January 31, 2012

Review: Donald Hall, Unpacking the Boxes

After the American Century                                                                                                                                                          

I have just finished reading Donald Hall's fine memoir, Unpacking the Boxes (Houghton Mifflin, 2008). It is a fitting conclusion to the autobiographical vein in his work that began with his first book, String too Short to be Saved (1961)That book was about his summers on the New Hampshire farm where he helped his maternal grandparents. This one begins outside of New Haven, where his father worked as an accountant for a milk company owned by his grandfather. As often happens, his two parents came from quite different worlds. In New Haven his mother drank cocktails and sought to emulate the middle class of the late 1920s and early 1930s. In New Hampshire, however, his mother felt at home, and soon her son found that he preferred it as well.

Unpacking the Boxes was written from that same New Hampshire farm, which Hall inherited and moved back to in the 1970s. There he literally unpacked the boxes that contain mementos of his early life. This awakened memories of early childhood and his awakening to poetry. Even before he reached high school, Hall was passionately interested in words and writing, and his descriptions of his early embrace of the Muse is entwined with his equally passionate pursuit of girls. He admits that one of the attractions of being a poet when young was that young ladies found it quite appealing.

Hall proved a seriously productive writer, with, by my count, 15 books of poetry, two biographies, three plays, a dozen children's books, two collections of short stories, and six autobiographical works.

Hall spent two years at Exeter Academy, where his father sent him, determined that his only son should have any career he liked, and not waste another life entombed in the family dairy business. Young Hall was a prodigious worker, who already knew he wanted to be a poet. At Exeter, he steadily rose from almost failing grades in Latin and several other subjects to very high marks, winning a place at Harvard, where he also excelled. From there he had an enviable string of fellowships, with two years at Oxford, a year at Stanford, and then three more years at Harvard. In these student years he met many of the major poets of the generation ahead of him, such as Richard Wilbur and John Ciardi. Already by the time he reached Oxford he was something of a personage, taking on an editorial role as well as writing. He became a close friend of George Plimpton and at a young age was editor of poetry for his Paris Review. (The major poets whom he got to know at this time, notably Robert Frost, are the subject of another Hall memoir, Remembering Poets that I highly recommend.)

Hall might have said more about the confrontation between the Beat poets and the more classical or traditional poets, among whom Hall was a leader. Their differences were more poetical than political. Hall was Left leaning all through his career, and he admired the work of Walt Whitman, even if initially far more drawn to the great English Romantics such as Keats and the metaphysical poets. He belonged to that generation who felt it necessary to have read all the predecessors. At Harvard, for each weekly tutorial with Harry Levin he was to have read ALL the poetry by one person, William Blake for example, and be ready to discuss it intensely for an hour alone with the professor.

Hall's own work did change after his encounter with the Beat Generation, even if he remained closer to the classical tradition. I did not know that Hall became close friends with Robert Bly at Harvard, or that their friendship endured through life. I should have realized, because I did know that each of them went to Harvard, but somehow I never made the connection. Likewise, Hall was close to Galway Kinnell. These writers were closer in sensibility to the Beats, and their connection to him rightly suggests that Hall was not doctrinaire in his aesthetics. He knew and loved quality, and long before they were famous befriended the important emerging writers in the British Isles such as Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney, as well.

In its first half, this is primarily an intellectual autobiography about a poet's coming of age. Then it divides in c. 1970, when his first marriage fell apart. Yet another of Hall's books has already treated this middle period of his life in detail so he skips through it rather schematically, covering his arrival in Ann Arbor (where he taught for the better part of a decade) in far more detail than the decision to leave academia. He liked teaching but he longed to be a writer full time and managed to do it. In good part it was possible because he was so fortunate as to inherit the New Hampshire house and because he had a steady income from a good deal of prose writing. Notably, he wrote a fine book that I used myself in teaching writing, back in the early 1970s. Appropriately titled Writing Well, it remains one of the best introductory texts one can find.

The last half of the book is much darker than the first, colored by the long illness and death of his second wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, who passed away in 1995. She was 19 years younger than he, and Hall was devastated by the loss. The book is not light reading, as it describes how he remains in the house surrounded by constant reminders of her. He visited the grave every day for more than a year, and could speak of little else. At the same time, his own health was failing. Born in 1928, he was 70 by the time he had even begun to recover a normal life. He soon began to suffer frailties, and it was apparently a trial for him to complete the memoir at all.

