Latest Presidential Polls 2012: Data Shows the Romney 47 Percent Comment Has Taken Serious Toll

Published: PolicyMic (September 26, 2012)

Up until now, debate on the political impact of Mitt Romney’s “47%” comments has been entirely speculative. That is no longer the case.

According to recently released New York Times/CBS/Quinnipiac surveys — the first major polls to be conducted right after the emergence of the controversial video — Romney has suffered enormous setbacks in key swing states. He is behind by 9 points in Florida (53%-44%), 10 points in Ohio (53%-43%), and 12 points in Pennsylvania (54%-42%). At no point has his deficit ever been that significant in any of those states, and anyone who questions whether this is being reflected on a national level need look no further than the new Bloomberg Poll (also the first major one conducted post-47%), which shows Romney behind Obama by six points (49%-43%).

None of this means that Romney will definitely lose in November. Six weeks is a lifetime in the world of politics, and it’s entirely possible that something will occur during that period (e.g., a blunder by Obama, a stellar debate performance by Romney, a bleak job report) that will take attention away from the “47%” comments and focus them on a subject more favorable to Romney’s campaign.

Make no mistake about it, though, Romney’s only hope of winning rests on his drawing attention away from those comments.

It is entirely possible that future historians will view this campaign as the story of a Republican candidate who overcame a major self-imposed setback to defeat his weak incumbent. There is no possibility that the “47%” comments will be remembered as anything other than a serious gaffe.

This speaks to a larger issue. For the past four years, the Republican Party has been seduced by the siren song of radicalism, both from its conservative and libertarian wings. It has mistaken the enthusiasm of its most zealous advocates as a sign that their nostrums represent the wave of America’s political future. In doing so it has forgotten that, while their base might be enthused by extreme rhetoric and ideas, the independent voters who decide elections are invariably turned off by them. Two years ago this error cost them the Senate, as the GOP failed to control extremists who spurned moderate candidates that could have won in favor of radicals who inevitably lost (Sharron Angle in Nevada, Ken Buck in Colorado, Linda McMahon in Connecticut, Christine O’Donnell in Delaware). Now, unless Romney is able to shake off the “47%” comments, this same pandering to extremism — be it knowingly plutocratic (those wealthy donors at the Boca Raton dinner) or unwittingly plutocratic (the Tea Party) — will cost them the presidency.

The larger takeaway is clear. While red-baiting, fearmongering, Bible thumping, and open contempt for the poor may make the right-wing heart beat faster, they turn away the Americans who decide elections. If the GOP continues mistaking the din of its own little echo chamber for the roar of popular approval, they will pay the price.

Max Hell Frog Warrior: What A Web Review of a Z List Movie Tells Us About Internet Freedom

Published: PolicyMic (September 25, 2012)

The events of the past couple days have compelled me to defend the rights of artists. Before I do that, however, I need to provide some background information on the peculiarities of this particular situation, and explain why an internet critic’s review of a martial arts cult film indicates that the internet community must start really talking about what can be done to protect artists’ rights in the age of SOPA and PIPA.

Everyone has their guilty pleasures. For some, it’s reality television. For others, it’s egregiously violent video games.

For me, it’s bad horror movies … and the cheesier, the better.

During that bygone era before the commercialization of the Internet (better known to you youngsters as pre-1991), horror aficionados like me had a much rougher time. If we wanted to get our fix, we had to rummage through the B-movie aisles at our local Blockbuster Video, wander through the (usually joyless) dreck offered by networks like the Sci-Fi Channel, and anxiously await the weekly airing of that show which gradually emerged as nerd nirvana, Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Then the world of cyberspace began to evolve, and as it did, something genuinely wonderful happened. Not only did the cheesy horror flicks themselves become more readily available to avid fans like me, but the Internet itself begat a new breed of critic.

They were smarter, edgier, and had access to technological resources that allowed them to offer the kinds of deep-dish deconstructions that had been inconceivable back when artistic criticism was limited to print and television. Even better, they were gradually emerging from obscurity and could be featured on websites like That Guy With The Glasses, which exist for the sole purpose of providing an outlet for online critics of everything from movies and television shows to video games, music videos, and comic books.

Now hardly a day passes when I can’t avail myself of the ideas of some of the most well-informed and entertaining horror critics out there.

