Friday, February 15, 2008

Tactics and Political Brand Names

Kyle has an interesting post today that is a continuation of a discussion we had yesterday. In recent days, Obama has been responding to increased attacks that he lacks substance by giving more substantive speeches that tone down a lot of his more inspirational rhetoric. As Kyle points out, Obama was initially criticized early last year for being too heavy on the substance and too light on the inspiration in his speeches. When he changed his tone to replicate his legendary 2004 convention speech, he began to get traction and closed the gap with Sen. Clinton. As Kyle also recognizes, it is this style which has carried Obama from longshot to favorite.

But with the increased vigor of the attacks by the Clinton campaign on the substance issue, Kyle thinks it wise of Obama to respond with more substance and points out that Obama needs to figure out how to combine the style with the substance. As I argued yesterday, I'm not so sure, at least not at this stage of the game. I analogized it to switching to a prevent defense with too much time left on the clock when you've been dominating the defensive side of the ball all game and you just need one more turnover or sack to put the game out of reach.

Thinking on it a little more, I think there's another element here that shouldn't be overlooked. At this stage of the game, the highly informed and moderately informed voters have made up their minds and are unlikely to switch sides. Obama has pretty clearly won that battle as much as he's going to. The voters who are left to persuade - and there are a lot of them - are the low information voters; Jay Cost argues this fact explains a lot of the polling discrepancies we've seen this year. As Cost further explains, in a primary campaign low information voters are left to judge the candidates on personality and name recognition, since actual policy differences are usually so small. For the low-information voter who only gets to make their decision once, what matters most is the politician's "branding."

Although Obama has made up huge ground in terms of his name recognition and the reliability of his "brand," he cannot possibly compete with the Clinton "brand" on name recognition and reliability in the mind of the low information voter. By taking a more "substantive" tone, though, this is exactly what he is trying to do. (Of course, what passes for "substance" in political speeches is really just a litany of false promises made to sound impressive by peppering in nice, beautiful, round numbers).

By taking this "substantive" tone, Obama is selling himself as essentially a "me-too" product. That is a battle he cannot win because he isn't giving the voters a reason to give up their loyalty to the Clinton brand name. It's analogous to why people are willing to spend the extra 30 cents to buy the name-brand soda instead of the store-brand soda, even though they're exactly the same thing- they trust the name-brand, and don't trust the less-familiar brand.

When Obama takes his more inspirational and preachy tone, though, he is giving voters a reason to change brands. Instead of selling himself as another, less well-known cola, he is selling himself as something completely different...suddenly, he's Dr. Pepper rather than RC Cola. Sure, he won't be able to convince the cola die-hards to change brands, but he wasn't going to be able to convince them to switch anyways since he wasn't giving them much incentive to change brands. But he will convince all the people who are bored of cola to try something a little different.

It may be that Obama has already won over enough people that he can afford to go back to this substantive line of debate and "play prevent defense" or start his own line of cola. But I'm not sure that he's reached that point; regardless, I think his uptick in the polls will stall out if he tries to beat Clinton on her terms. This thing's not over yet.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Grading the Candidates

It took me a few days, but as I promised the other day, below is my analysis of the three remaining candidates with a realistic shot at the Presidency. Should Bloomberg run as a third party candidate (or for that matter, Bob Barr or another prominent libertarian), I will revisit this analysis. Of course, this analysis is utterly useless if you are unwilling to vote for someone who is not a libertarian in any way (and will thus be abstaining or voting for the LP candidate no matter what). But I think it's a useful guide to the big three nonetheless.

I have prioritized and weighted the issues based on their importance to me in this election; I have no doubt that others will disagree with that weighting and prioritization.

1. Executive Power/Civil Liberties - This is by far the most important issue this year in my mind. A politician with an expansive view of executive power is a politician willing to cram policies down our throats regardless of whether there is an overwhelming consensus (or any consensus at all, for that matter) behind those policies. In other words, a candidate's views on Executive Power affect the weight I give to their views on all other issues. The simple fact that all three major remaining candidates come from the Senate suggests that no matter what we will have an improvement over Bush due to a likely respect for the institutional separation of powers that presumably results. A view of Executive Power that is less expansive is, by the way, a necessary component of the Madisonian view of faction that is supposed to be the focus of this site; an expansive view of Executive Power will lead a President to run roughshod over opposing factions in the hopes of creating a permanent majority faction.

First, Sen. Clinton's past creates many serious questions about her on this issue, particularly with respect to the way in which she handled her infamous Health Care Task Force, and also with respect to her avowed support of an expansive view of executive privilege. McCain and Obama's political careers have both primarily been in the legislative branch, suggesting a likelihood of profound respect for the legislative process. However, McCain's sometimes bulldog-ish style on legislative matters creates some room for concern, as does his support of today's FISA legislation, complete with immunity for the telecoms. I have no doubt that he would be a vast improvement over Bush/Cheney on Executive Power, and to his credit he has stood up against torture. As importantly, he has absolutely condemned the use of signing statements across the board, which neither Clinton nor Obama has done. However, McCain voted against restoration of habeas corpus, which is a huge strike against him. Obama, on the other hand, is a constitutional law scholar who has largely stood up against expansion of executive power in a way that neither Clinton nor McCain have; moreover, his rhetorical emphases on consensus-building hint strongly at a candidate who is unlikely to force policy and law down our throats without having something resembling a super-majority behind him.

