Events and Fundamentals

There’s a longstanding debate among political scientists, journalists, and political practitioners about what matters in electorate contests, with views ranged along a spectrum that leads from breathless excitement over every twist and turn in the Daily Battles to the iron determinism of Forecasting Models. It’s easy to caricature extremes on the spectrum, from the frequent suggestions in Politico that its own scoops have an epochal impact on world history, to the occasional foot-stamping claims of a few academics that all campaigning is a complete waste of time and money better spent on–oh, I don’t know, political science research, I guess.

Beyond the extremes, though, there is legitimate debate about Events Versus Fundamentals, and it’s no more apparent than today, when some elements of the chattering classes are transfixed by Mitt’s “Boca Moment,” and the other half are rolling their eyes and trying to get back to the real issues of economic indicators, polls and gross ratings points.

Some analysts, of course, simultaneously doubt the “Boca Moment” will have much impact on the election but do think it matters in terms of the kind of country we will inhabit if Mitt wins, viz. Jonathan Chait:

Presidential campaigns wallow so tediously in pseudo-events and manufactured outrage that our senses can be numbed to the appearance of something genuinely momentous. Mitt Romney’s secretly recorded comments at a fund-raiser are such an event — they reveal something vital about Romney, and they disqualify his claim to the presidency.

To think of Romney’s leaked discourse as a “gaffe” grossly misdescribes its importance. Indeed the comments’ direct impact on the outcome of the election will probably be small…

Instead the video exposes an authentic Romney as a far more sinister character than I had imagined. Here is the sneering plutocrat, fully in thrall to a series of pernicious myths that are at the heart of the mania that has seized his party. He believes that market incomes in the United States are a perfect reflection of merit. Far from seeing his own privileged upbringing as the private-school educated son of an auto executive-turned-governor as an obvious refutation of that belief, Romney cites his own life, preposterously, as a confirmation of it. (“I have inherited nothing. Everything I earned I earned the old fashioned way.”)

David Frum takes an even longer view of the significance of the “Boca Moment:”

From the greatest crisis of capitalism since the 1930s, the rights and perquisites of wealth have emerged undiminished – and the central issue in this election is whether those rights and perquisites shall be enhanced still more, or whether they should be allowed to slip back to the level that prevailed during the dot.com boom.

Yet even so, the rich and the old are scared witless! Watch the trailer of Dinesh D’Souza’s new movie to glimpse into their mental universe: chanting swarthy mobs, churches and banks under attack, angry black people grabbing at other people’s houses.

It’s all a scam, but it’s a spectacularly effective scam. Mitt Romney tried to make use of the scam, and now instead has fallen victim to it himself.

Well, nothing may convince Political Science Fundamentalists to admit campaign events matter, but it is clear this particular event is going to feature prominently in every other event between now and November 6: the debates, the ads, and the broader battle throughout various media. I just don’t think this self-identification of the conservative candidate with the conservative Id can be talked or wished away.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.