Sunday, October 28, 2012

Waiting for a Tsunami in Low-Lying Honolulu

Results in Hawaii of the March, 2011 tsunami
So I was just talking to my family in Seattle as Shabbat ended here in Honolulu, catching up on the day when suddenly, I heard the familiar screech of the tsunami sirens, blasting out in the warm night. I was home alone, my friends and hosts out at a movie I deemed too tense for my taste.

I didn't know about any earthquake, but of course during Shabbat I'm off the news-loop, so my first thought was it was some kind of test or malfunction of the siren system. But no--the blaring, ear-piercing scream persisted.

I turned on local TV and was shocked to hear urgent warnings about an expected wall of water, and as I write this, the first wave blast is due in less than an hour. as I type, I hear warnings on the radio: turn off your computers. Turn off the lights and get out. The lines at gas stations are now long, as scared residents all seek to top off their tanks; supermarkets are busy with purchases of emergency supplies. On the radio: take your prescription medicines; take 5-7 days' food, including pet food, battery powered flashlights, eyeglasses, important papers in waterproof containers. Refuge centers are opening. Mike Buck, a local radio host I happen to know, is urging listeners to help neighbors out of their homes. Anyone lower than 4 floors in a beach-area hotel has to move upward.

Traffic in my area is jammed; reports two blocks away say it's moving at 3 mph. I packed my suitcase, but everyone here is just not worked up, having done this before in March of 2011 after the Japan quake--I was visiting at the time, joining my friends in filling the car and driving up the hill to the home of a neighbor.

There we watched on TV when the waves came in--cameras at various beach-points showed the whole process, the surf withdrawing especially far, a frightening pause, and then the tsunami surges rolling in, one long, deep wave after the other. A tsunami can last for hours; it's not the TV terror of a huge, hungry surf-type wave that devours all in its path in one gulp.

Probably the most suspenseful part is now, the last minutes before the expected impact. Tsunamis don't hit a single side of the islands--instead, they wrap around and hit all the shores, meaning the uncertainty affects all. So, rather than keep typing (and using the battery on my laptop), I suppose it would be prudent to leave now... with prayers (and expectations) that this tsunami, too, will be great for story-telling but minimal in its result. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Last Presidential Debate: Won't Change Anything

Yes, the president was aggressive and learned to look intently at Romney for those split-screen shots. Yes, Romney knew his strong suit was calling the president on his less-than-stellar domestic record. There were some tense, uncomfortable moments, and a few zingers, but in the end, the only question is "what does it mean?" and the answer is, "Not much."

First off, lots of potential viewers were already "debated out" after the first confrontation where Romney showed himself presidential and the president "had a nice, long nap," as he quipped to the Al Smith dinner last week, plus the Biden-Ryan chuckle-fest and the Town Hall Candy Crowley confrontation. Second off, people care about the economy and care far less about the complicated, bloody ins-and-outs of foreign relations.

That left the real die-hards to sit through this last debate and root for their favorites, because barring some jaw-dropping blooper, the real undecideds are not likely to vote based on what was or was not said this late in the game.

Even we who are invested in this campaign took a little snooze in the middle of this debate, when both guys reiterated their points and sounded confusing and boring. At the beginning, a combative president tried to nab the governor on changing positions, saying aptly given the topic, he was "all over the map," but after lots of verbiage, it seemed they had few differences. Both want out of Afghanistan by 2014; both say Assad of Syria has "got to go" (Obama) or "must go" (Romney). Neither supported Mubarak in Egypt, and both want America to be strong, "the one indispensable nation" (Obama) and "the mantle of leadership for promoting the principles of peace" (Romney).

So the meat of the debate covered the American economy, and focus groups on TV afterward said that was the issue that would determine their votes, anyway. Romney again, as in previous debates, enumerated his five-point plan for returning the nation to prosperity. This is where the interchange got good, because then Obama went on the offensive, answering Romney's plan with accusations rather than plans of his own. "First of all, Governor Romney talks about small businesses, but Governor, when you were in Massachusetts, small businesses' development ranked about 48, I think, out of 50 states" He went on to jab his opponent on hiring teachers, forcing Romney on the defensive, reminding Obama that his state's students rank first in the nation.

The two got into a redeux of their previous debate on balancing the budget and military spending, with Romney's zap about sequestration as the source of problems met with Obama's surprising assertion that it "will not happen," which after the debate was the subject of back-pedaling by Spin-Room advisors. He followed that up with a sarcastic jab at Romney's comment that "the Navy budget is smaller now than any time since 1917": "Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets — (laughter) — because the nature of our military's changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines."

