I was on vacation for three weeks across the presidential election and consequently sort of cheated myself out of my normal post-election ruminations, so I’ll now make up for it with a serious of disjointed thoughts about the election and beyond. Hope you can forgive the off-the-cuff and extremely irrelevant timing of my remarks.
-I was very glad to see that there aren’t a bunch of secret racists waiting to surface and tank black presidential candidates on racial grounds after all. Or there are, but because of [insert unprovable hypothesis here] they didn’t impact this election, and we’ll be talking about them again the next time it looks like a prominent black candidate might lose. (Except in Tennessee, Arkansas, and northeast Louisiana, where the polling data suggests that either the secret racists actually did surface or the Democrats really really pissed off just this region somehow.) It’s also great that we know there aren’t a bunch of secret reverse racists out there who surfaced to vote in favor of a black presidential candidate on racial grounds – I know this because I learned in college student orientation that there’s no such thing as reverse racism.
-Ironically, if the Post is correct, the success of the surge actually hurt McCain because Iraq became less newsworthy, which contributed to a shift of attention toward the economy.
-Presidential debates are not really debates. The purpose of presidential debates is to look presidential. The answers to the questions themselves are incidental bordering on irrelevant, as long as you don’t say something catastrophic. He who does not believe this has too much faith in the American public.
-The best line in McCain’s concession speech was the part about running the most “challenged” campaign he can remember. I liked very very few of McCain’s policies, but even so, I can’t help but wonder what the election would have looked like if you control for the three Rs: race, recession, and revenge. I agree with the pundits who contend the most surprising thing about the race was how close it was relative to what the GOP had going against them. Of the McCain postmortems I read, I think I liked Charles Krauthammer’s the best. And no, I don’t think any other Republican candidate would have fared better… although Romney might have made it interesting. Once recession fears were ignited Romney would have been assailed for his involvement in investment banking, but he probably would have at least assembled a better campaign staff and managed them more competently than hindsight suggests McCain did.
-I am quite pleased to see an Obama presidency for two main reasons. First, I’m tired of hearing about how every crappy Republican policy shows what happens when you let the free market work, and I’m looking forward to moving from covertly anti-market policies to explicitly anti-market policies so we can have a real debate about the role of markets for a change. Second, it’s impossible to persuade people of the systemic nature of problems with government when they can just blame the same party over and over again; examples of corruption and idiocy from both parties are required to effectively make the point, and now there’s an increased opportunity for that to occur. This is not an argument in favor of gridlock or of punishing the incumbents, by the way — if anything, it’s an argument in favor of what’s going to make me happier in political discussions for the next four years.
-Okay, okay, I should at least let you know how I really feel about the election, since I tend to give the pundits and voters a hard time but I really haven’t said too much about Obama one way or another this season. Ilya Somin’s election postmortem is probably the closest approximation to my own views that I’ve read thus far. I simply don’t have any feelings about “change” one way or another because, as anyone who has read my blog knows, my general lack of faith in government transcends parties or candidates — rather like Will Wilkinson’s, among others. But, if I were a “pro-hope” voter, I imagine that this comes pretty close to how I’d feel.
-Speaking of faith: for some reason, people who have a strong faith in their candidate have a hard time accepting the reality that candidates do what it takes to get elected. I highly recommend the movie Recount, a star-studded documentary of the 2000 Florida ballot counting. It’s striking to watch just how vicious both sides were — which makes perfect sense when you consider how high the stakes are in a presidential election. In 2008 McCain went negative, regardless of his personal beliefs on the action, because he believed he needed to go negative to have a shot at winning. Obama opted out of federal campaign funding, which says nothing about his beliefs on the matter and everything about whether he thought it would help him win. Obama’s leftist base is now somewhat concerned that his cabinet appointments reflect a more centrist governing stance than they thought, which reflects nothing other than the election is over and he’s now doing what is either personally or politically expedient. It’s the simple truth: politicians do what it takes to win, because only the victor gets the spoils.
