Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Predictable Results

cross-posted from Dagblog

The Eastern Seaboard is getting clobbered by a combined late-season hurricane and blizzard, flooding large areas and knocking out electricity in even larger areas. As I write this, the New York City subways are flooded, there has been an explosion at a Con Edison power station, and a large parts of Rockaway are burning while firefighters, trapped by the floodwaters, are helpless to stop it.

Once-in-a-lifetime storms like this one have always existed. But the increasing frequency of massive storms, coming much much faster than only once a lifetime, is one of the results predicted by the standard model for catastrophic global warning. That doesn't mean that Hurricane Sandy (aka the Frankenstorm) is necessarily a result of climate change, the way the shrinking polar ice obviously is. But climate change models do predict that there would be many more storms like this, and the last ten years have certainly had a hell of a lot of fierce weather events. Of course, many people in the media denounce the very idea of climate change as "junk science"

The storm is knock out millions of people's electricity a week before a presidential election. This is largely because we have allowed our infrastructure to age and weaken, until our bridges and roads and power grids are too creaky and brittle for an emergency. The problems with this have been predicted for many years, but those who advocated public rebuilding of our national infrastructure were denounced as spendthrifts, wasting the public's money and "holding back" the entrepreneurial economy.

The election itself is on a knife's edge, largely because the economy is in the doldrums, despite the half-sized stimulus package President Obama passed at the beginning of his term. Some economists, most famously Paul Krugman, predicted at the time that such an undersized stimulus (less than half the size of the demand that the American economy had lost in the downturn) would fail to spur sufficient growth, make future stimulus packages politically impossible (because the first would "prove" that stimulus spending "doesn't work"), and lead the President into an uphill slog of an election campaign in a depressed economy. All of those things have happened. But for saying so in advance, Krugman was widely called unreasonable, partisan, and shrill. He continues to be called those things.

This week, as the election remains close and different approaches to reading polls yield different indications about which candidate is more likely to win, a wide range of media voices ranging from professional conservatives at the National Review to self-described centrists like David Brooks and Politico launched on attack on the poll analyst Nate Silver of 538.com for the high crime and misdemeanor of favoring state-by-state polling data over the headline numbers from national tracking polls. What apparently provoked this pack-mentality assault was that Silver did not endorse the idea that Mitt Romeny was continuing to surge in the polls after, well, after Romney ceased gaining in the polls.  Eventually, some of Silver's attackers (some of whom had gotten very personal indeed) realized that nearly every poll-averaging outfit was producing results much like Silver's; this led some of them (such as noted statistical genius Jennifer Rubin) to denounce poll averaging itself.

There's some grim humor in the attack on Silver, such as his critics' displays of colossal mathematical illiteracy (some of his attackers cannot distinguish between predicting that Barack Obama has 70% chance of winning the election and predicting that Obama will win the election in a 70-30 blowout), and their even more colossal displays of hypocrisy (various pundits who have been horribly mistaken over and over, without an ounce of chagrin, have pompously declared that if Silver is wrong about the upcoming election he will be permanently disgraced. Disgraced, I say! Just like Joe Scarborough was that time that he was wrong about every single thing that happened in the Bush Administration.) But there's something simply grim here, too, because the sudden outburst of rage suggests how our media actually works and how they treat the business of prediction.

If Nate Silver's approach to handicapping the election is wrong (and of course it could be), we'll know in a week. And Silver's critics, if they only believed he was wrong, could just wait for him to be proved wrong, the way I wait out loudmouths in sports bars. But simply not predicting that Romney would win after the media storyline had changed to Romney's Irresistible Momentum was enough to provoke a wide-spread attack. To predict something that the establishment finds politically inconvenient is considered an outrage. And to base that prediction in rational analysis of data only makes it more unacceptable. When people like the pundits who attacked Silver this week talk about "facts," they don't mean facts. They mean socially-produced ideas of reality, established by influential insiders and handed down to the rest of us. Anyone who publicly contradicts that socially approved "reality" is disrupting business and inconveniencing the powerful, and that cannot be allowed. Carefully-constructed reality-based models only make the crime worse.