In part this is because just as Hall reached what he called "The Planet of Antiquity" he received the great, but also greatly demanding, honor of being named Poet Laureate of the United States. This entails many exhausting public appearances and interviews. The gratification of attention was almost outweighed by the demands it made on a man who could not walk without a cane and fell many times when attempting stairs. But he survived the glorious ordeal and this book saw the light.

There is much more in Unpacking the Boxes, which ideally should be read after String too Short to Be Saved. The title of that first book also came from something found in an attic, a box of snippets of string, with a label on the box that read, "String too short to be saved." It is from such detritus that Hall has made this presumably final memoir, and the title might almost have been recycled. Fine as the work is, there will still be something for the eventual biographers, as Hall has not written much in these memoirs about the actual poems he published. This has the "virtue" that one can enjoy Unpacking the Boxes without knowing anything of Hall's poetry, which then awaits as a further literary adventure.

January 27, 2012

Election 2012: The Second Florida Debate

After the American Century

The second Florida debate is over, and it appears that Romney is suddenly a stronger debater. He has a new coach, and he was far more aggressive and convincing than before. Based on the debate alone, Romney seemed more credible and competent. Indeed, at several points he wiped the floor with Gingrich.

Based on this performance, many of the pundits now think that Newt may not be able to win in Florida. Moreover, new polls suggest that Obama would thrash Gingrich by almost 20 points. Many leading Republicans have said that he would not be the right man. The momentum seems to have shifted, in short.  Yet one of the most recent national polls does show Gingrich leading Romney 31 to 27%. And think about this. When either Paul or Santorum drops out, their voters are more likely to shift over to Gingrich than to Romney.

What about those two other candidates? Both Santorum and Paul had a good night. So long as they are in the race no one will be able to amass a majority of the Republican delegates to the convention. So much has happened already, that we cannot assume that the selection process is soon going to be over.

Meanwhile, the Republican candidates speak, with no sense of irony, of "self deportation" as a solution to the illegal immigrant problem. Newt Gingrich wants English to be "the official language of government" as if it were not already rather the case.  There was an absurd discussion about deporting illegal grandmothers. They speak so seriously and their audience of true Republican believers is so enthusiastic, one can forget that much of what is being discussed is nonsense.

Let the fun continue, just do not take them too seriously.

January 26, 2012

Election 2012: Obama's Popularity Surges After State of the Union

After the American Century

President Obama gave a crucial "state of the union" message last night, and hit a home run. His approval ratings have shot up to an unbelievable level, with 91% of Americans saying they approved his proposals for helping the economy.  He looks ready to tell a more populist story than before, and it seems to be working. It was a powerful speech, and if you have not seen it, have a listen. If you want a quick summary, as one pundit put it, "Due to my policies, Bin Laden is dead, and GM is alive."

Meanwhile, the Republicans have a problem. Their Mitt Romney had to confess that he makes $57,000 every single day, more than $20 million a year. This was according to the tax returns that he was forced to release by popular demand. He would have had to reveal his income if he became the candidate, but he ended up releasing the information the day that Obama was criticizing the rich for being irresponsible and avoiding paying their fair share of the taxes.

So where is Romney's money and how is it that he pays less than 14% in federal tax, about half the rate for the average American? It turns out Romney has some millions in tax havens, like the Caymen Islands, and in Swiss bank accounts. He is also the beneficiary of low tax rates on capital gains (from sale of stocks) - low rates put in place by the Republicans, of course. It appears that there is nothing actually illegal in the Romney tax records, but they are rather alarming. One begins to understand why he could offer to bet Rick Perry $10,000 about who was right on a particular issue. Ten grand is what Romney makes every six hours, even when sleeping, for not working.

The only problem Obama has now is that Romney may fold. Gingrich is running well ahead in national Republican polls, and slightly ahead or even in Florida, depending on the poll.  So Romney is being attacked by both the right in his party and by the Democrats. Obama is betting that Gingrich would be easier to beat, and that it therefore is better to hammer Romney out of the way, leaving the President as the only one on the center ground.

