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The Romney Foreign Policy Bear Hug

Romney shifted his emphasis on key overseas issues in the third presidential debate, embracing White House positions he once disparaged, writes Matt DeLuca.

Mitt Romney hardly recanted his critique of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy record in Monday night’s debate, blaming the president for “tumult” in the Middle East and for what he called American weakness in the world. But on several key issues, the Republican—introducing his foreign policy views to low-information voters just now tuning in to the race and hearing his views—shifted his emphasis from outright condemnation of the administration into a surprising alignment with it.

Romney supported Obama’s timeline for withdrawal from Afghanistan, which  he’d previously deemed feckless and dangerous, said the sanctions the administration has applied are the right approach to Iran, and sounded less hawkish about a trade war with China.

Here’s a rundown of Romney’s shifting rhetoric, then and now:

1.  Afghanistan

Then: “What’s happening right now is an example of failed leadership.  The president put out a specific time table for withdrawal of our troops, a time table for the end of combat operations. This is leading Mr. Karzai to take action that is self-preservation in nature. The president needs to be more engaged.” – March 18, 2012 on Fox News.

Debate: “Well, we’re going to be finished by 2014. And when I’m president, we’ll make sure we bring our troops out by the end of 2014. The commanders and the generals are on track to do so. We’ve seen progress over the past several years. The surge has been successful, and the training program is proceeding apace.”

2. Iran

Then: “America and the world face a strikingly similar situation today; only even more is at stake. The same Islamic fanatics who took our diplomats hostage are racing to build a nuclear bomb. Barack Obama, America’s most feckless president since Carter, has declared such an outcome unacceptable, but his rhetoric has not been matched by an effective policy.” – March 5, 2012 in a Washington Post op-ed.

Must Reads

The Independent Rundown

The day’s essential reads for independents and centrists.

Independent Nation gives you five must reads for independents and centrists for Monday, October 22.

1. “The Final Push,” in The New Yorker.

From a luxe headquarters in Chicago to a room with folding chairs in Nevada, the Obama campaign’s drive to the finish is all about ground game, and the foundation was laid in December of 2008. Ryan Lizza visits the president’s 2012 reelection campaign in some of the states where every vote will matter.

Read more in The New Yorker.

2. “Why Partisans Can’t Explain Their Views,” in The New York Times.

Call it the Paul Ryan Effect. Wonkish politicians, and even those who simply assert something without rattling off a ledger full of numbers, give the “illusion of explanatory depth” to people who are already going to vote for them anyway, write two researchers. It’s why partisans think they know what they think, but often have so much trouble supporting their beliefs with arguments. It’s also why party politics rots the brain.

Read more in The New York Times.

3. “The Digital Campaign,” at FRONTLINE.

‘Minnesota Nice’

The Man Who Could Beat Bachmann

Outspent 10 to 1 in a tight race in Minnesota’s most conservative congressional district, businessman Jim Graves is polling well with independent voters, writes John Avlon.

Meet the man who could defeat Michele Bachmann.


Jim Graves is a 58-year-old self-made Minnesota businessman and grandfather of seven, still married to his high-school sweetheart, running against a symbol of unhinged hyperpartisanship in the halls of Congress. Bachmann’s bizarre presidential run only highlighted what an awkward fit she is for the common sense civility that characterizes “Minnesota Nice.”

But she’s never faced a truly competitive opponent, despite a string of narrow wins—and that’s changed this time around.

“I started my first company in a basement with $2,000 in the bank, and I’ve been able to create thousands of jobs,” says Graves, who started the mid-scale AmericInn hotel chain. “I’m a person who understands the economy and has built real businesses on Main Street. Now I want to give something back. I’ll be a good ambassador for the district. And you can juxtapose that against Michele Bachmann—someone who’s divisive and antagonistic, ridicules our president, and spreads fear and division.”