The global-warming hypothesis, based on careful analysis of enormous quantities of data, is not acceptable to the powers that be, because accepting that reality would force them to change the way they arrange things, the way they conduct their business and make their political decisions. Those arrangements outweigh any facts. The reality of our crumbling infrastructure is likewise inconvenient, because it would require sensible taxation and a rational approach to public finance. Paul Krugman's model for the how large the stimulus needed to be was likewise inconvenient, because it did not fit in with existing political agendas. How dare he make predictions without taking into account what K Street considered reasonable?

Our country has allowed the perspective of insiders and elites, a perspective that treats ongoing power games as the most fundamental reality, to crowd out actual reality. When science, mathematics, or simple common sense threatens to interfere with the results of those games, or render them moot, then science, math, and common sense are ruled out of order. But there's a price to be paid for running the world as if Beltway games were more real than physics, and that price is extremely high. The price is that our country fails to deal with easily foreseeable problems, and instead makes them vastly worse than they needed to be. After a while, it means our system runs a danger of failing completely. And that failure is all too predictable.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Stand Up for Obama

I don't have anything to say about the election today. It's crunch time.
If you're ready to knock on some doors, makes some phone calls, or dig deep for one last donation, the Obama campaign could use you. Just follow the link.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Reality Is the Enemy: Romney's Foreign Policy

cross-posted from Dagblog

So tonight Mitt Romney is going to try to outflank President Obama on foreign policy. Romney doesn't know much about foreign policy, but both Romney and Obama represent long-standing traditions of American thought on international security. The President represents the practical tradition designed to guide policy by the party in office, whichever party that is. Romney speaks for the strand that is designed only for opposition figures. Romney's tradition was developed not to protect America from foreign enemies but to attack domestic political opponents, and it has no other genuine value.

A quick bit of history on where these two strands of thoughts come from:

After World War II, a bipartisan foreign policy consensus emerged in American politics, and there was never much daylight between the major parties or mainstream presidential candidates. (The previous major foreign policy debate, between the internationalists and the isolationists, was effectively closed by the Japanese in December 1941.) Both the Republicans and Democrats were Cold Warriors, dedicated to a policy of containing the Soviet Union. The containment policy stresses both syllables in "Cold War"; it treated the Soviets as an antagonist to be steadily opposed by every means possible except for an all-out military confrontation which would put our nation's survival at risk. Despite quibbles over details, Eisenhower and Stevenson, Kennedy and Nixon, Carter and Reagan all shared the same fundamental approach to foreign policy. The only apparent outlier to win a major-party nomination was George McGovern, and his outlier status was only apparent. (McGovern wanted to abandon one failed initiative, the Vietnam War, but not the underlying containment strategy.) Neither party was reliably more hawkish than the other. Sometimes (as in 1960) the Democrat ran as the slightly more hawkish candidate.

Starting in the 1950s, conservative intellectuals (as opposed to the Republican Party), began critiquing the bipartisan consensus as Not Tough Enough, arguing for more confrontation with the Soviets. The critique was simple: the United States should take a more aggressive stance (no matter how aggressive the existing stance). Every negotiation was a sign of weakness; trade sanctions were weak and threats of military action strong; threats of military action were weak and launching military attacks strong. If this sounds stupid, it is because it is sheerly intellectual, in the sense that the people peddling these ideas never had to worry about carrying them out, or even worry that other people might carry them out. These "ideas" (which are not really even ideas, but rhetorical stances) were cooked up in conservative magazines like the National Review, not in the Departments of State or Defense. They represent the worldview of William F. Buckley rather than Dwight Eisenhower or Richard Nixon. (Because, really, why would you trust Dwight Eisenhower to win a global conflict with an enemy power when you could have William Buckley instead?) The point was not to come up with actual policies that would work. The point was to argue that the existing policies, no matter what they were, were "too soft."