And we have this thing called respect, which the President provided mighty frugally.

Israel was an important issue where Romney could have been more aggressive. He mentioned Obama's campaign swing through the middle East four years ago, "skipping" Israel, but he never mentioned the meeting Prime Minister Netanyahu requested this August that Obama "skipped" in favor of a TV gig on The Late Show with David Letterman. Romney did remind us of the Obama desire to "put daylight" between the US and Israel, but both men assured viewers they'd "stand with" Israel, or "have Israel's back" should Iran attack. It was a spirited interchange, but very little new came out of it.

More memorable was the number of times each candidate discredited the other. When they both got frustrated, they devolved into "check the record." Listening to TV post-debate fact-checkers, it seems Romney was more accurate, but at the time, viewers' reward was a  little wake-up jolt.

China got some play, with Romney's intention to immediately declare the nation a "currency manipulator" spurring a follow-up from moderator Bob Scheiffer as to how that would affect the relationship. Notable, though, was Romney's mention that trade with Latin American was ripe for development, as its economy "is almost as big as the economy of China." The discussion of China, though, seemed pretty redundant, both candidates noting that the nation needs to "play by the rules" regarding counterfeit goods and currency. Yawn.

If you waited out the conversation to its end, you heard two well-delivered final statements, neither surprising. What I learned later, though, was that apparently Gov. Romney, suffering from a debilitating flu, refused suggestions to postpone the debate. Someone in the campaign called it "a 10 on the sick scale." Knowing that, I give the guy kudos.

I'm sure he's glad it's over with, as are we all. I could almost hear the TV remotes clicking off as the tense minutes ticked on, and at the beginning, I fathomed lots of them clicking to other channels. Flicking around TV commentary afterward, I found conservatives calling the debate for Romney and liberals for Obama. Those who saw the entire hour and a half probably shmushed it all together and proclaimed it a draw.

The good news from my perspective is that the evening's tete-a-tete likely won't affect the trajectory of a campaign that seems to be favoring Romney more and more. The debates have served to humanize the governor, and prove him to have presidential knowledge and demeanor (despite an annoying mini-stutter), and to allow the public to picture him in the role of POTUS. Obama didn't need or gain any of that, and in fact his first-debate flub, witnessed by 67 million people, was the harbinger of his demise.

The election is already underway. We in Washington State received our ballots last week for our all-mail-in voting. These last few days, with its media bombardments, are enough to deter folks from turning on radio or TV or answering the phone to robo calls. Even my email is accompanied by those obnoxious moving banner ads. I think everyone including the undecideds have made up their minds, and the ones who vote (many won't) will stick to old allegiances or confirm that, as James Carville coined for a successful Bill Clinton, "it's the economy, stupid," and give Romney the nod.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

2nd Presidential Debate: Romney remains strong; Obama regains his verve

Watching the second of three presidential debates, this one a Town Hall format at Hoftstra University in Hempstead, NY was a tense experience for me. I was among 200 gathered in Bellingham, Washington under the auspices of the Whatcom County GOP, viewing the debate, hearing my husband's analysis, and sharing observations.

The consensus in my venue was, predictably, that Romney won. However, most felt that Obama's forceful demeanor, despite seldom answering questions head-on, compensated for the president's woeful performance in the first debate October 3, when by the end, he basically slunk off stage in shame.

The opening portion of the debate centered around energy, and Obama dodged a legit question about $4 gas becoming "the new normal," instead reiterating his desire to use resources we've got toward energy independence. He never revealed why the price of gas doubled under his watch, except to finally say when pressed that the $1.86 per gallon average when he came to office reflected an economy "on the verge of collapse." Meanwhile, Romney lost some of his precious time engaging the president in a back-and-forth over the dull point of the amount of public lands drilling permits he allowed.

Boring topic; head-to-head combat engrossing. How can you look away when you're just waiting for one of them to push over the line and call the other a liar? How can you relax when both debaters so blithely talk over moderator Candy Crowley with their accusations and corrections? When the TV cameras following the speakers include views of timers ticking through each's allotted two minutes, changing from green to white to red and finally off as the candidates charge way beyond with their answers? You're on needles wondering when Candy will command a stop, and she never does.

Answers on lowering taxes were more comprehensible and even informative. Romney enumerated the many ways Americans have been "crushed" economically during Obama's term, one of his fave memes, and then offered something new--the idea that taxpayers might select their deductions from a "bucket" of traditional choices, like child care, home mortgage or college, with no taxes for the middle class on investments or savings. That definitely sounded liberating, despite the on-camera audience staying stony-faced like cardboard cutouts no matter who said what the entire time.

