Bissinger vs. Bouie: Buzz Switched to Romney, But Should He Switch Back?

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Photo: Spencer Platt/2012 Getty Images

Last week, Friday Night Lights author Buzz Bissinger caused a bit of a stir when he announced that he was backing Mitt Romney. When the conversation moved to Twitter, things got a little heated, especially between Bissinger and American Prospect writer Jamelle Bouie. After Bissinger challenged Bouie — "Let's debate on any policy subject" — we suggested an Instant Politics match-up to settle the dispute, once and for all.

Buzz: Last week I wrote a column for the Daily Beast in which I decided after much anguish as a lifelong Democrat to support Romney. It was a difficult decision — members of my own family hate me — but I no longer have faith in Obama as a leader and man of inspiration. Brilliant, yes. But we are in malaise.

Jamelle: No doubt that we are in something of a malaise, but what brought you to the conclusion that Romney was the one who could lead us out of it?

Also, we should probably introduce ourselves!

Buzz: I have been leaning centrist although I have only voted Republican once and contributed the individual max to Obama in ‘08.* The tipping point was the first debate and it remains the tipping point after last night. Romney was strong, showed leadership, and I believe that he is moving to the moderate he always has been. I also believe he can take more steps to create jobs. And I will never forgive Obama’s performance.

By the way, I am Buzz Bissinger. I am an author of such books as Friday Night Lights and most recently Father’s Day. I am also a contributing editor to Vanity Fair and a columnist for the Daily Beast.

Jamelle: And I am Jamelle Bouie. I have done none of those things … but I am a writer for The American Prospect magazine, a fellow at The Nation Institute, and a contributor to the Washington Post.

But, to your reasons! I agree that Obama gave a terrible debate performance. It was really disappointing. Where I disagree is that Romney is moving to the middle. I don’t think that’s the case at all.

Buzz: I know that many think Romney is a flip-flopper who will do anything to get elected. Gee, sounds like Bill Clinton. He moved to the middle in 1994 and no one gave a hoot. As a matter of fact, he was applauded for his political practicality.

But take a look at Romney’s record as Mass governor. He was not some crazoid conservative. He crossed party lines. He provided the template for Obamacare, for God's sake.

Jamelle: All of those things are true! But I’m not sure how much bearing they have in how Romney would be as president. A president’s beliefs are important, definitely, but just as important — and sometimes, a bit more — are the beliefs of his party. Mitt Romney was a moderate governor, but the Massachusetts GOP was a moderate party. Hell, the entire Republican Party was more moderate. And so, he could afford to be a reasonable guy.

I think we can both agree that the current GOP is not moderate, and that’s the party Romney will be leading. The fact that he had to bend to the most right-wing positions during the primaries is proof enough that he’ll likely bend to them in office.

Buzz: But Romney has at least shown some ability to cross lines, however weak. Obama has not. He is not politically adept. He is not good at crossing the aisle. I can only go on what I have read, but he does not like politics and all the gab and bullshit. Politics is gab and bullshit. So I think Romney has a much better chance of appealing to Dems than Obama will ever have appealing to Rs. Yes, they are obstructionist pricks, but they also detest him. And he has added to that.

Jamelle: But he only crossed party lines because he had no other choice — he worked with a legislature that was overwhelmingly Democratic. We don’t actually know how he would operate with a Republican House and — quite likely — a Republican Senate. I’d also stick up for Obama’s political skills; he may not like people, but he managed to pass a massive stimulus bill, a hugely expansive health-care-reform bill, and a solid bill for financial reform. That’s way more than Bill Clinton can count on his ledger.

Buzz: I don’t think there will be a Republican Senate. Obama did pass a stimulus package, although probably the most eminent columnist in America, Paul Krugman, will tell you it was too small. It was also inefficient. Money lay there not being used. Dodd-Frank is nice but what would have been nicer, and a stronger message, would have been indicting some of these banking CEOs, such as Blankfein of Goldman, for betting against clients. Obamacare is admirable but was a politically terrible decision, the wrong thing at the wrong time.

I think it was the first piece of major legislation passed without a single vote from the opposing party. And oddest of all, his record on poverty and helping those in the greatest need is atrocious. Basically, the last two years have been nothing. Stalemate. He cannot win everything with oratory.

