Tuesday, August 10, 2004

previous entry | main | next entry | TrackBack (0)

Some History

When it rains, it pours. The New Republic Online has a really excellent pair of pieces, by Zachary Roth and Arik Ben-Zvi respectively, exploring historical analogies for the coming US presidential election. Because the pieces may well be behind a subscriber firewall, I urge you to (a) subscribe (it’s worth it) and, failing that, (b) wheedle a copy out of your good-natured, ingenuous, easily-exploited friend (I think that's me ...).

Roth cites John Major’s narrow win over Neil Kinnock in 1992:

Polls indicated that Britain was ready for change. And under Kinnock, Labour seemed to have transformed itself into an acceptable alternative. Taking over as Labour leader in the wake of the party's devastating drubbing by the Tories in 1983, Kinnock began a process which Tony Blair would complete in the '90s: Turning his back on the party's--and his own--socialist roots, Kinnock recast Labour as the party of responsible centrism, whose plans to get Britain's economy back on track stressed tax incentives, foreign investment, "durable growth", and retraining British workers for greater competitiveness.

But Major always retained an advantage over Kinnock: Despite his party's and his government's unpopularity, his personal approval ratings consistently hovered in the low fifties--relatively high for a prime minister in Britain, where voters, in general, tend to take a dimmer view of politicians than in the United States. Kinnock, by contrast, could barely get out of the low thirties.

A train wreck ensued, for a reason complacent Kerry-ites should note:

[T]he Major-Kinnock contest does provide at least one critical lesson: it gives the lie to the notion--which seems lately to have become conventional wisdom amongst Democratic strategists and liberal pundits--that undecided voters will always break towards the challenger in a close election. Proponents of this view argue that if voters haven't made up their mind to support the incumbent over the course of his tenure, they're unlikely ever to do so. As evidence, they cite Ronald Reagan's 1980 victory over Jimmy Carter, as well as Clinton's over George H.W. Bush.

But in Britain in 1992, late-breaking undecideds did exactly the opposite: Ultimately, they opted for the devil they knew, because the governing party successfully planted and exacerbated doubts about both the policies, and the personal qualities, of the challenger.

As Roth suggests, the Tories would’ve almost certainly been better off had they lost to Kinnock. As things stand now, I’ll have to wait until I’m eighty-five to see Oliver Letwin (who gave my favorite speech of all time) depose Euan Blair as Sky Marshall of the Federal Republic of England.

Ben-Zvi’s piece is potentially even more dire for the Dems. Ben-Zvi cites Israel’s 1999 election, in which undecideds did break for the challenger, Ehud Barak.

The Barak campaign was revolutionary in Israeli politics. While most Israeli political leaders rarely spoke about their personal lives or trumpeted their own histories, Barak's campaign made his biography the heart of its message. His ads told and retold stories of Barak's military exploits, from his days as a young commando to his tenure as Chief of Staff. Campaign posters showed a photo of Barak standing over the bodies of dead terrorists that he had shot during a heroic hostage rescue operation. The message couldn't have been simpler: nobody needs to tell Barak about fighting terrorists. Or, to paraphrase another military veteran running for office, Barak fought terrorists as a young man, and he would fight terrorists as Prime Minister.

By using Barak's biography to prove his ability to protect Israel's security, the campaign was able to move voters past that fundamental security threshold and allow them to start looking at all the other issues. And that's where Barak had the clear advantage. On basic social issues the majority of Israelis identified strongly with the secular, center-left policies of Barak and his Labor Party.

If you replace “social issues” with bread-and-butter economics, the analogy seems to hold (whether we believers in “smaller state, bigger citizens” like it or not). The question is, what happens next? Will Kerry fumble disastrously (due to the intransigence and bad faith of his diplomatic interlocutors, let’s say), and will he unwittingly usher in a period of conservative hegemony, with a figure more aggressive and unresponsive to the entreaties of traditional allies than President Bush at the helm? Not sure that’s what Ben-Zvi’s looking for, but it’s food for thought.

posted by Suzanne Nossel on 08.10.04 at 05:19 PM


My guess is that Kerry's secret diplomatic plan involves Russia, China, and India.

posted by: praktike on 08.10.04 at 05:19 PM [permalink]

praktike: China and India? Send your jobs to our country China and India? Or We Have Nukes Too China and India?

I actually think that many nations are eager to deal with a Kerry foreign policy apparatus. The prospects of Holbrooke team, who I still do not understand why Drezner likes, are immense for any nation seeking to fleece the United States for all it's worth. Too bad Berger burned himself. China will be disappointed.

posted by: Brennan Stout on 08.10.04 at 05:19 PM [permalink]

yeah... kerry wants to be liked and dems don't believe in american power, success or exceptionalism...

china got all sorts of tech thanks to Loral, Mr. Diane Feinstein, and the feckless clintons... (how much of that got transferred to the DPRK???)

a vote for kerry is an attempt at civilisational suicide...

and if they don't like bush, wait for a REAL rightwinger....

it'll make sharon seem like rabin to have a real hawk in charge (RUMMY.. or Wolfowitz.. or Giuliani..)

plus there's always the attempts to reanimate LeMay, Patton and MacArthur.. now thats one hell of an executive...

posted by: hey on 08.10.04 at 05:19 PM [permalink]

It's decidedly in China and India's interest that a stable energy situation be developed in the ME. If China and India do not have long-term access to oil & natural gas. their economies die. It's that simple. Geopolitics doesn't haven't to be a zero-sum game anymore.

posted by: praktike on 08.10.04 at 05:19 PM [permalink]

The last thing John Kerry needs is to be compared to Ehud Barak. Israel suffered greatly because of his appeasement of the radical Palestinians. Many Israelis have been murdered due to Barak’s naiveté. Why would Americans desire the same sort of incompetent leadership. Barak is a harsh reminder that a brave military commander may be ineffective as a political leader during times of violent conflict.

posted by: David Thomson on 08.10.04 at 05:19 PM [permalink]

Roth's piece doesn't make much sense to me- if Major's major advantage was in the personal favorable department, then that isn't a good analogy. At least, at this point, Kerry's favorable/unfavorable ratio is much better than Bush's, rather than vice-versa.

I mean, that could change tomorrow, but it's hardly useful to point out analogies that *could* occur in the right circumstances.
(eg If documents come out showing that Bush pressured his wife to have public sex in clubs, this election *could* turn out like the Illinois Senate election.)

So, yeah, the undecideds *could* break for the incumbent. But they usually don't, and absent a reason to think that they will, I don't see why anyone would paint contrafactual scenarios when they might be expected to.


posted by: Carleton Wu on 08.10.04 at 05:19 PM [permalink]

Post a Comment:


Email Address:



Remember your info?