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Theater Criticism Coverage of Politics Turns People’s Minds Into Mush

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This excerpt from Amy Chozick’s book is a whiplash-inducing combination of courageous self-reflection and pure undistilled Clinton Rules. I have some other points to make about it, but I can’t let this remarkable assertion slide:

I figured that if anyone knew whom Mrs. Clinton was referring to with that insidious “they” that, like some invisible army of adversaries (real and imagined), wielded its collective power and caused her to lose the most winnable presidential election in modern history, it was me.

It’s not just Chozick either:

OK, Linker is kind of fish in a barrel, but Jon Favreau is slinging the same nonsense:

To state the obvious, the idea that 2016 was the “most winnable election” in modern history is absolutely insane. No matter how bad a candidate you think Trump was, 2008 was very, very obviously a more “winnable” election, and the argument that it was more winnable than 2012 isn’t a lot more plausible. (Even if we assume arguendo that Romney was a substantially better candidate than Trump — plausible, but given the anachronistic means by which the United States chooses a president not actually a slam-dunk — it’s very far from clear that this difference outweighs the value of being a peacetime incumbent.)  And, of course “modern history” at a minimum includes 1984, and very possibly 1972 and 1964 as well. So, in other words, to say that 2016 was the most “winnable” election in modern history means that Clinton with better choices not only could have done better than Obama in 2008, she apparently could have won all 50 states in the Electoral College and taken the popular vote by more than 20%. This is astoundingly stupid. Even structurally, 2016 was not an especially favorable context for the Democratic nominee no matter how bad you think Trump is, and that’s before we get into stuff like “the director of the FBI making repeated prejudicial statements about the Democratic nominee while saying nothing about the investigation into the Republican nominee” and “the media mostly treating the Democratic nominee as the presumptive president and the Republican candidate as a joke.”

In the variety of people who share the meme, we can see the various reasons why people repeating something that is obviously, ludicrously false makes sense to them:

  • A lot of political commentary comes from people who, like Favreau, were campaign operatives, who for obvious reasons want to inflate their own importance. (It’s not limited to any profession; it’s the same reason that, say, Ruth Bader Ginsburg claims that Roe would have faced less opposition if it had been decided on equal protection grounds. It’s obviously wrong when you think about it, but within the norms of the profession it can seem rational.) One thing Favreau is saying when he says that “2016 was the most winnable election in modern history” is “we won in 2008 not because we were in a race with no incumbent president and incredibly favorable conditions for the out party” but because of the sheer brilliance of the candidate and their decision-making. But, actually, any Democratic nominee wins in 2008. Probably Clinton doesn’t carry Indiana and maybe she doesn’t carry North Carolina, but she wins.
  • The same thing is true of beat reporters like Chozick; one implication of the Halperinesque idea that elections are determined solely or almost solely by candidate quality is that horse race/theater critic coverage is immensely important. And since reporters are more likely to get political analysis from the operatives or other reporters they talk to than from political science or history, it creates a feedback loop in which the importance of candidate quality/tactics is greatly exaggerated and the importance of structural factors greatly understated.
  • And Linker reminds us that theater critic analysis is useful for pundits with an axe to grind, and in the particular case of Clinton the derangement tends to be particularly pronounced. So while transparently silly the “most winnable” meme is useful to Linker because it allows him to claim that Clinton and her supporters have no legitimate grievances and nobody else needs to be held accountable, when of course Clinton does have perfectly legitimate grievances and there are a lot of people who made bad judgements and need to be held accountable. As Sargent says, Comey is openly admitting that he put his thumb on the scale because he assumed that Clinton would win. This is bad behavior! (And, incidentally, it’s another reason why high levels of confidence in the outcome of counterfactuals are misplaced. Rubio or Cruz might have been “better” candidates in some abstract sense, but Clinton wouldn’t have been treated as the president-elect by the media or the FBI in those scenarios, and we have no idea how that would have played out.  The question of whether Trump is a “bad” candidate is actually very complicated given the Electoral College and the media environment.)

And the thing is, in this case making absurdly exaggerated claims isn’t even necessary if attacking Clinton is your thing. Unlike a lot of elections, 2016 was so close that you can make perfectly reasonable arguments that another candidate would have won or that Clinton would have won with different choices. You’re full of shit if you claim that you know how alternative scenarios would have played out, but Clinton’s mistakes might have been decisive and hence are worth assessing. But the idea that Clinton had an unusually easy job in 2016 is crazy, and it’s embarrassing that people who should know better are saying it.

UPDATE: Jon very graciously concedes that he chose the wrong phrase:

Obviously, I didn’t think he meant it literally, but was trying to push back against a tempting meme that seems to be emerging. Let us celebrate our agreement with the addition of chocolate to milk! Damon, conversely, chose the self-refuting bluster route. I leave it to the reader’s judgment to determine who’s trolling here.

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