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June 01, 2007

A Good Field

I'm with Kevin Drum on this:

I'm probably more genuinely undecided between the major Democratic candidates this cycle than I have been for a long time. All three of them appeal to me in significant ways but none of them have completely sealed the deal. (In Obama's case, I'd like to see him be a little more willing to make some of the right enemies.) It's a pretty tough choice this year.

The upside of this is that I don't think I'll be disappointed regardless of who wins. They're all good candidates. And there's still plenty of time to make up my mind.

I'm tough on Obama, incidentally, not because I don't like him, or because I oppose his candidacy, but because I think he's got such astonishing potential, and the biggest danger is that early adulation will keep him from tapping it. Policy-wise, I'm probably closest to Edwards, but I've not been terrifically impressed with the nuts-and-bolts of campaign he's run, and he's made a couple of mistakes that struck me as frankly inexplicable. And while I have grave doubts about many of Clinton's advisors, there's no one in the race with her command of the issues or political steel. What's surprising to me about this race is that there's no second- or third-tier candidate who I'm ignoring for political reasons. It's not common dynamic to have all the best candidates clustered in the top tier.

June 1, 2007 | Permalink

Comments

I don't know Ezra, when did you start following campaigns, 1996? The Democratic Party nominating races of 1968, 1972, 1976, 1984, 1988 and 1992 were all crap shoots. for Republicans the same was true in 68, 80 and 96. In fact, none of the nominees for any of those years except perhaps Mondale in '84 could have been identified as anything but a 2nd tier candidate 18 months before the election. My prediction? It will be an almost obvious Gore-Obama v. Thompson-Romney.

Posted by: Ernie Fazio | Jun 1, 2007 2:21:13 PM

EF,

Oh, I get it. Ezra is young, so he doesn't know anything. Except that the rest of your comment makes it seem like you didn't understand what Ezra wrote, and your nominee matchups are delusional.

I'll go with the youngster.

Posted by: Stephen | Jun 1, 2007 2:34:12 PM

Choose whom you think the best.
Just like that.
May after weighing some pros and cons..
ITs just like the cause and effect theory...

[ Commercial Roofing | Residential Roofing ]

Posted by: Commercial Roofing | Jun 1, 2007 2:41:35 PM

Ezra, I can't help but think that Obama's problem is that he's been successful all his life and built that success on consensus building. He's never been in a position where he's had to take a risk and go-for-broke. He's always been good at what he does and successful at what he set out to do, so his instinct is always to avoid the risk of screwing it up by rocking the boat. It almost hurts him to be a top-tier candidate for the nomination, because he doesn't have to take any big gambles in order to get attention.

On the other hand, he DID decide to run for president, something I considered a gutsy, risky move for a guy in his first term in the US Senate.

Posted by: Tyro | Jun 1, 2007 2:44:12 PM

Obama is the LeBron James of politics, clearly. When you have that much talent, people expect the world of you and when you deliver it 40% of the time, they can't understand why you can't deliver it 100% of the time. That said, Obama really needs to deliver more!

Posted by: spike | Jun 1, 2007 3:01:49 PM

"The upside of this is that I don't think I'll be disappointed regardless of who wins. They're all good candidates. And there's still plenty of time to make up my mind."

I gotta say that I can't understand folks who don't have very strong preferences this late in the race.

They're not all good candidates. Depending on your criteria, you really ought to think certain primary outcomes would be much worse or much better than others.

I'm assuming Ezra is remaining neutral to preserve his journalistic credibility, and if so, I understand that. But I honestly don't understand the kind of sentiments that Kevin is expressing.

Posted by: Petey | Jun 1, 2007 3:30:46 PM

"But I honestly don't understand the kind of sentiments that Kevin is expressing."

Unless he just doesn't want to piss off a segment of his readership by taking sides.

But if so, that's no fun. You've actually got a way to exert some meager influence on the race if you've got a trafficked blog by talking up candidates before the rest of the world has focussed on the decision. Why wouldn't you take advantage of that, even if it made some folks angry at you for a couple of months every 4 or 8 years?

Posted by: Petey | Jun 1, 2007 3:34:39 PM

I gotta say that I can't understand folks who don't have very strong preferences this late in the race....But I honestly don't understand the kind of sentiments that Kevin is expressing.
Seriously? Then I have to say, I really don't understand you. We have what can fairly be described as an embarrassment of riches (especially compared to the third-string team on the Republican side); I would be happy to have any of the top three as my president.

