Wednesday, August 27, 2008

on obama- the fundamental attribution error, median voter theorem, and my pick for president

Watching the Democratic convention now, reaffirmed my general attitude toward presidential elections. I like Obama, I just don't like the Democrats.

This is consistent with some basic political economy. Downs' median voter theorem argues that in order for a candidate to win, they must position themselves at the center.

I think that has been true in past elections. I think it is true the current one.

The first counterexample people point out is that Gore would not have invaded Iraq. My counter to that assertion is that Tony Blair (a Clinton clone) and Joe Lieberman, Gore's VP were staunch supporters of the war as were 79% of the Senate and an even higher percent of Americans. Not to mention Hillary, a partial proxy for Bill Clinton, also supported the war. It is easier for Al Gore to stand outside and claim he would have done something else, but I disagree.

People commit the fundamental attribution error and assume that a president's actions depends on his disposition rather than the situation he is in.

On the issues, Obama and McCain have predictably converged:
  • get out of iraq as expedient
  • close guantanamo and stop torture
  • invest in alternative energy
  • drill off shore
  • reduce carbon emissions
  • provide money to expand health insurance
  • etc.
I think by themselves, I would give Obama the slight advantage for the symbolic value.

The problem is that policy depends not just on the president, but also on Congress (and the Judiciary).

Imagine a continuum
(long readers of the blog will recall the same analysis 4 years ago)
<-------------------------->
1 25 50 75 100
  • Where 1 is the most left wing policy.
  • 100 is the most right wing policy.
  • 25 is the median Democrat.
  • 75 is the median Republican
  • 50 is the median American policy


I see Obama and McCain at 50. Which is roughly where I am. So I like both their policies.

My preferences are: 50 > 75 > 25

But the problem is that an Obama presidency coupled with a Democratic Congress would lead to policy outcomes closer to 25 than 50. And that I can't accept.

You saw this during the primaries, as Obama renounced his bipartisan rhetoric in favor of debating Clinton on who thinks Republican ideas are worse. The biggest attack each had on the other was that the other once said that Republicans might have good ideas.

Specifically, I remember when Obama gave into the teacher unions by renouncing his previosu position up on merit pay that best exemplified this move.

So that's where I stand.

4 comments:

hcduvall said...

I don't know, did you vote for Gore or Kerry when the Republicans controlled congress? I'm not so far removed from your view that I wouldn't have considered voting for McCain in 2000--or even earlier in this campaign. But the fundamental attribution error doesn't mean it's always wrong to expect personality to come into it. Maybe another war, but this one? Situationally, Afghanistan is the war that everyone concedes would have happened regardless. Dealing with Iraq is very much a Bush item. I can argue for Blair not starting a war but supporting one (to maintain close ties with the US) and I would say Gore, even if I concede a war with Iraq (which I don't, maybe Darfur? Who knows, I don't like Gore), the conduct of the war would have been different. So much of how the war effort has developed began with, or is a reaction to, Rumsfeld as a cabinet member pushing for his transformational army--I think even a Iraq war started by a democrat is unlikely to have unfolded this way. I can imagine either the Powell Doctrine continued or something like the Clinton initiated intervention in Balkans--an extensive air campaign with no ground troops.

You know where my flag flies right now, but I will say I don't recall Obama criticizing Hillary for saying Republicans might have good ideas, I recall Obama getting a ton of flack for saying Reagan inspired people. And I think Reagan was a doofus.

The trouble I have right now with deciding a vote on how the system works this time around is the same problem with the median voter theorem. The past two elections and their ensuing terms sort of broke it. Clinton won on it, but Bush won with Rove's galvanize the marginal and partisan troops and ran roughshod over Congress. (I actually kind of admire their early prowess in shoving their way). Admitted McCain isn't Bush (note the lack of anti-Bush campaigning, which is for the good. Obama is the candidate, not Not Bush), but there's a place, even in this system-based sort of viewing, that at least a term of swinging the other way is necessary before the finer calibrations of a mythic median.