Jamelle: So, Michael Grunwald, who wrote a great book on the stimulus called The New New Deal, says that stimulus funds were utilized on schedule, with vanishingly little waste, fraud, and abuse. There simply wasn’t any money left fallow. And while the bill wasn’t big enough, that has more to do with Republican opposition than it does with the administration. The handful of Republicans who supported it refused to do so without it being under $800 billion.

Buzz: To your point on stimulus: Pro Publica, the leading investigative unit in journalism, in a 2009 story, listed hundreds of millions of dollars of expenditures that were being investigated.

Jamelle: Interesting. I have a few more things though:

I think you’re really understating the extent of Republican obstruction. At the beginning of his term, Republican lawmakers met together to discuss how they were going to refuse cooperation on everything proposed by the administration. Health care is a good example. Democrats began with Republican ideas and gave concession after concession — Max Baucus in the Senate negotiated with his Republican colleagues for months! Even still, every Republican voted against health-care reform. There was nothing Democrats could do to get their support. Is that Obama’s fault, or should we acknowledge that Republicans didn’t actually want to cooperate?

And, when you consider the hundreds of billions the administration got for payroll tax cuts, food stamps, unemployment insurance, tax credits for lower income families, and health-care coverage, I think Obama has done a lot for the poor.

Millions of more people would be mired in poverty if not for the measures taken by the administration and its Democratic allies.

What I don’t understand is this: If you’re concerned with more help for the poor, a stronger line against bankers, and more stimulus, why support Romney, who wants none of those things?

Buzz: Republicans were obstructionist, but Obama is a man of high and righteous principle. I admire that. But it doesn’t work. You have to roll up the sleeves sit in an office you don’t like and bullshit. Ask Lyndon Johnson, even ask Ronald Reagan. Would Romney do better? If he can create jobs and jumpstart the economy — a big if — then all boats will rise. On the issue of poverty, don’t listen to me. Listen to Cornel West: Obama is “a black mascot of Wall Street Oligarchs.”

One in six are in poverty. The poverty rate for children in Philadelphia where I live is 40 percent. The city of Camden is a war zone of hopelessness. Those are not isolated examples. Romney may be pandering to the center, but how many times did Obama mention urban policy last night except for there are too many shootings in Chicago?

Jamelle: It’s really funny to me that you would cite arch-leftist Cornel West in an argument for supporting Romney! But, I’m curious, what makes you think that Romney would create more jobs than Obama? The administration doesn’t have a great record, but more than 5 million private sector jobs and a steadily growing economy is nothing to sneeze at.

Buzz: Will Romney do better? I think he has far more compassion than people think. And, by the way, we do have to accept the fact that those in poverty, including Medicaid, receive about $25,000 per person in governmental subsidies. Because of the myriad different agencies administering it and the typical turf-fighting, too much of that money is wasted.

Five million jobs were created in the private sector but an equal number were lost, granted many of them in the public sector, because of the economy.

Jamelle: Right, but the vast bulk of those were lost in the first six months of 2009, before Obama’s policies took effect.

Buzz: The unemployment rate dropped to 7.8 percent. The overwhelming number of those jobs were part-time without benefits. That’s not a recovery. That is a structural disaster.

Jamelle: And nearly a million of them before he even took office!

I agree, the kinds of jobs being created are not the best ones. But Democrats are trying to forge a path toward creating better jobs, and they’ve also passed measures — like the Affordable Care Act — which would enable people to get health insurance independent of a particular employer.

Republicans want to repeal that, and they have signed on to a budget which — if implemented in full — would cut hundreds of billions from aid for middle- and working-class families, to say nothing of the poor.

Buzz: But what has been the Obama policy? It seems it has been to use government to create jobs. I agree with it to some degree, like the auto bailout (although GM still owes taxpayers about $50 billion), but government cannot become our major employer. That is not what America is about. And I think fundamentally that is what Obama thinks America is about — government as a social engine.

Jamelle: There’s no evidence anywhere that government is on our way to becoming the major employer. In fact, the economy has lost 600,000 public sector jobs in the last three years. It’s been a huge burden on the recovery, actually.

Buzz: I have absolutely no issue with Obamacare. It was right and it was bold. I do think the costs are going to be far more prohibitive than we think. Placing cost containment in the hands of a panel is a joke: It never works.

But didn’t the stimulus and the auto bailout, all funded by the government, create private sector jobs?