The best include The Cinema Snob (aka Brad Jones), a cerebral cinephile who analyzes exploitation movies while assuming the persona of an indignant film elitist who wishes he was watching so-called “artsier” fare; Phelous (aka Phelan Porteous), who presents his reviews in a self-referential style that cleverly sends up, while gleefully participating in, the brand of meta-humor that is especially popular online these days; Welshy (aka Mat Williams), who alternates between traditional film reviews and specials that focus on franchise landmarks; and Obscurus Lupa (aka Allison Pregler), whose tongue-in-cheek skewering of the worst Z-grade movies is leavened by her palpable love for them.

All of the aforementioned critics are smart, funny, thought-provoking, and (most of the time) fair in their assessments. While I could go on at length about each of them, however, recent events require me to focus on the last one I mentioned here, Obscurus Lupa.

Back in March, Lupa posted a series of critiques on the Frogtown movies, a trilogy of campy sci-fi/horror/action films released from the late-1980s through the mid-1990s. Her first pair of videos, which discussed the initial two installments in the franchise (Hell Comes To Frogtown and Return to Frogtown) followed a traditional format, were released without controversy, and are well worth checking out.

Before getting to the final Frogtown movie, however, Lupa took the untraditional step of first posting a short documentary on Scott Shaw, a prolific indie filmmaker who frequently collaborated with Donald G. Jackson, the creator of the first two movies. Because Shaw served as an official co-director, co-writer, co-producer, and star of the third film —and because that movie, Max Hell: Frog Warrior, had such certain qualities that made it, shall we say, distinctive — she clearly felt such an in-depth look was warranted.

As it turns out, the man known as “Dr. Shaw” (at least to himself) is quite a colorful character.
He claims to be an accomplished “author, actor, artist, filmmaker, journalist, composer, photographer, painter, certified yoga instructor, and swami,” as well as a black belt in Haikido, Aikijutsu, and Tae Kwon Do.

While I won’t discuss my purely subjective doubts about the veracity of some of those asserted achievements, I can safely say that his films are unmitigated disasters, notorious for their incoherent and incomprehensible plots, stilted dialogue, hammy acting, and incompetent editing.

What’s worse, Shaw’s literary works include attempts to defend his oft-maligned films by insisting that they actually constitute an innovative new approach to cinema, one he characteristically dubbed “Zen filmmaking.” As explained in Lupa’s documentary, the “Zen filmmaking” method involves “shooting a film without a script in order to let the actors and story flow more organically. An outline of the general story is made up and the actors are described a scene which they then act out on their own.”

While this improvisational style has more than purely theoretical merit (in fact, many great movies have contained legendary improvised scenes, from comedies like The Producers and dramas like Taxi Driver to horror films like The Shining), Shaw’s execution is so shoddy that, in his hands, “Zen filmmaking” comes off less like a legitimate artistic approach and more like an excuse for laziness and ineptitude. (For an example, see Lupa’s review of another Jackson-Shaw collaboration, Pocket Ninjas.)

Armed with this information, I had new insight into Max Hell: Frog Warrior as I watched the critique she posted of it a few days later. Of course, I didn’t give the matter much additional thought after that … until a few weeks later, when Lupa’s videos on Zen filmmaking and Max Hell: Frog Warrior mysteriously disappeared.

My first instinct was to assume the worst, and as I discovered this week, I was right. When Lupa finally reposted the reviews after each had spent nearly half a year offline, she included explanatory introductions to account for their removals. From her preface to the Zen filmmaking documentary:

“In March of 2012, in preparation for my upcoming review of Max Hell: Frog Warrior,I posted a documentary covering star and co-director Scott Shaw, and the art of Zen Filmmaking.

In April, Scott Shaw contacted me. With respect to the filmmaker, both videos have been reedited and re-uploaded, sans all clips and music. The following video is the incomplete, mostly audio version.

As of this date, no more Zen films will be reviewed. Thank you, and enjoy.”

Her introduction to the Max Hell: Frog Warrior review tells the same story, before adding that “all of the clips have been replaced with crudely-drawn Photoshop images” for that video.

While I have no firsthand knowledge of the legal maneuvers that took place behind the scenes between Lupa and Shaw, my educated guess is that Shaw threatened litigation on the grounds of copyright infringement, the tack artists tend to use in situations like this (see The Nostalgia Critic’s review of The Room and The Cinema Snob’s review of Grizzly II: The Predator.)