Yes, there are policy differences. I have learned that "he/she agrees the most with my policy preferences" is not a particularly good way to choose a candidate, especially in a situation where the differences among the candidates are relatively minor.

The single most important difference among the candidates (electability) is also the most unknowable. We can make arguments for one or another candidate as the most electable, but if we're honest with ourselves we have to admit that we don't know.

So, sure, choose a candidate now if you want to (but acknowledge that you really have no idea), but don't denigrate those of us who would be reasonably happy with any of them.

Posted by: Tom Hilton | Jun 1, 2007 3:58:05 PM

"don't denigrate those of us who would be reasonably happy with any of them."

I wasn't denigrating, just saying I didn't understand.

And from your response, I actually think I do understand now. If you can't calculate out the politics involved, it really would start to look more like a beauty contest. And given Kevin's generalist beat, maybe he can't calculate out the politics.

Posted by: Petey | Jun 1, 2007 4:09:00 PM

If you can't calculate out the politics involved, it really would start to look more like a beauty contest.
It isn't that I 'can't calculate out the politics'; it's that I know I can't calculate out the politics. I also know that, for example, Ezra can't calculate out the politics; Ezra's commenters can't calculate out the politics; and you can't calculate out the politics. Nobody can calculate out the politics, and good for those of us who admit it.

Posted by: Tom Hilton | Jun 1, 2007 4:23:17 PM

I pretty much agree with Ezra's rating of the top three, but find it easy to pick sides.

I don't ask myself: "who would make the best President?" That is a tough question, given this excellent field. (And Richardson and Dodd aren't slobs, either.) Instead, I ask myself: "which candidate's campaign is best at pushing the country in the right direction?" This is an easy question. Like Ezra said: "Policy-wise, I'm probably closest to Edwards". So Edwards gets my money, for the sake of his campaign, if not necessarily his nomination.

Posted by: Joe S. | Jun 1, 2007 4:29:57 PM

"Nobody can calculate out the politics"

Of course some folks can.

That's like saying nobody can watch pilots of TV shows and figure out which ones are going to work. Some folks can.

And most folks at a blog reading level of sophistication can calculate out the politics at the most crude level. Are you able to figure out that neither Dennis Kucinich nor Mike Gravel is going to win the Democratic nomination under almost any conceivable circumstances? If so, you're able to do some crude calculations yourself.

Some folks can just do more elaborate calculations.

Posted by: Petey | Jun 1, 2007 4:35:38 PM

>> Nobody can calculate out the politics"

> Of course some folks can.

Name them please.

Cranky

Posted by: Cranky Observer | Jun 1, 2007 4:39:02 PM

That's like saying nobody can watch pilots of TV shows and figure out which ones are going to work. Some folks can.
So why aren't those people working for the networks? Or, if those people are working for the networks, why do the networks order shows that they end up cancelling (typically, at least half the new shows every season)?

Or is it possible that you're wrong, and those people do not actually exist?

Obviously, it's possible to calculate the extreme cases; anyone paying attention would have known that neither Kucinich nor Cop Rock would make it. Hell, I'll even go out on a limb and say that Biden won't be the nominee (not much of a limb there, admittedly). It's in the middle of the bell curve where it gets much more difficult to calculate--and that's exactly where all three top candidates are.

For example: if I recall correctly, your 'calculation' is that Edwards has the broadest appeal and is thus most electable. I don't necessarily disagree with that...but think about two words: "Breck girl". Yes, it's a brain-dead taunt, but for all you or I know they could make it stick (how many times have we already heard about the "$400 haircut"?). I think Clinton is the most polarizing figure in the race, but she has also already sustained the most vicious attacks; it's possible, even likely, that she would be the least vulnerable to negative definition by the other side. Obama has an extraordinary ability to make liberal policies appeal to moderates and conservatives, but we have no idea what the impact of race would be. Too many factors are too capricious and changeable for us to calculate them reliably.

And then there's always the fact that the world keeps moving even when there's an election on. If we attack Iran between now and next January, how does that effect the race? (My guess: it would help Clinton, hurt Obama, and be neutral or slightly positive for Edwards...but who really knows?)

In any case, I've been paying attention to the last 9 Democratic primaries, and the one conclusion I can make from them is that they always matter a whole lot less than it seems at the time.

