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Elites Know When To Defect, When To Hedge

Continuing the discussion of Romney’s 47% inanity, Andrew Sullivan links to this piece by Matt Steinglass taking the opposite view to mine on the subject. Steinglass argues that this video cost Romney the support of “that part of the conservative commentariat that still has lines of communication open to liberals.”

Key centrist-Republican signaller David Brooks turned furiously on Mr Romney in his column Tuesday, writing that the statements suggest he “doesn’t know much about the culture of America”, “has lost any sense of the social compact”, “knows nothing about ambition and motivation”, and that his comments are “a country-club fantasy. It’s what self-satisfied millionaires say to each other. It reinforces every negative view people have about Romney.” Ross Douthat wrote that “by branding himself as a generic Republican with no particularly unconventional ideas of his own, he’s managed to associate himself with all the party’s Bush-era failures, while imitating none of its success.” Conor Friedersdorf said the comments encapsulate the dynamic of the flawed campaign, in which “the base of the conservative movement develops a message that plays well internally, and inexplicably thinks it’ll be persuasive to the general electorate if only it is trumpeted. Mitt Romney slavishly conducts himself as the base wishes. And the talking points turn out to be as unpopular with swing voters as you’d expect.” Bill Kristol called them “arrogant and stupid”. And so forth.

Whether “that part of the conservative commentariat that still has lines of communication open to liberals” actually influences any voters may be questioned, but anyway that “so forth” is doing a great deal of the work here; there’s less to this list than meets the eye. I doubt Conor Friedersdorf would describe himself as part of the conservative commentariat, and he has never been supportive of Romney. Bill Kristol certainly is part of that commentariat, but he hates Romney and always has – he backed just about every other plausible candidate during the primaries. Ross Douthat was more a skeptic than an opponent, but he has been quite critical of Romney all along, and particularly since he announced his tax cut plan. Nonetheless, both Kristol and Douthat will be voting for Romney in the general election.

That leaves Brooks, who voted for Obama last time. Brooks ends his column this way:

Personally, I think [Romney is] a kind, decent man who says stupid things because he is pretending to be something he is not — some sort of cartoonish government-hater. But it scarcely matters. He’s running a depressingly inept presidential campaign. Mr. Romney, your entitlement reform ideas are essential, but when will the incompetence stop?

That is not the sound of somebody thinking about switching teams. It’s the sound of somebody despairing that his team doesn’t seem to know how to play the game. Brooks will not be voting for Obama again, and that’s what matters most from an “elite signaling” perspective.

David Frum’s piece from yesterday, by way of criticizing Romney for what he said (and more harshly criticizing the GOP echo chamber for defending him), actually explains my argument for why this “gaffe” won’t hurt Romney:

Romney was expressing views that are widely held among a certain group of conservatives, and they are determined to make it as awkward as possible for him to retreat from those views.

You might wonder: why? . . .

Start with this data point:

When you ask white Americans to estimate the black population of the United States, the answer averages out at nearly 30%. Ask them to estimate the Hispanic population, and the answer averages out at 22%.

So when a politician or a broadcaster talks about 47% in “dependency,” the image that swims into many white voters’ minds is not their mother in Florida, her Social Security untaxed, receiving Medicare benefits vastly greater than her lifetime tax contributions; it is not their uncle, laid off after 30 years and now too old to start over. No, the image that comes into mind is minorities on welfare.

That’s the point I was trying to make as well, and Frum found the polling data that eluded me (or I would have included it in my post). It’s precisely because of that image that I don’t think Romney’s comments will outrage many actual potential Romney voters – because they aren’t seeing the actual content, but rather this image. Again, I don’t think this is a winning message – because, in addition to being false, it has nothing positive to offer. I’m just arguing that being awful is not the same thing as being electorally damaging.

Regardless, Frum is also going to vote for Romney.

There’s no elite “defection” going on here. When Brooks supported Obama in 2008, that was a defection. If he said he was voting for him again, that would indeed be a signal – and who knows, maybe it would even make a small difference to a slice of high-information voters who actually read op-eds. But until that happens, this is just hedging – pre-positioning in the event of a Romney defeat to be able to say, “I told you so.” The fact of that hedging may be an indicator – a sign that these elites think Obama Romney [whoops!] is going to lose, and their opinions may (or may not) be worth something. But it’s not going to contribute to that loss.

UPDATE: I should note that, the vote still being strictly confidential, there is no way for me to know how David Brooks or Ross Douthat or Bill Kristol or anybody else voted in past elections, much less any way for me to be certain how they will vote in an upcoming one. So my purported certainty is really just conjecture based on what they have written.

As an aside, I’m aware that a variety of publications have rules about their writers not disclosing for whom they vote, and that it is considered in bad form to do so even if it is not strictly forbidden. I’ve never fully understood this particular nicety for opinion journalists, and I admit I don’t know the rule here. But I’m happy to be enlightened on both points.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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