If I’m correct, then the first point which needs to be noted is that the law itself is on Lupa’s side. According to the Fair Use doctrine in American copyright law, use of a copyrighted work “is not an infringement of copyright” if it is done “for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research.” Because the transformative nature of a copyrighted work’s utilization is among the most important variables considered when assessing an infringement claim, Lupa’s videos — which obviously intended to transform Shaw’s works into works of artistic criticism — would have fallen squarely under the terms of Fair Use.

Indeed, even if Shaw had tried to contest the applicability of Fair Use on the basis of a technicality (such as by claiming that she used so much footage from the film that the “substantiality of the portion used” compromised its commercial prospects), recent court rulings like Lenz v. Universal have made it clear that the burden still rests predominantly with the plaintiff in these cases.

That said, while the law might have supported Lupa, Shaw still would have had a major practical advantage.

Prolonged legal battles are extremely costly, time-consuming, and stressful, to such a degree that it is rare for anyone to want to go through with them. Even major Hollywood studios, despite being armed with legions of lawyers, generally avoid pursuing online critics precisely because the tenuousness of their legal case makes the aggravation not worth their while, at least not until the laws themselves are changed (more on that later). As such, when someone decides to start such a fight despite these disincentives, their mere willingness to take that initiative usually means they have the persistence (some might call it the lack of a life) to outlast whoever happens to be their hapless target. This is no doubt a major reason why Lupa was ultimately forced to compromise, just as other critics before her have been forced to do in similar situations.

This isn’t to say that Lupa’s re-edits of the Zen Filmmaking and Max Hell: Frog Warrior aren’t also worth seeing. Although they’re weakened by the loss of actual footage from the movie, they still convey the same basic message she wanted to express. Even so, it didn’t have to be this way.

This brings me back to the issue of defending the rights of artists — and by “artist,” I don’t mean Scott Shaw, but Obscurus Lupa.

Although it’s certainly unorthodox to characterize film critics as artists, bear in mind that the review videos created by people at websites like That Guy With The Glasses are more than just sterile dissections. While some dismiss their artistic merit because their main purpose is to critique other artistic works instead of create independent ones of their own, these reviews rely heavily on the performances of their featured critics. They frame their ideas within loose narratives, employ different types of humor, adopt fictionalized personas (be they versions of themselves or entirely new characters), and engage in other creative behavior consistent with what one would expect from performance art.

What’s more, because the reviews present highly personalized deconstructions and reinterpretations of the external objects on which their creators have chosen to focus (in this case, horror movies), they are cohered in a way that requires creative skill as well as argumentative effectiveness. In short, they’re as artistically valid as other works which similarly present, personalize, and transform external realities, from biographies (containing an author’s interpretation of his or her subject’s life) to documentaries (containing the director’s interpretation of a real-life topic or event).

If Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary can include under the term “artist” such definitions as “one who professes and practices an imaginative art” and “a skilled performer,” it seems reasonable to conclude that the term “artist” can also apply to the imaginative performances of people like Obscurus Lupa, The Cinema Snob, Phelous, Welshy, and the other critics at That Guy With The Glasses.

From there, it doesn’t take much to realize that Shaw’s pressuring of Lupa — however he went about doing it — is wrong on a level much deeper than that found in any statute book.

It isn’t easy to create art, and while it’s healthy and necessary for artists to criticize each other, it is also vital that fellow artists defend each other’s right of expression. By forcing Lupa to modify her work, Shaw did the exact opposite of that — and, even worse, set a precedent which others like him may decide to follow.

This is especially important now, because the issue is going to come up again.

Although last year’s effort to strengthen copyright laws failed after the House Judiciary Committee postponed plans to work on drafts for the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), most experts agree that it’s only a matter of time before the studios which helped bankroll the campaign to pass that bill will either revive the old legislation or create a substantially similar one to replace it. If the internet community wants to protects its rights, they need to start by not only being mindful of the ongoing movement to pass bills like SOPA, but also by protecting internet artists from smaller bullies like Scott Shaw.

We must remember how important it is to fight for the great Voltairean maxim on freedom of speech:

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

That quote, by the way, is especially appropriate. Despite being attributed to Voltaire himself, it was actually written by one of his biographers, Evelyn Beatrice Hall, as she attempted to summarize the basic lesson of the philosopher’s life — or, as some might say, review it.