The election will be decided by the moderates in each party and by the Independents, and all the indicators are that Obama is winning them over.Gingrich, by comparison, is much further to the right and bragging about it. One begins to sense doom for the Republicans now, unless they find an entirely new candidate at the last minute, which is very hard to do given the primary system.

January 21, 2012

Election 2012: Wealthy Republican Candidates: One Angry, One Cold

After the American Century

South Carolina is voting as I write, and all the polls suggest that Gingrich is likely to win, or to come close to winning. A sampling of polls suggests that Gingrich might win by 4%, but the margin of error and the volatility of the public makes this prediction a bit dubious. The momentum is on Gingrich's side, as he has come from a deficit of more than 10 percentage points to take the lead. Romney will not be able to capture the nomination easily. 

The coming vote in Florida will test the Republican Party further. Romney and Gingrich do not just represent different political views. There is considerable animosity between them, and it is fueled by a barrage of negative advertising, from both sides. The longer the campaign lasts, the more divided the Republicans will become, and the fault lines are not merely between Gingrich and Romney  The Ron Paul stalwarts show no sign of losing enthusiasm for their man, who keeps alive a libertarianism that can never really compromise with Romney and has contempt for Gingrich's opportunism. That leaves Santorum to gather up the votes of conservative Catholics and evangelicals. They find Gingrich immoral, and they see Romney as unacceptable, for he is a Mormon who has supported abortion in the past.

In the previous post I predicted that South Carolina would be a bloodbath of negative advertising, and so it has been. Possibly in the coming Florida primary the Republican leadership will be able to convince the candidates to tone down their rhetoric, in the interest of eventual unity in the general election. However, my guess is that the vituperation and nastiness will continue. Romney has begun to attack Gingrich for his ethics violations that cost him leadership in the House of Representatives back in the 1990s. Until now little had been said about this. And Gingrich continues to hound Romney about his off-shore wealth, his low tax rate, and his still undisclosed personal finances. John McCain was successfully attacked for having so many houses that he could not recall how many, and Romney will be in for similar problems. 

It is not a sin to be rich in the United States, but it is unwise to run for public office if the wealth is not mitigated by well-publicized philanthropy or pro bono work for good causes. The rich man who is a public benefactor, like Andrew Carnegie or Bill Gates, is the cultural ideal. Angry or cold rich men who do not give something back are not popular. Men of great wealth have often created foundations to redistribute it, notably the Ford Foundation or the Rockefeller Foundation.  These charitable institutions have the added advantage that the contributions to them are tax deductions. Ted Turner gave much of his personal fortune to the United Nations, and Warren Buffet has put billions of dollars into the foundation that Bill Gates created with his billions. Such acts seem rooted in a Protestant idea of stewardship.

It may be that Romney has been beneficent, but if so, the news has not reached this writer or most of the electorate. He seems to be a ruthless capitalist, a Bain Buccaneer, who recently declared that he likes to fire people. Gingrich also seems devoted to feathering his own nest, and last year at times seemed to campaign in order to promote his books more than to win. He has accepted outrageous "consultation fees" from clients, when it is obvious that in fact he was peddling his considerable political influence.

None of these men seems a worthy steward of the nation's resources, much less a repository for the public trust. Santorum is not worth commenting on, and Ron Paul is too extreme to be taken seriously. Republican voters are left with two wealthy, self-serving, nasty candidates, neither of whom are trustworthy, consistent in their views, compassionate in their nature, or visionary in their politics. When the dust finally settles and we have a Republican nominee, one can only hope that by some miracle a new face has suddenly emerged. A nation of 300,000,000 people surely ought to be able to produce at least one decent Republican candidate. In hard times, a wealthy candidate can be appealing. Think of Franklin Roosevelt. Instead, we have two insensitive rich men, one angry, one cold.

January 13, 2012

Election 2012: Republicans Want a Generic Candidateto Beat Obama

After the American Century

The Republican candidates are busy beating each other up in South Carolina. A survey of all the polls shows that not one of them currently would beat  Obama. The President beats Romney by c. 2%, Paul by c. 6.5%, Gingrich by 8.5%, Santorum by 7.3%, and Perry by more than 11%.  The insanity/stupidly quotient is the same today as it was in 2008, by which I mean that almost 40% of the eligible voters appear ready to vote for an attractive idiot. In 2008 it was Palin, today it is Perry.