This purely oppositional foreign-policy "vision" thrived in the Cold War because you could always count on the actual policy-makers using some reasonable restraint, keeping our aggression within some limits, since too much aggression would have provoked a catastrophic thermonuclear confrontation. Some options were simply off the table because they entailed an unacceptable risk (or near-certainty) of disaster. So the Buckleys of the world got a free ride. They could always stake out a theoretical position tougher than any responsible policy-maker would ever take, and they could be sure never to be called on their bluff. This strand of conservative foreign-policy thinking was always completely counter-factual, fixated on alternate histories. (Many such "conservatives" would even blame Franklin Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower, for not trying to capture and occupy Eastern Europe at the end of World War II. The idea that America had missed an "opportunity" to go directly from fighting the Germans to a protracted land war with the Soviets suggests the level of realism we're talking about here. Some opportunity.)

After the Cold War ended, two things happened. One was that the broad realist consensus on foreign policy remained in place. George H. W. Bush, who had been part of the foreign-policy apparatus as CIA chief and who had just seen the containment policy pay off in an enormous jackpot, naturally stuck with what worked. Bill Clinton basically continued Bush's approach. Their handling of Iraq after the first Gulf War is a textbook illustration of containment in action, a combination of international sanctions, daily Air Force patrols over Iraqi airspace, selective airstrikes as needed, and pressure from international arms-inspection bodies. Why roll the dice on an invasion when you can slowly squeeze an adversary into submission? Specific Democrats and Republicans differed over details, but the general foreign-policy approach stayed the same.

The other thing that happened was that the oppositional, tougher-than-thou tradition that had flourished in conservative journals and think tanks forgot that it was an oppositional ideology. Although many of these armchair-general conservatives initially denounced glasnost and perestroika as Communist "tricks" to lull America into a false sense of security, they eventually recovered and began rewriting their private version of history to claim that neoconservative confrontation, rather than decades of steady, hard-nosed containment, had defeated the Soviets. (Part of this was done by systematically ignoring Ronald Reagan's actual behavior in office and selectively focusing on nuances of his rhetorical positions.) And in the process, they forgot that the policies they recommended were never actually meant to be adopted.

This led to disaster after September 11, when George W. Bush's administration embraced neoconservatives' for-opposition-purposes-only approach as the basis for actual policies. Why slowly squeeze an adversary into submission, at minimal risk to yourself, when you could roll the dice on an invasion. The second Iraq War is an illustration of pure neoconservative dysfunction: a disdain for low-cost containment policies, premature abandonment of other policy tools (for example, pulling out the U.N.'s nuclear arms inspectors), and a reflexive preference for risky military action. The entire war was fought, on one level, in the service of a counter-factual claim. Neoconservatives had spent the previous decade carping that George H. W. Bush "should have" conquered the entirety of Iraq in 1991, and rhapsodizing about how well that would have gone. They got away with it for ten years because their claims were immune from any test in reality. By 2003, they had persuaded themselves so thoroughly that they attempted to prove themselves right in the real world. The results should have discredited neoconservatism for a generation, but the neoconservatives themselves have not been deterred.

Romney has no actual foreign policy background, but his advisers and campaign rhetoric all come straight from the anti-realist tradition. His senior foreign policy adviser is one of the most hopelessly unrealistic members of Bush II's Iraq team, Dan Senor. (Taking advice from Dan Senor is an admission of hopeless idiocy, because even a stopped clock is right more often than Dan Senor.)
This is why Romney talks about things like giving up on a two-state solution for Israel and why Romney is likely to declare tonight that we should refuse Iran's offer to negotiate over their weapons program. The neoconservative tradition sees negotiations as a sign of weakness, or even as treasonous: talking with the nation's enemies! The realist tradition sees negotiations as a tool to achieve our national ends: if you never negotiate with your adversaries, they have no way to give in to your demands. Negotiations aren't the primary foreign-policy tool, but they are the forum in which you reap the gains that the rest of your tools have brought you. You apply pressure to the nation's enemies so that they capitulate at the negotiating table later on. It beats attempting to occupy all of our international opponents by force at the same time.

