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“Who Cares About Ideology?”: Why Jeb Bush Is Taking Big Risk In Pandering To Conservative Primary Voters

It’s never too early to start questioning the assumptions that guide presidential campaign coverage, whether they concern what candidates do and why they do it, what impact their decisions have, or how voters actually view the whole sordid extravaganza. And there are plenty of those just waiting to be unpacked and cast aside.

Today Lynn Vavreck, a political scientist writing for the New York Times, has what looks like some good news for Jeb Bush. She looks back at weekly polling data from 2012, and declares that if Mitt Romney moved to the right to win the primaries, the public seems not to have noticed. This might suggest that Bush — who has a couple of issue positions that conservative voters don’t like — is free to pander in the primaries to his heart’s content, without worrying about whether it might hurt him in the general election.

But I fear that Vavreck may be forgetting about a myth far more important than the one she’s trying to debunk. Before I explain, here’s the heart of her argument:

Because we have data every week, we can assess changes in average placements of the candidates over the course of the primaries and the general election. The data show that people’s views about the candidates’ ideologies didn’t move over the course of 2012. The lines are essentially flat.

For example, most people started and ended the election year believing, on average, that Mr. Romney was conservative, but not too much so. Any shifting, message-adjusting or pandering that Mr. Romney did during the primaries in 2012 did not hurt him in the general election by making him seem more conservative than he was earlier in the year, and it’s not at all clear it helped him in the primaries either. Mr. Obama, on the other hand, started the election year twice as far away from voters, on average, than Mr. Romney was and got farther away over the course of the year….

These three pieces of evidence — that Mr. Romney was thought to be no less conservative before the primaries than during or after them, that his average rating didn’t shift much at all during the entire year, and that he was ideologically closer to most voters than Mr. Obama — bust the myth that Republicans lost the 2012 election because of ideological shifts in the primaries.

This would appear to tell us that that Romney suffered not at all from his often comical attempts to pander to the Republican base in the primaries, and therefore such pandering poses no danger for Jeb Bush. But is that really true? To believe it, we’d have to believe that this poll question — asking voters to place a candidate on an ideological scale — captures the pandering phenomenon.

But there’s reason to believe it doesn’t. First of all, it’s possible that the pandering registered with many voters as something more like “Mitt Romney is running around telling people what they want to hear,” rather than “Mitt Romney is more conservative than he used to be.” It’s absolutely vital to remember that most Americans are not like those of us who care deeply about politics. Because politics isn’t something they think too much about, they don’t necessarily have a firm grip on even some of the most basic distinctions between the parties. Many don’t even know what it means for one candidate to be a “liberal” and another to be a “conservative.”

That may sound like an elitist thing to say, but it’s true. The National Election Studies has been asking respondents for many years which is the more conservative party. In recent years about two-thirds have been able to provide the right answer, which is actually an improvement over the 1980′s and 1990′s, when barely half could tell you. Think about that for a moment: a full third of Americans don’t know which is the “conservative” party.

It’s also vital to remember that when you look at all of them together, the public always perceives the Democratic presidential candidate to be farther to the left than the Republican candidate is to the right when they’re forced to answer the question. This is a phenomenon driven almost entirely by Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, who tend to describe the Democratic candidate as an extreme liberal, almost irrespective of who he actually is. The more partisan loyalties harden, the clearer the effect becomes. Here’s an excerpt from a 2003 article I wrote in my former life as an academic, citing NES data:

Republicans always perceive the Democratic candidate as much more liberal than Democrats and independents perceive him to be. Bill Clinton is the clearest case: while Democrats and independents placed him at about the same ideological position as most other Democratic candidates, in 1996 strong Republicans thought Bill Clinton was more liberal than previous strong Republicans had found Michael Dukakis, Walter Mondale, and even George McGovern.

That’s obviously not a judgment based in some kind of rational assessment of what a candidate stands for. More recently, you can see the phenomenon in this Gallup poll from the 2012 primaries. Democrats, Republicans, and independents all rated the Republican candidates about the same on an ideological scale, but Republicans saw Barack Obama as being far, far more liberal than Democrats or independents saw him. That ends up pulling the candidate’s overall rating toward the perception of Republicans. So when Vavreck tells us that Barack Obama was perceived as farther from voters ideologically than Mitt Romney was, she’s actually describing an old phenomenon that tells us little about what actually happened in 2012.