Grades: Clinton: D, McCain: C+, Obama: B+

2. Foreign Policy/Defense Spending/Commander-in-Chief Role: Foreign policy is arguably the arena in which the President has the greatest amount of direct control, Constitutionally speaking. As a practical matter though, entrenched bureacracies often inhibit a President's ability to actually make dramatic changes in foreign policy. That said, I can say from personal experience that the Bush neo-con bureaucracy is largely located at the top of the food chain at the moment, and would likely be replaced under a Dem administration. The biggest sub-issue within this field is obviously Iraq, Afghanistan, and the GWOT. Sen. Clinton's position on Iraq ought to be cause for great concern, as should her advocacy of "coercive diplomacy" and her support of Kyl-Lieberman. Add to that her husband's rather extensive use of American military power, and I simply can't trust her on foreign policy or the GWOT. While I could not disagree more with McCain on most of his current foreign policy views, his pre-9/11 foreign policy views were quite sane. I also believe that, if indeed we must stay in Iraq, McCain is best equipped to oversee our actions there, and will do so with dignity and without authorizing torture and war crimes. Obama, on the other hand, is by far the closest to a libertarian in his foreign policy views (excluding, for the moment, his views on trade). Personally, I tend to support an immediate or rapid withdrawal of forces in Iraq, with a redeployment to Afghanistan for some of them. However, I do have questions about Obama's ability to oversee such a withdrawal in a wise manner given his lack of military experience (then again, he would presumably defer to the generals on the best way to accomplish a withdrawal). Importantly, Obama's election, in and of itself, would noticeably improve the world's image of the United States, creating an immediate intangible effect.

Grades: Clinton: D+, McCain: C, Obama: B-

3. Economic Policy/Taxes: Both Obama and McCain are well-established deficit hawks. We should never forget that the deficit itself creates a hidden tax in terms of both inflation and additional spending on interest payments. Obama is most likely to attempt to downsize the military budget, but McCain is the most likely to have the ability to do so. McCain has historically been a tax-cutter, and for the record, I think he was right to insist that Bush tie tax cuts to spending cuts. While I will deal with healthcare and SS more below, it's worth pointing out that McCain's positions would, I think, actually cut costs in those fields whereas Obama's would significantly increase them overall, and Clinton's would dramatically increase them. McCain is by far the best on free trade, though Clinton has a pretty good record in that respect, and Obama's economics are much more trade-friendly than his rhetoric. While I think the mortgage "crisis" will be over by the time the next President takes office, it's worth noting that Clinton's call for a lengthy moratorium on ARM adjustments is beyond obtuse from an economics standpoint.

Grades: Clinton: D+, Obama: C-, McCain: B

4. Health Care: Clinton wants to force health care down our throats at tremendous cost and with mandates that scare the bejesus out of me. Hers is an outright nanny-state position that is beyond disturbing from a libertarian point of view; equally bad, she insists on universal health care as an end in itself, and improperly diagnoses the problems with our health care system. She refuses to even discuss the possibility that there are long-term problems with Social Security, dismissing suggestions to that effect as Republican talking points. Obama correctly diagnoses the problems with our health care system as being cost-based, though he incorrectly diagnoses the source of those problems and is far too willing to blame insurance companies for all the ills of the system. Still, his admirable refusal to cave on the mandates issue shows a willingness to leave health care largely in the hands of individuals. In addition, he has actually acknowledged the long-term problems with Social Security; while his solution to those problems is hardly libertarian, my understanding is that it does provide some room for market-based reforms. McCain's health care proposal is far and away the best, and I evaluated it more fully awhile back. It is far from perfect, but by politician standards, it's pretty damn good.

Grades: Clinton: F, Obama: C, McCain: B+

5. Personal Freedoms: Obama gets some bonus points as the rare candidate who may actually scale back (however minimally) the War on (some) Drugs. None of the three candidates would support a Federal Marriage Amendment. Outside of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, I don't think there is much that a President can do on most gay rights issues, but I have little doubt that McCain would keep that policy in place, Clinton would be likely to do so for quite some time, and Obama would likely try to repeal it relatively quickly. On firearms, all three are terrible; however, McCain should be by far the scariest on this issue, as he would be most likely to have political capital on this issue, particularly if he only ran for one term. All three, to my knowledge, support the onerous McCain-Feingold law, but of course McCain loses extra points for being the sponsor of that bill.

