Sunday, November 9, 2008

Losing Althouse

Ann Althouse offers a very interesting confirmation of my assertion -- the subject of a much-criticized American Spectator column Oct. 7 -- that it was his Sept. 24 bailout stunt that cost McCain the election:
September24: . . . After hearing from Obama, I view McCain as having pulled a stunt, a stunt that he should have seen would be ineffective.
September 25: I find Palin's interview with Katie Couric "Painful. Terrible." Yet McCain wants the VP debate to go first. She's not ready, and he's throwing out impulsive, erratic ideas.
September 25, a little later: I'm impressed by Mickey Kaus's mockery of McCain's stunt. . . .
Now, Althouse is a law professor who can hardly be taken as representative of "swing" voters in general, but there is something important going on here. While she originally thought McCain's stunt was clever, she changed her mind once she saw Obama's reaction. Which is to say that it was the contrast between the two men that was decisive.

Notice also how the disastrous Couric interview with Palin (arranged by the worse-than-useless Nicolle Devenish Wallace) aired almost contemporaneously with the bailout stunt, so that the effect of the two events cannot be disentangled in the ultimate chain of causation. (This disaster is "over-determined" to borrow social-science jargon from Rich Lowry.)

The Blame Sarah First crowd would have you believe that Palin exercised a negative effect independent of Maverick's own shaky performance, a negative effect that had more to do with her objective qualifications (or lack thereof) than with Team Maverick's thorough botch of her press relations.

Althouse, who was sympathetic to Obama from the start, was pushed toward the GOP ticket by Palin's nomination, even though she remained steadily turned-off by McCain's incoherence. (See her entry for Sept. 7.) As much as she disliked the Couric-Palin interview (thanks again, Nicolle!), it was really McCain's bailout stunt, symptomatic of his general incoherence, that provided the decisive shift. Her reaction to McCain's debate performance is entirely negative.

Non-partisan likeability
This all goes back to what I've been saying for weeks. If you are a genuinely independent voter -- an "Ordinary American," someone who in all honesty might vote for a candidate of either party -- then ultimately you are going to vote on your general impression of the candidates. Before the 2004 election, I wrote an article (available only in PDF) for the moderate Republican journal Ripon Forum, in which I pointed out the "likeability" factor as trumping the sort of demographic microanalysis favored by pundits:
The big picture is left out of this microscopic calculus: Head to head, side by side, which one of these men does the electorate actually like?
Whatever his failings, Mr. Bush is basically likeable. This was a key factor in 2000, and is prominent again in 2004. His basic likeability is now giving Democrats nightmares. When the infamous Iowa "scream" derailed the energetic Howard Dean's Democratic primary campaign, esablishment Democrats quickly jumped aboard the John Kerry bandwagon. But once Mr. Kerry secured his party's nomination, Democrats were dismayed to note that they faced a repeat of the 2000 election: A stiff, pompous, boring Democrat competing with the aw-shucks charm of a smiling Texan.
That "aw-shucks charm" seems to have passed its sell-by date shortly after Bush's re-election, but the basic point remains sound: Independent voters, who ultimately decide presidential elections and "swing" the swing states, really do act on the entirely irrational belief that by watching a man talk on TV, they can judge his fitness for the presidency. To the eternal consternation of pundits and policy wonks, the fine details of policy that motivate intellectuals and ideologues have little to do with persuading undecided, independent "swing" voters.

This is what has frustrated me about the McCain candidacy since the primaries. (Some) Republicans and (some) ideologues viewed his candidacy through rose-colored glasses: McCain was a heroic patriot whose POW biography would rally conservatives, while his "Maverick" image would sufficiently distance him from the Bush-damaged Republican brand. In hindsight, everybody seems to realize that this view was mistaken, without realizing why it was mistaken.

John McCain is not likeable, not by the standards of telegenic likeability that have prevailed since the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debate. I have friends who've met the senator (a distant relative I call "Crazy Cousin John") and genuinely like the man. But he is old and bald and comes across on TV as grumpy. This is why, much to horror of my True Believer conservative friends, I ultimately favored Mitt Romney in the GOP primaries. In politics, ceteris parabus, tall, rich and handsome beats old, bald and grumpy any day of the week.

This is not to say that policy and ideology are irrelevant, but the party and the movement whose icon is the amiable erstwhile movie cowboy Ronald Reagan ought never to discount the importance of having persuasive, likeable spokesmen -- and spokeswomen, too, which is why I'm so big on Sarah Palin.

Our Sarah didn't fare too well with independent voters in 2008 (if you believe the polls, which no True Believer ever does), but then again, Reagan wasn't exactly a darling of the "swing" voters in 1976. And, yes, the True Believers are shuddering in rage at the audacity of comparing Palin to Reagan, but they should reserve their rage for those who compare Obama to Reagan. Don't pretend we don't know which comparison Reagan would find more insulting.

If Palin lacks (or seems to lack) the kind of sturdy intellectual commitments that Reagan possessed -- another hindsight judgment that few would have granted the Gipper in '76 -- it cannot be denied that she possesses in great measure his down-to-earth likeability. Having excoriated McCain and Schmidt and the rest of Team Maverick for their boneheaded blunders, I yet give them full credit for seeing Palin's natural political talent.

God-given talent
When I was a sportswriter in North Georgia in the late '80s, Calhoun High School football coach Johnny Gulledge remarked that "you can't coach a 4.4 forty." That is to say, the kind of speed that can run 40 yards in 4.4 seconds is a God-given talent for which a winning coach gets credit when the speedster is his starting running back, but for which he gets blamed when that speed is on the other team. (Gulledge's teams were plagued by a shortage of speed in those years.)

My American Spectator colleague Quin Hillyer has joined others in asserting that Palin's electric effect on the Republican base was essentially a fluke, that any good running-mate pick would have excited the conservative grassroots in this otherwise bleak season for the GOP. With all due respect, I disagree. What some call a fluke, I see as . . . well, something else. (Perhaps you're familiar with the Veggie Tales episode where Pa Grape's niece saves them from the Island of Perpetual Tickling. Perhaps not.) Sneer at "populism" all you want, but I know what I believe.

For such a time as this, you might say, Palin's choice was hardly a fluke. She was the Miracle Worker, the Sweetheart of the Heartland, and if you were not there in Shippensburg to see those people standing in that cold wind, you can be forgiven if you don't get it. But let them that have eyes see:


  1. Spot on analysis.

    Read the insufferable George Will today?

  2. I do want to note that Althouse was on record as being an Obama supporter before the bailout shenanigans. Her opinion, such as it was, doesn't tell me much of anything.

  3. We will disagree.

    I think McCain is more 'likeable' than Obama, by far---but not as 'likeable' as GWB.

    McCain's problem was that he has an incoherent message. It was hot one day, cold the next.

    Obama's message was clear and consistent (if totally unbelievable); he ran on tax cuts and 'change.'

    You tell ME: did McCain have a message that simple and clear?

  4. Excellent analysis! Let me say that you are right about the point of where the electable conservatives and the real ideas eminate from. Not the hallowed halls of congress. Right here in the states. In the South and the West. That is a real reason the establishment fears Gov. Palin. And they will begin to diss Gov. Jindal as well. They are outsiders and live in the real world. A real world that few congressmen and burrecrats live. If they had to live with the moronic laws and regulations that they create, they would be like Govs. Palin, Jindal, Sanford. BTW, I am linking you to my blog & love reading you over at the American Spectator!