Hey, wow, it’s Joe Klein and he’s being almost completely right about something:
The presidency is our most intimate office… Barring a national disaster, issues are secondary–although an impression of how you might handle those issues is important. In 2008, for example, the causes of the financial collapse were abstruse, but Obama gave the impression that he understood what was happening and would handle it calmly. John McCain did not.…
But why, then, are congressional campaigns sometimes referendums? Because the candidates aren’t so well known–most people don’t know very much about their member of Congress–and the public tends to vote on its impression of how things are going in Washington. (In 1998, with the economy surging, the Democrats surprised most “experts” by winning seats in the midst of the Lewinsky scandal.)
In the end, though, presidential elections are about character, not policies.
Klein’s at an advantage here: he’s rebutting The New Republic‘s Bill Galston, one of the key intellects behind the DLC (which, overall, is not a title I’d be thrilled to see atop my obituary). And as is his wont , Galston is wrong. In this specific instance, he’s wrong about the upcoming election, which he says Obama can’t win by being the lesser of two evils:
One of the best established findings of contemporary political science is that in presidential contests involving an incumbent, the incumbent’s record is central to the public’s judgment. A race for an open Oval Office is about promises and personalities; a campaign for reelection is about the record and performance of the person currently occupying the White House. To be sure, Obama can offer his vision for the future and new proposals to flesh it out. But if the people don’t approve of his record, that won’t matter much.
As a left-wing blogger, it’s an unspoken duty of mine to take the side of a poliscientist over that of a Serious Person like Joe Klein. My failure to do so may dock me a full 10% off my yearly snark supplies. But I’m going to exploit the anti-DLC escape clause that’s also a part of the unspoken contract and side with Klein. Galston’s application of polisci is, in this instance, too absolute.
It’s true enough that voters tend to vote on an incumbent President’s performance rather than, say, his policy recommendations. But it’s also the case that elections don’t happen in a vacuum, unconstrained by the back-and-forth spectacle of the dueling campaigns.* Research of the kind Galston’s referring to is vital — but its purpose is laying out general principles, not iron laws.
2012 may be a referendum on the President’s record, not a choice between he and his opponent; but who decides what constitutes his record? Who decides what it will be held up against?
John Sides of The Monkey Cage is a poliscientist, too. But he doesn’t consider polisci’s established doctrine as rigidly as Galston. Writing nearly a year ago (it is remarkable, how quickly the fundamentals of a campaign can be divined by relying on recorded precedent) Sides not only predicted the President’s current, limited range of options but also flagged a recent study that complicates the incumbent-referendum truism. His emphasis:
The best Obama can hope for is to turn the election into a choice: “Okay, maybe you’re not so keen on me, but do you really want…That One?” He must find the issue(s) that make him more palatable than his opponent.…
If the election plays out this way, it will mimic the argument of Lynn Vavreck’s The Message Matters (a book I’ve noted before). Then, what can we expect? Based on Vavreck’s study of the 1952-2000 presidential elections, the out-party’s campaign strategy is crucial: if they successfully capitalize on a weak economy or, in times of economic growth, successfully locate another issue to campaign on, then they are expected to win an additional 6 points—even controlling for the actual state of the economy and casualties in war. Hence the title of her book: the message matters. In this sense, the 2012 election is the GOP’s to win or lose.
Vavreck’s conclusions bode ill for a Republican Party challenging Obama while deflecting questions and comments about their supposed “war on women.” And they bode ill for a Republican nominee who has vigorously endorsed a fiscal roadmap that strips bare popular social welfare programs in order to enlarge roundly unpopular tax cuts. An election that could and should be run along the same lines as 2010’s, with a relentless focus on “jobs, jobs, jobs,” becomes more difficult to keep fenced-in along those conversational lines when the GOP’s standard-bearer is a man who in no small part made a fortune by ending peoples’ jobs, jobs, jobs.
So what we end up with is this: Klein’s right and Galston’s wrong. But Klein’s right for the wrong reasons, while Galston’s wrong for the right. It’s not that a series of impressions we could reasonably group under the umbrella term “character” don’t influence voters in Presidential contests, and it’s not that voters disregard the candidates’ perceived legislative intentions when choosing in the voting booth. Instead, what happens is that, in Presidential contests, the lines between the two styles of judgment are blurred — at least more so than is the case for Congressional elections.
Obama’s character and his record, these aren’t fixed in voters’ minds. How they come to define each is by and large what the election of 2012 will be about. Galston will look prescient if Obama spends most of the next year persuading voters to reelect him based on his performance vis-a-vis jobs. But if voters think of his record as reflection of his character — moderate, balanced, cautious; closer to them on issues of women’s health, tax cuts, and foreign policy — then things will become harder to parse-out so cleanly.
*Sometimes I think poliscientists take the science part a bit too seriously…