Curiously, an imaginary "generic Republican" would have a chance of tying or beating Obama. This is because when you ask voters to think of a generic Republican, they conjure up in their minds a figure who magically unites the party, without specifying a program. A Mr. Generic would presumably be a well-spoken man, with a good speaking voice and a ready smile, a clone of Ronald Reagan.

Mr. Generic does not exist, however, and the reality is that the Republican Party is deeply split between Tea Party activists, evangelicals, Wall Street special interests, and Ron Paul minimalists. Not only is there no person to unite around right now, but it is hard to see how anyone could be that person. The Republicans are in an ideological crisis and lack a focused identity. 

Perhaps in theory the disparate elements could make alliances and marriages of convenience in order to cobble together a common front. But instead, the candidates are becoming more vicious in their attacks. This became serious with Romney's attack ads against Gingrich in the Iowa contest, and now has gone far beyond what we have seen in previous contests.

Studies of negative advertisements suggest that their greatest effect is not one of persuading voters to change sides, but rather to destroy the motivation to vote at all. The idea is that only the base (i.e. the more extreme elements, whether to the right or left) will turn out on election day. That is the theory, but it seems headed another direction right now. Negative advertising has usually been seen largely in the general election, not the primaries. What happens when it becomes widespread inside one party? Surely the danger is that it will de-motivate them, destroying enthusiasm for the political process itself. 

Since the Republicans are numerically the smaller party to start out with, this spectacular display of disunity weakens their chances of standing together, much less persuading the all-important Independents to come over to their side. 

President Obama can sit back, say nothing, and enjoy watching this Republican self-destruction. But he should not get too comfortable, as his own job approval rating is only 45%

January 11, 2012

Election 2012: On to a Bloodbath in South Carolina

 After the American Century

Romney managed to get 39% of the votes in New Hampshire, a little less than expected but a decent showing. Ron Paul increased his percentage to almost 23%, however, and Huntsman showed that all his hard campaigning in the state paid off, with just shy of 17%. That left Gingrich and Santorum in a dead heat for fourth (and fifth) place with a bit over 9% each. The divided opposition favors Romney. Indeed, it would probably we worthwhile for him to pay some of these candidates to stay in the race, to prevent anyone from getting close to challenging him. What New Hampshire also sugggests is that these voters wanted moderates (Romney and Huntsman) who got 56% of the vote, while the more extreme candidates amassed only 44%.

Now that the New Hampshire results are in, we can look forward to glory combat in South Carolina. This is not going to be nearly so friendly to Romney as New Hampshire. Look for some hard-hitting campaign ads that focus on Romney, who will be attacked by all the other candidates, who are chasing him like a pack of hounds, and they getting more vicious the longer the hunt continues. This may be their last chance to bring him down. for if Romney wins all of the first three contests, the battle will really be over.

In particular, watch Newt Gingrich. He has received $5 million from a single donor, a rich Jewish casino owner from Las Vegas. He and Newt agree on Israel and the need to thwart Iran's nuclear ambitions. He is reportedly an extremely wealthy man, so one wonders why he waited so long to make the giant contribution. Gingrich has been almost running on empty (in financial terms) for some time. He has also been running empty of new ideas, which is no problem given his opposition. Newt is preparing some strong attack ads that apparently will position him as the populist defender of the little guy against the ruthless and heartless Romney from Bain Capital. Romney was expecting such an attack, but in the fall, coming from the Democrats.

Instead, however, the attack has surfaced now, particularly in a 28 minute film, "When Mitt Romney Came to Town" which can be seen here:


Governor Perry has also bought lots of airtime, and he has been showing just what a good ole Southern boy he is, skipping the New Hampshire cold to cozy up to like-minded folks in the cradle of the Confederacy. South Carolina is still proud that it led some other states out of the union and into the Civil War. This is the sort of place where they kept flying the Confederate flag on courthouses until quite recently and were angry when pressured to take it down. In short, good Southern credentials are essential here, and Romney will never have them.