Romney's anti-realist stance also explains why he sets such disproportionate store by questions of rhetoric, obsessing over whether or not Obama said "act of terror." The whole point of neoconservative foreign policy is to sound tougher than someone else. Using threatening phrases like "act of terror" or "axis of evil" is treated as the most important thing, much more important than actual results. This is also why Republicans (including John McCain, who should know better) have taken to complaining that any of Obama's military actions should be even more forceful,  even carping that Obama should have sent ground troops to Libya. That's neoconservatism in a nutshell: what works is beside the point. You should do the "tougher" thing even though it involves paying a higher price for (at best) the same results. And these are the people Mitt Romney listens to.

Barack Obama has a foreign policy that works. Mitt Romney is going to try to differentiate himself from that workable policy. That's really the whole story.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Affirmative Action for Unqualified Whites

cross-posted from Dagblog

The Supreme Court may forbid any use of race in college admissions in the case of Fisher v. University of Texas, being heard today, because the conservative wing really wants to overturn previous rulings and because Justice Kagan has recused herself. If that happens, the winning plaintiff will be a classic poster child for anti-affirmative-action litigation: a white kid who got 1180 on her SATs.

Abigail Fisher is suing because she did not get into the University of Texas. Here's how admission to the University of Texas works: if you're in the top ten percent of your class in any Texas high school, you get into the University of Texas. Abigail Fisher was not in the top ten percent of her high school class, and did not get in. Black people are obviously to blame for this.

Fisher did have another chance to get into UT Austin, because the Top Ten program only fills about 85% of the spots in the entering class. The other 15% get picked through a fairly standard but rigorous admissions process which tries to make sure that Texas doesn't lose exceptional or valuable students through the simplistic Top Ten system. This admissions process gives roughly 75% of the weight to "Academic Achievement," meaning a combination of class rank, standardized test scores, and difficulty of high school curriculum. UT uses these stats to estimate an applicant's likely freshman GPA at Austin. Abigail Fisher scored 1180 out of 1600 on her SATs, which would put her somewhere in the bottom half of admitted students. And while Texas at Austin doesn't consider high school GPA, Fisher's GPA of 3.59 would also probably put her somewhere in the bottom half of UT's entering class. Her combined scores and class rank would project her, as near as I can tell using UT's stats, to be a B- student with something like a 2.9 GPA in her first year, which isn't a disgrace but doesn't make her someone to chase after. This, obviously, is some black person's fault.

Fisher's test scores weren't bad enough to keep her out of Texas if her class rank were stronger, and her class rank wasn't low enough to keep her out if her scores were stronger. But neither was strong enough to pull the other up. And the competition for that last 15% of the class is pretty tight. Which leaves us with only one possible conclusion: black people.

But wait! Isn't there some chance for a bright kid who doesn't, you know, test well? Is it all numbers? No. There was one more chance for Abigail Fisher. UT's process also gives 25% of the weight (in that competition for the last 15% of spots), to "Personal Achievement," meaning all those hard-to-quantify things that might make it worth digging a little deeper into the pool to take that particular student. What does UT look at? The student's application essay. Letters of recommendation. Extracurricular achievements in things like sports or student council or (let's face it) sports. Special talents. Job experience. Volunteering for charity. Stories of personal hardship overcome, such as being an orphan or coming from extreme poverty. And, somewhere down there with tales of personal hardship or family circumstance, but behind volunteer experience and special talent as an oboe player, the University of Texas considers "racial or ethnic background."

Aha! Black people! I knew it!

