Sunday, February 21, 2016

Electability or Eluctability?

Three cardinal virtues—fortitude, prudence, temperantia—in the Stanze della Signatura, Vatican. by Rafaello Sanzio. Image via Rembrandt's Room.
Well, that was a fun Saturday! Marco Rubio won by coming in second instead of winning, as originally planned, by coming in third, and Hillary Clinton didn't lose by coming in first, even though Sanders won by coming in second, because her campaign had cleverly crafted the message that she'd win if she won, just as happened with Trump, who won because he was a winner, though he sometimes wins by coming in second too. Cruz lost, crushingly, with a vote that is statistically indistinguishable from that of the winner Rubio, whereas JEB! was forced to quit with his terrible 7.8%, conceding to the better prepared and more electable Kasich, who won spectacularly with 7.6%.

JEB! won the contest of who really wants to spend more time with his family, though it is not clear whether he means his wife and children in Florida or his brother in Texas and his mom in Maine. And these people all like to make fun of us ordinary folk with our Little Leagues and chess clubs where everybody gets a trophy.

Here's a great piece by Tom Hilton, on the question of whether Bernie Sanders is electable, where I agree with more or less every single point but I'm not sure I agree with the whole argument. My disagreement is that where he says Bernie's not electable I say he is, but I just don't see how.

In 1964, 16 states had Republican primary or caucus contests, in contrast to 50-odd states and territories today, and Barry Goldwater won five of them (Illinois, Texas, Indiana, Nebraska, California). The states he won included some of the biggest, California's two million votes making up a third of the total, but he went to the convention with 38.33% of the vote—49% of the delegates, because of his people's work in the good old smoke-filled rooms in the other 34 states. He'd have been well behind that point, too, if the second Mrs. Rockefeller had not had a baby three days before the California primary, reminding the voters of that deeply moral state that Governor Rockefeller was a known adulterer and causing a large number of them to change their minds at the last minute (winning Goldwater just under 52% of the vote but all of the state's delegates).

It was a different time! Now a known adulterer comes in 20 points ahead of his nearest and smarmiest, most creepily Jesusy rivals in deeply moral South Carolina, people! Where people identify as 74% evangelical.

Anyway, the Republicans did not get their most electable candidate that year, as we now know, and they also didn't get a candidate they particularly wanted. They didn't see a candidate they particularly wanted, between doctrinaire Goldwater, establishment Lodge (grandson, great-great grandson, and great-great-great grandson of four senators), and celebrity Rockefeller, and ended up with perhaps the least electable. Or maybe they didn't have an electable candidate, against Johnson wrapped in the mantle of the martyred JFK.

In 1972, 28 states had Democratic primary or caucus contests, in a new system designed after the catastrophe of 1968 to decide the candidate before the convention, by a certain McGovern-Fraser Commission—yes, that McGovern, and no, I did not know that. McGovern used the new system very well and ended up with an overwhelming majority of delegates, though a smaller percentage of the popular vote than his closest rival, Hubert Humphrey (25.34% to 25.77%) and hardly more than the unregenerate racist George Wallace (23.48%), who had been paralyzed after an assassination attempt during the campaign. It's possible that there was an electable candidate that year, Edmund Muskie, undone by Republican ratfucking. It's possible that the whole thing was thrown off by the failure of Edward Kennedy to join the circus. It's possible that McGovern really was the most electable candidate and lost not because of the people but because of the enraged and deeply corrupted Democratic establishment (which really did fail to fund him) or the criminal Nixon campaign (which really was criminal) or both.

I don't like electability arguments in principle, because when you go backward historically to test your hypothesis you have to deal with counterfactuals upon counterfactuals. Was William Jennings Bryan electable? Probably not, given that the experiment was replicated twice with the same results. If Robert Kennedy had lived to run in 1968 could he have won? Certainly. Would he? Who can say? The professionals would like every election to be about electability, and sometimes they succeed in making it that way—McKinley in 1896, Eisenhower in 1952—but only with the cooperation of the other party focusing on something else, and it's usually a stupid election. And trying to project your hypothesis forward in time is worse; you end up with one of those n-body problems, intrinsically insoluble.

When pandits say Marco Rubio is electable, I think they mostly mean he's a revolting little prig but nice-looking, and with a manner less directly offensive than Cruz's: "I don't like him but I bet everybody else does" the way Mrs. Cleaver thinks Eddie Haskell is really a nice boy. In fact they are merely making the mistake of thinking other people are even stupider than they are, which is not necessarily the case. It's a pretty conservative way of looking at things, though.