What’s the lesson here if you’re Jeb Bush — or, for that matter, some other Republican who feels the need to genuflect before conservative primary voters? It isn’t that pandering will have no cost. Wherever they put Mitt Romney on an ideological scale, voters rated him as less honest and trustworthy than Barack Obama, and his performance in the primaries probably had something to do with that. The lesson is probably that “ideology,” at least as political junkies understand it, is something that doesn’t matter all that much to most voters.

They aren’t going to say, “Well, I thought he was a 2.4 on the ideology scale, but I’ve concluded that he’s actually a 3.1, so I’m voting against him.” If Jeb Bush can pander and shift about ideologically while still convincing voters he’s a man of principle who can be trusted — no easy task — then if nothing else he’ll have one less thing to worry about. But if he can’t, then he’s much more likely to wind up like Mitt Romney.


  1. By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect; Contributor, The Plum Line, The Washington Post, January 2, 2015

January 5, 2015 Posted by | Conservatives, Election 2016, Jeb Bush | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“In The Wrong Line Of Work”: Justice Scalia’s Unfortunate Entry Into The Torture Debate

When it comes to the issue of torture, it’s been a discouraging week. Not only was the Senate Intelligence Committee report a heartbreaking indictment of an American scandal, but the argument surrounding the revelations started breaking far too much along partisan and ideological lines.

Antonin Scalia isn’t helping. The Associated Press reported today that the far-right Supreme Court justice joined the debate, such as it is, “by saying it is difficult to rule out the use of extreme measures to extract information if millions of lives were threatened.”

Scalia tells a Swiss radio network that American and European liberals who say such tactics may never be used are being self-righteous.

The 78-year-old justice says he doesn’t “think it’s so clear at all,” especially if interrogators were trying to find a ticking nuclear bomb.

Scalia says nothing in the Constitution appears to prohibit harsh treatment of suspected terrorists.

The interview took place at the court on Wednesday, the day after the release of the Senate report detailing the CIA’s harsh interrogation of suspected terrorists. Radio Television Suisse aired the interview on Friday.

I think some caution is probably in order. The AP ran a five-paragraph article, and it seems entirely plausible, but there’s exactly one, six-word quote in that piece. Everything else is a paraphrase, and to offer a detailed response to Scalia’s take, we’d need to know exactly what the justice argued.

That said, if the AP report is accurate, Scalia’s perspective is deeply ridiculous.

For one thing, opposition to torture need not be the result of self-righteousness. Brutally abusing prisoners is about humanity, basic decency, and the existence of a moral compass. For another, the “ticking bomb” argument is childish and unserious.

As for the Constitution, it’s true that the document is silent on the issue of treating suspected terrorists, but it’s not silent on “cruel and unusual punishment.” And according to the CIA’s records, rectal feeding and hydration were forced on detainees without medical need – and the leap from that point to “cruel and unusual” seems quite small.

I’d still like to see a more detailed transcript of Scalia’s comments, but let’s just make this plain as part of the larger conversation: torture is wrong, it’s immoral, it undermines our security interests, and it’s illegal.

If Scalia is prepared to publicly argue otherwise, he’s in the wrong line of work.


By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, December 12, 2014

December 14, 2014 Posted by | Antonin Scalia, CIA, Torture | , , , , | Leave a comment

“You Can’t Elect A President And Then Just Sit Back”: Why Democrats Should Treat Republicans Like Their Mortal Enemy

Why do Democratic voters refuse to turn out in midterms? Why is the drop-off so large? Why is it so hard to convince them that the vote is important?

This is the existential crisis for the party of Roosevelt, Kennedy, Johnson, Clinton, and Obama.

In trying to solve it, the political world has come up with a number of provisional explanations, none of them satisfying. Democratic pollsters blame the party and its message, primarily. Liberals blame the party and its lack of a message. Political demographers attribute the disparity to the over-performance, the too-blue blushing, of Democratic voters in urban areas during presidential years. My own guess is that it has something to do with persuasion.

In the latest New York Review of Books, Michael Tomasky offers an answer that has a real ring of truth to it: Republican voters think about politics differently. They see politics as an enduring contest, not a series of discrete events. They are more apt to see the big picture, and therefore are easier to motivate.

Republican voters, being older and somewhat wealthier and more likely to own property, are more apt to see politics as a continuing conflict of interests that roll over from one election to the next — they can always be convinced that some undeserving person is coming to take away what they’ve earned. [NYRoB]

Democrats, by contrast, “are less likely to view politics in such stark terms.”