Obama vs. Romney: Mitt Romney 47 Percent Gaffe Proves He is Too Conservative to Be President

Published: PolicyMic (September 23, 2012)

Conventional political wisdom states that, to become president, you must first acquire your party’s nomination by pandering to its radical base. After that, you win the general election by moving back to the ideological center. Keep that axiom in mind as you’re reading this editorial.

Back in February, Mitt Romney earned the derision of political observers when he tried to woo attendees at the 2012 Conservative Political Action Conference by referring to himself as “severely conservative.” At the time, most spectators dismissed his remark as being yet another embarrassing misstep in a long string of attempts to pander to his party’s far right elements. Since the beginning of the summer, however, two campaign-defining incidents have occurred which suggest there was more truth to Romney’s self-description than was generally believed.

First he announced that his vice presidential running mate would be Congressman Paul Ryan, a man who has spent his time as Chairman of the House Budget Committee pushing for policies that the Congressional Budget Office reported would significantly reduce access and cut services to health care programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and CHIP. Then, last week, Mother Jones released a tape in which Romney made this declaration:

“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. There are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent on government, who believe that, that they are victims, who believe that government has the responsibility to care for them. Who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing…

I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives. What I have to do is convince the 5 percent to 10 percent in the center that are independents, that are thoughtful.”

Note the contempt-filled sarcasm Romney used when painting a picture of the group now referred to as “the 47 percent.” In a single stroke, he scornfully dismissed them as individuals who perceive themselves as “victims,” who feel “entitled,” who aren’t “thoughtful” and “won’t take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” Also bear in mind that the term “47 percent” is being applied here to people who doesn’t pay federal income taxes (actually 46%), which includes those who don’t earn enough money for a household of their size to being able to afford the tax, senior citizens, the working poor and low-income parents, and college students who need tax breaks for tuition or other education expenses. Nine out of ten of these individuals earn $50,000 a year or less; almost two-thirds of them work, meaning that they actually pay quite a bit in payroll taxes.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with observing that some of the 47% are lazy moochers who would rather depend on the government than take control of their own lives, and that as such welfare programs need to be careful about addressing that problem. Indeed, that’s a position with which many liberals (see the presidency of Bill Clinton) would agree. By affixing that disparaging characterization to the entire “47%.” However, Romney adopted a mantle of class warriorism that is very ill fitting when worn by an ostensible moderate. After all, just as it is class warfare to claim that all wealthy people are avaricious and malevolent exploiters (a statement that no one outside the radical left would intentionally make), so too is it class warfare to paint all or most of the people who are economically disadvantaged with such a broad brush.

That is the key difference between the economic ideology of a “severe conservative” and the point of view of a moderate conservative. For a perfect articulation of the latter, see this quote from the Republican who coined the term “dynamic conservatism,” President Dwight Eisenhower:

“The very fact that man is a spiritual thing makes it impossible for any durable governmental system to ignore hordes of people who through no fault of their own suddenly find themselves poverty stricken, and far from being able to maintain their families at decent levels, cannot even provide sustenance. Mass production has wrought great things in the world, but it has created social problems that cannot be possibly met under ideas that were probably logical and sufficient in 1800.

What I mean by the ‘Middle of the Road’ is that course that preserves the greatest possible initiative, freedom, and independence of soul and body to the individual, but that does not hesitate to use government to combat cataclysmic economic disasters which can, in some instances, be even more terrible than convulsions of nature.”

In short, a moderate conservative recognizes state economic interventionism as a necessary evil, with the “evil” coming from the state’s potential to hinder “the greatest possible initiative, freedom and independence of soul and body,” and the necessity being born of the fact that a modern government cannot be effective unless it meets its moral and practical obligation to help those whose economic disadvantages have occurred “through no fault of their own.” However, because the “severe conservatives” to whom Romney was appealing insist on removing “necessary” from the “necessary evil” point-of-view, they almost by default depict anyone who winds up on the wrong side of “cataclysmic economic disasters” — be they sudden convulsions like the crashes of 1929 and 2008 or more ingrained structural injustices, like the ones that lead to inner-city poverty or the struggles of a full-time minimum wage lifestyle — as being at fault and thus undeserving of the government’s help. After he chose Ryan as his running mate, we learned that Romney felt this group included the millions of Medicare, Medicaid, and CHIP recipients who will be impacted by the Ryan Budget’s cuts. Now that the “47%” comments have come out, we also know it refers to the working poor, senior citizens, and college students.

