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The Dodgy Political Punditry of Moderate Dems

One of the most frustrating consequences of an Election Day like Tuesday is that it invariably (if fleetingly) transforms moderate politicians with no particular insight into the dynamics of public opinion into all-knowing sages. More to the point, it elevates their perfect-for-every-occasion view of politics, which says that if your party suffers a setback, the reason must be that it was too far to one side of the political spectrum, and so the answer is obviously to move back to the middle. And, of course, "the middle" is almost never a coherent worldview or set of policy preferences, but simply 10 or 25 or 50 percent less than what one side or the other proposes. So, for example, you get stuff like this from Ben Nelson and Olympia Snowe in Politico:

"People need to be saying slow it down and don’t add more to the deficit," Nelson said. "And what have many of us been talking about? We don’t want to see anything added to the deficit unless there’s cost containment." On health care, Nelson said: "Let’s see coverage extended, … but at what cost?’

Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe, the lone Republican to vote for a health care bill, said Tuesday’s results should slow Democrats down on health care — and "certainly gives pause on how you approach things.

Or take this from today's Wall Street Journal:

"What the exit polls showed was real voter fatigue with how crowded the plate is," said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D., Va.). "We need to take a deep breath, step back and clean the plate before we add to it." ...

"I do consider Virginia a bellwether state," said Rep. Gene Taylor of Mississippi, a conservative Democrat. "I would encourage the leadership to get back to the center."

But why would "too liberal" or "too expensive" or "too crowded" be the most plausible reading of what voters said Tuesday? Wouldn't an equally plausible reading be that voters don't think the economy is improving or that Washington is making it better, regardless of where those efforts lie along some dubious ideological spectrum? 

For the moderate view of politics to be right, it would have to be the case that the average voter has a well-worked out worldview, and that he or she gets upset when politicians deviate even a couple ticks in either direction along the ideological spectrum. Or it would have to be the case that the average voter has fairly precise, well-thought-out ideas about the "right amount" for Congress or the White House to have "on its plate" at any given moment. Deviate from those preferences, and the voters will rise up to punish you.

But isn't this backwards? Isn't it far more likely that, rather first decide on a worldview or a proper serving-size for public policy and then evaluating a president's agenda accordingly, the average voter first makes a very practical judgment about whether a president's agenda is working, and then, if pressed, rationalizes his/her opinion in ideological terms, or in terms of too much or too little activity? 

Certainly the historical evidence would suggest the latter. As John Judis points out in this piece, presidential disapproval ratings almost perfectly track the unemployment rate when the economy is dicey. For the moderate view of politics to be true, you'd have to believe that a president becomes a bit more centrist (and therefore a bit more popular) each time unemployment falls a few tenths of a percentage point. I guess that's possible, but it would be a remarkable coincidence. For the view I'm endorsing to be true, all you have to believe is that people feel better about the president when unemployment falls.

I tend to opt for the simpler explanation in these situations. But, if you disagree, then at the very least the burden of proof should be on you to show why it doesn't apply. Alas, I'm not holding my breath for Ben Nelson and Olympia Snowe to come through here.

Update: The analogue here for a presidential campaign is whether you think the average voter supports the candidate who shares his view about the proper size of government, or whether the average voter supports the candidate he thinks will be best for his bottom line. The voter may tell pollsters it's the former (often when prodded), but I'm guessing the actual calculation comes much closer to the latter.

Having said that, it occurs to me that I'm mainly refering to swing voters or independent voters in this post. There are obviously ideologues on either side who do have well worked-out worldviews. But, then, those aren't the people Ben Nelson and Olympia Snowe are advising Democrats on how to get back.