Obama's tax response was equal measure attacking Romney for preserving cuts for the rich and touting his efforts on behalf of the middle class, which he said save them $3,600 annually. He zinged Romney for a 60 Minutes response the governor gave defending lower tax rates for capital gains, fudging by saying Romney called it "fair" when he really had explained how it differed from earned income.

And of course the president couldn't resist mentioning Big Bird and Planned Parenthood as Romney cuts. In fact, Planned Parenthood was an Obama meme that Romney never rebutted, as he should have. Meanwhile, the president ticked off Romney's proposed tax cuts, which he said total $7 trillion. In a strong touche, Romney called that "foreign to what my real plan is," zapping Obama for a $4 trillion additional annual national debt while in office, which "puts us on the road to Greece."  Now, that was fun.

The following portion about women's inequality was a yawner, though. Neither candidate could say the real truth, which is that despite women now comprising the majority of college graduates, their lower-than-men's average pay far less reflects misogyny 40 years post-feminism, than priorities that place family above work demands, and work's psychic reward above competitive salary advantage. Romney's recollection of seeking out women for his gubernatorial cabinet yielded a new buzz-phrase, "binders of women." All those talented ladies are out there, waiting in their binders to be tapped for high office.

Obama's citing the Lily Ledbetter bill as his accomplishment, without mentioning its purpose (to extend the amount of time women can sue for workplace discrimination), fell flat. His mention of Romney's defunding of Planned Parenthood as a "pocketbook issue," though, worked better.

Gov. Romney's concise response to differences between himself and George Bush was masterful, enumerated clearly. Obama's retort scolding Romney for investing in Chinese companies, however, backfired later, when the Governor noted the president, too, held such investments. And the accusation that Romney would "turn Medicare into a voucher" just doesn't sound that ominous; the seeming spectre of illegal immigrants' "self-deportation" came off as quite reasonable, once Romney elaborated on it.

Asked by a disillusioned 2008 Obama voter why he deserves continued support, the president offered an acceptable litany of his accomplishments--that were smashed by Romney's list of evidences of Obama's failure. His bottom line: "The president has tried, but his policies haven't worked. He's great as a speaker and describing his plans and his vision. That's wonderful, except we have a record to look at. And that record shows he just hasn't been able to cut the deficit, to put in place reforms for Medicare and Social Security to preserve them, to get us the rising incomes we need..." What a respectful way to say the POTUS is untruthful.

But the zenith of excitement came with the candidates' dispute about the handling of the attack on the Libyan embassy. Did Obama call it an act of terror in his Rose Garden press conference the following day? "Get the transcript," insisted an irritated Obama, who holds he immediately termed the assassination of four Americans including Ambassador Chris Stevens terrorism. No, claimed Gov. Romney, " took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror." Well, Candy Crowley knows: she interjected that the president did in the Rose Garden indeed call it an act of terror. Not her purview in the debate, and besides, she was wrong. But the night's most startling and memorable moment.

From there, predictable answers to questions on assault weapons, outsourcing jobs, and "misperceptions about you," a query neither candidate answered but used as their summaries. Whew. Both sides can say their guy held his own, and Obama's fans can feel relief that he redeemed his pathetic performance from before.

The event in Hempstead was not a game-changer, but in the end, I thought Romney continued his winning confident assertiveness. Obama's final image was tighter-strung, on the offensive. When it comes down to it, the impressions audiences take away of each man are more significant an influence than the content of their answers. I predict continued strength for Romney as Americans become ever-more-comfortable with his persona. There's one more debate next week, on the topic of international relations, but I believe that for most, opinions will by then be set.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Biden-Ryan Vice-Presidential Debate: Cringe

Too many cringes to make the Vice Presidential debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan pleasant. Enough missed retaliations and corrections to feel like a lot was conceded. Mannerly smile-smirks met by toothy chuckles; words smothered by rude interjections.

Is this a bad haiku or two men who might be called upon to lead our nation's military?

You could see they were both well-practiced, Biden in his role as froth-mouthed attack dog aiming to make up for the feckless performance of his boss Obama in last week's first presidential candidate debate. But which of Biden's handlers approved his inappropriate laughter? With the split-screen Fox provided, Biden's toothy chortles while Ryan spoke seriously about terrorism were distracting (as Biden intended, I'm sure) but served only to make the current VP seem obnoxiously rude. These outbursts early in the debate showed such lack of respect that they're probably the single most-remembered aspect of the evening.