This brings me back to the axiom that opened this article. Do you know who else agrees with that axiom? Romney campaign adviser Eric Fehrnstrom, who once commented that after you move to the right to win the Republican presidential primaries, “you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch-A-Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again.” I don’t doubt for a moment that Romney wishes he could do that right now. Given the signs that he may actually be a “severe conservative,” however, the electorate must not let him.

Romney 47 Percent Hot Mic Comments: This Proves Just How Wrong He Is For The American Presidency

Published: PolicyMic (September 18, 2012)

Secret video recordings of comments made by Mitt Romney at a private fundraiser are so appalling that it’s hard to figure out where to even begin analyzing them. I guess the best way is to look at the three main parts.

First there is the Republican presidential nominee’s declaration that 47% of the American people will vote for Barack Obama no matter what because they are “dependent on government” and believe, “that they are victims … that government has the responsibility to care for them … that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing.” As far as Romney is concerned, his “job is not to worry about those people,” since he’ll “never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

What stands out most starkly here is the abject contempt Romney feels for such a large number of his fellow citizens. Like far too many conservatives, Romney refuses to accept the possibility that anyone who votes liberal can be as hard-working, responsible, freedom-loving, and productive as his fellow right-wingers. Not only does this conviction cause them to often play fast and loose with the facts — e.g., of the 46% of Americans who didn’t pay income taxes in 2011 (the group to which Romney was referring), only half were excepted because they didn’t earn enough income, while the other half simply took advantage of various deductions and exemptions — but it leads them to some troubling leaps of logic. As far as he and those who think like him are concerned, the people who disagree with the conservative position on economic questions aren’t simply ideologically misled or factually wrong, but are instead — by the inherent nature of the views they hold — guilty of possessing serious character flaws. This, in turn, disqualifies them from meaningful consideration in the forum of public affairs, which explains Romney’s statement that his job is “not to worry about those people.” Such animus, especially when so intensely felt, borders on being a form of outright bigotry.

Besides, if Romney was well-versed in American history, he would understand that the Founding Fathers were by no means inherently opposed to interventionist economic policies (see my March editorial on that subject). Just as significantly, he would be able to find countless spokesmen for the progressive cause who explained our reasoning with an insight and eloquence of which Romney is utterly incapable. Perhaps the best among these was the one stated by President Franklin Roosevelt back in 1944, near the end of World War II, when he devoted a passage of his State of the Union message to an ideological formulation subsequently dubbed the Economic Bill of Rights. In light of its relevance as a rebuttal to Romney’s position, it deserves — scratch that, needs — to be read in full:

This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights—among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. They were our rights to life and liberty.

As our nation has grown in size and stature, however—as our industrial economy expanded—these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.

We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. ‘Necessitous men are not free men.’ People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.

In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all — regardless of station, race, or creed.

Among these are:

The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation;

The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;

The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;

The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;

The right of every family to a decent home;

The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;

The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;

The right to a good education.

All of these rights spell security. And after this war is won we must be prepared to move forward, in the implementation of these rights, to new goals of human happiness and well-being.

America’s own rightful place in the world depends in large part upon how fully these and similar rights have been carried into practice for our citizens.

Romney’s derision for the millions of liberal and left-of-center Americans who will vote against him was matched by his equally disturbing assumptions about Latinos:

“My dad, as you probably, know was the governor of Michigan and was the head of a car company. But he was born in Mexico … and, uh, had he been born of, uh, Mexican parents, I’d have a better shot at winning this. But he was unfortunately born to Americans living in Mexico … I mean I say that jokingly, but it would be helpful to be Latino.”

While his defenders will no doubt dismiss this comment as merely being an attempt at humor, this “joke” is a case study in that old axiom about how comedy can expose the unspoken perceptions held by those who use it. When Romney claims that he would have been better off as a Latino, he insultingly assumes that Hispanic voters would blindly support any candidate who happens to share their ethnic background, regardless of his or her qualifications or ideological convictions. Even worse, he minimizes the consequences of that racism which continues to worsen the lives of Hispanic Americans, from the racial profiling practiced on the streets of Arizona and the disproportionate poverty in which Latinos are mired to the prevailing notion that Hispanics are “less American” than the rest of us (for more on that, see this incident which occurred at Romney’s own convention only a couple of weeks ago).

