The Presidential Debates: Romney and Nixon

Jacob Heilbrunn

One person who is posthumously benefitting from the upcoming debates between President Obama and Mitt Romney is Richard Nixon. Footage of Nixon debating John F. Kennedy in 1960 is popping up everywhere as commentators look back at the debates that have taken place over the decades.

The debates have their own lore. For those who watched the 1960 debates on television, Kennedy seemed to be the clear winner. For those who listened to that era's version of "wireless," Nixon gave Kennedy a licking. Nixon of course had been holed up in a hospital for several weeks, confined to a bed because of a knee injury he suffered that turned into phlebitis. Look at the pictures of him and he appears gaunt, haggard. He had clearly lost weight and muscle, while Kennedy, puffed up on cortisone shots, portrayed himself as youthful, vigorous, ready to get American up and running again to challenge the Soviets after the somnolent Eisenhower years. In 1960, Nixon muffed it at the debates. It wasn't simply his appearance. He was cowed by Kennedy. He largely agreed with much of his program, soft-pedaling the differences between the two men. The debates ended up elevating Kennedy. In response, Nixon never engaged in a presidential debate again, neither in 1968 nor in 1972.

Can Romney administer a similar knockout punch to Obama tonight? Like Nixon, Romney is basically a moderate. But unlike Nixon, he doesn't have the same resentment of the Eastern establishment, the neuralgic sense of its resentments and fears. Romney enjoyed a cossetted childhood. He went to Harvard. He was Governor of Massachusetts. As the son of a grocer, Nixon, by contrast, couldn't afford to go to Harvard. Nixon would probably marvel at Romney's failure to connect with the constituencies that propelled him to the presidency in 1968.

The belief, or hope, among some conservatives is that Romney will take on Obama directly and resuscitate his campaign. One theory is that Romney always does well in debates. But how hard was it really to demolish the likes of former pizza magnate Herman Cain? Or a puffed up Newt Gingrich? The one time he faced a serious opponent was when he debated Ted Kennedy, and he wiped the floor with Romney.

If Romney does not do well tonight, then his campaign will be over in all but name. Already the apprehension among Republicans is that he will drag down the GOP in congressional races, while a surging Obama leads the Democrats to maintain control of the Senate and add seats in the House. But the 2012 race may still have a few surprises left. As Maureen Dowd notes in the New York Times today, the Libya debacle suggests that the White House went into overdrive to try and contain the political damage--thereby exacerbating it. Was there, as Dowd asks, "complicity in duplicity"--did the Obama administration replicate the kind of politicization of foreign affairs that marked the George W. Bush administration?

But the debate tonight will revolve around domestic affairs. It is Romney's last shot. If he can emancipate himself from GOP dogma, he'll have a fighting chance. He won't simply be battling Obama but also his own party, which views him with deep mistrust. But if he fails, he may take it down along with him and set the stage for Obama to win big.

TopicsThe Presidency RegionsUnited States

The Selfish Society and National Power

Paul Pillar

Frank Bruni had a thoughtful column the other day about how rarely anyone, including our leaders, talks about sacrifice anymore. That means sacrifice in personal situations for the sake of a larger national good. Bruni mentions several factors as both manifestations and causes of the children of the Greatest Generation being so much more selfish than their parents. These include the diminishing proportion of the population that performs military service and “the rise of interest groups, identity politics and cause-specific lobbyists.”

The most conspicuous characteristic of the now-dominant pattern of selfishness—which extends to not only the children but also the grandchildren of the Greatest Generation—is an overriding priority given to the acquisition of personal wealth. It is the pursuit of wealth as a value for its own sake, or as a means to nothing other than high net worth and conspicuous consumption. It is especially, consistent with other ways in which American society has moved increasingly to winner-take-all rules, the aspiration to acquire great wealth.

The attitudes involved echo some patterns in earlier periods of the nation's history. Gilded ages come and go. Over the last half century, the principal trend has been a long one away from the sense of national obligation and sacrifice of which John Kennedy spoke to the selfish society that we see today. Bruni notes that Jimmy Carter, the only president since Kennedy who tried to interrupt this trend by telling us to don sweaters and turn down thermostats, was ridiculed for doing so. Even during his presidency Carter was able to observe, “Too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption.” This pattern is even more pronounced now than when Carter was in office.

