Sunday, February 07, 2016

Campaign spin wars

I'll admit it; I quite enjoyed Marco Rubio's epic (whether or not electorally consequential) meltdown yesterday, in which he responded to Chris Christie's accusation that he was just parroting pre-memorized talking points by re-parroting the very same pre-memorized talking points.  "Show it, don't say it" is the advice that writers always get, and Christie was able to do this, by reason of Rubio's unwitting connivance.

While I have nothing unique to add about this little drama, I was interested by some of the follow-up today, which I think actually relates in an odd way to the topic of my last blogpost here (how the "paradox of voting" affects voters' belief formation).

Rubio today naturally tried to spin his constantly repeating the same thing about Obama ("He knows exactly what he's doing") as reflecting that he Cares So Deeply about the argument he was making. The point being, professing deep conviction sounds less pathetic than fessing up to a panicky meltdown.  He even said that this deep belief is why he is running for president (I guess, long-held ambition had nothing to do with it).  But there actually is a reason he was saying it - well, not four times - and whoever's idea this was (perhaps, just that of his handlers), it's an interesting example of being too clever by half, rather than just not clever enough.

The underlying argument that Rubio apparently was making aimed to rebut an argument against him.  Christie was saying: Obama was a bad president (in the Republican view) because he was so inexperienced.  Rubio is also inexperienced.  Hence, let's not make the same mistake again, by picking Rubio.

Note that there's a bit of an ambiguity here.  Christie needn't choose between saying (a) he's an inexperienced candidate so he'll lose the general election, versus (b) he's inexperienced so he'll be a bad president.  On its face, the argument is mainly (b), but inevitably, in an election campaign where the two parties' voters hate each other so much, those on either side are going to care a lot about the potential truth of (a), not just (b).

Yet obviously, no matter what one thinks of Obama as to (b), it's clearly he did pretty well in 2008 and 2012 as to (a).  So Republicans who only believed (b) would face a dilemma, if they rejected (a) and still thought Rubio the strongest November candidate.  This might reduce the overall force of the offered syllogism.  But the Rubio camp evidently wanted to respond anyway.

Someone, and I honestly don't know whether or not Rubio has the wit to think of this (or even understand it) himself, but in any case someone in the Rubio campaign evidently thought: Suppose we say Obama was a good president, not a bad one, by his own ideological lights.  Then seemingly Christie's syllogism is rebutted.  If Obama was good for his side despite being inexperienced, then what the precedent suggests is that Rubio will likewise be good for our side despite being inexperienced.

This is actually terrible political reasoning.  It's an example of what Jeeves in the Wooster books, called being "too elaborate," when he questioned the scheming of the "brilliant but unsound" Catsmeat Potter-Pirbright.  In effect, Rubio is arguing: Obama and I indeed ARE alike in a particular way - but that's good, not bad, in terms of its predictive value, because Obama is actually a good president from his ideological perspective.

Problem #1 - if one side hates a political leader, those on the other side should probably avoid arguing that they're like him in any way.  Embracing the analogy, even just implicitly and to turn it around, is probably not the way to go.

Problem #2 - it mistakes the nature of emotional partisan belief.  From a Republican perspective, one could imagine a debate: is Obama inept, or merely serving goals we detest?  Logic suggests that it can't really be both.  If he likes where we are, then he didn't blunder by getting there.  But when emotionally involved partisans  on one side hate someone on the other side, they have no reason to value being logically consistent in the criticisms they applaud.  They are expressing their feelings.  For whatever broader reasons, which I won't try to explain here, they hate Obama and think he has done terrible things.  So it's emotionally satisfying to hear him being insulted, be it as feckless or as deliberately, effectually "evil."

In the nature of the enterprise - by which I mean, having political beliefs and being invested emotionally (but from the sidelines) in the great game - there's absolutely no reason to choose.  "Gee, he's doing it on purpose, so maybe he's actually smart."  Or, "Gee, he's incompetent, so perhaps he actually means well."  No - recall the voting paradox again.  Audience members who get involved emotionally in politics are not engaged in staking real resources that will affect their personal wellbeing on correctly understanding an individual who is on the other side.  They're not being irrational or stupid - rather, they're acting like sports fans, which is often a good analogy for political belief, when they decline to subject their angry disdain for someone on the other side to rigorous logical parsing.

By contrast, Republicans in Congress who are deciding how to interact strategically with the Administration, or the people in the McCain campaign in 2008 and the Romney campaign in 2012, DO need to evaluate Obama accurately and dispassionately.  They are actually playing against him, in a game that they want to win, and it's useful to understand your foe.  But voters are just spectators.

So the thought, by whomever in the Rubio camp, that praising Obama's skill was a smart political tactic, via the logical impact on the implied analogy between Obama and Rubio, appears not to have as good an understanding of real world politics and voter psychology as I might have expected of someone in the biz.

Again, who's to say whether or not any of this will actually matter politically in the end.  But it's still amusing as an apparent micro-illustration of political actors outsmarting themselves.

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