On Second Thought, Cancel that “End of the Planet!” Alarm

If a basketball team were to lose a game in which 115 points were scored by a margin of three points, sportswriters would spare no cliche to describe the face-off as a hair-raising struggle between two equally matched opponents. The math of elections is more brutal; you lose by a score of 59 million to 55.5 million, and you’re dead meat, portrayed as a fatally flawed team, hopelessly out of touch with the tenor of the times, and target for endless autopsies by day-after hindsight artists. Whereas the winner is, all of a sudden, a master tactician, shrewdly in synch with the tides of public opinion, who played a masterful game every minute of the way.

What’s wrong with this picture?

That’s the belated question that occurs this morning in the blogosphere, as ponderings and punditry about the Meaning of Tuesday continue to abound.

Bob Somerby at the Daily Howler takes a long look at the results, noting that there really isn’t all that much to explain (that, of course, hasn’t silenced the talking heads):

When the electorate goes from 49-49 (Bush-Gore) to 51-48 (Bush-Kerry), that is a very minor “change.” Except on the micro level at which political pros work, it’s not clear that there’s anything much to explain here. … Instead, Stampeding Pundits [Campaign Desk loves that image! Our own version of Pamplona!] have rushed toward a few standard “explanations” of the minor change in voter behavior. Sorry — there will rarely be a way to “explain” such a change, although many aspects of Campaign ‘04 are, of course, well worth discussing.

But we are all human, and we humans reason very poorly unless we work hard to stay on track. Such hard work is foreign to our press corps. How does the press corps approach an election? First, pundits waste their time (and ours) for weeks trying to predict the election’s outcome. … Hours later, predictions in ruins, pundits begin “explaining” the outcome — the outcome which they couldn’t predict. Of course, they can’t explain it either — but in that case, there is no objective check on the high theories that they throw off.

Why did this race end up 51-48? Most pundits can’t answer to that question, and don’t even know how to approach it. We make this suggestion: Beware explanation. Many aspects of this election are worth discussing. But most of the pundits you see on TV won’t even know what they are.

Kevin Drum doesn’t feel an earthquake, either. He obviously spent his weekend combing through polling data, and offers a detailed and fascinating look at the numbers. He concludes: “… [T]he ‘moral values’ vote is a red herring. It played no bigger a role this year than in 2000.”

And that good old mainstay the economy was the most important of all. Compared to 2000, fewer people personally think they’re doing better but more people believe the economy is in good shape anyway. And Bush was overwhelmingly successful in convincing those people that his policies deserved the credit.

Some bloggers are looking forward — to the next four years. Atrios weighs in on Bush’s call for reforms to the tax code and Social Security. In one of several posts today on the subject, Atrios warns of the dangers (and windfalls) of what he calls “forced savings” accounts if Social Security is privatized, as the president has urged. And, in another post, he continues:

Pressure will exist to start letting people borrow against their equity, or to withdraw early for reasons-other-than-retirement (medical bills, tuition, first down payment, etc. …) as currently exists with all the other tax free savings vehicles. And, yes, here’s where the personal responsibility crowd gets to scream “well, if you don’t save for your retirement then tough titties!” But, it’s one thing to expect able-bodied individuals to pick themselves up off their feet after bad luck and bad decisions have left them penniless. It’s another to expect not-so-able-bodied 75-year-olds (and their spouses) to do the same. The fundamental question is how do you deal with the prospect of millions of destitute seniors? We answered that question long ago — Social Security.

Money is also on the mind of Capt. Ed at Captain’s Quarters, in this case campaign contributions and the failure of McCain-Feingold to eliminate “checkbook politics.” He writes:

McCain and the rest of the campaign-finance reformers make the same mistake in assuming that money corrupts the system. The corrosive effect of money comes from the secrecy in which it passes through the hands of politicians, not from the money itself. By setting up artificial and silly categories of money, all that the government has done is forced the financing out of the hands of people who exercise the most responsibility for its use — the political parties themselves — and into groups with no political accountability whatsoever. The result was the meanest, ugliest presidential campaign in recent memory.

And, finally, Josh Marshall has already voiced his thoughts about the 2008 slate. When it comes to Hillary as the Democratic standard-bearer, writes Marshall, Just Say No. And it has nothing to do with a Clinton-Bush (as in Jeb) face-off:

… [T]he electoral fault line running through the country is now quite clear. And, for Democrats, if winning the presidency is to be anything other than the political equivalent of drawing an inside straight, the party needs to put a good half dozen more states into play next time around. …

Nominating Hillary would simply mean that Democrats would be going into the election with one hand tied — no chained — behind their back. And as we’ve seen, they need at least two hands.

Susan Q. Stranahan

Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.