This circumstance raises many issues of domestic equity, fairness and meeting the needs of large portions of the citizenry. But set those issues aside and consider just what this pattern means for the overall strength of the United States, bearing in mind how that strength affects how well the country can assert its interests in world affairs. We are all familiar with free-market concepts, dating back to Adam Smith, that explain how economic activity motivated at the individual level by personal aggrandizement can lead to a bigger and more prosperous economic whole. But among the portions of the economy that have grown most conspicuously in recent decades have been ones whose contribution to that bigger and more prosperous whole has been minimal or nonexistent. In short, they are parasitic.

This is true of large parts of that much-ballooned segment of the economy known as the financial sector. Parts of that sector provide the important function of efficient allocation of capital. But other parts do not, and some of the latter are among the most obvious models for aspiring titans of the latest gilded age. An op-ed by Roger Lowenstein discusses just one example: high-frequency trading, the computerized practice of split-second moving in and out of equities to take advantage of even tiny inefficiencies in the market. Some big fortunes have been made from this practice. And as one former trader testified to a Congressional committee, the practice has “no social benefit.” Instead, it is “a destructive force in the market,” as illustrated by the flash crash two years ago. It is easy to find other examples. They include the creation and peddling of some of the instruments that were most involved in the financial meltdown four years ago. And they include the manipulation of debt, fees and corporate control that are the techniques of private-equity artists.

All of this gets to what was perhaps most wrong about Mitt Romney's now-infamous statement about the 47 percent. It is not just that there is no segment of the U.S. population that fits the entire description he offered in terms of economic status, personal aspirations and political preference. It is not even only that there is far more dependence on government, in terms of dollar value, in the upper reaches of the other 53 percent, certainly when taking tax preferences into account. The biggest mistake is that being a parasite rather than a producer is not only, or even chiefly, a matter of receiving a check from the government.

Some of the financial methods that are destructive rather than productive can have a direct impact on matters that go beyond that nation's shores. The international contagion involved in the financial crisis demonstrates some of the ways. As for high-frequency trading, Paul Sullivan has an interesting analysis of how that side of financial markets threatens to amplify the negative repercussions of any political and security crisis in the Persian Gulf.

The largest impact, however, is on the overall health, growth and productivity of the national economy, which is ultimately the basis for the assertion of national power. The more the economy is skewed toward what is parasitic rather than productive, the less good that is for national power. The skewing involves an unfortunate allocation of the nation's resources, including its most precious resource: the talents of its people. Romney is a glaring but by no means unique example. What is the principal purpose to which his legal and business training at an outstanding university has been applied? Evidently, the devising of ownership and control arrangements that ensured the flow of fees and in-and-out profits to private-equity partners while the risks and burdens of (sometimes excessive) debt were placed on whatever company was actually providing a good or service. That, and the devising of incredibly complex international financial structures to add to the gains by shielding much of it from taxation. Think about how much more the economy or society as a whole would benefit if that kind of skill and creativity were instead applied to providing a needed good or service.

The unfortunate allocation continues. A disproportionate number of the best and brightest graduating from U.S. universities today head for the financial sector because that's where the money—potentially a lot of money—is, rather than building or designing a better mousetrap, much less embarking on a career of public service.

One way to make the selfish society less selfish is to cut the government-provided incentives that encourage its continuation. That involves addressing, for example, the provisions in the tax code that mean, as the New York Times puts it, “that elite investors like Mr. Romney are able to increase their fortunes in ways unavailable to most taxpayers.” Another important ingredient is political leadership that can get past the Jimmy Carter comparisons and instill once again more of a national sense of duty and commitment. Kennedy's “do for your country” message got lost when the best and brightest of his day took a detour into Vietnam. But the association with that expedition does not represent an inherent or necessary connection. There are many ways to sacrifice for the sake of the common good that ought to be noncontroversial.

TopicsGreat PowersThe PresidencyPolitical Economy RegionsUnited StatesVietnam

Kesler Gets Executive Power Right

The Buzz

The New York Times commissioned Columbia University’s Mark Lilla to produce a sprawling review of Charles R. Kesler’s critique of President Obama’s presidency (I Am the Change). Surprise!—Lilla doesn’t like the book. He calls it “that rarest of things, a cheap inflationary takedown.” He devotes two pages in the September 30 “Book Review” to making light of Kesler’s arguments.

