At least Mike Lee takes an occasional interest in the struggles of middle-class and working poor families. My On The Square column is on how the Republican establishment and Tea Party populists each have self-serving and self-destructive illusions about persuadable voters.
The shutdown/debt ceiling fight is just too depressing a subject to keep up a running commentary. It was an unwise fight, but the Republican establishment that is saying “I told you so” to the defunders is, in its own way, just as delusional as the people who thought the threat of a government shutdown would get Obama to agree to the virtual repeal of his main legislative accomplishment.
One thought I have is that while conservatives would be better off with better policy, better legislative strategy and better rhetoric, there is a large swath of America where it won’t matter because no message and no proposals will get a sympathetic hearing. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent by right-of-center organizations every election cycle and yet tens of millions of Americans (disproportionately young) are completely passed by. It isn’t even that these people reject the message offered. They just never hear anything that makes enough sense to even reject. The thirty seconds ads they see during election time are in the jargon of politics that might as well be a foreign language.
They might be open to family tax policies that would increase their take home pay, market-oriented alternatives to Obamacare that offer secure access to health insurance with lower premiums, or restrictions on the destruction of (visibly human) late-term fetuses. They just never hear about how one of the political coalitions is for those policies and the other one is against them. Just knowing that such a set of policies exist would help people think differently about the cleavages in our politics. Some people who vote for the center-left coalition might decide they have been voting for the wrong side. Just getting those ideas out there to people who don’t consume much right-leaning media would make it easier for conservative politicians to talk about those issues.
This isn’t about getting people to vote for conservative candidates. It is about getting them ready to listen effectively to what a conservative candidate might have to say, and listen critically to what liberal candidates have to say. In the absence of context, it almost doesn’t matter how articulate a candidate is. If a debater has thirty seconds to talk about abortion, you just can’t introduce the idea that Obama voted against extending legal protections to newborns who survived botched abortions. It is true, but to a person who only knows Obama as the nice man on the television, it is too horrible to be believed when you only heard it one time from an opposing candidate. Young people have, by the time they are eighteen, heard hundreds (if not thousands, if not ten thousand) messages about the dangers of climate change. How many times have they heard about the benefits of Indiana’s HSA/catastrophic health insurance program? How much better off would we be if some of those tens and hundreds of millions spent making the rubble bounce during Republican primaries were spent taking the time to explain a few key issues to people who don’t consume much conservative media?
One of the really irritating narratives to come out of the shutdown/debt ceiling debate is the idea that the shutdown drowned out coverage of the incompetence of the Obamacare exchanges. Funny, but the excellent Fox News program Special Report with Bret Baier managed to cover both stories. The failure of the exchanges is one of the easier stories to tell. All it takes is a journalist with a computer who is trying and failing (and failing… and failing) to sign up for the exchanges.
From a certain perspective, the failures of the Obamacare exchanges and the malicious administration attempts to harass the public by barricading open air monuments and trying to restrict roadside viewing of Mount Rushmore are not competing stories. They can both be seen as examples of the Obama team putting their political goals (making the shutdown as painful as possible and implementing the president’s signature law as quickly as possible) about sound public administration.
Obama was asked about neither the malicious monument closures nor the botched Obamacare exchanges at his press conference this week because of Ted Cruz I guess. This just show the ineptness of GOP because otherwise reporters would definitely have asked about those things (unless some Republican somewhere had done something… or said something… or there was unrest in the Middle East).
The worst part is that I don’t think there was conscious bad faith. I don’t think liberal reporters voiced an agreement to not ask about the Obamacare exchanges because it might hurt Obama. I think that the bad faith happens on the level of self-deception. Reporters who would recognize the murder of Matthew Shepard as a matter of national concern look at (or rather look away from) the Gosnell murders as a “local crime story”.
This makes it all the more important for conservatives to work together to create channels to communicate with that majority of Americans who do not consume the conservative commercial media and therefore depend (if only passively) on liberal-leaning journalists and entertainers for their news. Even if it was only ninety seconds at a time for a couple of times a week it could make a big difference in how people understand public issues. And so much time and money has been wasted.
I haven’t had much to say about the partial government shutdown/debt ceiling squabble because I find it simultaneously confusing, irritating, and boring. I wouldn’t have adopted the strategy of Ted Cruz and the House Republicans, but I hold out hope that all the huffing and puffing on both sides produces some marginal improvement in policy. I don’t really have anything to add to all the commentary on the politics of the partial shutdown, but the last week has been revealed a gap in the right-of-center media ecosystem.