And I admit to being more of a democrat now (I don't mean in the party sense). Namely vote for the guy and trust in the system, not vote in the system. Though perhaps that sort of faith on my part was always a necessary reaction to accepting Bush's 2nd victory.

HoBs said...

I don't know, did you vote for Gore or Kerry when the Republicans controlled congress?

I am not sure I actually voted in both of those elections (I have a separate thing on the irrationality of voting). But I probably would have gone for Bush just because I would more dislike the risk of a 25 than getting 75 (in my diagram)

I can argue for Blair not starting a war but supporting one

True, but Frontline and others have suggested Blair was onboard from the beginning.

the conduct of the war would have been different

Maybe. Rumsfeld probbaly had some influence. But most of the decisions were made by career soldiers who would have been in place regardless.

And do you think just an air attack would have better? Many civilians were killed in those air attacks in the Balkans. And if it did lead the government to topple, wouldn't the same chaos ensue, or worse, given there would be zero troops on the ground.

I don't recall Obama criticizing Hillary for saying Republicans might have good ideas

One of the few debates I watched, Clinton raised your point, accusing Obama for saying Reagan had good ideas. Obama vehemently denied it and backpedaled on it, and then counter attacked with the same argument.

See transcript here.

the lack of anti-Bush campaigning

Really? That was the theme of the convention last night. Every sign held by supporters was McCain=Bush, and every speaker felt compelled to make the freudian "slip" of calling McCain, Bush.

Rove's galvanize the marginal and partisan troops

That is a fair point. There are recent papers that show how galvanizing your base can shift away from the median outcome.

But I honestly think that the impact of that is overstated. Especially because turnout was so high in 2004. It wasn't just the base who was voting. And Bush won by a significant margin.

hcduvall said...

Damnit, did I misspell the word verification and then close the tab? Feh.

Short and glib then:
I have affection for Blair and the liberal hawk view, for what that's worth.

Rumsfeld's transformative warfare worked int he conduct of the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, but the career soldiers and the like definitely would've gone with something different, in all possibilities with much increased manpower--one of the major ingredients to the a more successful occupation.

The air attacks are better for civilians, they'd be better for us, whether sustained or as surgical strikes. Toppling being unlikely, but not necessarily the point. Air strikes instead of using ground forces would leave forces available for Afghanistan, the true gimme of the wars, and changed at least some of the formulation in a situation like Russia and Georgia , even excusing the poor diplomacy that led us there.

Obama was right actually, I think we both misrepresent him here. He spoke admiringly of Reagan's capacity to inspire, not his ideas. And bipartisanship means a capacity for persuasiveness and compromise, not necessarily thinking the other ideas are good.

Like my views of the MSM re:China during the Olympics, if the democrats wanted to campaign against Bush, we'd have the Kerry campaign again. A few nights in the convention is mild kid gloves at best. It could be my own partisanship, but the note of meanness in the RNC is a more despicable strain. At least no Zeb Miller this time.

It could be you're right about play in the center regarding the 2004 election, though I think that's possibly not the best span to study it. We very much thought of ourselves as a country at war in a very different way then we do now, and I think wartime connotes a lot feelings that favor the incumbent, whoever he/she might be.

HoBs said...

"Obama was right actually, I think we both misrepresent him here. He spoke admiringly of Reagan's capacity to inspire, not his ideas. And bipartisanship means a capacity for persuasiveness and compromise, not necessarily thinking the other ideas are good."

Obama was right only in that that particular line refereed to Regan's ability to inspire. But the NYtimes magazine cover story last week is effusive about Obama's adoption of good ideas from Reaganomics.

Something Obama adamantly denied at the time.

and yeah, those letter verifyers are annoying. but the spam was vicious when it was unprotected. Hundreds of spam comments overnight.