Electability

ELECTABILITY….Matt Yglesias is pondering who to vote for:

George Will seems to think that Howard Dean is electable after all. So does this mean that Dean really isn’t electable and Will is trying to sucker Democrats into nominating him?….Questions, questions. It reinforces my view that trying to pick a nominee based on electability is a bad idea.

I have just the opposite take on this. Detailed policy proposals from candidates are close to useless, I think. After all, circumstances change, brilliant policies get turned to mush as they pass through Congress, and ? let’s be honest here ? plenty of policy proposals from candidates are just sops to interest groups. It’s hard to tell which ones are really priorities and which ones are just being served up pro forma.

As long as a candidate has policy preferences that are in the right general area ? and in my case Kerry, Edwards, and Dean all do ? then electability is key. And that’s not just because I want a candidate who can win (although I do), it’s also because “electability” is largely synonymous with trustworthiness and good judgment. As long as a candidate’s heart is roughly in the right place, what I really want is someone who I trust to do the right thing when the unexpected happens, someone who demonstrates good judgment when the pressure is on, and someone with the political skills to push his agenda through Congress. That in turn means a person that the electorate trusts. Someone who is electable.

However, even though he himself is skeptical of considering electability as a way of choosing a candidate, I think Matt inadvertantly provides some quite helpful advice to the rest of us about the whole issue: don’t trust Republicans to tell you which Democrats are electable and which ones aren’t. You should pay attention to the impressions of genuine centrists and moderates whose votes are crucial, but George Will and his friends are far too ideologically blinkered to understand what makes a Democrat appealing and what doesn’t, and they probably wouldn’t tell you even if they did. After all, how many of them thought that Bill Clinton was electable back in 1991?

UPDATE: I do think personal impressions make a big difference in presidential elections, and regarding Dean specifically I think the big issue is how he comes across to people who don’t love his message already. If he comes across as passionate, he’ll do fine, but if he comes across as bitter and angry, he won’t. I’ve never personally heard him speak, so I don’t have much of an opinion on this.

UPDATE 2: I guess I should have added “and vice versa” to my last paragraph. Liberals have an equally hard time understanding what makes a candidate appealing to conservatives, so their advice on the electability of Republicans is probably equally suspect.

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