Since the beginning of the shutdown, the Obama administration has tried to make the shut down as painful as possible and does so with obvious malice. They have barricaded and then wired shut open air monuments. They’ve tried to bar people from pulling off the side of the road to even look at Mount Rushmore. Who can forget about Harry Reid arguing that if he can’t have everything he wants, then pediatric cancer research will just have to languish.
One cynical way of looking at this is that it is just the Democrats playing hardball. That isn’t showing enough imagination. Imagine if the roles were reversed. The mainstream media have treated the malicious closures as largely agency issues. World War II veterans were being kept out of the memorials but public attention allowed them to get in. Members of Congress were shone pointing fingers about who was at fault. If this were a Republican administration’s park service that tried to keep the veterans out, then it would be an administration story and every question to the president’s press secretary would have been of the “Who ordered the code red!?! I want the truth for the greatest generation!!!” variety. In other words, the major networks would have covered it like Fox News.
But it is even worse for a liberal Democratic administration. They are the side in favor of relatively bigger and more omnicompetent government. Watching them use government power with malice and purposeful incompetence undermines their case. If they, in their pettiness, deploy their limited personnel to harass the public, maybe they aren’t such a good fit to transform the health care system. That would be a powerful argument – if persuadable voters heard much about it.
The right-leaning commercial media has limited reach. Only a minority of the country hears much from them. The mainstream news and entertainment media will usually tend to ignore, downplay, or muddle stories that are inconvenient to the center-left political coalition. Concerted effort by conservative activists can occasionally get the mainstream media to increase their coverage of a story, but it will never turn that story into a feeding frenzy.
That leaves paid media. There are vast quantities of money sloshing around on the center-right. A nimble, well-funded conservative media apparatus would already have ad buys on entertainment television and Hulu about the Obama administration shut down antics. The story would be an administration going out of its way to inconvenience the public in order to shift blame to its opponents. A wise, well-funded conservative media apparatus would focus on popularizing a few key right-of-center policies and thereby make it easier for candidates to run on and implement those policies.
What we are stuck with is a Super PAC apparatus that produces worthless election year ads featuring old, white, affluent people complaining that Obama is taxing and regulating them too much. These ads don’t seem designed to win over persuadables, or even to energize the base. These ads seem to exist so that Republican campaign consultants can, with a minimum of effort, show Republican donors that ads are being produced and aired. This is how hundreds of millions of dollars are being wasted. This is how opportunities to improve the public debate are being missed every single day.
George Will favorably passes on Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus’s plan to limit the number of Republican presidential debates in the 2016 cycle. Debates give “the oxygen of free publicity” to marginal candidates who have weak fundraising operations.” Priebus thinks that six debates are optimal. Will best describes this point of view when he writes:
They [the debates] must not, however, be so numerous as to prolong, with free exposure, hopeless candidacies. Or to excessively expose the candidates to hostile media debate managers. Or to leave the winner’s stature reduced by repetitive confrontations.
I’m not sure this works very well as an interpretation of the 2012 Republican nominating cycle. If you look at the dates of the debates and the movement of the national opinion polls, you see something strange. The “hopeless” candidacies did at least as well in the early part of the debate cycle as they did at the end. Michele Bachmann’s national poll numbers peaked after the second debate. Herman Cain was already second in the polls and gaining fast even before the seventh debate. (I’m not counting the South Carolina forum where the candidates did not confront each other as a debate.)
This makes a certain kind of sense. The early part of the presidential nominating cycle sees a crowded stage and the candidates have very limited speaking times. That makes it easier for a candidate with no real chance to get the nomination to steal some attention by striking poses that are attractive at first, but would be fatal for a serious presidential contender. The best example would be Cain’s nine-nine-nine tax plan. It was more memorable than anything anyone else had to say, and it sounded good – until the plan’s distributional impact was revealed. But this is not a problem of too many debates. Even a few debates would be enough for these candidates to accomplish their goals of increasing their name recognition. The more debates, the more these candidates fade. The problem is too little scrutiny.
I wouldn’t draw too many conclusions from the 2012 Republican nominating cycle. The field was incredibly weak along so many dimensions. The frontrunner was an obvious opportunist about every policy issue. For some reason, Rick Perry chose to run without first preparing himself to answer detailed questions on national-level issues and without a sense of how the dynamics of national public opinion were different from those of Texas. The “populist” candidates were running more to increase their speaking fees than to be elected president.
