Monday, March 12, 2012

Whodunit? Not Republican Voters

Ross Douthat yesterday argued that the triumph of Mitt Romney means that the basic sanity of Republican voters  is underrated:

But against this backdrop, the party’s voters have behaved remarkably responsibly. Confronted with a flip-flopping, gaffe-prone front-runner whom almost nobody — conservative or liberal — finds very appealing, they have methodically sifted through the alternatives, considering and then discarding each in turn. From early 2011 onward, the media have overinterpreted this sifting process, treating every polling surge for a not-Romney candidate almost as seriously as an actual primary result. They might nominate Herman Cain! They might nominate Michele Bachmann! Why — they might nominate Donald Trump! Not so much. Instead, despite an understandable desire to vote for a candidate other than Mitt Romney, Republicans have been slowly but surely delivering him the nomination — consistently, if reluctantly, choosing the safe option over the bomb-throwers and ideologues.
Jonathan Chait argues against Republican voters and sanity, but I think there's a more fundamental issue here: Republican voters had very little to do with elevating Romney and defeating crazy candidates. Republican voters, as can be seen by those poll results, were perfectly ready to vote for Donald Trump and Herman Cain, but neither one of them made it to a single ballot. Bachmann? Yes, she did make it to the Iowa caucuses, so I suppose one could give Iowa Republicans some credit there. But Newt Gingrich, who Douthat (correctly in my view) places in the category of candidates who voters would be quite ill-advised to support, has done remarkably well, given that he has practically no resources, has only bothered to campaign in a handful of states (remember, he basically skipped most of the February contests), and has had all sorts of attacks dumped on him.

Indeed, what we've seen throughout is that Republican voters are perfectly ready to support any loony who is willing to use sure-fire talking points about teleprompters and czars and, yes, birth certificates, the "issue" that fueled Trump's rise in the polls.

Now, one can certainly argue that the eventual triumph of Mitt Romney shows that Republican party actors aren't crazy themselves, and that they -- plus the Romney campaign with it's large warchest -- have sufficient resources to overcome the instincts of GOP primary voters. Or one can, as Chait does, argue that what's really happening here is that Romney is doing a good enough job of pretending to be crazy to win. As he says, Romney's been dispatching his opponents with attacks that were designed to resonate with Tea Partiers (harsh immigration policies, defense of freedom for businesses to behave however they want, hatred of earmarks and debt limit increases).

But the one thing I really think it's hard to claim is that Republican voters are the ones fighting back against the crazy. If it were up to them, odds are that the Cain/Bachmann ticket would be preparing for its convention speeches right now.

21 comments:

  1. Wow. How can a person possibly argue that Republican voters have been the sane ones? I mean, it boggles. These people SAID Cain, Trump, Bachmann, Santorum......

    They didn't "weigh the alternatives." It's not like poll respondents were saying "I need to say Bachmann so she gets her moment in the sun so the whole party can evaluate her before the primaries come." No, they said "I will vote for Michelle Bachmann, because I think she'd make a good president."

    There's just no way to call that a sane behavior. None.

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  2. They wanted Palin. Bachmann was a Palin knockoff, so I think the ticket would have been Bachmann/Cain, not Cain/Bachmann. But yeah, sanity is not the word for what we've been seeing.

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  3. Suppose I have an important decision to make. I seriously contemplate several options that are objectively stupid but sound more fun on the surface as long as I don't actually think about them. For whatever reason, though, in the end I choose the least stupid/least superficially fun option. Is it more appropriate to give me credit for not doing the mind-bogglingly stupid thing, or to ignore what I actually did so that you can criticize me for what I thought about doing but didn't ACTUALLY do?

    Behavior = voting, not poll responses. Judge behavior, not cheap talk.

    You can make the case that the GOP voters are just mindlessly following cues, in which case Douthat may be too optimistic, but it is votes that matter, not poll responses. If GOP opinion leaders had sent cues to vote for Cain or someone equally absurd, they probably would have been stupid enough to do it. However, don't criticize people for things that they DIDN'T do. Romney has it locked up. That was the least stupid thing they could do given the field.

