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The Fallacy of Insufficient Extremism

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With a GOP wave seeming increasingly likely in November, liberals are already looking to place blame. One of the targets has been Democrats themselves. To date, most have faulted the White House and the party for ineffective communication strategies (an example of what I call the tactical fallacy). This week, however, Markos Moulitsas, the founder of the Daily Kos website, wrote a column for The Hill arguing that Democrats are actually in trouble for not being liberal enough. Citing polls that appear to show public support for various progressive policies, he concludes as follows:

Assuming big Republican gains this November, the media narrative will claim Democrats overreached and governed too liberally. Yet actual progressive policies polled well and continue to poll well. If anything, it's been failure to act on popular legislation that helped put them in this hole.

What's ironic is that conservatives made similar claims in 2006 after the Democrats took control of Congress. Here, for instance, was what David Limbaugh wrote: If the party had stuck to its principles, it wouldn't have sustained such losses." (Other examples: former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, the Club for Growth's Pat Toomey, former Republican Majority Leader Dick Armey, and the Wall Street Journal editorial board.)

These claims are implausible. The role of ideological positioning is often overstated in American politics -- presidential elections are largely driven by the economy, and Congressional outcomes are closely related to the number of seats held by the president's party, whether it is a midterm election, and the state of the economy. However, to the extent that ideological positioning matters, it's unlikely that the Democrats would be helped by shifting in a more liberal direction -- the public tends to move in the opposite direction of the party in power, demanding less government under Democrats and more under Republicans. (Conservative self-identification is up by five points since 2008 and Jim Stimson's measure of public mood shows movement in a conservative direction in 2009, though the estimate is noisy.)

As for the polls that Moulitsas cites, it's important to keep in mind that results vary depending on how the questions are asked. Other results would likely find substantially lower levels of support for the proposals he identifies, particularly if Republican counter-arguments were included. Moreover, support levels may be lower among those voters who are actually going to vote in a midterm election with low Democratic enthusiasm, especially in more conservative states and districts. Finally, many of these proposals could not attract the sixty votes necessary to break a filibuster in the Senate, so Democrats have elected to avoid pursuing them, reserving time for legislation with a better chance of passage that will not create tough votes for vulnerable members.

Again, conservatives went through the same process of denial after President Bush's proposal to add private accounts to Social Security, which polled well in the abstract, failed to even be considered in the 109th Congress of 2005-2006. For instance, the Wall Street Journal editorialized that "President Bush gave Republicans a once-in-a-generation chance to reform Social Security ... along free market lines, but GOP House leaders fought him behind the scenes," failing to acknowledge was that GOP leaders "fought [Bush] behind the scenes" because the proposal was unpopular once voters heard Democratic counter-arguments, especially among seniors and constituents of members from less conservative states and districts.

In short, the coming Democratic losses will largely be the result of factors outside the party's control -- a midterm election, a bad economy, and the high number of seats currently held by the party -- not a failure to promote a more liberal policy agenda. Like conservatives in 2006, Kos is grasping at straws.

Update 10/1 11:14 AM: See also Jon Chait on the Kos op-ed.

Update 10/2 2:30 PM: Matthew Yglesias weighs in:

It is always worth beginning this conversation with a recognition that given where things stood in January 2009, large House losses were essentially inevitable. The Democratic majority elected in 2008 was totally unsustainable and was doomed by basic regression to the mean.

Beyond that, I think it's worth distinguishing between first-order and second-order claims about whether being more liberal would have helped or hurt. What Democrats needed, according to the evidence, is policies that were more effective at turning the recession around. According to me, the policies that would have achieved those goals were "more liberal" than the policies that were in fact adopted. But if Paul Ryan is right and draconian spending cuts paired with a green light to polluters and the financial industry would have produced more growth, than what they needed was more conservative policies. The problem with a lot of the discussion around this issue is that people who cover politics don't like to make judgments about disputed policy issues. But given the connection between economic performance and election outcomes, you can't assess political strategy in slack economy without forming some view about what would cause the excess capacity to come into use.

The first point is essentially correct and is addressed above ("the high number of seats currently held by the party"). In terms of the second point, I'm obviously sympathetic to the view that the economy is largely responsible for shaping political outcomes. The argument Yglesias is making is intellectually coherent -- it is possible that more liberal stimulus policies would have spurred the economy, and that the resulting economic improvement would have helped Democrats. However, that isn't the claim Kos made. His argument centers on public opinion, not policy outcomes. Kos does cite greater stimulus spending as a policy that he thinks Democrats should have pursued, but most of the policies he describes (immigration reform, tax increases for high income Americans, single payer health care, etc.) would not have delivered significant short-term stimulus to the economy even if they could have made it through Congress.

Cross-posted to brendan-nyhan.com