So to recap: Abigail Fisher couldn't get into the University of Texas on the basis of her high school record. She couldn't get into the University of Texas based on her test scores. And her whole ball of possible bonus qualifications, like musical talent or strong recommendations from her teachers, was not enough to raise her application above her so-so numbers. But because one tiny part of the number of factors that might have given her a better chance than her grades and test scores, but did not, was race, young Abigail Fisher has decided that the reason she did not get into the University of Texas was affirmative action. And today the Supreme Court is hearing her case.

Some people who like talk about "white privilege," as opposed to racism per se, throw that term around too loosely and make it confusing. But we have a classic example right here:

White privilege means that you get to decide why you didn't get into college you wanted. And it means that other people actually take your decision seriously.

When people like Fisher or her lawyers bleat about "reverse racism," they are not defending meritocracy. They are defending mediocrities and failures who cannot accept that they missed the cut. Rather than face their own shortcomings and try harder, these people look around for some scapegoat to blame for their own lack of qualifications. And in our country, scapegoating black people requires no special effort or qualification at all.

Abigail Fisher is suing before the Supreme Court to establish her God-given right as a white person to be the final judge of her own qualifications. She is suing for her right to be exempt from competition, for her entitlement to a big gold star and a pat on the back no matter what she's actually accomplished or how her efforts compare to other people's. She is suing to have her kindergarten sense of self-esteem vindicated by the Supreme Court of the United States, because anything Abigail Fisher does must be accepted as good enough. And anyone who says Abigail Fisher was not good enough at something can only be motivated by racism.

Abigail Fisher is not an unusual plaintiff in cases like this. She is a typical plaintiff: a marginal white applicant who demands the rules be changed after she failed to make the cut. The idea that Abigail Fisher should have worked harder on her application essay, for example, or studied harder for the SATs, is clearly an expression of racial animosity. And the implication that she might go to another University of Texas school, rather than the main flagship, is obviously insulting. But notice how things that would be presumed as disqualifications for a black student aren't disqualifications for Fisher. A black kid who misses a numerical cut-off is a kid who missed the cut-off. An affluent white kid who missed that cut-off needs special consideration. After all, she just missed the top ten percent of her class. And her SATs are almost 1200 out of 1600. This is not meritocracy. This is a defense of ethnic privilege, and white kids' entitlement to be graded on the almost standard. Abigail Fisher has a Personal Achievement. She's white. What's the hold-up?

As someone who's succeeded at some moments and failed at others, I've generally had three explanations for rejections I've received: (a) I didn't try hard enough, (b) someone else was better, and (c) I really should have tried much, much harder, considering that someone else was better. Occasionally I've blamed the luck of the draw. But I've tried not to look for scapegoats, because shifting blame and refusing responsibility would change me from a person who had failed in a specific instance into someone who was a failure. Not getting what you happen to want does not make you a loser. Blaming other people because you did not get the job done does make you a loser.

And if I were to claim that the reason I had not succeeded at a particular thing was because I was white, I would be announcing my intellectual as well as my moral bankruptcy, because that is absurd.

Abigail Fisher is not a bad student, and there is no shame in her 1180 on the SATs or her 3.59 GPA. But those qualifications do not entitle her to a place at whatever college she wants. She is not owed a place at UT Austin, or any other competitive campus. Other people with better qualifications than Fisher were surely turned away as well. But those people have the realism and moral character to accept a setback and move on.

Abigail Fisher stands before the Supreme Court today in the cause of mediocrities, losers, and crybabies. She demands her special right to be deemed the Most Special Snowflake. What the Court stands to lose if Abigail Fisher wins is its integrity.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Why Hate PBS? Because It Works

cross-posted from Dagblog

Let's get one thing out of the way. PBS's educational programming is the most successful distance-learning effort in history. Nothing else comes close. Every conservative should love it. But many of them don't. And when a conservative starts hating on PBS, they're telling you why they're a conservative, and it's not because they hate government programs that don't work. It's because they hate government programs that do work.

