity. But I think another electoral loss could cause it to swing again.

I mean, what is the alternative? The demographics are against the Republicans. Is there another way for them to become competitive in the long run without moving toward the center? Or are you suggesting their strategy would be to hold tight and wait for an economic environment that is so electorally favorable that they can win with any agenda?

James: I think in the long sweep of politics and history, the sort of evolution and adaptation you are suggesting is, of course, inevitable. Parties need to learn from setbacks, they do all adjust with the times, and so on. One reason why I remain in the optimistic-about-America camp, despite everything that is going to hell in our public affairs, is that, over the centuries, our public culture has shown an amazing ability to get out of the almost-as-amazing predicaments it creates for itself.

But, without giving the old "in the long run ... " saw from Keynes, the process of facing reality can take quite a long time. The cycle you mention from Newt Gingrich in 1994 to G.W. Bush of the "compassionate conservative" era of the late-nineties, was actually amazingly rapid. Within the space of two presidential-election cycles (and just one presidential family!), the party managed to go from defeat in 1992, to victory in 1994, to hubristic overreach on Gingrich's part soon after that, to repositioning with Bush in 2000.

But, to me, that's the exception, perhaps even the extreme case (including a lot of improbable pileup of circumstances, as anyone who was there for the 2000 election recalls). The more chastening illustration is from my home state of California. It's been nearly twenty years since Pete Wilson sent the California GOP on what looks like a very long-term trip to permanent-minority status, with his anti-immigrant Prop 187. All the fundamentals there were the same as what the party is setting itself up for on a nationwide basis now.

The scale and numbers were of course different in California, with its "majority-minority" status long before that will apply nationwide. But so far ,the California GOP has not found a way to correct its path. So I find myself hoping that the corrective cycle will kick in more rapidly on the national level -- but not being sure that it will be so.

One other point: Why do I hope it will kick in, given that I am on record as preferring the Democratic to the Republican platform in (a) economic policy, (b) foreign policy, and (c) social policy? Because I actually do think it is better for the country as a whole, and also for the Democrats, if there is a functioning, reasonable opposition party. Otherwise the ruling party gets fat and lazy, and the opposition becomes more and more purely obstructive and nihilist.

So, to answer your question: My "alternative" isn't something I'm hoping for, but something that on the whole I fear. That is a cycle of another four years at least of people who feel that they lost because of (a) ACORN, (b) the biased media, (c) RINOs, and so on, rather than because of their own need to shift course. I hope I am wrong.

Josh: Well, so, first of all, I disagree about what's the exception and what's the rule. The California GOP is a sort of unique basket case, and it's dysfunctional in much the same way that California government as a whole is dysfunctional. When there's not a presidential campaign going on, I actually write most about state and local-level fiscal policy. And when you meet with people in the legislature in Sacramento, the most striking thing is how stupid everybody is.

And it's partly because there is very little influence to be gained through being in the legislature. So much policy is determined by various ballot initiatives that have restricted the legislature's ability to make policy, and the legislature is tremendously polarized with decisions being made pretty much entirely by the leadership.

So, it's sort of a lame job, and it attracts hacks from both parties with very little in the way of ability to think critically about policy. I had to explain to a senior Republican member of the state Senate what a think tank does.

But this system is "working" in a sense — there is a fraction of seats in the legislature that is reliably Republican, and they get to fill them with people who have risen up in the ranks of the local Republican party organizations, and they seem to have gotten comfortable with the idea that they will never hold a majority.

I don't think that's true of the national GOP or of political parties in most jurisdictions. I think there will be, as we've seen through history, a limited amount of tolerance for losing all the time, and losses will push the party toward the center where it can win again.

Of course, what "toward the center" means is a separate question, and you can give on some policies and not on others, but I think a loss in this cycle will push the party in that direction. It will penetrate the echo chamber.

It's kind of similar with the Democrats. In 2000, Democrats were outraged that the election had been "stolen." In 2004, a fair number of die-hards insisted that the election was "stolen" in Ohio. But most knew that it wasn't, and the party thought about what it would have to do to win again.

I do think that Fox has become something of a liability for the right because it fools conservatives about what is and isn't popular (it's part of why so many seem to think the right reaction on the "47 percent" kerfuffle is for Mitt to proudly own his remarks), but the power of the echo chamber isn't unlimited.

James: Your California description makes me feel both better and worse — worse about the state, somewhat better about the rest of the country by comparison! And you're right on the "exception versus the rule" point. I meant mainly to say that the speed of the GOP reaction from 1992 to 2000 was unusually quick.

We are nearing the end here, so let me try to ask, tersely, a question we could spend days and hours discussing. It is about the racial implications of this year's contest, versus the one four years ago. As you know, Obama got about 53 percent of the vote last time, but by inauguration day, his approval rating was near 70 percent. By definition, that means that a lot of people who didn't vote for Obama came to feel "good" about the fact that he had won — and I think that even people who might have opposed him for conscious or unconsciously racial reasons ended up feeling better about America that it had a black president.

The most effective Romney ads this year, in my view, were the ones that essentially told people they didn't have to feel bad about themselves for not giving Obama a second term. The ads said: It's okay! He tried, you tried, we tried. It's just not working out. Crude version of the message: You're not a racist, and don't have to think you are, if you vote against him this time.

Which leads to the question: Assuming as we have for this discussion that Obama will, in fact, get a second term, do you have any sense of what the impact of a reelected non-white president will have on longer-term race relations and in how Americans think about race relations? I.e., just a minor difference, versus the big step of electing him the first time? Or a significant extra step in the country's having accepted a non-white president for a second term?

Josh: I think it depends on how he performs in a second term, if he gets one.

I think his election in the first place showed that the country was willing to elect a black president, and that whatever electoral penalty existed for his race wasn't massive. I also think race tends to look like a bigger issue in this election than it really is.

What I mean by that is that, of course, there are a lot of racially inflected attacks from the right. This is part of why the Romney camp thought the made-up claims about welfare reform would play well, why there is an ongoing effort to "other" the president. But a lot of this is just expanding to fill the space available. Conservatives hate the president principally because he's a liberal. And most attacks that are taking a racial form would simply take some other form if he were white.

Similar to how conservatives fixated on Bill Clinton's philandering when he was president. So I don't think we learn that much from him getting reelected. I do think there is some cost to race relations if the first black president is viewed as having been a failure, so I think a strong economy that causes Obama to have high approval ratings as he leaves office would be good for racial comity.

But I don't think people will be like "never again a black president" if his second term is as underwhelming as the first. Future black candidates will be weighed largely on their merits, with a modest and hopefully shrinking electoral handicap, much like Obama was. I think. What do you think?

James: What you say makes sense to me. And it leaves us on an ideal point of accord to wrap this up: We both think that a strong economy for these next four years will be good for America, good for whoever is the next president, and good (in the ways you suggest) for race relations if that president is Obama! Thanks, and over to you for any last words.

Josh: Yes, some extra reasons to want strong economic growth, as if we needed them. Thanks, James.