Why we can’t focus exclusively on policy matters

Ah, that revered species, the American voter:

A couple blocks east, at Jimmy’s Quick Lunch, Clinton’s the favorite of many regulars.

“I like her backup man,” said retired machinist Ronald Duser, referring to former President Bill Clinton. “And her family’s from Scranton. She seems to be an honest person, just like my wife.”

Of Obama, Duser said: “I’m not crazy about voting for a colored guy, but that’s not why I don’t support Obama. I’m not prejudiced. I just like Hillary.”

A couple tables over, Jean Fetterman, a foster grandparent, said of Clinton: “Oh, I love her. She’s a very intelligent person, and she has her husband who went through this.”

She scoffs at the idea of voting for Obama: “I don’t want to be a Muslim!” She looks dubious when told Obama is Christian. “Then why did he go see what’s-his-name over in Iraq, that Lama?”

She isn’t clear about whom she means. She may have seen a photo of Obama wearing traditional clothing during a visit to Africa. “I don’t care what color he is, I don’t care if he’s pink,” she said. “I don’t think he’s got the same education Hillary has, and he’s so young. He’s arrogant, too.”

Rosella Sheppard, 62, plans to support McCain because she’s a Republican, and her son, who’s in the National Guard, will leave for Iraq in the fall. “I’m not a war person, but I do feel we need to address the terrorists,” she said.

Democrats already outnumber Republicans by close to 2 to 1 here. But McCain’s sympathetic approach toward immigration may cost him Republican support too, perhaps even from the city’s mayor, Lou Barletta, who’s using his activist role in the immigration debate to challenge the local Democratic congressman.

Barletta said he’s invited McCain and the two Democrats to Hazleton to discuss immigration, but McCain declined and Obama and Clinton haven’t responded.

“If you feel illegal immigration is a serious issue, how could you come to Pennsylvania as a presidential candidate and not come here?” Barletta said. “I do believe Hazleton does play a role in this presidential election because of what we represent.”

And what does Hazleton represent? Judging only from the quotes above, racism, ignorance, and xenophobia. While the cluelessness of the average voter is obviously a danger for Obama, it is also why I am so perplexed by the refusal of people like Paul Krugman to deal at all with matters of personality, rhetoric, likability, etc. Like it or not, these things have as much to do with how people vote as the issues. It’s good that Krugman and others want to put more focus on policy differences, but to encourage elite NYTimes readers not to consider matters of personality and likability seems very misguided, since those are the things that will probably end up determining the election. Why did Gore and Kerry lose? Because voters preferred the details of Bush’s health care plan? Get real.

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7 responses to “Why we can’t focus exclusively on policy matters

  1. Who else is like Krugman in that way? He is quite unusual among prominent people who write about politics in that he basically ignores tactics, “the horse race”, personalities, etc. Who else is like that? Certainly not any other Times columnist, since you mention the times, but maybe no other pundit I read anywhere else, either.

  2. Perhaps Krugman’s extreme emphasis on (and seeming exaggeration of) Clinton’s policy superiority is actually tactical–he thinks she’s a safer bet for November.

  3. Who else is like Krugman in that way?

    That’s a fair point. The only other person I specifically had in mind is a blogger at the American Prospect named Ezra Klein. I don’t read him on a regular basis so I can’t say whether he ignores personality and tactics the way Krugman does, but the reason I don’t read him regularly is that a few times I have followed a link to one of his posts, and each time he was criticizing a Democratic candidate for not being explicit and specific enough about how progressive they will be once they get into office. I once even commented at his blog because he wrote something like “it’s not enough for a Democrat to merely get elected…” MERELY get elected?

    Perhaps Krugman’s extreme emphasis on (and seeming exaggeration of) Clinton’s policy superiority is actually tactical–he thinks she’s a safer bet for November.

    He probably does, but then why is he unwilling to come out and make that case on tactical grounds? He must realize that even some of his allies have been criticizing him for his anti-Obama bias (Bob Kuttner at the American Prospect and Jared Bernstein at TPMCafe are two that I saw in the past week). If he thinks she’s a safer bet AND likes her policies more, then why dwell only on the policies? I suspect that he feels so burned by the 2000 election that it is now the only way he can view politics. Anyone who reminds Krugman of Bush in any way, such as Obama with his likability, vague rhetoric, and thin resume, drives him crazy.

  4. “…why dwell only on the policies? I suspect that he feels so burned by the 2000 election that it is now the only way he can view politics.”

    I tried to make that italics, but no doubt it won’t work. Anyway, Krugman’s decision to focus exclusively on policy is mainly because everyone underplays policy. Of course he has ideas about hwo might be more electable, but if he’s like me he may have learned that he can’t trust those ideas! And so he will go with policy and with who he likes…

  5. “And so he will go with policy and with who he likes…”

    And his preference seems so personal and out of proportion to actual policy differences that he’s no different than anyone else–it’s not just policy with him after all.

  6. Add Robert Reich to the list of liberal economists who are impressed by Obama’s economic policies and unimpressed by Clinton’s. Here are the first and last paragraphs of something he wrote yesterday:

    “Senator Hillary Clinton said today that her rival for the Democratic presidential nomination has been “timid and unenthusiastic” in his proposals for dealing with the current economic downturn. This is an odd charge, to say the least…

    “…Obama’s response to the current crisis is exactly right. HRC’s make no sense at all.”

  7. Krugman’s post of April 2

    > Bartels = Alfred Wegener?

    gives the lie to his own position that the Hillary-Barack differences are so crucial. It’s clear: the only thing that matters is the Democrat/Republican difference.

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