Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Divining the Meaning of an Election

Michael Gerson has written a column in which he accuses political parties of... I guess it's of not sharing his personal beliefs about what is signified by the outcome of an election. Should we find it surprising that politicians characterize the political climate as being consistent with their own, and their party's, political agenda even when the facts might suggest otherwise? When G.W. Bush was pushing Social Security privatization as part of the supposed mandate from his 2005 re-election, despite its not being an election issue, Gerson was still working for him as a speechwriter. If Gerson wants to pen an interesting column on what it means to have a mandate, the collapse of that effort should provide plenty of material.

Gerson's commentary is largely inspired by the recent midterm election,
The GOP is feeling the momentum of its best congressional performance since the New Deal, and Senate Republicans are enjoying the pleasing weight of committee gavels in their hands. Elected Republicans generally believe that [President] Obama was humbled by voters and should act like it — that he should make concessions commensurate to his losses, as President Clinton did following his 1994 midterm defeat.

Obama, in contrast, seems to view the November outcome as his final liberation from a dirty political game characterized by complete Republican bad faith. He finds no repudiation in the verdict of an unrepresentative, midterm electorate. And he is no longer required to pretend that he cares about the political fate of the 4th District of Podunk. His reaction to the election has been to seek new avenues of executive action as an alternative to congressional dysfunction. So far, he has been politically rewarded.
My initial reaction to this split of opinion is pretty simple: The midterm election involved the House of Representatives and the Senate. Neither party disputes the obvious consequence of that election -- the Republicans took control of the Senate. However, the President did not stand for re-election and, as much as his political opponents might want to point to their electoral successes in a different branch of government as a reason why the President should abandon his own political agenda, that's not the way our system of government is constructed. We don't have a parliamentary system, where the party with the most seats gets to form a government with the party head becoming Prime Minister.

Gerson argues,
This type of polarization seems more psychological than ideological. Obama and congressional Republicans are inhabiting alternative political realities, with no overlap in which compromise might take root.
Although ideology comes into play, the word for which Gerson should have been searching is "political". Contrary to Gerson's suggestion, "Obama and congressional Republicans" are not "inhabiting alternative political realities" -- they are seeking to advance their own political agenda within the constraints of our political system. Gerson proceeds to explain that "'The meaning of elections... is almost always contested'" and "Election outcomes are not self-interpreting" -- well, no kidding.
As to the 2014 election: "It may well be," [political scientest Frances Lee told me, "that no single conventional wisdom will ever emerge. . . . Faced with ambiguity, people tend to believe what they want to believe. When people are surrounded by social networks that also want to believe the same thing, their views will harden further."
Cognitive bias 101... which, of course, has absolutely no relevance to how the President and Congressional Republicans interpret or respond to the election.

Gerson opines,
The parties do not view themselves as losers, even when they lose. The 2012 election should have demonstrated to Republicans (among other lessons) that they need a seriously revised outreach to minorities, women and working-class voters. The 2014 election should have demonstrated to Democrats (among other lessons) that a reputation for unreconstructed liberalism seriously limits their geographic appeal.
That, of course, is abject nonsense. If the lesson of the 2012 election is supposedly that Republicans "need a seriously revised outreach to minorities, women and working-class voters", a lesson the Republicans most certainly did not internalize, then the election of 2014 would be that the Republican Party does not need any such revised outreach. I'm reminded of how some commentators, speaking on climate change, confuse weather and climate -- it's the overall climate that requires the Republican Party to evolve. The big picture. The next twenty years. The result of a specific election is a data point, not a trend line.

When it comes to the President, it would be helpful if Gerson provided us with his conception of what it means to be an "unconstructed liberal". The term is bandied about in right-wing circles, but with little attention to meaning or consistency. It seems often to be used to describe somebody who adheres to far-left liberal positions. If that's what Gerson perceives in Obama's legislative history and his present political goals, to put it mildly, he's out of touch with reality. To the extent that Gerson is applying a dictionary definition of "unreconstructed", attempting to suggest that the President is advancing a liberal agenda that has become criticized or is unpopular, it's an odd argument. One of the reasons we have representative governments, and one of the reasons we elect officials for terms of years, is to insulate the political process from popular whims and prejudices. Further, such a definition would mean that Gerson is looking at opinion polls, not the result of the 2014 election and certainly not the results of prior elections.

Gerson's focus on geographic appeal is interesting, given that he presents geography as a problem for the Democrats but not for his own party. While it's not surprising that a Republican like Gerson would suggest that the Democrats should abandon their platform in favor of one that of his own party, it's not clear that doing so would actually do much to change the political map in the red states. What it would do is alienate blue state voters from the party, something the Republicans would no doubt appreciate but which would be entirely counter-productive to the Democratic Party itself. Gerson can't have helped but notice a clear red state, blue state divide in the 2014 election, yet he shows no sign of concern that the Republicans disavow their platform in order to woo more blue state voters. Under this interpretation of his statement, Gerson's suggestion to the Democrats is either a form of preaching to the Republican choir or is the sort of advice you give in the hope of handicapping an opponent who heeds it.

Gerson concludes,
Both parties could gain electoral advantages by realistically addressing their weaknesses, which would also open up the possibility of legislative progress. But everyone, unfortunately, seems to like what they see in the mirror.
Except... not so much. To the extent that Gerson correctly identifies trends within the population, he could make the argument that both parties need to focus on that long-term picture. Within that context it makes sense for the Republicans to pass a bipartisan immigration reform bill -- like the one that the Senate passed last year, but which the Republicans would not even allow to come up for a vote in the House. Instead the House is serving up a mess of a bill, unlikely to even gain Senate approval, but which seems to be fairly characterized as throwing red meat to anti-immigrant factions of their base.

Gerson might argue that the GOP is proving his point, that they need to pass something along the lines of the bipartisan Senate bill to help ensure the party's successful future. But even accepting that as true, the problem would be that the Republican Party, like Gerson, is focused on data points as opposed to trends. They're out to win the next election, not to lose that election for the sake of potentially positioning themselves to dominate politics a decade or more into the future. It's the President who has the eye on that future and, even if Gerson chooses to characterize his immigration policy as "unreconstituted liberalism", as something that should be abandoned, through the President's action the contrast between the Republican position and the Democratic position is made stark. Obama is taking the long view.

It's worth noting that Gerson is also playing the "pox on both your houses" game, in which he depicts both the Democrats (through Obama) and the Republicans as being equally at fault for legislative gridlock. The Republicans have come to the political realization that when a Democrat is in the White House, their party benefits from gridlock. The Senate immigration bill represents the sort of bipartisanship that Gerson would have us believe that we need (even as he suggests that the weaker reforms the President enacted through executive orders represent some form of liberal extremism) -- House Republicans killed the bill. Right now there is no chance that the Republicans are going to offer the President a reasonable immigration reform bill, let alone one that could fairly be characterized as bipartisan. There's similarly no chance that they will offer a reasonable healthcare reform bill (perhaps instead passing a score of "ObamaCare repeal" bills to add to the pile of their prior failed attempts) or a reasonable bill to address carbon emissions.... Where's the opportunity for the President to do anything but stand up for his core beliefs and do his best to advance the long-term interests of his party? It's not an issue of the President's liking what he sees in the mirror -- it's a matter of his being sufficiently politically literate to read the handwriting on the wall.

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