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    1. @Anon 3:46: but the field isn't independent of the voters. In advance a lot of us expected a two- or three-candidate race between Romney, Tim Pawlenty, and perhaps (2009-10) Sarah Palin or (2010-11) Rick Perry. But Pawlenty dropped out because he had no money left -- and he had no money left because, after pouring a lot of resources into the Ames straw poll, which he lost to Michele Bachmann, elites decided to stop waiting for him to "break through" with voters. Some people thought Huntsman could win New Hampshire and then perhaps go from there, but after he came in third there he had to acknowledge that there was no real rationale for staying in the race. And if John Thune or Haley Barbour or Mitch Daniels or, I don't know, George Pataki (!) had demonstrated any voter appeal, they might well have participated in debates and then, if they remained appealing, contested caucuses and primaries. None did, evidently because they all decided they had either no shot or not enough of a shot to make it worthwhile -- even though they were well known in DC and had substantial fundraising rolodexes and substantial potential elite support. Elites don't make these decisions in a vacuum; popular popularity affects elite popularity, so it would have made a big difference to the field if Pawlenty or another had managed to get himself seen as likeable and appealing.

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    2. This is Anon 3:46
      If T-Paw had stayed in, he may very well be a leading candidate now. I thought it was a mistake for him to pull out. McCain stayed in after going broke in 2007, and got the nomination. However, you can't blame voters for T-Paw's dumb move. They didn't VOTE against him.

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  4. Your comments are accurate, but that is largely true of the primary electorates of both political parties. In 1972, the passions of the Vietnam War and the hardcore hatred of Richard Nixon by the antiwar movement led to the nomination of the unelectable George McGovern. The Democratic Party elites learned from that experience, and when other unelectable candidates threw their hats into the ring, including Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988, and Howard Dean in 2004, Democratic leaders worked hard to make sure they were not nominated. The mass electorates of both parties lack political knowledge and sophistication, and party elites have to help guide nomination decisions or disastrous mistakes can occur.

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    1. That's somewhat persuasive to me. That's a reasonable interpretation. But do you think McGovern or Jackson or Dean are as 'crazy' or embarrassing as the current crop has been? It speaks *relatively* well of GOP particular primary electorates that, besides Romney, they've voted for Santorum and Gingrich, two figures with substantial experience as national politicians. But those latter two have been saying some really unprecedentedly extreme things! As has Romney at key points. And Ron Paul -- despite moments that appear like some sort of frank common sense -- also truly has some crazy thoughts which he consistently states and doesn't hide. I think this crop of GOP candidates doesn't just show that 'the mass electorate' can be ungroomed in political pragmatism. The GOP elites have also shown themselves to be quite extreme and/or unwilling to stand strong for un-extreme positions. They shit all over Huntsman (a deeply conservative guy), and they spent successive weeks entertaining the energy of figures like Cain/Bachmann/Perry as respectable national politicians, not flat-out kooks.

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    2. It's behavior like that, from GOP elites who should supposedly know better, that is truly scary. Democratic party actors have learned really well how to police their party and how to speak firmly when they think something is out of line or unacceptable, treating their supporters with respect and trying to convey within some realm of realism what is necessary to govern (and their supporters often/frequently enough respond with some indication that they'd like to realistically govern). GOP elites don't do this nearly as well, and their popular supporters further descend into irresponsibility. That's not all of the dynamic, but it's a big part of it. Douthat's trying to find some half-assed way to rationalize this pathology or obfuscate. (He's like a David Frum who hasn't had enough success yet in his career to feel like he can speak frankly and show some integrity.)

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  5. Our current FBI director isn’t sure if extrajudicial killings of Americans citizens on American soil is legal or not. That’s not something you heard from some crazy tea party guy on right-wing radio, that’s what Mueller actually said in a Congressional hearing. But if it's really that important for you to believe that only _Republicans_ are crazy, just go ahead and believe it - spare us your partisan rationalizations.

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  6. But, Anonymous, we can't credit them for things that worked out the way they did irrespective of their influence, either.

    Party elites weren't really pushing any one candidate strongly, although what push there is is for Romney. So, we can't just lay the credit at the feet of the voters for picking the candidate that had the most ads, most party support, and most organization, either.

    (BTW, I think we can use the term "voters" to mean what I think we're all talking about: non-elite laypeople in the Republican party, Key's "party in the electorate")

    I mean, fire fighters show up at and put out a fire in the middle of a downpour. Do we credit the fire fighters or the rain?

