Wednesday, March 12, 2014

On Voting

"Men do not differ much about what things they will call evils; they differ enormously about what evils they will call excusable."

G.K. Chesterton

I read with interest an article by Peter Grier in the Christian Science Monitor that sought to clarify what recent poll numbers indicate.

For example,the Associated Press found that, while the majority believe the president is a nice guy, two–thirds rate his presidency as average at best — and nearly half rate his presidency below average. Clearly, liking the president and liking his agenda are two separate things.

I guess one of the most intriguing quotes I read said, in effect, Barack Obama seems like a nice guy, someone I might like to hang out with, but I like a lot of people and most of them aren't qualified to be president.

That's the part of public opinion polling that I have never fully comprehended, I guess. I get that people want to feel good about the people for whom they vote, but, please, try to understand. I was a child during the Nixon years. No one seemed to like him, not even people who voted for him, yet he was elected president twice. The second time he was elected, he got a higher share of the popular vote than anyone in American history except Lyndon Johnson.

The lesson I took from that was somewhat Machiavellian, I guess — a leader does not have to be loved or even liked. (Yet, the questions that are put to modern voters about their political choices — Which candidate do you like best? Which candidate would you rather have a beer with? — suggest that likability is the only thing voters consider.)

But a leader does need to lead.

Being liked simply isn't a requirement of the job. It's a plus, but it isn't necessary. And my assessment, after the special election in Florida, is that Democrats relied too much on the impression that Obama is generally well liked — and gave too little credibility to voter opposition to the policy.

I know that voters want to like the people for whom they vote, but I have voted in many elections, and I know it isn't always possible to like the candidates for whom you choose to vote.

When you're casting your vote, my experience is that you are more likely to encounter a race in which you really don't like either of the candidates as you are to encounter a race in which you do like them. (Most of the time, there will probably be one candidate you like better than the other.)

In every election, though, you really have two options. You can skip voting in that race entirely (you certainly aren't required to vote in every race on your ballot, and I generally do skip at least one such race every election), or, if you have no clear preference in the likability department, you can choose a candidate based on other (usually more important) factors, such as the candidates' relevant experience and records of achievement.

That, too, can be exaggerated, but the truthfulness of what a candidate says about himself or herself can be easily verified by enterprising reporters. So, too, can the success or failure of the policies and programs with which a candidate and/or the candidate's party are linked in the public mind.

Which brings me to the special election in Florida.

It's hard, in the aftermath of yesterday's special election in Florida's 13th congressional district, to avoid wondering just how much of an influence the low popularity of Barack Obama and the implementation of his signature achievement, the passage of Obamacare, had on the outcome — and, by extension, how much it will affect other races across the country in November.

Predictably, Democrats are downplaying the Obamacare part of it. Instead, they are pointing out that Republicans narrowly held on to a seat they have won comfortably for decades. Party cheerleader Debbie Wasserman Schultz was spinning so fast today that the loss amazingly became a positive.

Just as predictably, the Republicans are calling this an early indication of a national rejection of Obamacare. They dismiss the fact that the Republican winner was held under 50% in the three–candidate race. House Speaker John Boehner called it a "big win," which is a considerable stretch.

But here's the bottom line: The special election in Florida's 13th was a "must–win" for Democrats, in the words of political analyst Stuart Rothenberg.

For years, Democrats have been anticipating a takeover when the seat was open. After all, Democratic presidential nominees have carried the district in five of the last six national elections. But the takeover did not happen.

After the votes were counted, Rothenberg wrote this: "The Republican special election win doesn't guarantee anything for November. But it is likely to put Democrats even more on the defensive, undermining grassroots morale and possibly adding fuel to the argument that Democratic dollars should go toward saving the Senate than fighting for the House."

That's about the size of it.

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