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||KEEPING IT REAL! Why did voters vote as they did? Analysts should go where they seldom doinside the world of talk radio:|
TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 12, 2002
NOTES FROM THE IVORY TOWER: Why did numbers swing toward the GOP last Tuesday? Jonathan Cohn paints an improbable picture in the on-line New Republicbut his analysis helps to show what is often wrong with our high-toned political mullings.
Cohn starts by applauding Joe Lieberman for his alternative to the Bush tax cuts. Lieberman proposes redirecting much of the Bush tax cut, Cohn says, and using it for targeted tax cuts that encourage investment in high-tech businesses. Cohn applauds Lieberman for his stand, because hes explicitly attacking the egregious Bush tax cut and because hes proposing something that, with the right design and scale, might indeed be good for the economy in the long run. But the Lieberman plan isnt going to solve the Democrats political problems on the economy. According to Cohn, thats because it doesnt really get at what probably has voters worried.
But what does have those voters worried? Here is the part of Cohns piece which we find so instructiveand so unlikely:
COHN: When a survey participant tells a pollster hes worried about the economy, hes typically thinking pretty short-term: Will I still have a job next month? Can I afford luxuries, like a large television or a new car? Can I afford basic necessities, like rent, mortgage, or health insurance? Liebermans plan seems unlikely to deliver such immediate benefits. On the contrary, its primarily a strategy for long-term economic growthperfectly valid, but not exactly what your poll respondent had in mind.
Dudes! Cohns picture of this voters rumination strikes us as absolute fantasy. Do voters conduct such wonkish critiques? Nothing about our political culture leads us to think that they do. In fact, voters rarely possess even basic information about major policy questions. Its a story press and pols hate to tell. But voter ignorance tends to drive our democracy.
For an historical example, consider the Clinton budget plan, passed in August 1993. It was the leading policy issue of the day. Concerning the tax increases in the plan, Clinton stated, again and again, that his hikes in the income tax only affected the highest earners. On August 4, 1993, USA Todays Bill Montague summarized thus on page one:
MONTAGUE: After spending much of the 1980s slashing tax rates for the wealthy, Congress appears on the verge of reversing course.
From March through August, Clinton hadnt gargled or cleared his throat without reciting such data. But voters are almost impervious to information. Montague noted the disconnect:
The budget deal, which must be approved by the House and Senate, would extract $241.2 billion from taxpayers over five years. But 81% of thatabout $195 billionwould be paid by families making more than $200,000 a year. Most middle-class families hardly would be nicked. Theyll pay the lions share of a 4.3-cents increase in the federal gasoline tax. But the increase would cost the average family less than $5 a month.
MONTAGUE: Joe Sixpack apparently hasnt gotten the word. Polls show most taxpayers expect to pay higher income taxes as a result of any budget deal. Yet higher tax rates would hit only singles who make $115,001 or more in taxable income, and couples who make $140,001 or more.
That was in 1993 dollars. On the same day, Richard Benedetto limned the same matter, also on the papers front page. A key problem for Clinton, he intoned. Despite claims the wealthy pay most new taxes, 68% believe the middle-class is hit most. And Benedetto noted the political problem on the economy affecting that eras embattled Dems. Forty-four percent opposed Clintons plan. Only 33 percent favored passage.
Whatever the merits of Clintons plan, why were so many voters misinformed about its actual workings? It would take a crystal ball to say. But during the same six-month period, Rush Limbaugh had hammered the Clinton plan hard, inaccurately tagging it the largest tax increase in American history. When Bob Dole made the same claim, a few newspapers even deigned to note that the colorful claim was bogus. (Most newspapersfailing againnever discussed this key spin-point.) But American voters listen to Rushand American voters simply dont do business in the manner suggested by Cohns portrait. American voters are constantly misinformed. In fact, some powerful entities make voter ignorance their goala point which Paul Krugman has deftly noted in several recent pieces about the estate tax.
Given the unusual state of our post-9/11 world, we dont find last weeks results real surprising. But why did the numbers turn out as they did? Analysts should go where they hate to venture. They should take a look at our actual discoursethey should enter the world of talk radio (and cable). Here at THE HOWLER, we dont have the slightest idea why voters voted as they did. But analysts need to come to terms with the way voters really receive their impressions. Whatever last weeks voters had in mind, we doubt they engaged in the wonkish debates which Cohn describes in this column.
SHES ONLY JUST BEGUN: Suzanne Fields was simply thrilled in yesterday WashTimes column. Last weeks election heralded the return of character to our public life, she avowed. Headline: Exit Clinton, enter character. Fields emoted thus:
FIELDS: Statistics cant measure the changes in the national character since September 11, but only an ostrich could ignore the signs that there has been a renewal of faith in God, country, community, family, friends, and consequently Americans are finding new faith in themselves. Change never comes overnight, nor does it arrive in a straight line, but we can at last look forward to a generation that takes moral issues seriously as the root, leaf and flower of the political system. Or so we can hope, and hope is the child of faith.
Fields is right about one thingcharacter cant be achieved overnight. We thought of that when we read this passage from this very same column:
FIELDS: The television images that turned Paul Wellstones memorial service into an orgy of crass politics after Fritz Mondale was dragged out of the deep freeze exposed the cynical exploitation for what it was. New Jersey, Minnesota was not. Death be not proud.
Mondale, of course, is a decent man. But trashing Fritz in this crude way became de rigeur for proud conservatives after his nomination. And conservative wannabes had to play too. As usual, Chris Matthews, pandering hard, was more than equal to the task. Here was another exchange with Jerry Nachman during the pairs panderama (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/11/02):
NACHMAN: Im wondering, in Minnesota, is it possible that that pep rally made the difference? There was a three-point differential, which means a 1.5 percentage swing from Democrats to the Republicans might have given Coleman that Senate seat.
Rememberits hard to convey the low moral caliber of many members of our press corps. If Fields thinks that character is now back in vogue, she ought to pay her cable bill and take a good look at this talker.
MATTHEWS: You know, Im so glad that there was a proof of life from Minnesota, meaning, they are alive, those voters out there. Theyre not victims or lemmings or follow-the-leader types. They werent going to go with cheap sentiment and go with Walter Fritz Mondale again. And I think it was so great that they said: Were going to go with this young guy, Coleman. He seems to be developing his philosophy. He moved from left to right. At least hes alive.
HOUSE OF CARD: Can you believe theyre still saying this? And can you say the world pathological? Incredibly, here was Bush chief of staff Andy Card on Sundays Meet the Press. Tim had asked how the Bush Admin planned to pursue budget balance:
CARD: Well, Tim, look at what we inherited when we came to office. We inherited a recession
And then we had the horrible shock of September 11, 2001. And that did put us back on our heels, in terms of our economy. The tourism industry, the airline industry were all dramatically impacted as a result of September 11. The presidents economic policies have been climbing out of that challenge. And he said that if we were in a recession, if we were in a war, and we are in a war against terrorism, and if we had a national emergency, he would not be afraid to deficit spend.
Ohmigod! Andy was playing the Trifecta Card again! Even Tim was somewhat shocked. Weakly, he stepped in to challenge:
RUSSERT (continuing directly): He never said that in the campaign.
He even used the word trifecta! Meekly, Tim let the slick-talk slide, moving to other subjects.
CARD: We are deficit spending because weve had that trifecta of challenges to this country and the president has provided the right kind of leadership.
Suzanne Fields would know what this means. It does take time before character blossoms. We cant expect the White House to drop this tale in the first day, or in the first month, or in the first year. Of course, having seen Tim pummel other guests for saying things that were actually true, we were surprised to see how quickly he dropped the point and soldiered onward.