Saturday, October 10, 2009

Newt, Orlando Cabera, and Causation

(Not really a baseball post; politics content kicks in soon)

So, I was watching the Twins/Tigers showdown on Tuesday, and the ESPN yakkers were making a big deal about Twins SS Orlando Cabrera -- seems he is, in their view, a "winner" because he's reached the postseason frequently. Now, with the Twins win Tuesday, we can make that five out of six years, with four different teams. Impressive, no?

Well, no, not really. Cabrera is fine; he's a generic starting SS. Now, I root for a team that has tried to pass off Neifi Perez, Hal Lanier, and Johnny LeMaster (for seven plus horrifying seasons) as starting shortstops, so I do appreciate that a generic starting SS is a good thing to have. But Cabrera has no magic winner dust; he's been on good teams. Or, as was the case with the Twins this year, OK teams that were lucky to be in the right division.

I'm sure you see where this is going. Newt (Business Visionary) was back in the news this week, with a typically buffoonish performance in an interview with National Review. Alex Massie and Isacc Chotiner have fun taking apart Newt's silly claims (although neither is as nasty as Rod Dreher is here about Newt's qualifications as moral authority). The reason for this item, however, is not so much to join in bashing Newt, with all it's barrel-fish-shooting goodness, as it is to answer Massie's question embedded in his headline: "Modern Mysteries: Some People Take Newt Gingrich Seriously." Why do people take Newt seriously, even though he was exposed long ago as a total fraud?

It's a two part answer. First, the media takes Newt seriously because Republicans and conservatives take him seriously. That, as I've argued in other posts, is as it should be. It isn't CNN's job, or the New York Times's job, to decide who conservative leaders are; it's their job to report on the people who conservatives say are their leaders.

Of course, that begs the question of why Republicans take Newt seriously. For that, we get the Orlando Cabrera answer: Newt was in the right place at the right time (and, to give him credit, at least sort of, Newt did a brilliant job of taking credit for the 1994 election). Appreciative Republicans, who had after forty years started to believe that they would never win the House, treated Newt's nutty proclamations as true magic, since from their perspective something magic had taken place.

In fact, Newt had little to do with the success of the Republicans that year. The 1994 landslide was more-or-less predicted by Gary Jacobson; before Clinton took office, Jacobson concluded that what it would take for the GOP to win the House was an unpopular Democratic president, which is of course what happened. So, was Newt the reason that Clinton was unpopular? Again, no. A lot of Clinton's difficulties in 1993-1994 were self-inflicted; to the extent that GOP rejectionist strategies were responsible, it was over in the Senate, where the Bob Dole Republicans had the then-innovative "filibuster almost everything" tactic, that rejectionism actually landed blows.

Now, that leaves aside one element of the 1994 campaign that Newt does, in fact, deserve credit for -- the Republican's "Contract With America." However, the evidence is pretty clear that the Contract had little to do with GOP gains (I don't have citations here, but pretty much no one had heard of it by election day, and there's no evidence that those who had heard of it were persuaded to vote Republican as a result). There also seems to be a myth that the Contract was a serious program of action. It's true that there was some substance in the Contract (although of the substance, most of it is self-contradicting, since it calls for all manner of tax cuts, plenty of new spending, and a balanced budget -- it's an all-dessert as long as you don't look closely document). Most of the Contract, however, was poll-tested pablum. That's not really a criticism; most campaign statements are poll-tested pablum. But it was what it was, and no more than that.

When Newt was in office and botching things left and right, Republicans soon realized that the guy is a fraud, and they dispatched him from a position of power pretty quickly. They seem to have drawn the line at exiling him from talk shows and think tank seminars, however; I guess the possibility that he really has magic dust after all is just too strong to ignore.

Tough luck for them.

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