Archive for ‘populism’

November 9, 2008

Losing Althouse

Ann Althouse offers a very interesting confirmation of my assertion — the subject of a much-criticized American Spectator column Oct. 7 — that it was his Sept. 24 bailout stunt that cost McCain the election:

September24: . . . After hearing from Obama, I view McCain as having pulled a stunt, a stunt that he should have seen would be ineffective.
September 25: I find Palin’s interview with Katie Couric “Painful. Terrible.” Yet McCain wants the VP debate to go first. She’s not ready, and he’s throwing out impulsive, erratic ideas.
September 25, a little later: I’m impressed by Mickey Kaus’s mockery of McCain’s stunt. . . .

Now, Althouse is a law professor who can hardly be taken as representative of “swing” voters in general, but there is something important going on here. While she originally thought McCain’s stunt was clever, she changed her mind once she saw Obama’s reaction. Which is to say that it was the contrast between the two men that was decisive.

Notice also how the disastrous Couric interview with Palin (arranged by the worse-than-useless Nicolle Devenish Wallace) aired almost contemporaneously with the bailout stunt, so that the effect of the two events cannot be disentangled in the ultimate chain of causation. (This disaster is “over-determined” to borrow social-science jargon from Rich Lowry.)

The Blame Sarah First crowd would have you believe that Palin exercised a negative effect independent of Maverick’s own shaky performance, a negative effect that had more to do with her objective qualifications (or lack thereof) than with Team Maverick’s thorough botch of her press relations.

Althouse, who was sympathetic to Obama from the start, was pushed toward the GOP ticket by Palin’s nomination, even though she remained steadily turned-off by McCain’s incoherence. (See her entry for Sept. 7.) As much as she disliked the Couric-Palin interview (thanks again, Nicolle!), it was really McCain’s bailout stunt, symptomatic of his general incoherence, that provided the decisive shift. Her reaction to McCain’s debate performance is entirely negative.

Non-partisan likeability
This all goes back to what I’ve been saying for weeks. If you are a genuinely independent voter — an “Ordinary American,” someone who in all honesty might vote for a candidate of either party — then ultimately you are going to vote on your general impression of the candidates. Before the 2004 election, I wrote an article (available only in PDF) for the moderate Republican journal Ripon Forum, in which I pointed out the “likeability” factor as trumping the sort of demographic microanalysis favored by pundits:

The big picture is left out of this microscopic calculus: Head to head, side by side, which one of these men does the electorate actually like?
Whatever his failings, Mr. Bush is basically likeable. This was a key factor in 2000, and is prominent again in 2004. His basic likeability is now giving Democrats nightmares. When the infamous Iowa “scream” derailed the energetic Howard Dean’s Democratic primary campaign, esablishment Democrats quickly jumped aboard the John Kerry bandwagon. But once Mr. Kerry secured his party’s nomination, Democrats were dismayed to note that they faced a repeat of the 2000 election: A stiff, pompous, boring Democrat competing with the aw-shucks charm of a smiling Texan.

That “aw-shucks charm” seems to have passed its sell-by date shortly after Bush’s re-election, but the basic point remains sound: Independent voters, who ultimately decide presidential elections and “swing” the swing states, really do act on the entirely irrational belief that by watching a man talk on TV, they can judge his fitness for the presidency. To the eternal consternation of pundits and policy wonks, the fine details of policy that motivate intellectuals and ideologues have little to do with persuading undecided, independent “swing” voters.

This is what has frustrated me about the McCain candidacy since the primaries. (Some) Republicans and (some) ideologues viewed his candidacy through rose-colored glasses: McCain was a heroic patriot whose POW biography would rally conservatives, while his “Maverick” image would sufficiently distance him from the Bush-damaged Republican brand. In hindsight, everybody seems to realize that this view was mistaken, without realizing why it was mistaken.

John McCain is not likeable, not by the standards of telegenic likeability that have prevailed since the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debate. I have friends who’ve met the senator (a distant relative I call “Crazy Cousin John”) and genuinely like the man. But he is old and bald and comes across on TV as grumpy. This is why, much to horror of my True Believer conservative friends, I ultimately favored Mitt Romney in the GOP primaries. In politics, ceteris parabus, tall, rich and handsome beats old, bald and grumpy any day of the week.

