Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Chait's crucial warning to Democrats

Jonathan Chait offers up true wisdom as the Democrats stare at disaster in Massachusetts, pointing out that any party that's been in power for a year when there's 10% unemployment is going to get hammered; that in the face of major recession Obama's popularity has in fact proved remarkably durable; that commentators always underestimate structural factors moving popular opinion and find faux cause and effect in the parties' and politicians' strategic choices; that Republicans' political strength is their dogged willingness to "ignore establishment nostrums in the face of defeat" whereas Democrats tend to panic and stampede; and that Obama's supreme challenge now will be to play "George Bailey in the bank run" and calm his party's panic (a role, I would add, to which he's supremely suited and has played before).

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.

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.
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.)

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.


  1. Thank you for some sanity. Excellent post.

  2. Amen for sanity--and thanks for the reminder that so many Democratic presidential/electoral woes were due solely to civil rights legislation, a fact the Republicans desperately want to avoid. (I would add, parenthetically, that inept campaigning or being outmatched in the media played a major role in the Dems' two biggest losses: 1972 and 1984. 1972 had an improperly vetted, then withdrawn VP candidate.)

  3. If the perception was that Obama was fighting hard to get our money back from Wall Street, was less interested in appeasing Snowe and especially Lieberman (getting his vote was politically emasculating), then a Brown victory would be less painful.

    His pitifully weak flank is the Senate, where he's either too polite, misinformed or too weak to force Harry Reid to take bills to reconciliation. I thought Rahm was an "attack dog"?

    The problems we face are too big for the watered down solutions that 60 votes gets you.

  4. Spin spin spin...Fact is, people know this Democratic version of HCR is a terrible idea. Progressives are tone deaf and incapable of real reform. Progressive lust for massive regulation, out of control mandates, high taxes, and contemp for free markets have doomed real reform that could make American health care the envy of the entire world.

    I hope Obama is intelligent enough to realize this, as was Bill Clinton in 1995. What we got from that is welfare reform and a zero-sum budget process.

  5. Spot on Daveb.

    The House wants a better bill. There are Senators that want a better bill. I think there's enough of them for 51 votes.

    Dave is right. They need to stop talking about spin and start taking steps to make that bill better and then pass it.