There are ways to reform the Republican debating process. We could do with somewhat fewer debates. The most important thing is to maintain – and even increase – the scrutiny that the debates impose on the candidates. It is a good thing that the Republican presidential candidates have to answer questions from liberal journalists. They will have to answer questions from liberal journalists in the general election. Republicans can’t choose to avoid the “mainstream” media in the same way that Democrats can avoid Fox News and conservative talk radio. The asymmetry in media power means that being to slap down questions asked from liberal premises is a core skill for any Republican presidential nominee.
But there is more than one kind of scrutiny. How long would Herman Cain have lasted if conservative journalists and policy wonks had been pressing him on how his plan would have impacted a worker around the median income? We would be better off if about half of the Republican debates were hosted by policy-oriented right-leaning questioners. Such debates would involve hard (which is not the same as hostile) questions that liberal journalists would not consider.
While I appreciate Peter Lawler’s suggestion, I’m taking myself out of the running. The sight of me on the television screen does not go well with breakfast. Based on my Facebook feed, the two top candidates would be Mark Steyn and Ross Douthat. You would have something really great if you could splice them together and combine Steyn’s wicked sense of humor with Douthat’s project of a majoritarian and constructive conservative politics. Such a composite would resemble William F. Buckley a bit. I think that in the real world, Steyn would come across as a really funny guy who, while pointing out absurdities on the other side, didn’t offer an alternative to the liberalism of the other panelists. Some of the folks on my Facebook feed worry that Douthat would be too willing go along with the premises of the liberal panelists. I don’t get that impression from Douthat’s writing. Maybe he comes across that way when broadcast. I’ve seen him on several webcasts over the last five or so years, but I don’t have any strong memories of what he said.
I think that whoever ABC picks should be a journalist or wonk who is a policy generalist that takes policy seriously. That means someone who can talk monetary policy, tax policy, health care policy, etc. and has been doing their homework for a while. It should be a conservative who pitches their arguments to the persuadables in ABC’s audience, but is willing to throw some sharp elbows at the liberal panelists (both their presumptions and – if they deserve it – their persons). The Will replacement should be someone who is willing to constructively criticize the conservative side, but who has the sense to not let that criticism of fellow conservatives get in the way of presenting a conservative worldview. Given those priorities, I would rank the best contenders as:
1. Ramesh Ponnuru
2. Yuval Levin
I’ve been impressed by Jonah Goldberg in his appearances on Special Report with Bret Baier.
I think Beinart’s article should be read in light of this College Republican report on the attitudes of young voters. Young voters are more ideologically ambivalent than Beinart lets on. A larger fraction of young voters have “conservative” positions on major issues than voted for Romney in the last election. Many of them could probably be won over by a practical message that connected politics to their lives. And this is using “static analysis”. It assumes no minds are changed, only that existing policy preferences could align better with voting patterns. I think young left-wing Democrats are probably more confident than older cohorts. Part of that is being younger, but they have also haven’t experienced 1994 or 1984. This confidence could be a weakness in the end.
My sense is that many basically apolitical young people who have a latent preference for lower taxes, etc. (on those occasions when they thing about such things) find an accusation of socialism to be completely incomprehensible as an insult.
The finale was a very entertaining and sometimes moving disappointment – though a disappointment by the extremely high standards of the show. There were many things to like (spoiler alert, of course). The reptile part of my brain enjoyed watching Jesse choke the life out of Todd. It was even better to see Jesse get his freedom – and not just from his slavery to neo-Nazis. Jesse was finally able to choose moral and intellectual freedom from Walt. But it still felt like Vince Gilligan was trying to soften the devastating (and thematically perfect) blows of “Ozymandias”. It was like Gilligan was trying to balance being true to the story’s moral core (the hell that people choose when they choose evil), and sending the audience home happy. The result was bit of a muddle.
“Ozymandias” left Walt dying and alone with a barrel of money he could never spend. The lives of everyone he had ever loved were in ruins. The last act of decency that was in Walt’s power was to renounce his infant daughter and play the monster he had become on a phone call he knew the police were overhearing, so as to exculpate his wife Skyler from her cooperation in his schemes.
I believe in redemption, but something about the particular form that Walt’s redemption took felt off. I think I get what Gilligan was driving at. In the finale, Walt stopped lying to himself about what he did and why he did it. Walt also stopped trying to avoid responsibility for his actions. Even the early Walt (before he had become Heisenberg) wasn’t willing to do that. When Walt had the drug dealer Domingo chained under Jesse house, Walt drew up a list of reasons for either freeing or killing Domingo. The option Walt left off was to go to the police. That would have involved confessing his involvement in drug production and his role in the death of Domingo’s business partner. Even early in the first season, Walt’s scruples were hedged by his determination to avoid being called to account for his actions.
