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When Wehners (Counter)Attack

Peter Wehner, the former aide to Karl Rove and Minister of Propaganda for the Bush administration, likes a good feud as much as I do, and since I’ve been poking fun at him sporadically for months, I’ve been eagerly awaiting his response. It has finally arrived, and the Wall Street Journal editorial page, another favorite punching bag of mine, has deemed the occasion sufficiently exciting to warrant an extended editorial page excerpt. I mention this lest anybody accuse me of running up the score by beating up on an obscure, hapless foe.

Wehner begins by quoting a column I wrote after the 2008 elections:

In the afterglow of Barack Obama’s election, liberals were peddling a lot of bad ideas. Among them was the New Republic’s Jonathan Chait, who in December 2008 wrote this:

"The practical import of the Obama mandate debate has fallen on the question of whether he should pursue his goal of comprehensive health care reform, which numerous pundits and even some Democrats have tagged as dangerously ambitious. But this is one area where undiluted liberalism enjoys overwhelming public support. The public, by a roughly two-to-one margin, thinks the government has a responsibility to make sure that every American has adequate health care. Congressional Democrats fear a repeat of 1994–when, as they see it, Bill Clinton over-interpreted his mandate and therefore failed to pass health care reform. This reading has it backward. Clinton’s health care plan failed because Congress decided he didn’t have a mandate and refused to pass it. If the Democrats fail this time, it will probably be because they psyched themselves out once again."

Thirteen months later, Chait’s “undiluted liberalism” enjoys something less than overwhelming public support. In fact, the United States has become more, not less, conservative during the Obama presidency (by a margin of 2-to-1, Americans describe themselves as conservative rather than liberal). And Obama and the Democrats, having followed Chait’s counsel, find themselves in a terrible political ditch.

What follows is a lengthy gloat-fest about the various Republican political triumphs that have ensued. If you think I’m leaving anything of substance out of Wehner’s argument, please go read the entire thing. It’s quite baffling. I wrote that, in the fall of 2008, the one question upon which Obama was being urged to scale back in order to align himself with public opinion – his goal of providing universal coverage – was a question upon which he enjoyed strong majority support. And it did.

I am failing to understand how reciting a litany of Republican triumphs over the last year is supposed to show that this is ridiculous. Wehner is not just providing a wrong answer, he’s providing a wrong genre of answer.

Since Wehner appears unable to make anything resembling an argument, I’ll make his argument for him, just to be sporting. As it happens, the proportion of Americans who say it’s the federal government’s responsibility to ensure that all Americans have health coverage, which was at 2-to-1 when I wrote that column, has dropped precipitously since, to the point where it's now even. Now, in response to me making Wehner’s case for him, I’d point out that other polls show much higher level of support for universal coverage. This CBS poll shows the public, by a 25-point margin, thinking the Democratic health care bills either get it right on covering more Americans or don’t go far enough.

The more important point is that I was correct in describing public opinion in the fall of 2008, but that opinion changed in a climate of 10% unemployment.

Wehner continues, citing a series of blog posts I wrote:

In light of what has come to pass, Mr. Chait’s writings look comical. After a disastrous August for ObamaCare, Chait declared, against all evidence, “August moved the ball pretty far down the field.” He was issuing ominous warnings about a GOP overreach on health care in September. And in October he wrote, “We’ve had months of sturm and drang, and massive attention focused on the question, Whither health care reform? It’s just quietly turned into a fait accompli.” 

Let’s go through these in a slightly different order. In the last post, I wrote, in October, that health reform had turned into a fait accompli. I suppose I should have foreseen the Republican takeover of a Massachusetts Senate seat just before the negotiations finished. In my defense, nearly everybody soon came to share my point of view. Even the lunatic Michelle Bachmann recently admitted that, not long ago, she considered reform inevitable. So I’m not sure what Wehner thinks this little nugget of oppo research is supposed to tell us.