    Douthat portrays voters as methodically sifting through candidates. They did NOTHING of the sort. The PROCESS sifted through the candidates. Voters didn't individually or collectively decide who to look at next. That was done by the conservative media and by the candidates themselves.

    Now, an argument could be made, a la Zaller's RAS model, that voters were CONSIDERING Cain vs Romney, and thus some said Cain at the time, because they were truly undecided, but they felt like playing along with the pollster in the game of imagining if the election was today. And the relatively low rates of people saying they were "solidly committed" to voting for their choices speaks to that, and, I think, to your argument. (Those numbers were in the 30s in October, and around 50-ish in February)

    So, I think I may have overstated the case in my comment above. But, I still return to the argument that voters somehow "did" this. If we're going to call polls just some kind of mirror on voter's thought processes and not predictive, then we can only credit the voters of a few states. Heck, it's 3.2 million voters. But 4.7 million have voted for one of the other 3. So, we can't even credit the voters that have voted yet. It'd be like saying that, presented with 4 car choices, buyers choose the right car, because 42% chose the 1992 Honda Civic (whereas 24% picked a rocket car, 23% picked a rocket car fueled by hydrogen, 11% picked walking barefoot). The process weeded out some even worse choices (was one of those actually just clicking your heels together 3 times? I think I saw a large chunk of granite as one of the choices), and some choices that were better (like a 2010 Honda Civic) were never presented to them. Voters didn't pick the list of options. Yes, when presented with the list of 4 choices (each one worse than the last), they chose the better of the 4. But, for MONTHS they were saying they were considered getting a Ford Pinto or maybe a Yugo.

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    1. Oh, another Anon posted in the meantime....my comments were directed to Anon@3:46

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    2. Anon 3:46 again
      The question isn't just whether or not voters can be CREDITED with NOT voting for Perry, Cain, Bachmann etc. The question is whether or not they can be BLAMED despite the fact that they DIDN'T vote for these loonies. You can argue that their reasons were less sophisticated than Douthat, but you cannot really blame them for something that they didn't do.
      Besides, if you want to pick on polls, then BLAMING them for Perry's rise requires CREDITING them with recognizing his idiocy in the debates and abandoning him. You can't have it both ways.

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  7. what we've seen throughout is that Republican voters are perfectly ready to support any loony who is willing to use sure-fire talking points about teleprompters and czars and, yes, birth certificates, the "issue" that fueled Trump's rise in the polls.

    Romney isn't much saner. His whole campaign is based on lying that the president when on an "apology tour", among other lies.

    The problem with the GOP is that they're insane from top to bottom. Maybe Romney's faking it when he lies all the time, but the reason he lies all the time is that GOP elites and rank and file demand lies. Republicans know in their hearts that cutting taxes magically increases revenues, that regulatory uncertainty is killing America, that we’re overtaxed, that health care reform involves death panels, that the stimulus was a failure, that climate change and evolution are socialist liberal conspiracies, and that the president is a Muslim.

    These things are all false, but they're integral to Republican identity.

    Any would-be GOP savior would have had to repeat all those lies-- including Roos's faves like Mitch Daniels or Paul Ryan. Like the rest of the GOP, they supported deficit spending-financed Medicare Part D, repeatedly raising the debt ceiling, invading & occupying foreign countries without regard to cost, and-- until the election of a non-GOP president rendered all previous actions, rhetoric, and ideology no longer operative-- Keynesian stimulus during economic slowdowns, and changes in tax policy that balloon the deficit.

    As Michael Tomasky put it: “It’s not a new candidate the right needs. It’s a new electorate.”

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  8. "Romney is doing a good enough job of pretending to be crazy to win. As he says, Romney's been dispatching his opponents with attacks that were designed to resonate with Tea Partiers (harsh immigration policies, defense of freedom for businesses to behave however they want, hatred of earmarks and debt limit increases)."

    This is exactly what I was talking about in the other thread. (http://plainblogaboutpolitics.blogspot.com/2012/03/read-stuff-you-should.html) Professor Bernstein claimed then that he didn't call people crazy for being anti-immigration, etc. Yet just a short while later...

