Changing The Substance Changes The Tone

You may have seen in the New York Times yesterday that the Obama Administration is openly considering dropping the precondition that Iran suspend nuclear enrichment in order to facilitate talks aimed at coaxing Iran to suspend nuclear enrichment. You might also recall that this was a relatively high-profile national security issue during the campaign, with John McCain supporting the precondition (or more — the bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran) approach that had failed the Bush Administration, and Obama espousing the open, direct negotiations tact. Well, in what will hopefully stymie right wing hysteria, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad responded favorably:

TEHRAN — President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran said Wednesday that he was preparing a new proposal to resolve disputes with the West over Iran’s nuclear program, opening the door to talks with the United States, the official I.R.N.A. news agency reported.

Mr. Ahmadinejad said during a speech in the southeastern city of Kerman that Iran was still in the process of preparing the new package and it would be presented when it was ready, I.R.N.A. reported. He also said that Iran was willing to hold talks with the United States as long they were based on respect. “They have said they want to resolve issues through diplomatic channels and we say that this is excellent,” he was quoted as saying. “Our people favor logic, dialogue and constructive cooperation based on respect, justice and rights of nations.”

I’ll probably have more comment later, but this is definitely a positive development.

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Size Matters

Ben Smith inexplicably claims “it would have been a different campaign had McCain sounded in September like he does today,” in reference to this quote:

I regret the President’s decision to give away over $17 billion to the domestic automakers. Just last week, the Senate rejected a bailout plan because it failed to provide assurances that the domestic manufacturers would fundamentally change the way they do business to ensure their long-term viability. I find it unacceptable that we would leave the American taxpayer with a tab of tens of billions of dollars while failing to receive any serious concessions from the industry.

I’m going to resist the temptation to excoriate Ben Smith for doing his job — that is, trumpeting the importance of politics — and instead just suggest that it’s odd that $17 billion (in loans, no less) has worked the nation into such a tizzy when not long ago we gave $700 billion to the Treasury to save the odious Wall Street types. I mean, we’re talking about a loan that’s 2.4 percent of the TARP and 0.001 percent of yearly GDP. This isn’t to say there isn’t an argument to be made for a government-eased bankruptcy or restructuring, but the cavil about $17 billion just seems a little too trifling. Or, in other words, much akin to the earmark crusading John McCain championed during the campaign.

Sunday Pedantry

Greg Mankiw, a Harvard economist and former Bush adviser, has an op-ed in the New York Times with some sensible — if at times obvious — advice for Barack Obama. One thing I want to push back on though is this bit of clever sophistry:

Over the past several months, Senator Obama lambasted Senator John McCain’s proposal to reform the tax code to include a refundable health insurance tax credit. But long before Mr. McCain ever proposed this idea, it was advanced by Mr. Furman, the Obama campaign’s policy director. He can explain why the Furman-McCain plan makes a lot of sense.

Now the new president may decide that this plan does not go far enough. He may want a more generously funded social safety net to help the less fortunate get health care. Fair enough, but in pursuing that goal, he will run into the next issue.

It’s true that Jason Furman has in the past argued that tax credits could comprise a large part of health care reform, but emphasis on this point is like suggesting war opponents and war supporters share the same view on Iraq because they both believe succesful war efforts require tanks. That is, the issue isn’t whether or not tanks are used, but rather whether the strategy of their deployment makes any sense. The primary issue with refundable tax credits vis-a-vis the Republican vision advanced during the campaign was that it was a) woefully inadeqaute and b) would make health care less affordable and harder to obtain by expanding the number of people seeking individual insurance in the private market. If a refundable tax credit was coupled with a risk pooling mechanism (like insurance in the employer market) and also enough to cover effective care while remaining viable as health care costs increased, they would indeed be quite useful. John McCain’s health care plan addressed neither of these issues, so suggesting that the common use of a refundable tax credit reconciles two wildly divergent strategies insults the intelligence of Mankiw’s readers.

More on Heroes

So in the interest of not constantly engaging in extemporaneous noodling, I went back to read Timothy Noah’s piece on why Presidential candidates who play the “war hero card” have lost recently to candidates without military experience. My theory, building off Matt Yglesias’ argument that candidate success has more to do with the political environment than “campaign” factors, was that the opportunity cost of emphasizing “biography” meant less time on issues pertinent to the political environment, thus worsening an already bad situation. In any event, the good news is that it turns out Noah’s piece was completely devoid of any such theory so I can safely claim credit for the idea. The bad news is that I don’t think my theory captures the whole story.

To take the theory a step further (or perhaps back, but who knows), it seems more likely that “biography candidates” win the nomination when the political environment doesn’t permit for candidates to build their case on much else (i.e., a Republican in a recession or a Democrat after 9/11). I’d have to take this back a bit — and obviously, it doesn’t apply to incumbent candidates — but it’s certainly been true in 2008 and 2004. In 2008, John McCain emerged from a particularly weak field, and though some may contend McCain’s embrace of the surge saved his candidacy, McCain was well positioned to impugn Mitt Romney’s patriotism by his own war hero status. What’s more, the RNC made no pretense that John McCain’s biography wouldn’t be a large focus. Sarah Palin’s speech the night prior set the tone, “there is only one man in this election who has ever really fought for you” and McCain’s acceptance speech was a virtual self hagiography. Of course, had the Republicans opted for another tack, it’s still unlikely they would have won, but it seems plausible relentless focus on John McCain’s biography hamstrung the campaign’s ability to focus on the issues voters worried about.