With Walt finally ready to face the truth about himself and take responsibility for his actions, he can finally take some steps to heal (or at least cauterize) some of the wounds he has inflicted on the world. He can finally have a moment of honesty with his wife. He can bring the blue meth cycle to a close. It is all plausible, but I just don’t buy it all the way. They had to make Walt too hyper competent and too many things had to “break” his way (with perhaps a hint of divine intervention) over a forty-eight hour period. Like Willa Paskin says in Slate, I’m one of the people who thinks the show would have been better off ending with “Ozymandias” or the phone conversation at the end of “Granite State” (though I don’t for a second believe that the show ended up on the side of Team Walt – Walt’s redemption only started when he rejected Team Walt’s rationalizations).
There would have been loose ends if the show had finished with “Ozymandias” or “Granite State”. That would have been fine. Events had spun out of even the illusion of control. Walt no longer had the power to tie up loose ends or even to know what happened to important people in his life. He was stuck living with (and dying with) important gaps in his knowledge.
There was also something off about Walt going back to his old resourceful ways (in many ways he was more impressively than ever). In “Ozymandias”, Walt’s mind games fail him and bring ruin to everybody. But it wasn’t just that Walt’s tricks and strategies failed him in the end. All of Walt’s cons, escapes, and victories had led him to a disaster that was much more comprehensive than if he had been killed or captured earlier in the series. I get that it was a new Walt that operated in “Felina” and that Walt was trying to bring some measure of justice and reconciliation to the world he had destroyed, but I still think it marred the symmetry of the final season.
1. I have no idea how the continuing resolution/defund Obamacare/delay Obamacare maneuvering are going to play out.
2. President Obama just isn’t that popular. He is closer to unpopular. His RCP job approval average is down to 43.5% even though the economy continues to grow slowly and the labor market is somewhere between treading water and very slowly improving. I think there is a complicated dynamic at work.
Obama has been president for over four years, and not one of them has been good. It isn’t just the unemployment rate. The unemployment rate was about the same in 1984 when Reagan won forty-nine states. At least GDP was growing fast in 1984. It isn’t morning in America yet and morning isn’t even in sight. That doesn’t mean that the median voter is ready to turn right. The most powerful argument made by the Obama campaign was the one made by Bill Clinton. The Republicans are at fault for the economy going in the toilet. Things are better now after all of Obama’s work but there is just so much destruction to undo. Putting Republicans back in office is a bad idea. Cutting taxes on the rich while doing nothing for you is the best case scenario and sending us back to the Great Recession is the worst case scenario. My sense is that the median voter (or different groups who could include the median voter) is ready to trade up but they need assurances that:
a) The Republicans have a clear and convincing story about what caused the Great Recession (and no, George W. Bush Big Government isn’t going to get it done). My sense is that the market monetarists are the ones on the right with the best explanation.
b) Republicans have a clear sense of the challenges that are faced by middle-class and struggling families and have policies that will address those challenges (to the extent that policy can).
3. Just by going around talking to people, hardly anyone who didn’t already agree with Ted Cruz heard anything he had to say during his epic speech. Most people who don’t consume much conservative media don’t know it happened and the rest only heard vague descriptions from journalists who were sympathetic to Obama (at various levels of explicitness) and whose reports on the Cruz speech were some variation of “Pushy jerk won’t stop talking and even his own party hates him.” The people who needed winning over never heard what Cruz had to say.
4. I’m not sure how Cruz would play to different populations of swing-voters, but one of the reasons Ronald Reagan could be Ronald Reagan was because many people who did not think of themselves as agreeing with Reagan saw his “A Time For Choosing” speech and other major Reagan addresses. There was just less to watch. The combination of audience dispersion (which is the more important factor)and the domination by the left-of-center of the “mainstream” news media and the entertainment industry means that in some ways it to tougher for conservatives to reach the basically apolitical person who hasn’t already been socialized into some kind of right-of-center worldview. That apolitical person can more easily avoid right-of-center media (which is explicitly political and not designed for them anyway), but the mainstream news and the entertainment media are just part of the air they breathe. You can’t even get a huge audience by buying a block of time on one of the “major” networks. There is too much else to watch.
5. In the short-term it doesn’t matter to Cruz. Cruz was a hit with the conservative audience that heard about his speech from right-leaning media and this group is more immediately important to his prospects (if he plans to run for president in 2016) than general election swing-voters. He would have to reach those swing-voters eventually if he wanted to be president, but Cruz is not going to be the candidate of the establishment, so he needs for rank-and-file conservatives to see him as one of them. I think that Cruz could add middle-class and struggling workers who don’t identify as conservatives to a potential Cruz coalition.