Finally, Romney reminisced about a visit to a Chinese factory back when he was still CEO of Bain Capital (Bain could not say whether this factory was owned by one of the companies in which they would later invest). After recalling how the plant employed 20,000 young women by crowding them into dormitory style housing, and how the factory itself was surrounded by a fence topped with barbed wire, Romney claimed that the people there actually embraced these working conditions, and that indeed the enclosure was meant to keep prospective laborers out rather than the current workers inside. The moral of this anecdote, Romney concluded, was summed up by “the Bain partner I was with” when he “turned to me and said, you know, 95% of life is settled if you are born in America.”

This passage is offensive on two levels. The first and most obvious is the degree to which it underscores Romney’s role in the outsourcing of American jobs that was so prevalent during his own big business career. More significant, however, is the manner in which it dismisses the suffering being endured by so many Americans today. Most thoughtful and sensitive people would agree that life in a developed country is vastly superior to that in an under-developed nation, and that as such we should thank our lucky stars to have been born American. To go from that point, however, to Romney’s assertion — i.e., that this means “95% of life is settled if you are born” in America, and by implication that we should somehow minimize or be less outraged by those economic injustices and crippling inequalities that do indeed exist — is not just glib, it’s unforgivably callous. There is real hardship in America today, as millions of the unemployed struggle to find work after it evaporated thanks to Bush’s economic policies and millions more struggle to make ends meet with the insufficient compensation offered by their current jobs. Before these remarks were made public, one might have argued that Romney didn’t “get it” because his affluent background made him out of touch. Now it’s impossible to believe that his failure to understand the problems facing so many Americans is anything other than willful.

I won’t speculate here as to whether these comments will damage Romney’s bid for the presidency. All that needs to be observed at this time is that, more than ever before, they reinforce the manner in which the choice to be made by the American people seven weeks from today will be an especially historic one. Whether the majority of our electorate responds to these comments with applause, contempt, or indifference will speak volumes the political direction in which our nation is headed. After all, what will it say about our country if we are willing to elect a president who, as Obama’s campaign manager accurately pointed out, is willing to “disdainfully write off half the nation.”

Barack Obama Must Ask $2,000 Question

Published: The Morning Call (September 6, 2012), PolicyMic (September 6, 2012)

More than a month ago, the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center revealed that Mitt Romney’s proposed tax cuts for the affluent will require him to increase taxes on middle-class families by an average of $2,000 a year.

Since then, President Obama has put a calculator on his campaign website to help ordinary citizens calculate exactly how much their taxes will go up under a Romney administration. Occasionally he even mentions this statistic in his speeches. Apart from that, however, he has done little else with this precious information.

The fact that he has not transformed this figure into “The $2,000 Question” goes a long way toward explaining why he is in danger of losing.

It is not, as his opponents like to claim, because of the economy. While voters generally aren’t pleased with Obama’s performance on that front — a recent CBS News poll found that 55% disapproved of how he has handled economic issues, compared to only 39% who approve — this doesn’t work against the president as much as his critics suggest.

As an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed this summer far more Americans believe that Obama inherited this economic crisis from his predecessor, George W. Bush, than that he caused these conditions himself (60% to 26%).

That doesn’t free the president from the responsibility for cleaning up this mess. However, it does mean that this election is generally perceived not as a contest between a candidate whose brand is conflated with a poor economy and one freed from that burden (as was the case with Roosevelt and Hoover in 1932, Reagan and Carter in 1980, and Clinton and Bush in 1992), but rather as a choice between two competing approaches to dealing with a pre-existing crisis (as was the case with Roosevelt and Landon in 1936, Reagan and Mondale in 1984, and Clinton and Dole in 1996). That notion has been reinforced by past polls that showed, before Romney’s PR offensive, voters had not decisively backed either candidate as being superior on the economic front.

Of course, now that Republicans have aggressively cranked up their offensive against Obama, those numbers have begun to shift more decisively to Romney’s favor. The last time CBS News poll took the nation’s temperature, 52% felt Romney would better handle the economy, compared to only 38% for the president. Even so, the fact that those figures have fluctuated in the past indicates that they aren’t set in stone.

The good news is that the president has incontrovertible evidence that can destroy Romney’s claim to being the better candidate on economic issues. The bad news is that he seems to have no idea what to do with it.

Simply shuffling it into a larger potpourri of attacks against Romney isn’t enough. Because voters are bombarded with information during the course of an election campaign, they generally will only walk away with one or two key details as to the message each side is sending about its opponent.