This is not to say that policy and ideology are irrelevant, but the party and the movement whose icon is the amiable erstwhile movie cowboy Ronald Reagan ought never to discount the importance of having persuasive, likeable spokesmen — and spokeswomen, too, which is why I’m so big on Sarah Palin.

Our Sarah didn’t fare too well with independent voters in 2008 (if you believe the polls, which no True Believer ever does), but then again, Reagan wasn’t exactly a darling of the “swing” voters in 1976. And, yes, the True Believers are shuddering in rage at the audacity of comparing Palin to Reagan, but they should reserve their rage for those who compare Obama to Reagan. Don’t pretend we don’t know which comparison Reagan would find more insulting.

If Palin lacks (or seems to lack) the kind of sturdy intellectual commitments that Reagan possessed — another hindsight judgment that few would have granted the Gipper in ’76 — it cannot be denied that she possesses in great measure his down-to-earth likeability. Having excoriated McCain and Schmidt and the rest of Team Maverick for their boneheaded blunders, I yet give them full credit for seeing Palin’s natural political talent.

God-given talent
When I was a sportswriter in North Georgia in the late ’80s, Calhoun High School football coach Johnny Gulledge remarked that “you can’t coach a 4.4 forty.” That is to say, the kind of speed that can run 40 yards in 4.4 seconds is a God-given talent for which a winning coach gets credit when the speedster is his starting running back, but for which he gets blamed when that speed is on the other team. (Gulledge’s teams were plagued by a shortage of speed in those years.)

My American Spectator colleague Quin Hillyer has joined others in asserting that Palin’s electric effect on the Republican base was essentially a fluke, that any good running-mate pick would have excited the conservative grassroots in this otherwise bleak season for the GOP. With all due respect, I disagree. What some call a fluke, I see as . . . well, something else. (Perhaps you’re familiar with the Veggie Tales episode where Pa Grape’s niece saves them from the Island of Perpetual Tickling. Perhaps not.) Sneer at “populism” all you want, but I know what I believe.

For such a time as this, you might say, Palin’s choice was hardly a fluke. She was the Miracle Worker, the Sweetheart of the Heartland, and if you were not there in Shippensburg to see those people standing in that cold wind, you can be forgiven if you don’t get it. But let them that have eyes see:

October 18, 2008

Pundit war!

Ross Douthat and Patrick Ruffini and Mark Steyn go at it in a cage match of punditry today over accusations of establishment elitism in the conservative pundit class. There’s so much action it’s hard to know where to start, but let’s try Ruffini:

In the midst of the biggest financial meltdown since the Great Depression, conservative establishment pundits appear to blame John McCain’s inability to seal the deal not on the misfortune of being the candidate of the in-party of his thin track record on economic matters or his jarring response to the crisis, but on a hockey mom from Alaska. Who just happens to be part of the grassroots conservative / outsider / Mark Levin circle. Who, from a conservative point of view, happens to be the one bit of relief we’ve gotten from this crap sandwich of a political
environment that’s been going on for three years now.

Feel free to read the whole thing. Meanwhile, Douthat responds by arguing (naturally) in defense of the GOP elite:

[I]f you want Sarah Palin as your standard-bearer, you need a Brooks, or someone like him, at the table when her speeches are being written and her policy positions are being hashed out. You need elites, and you especially need elites who work and live outside the conservative cocoon, and who have a sense of how to talk to people who aren’t already persuaded that a vote for Obama is a vote for socialism and surrender.

I’m sure I’ve said this before somewhere, but just in case you missed it: F— you, Ross Douthat. F— you and your imperious assumption that only Harvard-educated a$$holes like yourself are capable of writing speeches and policy papers.

Listen to me, you arrogant punk: I used to be a Democrat. When you were still in diapers, I voted for Walter Mondale! Sixteen years ago, I had a Clinton-Gore bumper sticker plastered on my old Chevy Impala. Don’t you think I know a thing or two (and a helluva lot more than you) about what can persuade born-and-bred Democrats to abandon their class-warfare ideas and embrace limited government as the better answer to their grievances? “Libertarian populism,” look it up.