Posted by: Tom Hilton | Jun 1, 2007 5:02:07 PM

"Name them please."

Well, around here, Neil's got some skills. Ezra plays his cards close to his vest, but I tend to think he's got decent abilities.

Conversely, Matt Yglesias, who's a pretty smart guy, has an almost comically poor ability to calculate out the politics.

I'm regularly able to beat the election markets, which means I've got better calculation skills than the bettors I'm competing against. To dispense with false modesty, I tend to find it freakishly easy to calculate out the politics, which is probably one big reason why I developed a passion for politics in the first place - folks tend to love things they're good at.

And that's also why Kevin's stance initially befuddled me. If it's easy for me, and if Kevin's a smart guy whose job is to write about politics, my unthinking and incorrect assumption was that it's easy for him too. But if that's not one of his areas of expertise, his stance on not picking a candidate at this point of the race makes significantly more sense to me.

And to resume with false modesty, there are plenty of things I can't do. I've got no aptitude for musical instruments, for example. Everyone has their talents and their areas of lack.

Posted by: Petey | Jun 1, 2007 5:04:01 PM

As usual with Democratic races, there are really two contests: 1) Which candidate espouses policy positions that are really good for the country?, and 2) Which candidate has the savvy and financial backing to run a strong race in November?

As usual, no candidate can win both contests. Either they have policy positions that will truly excite the Democratic base (i.e., Kucinich), or they are best described as Republican-lite and have oodles of money and are running savvy campaigns (i.e. Senator Clinton). Now and then you find a candidate who talks a good policy game and has a campaign machine that is at least credible (i.e. Edwards) but when the rubber hits the road, their policy positions are weak (see Edwards/Obama health care plans) and their campaign makes crucial mistakes.

The Democrats seem to be trapped by their need for campaign cash and the policies they have to pursue to get and keep that cash, which prevents them from putting forward a platform that will excite their base. It's not a winning position. A very charismatic and effective campaigner can win, but we don't have one of those this time.

Posted by: Chuck | Jun 1, 2007 5:04:33 PM

What are you referring to here?

"he's made a couple of mistakes that struck me as frankly inexplicable."

Please don't tell me you're talking about the haircut, which is entirely explicable. I'm pretty sure any mistake you could bring up would be explicable. In any case, please be specific; the worst kind of criticism is the vague kind.

Posted by: davidmizner | Jun 1, 2007 5:14:34 PM

"For example: if I recall correctly, your 'calculation' is that Edwards has the broadest appeal and is thus most electable."

I supported Edwards in '04 because I thought it was pretty clear that he was the most electable of the primary field.

The situation is a bit more complicated in '08. I think Edwards is still the most electable, but it's not as clear cut. I think Obama has a good deal of general election potential, but he's also got the highest risk of flameout - the 'can he take a punch question'. Oddly, Hillary, though having relatively low general election appeal, has the advantage of being the least likely to make mistakes, which is an important quality.

In short, Edwards is the most electable, but it's probably not clear cut enough to base a decision on that alone.

Which is what makes this an interesting field. I'm supporting Edwards because of other considerations, mainly about how I think he can shift the national political discourse to the left.

That's why I originally said about Kevin:

Depending on your criteria, you really ought to think certain primary outcomes would be much worse or much better than others.

There are perfectly valid reasons to support any of the three major candidates depending on what you want to accomplish through politics. There's no "correct" answer once you get past simple electability concerns. But there is a "correct" answer for each individual, if that individual can calculate out the probable implications.

And if you can't calculate out the probable implications, well, votes aren't going to held for quite a while yet.

Posted by: Petey | Jun 1, 2007 5:18:30 PM

> The situation is a bit more complicated in '08. I
> think Edwards is still the most electable, but it's
> not as clear cut. I think Obama has a good deal of
> general election potential, but he's also got the
> highest risk of flameout - the 'can he take a punch
> question'. Oddly, Hillary, though having relatively
> low general election appeal, has the advantage of
> being the least likely to make mistakes, which is an
> important quality.
>
> In short, Edwards is the most electable, but it's
> probably not clear cut enough to base a decision on
> that alone.

Shorter Petey: in 2004, it was freakishly easy to calculate that the guy who lost was the most electable. In 2008, where the situation is more complex, it is freakishly hard to calculate the politics so I equivocate.

Thanks for clearing that up for us.