Ryan set his role as the confident intellectual prepared to parry Biden's jabs and keep focus like a laser beam on the failures of hope-and-change to revitalize the economy.

Both challengers knew what to expect, and applied their strategies in annoying ways. At the end, both had some meaty paragraphs and flubs. With Biden's giggles and Ryan's restraint when response would've helped, it could be called a draw.

Watching the debate in a theater with 250 listeners of the Michael Medved Show allowed instant, audible reactions, just where you'd expect conservatives to offer them. But I attempted to perceive the interaction through the eyes of an Obamaite, and as such found many places where Biden's stutters and hesitations could be overlooked in favor of never-refuted arguments.

Such as: the idea that Romney and conservative lawmakers "hold hostage" tax cuts for the middle class in order to protect them for the wealthiest. Such as his answer on abortion saying he "wouldn't impose" his Catholic life-begins-at-conception belief on those of other faiths, and "wouldn't interfere" with the Supreme Court. Ryan gave a serviceable answer on the role of his own Catholicism (recalling the ultrasound of his first child) but seemed to imply that Romney-Ryan might work to further their "policy" against abortion except in cases of rape, incest and danger to the life of the mother.

More score for Biden: Insisting that our troops would withdraw from Afghanistan by the planned 2014 replaced by Afghani troops they'd trained. Ryan kept repeating that a withdrawal would endanger the remainder of US soldiers, and seemed deaf to Biden's assurance they'd only leave when replaced by locals. Biden had a "gotcha" moment when he recalled Ryan's letter asking for some Stimulus money for a local project, right after Ryan put down the Stimulus package as wasteful and ineffective.

But Biden had plenty of missteps. As a commenter at our viewing said afterward, "If somebody has to tell me to trust him, I won't." Like this retort on Medicare: "These guys haven't been big on Medicare from the beginning, and they've always been about Social Security as little as you can do. (turns to camera) Look, folks, use your common sense. Who do you trust on this? A man who introduced a bill that would raise it $6,400 a year, knowing it and passing it, and Romney saying he'd sign it? Or me and the president?"

Biden did well to use the "talk directly to the camera" strategy, which he employed three times. Also on Medicare: "Any senior out there, ask yourself: Do you have more benefits today? You do. If you're near the doughnut hole, you have $600 more to help your prescription drug costs. You get wellness visits without copays...Now they got a new plan. Trust me, it's not going to cost you any more. Folks, follow your instincts on this one."

Ryan kept his gaze on the moderator, Martha Raddatz, which gave viewers at home an angled view of his face. He only looked squarely into the camera for his masterful summary statement, a pity, because when you felt he was focusing on you, he was superbly sympathetic. He gave Biden and the camera only a few cursory glances the rest of the time, so Biden's spaced-out full-frontal pleas reminded viewers he was aware of them, a definite advantage.

Ryan used the same tool three times to discredit Biden assertions: "You see, if you don't have a good record to run on, then you paint your opponent as someone to run from. That was what President Obama said in 2008. It's what he's (Biden's) doing right now." It was good the first time.  Advice to Romney for the next debate: Don't talk about your opponent's tactics unless you need filler and can't directly answer what he's saying.

Ryan's restraint at Biden's incessant interruptions at least allowed him a civility that seemed presidential. And when he did grab a few sentences, they hit the President's failures hard, like this: "Let's not forget that they came in with one-party control. When Barack Obama was elected, his party controlled everything. They had the ability to do everything of their choosing, and look at where we are right now. They passed a stimulus, the idea that we could borrow $831 billion, spend it on all these special interest groups and that it would work out just fine, that unemployment would never get to 8 percent. It went up above 8 percent for 43 months. They said that right now, if we just pass this stimulus, the economy would grow at 4 percent. It's growing at 1.3 (percent)."

Truth is, the take-away for viewers was formed in the first 10 minutes, and as the discussion ambled in a series of interruptions through a lot of confusing foreign events and policy, remote controls were clicking off across America. And that take-away was an earnest, focused Paul Ryan swatting away the disrespectful, chuckling insertions by Joe Biden, whose know-it-all finger-wagging and jiggle-jawed insistence was distinguished not by its substance, but by its style and tone.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Reactions to The Romney-Obama Debate (watching in a theater with Michael Medved)

Michael Medved & Dave Boze analyzing first presidential debate
It didn't take long for the direction of last night's first presidential candidate debate, between Mitt Romney and Pres. Obama, to be set. For me, it was when Mitt broke early tension with his acknowledgement of Obama's wedding anniversary: "I'm sure this was the most romantic place you could imagine (to spend it), here with me..."

