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November 07, 2006

Trenchant Commentary From Fred Barnes

Steve Benen catches Fred Barnes lamenting the massive political opportunity the GOP abdicated by abandoning Social Security privatization and tax reform. What's remarkable about Barnes' argument here is that it's entirely political: If the GOP had continued to push on these policies, they'd be poised for victory.

You really can't underestimate the degree to which that seems true to Fred Barnes. He wanders around a world of political elites -- from both parties -- where such things as a mortgage tax deduction and personal accounts are considered sensible, bipartisan compromises. Same on trade policy, on immigration reform, and all the rest. Argue over the policy merits as you will, but there's an elite consensus on an array of issues that tricks members into vastly overestimating the popularity of various proposals. It's like the apocryphal Pauline Kael comment that she didn't know anyone who voted for Nixon; Barnes doesn't know anyone who opposes entitlement reform.

This is the fallacy underlying all the dreamy imaginings of a third party ticket. Unity 08 and its various brethren are beloved by media elites for pointing out what the media elites believe to be true: No candidates are grabbing for the popular center. The entitlement reformers aren't socially liberal, the social liberals are insufficiently economically conservative. That this center has no serious constituency doesn't bother anyone because they don't notice. Statisticians call this a "first-order availability bias" -- when your actual environment is filled with a certain sort of thing, you'll extrapolate that outwards as a reasonably accurate illustration of the wider world. Barnes' world is full of folks who adore entitlement reform and think a flat tax is a fine and sensible idea. The wider world is not full of such folks.

I am pleased, however, to see the primary political reporter at one of the most influential conservative magazines so fully buying into this sort of error. If only more GOPers would take Barnes advice, the world would be a better place. Or at least a more Democratic one.

November 7, 2006 | Permalink

Comments

The Pauline Kael quote is apocryphal, she never said it?

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Nov 7, 2006 1:00:41 PM

The Republicans ran up a $400 billion deficit and a gazillion dollar national debt, and then they wonder why I'm not inclined to trust their plan for Social Security overhaul?

Oy.

Posted by: Global Yokel | Nov 7, 2006 1:06:31 PM

This is pretty much the phenomenon that Yglesias refers to as "Pundit's Fallacy."

Posted by: Haggai | Nov 7, 2006 3:05:28 PM

Here's the Wiki entry on the Kael "quote." It does seem to be apocryphal, at least in the sense that the Republicans are always using it.

Posted by: Haggai | Nov 7, 2006 3:08:25 PM

Everyone I know believes the Kael quote to be historically accurate and "real."

Posted by: The Confidence Man | Nov 7, 2006 3:38:21 PM

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pauline_Kael

Nixon "quote"
In the wake of Richard Nixon's landslide victory in the 1972 presidential election, Kael is frequently quoted as having said that she "couldn't believe Nixon had won," since no one she knew had voted for him. The quote is usually cited by conservatives (such as Bernard Goldberg, in his book Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News), as an example of clueless New York liberal insularity. Others have speculated that it was uttered during the height of the Watergate investigation, and was meant as an ironic commentary on Nixon's plunging popularity (in other words, how did Nixon manage such a landslide if no one would admit to voting for him?)

The quotation might best be considered apocryphal, given the lack of any positive primary evidence that Kael, or anyone else, made the statement. In addition, there does not seem to be agreement as to the exact wording, the speaker (it has variously been attributed to other liberal women, including Katherine Graham, Susan Sontag and Joan Didion) or the timing (in addition to Nixon's victory, it has been claimed to have been uttered after Ronald Reagan's re-election in 1984).

The origin of the meme is unclear. Some have claimed that it was a garbled version of quote Kael gave to the Wall Street Journal. Asked to comment on the election, Kael replied that it would be inappropriate for her to comment, as nobody she knew had voted for him. According to Fred Shapiro of the American Dialect Society, the quote is derived from an address Kael gave to a Modern Language Association conference on December 28, 1972, during which The New York Times quoted her as saying, "I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don't know. They're outside my ken. But sometimes when I'm in a theater I can feel them."

Posted by: Nancy Richardson | Nov 7, 2006 3:40:11 PM

where such things as a mortgage tax deduction and personal accounts are considered sensible, bipartisan compromises

Are you saying the mortgage tax deduction IS NOT sensible? Are you saying it is not popular? Most homeowners I know here in MA would be screwed beyond hope if that were to be repealed, including myself.

Posted by: Marcus Wellby | Nov 7, 2006 3:45:33 PM

somebody forgot to close their html italics tag Let's see it this does it.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Nov 7, 2006 3:50:24 PM

Here's an idea for dealing with the elitist DC folks: Move Congress around the country on a regular basis.

Since the House and Senate don't talk to each other much anyhow, each chamber can choose a different city for temporary residence (60-90 days). Each session of Congress requires at least two 'out-of-DC' sojourns.

