Thursday, November 13, 2008

In reply to Jennifer Rubin

Jennifer Rubin is an excellent young conservative writer, but she needs to stop paying attention to David Brooks, a point on which I elaborate at AmSpecBlog:
This panic-struck reaction to the debacle of 11/4 is what I sought to forestall in my columns of Nov. 5 and Nov. 12. First, there is the normal tendency of partisans to take political defeat as a personal rejection: "We are unworthy!" Second, there is a tendency of intellectuals to believe that political defeat is the result of one set of ideas defeating another, requiring that the losers must come up with "new ideas." So Rubin looks at the results, exit polls and an Electoral College map that looks very much like the 1996 map and comes to conclusions very similar to those that Brooks and [Christopher] Caldwell drew from Bob Dole's defeat.
Candidates win or lose elections. Other factors being equal, good candidates win, and bad candidates lose. This is a political truism that ideologues and partisans ignore at their peril. Elections are decided by independent "swing" voters who are neither
ideologues nor partisans. Independents tend to be disconnected from and ill-informed about the political process. The political scientist Samuel Popkin coined the term "low-information rationality" in an effort to explain how such people make political choices, but it is clear that these voters act on general perceptions of candidates and parties -- perceptions that are sometimes at odds with political reality.
Please read the whole thing. It has been my belief for some time that the Republican Party learned the wrong lessons from the 1996 election, and that many of the mistakes of the Bush administration resulted from those wrong lessons. Many people have spent the past 10 days shouting from the rooftops that the GOP and conservatism are doomed, and Obama hasn't even been inaugurated yet.

A lot of this stuff reminds me of a previous widespread belief among Republicans. After the Union defeat at Ball's Bluff in October 1861, some radical Republicans came to believe that disaster had befallen the boys in blue because certain officers were disloyal, or at least not sufficiently dedicated to the abolitionist cause. This belief led to a series of senseless blunders by the War Department, including the elevation of Gen. John Pope and the court-martial of Gen. Fitzjohn Porter, who was unjustly made the scapegoat for Pope's defeat at Second Manassas. As a matter of fact, one reason that the arguably incompetent Gen. Ambrose Burnside was given command -- only to suffer a bloody defeat at Fredericksburg -- was the knowledge that he was a true-blue abolitionist.

In fact, the Union defeats of 1861-62 had little or nothing to do with whose "heart was with the cause," and had a lot to do with the more important military facts that (a) Union commanders were attempting offensive operations with untrained troops, (b) Confederate cavalry in Virginia was far superior to its opponents at this stage of the war, (c) Union intelligence was extremely faulty, and (d) Abraham Lincoln and his Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, were almost completely ignorant of military science.

While Union forces in Virginia were being whipped at Ball's Bluff and Second Manassas, the two generals who ultimately did the most to organize Union victory -- U.S. Grant and W.T. Sherman -- were out West, obscure and in disrepute. Sherman suffered a nervous breakdown in late 1861, and Grant was accused of having nearly lost the battle of Shiloh because of drunkenness. And neither man was an abolitionist.

This comes to mind as I ponder the cacophonous quarreling among Republicans now. The woes of the GOP are being subjected to every possible "big picture" interpretation: The party is either too dominated by the "far right," or else it's overrun by RINOs. The party must either woo Latinos or else demand the immediate deportation of all Latinos. We must purge the neocons, purge the moderates, purge the libertarians, and/or purge the Religious Right. Et cetera, et cetera, ad infinitum, ad nauseam.

Folks, I'm a 49-year-old ex-Democrat who's seen too many elections, too many trends, too many glorious victories and too many inglorious defeats to pay much heed to these voices of panic who are now telling the GOP to move left, move right or do side-straddle hops. The only thing that really worries me is that the voices of panic seem to be dominating the debate, while the voices of calm, reason and determination are being drowned out.

Ignore those intellectuals who seem to be recycling DNC talking points. And ignore those various fanatics who insist that the key to Republican revival is to act immediately on their particular idee fixe. Chill out, stick by the basic conservative message, and wait for the Democrats to fuck up. They will. They always do. And the American people are not so stupid that they'll tolerate complete fuckups for too long, as the Bush family has once again reminded us. Let's hope the GOP has at last learned that particular lesson.


  1. Republicans should be VERY optimistic.

    Neither GB or JM can ever run for President again, and in less than 3 months, GB can never do another thing to damage the country or the Republican part. If only that were also true of JM -- then we'd be in REALLY good shape.

  2. The only lesson from 1996 is that the guy who could "feel your pain" beat the guy who didn't feel his own.

    Someone explained Dole to me, "he's too darn mean." Those are the people who decide elections.

  3. Are you going to be at ?
    I should like to get a sig on my copy of your book, if possible, at some convenient Starbucks or wherever.