“My policy approach transcends political lines,” Graves says. “I’m a centrist, a libertarian when it comes to social issues—I don’t think government should be involved with personal lives. I really believe in separation of church and state. Bachmann wants to blur those lines—she would [replace] our democracy with a theocracy … She epitomizes everything that’s wrong with Congress and this country—a lack of civility, a lack of bipartisan or nonpartisan approach to problem solving.”

Polls show the race is now neck and neck—with 48 percent for Bachmann and 46 percent for Graves and the remaining still undecided, according to a Greenberg Quinlan Rosner poll (outside polling also shows Graves close behind, within single digits). Crucially, independent voters now lean toward Graves by a 15-point margin. Now the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is backing Graves in his campaign, showing it is very much in play.

But this is the most conservative district in Minnesota, compounded by redistricting. Moreover, Bachmann has been a successful conspiracy entrepreneur—raising millions of dollars in campaign donation by throwing out extreme statements—such as questioning how many fellow congressmen have “anti-American” views (to use one mild example)—and then fundraising off it by playing the victim.

In swing states, the Obama camp has opened twice as many offices, but the RNC might help Romney compete on Election Day, report John Avlon and Michael Keller.

Beyond the presidential debates, one final factor matters more than all the rest in a close race: ground game.


It’s the ability to get your voters to the polls—a way of moving soft support into actual votes.

Field operatives have been undervalued in recent years, as the focus of campaigns has shifted to big-money ad-bombs, compounded by the super-PAC economy. But this presidential campaign is going to come down to a few percentage points in a half dozen states, and suddenly ground game is about to get a lot of respect.

So The Daily Beast decided to map out the Obama and Romney local headquarters across the country as one way of gauging the strength of each campaign’s ground game. And what we found was an overwhelming advantage—755 to 283—by the Obama campaign on at least this one metric.

In the key swing states of this election the numbers are stark:

In Ohio, 122 Obama local HQs compared to 40 for Romney.

In Florida, the Obama campaign has 102 local HQs versus 48 for Romney.

Must Reads

The Independent Rundown

The day’s essential reads for independents and centrists.

Independent Nation gives you nine must reads for independents and centrists for Thursday, October 18.

1. “Bloomberg Starts ‘Super PAC,’ Seeking National Influence,” in The New York Times

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg wants to use a new super PAC to take his pro-same-sex marriage, pro-gun control message national, pouring between ten to fifteen million dollars into efforts in the final weeks of the 2012 campaign cycle to get candidates of either or no party who support those policies elected.

Read more in The New York Times.

 2. “Officials: Obama Ready to Veto a Bill Blocking ‘Fiscal Cliff’ Without a Tax Hike For Rich,” in The Washington Post

The 1 percent is going to have to pony up, or President Obama will veto any bill that blocks the fiscal cliff, according to administration officials. It’s a bold move from Obama, but a carefully calculated one – if he wins in November, he may have secured the upper hand in new debt-reduction talks, and if he loses, a veto could ensure higher tax rates before a newly elected Romney takes office.

Read more in The Washington Post.

3. “Demographic Dead End? Barack Obama’s Single Nation,” in The Daily Beast

Must Reads

The Independent Rundown

The day’s essential reads for independents and centrists.

Independent Nation gives you 7 must reads (and one extra) for independents and centrists for Wednesday, October 17.

1. “Manufacturing Jobs Aren’t Coming Back, No Matter Who’s President,” at NPR

The decline in manufacturing jobs has continued on a bipartisan basis, moving downward under Presidents Obama, Bush fils, Clinton, Bush père, and Reagan alike, reports NPR’s Planet Money. Technology and globalization, neither of which will appear on November ballots, are to blame for the decline in American manufacturing jobs, and those trends will continue no matter who holds the reins of government.

Read more at NPR.

