The nub of Chait's insight is his critique of
the habit that political analysts in the media and other outposts of mainstream thought have of ignoring structural factors. Any political scientist can tell you that external factors hold enormous sway over public opinion. Economic conditions tend to matter the most, but scandals, wars, personality, and other factors come into play. While the Democrats may have committed sundry mistakes, the reason for their diminished popularity that towers above all others is 10 percent unemployment.
But political analysts are more like drama critics. They follow the ins and outs of the tactical maneuverings of the players, and when the results come in, their job is to explain how the one led to the other. If you suggested to them that they should instead explain the public mood as a predictable consequence of economic conditions, rather than the outcome of one party’s strategic choices, they would look at you like you were crazy. They spend their time following every utterance and gesture of powerful politicians. Naturally, it must be those things that have the decisive effect.
To me, the impulse of commentators to "moralize" every victory and defeat, in politics as in sports, always recalls what I learned playing dice baseball with my son. After Obama's defeat in the Pennsylvania primary, I wrote:
When my older son was about 10, we devised a simple dice baseball game (snake eyes a home run, 3 a single, 4 a strikeout, etc.) and kept tinkering with it until game results closely mirrored those of regular major league games - scores in a range of 1-0 to say 12-11.That is not to say that the Democrats have not created a tremendous opening for their own panic to win the day by dawdling unconscionably over the health care bill. That's the paradox of Chait's insight -- really the paradox of any historiographical argument, or for that matter of any argument about free will itself. How the Democrats react to public opinion now - whatever the structural forces shaping it -- matters. There are real character differences between the parties (shaped though those too may be by structural forces), and we have to believe that the Democrats -- or even a single individual, Obama -- exercise some control over their collective reaction to an electoral setback. We can't avoid the morality play as we strive to act well or exhort our leaders to act well. (As far as that goes, I do believe that Obama and his administration would be in a better position politically if they imposed tougher conditions on the banks and reminded the country more relentlessly of how we got into this mess. Frank Rich, for one, has been warning about the imperative to get in front of popular rage against the banks from the beginning of Obama's presidency.)
One thing I learned from playing dozens or hundreds of such games is that the most thrilling dramas can come about as a result of pure chance. In one game, you might hold a 2-1 lead from the first inning on; in another, you might 'blow' a four run lead in the ninth. It struck me then that sports narratives always moralize a contest. A four-run lead disappears? Who choked? A one-run lead holds up through six rallies? What a gutsy battler the pitcher is! And to varying degrees, there's some validity in those judgments. But the equally variable and probably equally strong role of chance is simply discounted in our human drive to make sense of the event.
What's true of chance is also true of enduring, structural causes [snip]...one simple fact almost completely explains Republican dominance over the past generation: Democrats' loss of the South in the wake of Johnson's successful championing of civil rights. The rest is noise. But just as we discount chance when explaining events, we also discount causes stronger than the individuals in their grip. Carter, Mondale, Dukakis, Gore, Kerry -- all are writ down emblems of Democratic weakness rather than victims of a stacked electoral deck. Every mistake looms large when you lose. Follies are forgotten when you win.
But however paradoxical, it remains useful to step back and remember that structural forces -- uber alle, for now, unemployment -- are the prime drivers of public opinion. Keeping this in mind, as Chait notes, enables more effective response.
UPDATE: Ezra Klein offers his own version of Chait's warning here; Jonathan Cohn here; Josh Marshall here. Then there was the lightning reader response yesterday to Andrew Sullivan's nosedive over Coakley and prediction that HCR was dead (and Andrew has just come round, with a bow to Chait). As with Dem response to the bogus AHIP-commissioned PwC report purporting to show that the Baucus bill would fuel health care inflation, HCR reform's proponents and allies are showing some antibodies.