Something else, Ross: I’ve got T-shirts older than you, kid. Nothing has corrupted the conservative movement more than this tendency to grab super-bright 20-somethings right out of elite universities and elevate them to positions in the commentariat before they’ve passed any markers of adulthood other than graduating school. No wife, no kids, no mortgage, no work experience in any field outside journalism or public policy, and long before you’re 30, you — yes, you, Ross Douthat — are assumed to have the insight to tell the rest of us what’s what.

When I was your age, Ross, I was covering high-school sports in Calhoun, Ga., having previously worked as a forklift driver, nightclub DJ, rock-and-roll singer, furniture delivery man, and in just about every sort of food-service gig you can imagine. So when it comes to figuring out how to sell a conservative message to blue-collar voters, I’m not going to seek answers from a soft-handed punk from Connecticut sharing insights based on his experiences as an intern at National Review.

OK, my spleen feels much better now. So I’ll quit pounding on Douthat and let Mark Steyn take his turn:

[O]ur chattering classes are uniquely concentrated in Ross Douthat’s DC/NY corridor. Isn’t this a little odd? And doesn’t it pose particular problems for Republicans? Conservative elites live in liberal jurisdictions. . . . Whatever one feels about what Ross Douthat calls the “conservative cocoon”, it elects conservative mayors, conservative school boards, conservative road agents, conservative state reps, and conservative governors: it’s the only place to go to experience conservatism as applied in practice. On the other hand, Mr Douthat’s aforementioned corridor will once in a while elect a Michael Bloomberg or a Christie Whitman, and that’s it: conservatism remains strictly a theoretical proposition.
That’s why the metropolitan sneers about the size of Wasilla were extremely ill-advised, and not just because of the implication that the mayors of, say, New Orleans, San Francisco or Detroit are therefore more qualified to be in the White House. If it weren’t for small towns, suburbs and rural districts, there would be no conservative government at all.

Dead on target, and please feel free to read the whole thing. But Douthat — who is, in all truth, quite nearly as smart as he thinks he is — then comes back to clarify:

Sarah Palin’s Alaska is not the conservative cocoon. Neither is Tim Pawlenty’s Minnesota, or Mike Huckabee’s Arkansas, or any other place out in flyover country where a populist conservative became a popular and successful governor. The cocoon is the constellation of mutually-reinforcing conservative institutions – think tanks and advocacy groups, talk-radio shows and websites – that can create the same echo-chamber effect that the liberal media has long produced, and that at times makes it difficult for the Right to grapple with reality.

Here, then, Ross actually make a valid point. There is in fact a double echo-chamber effect, one where Republicans listen only to themselves, and another caused by the institutional biases of Washington:

See, Washington is like a big echo chamber. People sit around talking to their friends, and reading their own press releases, and next thing you know, they start thinking they’re so smart, and so powerful, and so important that they don’t have to pay attention to those microscopic pygmies called the voters. . . .

(That’s from a speech I gave to a Republican banquet in Winston-Salem, N.C., in December. I point this out, just in case anyone was harboring an illusion that only Harvard-educated a$$holes can write speeches.)

Republicans in Washington lost touch with the voters, but still kept winning elections for a while, and in the process, they developed a contempt for the people who elected them. This is the only possible explanation for the GOP’s repeated push for amnesty in 2006 and 2007. The people in Ohio who elected Mike DeWine to the Senate didn’t want amnesty, and when he voted for amnesty, the people in Ohio decided they didn’t want Mike DeWine.

It would be in the best interests of the Republican Party if all supporters of amnesty were defeated in GOP primaries. (F— you, Chris Cannon.) But if the party elite prefer cheap illegal workers to Republican voters, the GOP will find itself losing general elections.

So any discussion of why Barack Obama is winning this election must begin with a discussion of . . . personnel. And let me give you a clue: Sarah Palin is not the problem.

UPDATE: A third-party spoiler might cost Republican Sen. Gordon Smith re-election in Oregon. F— you, Gordon Smith.

UPDATE II: Daniel Larison:

One of the most important populist goals ought to be entitlement reform, since there are few things more threatening to the long-term well-being of the people than exploding entitlement costs, but that would entail controversy, political risk and telling the public unpleasant truths about the unsustainability of existing entitlements and the folly of adding on more. What distinguishes real populism from cheap demaoguery, among other things, is the willingness to tell people that they cannot have it all and to govern as if that were true.

Very good point. But Alabama’s playing Ole Miss now, so there’s no time to talk policy. I’ll leave that to the pointy-heads.