Younger voters, minority voters, single women, the non-propertied, might have more to gain from an active government, but it is much easier in general to motivate people if they fear they’re going to lose rights and privileges and stuff. Especially stuff. Especially stuff that they earned.

In a way, though, progressives who identify as progressives definitely see politics as a struggle; the elites see the Republican Party as revanchist, as standing athwart progress yelling “illegal immigrant!” and generally the biggest obstacle to a fair and just society where everyone’s material dignity is respected. What Tomasky is saying, I think, is that the mass of Democratic voters who share these values do so more in theory than in operation. They don’t live like they have much to gain; they live and vote to preserve losses.

Add to this the historical facts that the Democratic coalition is broader and harder to corral than the Republican coalition, and that the GOP has become more openly conservative (and therefore closer to the real views of their base voters) in the past 20 years, and the midterm imbalance begins to make more sense as part of the deep structure of both American politics and political identity.

GOP “extremism” attracts a larger share of voters than liberal “extremism” does. Extremism here is used not as a proxy for extreme views on issues, but as a way of describing a worldview, the set of issues it encompasses, what it takes to motivate people to act on those issues, and the lengths a party is willing to go to trigger that motivation. As James Vega notes in his latest memo for The Democratic Strategist, this strategy “views politics as essentially a form of warfare and political opponents as literal enemies.” It is not a new strategy for the GOP, or for conservatives. But it works better when the party, as it has done during the past several years, actively synchronizes its actions with its words — when the party that says that government is bad actively acts like government is bad.

No wonder why Democrats have been reluctant to habitually vote in midterms — the government they see is a discredited, delegitimized government of failed promises and total dysfunction.

Can Democrats change this? Republicans are not going to abandon their strategy anytime soon, especially as demographic change slowly chips away at their ability to win presidential elections.

Well, Democrats can teach their voters to think more like Republican voters in off-year elections. Tomasky describes a “massive and very well-funded public education campaign” that would basically drill into the heads of everyone who votes Democratic during presidential years that “they can’t just elect a president and just sit back and expect that he or she can wave a wand and make change happen.”

But how?

What’s the magic formula of words and threats that somehow makes this real for Democratic voters?

Maybe the party is too broad for a single perfect message to exist. Or maybe it will take casual language like Tomasky’s, a bunch more losses, and actual pain that is easily attributed to Republicans before these drop-off Democrats will understand that they need to view the Republicans like the Republicans view the Democrats: as an enemy.

For good-government, consensus, let’s-get-along, politics-can-be-pure types, this is a horrible message.

Can it be true that the only way for Democrats to vote their true strength is to treat the opposing party just as poorly as the opposing party treats the Democrats? Can it be true that the only way to break the logjam is to embrace a politics that is even more loathsome, more unctuous and more uncivil than it is today?

Maybe, yes.


By: Marc Ambinder, The Week, December 3, 2014

December 4, 2014 Posted by | Democrats, Elections, Republicans | , , , , , | 2 Comments

“What The Keystone Vote Tells Us About The Democratic Party”: Republicans Succeeding In Defining What It Means To Be A Liberal

The bill to authorize construction of the Keystone pipeline failed to overcome a filibuster in the Senate last night by a single vote. Every Republican voted in favor, since support for the idea of sending Canadian oil to American refineries so it can be processed for sale overseas has become a core value of conservatism. But they were joined by 14 Democrats. And if we look at who those Democrats are, we can learn quite a bit about the state of their party.

Five of those Democrats are red-staters who discovered this year that “distancing” yourself from Barack Obama isn’t enough to win re-election in a year of extremely low turnout. The first is Mary Landrieu, on whose behalf this entire exercise was mounted, on the absurd theory that Louisiana voters will turn out in droves for her runoff in December once they learn how much she loves oil, a fact of which they were supposedly unaware before now. Then we have Mark Begich of Alaska, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, and John Walsh of Montana. The first three lost their seats, and Walsh would have been ousted by voters had he not resigned over a plagiarism scandal.

The next group of Democrats are also from red states: Heidi Heitkamp of South Dakota, John Tester of Montana, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, and Claire McCaskill of Missouri. Through whatever combination of electoral fear and genuine conviction, these are among the senators who disagree with their colleagues most often. McCaskill is a particularly notable case; lately she has been moving to the right in visible ways, including proclaiming her opposition to Harry Reid remaining leader of the Democrats in the Senate and criticizing President Obama’s proposed actions on immigration. Rumor has it that she’s preparing to run for governor, which could help explain why.