Charles Blow's column today is a heartfelt defense of PBS from someone who is a more productive citizen today, one of the "makers" in Romney's heartless Randian formulation, because of it:
We were poor. My mother couldn’t afford day care, and I didn’t go to preschool. My great-uncle took care of me all day. I could watch one hour of television: PBS.
When I was preparing for college and took the ACT, there were harder reading passages toward the back of the test. Many had scientific themes — themes we hadn’t covered at my tiny high school in my rural town. But I could follow the passages’ meanings because I had watched innumerable nature shows on PBS.
I don’t really expect Mitt Romney to understand the value of something like PBS to people, like me, who grew up in poor, rural areas and went to small schools. These are places with no museums or preschools or after-school educational programs. There wasn’t money for travel or to pay tutors.
I honestly don’t know where I would be in the world without PBS.
 If PBS's public funds were cut, it would be the poor rural stations like Blow's that went off the air. PBS is decentralized, and its programs are produced by individual stations in the cities rich enough to fund PBS with viewer contributions. Public TV programs are created by the PBS affiliates in New York and Boston and Philly, using the generosity of their affluent urban donors, and then licensed to stations in poorer, less populous areas, like Mississippi and North Dakota. The federal subsidy keeps the lights on in those poorer stations, on the principle that we're all one country. But if you cut the federal funds, it's the kids who need it most, generally in deep-red voting areas, who will lose it. Poor urban kids in blue-leaning cities will still get Big Bird, giving poor children in urban slums at least one educational advantage over poor kids in farm towns.

PBS is an equalizer. It gives poor kids with fewer resources (in their home or their school district) a fighting chance. It doesn't guarantee success, and it's not nearly enough to turn around our abysmal education rates in poor communities. It's still a mass-delivery distance-learning program, which builds in some basic limitations: no individual attention, no feedback, no reinforcement, no way to recapture kids' attention if it drifts, and no way to motivate the kids. PBS is not a substitute for school. It's a supplement: a golden opportunity for kids motivated enough to take advantage of it. But PBS does give those motivated kids a chance they would never have without it.

Mitt Romney should be wildly enthusiastic about PBS. It provides opportunity for enterprising, industrious kids. It gives them a chance to grow up to become more educated and productive citizens, net contributors to the national treasury like Charles Blow. It doesn't promise equality of outcomes, because no distance-learning project could, but it clearly provides equality of opportunity, giving poor and rural kids access to things that would otherwise be reserved for the affluent and citified. PBS, like that other great American institution, the public library, helps bright and hard-working kids rise to the top despite the major inequalities in education spending from school to school.

So why the critiques of PBS from some (albeit not all) on the right? It could be just antipathy to anything funded by the government, and a preference for the free market to provide a better service. And twenty years ago, Newt Gingrich was saying loudly that PBS was unnecessary because the new educational channels on cable (the Learning Channel, the History Channel, the Discovery Channel), would do PBS's job better than PBS. To this I say three words: Honey Boo Boo. It's painfully obvious now that free market competition between cable TV channels has forced them to compromise or simply abandon any educational mission. Meanwhile, PBS has continued turning out educational programming vastly superior to anything the commercial networks have managed. It's not even a contest.

So one reason that some conservatives might object to PBS is that it's nationally-televised proof that government does some things better than the private sector does. PBS puts together long blocks of top-notch educational programming for kids every day, hours of excellent shows in a row, and commercial television can't (or won't) produce even one half-hour of programming that can match any of those shows. Private-enterprise ideologues don't like PBS because its success shows them up. This is a case where free market competition can't compete.

And I'm afraid there is a slice of the right wing that doesn't like PBS because its not in sympathy with its goals. There are people whose real objection is that someone like Charles Blow, a poor black kid from an impoverished small town, grew up to be a columnist for the New York Times. Their objection isn't just how that happened, but that it happened at all.

