Between Fundamentals and Spin

At TAP today, our friend Jonathan Bernstein does a good job of applying the political science community’s predilection for valuing “fundamentals” over “events” or “messages” during campaigns to the current big fiscal conflict:

[I]t was easy to predict that Republicans would lose the polling battle over the shutdown. If spin mattered, then that wouldn’t be the case; we would have to wait to see how well each side developed and delivered their “messaging” and their “narratives.” Oh, they do that; it just doesn’t matter nearly as much as structural elements, such as the advantage that a president has over congressional leaders in these sorts of situations or the fact that going into this particular battle, Democrats were united while Republicans were split.

When this is over and you read a behind-the-scenes story about how the White House won the shutdown battle because of the effectiveness of its war room or that the president is just a more appealing public politician than Senator Ted Cruz or House Speaker John Boehner, don’t take it too seriously. Odds are those factors were marginal at best.

He goes on to make the familiar and plausible argument that pols and journalists alike tend to over-value events and “spin,” because, well, that’s where they come into the picture.

But in this context as with electoral campaigns, I think a bit of a false dichotomy is being presented when we assume everything other than “fundamentals” is marginal fluff. Between big structural factors and ephemeral developments is a significant area of phenomena that relate to the basic positioning of the parties in major political conflicts. You can call it “meta-message” or “ideology” or “agenda” or whatever you wish, but it involves the non-emphemeral content of what the contestants bring to the battle. You just can’t tell me that it doesn’t really matter in the current fight if House-based Republicans are battling to kill Obamacare, or to “reform” Social Security and Medicare, or to cut high-end taxes, or to give federal spending a “haircut.” Reducing what the conflict is actually about to “spin” or short-term “messaging” suggests that active news consumers understand nothing about the issues and their implications for the country; we’re all just pre-signed-up Ds and Rs along with a handful of swing voters who only care about recent economic trends or how they feel about the president on a given day.

You don’t have to have an exaggerated opinion of voter sophistication about issues to believe it often goes a bit deeper than that, particularly if one party or the other strays very far from the mainstream, as I believe Republicans have done since 2008. Perhaps I just fear how crazy politics could become if we all thought it had been scientifically “established” that the two parties were free to embrace radical ideologies or deeply irresponsible polices without consequences so long as they timed it right in the cycle of incumbency or economic booms and busts. That’s what I suggested last week in a brief reflection on the John Sides/Lynn Vavreck book on the 2012 campaign, The Gamble, in which the authors argue Republican hyper-conservatism–a very real thing, considering its commitments to implement the Ryan Budget along with reactionary social policies–did not matter at all in the electoral outcome.

In any event, while political scientists do need to curb the inveterate belief of pols and hacks that their every utterance or maneuver changes the wellsprings of human events, they, too, can go too far in fighting for an understanding of politics as essentially content-free. A lot happens between fundamentals and “spin,” and it deserves a bit more attention than this morning’s “narrative” at Politico.

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.