By law, don't allow interviews from DC-based journalists, pundits, and political apparachiks to occur with Congresspersons via remote TV.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Nov 7, 2006 3:55:11 PM

Actually the mortgage tax deduction may not be sensible. Canada doesn't have one, and its home ownership rates are comparable to the US. So it's basically a federal subsidy of homeowners by non-homeowners. And homeowners in MA and elsewhere (in the short term) would only be screwed because they have bought their homes with the subsidy in place. Without it, people would buy smaller, or cheaper homes, and the prices of homes (which are, if you believe neo-classical economics, propped up by the subsidy), would probably decline, on average, by the amount of the subsidy itself.

But it is undoubtedly popular. It's just not good public policy.

Posted by: rbb | Nov 7, 2006 3:57:56 PM

This is the same phenomenon that allows them to think that universal health care is unpopular.

Posted by: Jason | Nov 7, 2006 5:08:35 PM

__Everyone I know believes the Kael quote to be historically accurate and "real."___

___Posted by: The Confidence Man | Nov 7, 2006 12:38:21 PM__

THat's the funniest thing I read all day.

Posted by: duus | Nov 7, 2006 5:13:30 PM

About that Pauline Kael quote, James Wolcott wrote the following:


Oh God, that again.

Three decades have gone by, six presidents have succeeded Nixon, and conservatives are still citing that musty quote.

Look, I was friends with Kael for nearly twenty years until a falling out that's a continuing source of regret, and it was the sort of thing she'd say. She couldn't believe anyone with a light on upstairs could think Tom Cruise was a capable actor either. So fucking what? She was the film critic of The New Yorker, not even the fulltime critic (for much of her tenure she alternated with Penelope Gilliatt); she wasn't the editor of a metropolitan paper, a commentator on network news, a political columnist, or even a chronic petition-signer. She hadn't the slightest influence or control of the news flow in this country. She reviewed movies brilliantly, period. She was a bylined writer expressing herself in a public forum and speaking only for herself, despite Krauthammer's attempt to convert her into a synecdoche. (My bet is that a Brendan Gill, for example, probably crossed paths with a Nixon voter or two in the private clubs he belonged to where a few Republicans lurked.) Kael was no snob elitist. She was a traditional liberal in the best sense--skeptical, reasonable, scorning the radical chic of Susan Sontag and the Stalinist politics of the Hollywood Left (particularly Lillian Hellman) as scathingly as she did the law-and-order demagoguery of Nixon and Reagan's nursery-school simplicities. She was also a child of the Depression--tough, outspoken, indeed tougher and gutsier in her opinions than a power parasite like Krauthammer or any of the others who invoke her name reflexively and disparagingly. (She could hold her own with Sam Peckinpah, for gawd's sake!) She had grown up seeing Nixon in action from the infancy of his political career, a sour familiarity that I for example didn't share (though I voted for McGovern--the first vote I ever cast in an election). She would have been even more appalled by Bush II, since at least Nixon was capable of ratiocination (listen to the dribble of Bush's mind in this interview exchange (scroll down to the Washington Post excerpt).

The pinstriped peasants with pitchforks won't be happy until Dan Rather is trapped in the collapsing castle, and brought down with it. I have no great desire to defend Rather, but the eager glee with which other longtime colleagues in the news business are piling on is disgusting. If they don't have the decency to defend Rather's record of achievements in broadcasting, which is not inconsiderable, then the least they could do is stand aside rather join the gang tackle. The mob mentality was alien to Kael, whose independence of mind was hard-won and acutely responsive to everything new around her. She thought for herself, something Krauthammer hasn't done in so long that his brain would probably jam like the fax machine in Office Space at the mere try.


BTW, did you know that Vanity Fair is starting a german edition?

Unfortunately, they didn't get anyone near Wolcott's format, just some washed-up, self-described neoconservative who goes by the name of Ulf Poschard, who couldn't write his way out of a wet paperbag.

Posted by: Felix Deutsch | Nov 7, 2006 5:19:24 PM

Some people may be old enough to remember that at one time there was an interest deduction for all consumer loan interest - not just mortgages, but credit cards, student loans, car loans, everything. The interest deduction was eliminated in 1986, but the real estate lobby was powerful enough to maintain an exception for home mortgages.

I'm no economist, but I expect that the main effect of the mortgage deduction is to give wealthier people- who would be buying houses anyway- an incentive to buy larger houses in order to shelter a higher percentage of income from tax - thus encouraging sprawl and a mis-allocation of resources.

Posted by: JR | Nov 7, 2006 5:30:32 PM

According to Fred Shapiro of the American Dialect Society, the quote is derived from an address Kael gave to a Modern Language Association conference on December 28, 1972, during which The New York Times quoted her as saying, "I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don't know. They're outside my ken. But sometimes when I'm in a theater I can feel them."

You know, I could just sense that the Modern Language Association was involved in this somehow. Just further proof that David Horowitz's Academic Bill of Rights needs to be voted into law and made retroactive to 1972.

Posted by: Michael Bérubé | Nov 7, 2006 6:18:27 PM

I know Berubé is a free thinker but I don't fancy those who go to the theater to feel people. Up or down.

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