Small Town Flap a Hollow Scandal?
Ezra has fallen victim to the Wonk's Fallacy that people chose political leaders by careful appraisal of their white papers and policy platforms.
Ezra Klein thinks the fact that Barack Obama’s observation that people in small towns facing economic despair seek comfort in values issues is sucking up so much oxygen highlights everything that’s wrong with political journalism.
It’s not damaging because we think it foretells him doing something harmful to the country. It’s not damaging because it suggests his policy agenda is poorly conceived, or his priorities are awry. If you think of policy and politics as two circles in a Venn diagram, this is damage that only exists in the politics circle, and doesn’t even come close to the area of intersection. We reporters have to cover it, of course, because it’s Really Important, and matters more than the housing plans of all the candidates put together. But it matters in a completely self-referential way, it matters only because it matters, not because it means anything about Obama, or illuminates anything about his potential presidency. It’s a hollow scandal.
Ezra has fallen victim to the Wonk’s Fallacy that people chose political leaders by careful appraisal of their white papers and policy platforms. They don’t. A presidential campaign isn’t a policy workshop. It’s a trial by fire during which potential voters get to know the candidates and then measure them against their ideals. People vote on a visceral level based on how much they like, trust, and admire the candidate. Those who have been properly trained will then come up with a policy-based rationale.
One of the classic political polling questions asks whether the candidate “cares about people like me.” Since, like Ezra, I’m a wonk, the question annoys the hell out of me. But it’s one of the most accurate predictors of voting behavior. And a lot fewer people in Small Town America now think Obama cares about people like them.
Obama’s “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” answer has some intellectual merit and would make for a great chat at the faculty lounge at Harvard or the University of Chicago. But it’s an incredibly dumb thing to say on a campaign trail if you’re trying to, oh, get people who live in Kansas (or rural Pennsylvania) to vote for you.