-Immediately following the election, much was written about the possibility of a Democratic mandate. Of course there’s a Democratic mandate, or at least a honeymoon. That’s what you get when you win, regardless of your margin. Although, notwithstanding the obvious symbolic importance of electing a black president, the outcome of the race wasn’t that monumental in historical context. The more interesting question is whether the election tells us something about whether the American public is moving in a more conservative or (please excuse the improper use of this term) progressive direction — here’s Yglesias vs. McArdle on the point. It’s not clear to me how much voters actually mentally matched GOP values with conservative values and made their voting decision based on said identification. I’m much more likely to believe that voters got fatigued or pissed off with the GOP in general, and that data associating votes for Obama with broadly progressive policies contain mostly lagging or inconclusive indicators. For one brief return-to-principles argument, read David Boaz.
-I’ll cite Matt again for his post calling out the Cato scholars for their lack of evidence supporting the need to return to libertarian principles. I respect his point, but I contend that his rebuttal — people voted for Obama because they wanted someone who could help them — is essentially meaningless. People usually vote for the candidate they think can best help them or help the country, but that’s not particularly well correlated with whose policies can actually help the voters or the country. If voters had elected McCain because of an overwhelming concern for national security, progressive pundits probably wouldn’t be arguing that the country is moving in a more conservative direction. They’d more likely argue that McCain’s sound bytes misrepresented the issues, or that the people don’t understand that McCain’s security policies could actually make the country less safe.
-Orin Kerr nails one of the more certain aspects of this election: the new ground rules for executive power and judicial appointments.
-I’m increasingly fascinated by the shift of the uber-rich toward the Democratic Party, as you can see in data posted by Will. Demonizing the rich has got to be the easiest conceivable campaign message, but demonizing the rich and still getting their votes? I don’t see why every party doesn’t adopt this strategy!
-And what of the GOP now? P.J. O’Rourke says they may as well pack it in! I actually think the fade-into-temporary-irrelevance prediction is entirely plausible, unless Republicans can figure out how to be more inclusive. They have now completely lost New England and virtually lost the Great Lakes region, they’re in danger of losing the Mountain West, and their current policy positions are hostile to every expanding cultural demographic except possibly for Mormons. George Will’s contends that the polls suggest the road back from minority to majority party isn’t as harsh as I’ve painted it. Michael Scherer has a good story about what different strategists think the GOP needs. But after reading many articles on this topic, what I’ve become most convinced of is that there’s nothing even close to a consensus, which might actually turn out worse for Republicans (in the short run) than arriving at the wrong consensus.
-I object to the supposed distinction between ideology and intellectualism that has lead many liberals to criticize conservatives for being… well, stupid. I agree that reflexive ideology is a terrible way to respond to tough questions, and I for one consider myself far too pragmatic to support a strictly ideological line of argumentation. Moreover, I completely agree that too many Republicans “have come to think of reason, evidence, and scholarship as necessarily flawed, to be reviled as an enemy” and find this both despicable and destructive. But it’s simply not true that real intellectuals are all about reason and that said reason is divorced from ideology. The GOP’s resurgence from 1972 to 1994 was very clearly driven by a coherent ideological message backed by serious intellectuals. Moreover, while ideology shouldn’t trump reason, everyone has their lens and serious policy debates aren’t going to be able to jettison ideology. The GOP absolutely needs to figure out what happened to conservatism’s serious thinkers, but it might also help if Krugman and Co. would can the “all the facts support all my clearly reasoned and non-ideological policies” act, because it’s pretty ridiculous, not to mention it lends credibility to the “elitist prick” accusations.
-Finally, in my opinion here’s the most interesting Big Political Unknown of 2009: will the Democrats in the House kill Obama’s momentum? The two things that struck me the most about Bush’s method of one-party rule were his staunch unwillingness to fracture his coalition by vetoing a GOP bill and the extent to which he took basically all the heat for everything Congress did regardless of his level of involvement. The evidence so far suggests that Obama has a very good PR strategy and may be able to distance himself from some of the insane proposals that are likely to come out of the House, but I believe this could be a real challenge for him.
All right, that’s probably enough random political opinions to satisfy an end-of-year election post; now back to focusing on the present.