Cranky

Posted by: Cranky Observer | Jun 1, 2007 5:22:46 PM

This is probably better suited to Yglesias's place, but since Petey's here: the Western Conference consistently has the strongest teams in the playoffs, but that doesn't guarantee its champion wins the NBA Finals.

Posted by: pseudonymous in nc | Jun 1, 2007 5:23:30 PM

Matt Yglesias, who's a pretty smart guy, has an almost comically poor ability to calculate out the politics.

Hmm. Last presidential election cycle it seems to me Matt was predicting Dean to be the nominee. Now he's (wildly) predicting Edwards. Must seem like a bad omen to you, right Petey?

Posted by: sangfroid826 | Jun 1, 2007 5:27:20 PM

"I gotta say that I can't understand folks who don't have very strong preferences this late in the race."

This late in the race? For God's sake, it's 17 months until election day! In a sane system, Barak, Hilary, and John would be quietly planning their campaign and message. Instead, we're looking at an election cycle right out of the keystone cops.

Posted by: pdxmike | Jun 1, 2007 5:27:55 PM

"Please don't tell me you're talking about the haircut, which is entirely explicable. I'm pretty sure any mistake you could bring up would be explicable. In any case, please be specific; the worst kind of criticism is the vague kind."

I agree with Ezra that Edwards has not had good control of his message over the past month or so. Part of that is due to some natural backlash to the cancer emotion, part of that is due to some minor missteps by the campaign, and part of it is due to folks like Kerry and Shrum trying to settle scores. (Shrum on MTP this Sunday should mark the end of that particular phase.)

I disagree with Ezra on how damaging it is. I don't expect Edwards to be the national front runner prior to Iowa voting, and the type of messy national message he's experienced the past month is just not that big a deal for an under-the-radar candidacy like Edwards'. (For that matter, it wouldn't be that big a deal for Obama or Clinton either. If you have a bad month in November, that starts getting more serious.)

I know Ezra was also distressed by the optics of Amanda/Melissa-gate, and I vehemently disagree with him there. I think that was an almost unalloyed positive for the campaign.

Posted by: Petey | Jun 1, 2007 5:28:39 PM

"This is probably better suited to Yglesias's place, but since Petey's here: the Western Conference consistently has the strongest teams in the playoffs, but that doesn't guarantee its champion wins the NBA Finals."

I find hoops futures much harder to see than politics futures. Never been sure if that's just me, or if hoops is inherently more difficult to predict.

-----

"Hmm. Last presidential election cycle it seems to me Matt was predicting Dean to be the nominee. Now he's (wildly) predicting Edwards. Must seem like a bad omen to you, right Petey?"

I prefer to believe Matt's political calculations are just random, rather than eerily representing the opposite of what's going to happen.

-----

"In 2008, where the situation is more complex, it is freakishly hard to calculate the politics so I equivocate."

Didn't mean to equivocate. Frankly, in the electoral college, I think Edwards is the best bet by far of the big three. I'm just saying that unlike 2004, I don't think it's a situation where Edwards would win the general election, and none of the other Democratic candidates likely would. I think Obama has better than 50/50 odds of winning a general election. And even Hillary has a decent shot.

I'm supporting Edwards for a variety of other reasons this time, both electoral stuff like we'll win more House and Senate seats with him at the top of the ticket, as well as the obvious policy issues, as well as that I think the Democratic Party and the political left would be stronger in the years after 2008, as well as that I think he'd move the mainstream political discussion to the left, as well as...

Posted by: Petey | Jun 1, 2007 5:43:24 PM

I'm regularly able to beat the election markets, which means I've got better calculation skills than the bettors I'm competing against.
Some people are better guessers than others. There's a tremendous difference between guessing well and knowing, especially where something as incalculable as 'electability' is concerned.
There are perfectly valid reasons to support any of the three major candidates depending on what you want to accomplish through politics. There's no "correct" answer once you get past simple electability concerns. But there is a "correct" answer for each individual, if that individual can calculate out the probable implications.
Again: no. I mean, if you value one factor above all others and you see a candidate who scores highest on that factor, sure...but what I (and, I think, Ezra) see is a much more ambiguous field, in which each of the candidates brings significant (and very different) positives. In other words, for at least some people there is not a single 'correct' answer as such.

And, as I said, it never matters as much as it seems at the time. Trust me; I've been around long enough to know this.

Posted by: Tom Hilton | Jun 1, 2007 5:52:01 PM

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