When people say Bernie Sanders is electable, I think they mostly mean something more liberal; that he's a lovely old guy and no decent person could fail to recognize this. They are making the assumption that other people are as decent as they are, which is also not necessarily the case, but on the whole easier to work with.

I'd rather we focus on the questions of who the candidates are, what are their programs, and how are they running their campaigns. If Sanders is really electable he'll be showing it by winning a lot more primaries in the next couple of weeks, and if not it really doesn't matter.

Bernie and Hillary both come, for me, out of my own Boomer world of the civil rights and antiwar movements, and though they have taken different paths getting from there to here, I'm not interested in debates over which of them is most loyal to the ideals of 1968 or something like that. I don't care that Hillary can talk to Henry Kissinger without trembling and vomiting and accept his flattery without a blush; presidents have to talk to blood-soaked monsters all the time. And it's totally OK with me if Bernie wants to parade Cornel West around the country, too, not that he's a blood-soaked monster—I love West giving "Brother Jeb" a hug the other day and telling him to "stay strong", that's pretty classy. I just hope he's not expecting West to be his key to getting the African-American vote.

On programs, my feeling is that Clinton's may seem timid, but I understand what she is trying to accomplish, consolidating the gains made in the Obama administration. Why $12 instead of $15? Maybe the places that really need a federal minimum wage, like Arkansas or West Virginia, truly can't afford $15 and the places that can afford it, like Washington or California or New York or Connecticut, will do it without federal pushing. What she says about the importance of financial trade regulation as opposed to reinstating Glass-Steagall is true. There's a huge amount of stuff that can be done to bring the Affordable Care Act closer to providing universal care (on a better and more sustainable model, like those of the Netherlands or Germany, than the strict single-payer concept of the other camp). Making two-year college free in the many healthy state institutions is an almost immediately achievable goal, making four-year college free for all is hard to imagine where literally tens of thousands of little four-year residential colleges are in imminent danger of closing because they can't get by on the outrageous tuition payments they're charging. I'm not happy with the things she's saying about Iran and Syria, but I think she's saying them in the understanding that they'll be irrelevant by a year from now (as with her rejection of the TPP, sorry folks with TPP nightmares). Etc. etc.

With Bernie, on the other hand, the program makes less and less sense the more it's examined, and I'm not certain he understands the foreign policy issues at all well. Though he's very clear on what was going on in 1954 and he's right, it was terrible. But I can't help thinking he's mainly running against Obama, just as much as Rubio and Cruz are. Hence West, who has called Obama a "Rockefeller Republican in blackface".

Also, I understand Sanders can't be held responsible for the obscenity that occurred in Las Vegas yesterday, where one of the best human beings in the world, Dolores Huerta, was attempting to help out Spanish speakers in the caucus at Harrah's Casino, and was stopped by Sanders supporters screaming "English only", but I am really disturbed by the thought that his campaign is attracting people like that, and the erstwhile Rand Paul supporter H.A. Goodman. Berniebros or no Berniebros.

The Obama political revolution, as I was saying a while back, was the one I signed up for, and the way to get my vote is to stick up for it, slow and uncertain as it is. Make it work better! I can't speak for anybody else, but I can speak to that, and I'm happy to let the electability issue take care of itself.

Aargh, enough. While I was working on this Aimai came out with a piece that ended up where I wanted to end up, only more concise and more generous, as you'd expect. So read that if you haven't already.

Cross-posted at The Rectification of Names.


aimai said...

Love this, Yas. Pretty much what I've been thinking. I like the way you've broken it down.

CH said...

The Huerta incident has already made it to No Sanders supporters were interfering with her - the caucus chair apparently just didn't want a translation by a partisan from either camp:

As for the economists' screed, as James Galbraith pointed out, it neither stated nor referred to analytic grounds for dismissing Friedman's results; it basically stated "what we say is so because we are who we are". Ditto Krugman's series of pile-ons:

Yastreblyansky said...

CH, I've watched the video at Snopes. I've never questioned a Snopes ruling before, but I think this one slices the question in Politifact style. It is clear that there is a large group shouting to prevent an interpreter from being called to the stage, and the noise they are making resembles "chanting". When the moderator assures them that a pro-Clinton translator will be unable to distort the message in some (unimaginable) way, because everybody there who is bilingual will serve as a control, they are not placated; they are clearly demanding to have no translations because they don't know Spanish and continue to be suspicious of some kind of dirty proceeding.