2. “Romney Ad Casts Candidate as Moderate on Abortion,” at CNN

A new ad casting Mitt Romney as an abortion moderate appeared on Washington, D.C. televisions the morning after the second presidential debate. The ad depicts a woman who does online searches on Mitt Romney’s abortion stance and finds out that the Republican candidate “doesn’t oppose contraception at all.” The only people more surprised to learn about Mitt the prophylactic moderate were likely the folks at Planned Parenthood and Cardinal Timothy Dolan.

Read more at CNN.

3. “A Brief History of ‘Trickle-Down Government,’” at The New Republic

The Buckeye State

Will an Energy Boom Swing Ohio?

Among key swing voters in Ohio, the difference an energy boom has made in their local economy may be the final factor at the polls.

I spent the weekend in Ohio, and filed this report for CNN on how a natural gas energy boom in the bellwether northeastern region of the state is the final factor for many swing voters in the area.

Their votes may break down to simple but changing realities about dollars and acres:

“For decades, the economic news here has been grim. Once the breadbasket and manufacturing backbone of the nation, Ohio has been hit hard by outsourcing while family farms have been under constant pressure.

“But a bright spot has suddenly emerged after decades of struggle, an energy boom brought on by natural gas and oil wells. Suddenly, local farmland that had been worth $15 per acre six years ago was valued at $5,800 per acre and leases allow farmers to keep a portion of the royalties if oil and gas are found.”

Among the swing voter farmers of Carroll County, this energy boom – and the struggles residents faced before it brought life back to their local economy – is the final factor when they look at the two presidential candidates.

“I don’t think they know what the real world lives like,” Paul Naylor, a retired power company worker, told me. “You can’t ever know if you have an elevator in your garage and know what the real world lives like. Really? Can you? I would like to see either one of ‘em try to make it on a salary of people around here. They couldn’t do it.”

Read the full report at CNN.

The Perils of Teamism

The Sound of Chugging Kool-Aid

Punchdrunk on party loyalty, conservative pundits prefer to say Romney ran away with the second debate – and damn whatever the polls say.

This is the sound of chugging Kool-Aid:  

"This debate goes to Romney. It seals his momentum and will lead to a big win,” Dick Morris writes at Fox.

“Game, set, match … one of the best debate performances ever by Mitt Romney,” Sean Hannity tweeted.

Some professional partisans feel that their job is relentlessly defending whatever their 'team' does or says, even when it conflicts with reality.  Polls by CBS and CNN show that Obama won this second debate by a comfortable margin.

We all know that the spin-cyle after these debates can be nauseating – the rise of partisan media made it worse, and it is now compounded by social media's real-time spiraling group-think. The hours after the debate have lamely become almost as important as the content of the debate itself in crafting conventional wisdom.  

Look, non-partisan doesn't mean neutral - I think that President Obama clearly won this second debate , just as clearly Romney won the first.  Being non-partisan is not the same as being neutral – an independent perspective is about refusing to reflexively support one party.  It's about at least trying to be fair and an honest-broker calling bullshit where the facts demand it and giving credit where credit is due. And from my perspective, it's about standing up to extremes on both sides. 

But after the first debate, avowed Obama supporters from The Beast's Andrew Sullivan to liberal comedian/commentator/donor Bill Maher mercilessly criticized the president's lame and listless performance. We haven't seen the quite same from folks who feel they are paid for being partisan good soldiers on the right. 

These delusional, drunk-on-Teamism takes are not just funny, they're sad, because they feed a feeling of intense mutual incomprehensibility, the sense that fellow citizens can see two separate political realities. Ultimately, this isn't healthy for our democracy - and it makes governing in the national interest more difficult when elections are done. 

Debate Fail

Hall Monitor Mitt’s Missed Chance

Obama got what he needed from last night’s debate.

President Obama needed to step up and dig in at Tuesday night's second presidential debate, and that’s exactly what he did, I write over at CNN.  Insistent jockeying for time, his fumble of the Benghazi question, and furious Etch-a-Sketch moments on everything from Pell Grants to the Dream Act may have hurt Romney with swing voters – exactly the ones he needs to hone in on in the coming weeks.