Grades: McCain: D+, Clinton: C, Obama: B-

6. Education: On education, McCain appears pretty close to the libertarian position; however, his position on No Child Left Behind is extremely vague, and is a major strike against him. Obama gets major points for his support of merit pay and his support of increased education tax credits (which inherently promote greater school choice). Hillary Clinton's position is in lockstep with the teachers' unions.

Grades: Clinton: C, McCain: B/incomplete, Obama: B

I would have liked to include judicial appointments in this evaluation, but I suspect that they will all appoint judges with whom I agree as often as I disagree, but who will on average be well-qualified and fair-minded. I don't think there is a judge on the SCOTUS these days with whom I agree with much more than 50% of the time on close issues.

Final Grades: Clinton: D+, McCain: C, Obama: B-

To be honest, I'm surprised that McCain didn't do worse in this evaluation, while Obama scored about where I expected him to, as did Clinton. I do think this evaluation shows that the differences between Obama and Clinton are fairly substantial, especially on the two most important issues of executive power and foreign policy.

The end result of all this is that Clinton scares the hell out of me, and I think would be as bad or worse than Bush/Cheney have been, McCain would be at least tolerable, and Obama would be above average in comparison to previous Presidents, but by no means the second coming of Grover Cleveland (or Calvin Coolidge, for that matter). Depending on how things shake out in November, I can see myself voting for Obama, the LP nominee, or McCain (but this would require that Clinton be the Dem nominee AND that NJ became a critical swing state, which is unlikely).

Hillary Skips Telecom Vote

Per Marc Ambinder, Obama voted against telecom immunity today, McCain voted for it, and Hillary Clinton voted.... absent?

Obama deserves at least some minimal praise for standing by his pledge to fight against telecom immunity (though as Big Tent Democrat correctly points out, his leadership on this issue has been lacking). In choosing to cast a vote on this issue, he leaves himself vulnerable to charges of being un-patriotic by the GOP. In other words, he took a very real risk here. True enough that he didn't have to sacrifice much campaigning time with today's DC-area primaries.

But the relatively small amount of praise that Obama deserves for his vote shows how cowardly Senator Clinton's actions appear in comparison. As Ambinder points out, Clinton was in Texas, for which she left last night or this morning. While conventional wisdom would point out that Hillary is using Texas as a firewall, her actions in going there at this precise moment are more than a little odd and, I think, transparent.

Her campaign headquarters is in Northern Virginia, right in the center of today's primaries. While she is almost certain to lose all three primaries, one would think she would have stayed in the area in the hopes of at least salvaging a couple of delegates. By staying in the area, of course, she would have also left herself the ability to vote on the FISA bill and the telecom immunity provisions.

Since leaving for Texas on this particular date makes very little sense, and since Clinton's opposition to telecom immunity has long been suspect, her actions give the appearance of being a transparent attempt to duck voting on the issue. By flying to Texas today, she is able to use the ready-made excuse that she was on the other side of the country and was thus unable to cast her vote; this is an excuse that she could not have used had she remained in the DC area for last-minute campaigning.

In my mind, this is nothing more than a transparent attempt to duck a vote on an issue of incredible importance to both the Democratic Party base and civil libertarians. Although I doubt civil libertarians were ever going to much support Clinton, it amazes me that any of the Dem base is willing to give her a pass on this issue.

For the record, I'm also pretty damn annoyed with the folks at Reason today, who chose to focus on the silly Che Guevara flag dustup without any regard whatsoever for the FISA votes. This despite David Weigel's call for more libertarian involvement with the issue a few weeks back.

As usual, Glenn Greenwald has the best coverage of this issue, why it's important, and why the vote on immunity is such a depressing failure of American self-government.

More blogger reactions at memeorandum.

Giving Credit Where It's Due

It's rare for me to offer praise to the LRC crowd. But when one of them leaves the fever swamp, it's worth giving them credit, as is the case with this excellent post from Nick Bradley (who I'll admit usually does a pretty good job avoiding the anti-Cato, anti-Reason vitriol). Bradley discusses the Daniel Koffler Comment Is Free column about Obama's appeal to libertarians that I posted about awhile back.

In any event, Bradley's analysis is well-balanced, fair, and well worth a read, I think.

Money quote:

So, is Obama a left-libertarian? No; Obama's platform is more akin to "Soft Paternalism", a gentler, less threatening approach to controlling people's lives (sometimes incorrectly referred to as Libertarian Paternalism).
Don't get me wrong: in a hypothetical match up in the fall between Obama and McCain, I'll either abstain from voting or write in Paul's name. But for the electorate as a whole, Obama would be the more liberty-minded choice over the statist, warmongering, ill-tempered and possibly unstable John McCain.

I'm much more willing to actually vote for Obama in the general election on the grounds that he will be far superior to McCain, and on the grounds that I think a change in foreign policy and a roll-back of executive power are the most important issues this year. But Bradley's analysis of Obama strikes me as dead-on accurate.