It seems likely that Huerta and Ferrera are not giving a totally accurate account of the incident in their tweets, but the basic story is that.

On the economist letter I ran into the thing first at BooMan's piece, where there are several links to some more specific discussion, which Goolsbee, Krugman and others have clearly read. They are not just making shit up.

aimai said...

Look, CH, why bother arguing. The point of all this back and forth is that Bernie and HRC are both good candidates. Both are offering plans, and both are asking their supporters and others to trust them. Ultimately both are trustworthy people in one sense: they mean well. Their objectives are probably good. They will be faced with big problems all at once and serially and they will both have to be flexible about what they can accomplish. They will have to negotiate with a lot of people--friends and enemies alike, stakeholders and people with power, people who don't agree with them on goals or not on methods or not on timing. Its an enormous job. Both are perfectly well fitted for it. So choose the one you want and vote for him/her. Just stop slagging the alternative and attacking the Democratic party for having the temerity to try to run candidates and eventually run the country. Bernie can't do it alone. He's going to need lots of the people he and his followers are insulting if he ever gets to the white house.

Chai T. Ch'uan said...

Quite revealing how when actual video surfaces showing the smear against Sanders' supporters shouting "English Only!" didn't actually happen, the smear gets watered down to: "the basic story" is they're bigots anyway.

At least when we hear "Bernie Bros" now, it's clear they mean Susan Sarandon and women from the nurses' union.

Snopes: "As Sarandon correctly... indicated, at 55:18 the caucus moderator (not Sanders' supporters) simply stated that the inability to locate a neutral translator meant the caucus would continue in "English only." At no point did any Sanders supporters appear to have refused a translator based on the fact that translation was objectionable to them; nor was "English only" used in a pejorative fashion. The term was invoked a single time, during the moderator's assertion that no suitable translator was located to provide Spanish-language translations."

Yastreblyansky said...

Oh Jeez, Quan, this isn't a law court, and I'm cheerfully biased as far as Huerta goes (though I've had a crush on Sarandon for a very long time for that matter), and I don't give a fuck about "quite revealing" because I'm not hiding anything. I felt the 85-year-old and extremely distinguished labor activist Huerta was insulted by a bunch of people on the basis of some kind of assertion of anglophone privilege, without regard to what specific words were used, and watching the video confirmed that I was right. And that Snopes's writer put a narrow legalistic construction on it that does not represent Snopes at its best. For a more cautious interpretation of the video see Janell Ross at Wapo:

Then, the permanent chair says at around the 55:21 mark, "We're going forward in English only."
This statement was followed immediately by much applause and cheers of "Thank you." All of this together would indicate that the people pleased by the permanent chair's English-only decision were probably Sanders voters.

I speak as somebody who will feel a strong obligation to vote for Sanders if he should win the nomination and will want him to win the election. If you want to win too, you need to not call people like Dolores Huerta liars and respect the feelings of Latino and union voters. If you can't do that, please go away.

Tom Hilton said...

To be fair, I was responding to specific arguments by Sanders supporters that he's more "electable" than Clinton. Anyway, I think there are a lot of imponderables but there are also a lot of factors we've seen often enough that we can predict how they'll play out in a future contest, and I think "electability" (to the extent one can calculate it) is a valid and necessary thing to consider in the primaries.

Yastreblyansky said...

Oh, I know you're right, Tom. It just makes me grumpy.

Tom Hilton said...

I hear ya. I've been in a shitty mood since this miserable election season started, however long ago that is. And it won't get better until November, at which point it could still get a lot worse.

Chai T. Ch'uan said...

I always enjoy your guest posts, Yaster, so far from going away, I plan to keep reading, enjoying, and responding, even on the pretty rare occasions we disagree. I'm not certain this is one of them -- if I didn't make my point clearly enough, it was exactly that: Huerta was not giving a totally accurate account of the incident in her tweets.

And more clearly yet, this was not just a mistake. I'll defer to Carl to spell it out in more detail:

In my opinion, it's a sleazy campaign move for her to aim at a decades-long LULAC defender in Congress like Bernie.

Chai T. Ch'uan said...

And just to be clear, I will enthusiastically vote for this year's Democratic nominee, whoever she may be.