Do We Need Better Candidates?

Matt TaibbiMatt Taibbi wrote a provocative article on Tuesday, This Presidential Race Should Never Have Been This Close. In it, he argues that Obama should have a huge lead, even if Romney were a good candidate, which he isn’t.

This goes completely against the conventional wisdom (especially among conservatives) that Obama ought to be losing this election. The idea is that the bad economy should make the incumbent vulnerable. But this is wrong. Political scientists have found that the biggest force determining whether a President is reelected is the economic trend in the few months before the election. Most of the punditocracy has misinterpreted this to mean that the determining force is the economic state. Today, although the economy is very bad, and it is improving slowly, it is still improving. As Ezra Klein wrote a couple of weeks back, “Things are going exactly as the political scientists expected.”

What I’ve noticed over the years is that all of the campaign minutia that I, as much as anyone, obsess over makes very little difference in the election. Broader trends seem to swamp everything else. We do see movement in people’s choices. Debates in 1984 and 2004 both caused a 5% swing for the challenger (as I recall), but in the end they still both lost. In 1992, pundits claimed that Bush Sr. lost the election because of the vile RNC, but I don’t think many voters even noticed. And now, people think of Romney as an entitled rich guy, but I’m sure he would still win if the economy was again in free fall.

Taibbi’s argument is deeper than this. He claims that there really is a 99%-1% divide in this country. Unfortunately, one of our candidates is owned by the super rich and the other is the super rich. He says that things would be different if we were given a real choice:

If this race had even one guy running in it who didn’t take money from all the usual quarters and actually represented the economic interests of ordinary people, it wouldn’t be close. It shouldn’t be close. If one percent of the country controls forty percent of the country’s wealth—and that trend is moving rapidly in the direction of more inequality with each successive year—what kind of split should we have, given that at least one of the candidates enthusiastically and unapologetically represents the interests of that one percent?

This is a common liberal lament: regardless of what the people call themselves, the policies they overwhelmingly prefer are liberal. Thus, the argument goes, if they were given a true liberal choice, they would vote for it by great majorities. I’m sympathetic to this idea. However, I think it is a big mistake to assume that people are rational—whether in economics or politics. As Thomas Frank shows in What’s the Matter with Kansas? many people are convinced to vote against their real economic interests for the fantasy that they are voting for their social interests. My favorite passage from his book:

Behold the political alignment that Kansas is pioneering for us all. The corporate world—for reasons having a great deal to do with its corporateness—blankets the nation with a cultural style designed to offend and to pretend-subvert: sassy teens in Skechers flout the Man; bigoted churchgoing moms don’t tolerate their daughters’ cool liberated friends; hipsters dressed in T-shirts reading “FCUK” snicker at the suits who just don’t get it. It’s meant to be offensive, and Kansas is duly offended. The state watches impotently as its culture, beamed in from the coasts, becomes coarser and more offensive by the year. Kansas aches for revenge. Kansas gloats when celebrities say stupid things; it cheers when movie stars go to jail. And when two female rock stars exchange a lascivious kiss on national TV, Kansas goes haywire. Kansas screams for the heads of the liberal elite. Kansas comes running to the polling place. And Kansas cuts those rock stars’ taxes.

That’s not the only reason that people wouldn’t necessarily flock to vote for a real economic progressive. But I think that Matt Taibbi is right that the nation would like a real choice. And in the end, “We win. Because our ideas are better.”[1]

[1] This is from Primary Colors.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “Do We Need Better Candidates?

  1. The problem isn’t the candidates, it is the unlimited and unreported money spent by outside special interests.

  2. @John Harvey – I more or less agree. I’m not sure that disclosure is that big a deal, however. I recommend Hacker and Pierson’s "Winner-Take-All Politics." It deals well with the pernicious anti-democratic effects of money. I’ll be writing about in the next few days.

  3. In the instance of Mitt Romney, the problem is definitely the candidate. He has consistently offended one group of voters after another. He goes on a foreign diplomacy trip and offended teh Brits. He is a terrribel candidate. However, there are some ideas that I think are right; just executed poorly. 47% of Americans are bums might be accurate but if said by a person with emotional intelligence, it sounds better!

  4. @Brian – I think my point is that candidates don’t matter all that much. It is more about larger electoral trends.

    I don’t think anyone could make "47% of Americans are bums" work. But I would argue that Romney didn’t say that. The comment hurt him for other reasons.

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