UPDATE III: Jennifer Rubin:

[C]onservative pundits in the NY-DC corridor should sneer less and learn more from “practicing” conservatives in the heartland. Put differently, if it there weren’t a lot of Sarah Palins, there wouldn’t be many people reading what the pundits write, let alone implementing their ideas. The alternative is that conservatism goes the way of Latin — a dead language.

There is a tendency of blue-state Republicans (and I’m thinking of Rudy Giuliani here) to think that the secret of GOP success is to impose their liberal views on cultural issues (immigration, gun control, gay rights, etc.) on the red-state majority of the party, while trying to pacify social conservatives with symbolic gestures (e.g., Terri Schiavo). This is what we call bass-ackward.

UPDATE IV: Linked at the American Thinker and Daniel Larison cracks back at “reflexive obeisance to whatever ill-considered Republican policy was being pushed by the leadership or administration at the time,” etc. Larison also throws in a dig that appears to reference my pan of Rod Dreher’s “crunchy conservatism.”

The crunchies can’t shake Dreher’s conceit (borrowed from the Keynesian Buddhist, E.F. Schumacher) that to advocate economic freedom is to endorse “the culture of acquisition and consumption.” Conservatism is a philosophy of government, not a matter of lifestyle preferences. Conservatism isn’t about buying organic groceries at Whole Foods or sitting around quoting Russell Kirk, it’s about constitutional government.

I’d love to argue more about this, but right now Alabama is fighting to hold on against Ole Miss in the fourth quarter, and if nothing else, I am a loyal Bamacon.

UPDATE V: Making enemies and influencing people — now Conor Friedersdorf is taking exception to my “I’ve got T-shirts older than you, kid” stance about the “corrupting influence” of young know-it-alls. I would remind Conor that Ralph Reed and Jack Abramoff got their start together in College Republicans. By the time Reed was 28, he was executive director of the Christian Coalition.

Immersing yourself in Washington right out of college might be a shrewd career move, but it narrows your horizons. There is a whole ‘nother world beyond Washington, where nobody gives a damn about the stuff that people in DC take so seriously.

It is an undeniable fact that Washington has a surplus of ambitious young people with degrees from elite institutions who don’t want to pay their dues — as if they believe their SAT scores entitle them to an exemption from the ordinary drudgery of learning the ropes, crawling before they walk, etc. They consider themselves failures if they’re not some kind of big shot by the time they’re 30.

That kind of fanatical ambition is dangerous, and its superabundance in Washington is one reason the place has such a reputation for treachery. They’re all so busy seeming, nobody dares merely to be.

Thank God, I was a 38-year-old married father of three before I got here. And thank God none of my kids has shown interest in that high-pressure fast-track treadmill that breeds today’s Young Meritocrats.

UPDATE VI: Linked by Matt Lewis at Townhall — thanks.

BTW, I have friends who are friends with Ross Douthat, and who assure me that Ross is genuinely a nice guy. Sorry, but anybody who gets a contract from Harper Collins at age 24 to write a book about “what it’s like to go to Harvard” has committed a cosmological injustice for which atonement must be exacted.

At any rate, if any reader wants to see a less vituperative exposition of what I’m actually trying to say here, try this mini-essay.

September 30, 2008

Libertarian populism (the column)

Monday’s blog post becomes Tuesday’s full-length column at The American Spectator:

Nobody seemed to notice when Libertarian presidential candidate Bob Barr adopted as his campaign slogan “Send Them a Message!” — the same outsider theme that animated George C. Wallace’s populist third-party run in 1968.
Leaving aside the vast political and historical distance between the late Alabama Democrat and the former Georgia Republican, Barr’s slogan clearly seeks to tap into an enduring populist conception of the government in Washington as a corrupt insider racket controlled by special interests, in which both Democrats and Republicans are out of touch with the concerns of ordinary Americans.
The defeat of the Wall Street bailout deal in the House yesterday was an amazing convergence between libertarian ideals and a resurgent populist sentiment. . . .

Please read the whole thing.

UPDATE: The column is linked today by Eric Dondero at Libertarian Republican, Tom Knapp (one of the “smelly libertarians” on the famous van ride to the LP convention in Denver) and the fabulously bewhiskered James Poulos.