And he just came across as a bully:

“Mitt Romney followed a great debate with a fail. His constant interruption of Candy Crowley and the president – his peevish, ‘Hall Monitor Mitt’ persona – was not just a loss in terms of style points. It was revealing in terms of character. The CNN focus group found that the intense awkward interjections alienated swing voters and women in particular. Tweets to me used words like ‘entitled’ and ‘bully.’ Bottom line, it wasn’t presidential. It was small and self-important rather than big and magnanimous. And it will cost him momentum.

“The president started the debate hot rather than warm; he seemed almost too amped up. Romney did a better job relating to the audience as individuals at first. And then the insistent jockeying for time came, and the wheels started to come off his initially steady performance.”

It was a win for Obama, and Romney might not just have lost, he might have done himself substantive damage.

Read more at CNN.



The Independent Rundown

The day’s essential reads for independents and centrists.

Watch our live debate coverage on The Daily Beast with John Avlon, David Frum, Michelle Cottle, and special guests.

1. “Rules for Craftsmen,” in The New York Times

What would it take for a politician to really break through the Washington gridlock? So asks David Brooks in this insightful and timely column. Some of the suggestions seem simple (Read Robert Caro on LBJ in the Senate if you want to know why “the ability to count” lends power) but they could add up to a leader who can deliver on what he promises.

 2. “Against Our Debate Obsession,” in The New Republic

 Word is there’s some sort of debate planned for Tuesday evening. Alec MacGillis of The New Republic argues that we could all afford to be a bit more blasé about what’s at stake in the debates, however. “Debate preoccupation is no new thing,” MacGillis writes, and we’d all do well with a dose of perspective. Perhaps taken while watching the Beast’s live debate coverage.

Read it at The New Republic.

 3. “Dem Strategists See Campaign in Peril, Says Obama Must Step Up,” in the Los Angeles Times

The human rights abuses in Sudan continue—and a harrowing new video captures the attack on a Nuba Mountain village in real time.

The Satellite Sentinel Project, working with the Sudanese journalist group Nuba Reports, brought the video to an international audience this morning, providing indelible evidence of the kind that rarely exists when villages are burnt and looted. This time, though, the camera phone of one of the attackers—members of the Sudanese Central Reserve Police—captured the bloodlust. The 18-year old high school student named Niam who is captured and then tortured was subsequently interviewed on camera about his ordeal, after a $30 ransom was paid.

This is a video that cuts through all the abstractions and obfuscations. In the United States, news organizations are focused on the second presidential debate tonight—but that event should not keep this documentation of an attack in real time from reaching a wider audience. In the past, the absence of cameras meant this violence could be ignored. Now, we have evidence that demands attention and accountability. 

Etch A Sketch Success

The Paradox of Moderate Mitt

Mitt Romney is a Rorschach test, with voters seeing what they want to see. And that, writes John Avlon, is the secret to his surge in the polls since the first presidential debate.

It’s a conundrum for conservatives—Mitt Romney couldn’t get traction while he was playing to the base with his vice-presidential selection or his convention speech.  But once he broke out the big Etch A Sketch in his first debate against President Obama, Mitt started soaring in the polls.

Romney 2012

Mitt Romney looks at the crowd after arriving at a recent rally in Asheville, N.C. (Evan Vucci / AP Photo)

Of course, the reaction is not really a mystery—it’s a tried-and-true lesson of American politics: a more centrist candidate moves swing voters into his column, while a more extreme candidate alienates them. Mitt’s gains among moderates, the middle class, and women voters since the first debate are a direct result of this self-conscious re-centering of his presidential campaign.

The problem is that it goes against conservative chapter and verse, which says that a centrist Republican candidate all but guarantees a general election loss for the GOP.

This has always been a Catch-22 for Mitt Romney.

If he loses the general election, as he seemed likely to do before his first debate performance, conservatives will say that it was because he was a moderate from Massachusetts.