Jamelle: They did, but that’s not the same as the government becoming an employer. If I get $100 from the government, buy some stuff, and that allows a business to hire more, those new jobs aren’t “government jobs.”

Buzz: You are splitting hairs. It is the government as the funder with taxpayer money. Much like all this bullshit over Benghazi last night. Obama did not specifically cite the attack as terrorism. If he did, that means he knew about it. Then why did Biden say he did not know about it? Why did Susan Rice and Hillary Clinton give conflicting accounts. I do admittedly digress.

Jamelle: I don’t think I’m splitting hairs at all. I have friends who are federal lawyers. Those are government jobs — they were directly hired by the government. The same goes for teachers, police officers, DMV employees, etc.

But a job created when the government invests in infrastructure, or when it offers tax credits, or when it puts money in the hands of people, isn’t a “government job.” In any case, there was something I wanted to go back to!

Buzz: But government is supporting those jobs with vast funds. You go back to your point. Then I want to add something as well.

Jamelle: I don’t think you can compare Reagan, Johnson, or any previous president’s ability to work across the aisle with Obama’s failure to — it was a different era of politics. Republicans were more moderate and more willing to compromise. And Democrats were a little less liberal and had more people from conservative areas of the country.

Today, Republicans are far more conservative than they’ve ever been — they just don’t want to help a Democratic president. We saw this with Clinton, too.

Buzz: But Clinton did cross the aisle in the debacle of 1994. He passed a historic welfare bill getting rid of welfare as the way we know it. He did throw the Republicans a bone. And don’t tell me that personal relationships are important. Clinton was a blow-job philanderer, but he could charm a pair of socks.

Case in point: The Middle East is more fragile and volatile than ever. Middle East leaders make decisions based on personal relationships. When Obama had the chance in New York at the U.N. recently, he declined. He yukked it with Whoopi on The View.

Jamelle: Hah, that’s true. But when you look at the record number of filibusters by Republican lawmakers over the last several years, and the fact that they refused to support anything — even bills they sponsored, like the DREAM Act — then I think you have to say that there’s something else going on besides presidential persuasion, or a lack thereof.

Buzz: You are right. The polarization is frightening. I know from the column I wrote and the shit I got for it, even from friends who are outraged. But Obama will not change that. I think Romney has a better chance, and that may well be a pipe dream. I actually think he connects with people better. I guess I think we desperately need a jump-start. And if I am wrong, I will be the first to admit it.

Jamelle: I don’t think we’re ever going back to a point where things are less polarized. And so, I think the better question is, “Who supports the things I value?” Romney has a budget that — in order to fulfill its parameters — would require the government to decimate everything you say you care about.

I get the disappointment with Obama, but I don’t get the support for a man and a party that has no interest in the people of Philadelphia, or Camden, or Chicago.

Buzz: The president is not a dictator. There is a congress. There are checks and balances. Romney will compromise. He will no doubt change his tax plan; he is not the first candidate to say something that changes once in office. In fact, his idea to cap deductions at $20,000 or $25,000 is considered one of great potential by Democratic-leaning wonkheads.

Actually, a story today, I think it is from the Post, says that Romney is showing no coattails in the Democratic races. I don’t even think the top leadership in the Democratic house, Reid and Pelosi, even like Obama very much.

Jamelle: Who will he compromise with? Congressional Republicans? They want to go even further right. And if Romney wins, Republicans could also win enough Senate races to take back all of Congress.

Buzz: And here is Obama’s leadership. When negotiations on the debt limit failed, he had no Plan B. He had no fallback. It was a staffer from Harry Reid’s office who asked him point blank if he had one and he said no. It’s in Woodward’s book. What kind of leadership is that? Sloppy, and in its own way arrogant. Obama has drunk too much of the oratory Kool-Aid. It tastes like shit to me now.

Jamelle: Again, I don’t understand why you’re blaming Obama for the fact that Republicans threatened to crash the global economy by not raising the debt limit? And not just blame Obama, but reward Republicans!

For the last four years, they’ve followed a strategy of obstructing everything and trying to sabotage his administration. As a result, there’s gridlock. The goal was to make people angry at Obama for not getting things done. This has happened, and now you’re blaming Obama? It makes no sense to me.

Buzz: Call me a naive idiot, but I think Romney does care about a hundred percent of all Americans. More than Obama. All Obama is doing now is pandering to the middle to win. He does not like the wealthy, even though he has been fairly kind to them tax wise. He has created class warfare. The wealthy in this country are not outsiders. They are not pariahs. They are part of the country. He treats them like outcasts.