Nikki Haley, Governor of South Carolina, is only 39. She has endorsed Romney
Expect Romney to appeal to his core constituency, the bankers, who are think on the ground in Charleston and other cities, and the retirees from the North. who are baking on the beach at Hilton Head. Otherwise, he has the endorsement of Nikki Haley, the attractive young governor (above) who was elected with Tea Party support. At 39 and part Native American, she is breaks the stodgy Republican mould. He will have to leave the rural and small town voters to Santorum, Gingrich, and Perry.

Huntsman is reinvigorated after his strong finish in New Hampshire, but he will be out of his element. Being a Mormon from Utah who speaks Mandarin Chinese is not what South Carolinians are looking for in a politician. In many ways, he is but another version of Romney - rich Mormon, former Governor, non-Southern. Perhaps he should be dubbed "Romney-light." I think he is positioning himself for 2016, should the Republicans lose in 2012.

Ron Paul will presumably keep working the universities and colleges, which pays a double dividend, not only recruting voters but campaign workers as well. He should find South Carolina congenial. They will doubtless respect a doctor from Texas who wants to make the Federal Government weaker. That sounds like a Confederate policy position. However, Paul has had a problem attracting women voters so far, and this may be decisive if a close race develops.

Right now, however, Romney has the organization, and he certainly has the money, needed to roll over his opponents.  South Carolina is his crucial test of electability in the South. If he fails that test, then Republicans will rightly fear that he cannot beat President Obama, and the other candidates will have the chance to discredit him further in the Florida primary.

January 08, 2012

Election 2012: The Divided New Hampshire Republicans

After the American Century

All the polls say that Romney will win the New Hampshire primary, and some are silly enough to deduce that this is simply because he is local. But it is not so simple. Romney has 41% in an average of the polls taken (as of yesterday, Jan. 7), which sounds pretty good. But where are the other 60% of the voters?

I know New Hampshire chiefly through my father, who was born there and grew up on a farm there. He worked his way through the University of New Hampshire. Like his father, he remained a Republican all his life, the kind of Republican who is hard to find these days, though they still can be found in The Granite State. Romney appeals to such people. They are not much like the Bible Belt Republicans. They believe in small government, self-reliance, and hard work. They are not much for welfare, though generous to what they would call the truly disadvantaged., such as the blind, or to war veterans who lost a limb. They typically come from rural areas and smaller towns, often, like my Dad, from families that have been in North America since the seventeenth century. Compared to the rest of the Republican Party, these New Hampshire Republicans value education more. They do not talk like Gov Perry but like Gov Romney. They are less emotional, more rational.Some of them will be drawn to Ron Paul (currently about 20% in the polls) and others to Gov Huntsman (currently has c. 10% in the polls).

New Hampshire's Republican Party is more complex than that, of course. The State has a much lower tax rate than next door Massachusetts, and many people choose to live just over the line. They work in Massachusetts but live in New Hampshire. These are not factory workers, but upper middle-class people who have excellent jobs, often along Interstate 495 or on the old Route 128. They represent high-tech companies, and are technically savvy people, the sort who can easily identify with the Harvard educated Mitt Romney who played a leading role at Bain Capital.  Romney is especially strong with these voters, but some of them will likely go to Gingrich as well.

We can visualize these two constituencies by looking at a map and some charts, which come from The Wall Street Journal. The farmers and small town Republicans are further to the North. The majority of the state population, however, lives in Manchester and Nashua counties, along the southern  edge of the state. As one can see below, Romney's appeal in Iowa was weaker in 2012 than in 2008 everywhere except for the wealthy "burbs" - and fortunately for him, New Hampshire has many such voters in this southern tier.

These are the two key constituencies for Romney, but they are not the whole story. There are other kinds of Republicans in New Hampshire who are more like the Southern version of the party. 23% of the voters are Evangelical Christians who are suddenly flocking to hear Rick Santorum. There is also an energetic local Tea Party, that energized the Republicans to a stunning sweep in the last legislative elections. In addition, there are many conservative Catholics who will not support Romney because they focus on abortion, gay marriage, and other such issues. The Catholics are either of more recent immigrant background or they are French Canadians, who flocked into the state from Quebec after 1850 to work in the mills. These groups overlap, of course, as either an Evangelical or a Catholic might be a Tea Party activist. The big question going into this primary is whether Santorum can galvanize this constituency, and rise well above his current c. 10% in the polls. In theory, he could easily get double that and challenge Ron Paul for second place.

