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KEEPING IT REAL! Why did voters vote as they did? Analysts should go where they seldom do—inside the world of talk radio:


NOTES FROM THE IVORY TOWER: Why did numbers swing toward the GOP last Tuesday? Jonathan Cohn paints an improbable picture in the on-line New Republic—but his analysis helps to show what is often wrong with our high-toned political mullings.

Cohn starts by applauding Joe Lieberman for his alternative to the Bush tax cuts. “Lieberman proposes redirecting much of the Bush tax cut,” Cohn says, “and using it for targeted tax cuts that encourage investment in high-tech businesses.” Cohn applauds Lieberman for his stand, “because he’s explicitly attacking the egregious Bush tax cut” and “because he’s proposing something that, with the right design and scale, might indeed be good for the economy in the long run.” But the Lieberman plan “isn’t going to solve the Democrats’ political problems on the economy.” According to Cohn, that’s because “it doesn’t really get at what probably has voters worried.”

But what does have those voters worried? Here is the part of Cohn’s piece which we find so instructive—and so unlikely:

COHN: When a survey participant tells a pollster he’s worried about the economy, he’s typically thinking pretty short-term: Will I still have a job next month? Can I afford luxuries, like a large television or a new car? Can I afford basic necessities, like rent, mortgage, or health insurance? Lieberman’s plan seems unlikely to deliver such immediate benefits. On the contrary, it’s primarily a strategy for long-term economic growth—perfectly valid, but not exactly what your poll respondent had in mind.
Dudes! Cohn’s picture of this voter’s rumination strikes us as absolute fantasy. Do voters conduct such wonkish critiques? Nothing about our political culture leads us to think that they do. In fact, voters rarely possess even basic information about major policy questions. It’s a story press and pols hate to tell. But voter ignorance tends to drive our democracy.

For an historical example, consider the Clinton budget plan, passed in August 1993. It was the leading policy issue of the day. Concerning the tax increases in the plan, Clinton stated, again and again, that his hikes in the income tax only affected the highest earners. On August 4, 1993, USA Today’s Bill Montague summarized thus on page one:

MONTAGUE: After spending much of the 1980s slashing tax rates for the wealthy, Congress appears on the verge of reversing course.

The budget deal, which must be approved by the House and Senate, would extract $241.2 billion from taxpayers over five years. But 81% of that—about $195 billion—would be paid by families making more than $200,000 a year. Most middle-class families hardly would be nicked. They’ll pay the lion’s share of a 4.3-cents increase in the federal gasoline tax. But the increase would cost the average family less than $5 a month.

From March through August, Clinton hadn’t gargled or cleared his throat without reciting such data. But voters are almost impervious to information. Montague noted the disconnect:
MONTAGUE: Joe Sixpack apparently hasn’t gotten the word. Polls show most taxpayers expect to pay higher income taxes as a result of any budget deal. Yet higher tax rates would hit only singles who make $115,001 or more in taxable income, and couples who make $140,001 or more.
That was in 1993 dollars. On the same day, Richard Benedetto limned the same matter, also on the paper’s front page. “A key problem for Clinton,” he intoned. “Despite claims the wealthy pay most new taxes, 68% believe the middle-class is hit most.” And Benedetto noted the “political problem on the economy” affecting that era’s embattled Dems. Forty-four percent opposed Clinton’s plan. Only 33 percent favored passage.

Whatever the merits of Clinton’s plan, why were so many voters misinformed about its actual workings? It would take a crystal ball to say. But during the same six-month period, Rush Limbaugh had hammered the Clinton plan hard, inaccurately tagging it “the largest tax increase in American history.” When Bob Dole made the same claim, a few newspapers even deigned to note that the colorful claim was bogus. (Most newspapers—failing again—never discussed this key spin-point.) But American voters listen to Rush—and American voters simply don’t do business in the manner suggested by Cohn’s portrait. American voters are constantly misinformed. In fact, some powerful entities make voter ignorance their goal—a point which Paul Krugman has deftly noted in several recent pieces about the estate tax.