In my first post, I wrote that August actually helped the cause of health care reform. Before August, reform was stuck in neutral as key Democrats refused to proceed without Republican support. August helped convince them that the GOP was never going to sign on to any serious reform, and that they had to go it alone to pass a bill. That realization led directly to the passage of the Senate bill, a crucial milestone, which led the reform effort to a point where it was a fait accompli. There may be a reply to this argument, but Wehner doesn’t offer it. I’ll spot Wehner another argument here: he could say that, even though the legislative process advanced dramatically in August, the month helped cement public discontent in a way that ultimately proved fatal. In response to me arguing on Wehner’s behalf, I’d note that opinion mainly stabilized in August, and that none of this would have mattered if Martha Coakley ran a competent campaign. 

The final supposedly ridiculous blog post of mine was one warning that Republicans erred in their total opposition to health care. I conceded that “It's a smart political strategy.” The error, I argued, was in gambling everything on killing health care, rather than joining the process and using their leverage to weaken the bill. The GOP, in other words, was trading away the chance to influence what could become a large and permanent part of the policy landscape in order to gain short-term political traction. Again, Wehner offers no reasons to explain why this was comical. I suppose I could keep spotting him arguments, but that would soon become farcical, like the time I played my eight inches-shorter brother-in-law in basketball and spotted him 9 points in a game to 11. 

Finally, Wehner ridicules me for my belief that structural factors such as economic performance played the major role in the public’s discontent with the Democrats:

[Chait] is in the uncomfortable position of having to explain how the Obama presidency and liberalism have gone off the rails in the past year, a year devoted to trying to pass massively unpopular health-care legislation championed by people like Chait. Rather than coming to grips with reality, though, Chait has opted for self-delusion. In his January 19 column, for example, Jonathan was reduced to writing things like this:

"The perception has formed, perhaps indelibly, that the reason Democrats will get hammered in the 2010 elections is that the party moved too far left in general and tried to reform health care in particular. This perception owes itself, above all, to the habit that political analysts in the media and other outposts of mainstream thought have of ignoring structural factors."

So Obama and the Democrats find themselves on the precipice, not because of health care, but because of “structural factors.” Of course. Scott Brown famously won his Massachusetts Senate race by promising to be the 41st vote against “structural factors.”

It is all rather pathetic.

Political scientists believe unanimously that economic conditions play an important role in shaping public opinion. I don’t think you could find one who would suggest that a president one year into his term facing double-digit unemployment could avoid a significant drop in popularity. 

One complaint I have with the mainstream media is its habit of ignoring such structural factors and explaining changes in public opinion almost solely as the outcome of ideological positioning by candidates and elected officials. In defense of the MSM, they do this in a bipartisan way. Whenever a party suffers electoral misfortune, the media will attribute it to a failure to heed to wishes of the center, coupled with demands that the losing party purge itself of ideological sin and embrace the moderate center. 

I try to consistently acknowledge that elections hinge on many factors other than ideology, even when the candidate I voted for wins. In my post-2008 election column, I wrote

In reality, no president ever truly has a mandate, in the sense of the electorate voting for him as if his entire platform were a ballot initiative. Candidates' platforms play a role in who wins elections, but so do economic conditions, scandals, the candidates' personalities, and the Election Day weather in Philadelphia. 

The Wehner Fallacy, by contrast, is a tactic of selectively ignoring structural factors. When your side enjoys a victory, it is a sign that the electorate has endorsed your ideology. When the other side wins, it’s because they abandoned ideology (Wehner quote: “[Obama] tacked right on a number of issues”) or triumphed due to personality (“Obama’s appeal, while widespread, is largely aesthetic and personality-based.”) 

Of course, that’s a natural part of the political spin process, which Wehner learned while working at the feet of Karl Rove. When you win, it’s a mandate, and when they win, it’s a fluke. Wehner doesn’t offer any rebuttals to the arguments of mine he wants to ridicule because, in the world of politics that he comes from and fundamentally is of, analysis is beside the point. The only resolution to a dispute in that world is “we won, you lost.” Right now, Republicans are winning. So Wehner thinks that rubbing this fact in my face is sufficient to discredit my claims. I could invoke some evidence to complicate his story of the Glorious People's Republican Awakening, such as the fact that Obama and the Democrats remain more popular than the GOP, but what's the point? I obviously have no objection to mockery, but Wehner has no argument at all other than "Ha ha!" If this is how policy debates were conducted during the Bush administration, it would explain a lot.

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