    You may agree or disagree with the policies, but there is nothing "crazy" about being anti-immigration, anti-regulation, anti-earmark or pro-balanced budget. Any disagreement with bien-pensant liberal pablum is called crazy as a way of shouting it down, and this is the main reason that you get people saying genuinely crazy things - because people have stopped listening to the gatekeepers, who have proved time and again that they are deeply biased.

    I think Republican voters have done extremely well in very trying circumstances. The MSM is openly hostile to the Tea Party and barely less so to conservatism generally, so Republicans have limited sources and forums. Yet not only are they on the point of nominating the most electable candidate, they do so having forced him to run a campaign that will necessitate he governs as an authentic conservative, should he win office.

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    1. If by "authentic conservative," you mean unhinged lunatic liar, you're right. As someone on the completely opposite pole, I would say that the MSM has bent over -- backwards AND forwards -- to give the lunacy that masquerades as a political party some semblance of legitimacy. Based on their rhetoric, their actions in Congress, and the fallout of their "one-term president" agenda, they should automatically be disqualified from participation in the process.

      I don't blame the party itself, however. They have struggled to find something to define themselves since the senior senator from Arizona and his "Game Changer" sidekick drove their Humvee into a ditch. And out there was a whole mess of Americans who had accumulated a wild platform based on fear and loathing of the mixed-race (read "black") man who now leads the country. It was an easy marriage. And every time the scary black man did something that helped improve the lives of a lot of Americans, they screamed louder and louder, until they reached the point when no one hears anything except the screaming. And -- back to my previous point -- the MSM does everything it can to deem it a legitimate point of view.

      No. You don't get to call these different perspectives opposite sides of the same coin when one side has decided (unconsciously, most likely) that reality and truth and facts don't matter. The post above that alludes to the need for a new Republican electorate is spot on. Leave the loonies to create their own "party" based on religious nonsense and fantasies about the South somehow rising again.

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    2. @Eric: I'm not the civility police, but yelling at Anon for suggesting that anyone who brings up conservative viewpoints gets yelled at in supposedly neutral fora is not obviously the correct response.

      @Anon: for the most part, I think JB is using the issue names as shorthand here. E.g., it's not trying to reduce immigration (legal or illegal) that he considers "crazy," but raising the specter of Mexican women coming across the border in time to give birth so that their children will be American citizens and get away with Islamic terrorism, and repeating weird stories about immigrants beheading lots of people in the Arizona desert even after you've acknowledged you have no documentation to support your story. And I don't know whether any elected officials ever went in for the "anchor baby" idea, but the Governor of Arizona was repeating the beheading stories even while acknowledging the police had no records of the crimes she was talking about.

      However, I expect JB probably does think that contemplating refusing to raise the debt ceiling as a budget-balancing measure reveals deep and easily corrigible misunderstandings about both the budgeting process (which the debt ceiling isn't related to) and the global economy, and as such on that particular issue probably would be cool with calling people crazy just for their issue position.

      @Eric and others: please, please be extra-sensitive to conservative commenters, who are going out of their way to talk to people who disagree with them loudly. They're doing us a favor by stepping outside the partisan echo chambers. And unless Anon is secretly an elected official or a very popular radio talk show host, (s)he does not bear the blame for the situation you decry.

      Thanks.

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    3. please be extra-sensitive to conservative commenters

      Mighty kind of ya, classicist, but actually the conservative manual we received exhorts us to eschew special treatment. (I'm obviously only kidding. We don't know how to use words like "exhort" or "eschew" correctly).

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    4. I don't want special treatment for you: I want the same civility towards you as people have no trouble mustering towards people they agree with more often; it's just that the former requires a little bit more effort than the latter.

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  9. This is an interesting discussion, imho we are conflating two related issues: the first is the tendency in the meme-o-riffic 21st century for partisans to consume media supporting their biases, and the second is how well those memes match reality. All partisans (except for maybe Matt Yglesias and two or three others) indulge memes to support their biases; the problem on the right is that reality simply doesn't fit their memes anymore.

    One quick illustration of bias-supporting memes on the left: we had a good discussion on the ACA last week, in which a few partisan leftists rolled their eyes at conservatives who think death panels are a feature of socialized medicine. You pretty much can't have such a conversation in a forum like this without encountering some insidery death panel mockery from the left.