New Hampshire has no really large cities, but of course there are also urban-based Republicans, typically the small businessmen and lawyers. They are worried mostly about economic issues, and they also will likely support Romney, though some will go for Gingrich.

But the New Hampshire primary also has another factor that is hard to figure. Independent voters, i.e. those who are not registered with either of the parties, can and often do vote in the primary. This means that a large number of moderates will be casting their votes in New Hampshire, and this too tends to favor Romney and work against most of his opponents, with the exception of Huntsman, who is also a moderate.  In 2008 such voters seemed to have swung to Hillary Clinton in the last two days before the primary, which many mistakenly thought Obama would win. This time around the Independents might once again change the result. But will the Independents go for Romney, Gingrich, Paul, Santorum, or perhaps Huntsman? It is hard to tell, and thus all the more interesting to watch.

I worked in the New Hampshire primary for Senator Eugene McCarthy back in 1968. His central issue was opposition to the Vietnam War, and  he was running against Lyndon Johnson, a sitting president. McCarthy shocked the nation by winning over 42% of the vote.  Technically, he lost, but LBJ withdrew from the election not long afterwards.  By the same token, eveyone expects Romney to win big. He risks winning by too small a margin. Anything below 35% will be regarded as a poor showing.  Fortunately for him but unfortunately for the Republican Party, the opposition is divided, and none of them has even remotely the stature of Eugene McCarthy.

January 04, 2012

Election 2012: Who Really Won in Iowa?

After the American Century

The Iowa Caucus results are in, and Mitt Romney has eked out the narrowest victory in the history of these affairs. Beating Rick Santorum by a whisker, Romney had almost precisely the same vote total as he did in 2008. In other words, after spending millions of dollars and much time in Iowa, Romney was unable to improve on his second place finish of 2008, when he lost decisively to Mike Huckabee. 

Among Republicans, the real winner would seem to be Santorum, who until just a few weeks ago appeared to be an "also ran." [Later note: Santorum actually did win, the recount showed about a month later.] In national polls Santorum typically gets only 4%, but in Iowa he got 25%. Evangelicals rallied around him, even though he is a Catholic. Romney, in contrast, performed in Iowa precisely as he does in the national polls, getting 25% of the votes. He technically won, but no one could say that he achieved momentum. Fully three quarters of the Republicans wanted someone else.

One of these others was Ron Paul, who came in a strong third, with 21% of the vote. This was almost double his national polling numbers, and it suggests that he will continue to be a force in the primaries, particularly as they move toward his native South.  Paul attracts libertarians and small government enthusiasts, and represents the political (but not the religious) Right.

If it is hard to see which Republican really won anything in Iowa, it is easier to see who lost. Michelle Bachmann did poorly, garnering only 5%. Considering that she was born in Iowa and lives in neighboring Minnesota, if there was one place she might (once) have expected to win, Iowa was it. She never planned to run against Romney in his almost-home state of New Hampshire, and she has now withdrawn from the race.

Newt Gingrich was also a loser, as he fell to only 13% of the vote. In the middle of December Gingrich was the leading Republican candidate, with 35% in the national polls. In Iowa he got little more than a third as much support. He expects to do better in South Carolina. Perhaps he finds solace in the fact that McCain did poorly in Iowa in 2008 but still won the nomination.

Then there is Texas Governor, Rick Perry, whose beautiful hair thatches over a weak mind. He got only 10% of the vote. Back in September, when voters knew little about thim, he was briefly the leading candidate, with over 30% in the national polls. But he has embarassed himself so often that surely it is time for  Perry to go home and manicure his hair. However, he has decided to hang in the race at least through South Carolina.

Who then was the winner? Not the Republican Party, which is becoming a deeply split organization. The battle between its three disparate parts – evangelical, corporate, and libertarian – will now become even more intense and divisive. Not Mitt Romney. After four years of running for President, he did no better in Iowa than in 2008, and he has failed to generate any enthusiasm. 

The winner, though not on the ballot, was President Obama.

January 02, 2012

Election 2012. Obama vs. Romney?