The final group of Democrats who voted in favor of the pipeline may have each had their own reasons, but none could have imagined that voting against the pipeline would be a huge political liability. These were Michael Bennet of Colorado, Robert Casey of Pennsylvania, Mark Warner of Virginia, and Tom Carper of Delaware.

So what does this tell us? To a great degree it suggests that Republicans are still succeeding in defining what it means to be a liberal, striking fear into the hearts of any Democrat who wants to win in a red state. Republicans haven’t actually spent too much time arguing the environmental concerns over Keystone, other than to dismiss them out of hand. Instead, they’ve touted the pipeline as a jobs boon that would boost the entire American economy, a claim no sane person believes.

But red-state Democrats still live their lives in a state of perpetual terror that someone might call them a liberal (the only red-state Democrats who voted No were Tim Johnson of South Dakota and Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, both of whom are retiring).

If these votes don’t change, when Republicans bring the pipeline up again in the new Congress, it will have enough votes to overcome a filibuster — but still fall short of the 67 that would be needed to override a presidential veto. And the Democrats who supported the pipeline will find that it really didn’t help them.

Their red state colleagues who lost their elections have already found out that high-profile breaks with their party don’t keep you politically safe. And indeed, those red-state losses have made the Democratic caucus in the Senate more liberal, and it’s possible that in 2016 the number of red state Democrats will decline even further (even if Democrats gain seats overall). So even if there is still the possibility of Dem divisions on some issues, the fracturing off of red state Dems could matter less and less over time, making the future of Democrats in Congress one of more, not less, unity.


By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect; The Plum Line, The Washington Post, November 19, 2014

November 22, 2014 Posted by | Democrats, Keystone XL, Republicans | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Speaking Of Asses”: Senator Complains About ‘Dumbass Liberals’

I actually remember the way Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) used to be, back when he boasted about being a “square peg” – a label he used as a shorthand to say he doesn’t always fit in.

The Utah Republican used to actually see value in cooperating with people with whom he disagreed, working with Democrats, for example, on stem-cell research, the DREAM Act, and S-CHIP.

But then he threw it all away. As Amanda Terkel reported, Hatch’s remarks at the Federalist Society’s annual conference are a reminder of the kind of politician he’s become.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) came out swinging against Democrats Friday, telling a room of conservative lawyers that Republicans were ready to give the other party “a taste of their own medicine.”

“Frankly, I intend to win with our candidate for the presidency in 2016, and we will give them a taste of their own medicine,” said Hatch. “And we’re going to win. We’re going to win. These next two years are extremely important. Maybe the most important two years in our history.”

“I get a big kick out of them using the word ‘progressive,’” the senator said of Democrats. “My gosh, they’re just straight old dumbass liberals anyway.”


It wasn’t too long ago that Hatch was positioned to become a rare statesman in Republican politics. But that was before his partisan Memorial Day tantrums, his occasional references to hitting people he doesn’t like, and his juvenile whining about “dumbass liberals.”

Those looking for GOP statesmanship will apparently have to look elsewhere.

On a related note, did you happen to catch Hatch’s remarks about immigration reform?

“Part of it is our fault. We haven’t really seized this problem. Of course, we haven’t been in a position to do it either, with Democrats controlling the Senate. I’m not blaming Republicans. But we really haven’t seized that problem and found solutions for it.” […]

“Frankly, I’d like to see immigration done the right way,” Hatch added. “This president is prone to doing through executive order that which he cannot do by working with the Congress, because he won’t work with us. If he worked with us, I think we could get an immigration bill through.”

For goodness sakes, does Orrin Hatch not remember the events of the last two years? With “Democrats controlling the Senate,” a comprehensive, bipartisan immigration reform bill passed easily, and garnered the support of the business community, labor, law enforcement, immigration advocates, and the religious community. Republicans then killed it.

“I’m not blaming Republicans”? Why not? They’re the ones who chose to reject the legislation. They’re also the ones who promised a more partisan alternative, only to break their word.

“If he worked with us, I think we could get an immigration bill through.” President Obama did work with Congress, and helped rally support for a bipartisan bill. GOP lawmakers killed it anyway.

How is it possible Orrin Hatch doesn’t know this? For that matter, given the circumstances, shouldn’t he be slightly more circumspect about throwing around words such as “dumbass”?


By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, November 17, 2014

November 19, 2014 Posted by | Election 2016, Orrin Hatch, Republicans | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments


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