Given the unusual state of our post-9/11 world, we don’t find last week’s results real surprising. But why did the numbers turn out as they did? Analysts should go where they hate to venture. They should take a look at our actual discourse—they should enter the world of talk radio (and cable). Here at THE HOWLER, we don’t have the slightest idea why voters voted as they did. But analysts need to come to terms with the way voters really receive their impressions. Whatever last week’s voters had in mind, we doubt they engaged in the wonkish debates which Cohn describes in this column.

Suzanne Fields was simply thrilled in yesterday WashTimes column. Last week’s election heralded the return of character to our public life, she avowed. Headline: “Exit Clinton, enter character.” Fields emoted thus:

FIELDS: Statistics can’t measure the changes in the national character since September 11, but only an ostrich could ignore the signs that there has been a renewal of faith in God, country, community, family, friends, and consequently Americans are finding new faith in themselves. Change never comes overnight, nor does it arrive in a straight line, but we can at last look forward to a generation that takes moral issues seriously as the root, leaf and flower of the political system. Or so we can hope, and hope is the child of faith.
Fields is right about one thing—character can’t be achieved overnight. We thought of that when we read this passage from this very same column:
FIELDS: The television images that turned Paul Wellstone’s memorial service into an orgy of crass politics after Fritz Mondale was dragged out of the deep freeze exposed the cynical exploitation for what it was. New Jersey, Minnesota was not. Death be not proud.
Mondale, of course, is a decent man. But trashing Fritz in this crude way became de rigeur for proud “conservatives” after his nomination. And conservative wannabes had to play too. As usual, Chris Matthews, pandering hard, was more than equal to the task. Here was another exchange with Jerry Nachman during the pair’s panderama (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/11/02):
NACHMAN: I’m wondering, in Minnesota, is it possible that that pep rally made the difference? There was a three-point differential, which means a 1.5 percentage swing from Democrats to the Republicans might have given Coleman that Senate seat.

MATTHEWS: You know, I’m so glad that there was a proof of life from Minnesota, meaning, they are alive, those voters out there. They’re not victims or lemmings or follow-the-leader types. They weren’t going to go with cheap sentiment and go with Walter “Fritz” Mondale again. And I think it was so great that they said: “We’re going to go with this young guy, Coleman. He seems to be developing his philosophy. He moved from left to right. At least he’s alive.”

Remember—it’s hard to convey the low moral caliber of many members of our press corps. If Fields thinks that character is now back in vogue, she ought to pay her cable bill and take a good look at this talker.

HOUSE OF CARD: Can you believe they’re still saying this? And can you say the world “pathological?” Incredibly, here was Bush chief of staff Andy Card on Sunday’s Meet the Press. Tim had asked how the Bush Admin planned to pursue budget balance:

CARD: Well, Tim, look at what we inherited when we came to office. We inherited a recession…And then we had the horrible shock of September 11, 2001. And that did put us back on our heels, in terms of our economy. The tourism industry, the airline industry were all dramatically impacted as a result of September 11. The president’s economic policies have been climbing out of that challenge. And he said that if we were in a recession, if we were in a war, and we are in a war against terrorism, and if we had a national emergency, he would not be afraid to deficit spend.
Ohmigod! Andy was playing the Trifecta Card again! Even Tim was somewhat shocked. Weakly, he stepped in to challenge:
RUSSERT (continuing directly): He never said that in the campaign.

CARD: We are deficit spending because we’ve had that trifecta of challenges to this country and the president has provided the right kind of leadership.

He even used the word “trifecta!” Meekly, Tim let the slick-talk slide, moving to other subjects.

Suzanne Fields would know what this means. It does take time before character blossoms. We can’t expect the White House to drop this tale in the first day, or in the first month, or in the first year. Of course, having seen Tim pummel other guests for saying things that were actually true, we were surprised to see how quickly he dropped the point and soldiered onward.