Given your argument, what makes you think that Obama will get anything done in the second term? Why will the hatred go away, particularly when he is a lame duck and everybody is jockeying for position? I see it as more disaster.

Jamelle: I don’t think you’re a naive idiot at all! I also don’t think that Obama is saying anything particularly mean about the wealthy.

He says that they received tax cuts ten years ago, which is true. That they’ve received the vast bulk of income over the last ten years, which is true. That they’ve mostly recovered from the recession, which is true. And that we shouldn’t cut social services before asking the wealthy to pay higher taxes. Which, I think, is right.

The wealthy are still incredibly powerful and influential. I mean, they’re wealthy. And while I’m sure it doesn’t feel great to have the president disparage your priorities, it remains true that you’re still wealthy, which is actually pretty great.

Buzz: I agree that the wealthy should pay higher taxes. I said so in the Daily Beast column. But do not demonize those making over $250,000. Do not demonize millionaires and billionaires who give back greatly to this country in terms of charity and foundations. He spits out the word like he has choked on something Paul Ryan said.

Jamelle: I don’t think it’s demonizing millionaires and billionaires to say that they don’t deserve more of the nation’s resources. And I’m not sure why the president is required to be deferential to people just because they have lots of money.

Buzz: The liberal press is trying to paint Romney as a Bush clone. It is inaccurate, although his economic plan is similar. I don’t think he will start another war. By the way, why the hell are we in Afghanistan? Even the Times asked the question Sunday. He is far more hawkish than people think. What about drone attacks and the terror they have created in Yemen and Pakistan?

Jamelle: Romney has been saber-rattling about Iran, so there’s that. And he certainly won’t stop drone attacks. Though, I agree, they are terrible.

Buzz: By the way, for all the transparency Obama promised in 2008, he is perhaps the most secretive administration of all time. Impossible to deal with, according to the many friends I have in the media. Less press conferences than even Bush.

Jamelle: Oh, no complaint from me there! The administration has been terrible on transparency.

Buzz: Ten percent of the country pay 60 to 70 percent of the taxes and that will remain. What Romney said about the 47 percent being deadbeats was offensive, but it is also offensive to me that 47 percent in this country do not pay federal income tax (yes, I know they pay other federal taxes). Some people pay no taxes and get money back. Every American should pay taxes, whether it’s ten dollars or a zillion. Everybody should have skin in the game.

Jamelle: I think being lower income means you have skin in the game by definition. A solider fighting in Afghanistan doesn’t pay income taxes — she definitely has skin in the game. A retiree on Medicare had skin in the game for decades.

It should also be said that Republicans wanted it this way. They passed things like the Earned Income Tax Credit so that fewer people would pay federal income tax. When George Bush signed his tax cuts, he applauded the fact that fewer people would have a federal income tax burden.

Buzz: My final point — because I have to go, unfortunately, because this has been fun and edifying: I think Obama is adding to the attitude and culture of this country that democracy has somehow become equated with total lack of personal responsibility.

You buy a half-million-dollar house with nothing do and a $50,000-a-year income, you are shocked when you can’t afford it? If you have a credit card, you know how the game works with interest. When you get in a car accident, you run to a plaintiff’s lawyer whether you are hurt or not. We all moan. We all cry. We have become a country of victims. I think Romney can change the course of that. Because we need change.

And, by the way, I have looked at the study on the roughly 68 million who do not pay federal income taxes. Eight million of those make $50,000 or above, including some millionaires. They are not all in the military. They can afford to pay.

I have to go. This has been great. Well done and lively. Let’s do it again. Sorry for calling you a fuckhead and douchejuice on Twitter. Consider it an honor.

Jamelle: This has definitely been a lot of fun, and I hope we can chat again sometime! I’ll just say this: Many people are responsible for the current economic situation. Bankers and lenders, as well as people who made bad decisions. I don’t think Obama is responsible for the fact that some people are irresponsible.

If you are concerned with the poor, the less fortunate, the middle class, I think Romney is simply the wrong choice.

And with that said, yeah! This was great, and I took no offense from the “fuckhead” comment. I thought it was funny, actually. Cheers!

* This post initially said that Bissinger only voted Democrat once. In fact he has only voted Republican once.