    Curiously, our neighbors to the north have had socialized medicine for well on five decades now; for pretty much that entire time high cost intensive-type care has required a waiting period. If such waiting periods are not a byproduct of actuarial calculations from, er, "death panels", then they reflect, what? A really nasty five-decade backlog? Wouldn't you think that, because such backlogs are unpopular vs. the alternative, at some point an aspirational politician would come along and clear those backlogs, especially given the excess capacity just to the south?

    Of course, its not clear that US socialized medicine will resemble the Canadian version, as Scott Monje accurately pointed out the other day. Nevertheless, the widespread liberal eye-rolling at the notion that socialized medicine involves death panels is a pretty salient example of left-leaning ideologues drinking their own team's koolaid.

    All that said, the reason this stuff is so much more offensive on the right is because the nation has basically drifted leftward, in some respects rapidly, over the past several years. Who would have thought, even 15 years ago, that opposition to gay marriage would be basically fringe in the US? Or that we would reach a point where the viability of political candidates is largely, perhaps mostly, predicated on how well they avoid taking stuff away from key constituents? It is, practically, an increasingly liberal country and world.

    So while liberals are also fed delusions by a rapacious for-profit media, such as the consistent sarcasm about socialized medicine and death panels, those delusions are less offensive than conservative ones, because we basically live in a liberal world, which I think makes leftwing partisan delusion less noticeable or offensive.

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    1. No, "death panels" was always a lie, never defended by anyone who cares about America and the well-being of its citizens.

      Sarah Palin coined the term "death panels" to describe Section 1233 of the ACA. That demagoguery led to the demise of funding for doctors to meet with patients ahead of time to determine the course of end of life treatment. That funding was originally proposed by conservative Louisiana Republican Cong. Charles Boustany. The evidence indicates that: "Being able to provide funding for discussions that have been shown to have a huge difference in improving the quality of life patients have and, in a recent study published in the New England Journal, also generated longer life for patients by helping them make better decisions about when to stop therapies that have become harmful to them, like that fourth round of chemotherapy and so on, those kinds of studies indicate we need more, longer and better discussions with doctors, overall."

      So, that Palin managed to treat Section 1233 as a Rorschach test for her fear rather than a policy proposal, and convinced others to feel that same fear, is a bad thing for health care in the US.

      And bear in mind the larger context, here-- we're paying over twice as much per capita as the OECD average, far far more than any other country, for worse results in health care by almost any metric.

      It's also a lie to claim that Canada has socialized medicine. In fact, Canada has a single payer system, and health care is provided by private organizations.

      Criticizing policies is fine; lying about "death panels of bureaucrats" and "socialized medicine" reveals a callous indifference to truth and to reality. Almost all Republicans evaluate such statements on their perceived political effectiveness, and on the emotions that the lies make them feel.

      As Fred Clark put it yesterday, addressing the lies that Sen. Santorum tells about the Dutch health care system: "the central concern of the Anti Kitten-Burning Coalition is not a defense of kittens, but an accusation against most other people. They are not driven by their opposition to kitten-burning, but by their opposition to a make-believe faction of other people whom they imagine favor kitten-burning. That this vast bloc of pro kitten-burning people cannot be found and does not exist does nothing to dampen their enthusiastic campaign against these supposed monstrously cruel others. It is a delusion, but the AKBC enjoys this delusion.

      "This delusion gives their lives meaning and purpose. It makes their lives more exciting. And it enables them to bask in the idea that they are good and righteous people — or at least the possibility that they are better than some imagined faction of monstrously cruel other people."

      I'm not sure it's true to say that the US is more left-leaning. After all, we just enacted a health care plan way to the right of Pres. Nixon's proposal, along the lines of the proposal of Bob Dole, Jesse Helms, and circa 2009 Chuck Grassley... and the entire GOP voted against it, calling the Heritage Foundation plan "socialism". Sure, opinion has moved to the left on gay marriage, but different issues are different.

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  10. If the following article is based on discussions with actual powerful GOP party actors, then it would appear that many of those elites are scared of their base:
    http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/03/why-arent-gop-elites-pushing-to-end-the-primary/254381/

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