Some people who talk about equality of opportunity mean it. For some it's a code phrase, and what they're really interested in is inequality of results. They don't want bright, hard-working kids to overcome disadvantages, because that would weaken the value of their own advantages. They want to widen the gap between the rich and poor, because they believe that the gap favors them. What's the point of paying for a house in the best possible school district, or of paying for special lessons or private schools, if public broadcasting is going to let some guttersnipe somewhere cut into your kid's hard-bought advantages? A few people who make this calculation make it cynically; most rationalize and disguise their motivations even from themselves, but they consistently act on those motivations. Those people object to public broadcasting, and to spending upon public education, because they believe it erodes their private advantages.

Mitt Romney's grandkids will do just fine without Big Bird. In fact, in a world without Big Bird, or a world where Big Bird couldn't reach many of the kids in the flyover states, Romney's grandkids and great-grandkids would do marginally better. They will never want for expensive educational resources or attention. But in a world without PBS, the little Romneys will have a few less bright upstarts from poor families equipped to compete with them. That's only a tiny advantage, but Romney and his people are all about marginal analysis, and they want every fraction of a percentage point that they can get. Every little bit helps, and if you view America as a zero-sum game, where we're in it together but what we're in is a struggle for limited resources, then it's in your interest to deny the poor even the littlest bit. It is not polite to express this opinion widely, because it is morally depraved, but the wealthiest Americans are allowed to act on it, and too many of them do.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Romney Stinks, and It's Not Funny

cross-posted from Dagblog

Here's the thing about Mitt Romney: he's a pretty terrible politician, and he always has been. His presidential campaign has verged on malpractice almost every week, and tonight's debate is not going to turn that around in a significant way.

He might get a bump just from being on stage with the President, which automatically makes a challenger seem more plausible, but that's not going win him this election. The frantic spin coming out his campaign reveals they know this themselves. If he were really planning to turn the whole course of the election around with a few carefully crafted "zingers," then (1) that would be pathetic, and (2) he wouldn't be announcing the "zingers" in advance. (It's like saying, "Look out, Roosevelt! We're launching a surprise attack next Sunday!") At this point the Romney campaign has been reduced to spinning the media to keep them from talking about how badly Romney is losing.

As Romney continues to fail, there's going to be a real temptation to treat Romney's political clumsiness as a big joke. I'll confess I was succumbing to that temptation before the campaign even got underway, referring to Mitt as the "Mormon Mike Dukakis." The all-too-obvious follow-up joke, of course, is that the comparison isn't fair to Dukakis. But that's not a joke. It's true. Mike Dukakis had a double-digit lead over George Bush for part of the 1988 campaign. Romney has never had a real lead.

But Romney's ineptitude isn't funny. He's bad for the country. If he somehow slipped into office, he would actually have to deal with the pretty serious set of problems this country is facing, but lack any of the communication and persuasion skills needed to cope with those difficulties. He can't sell the American people on a difficult plan in times of trouble, and even he knows that (which is why he doesn't try to sell the American people on any plan at all). But the President of the United States needs to be able to build public support for his programs, especially when the country faces hard times, and these are most certainly hard times. The President also needs to get his own party behind him, and it's pretty obvious that Romney can't do that. Four years of our ongoing problems, plus any new ones that emerge, with a maladroit leader and mutinous, fractured majority party adds up to nothing good at all.

But Romney's ineptitude will manage to be bad for America even when he loses, because it will serve as one more excuse for the Republican Party to keep ignoring reality. Our system does not work when one party refuses to cope with the world for an extended period of time, and the very best thing that could happen in our political life is for the Republicans to look around and take an honest accounting of why they lost. That won't happen if they have a cheap scapegoat to blame instead, and Romney is a scapegoat made to order. "We just need a better candidate," will be the Republican mantra for the next four years, allowing them to tell themselves that there's no problem with their policies or their ideas. Worse, they will spend four years telling themselves that their policies and ideas would have won, if they had only had a better salesman, that approximately 103% of the American people are natural Tea Party voters who just haven't been given a chance to pull the lever for the right guy. That means four more years of one major party not dealing with reality. And that means four more years of that party not addressing the country's problems, either. That's bleakly absurd, but it's certainly not funny.