It’s a good performance on Lilla’s part—sprightly and entertaining. But in dismissing Kesler’s conservative critique, he glosses over a crucial reality of our time—namely, the increasing intensity in the ongoing debate between those who want to invest more power in a growing federal government and those who fear the consequences of executive power. He suggests he just can’t understand why anyone could think Obama is fostering a federal power concentration that could possibly bother anybody.

It’s all about ObamaCare, he finally concludes, feigning just as much puzzlement over how anyone could think this represents anything untoward in American democracy.

Kesler’s study suggests that American politics has called forth three presidents who sought to aggrandize the presidency and the executive branch to a far greater extent than all others. They are Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. And, says Kesler, Obama is in their tradition, as he has sought to arrogate to himself powers and prerogatives of office far in excess of his predecessors.

The trend lines are unmistakable and worthy of a serious debate. Lilla’s flawed review seeks to ridicule Kesler while ignoring the debate. Unfortunate.

TopicsThe Presidency

Revolutionary Air

The Buzz

“What will they do next, bottle air and sell it?” This incredulous expression once might have been fanciful, but thanks to new efforts by Chinese philanthropist Chen Guangbiao, air is actually being canned and sold. Liz Carter over at The Atlantic reports that the profits from Chen’s canned air are being donated to the Chinese military in their efforts to defend the disputed Diaoyu Islands.

There is only one thing to conclude. The Chinese really want those islands.

According to the Global Times, “The air is collected from revolutionary regions, including Jinggang Mountain in Jiangxi Province, some ethnic minority areas and Taiwan, and sells for four to five yuan each.”

So this isn’t just any air, it’s “revolutionary” air. We should have known. What is one to do with revolutionary air? "One only has to open the can, directly 'drink' it or put the nose close to the can to breath[e] deeply," said Chen. Naturally, the first round of revolutionary canned air sold out in just a few days with day-one revenue just shy of $800.

“Brother Biao” as his fans know him is either a genius or a madman. Both are possible. Either way, one thing’s clear: we may be in the wrong business.

TopicsSociety RegionsChina

Second-Guessing About Benghazi

Paul Pillar

Barack Obama signs a condolence book in memory of Ambassador Christopher Stevens.The seemingly endless public rehashing of the attack in Benghazi that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans is not taking a form that serves any useful purpose. That would be true even without the political slant that was stemmed from efforts to turn some of the recriminations into a campaign issue. The loss of the four public servants was a tragedy. The rehashing does not alleviate that tragedy. Some relevant truths should be recalled:

Diplomacy is a dangerous line of work. The memorial wall at the State Department listing the many U.S. diplomats—going back more than two centuries—who have been killed in the line of duty is a reminder of that. There is an inherent tension for diplomats between doing their duties well, with everything that entails regarding contact and exposure in faraway places, and living securely.

Hindsight is cheap. After any incident such as this, one can uncover warnings that might have been applicable to the incident that occurred, measures that could have been taken that conceivably could have prevented the occurrence and various other "what ifs." What does not routinely get noted is that the same sorts of things could be unearthed about countless other facilities that do not get attacked and countless other lethal incidents that do not occur. What is unearthed is a product of the second-guesser's luxury of hindsight. One always can construct an after-the-fact case that any one such incident was preventable; this is not the same as saying that such incidents in the aggregate are preventable.

Resources are limited; threats are not. Even if U.S. diplomats consistently opted for living securely over doing their jobs well, total security cannot be bought. Second-guessing about how more security should have been provided at any one facility rather than any of dozens of others elsewhere (that did not happen to get attacked this time) is just another example of hindsight.

Information about lethal incidents is not total and immediate. The normal pattern after such events is for explanations to evolve as more and better information becomes available. We would and should criticize any investigators who settled on a particular explanation early amidst sketchy information and refused to amend that explanation even when more and better information came in. A demand for an explanation that is quick, definite and unchanging reflects a naive expectation—or in the present case, irresponsible politicking.

The public second-guessing does nothing to honor the service of those Americans who died. And it does nothing to prevent similar incidents. The secretary of state has, per standard procedures, appointed an accountability review board (led by a highly respected and experienced retired diplomat, Thomas Pickering) to assess what happened in Benghazi. Let the board do its job.

TopicsDomestic PoliticsTerrorism RegionsLibyaUnited States