Jonathan Cohn

Senior Editor

Politics inspires more armchair quarterbacking than football. And although I know a thing or two about public policy, my instinct is to assume that veteran political strategists--particularly those now working for Barack Obama--know better than I do how to manage a presidential campaign. So it's entirely possible that their new advertisement is the perfect spot at the perfect time.

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In presidential campaigns, we talk a lot about the number of people without health insurance. And rightly so. When almost a fifth of the working-age population has no coverage at all, the country has a serious problem on its hands. But it's not just whether you have insurance that matters. It's also what kind of insurance. If your insurance doesn't cover necessary services or if it has onerous deductiles and co-payments, you could still be in a lot of trouble.

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My caller ID said "CENTRAL RESEARC 212-777-1645." Ugh, I figured. Another telemarketer. It was 6:43 pm and, under normal circumstances, I would have let it go to voice mail. But it came on my home office line and I happened to be expecting a call from New York. So I answered. It turned out to be a political poll. And not just any old poll. It started off in the usual way. Am I registered to vote? Do I plan to vote on election day? How do I label myself politically? A few seemingly innocuous questions about religion followed. What was my faith? What was my denomination?

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OK, it's not the most important sentence you will read today. But it's certainly the most revealing if you want to understand how the dynamics of the presidential race may be changing. It comes via a press release from the McCain campaign, out just minutes ago.

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I've never been a huge fan of "change" as a campaign slogan, just because it's so unspecific. What kind of change? On whose behalf? And while I think the slogan worked well enough in the Democratic primaries, that's because Obama was running against an opponent whom so many voters already identified the past (for better and for worse). The trouble with "change" as a general election theme is that John McCain can lay claim to that mantle, too.

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How did it play politically? Will it energize the base? Will it make swing voters swoon? As usual, your guess is as good as mine--or any of the pundits you see yapping on the television right now. Until the focus groups and polls come in, we're all just speculating. But I can register a verdict on substance. If this was McCain's answer to voter anxiety about the economy, it wasn't too impressive. As you've been reading--or, perhaps, as you've noticed on your own--economic policy has not been a big theme this week in Minneapolis.

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About Those Tax Cuts

John McCain, moments ago: I will keep taxes low and cut them where I can. My opponent will raise them. The non-partisan Tax Policy Center, last week: The Obama plan would reduce taxes for low- and moderate-income families, but raise them significantly for high-bracket taxpayers (see Figure 2). By 2012, middle-income taxpayers would see their after-tax income rise by about 5 percent, or nearly $2,200 annually. Those in the top 1 percent would face a $19,000 average tax increase—a 1.5 percent reduction in after-tax income.

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Mitt Romney just opened his speech by attacking East Coast elites. That would be the same Mitt Romney who holds two degrees from Harvard, ran a top East Coast consulting firm, served as governor of Massachusetts, and makes his (primary) home in the wealthy Boston suburb of Belmont. Seriously, though, I still have a soft spot for Romney. Yes, he's one of the most transparently calculating politicians of his generation. And, yes, to the extent he holds ideological principles I oppose them strongly. But I respect what he's accomplished, both in the private sector and in government.

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Enough With The Speeches

The speeches sound lovely and the cocktail parties, I'm sure, are great fun. But what does the Republican Party actually believe? If last night was indicative, we won't be getting a satisfactory answer to that question in the next few days--or maybe even in the weeks after that. John McCain's campaign manager has already said he thinks this election is "not about the issues." Fortunately, the Republicans did take the time to write a party platform--and, over at ThinkProgress, Matthew Yglesias has been reading it.

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Early on in the long, contentious Democratic primaries, Barack Obama was guilty of running a campaign based too heavily on biography and vague promises of breaking through partisan gridlock. It worked well enough initially, since Obama's story really was compelling and his credentials as a bipartisan reformer seemed legitimate. But it was only after Obama started peddling a more substantive message, focused on the actual policies he'd deliver, that he was able to secure the nomination.

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