After the American Century

While it is too soon be be certain, it looks like the 2012 election will be a contest between Romney and Obama. It might be that yet another Republican challenger will arise tomorrow, but time is running out for that scenario. Gingrich's star continues to fall. Ron Paul's is rising, but he is too far Right for most voters. Romney is what the GOP seems to have left, though it will likely take at least a month, more likely two months, to establish this for certain. So, what are the differences between these men?

Both Obama and Romney attended Harvard Law School and there are some similarities. But on the whole it stacks up as a clear choice between quite different kinds of men.

Both men have long been married to the same women. (Note, however, that on Romney's father's side there were six polygamous men, with a total of 41 wives.) Both graduated near the top of their respective class at Harvard Law School. Both are more centrist than their parties, and both, therefore will have some problems igniting the energies of the more extreme elements of their "base". Both achieved considerable wealth early in life, more in the case of Romney. Both see themselves as outsiders in Washington.

Romney's father, George, was first an automobile executive in Michigan and a Republican governor in that state. He later ran unsuccessfully in Republican presidential primaries. Mitt has followed the same pattern, starting in business at Bain Capital, then moving to the statehouse, in his case as governor of Massachusetts. Like Obama he ran as an outsider in the 2008 primaries. He made himself better known, but early had to admit that he was not going to get the nomination. He threw his support to McCain. Romney has essentially remained a candidate for president throughout the first Obama term.

Obama did not have a father at home to imitate or to assist him. He achieved his way into one of the best universities and Harvard Law School, where he became editor of the law review. He could easily have gone into corprorate law and made a great deal of money. Instead, he worked as a community organizer in Chicago, taught law, and went tinto Illinois State politics. He also proved to be an excellent writer, with two best-selling books, which helped to propel him into the Senate and the White House.

Economic Theory
Romney, as his business background would suggest, wants to minimize regulation from the government and thinks private enterprise can solve most problems. He is Chicago School and wants to balance the budget. Romney also has a degree from Harvard Business School, and made a fortune working in the private sector. Obama, who taught Constitutional Law at the University of Chicago, is more a Keynsian, and not nearly so wealthy. 

Abortion: Multiple Choice  vs.   Pro Choice
Romney was pro choice when running for governor in Massachusetts, but moved decisively to the right in recent years. Hehas mockingly been called the "multiple choice" candidate, because his views shift on issues. Obama has been consistently pro-choice.

Medical Care
Romney pushed a comprehensive law through the Massachusetts State House that created a health care system quite similar to that Obama and the Democrats created a few years later. However, Romney has consistently attacked the Obama program, again moving well to the right on this issue.

Romney's Mormanism is definitely a liability, it being more crucial to be mainstream Protestant for a Republican than for a Democratic candidate.

Foreign Policy
Romney sounds more agressive and hawkish than Obama, who has, however, continued many of Bush's foreign policies, not least in the Middle East. The differences are there, but the American public is focused on domestic issues, particularly the economy. The election will only be about foreign policy if there is a major crisis.

Obama very much had it in 2008, but he is no longer the unquestioned darling of the Left, which has found him too much a centrist on many issues. But Obama remains a formidable speaker, with rhetorical gifts that Romney cannot match. Romney has never been accused of having charisma, quite the opposite. He fails not only to ignite the passions of the right-wing Republican base but also to excite moderates listening to his speeches. In one-on-one situations Romney can be stiff and uncompromising. He seems to lack empathy for people who are not like himself. Obama does better with small groups, in most cases.

Campaign Spending
Both men will spend lavishly on this election, which will almost certainly become an orgy of advertising, much of it funded by outside groups and corporations who are "independent" of the candidate they support. However, because so much money will be used, there may be a backlash against it, especially with unemployment over 8.5%.

If voters cannot decide between two candidates, they often ask themselves, "Which of these two would I rather have a couple of beers with?"  This will not be Romney's strong suit, and I think Obama gets an edge on that one. Otherwise, the race may well be decided by who has the more effective running-mate and by unexpected events. The polls right now suggest Obama would win by a small margin against Romney, and my sense is that this ex-governor Mormon businessman will not become more likable as voters see more of him. So much will happen between now and November, that it is too soon to predict a result, but if held today Obama would win the election, but narrowly.