The same argument can be constructed for John Kerry’s run in 2004, with the one caveat that retrospectively, the 2004 field wasn’t as poor as it seemed at the time (Howard Dean is now hailed as a visionary). Still, John Kerry emerged as a candidate largely because mainstream Democrats failed to form a cohesive and strong argument against neoconservative foreign policy, probably the most contentious issue of the campaign. Conventional wisdom dictated that John Kerry’s war hero status would neutralize George Bush’s edge on aggressive foreign policy, but in reality, the effort was superficial. Emphasis on John Kerry’s military service obscured any argument counter to the neoconservative vision, not only signaling weakness, but also further deteriorating an already weak position by limiting opportunities to present the argument on its own terms.

Understanding that political conditions transcend the importance of the candidate, political parties should recognize victory is impossible without credibly addressing the most salient trends in a given election year. Nominating a candidate ill equipped to wrangle from a position of strength will dim electoral prospects, no matter how compelling their biography may be. This has been especially true for war heroes.

The Opportunity Cost of Biography

Matt Yglesias adds his two cents on an article by Timothy Noah ruminating on why the war hero candidate always loses (McGovern-Nixon, Bush-Clinton, Dole-Clinton, Kerry-Bush, McCain-Obama).

Noah interviews various people for their theories as to why this is, but I think the important larger point to recall is that the evidence suggests that candidate attributes in general don’t matter very much in presidential elections. The hard part is winning your party’s nomination, where amidst a field of ideologically similar members of the same party these kind of things can help you stand out.

I think this analysis is generally right, but (admitting I haven’t bothered to read Noah’s article yet, so this might be in there) I would hypothesize that war heroism — or for that matter, simply excessive emphasis on the candidate’s biography — focuses the election too greatly on the candidate and leaves other things, like platform, by the wayside (Kerry, cough cough). One of Bill Clinton’s greatest political strengths was his ability to translate fairly recondite economics into language that made sense to lower information voters. In an election following economic decline (1992), this was far more valuable than prominently featuring biography, which would have eclipsed discussion about the fundamental issues in that election. Certainly in this election, John McCain was woefully equipped to grapple with the economy to begin with and it seems plausibly that the opportunity cost of discussing biography exacerbated an already difficult situation.

Does Not Compute

An emergent meme I’ve seen in a number of post-morterm’s of the McCain-Palin campaign is the resignation that betweeen the economy and everything else, it’s unlikely that any Republican would have won. Though it’s not clear the data support that conclusion, it’s nevertheless been remarkable to see an almost complete inability to connect the economic meltdown with Republican policies. Here’s self described “party loyalist” Cordeiro, sounding off at the ever objective Political Derby.

Taking the long view of the 2008 election cycle, perhaps there was no Republican candidate that could have run the table against Obama or any other Democrat. Maybe the tsunami of a collapsing economy coupled with an unpopular incumbent would have pulled under even the best candidate. (Emphasis added)

But of course it wasn’t simply a collapsing economy as much as it was the apotheosis of free-marketism run amok. And yes, some of this can be traced to the Clinton administration (though I’ll add that Bob Rubin was hardly a liberal Democrat), but the broader point is that the financial crisis wasn’t an inevitabile turn of the business cycle. Economic downturns are to be expected, $700 billion partial nationalizations of the banking system are not.

As it relates to the race, it’s not fair to fault McCain for the political ramifications of the financial crisis, but it is fair to blame McCain for the political ramifications of doubling down on the economic policy that fertalized the soil for this mess. More importantly, as it relates to governing philosophy, you might think that conservatives would connect the dots that if their crown jewel of their economic policy chest is closely identified with the most serious financial disaster in a century, they might look to embrace a more sensible policy, but then you’d be understimating the infinite power of being “party loyalist.”

Not Accepted

Last night, John McCain delivered a concession speech. It was duly conciliatory, but make no mistake: This speech was tinged with the magnanimity that only defeat provokes. Whether tarring a scholar as a terrorist or impugning the patriotism and allegiance of his opponent, John McCain’s campaign repeatedly exploited the divisive culture war politics that have impeded progress in the past. Whatever sway his advisers might have had, John McCain was ultimately responsible for the reprehensible ad hominem campaign he ran.

While it’s true that McCain believed in the superiority of his candidacy and that the perfect is the enemy of the good, the consequences of his campaign are made no less tangible by his concession. John McCain once stood — whatever his motivation — as an advocate of climate change reform and in opposition to the inequality George Bush’s tax cuts engendered, but as John McCain prostituted himself to the base elements of the Republican party he abandoned his cap-and-trade policy and embraced an economic agenda that has failed so many. And while Bill Ayers will soon be a relic of campaign trivia, many of the campaign’s smears won’t simply fade with the election’s end. John McCain has built genuine opposition to causes for which he had once proudly championed. The electoral mandate granted to Barack Obama is impressive, but rest assured, true reform will be made more difficult by the irresponsible venality of John McCain’s ambition. No mea culpa will change this.

UPDATE: FYI, this was sort of written in response to pieces like this and this.