If he wins, they will say it was because he campaigned as a committed conservative who checked the box on every litmus test.

But President Romney would be seen as ideologically suspect by the far right from day one. The Tea Party caucus would announce their intention to hold his feet the fire and the first likely showdown would be on whether to raise the debt ceiling, pitting the businessman against the ideologues. The evidence suggests that Mitt would overcompensate to satisfy conservatives in Congress, but maybe the Oval Office would liberate him.


The Independent Rundown

The day’s essential reads for independents and centrists.

Independent Nation gives you the 6 must-reads for independents and centrists for Monday, October 15.

1. “True Progressivism,” in The Economist

It’s time for a  “radical centrist politics” (Amen) that seeks to reinvigorate America like the Progressive movement did in the late 19th century. The right and left alike are stuck in default settings that produce our current “failure of ideas.” In tough times but with our values intact, Americans deserve better.

Read it at The Economist.

2. “Making Mitt: The Myth of George Romney” at BuzzFeed

The key takeaway from this 11,000-word departure from BuzzFeed’s standard digital brew of cat GIFs and political scoops? That the origin myth Mitt Romney has harkened back to of a moment his father strode boldly out of the 1964 Republican National Convention in protest of Barry Goldwater’s extremism may the product of an overheated campaign’s imagination.

Read it at BuzzFeed.

3. “Groups’ Funders Often Reported Long After Spending Has Occurred,” at the Center for Responsive Politics

Both President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney owe it to the American people and the world to be clear about their foreign policy positions.

It is time for the presidential candidates to say what they see as America’s place in the world. Few aspects of the president’s job have as large an impact on as many people as his role as commander-in-chief, and while voters can look to President Obama’s record on the foreign stage, the Romney-Ryan ticket needs to make a clear, coherent statement of its own positions in the next debate.

In my latest column for The Sunday Telegraph, I write on how so far both campaigns have danced around some of the most important international issues that will determine America’s course over the next four years:

“Like Senator Obama four years ago, Governor Romney has little foreign policy experience. At least we knew then that Obama opposed the Iraq war and wanted to ramp up drone strikes against al-Qaeda instead – and now, in regard to killing bin Laden, the phrase ‘mission accomplished’ actually applies.

“To date we haven’t been told whether Mitt Romney supports the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive unilateral intervention – a sticky subject even for conservatives these days. In 2008, Obama tried to compensate for his lack of foreign policy experience by tapping the Senate foreign relations committee chairman, Hillary Clinton, to be his VP. Romney picked the House budget committee chairman Paul Ryan, a Tea Party policy wonk with no foreign policy expertise.”

In the vice presidential debate, Paul Ryan performed a misleading tap dance around his ticket’s foreign policy positions. Romney will have to do better. He says he wants to increase America’s military spending to four percent of the gross domestic product, and while this sends a sanguine shudder up spines in the Republican base, most Americans are tired after a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and distressed by warmongering when it comes to Syria and Iran.

Read more at The Sunday Telegraph.

Who's Laughing Now?

The Gaffe Master Beats the Policy Wonk

Joe Biden kept his foot out of his mouth and Paul Ryan in his sights during Thursday night's debate in Kentucky.

Joe Biden didn’t just meet expectations Thursday night, he completely surpassed them.

“Before the vice presidential debate, I’d thought that Paul Ryan would have the upper hand – a young smart policy wonk and great communicator paired off against an out-of-practice, aging politico with a recurring case of foot-in-mouth disease,” I write in my latest column for CNN.

“I was wrong.”

Read more of what I (along with a host of other good folks including Daily Beast contributor Paul Begala and my wife Margaret Hoover) have to say about Thursday night’s debate at CNN.

About the Author

Author headshot

John Avlon

John Avlon is senior columnist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, and the host of Beast TV. He is a CNN contributor and winner of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ award for best online column in 2012.

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