From there it was Mitt putting out facts and figures, quickly correcting Obama's mischaracterizations of his positions, and unflinchingly talking directly to his challenger. As the debate raged on, Mitt stayed collected and continued to face Pres. Obama and the camera, while Obama appeared increasingly exasperated, with eyes cast down greater proportions of the time. The climax of the president's loser delivery was, ironically, his final uninterrupted opportunity to make a good impression, the three minute summary. He glanced at the camera (and its 58 million viewers, to whom he was speaking) occasionally, mostly gazing downward uncomfortably. Romney, by contrast, looked squarely into the camera, conversationally reiterating the points of his plan to elevate the economy, hammering home his oft-repeated goal of creating jobs.

Sometimes it seemed Obama was so stuck in his talking points he couldn't respond to what everyone heard Romney just say. For example, after Romney put forth his five-point plan for turning around the economy, Obama's response was to suggest that his opponent hasn't offered anything specific to do just that.

Early on, Romney turned around the term "trickle down," usually a a slam against the selfish and evil 1% who Obama says ought to be paying "their fair share" to support the sagging economy. (Of course, progressive income taxing already sees to it that those earning more pay a greater percentage in taxes.) Romney cleverly bashed "trickle down government," Obama's grandiose scheme to help poorer earners by expanding programs on the federal level.

It was great that one focus of the debate was the debt, which gave Romney a field day repeating the increase in the level of deficit between Obama's entry to office and the present. He had equal fun detailing the list of Obama green energy failures, gleefully addressing his opponent: "but don’t forget, you put $90 billion -- like 50 years worth of [tax] breaks -- into solar and wind, to Solyndra and Fisker and Tesla and Ener1. I mean, I had a friend who said, you don’t just pick the winners and losers; you pick the losers." Another chuckle.

Obama tried to play into a general dislike for big corporations, suggesting he'd hike their taxes: "the oil industry gets $4 billion a year in corporate welfare. Basically, they get deductions that those small businesses that Governor Romney refers to, they don’t get. Now, does anybody think that ExxonMobil needs some extra money when they’re making money every time you go to the pump? Why wouldn’t we want to eliminate that?"

I thought for sure Romney would answer, "Because people don't like paying more for their gas, especially given that when you came into office gas was $1.79 a gallon, and now it's actually doubled." (Gas prices in California averaged $4.23/gallon this week; averages here in Seattle are a hair lower.)

Obama told only a few anecdotes, but the most detailed described his maternal grandmother's need for government help: "She worked her way up, only had a high school education, started as a secretary, ended up being the vice president of a local bank. And she ended up living alone by choice. And the reason she could be independent was because of Social Security and Medicare."

Except that easily-accessible biographies say Madelyn Lee Payne Dunham attended both the University of Washington and the University of California, Berkeley, top-twenty colleges.

A major component of the debate was Obamacare, which the president confessed has become a term he enjoys (narcissism?). The discussion, however, didn't seem centered on why it's so wonderful but instead why it shouldn't be scrapped. Two of its features, mandatory coverage of existing conditions and coverage until age 26, were touted by the president, and claimed by Romney as the only two aspects worth salvaging. Romney got no push-back when he repeated that $716 billion for Obamacare was taken from the Medicare budget, and would be restored under his presidency. This played into what polls reveal--people don't want Medicare dismantled, and don't like that Obamacare was imposed, especially since most already see hikes in their premiums.

What drew the most laughter in the theater venue where I watched (my husband and another radio host providing analysis and fielding comments) was Romney's good-naturedly-delivered dig on Obama's assertion that businesses relocating get US tax benefits: " said you get a deduction for getting a plant overseas. Look, I’ve been in business for 25 years. I have no idea what you’re talking about. I maybe need to get a new accountant."

Viewers in the hall with me (almost all pro-Romney) seeing the event on an enormous screen could scrutinize Romney's and Obama's faces. One asked, "Did you see Obama's eye started twitching a few minutes into it, and kept doing that until the end?" "Obama seemed aged, tired and nervous." And yet, a hands-raised survey before the debate revealed that at least half had been anxious about which candidate would prevail.

As Romney maintained his ease, and Obama seemed to sink into defeat, the level of joviality in the room increased. At the end, a joyful group helped celebrate my husband's birthday with a kosher cake, and renewed confidence that indeed The Odds Against Obama have bloomed.