Monday, October 31, 2011

East End boys and Westen's pearls

Drew Westen is once again filling valuable column inches in the New York Times with cheap pop-psychological claims about parties and politicians. John Sides goes in for the quick kill, and Jon Bernstein helps mop up. I'm a bit late to the show, but I saw another claim in Westen's piece that really begged to be addressed.

Democrats... are too likely to view intellect as both necessary (which it is) and sufficient (which it is not) for high office. They have repeatedly presented the American people with candidates — Hubert H. Humphrey, Walter F. Mondale, Michael S. Dukakis, Al Gore, John Kerry — with more than enough gray matter to be the world’s chief executive but not enough of the other skills that matter to the American people. [...]
The ability to “read” the emotions of the electorate and to speak to those emotions in a compelling way do more for both electoral success and legislative success than I.Q. Similarly important is the ability to articulate a vision and a set of values, which is a far better predictor of voting behavior than positions on “the issues.”
This is something Republicans understand far better than Democrats, and something Ronald Reagan mastered.
This is classic post hoc reasoning that doesn't even belong in an undergraduate essay in an intro-level class, no less on the Sunday op/ed pages. The reasoning goes: Mondale ran, Mondale lost, therefore Mondale was lacking some important qualities [insert whatever qualities you like in people]. One major factor that is being ignored here, of course, is the economy. Mondale ran against a popular incumbent during an enormous economic boom. Are we to believe that Bill Clinton would have defeated Reagan in 1984?

Another point: Did Nixon "read the emotions of the electorate" in 1968? Did he "articulate a vision and a set of values"? Or did he just happen to run in a year when the incumbent party's candidate was suffering from his association with a slowing economy and a deeply unpopular war?

Yet another point: Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000! No, that certainly doesn't make him president, but nor does it demonstrate that the voters rejected him due to his purported inabilities to read emotions or articulate visions.

Still another point: Yes, Ronald Reagan possessed some excellent public speaking skills, but that didn't help him when the economy was floundering during his first term. His approval ratings dropped into the 30s in 1983. Maybe in all the economic turmoil, he briefly forgot how to read emotions and articulate visions.


metrichead said...

Seth, help me out here. I assume (maybe incorrectly) you adhere to the Douglas-Hibbs "Bread and Peace" model.

In 2000, we had no wars, and the economy was booming, yet Gore couldn't manage to break 50% in the popular vote, despite winning a plurality.

I realize there are always outliers, but how was Bush able to win the election? Better yet, since one can dispute that he "won/stole" the election, how was he able to get so close to Gore in terms of the popular vote with all these factors moving against him?

Seth Masket said...

Metrichead, check out this article by Bartels and Zaller. As it turns out, the economy had slowed down by late 2000 (at least as measured by RDI growth). It hadn't slipped into a recession, but the fundamentals predicted just a narrow Gore victory, and he only underperformed by about half a percentage point.

Why did he underperform at all? That could be due to campaigning skills, or perhaps a residual penalty from being vice president to an impeached president.