Obama’s strategy up to now has been to throw everything he can think of at Romney and hope that some of it sticks, from pointing out Romney’s refusal to release his tax returns to condemning the misogynistic stances of the conservative base.

Romney, on the other hand, has wisely maintained a sharp focus on the message he believes will best work to his advantage — that Obama should be blamed for our economic problems and that the only solution is to replace Obama with him. As a result, while most voters can easily reiterate the case Romney has made for his candidacy, they are generally confused as to reasons Obama has offered as to why he should receive their vote.

The Tax Policy Center’s findings offer him the clearest opportunity to change that. For one thing, polls already show voters feel Obama is more sympathetic to the needs of the working class than Romney, a perception obviously reinforced by last month’s report.

More important, however, is the simple fact that widely disseminating this information would fatally undermine Romney’s ability to claim he is the best candidate for voters’ pocketbooks. While average Americans don’t begrudge the affluent for their success, they certainly don’t believe they should be forced to pay more so the rich can have a few extra breaks. Since that is what Romney proposes to do, Obama owes it to the American people to make sure they are aware of that.

Indeed, if Obama loses in November and has not made “The $2,000 Question” into a household term, he will have no one but himself to blame for his defeat.

Who Won the Debate Tonight: Romney is Winner for the Media, Big Loser is Moderator Jim Lehrer

Published: PolicyMic (October 3, 2012)

Editor’s Note: This represents instant analysis of the presidential debate on Wednesday night. For the author’s thoughts in the hour immediately before the debate began, see here.

[To see who won the third and final presidential debate, see here]

Here are my first impressions about the first debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney on Wednesday evening:

1) The Big Points

– Twitter monitors have found that Romney’s Big Bird comment is trending. Clearly he was trying to be funny, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing – e.g., his self-deprecating joke about how Obama and his wife would probably rather not see him on their anniversary was humanizing and clever. The problem with the Big Bird quip, though, is that it was so absurd that it’ll no doubt provide the Obama camp with an easy punchline at Romney’s expense in the future. Telling a man employed by PBS that he wishes to cut that station’s budget may be ballsy, but declaring “I love Big Bird” takes things too far.

– Both candidates were at their wonkiest tonight. The upshot for each of them is that this kind of detail-heavy content is catnip for their bases; I could practically imagine rooms full of Obama and Romney partisans pumping their fists and cheering when their champions mentioned their major points on the tax code, health care policy, job creation, education, etc. (and no doubt thinking those “truths” will certainly win them the election). At the same time, studies have shown that people who are that familiar with policy minutiae have already made up their minds as to which candidate they’re going to support. To win over swing voters – the ones who aren’t already determined to vote for Obama or Romney – you need to cut through the talking points and heavy data and speak to a fundamental truth even the other side couldn’t deny. Ronald Reagan did it during his debate with Jimmy Carter when he asked voters if they were better off than they were four years earlier; Bill Clinton did it during his debate with Bob Dole when he reminded everyone of how well they were doing at the time and how they should want to continue it in the future. Neither Obama nor Romney did that tonight.

2) Some Smaller Points

– Jim Lehrer was the big loser tonight. By allowing the candidates to regularly interrupt each other, talk over him, disregard the time restrictions, and even treat him to a gentle chiding or two, he allowed himself to look like he was in over his head. Even he acknowledged this near the end, and although Obama tried to reassure him, it wasn’t convincing. This has probably damaged his reputation a little bit.

– Tonally speaking, Romney was belligerent and Obama was deferential. This was to be expected, given that the latter is currently ahead in the polls.

– Romney may have quoted Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s immortal line – “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” – but as a man who has read as much as he could get his hands on about Moynihan, I am fairly confident that he would not have thought too highly of Romney.

3) The Bottom Line

– Substantively, Obama won the people who will already vote Democratic, Romney won the people who will already vote Republican, and the swing voters are just as confused as ever.

– Remember that, as I pointed out earlier, the media has a tendency “to try to make political stories as ‘exciting’ as possible, and as such, usually tend to award ‘victory’ to whichever participant in a debate was perceived as the ‘underdog’ going into it.” Because Romney has been on the defensive for the past few weeks, they will try to spin this as Obama being on the defensive throughout the debate. That, after all, is the way Romney can have a comeback from his “underdog” story. I expect Romney will experience a brief bounce in the polls from this. Then he’ll become the favorite and Obama will be the underdog, at which point the media will use the expectations game at the challenger’s expense. Just watch.