Thursday, February 9, 2012

Vote on the issues

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry has a contrarian post up at the American Scene arguing that voters should vote on "character" rather than "the issues." I am not really averse to arguing that elites should weigh character slightly more heavily than they do now. Indeed, in some places in the post, Gobry seems to be limiting himself to that more modest claim, although not in others. And it is the broader formulation of the claim with which I take issue.

First, I find it a bit odd to emphasize this argument at this particular moment in political history. Gobry concedes that it's useful to look at the issues in "broad strokes" situations, i.e. when choosing between a conservative vs. a moderate vs. a liberal. But Republican primary voters are choosing between quite different candidates at this point. Romney is a former moderate governor born again as a National Review-style fusionist. Gingrich is a more-or-less conservative prone to medical outbreaks of what a Dr. Hayek once diagnosed as the Fatal Conceit.  Ron Paul is a hard-core libertarian, but Rick Santorum is an anti-matter version of the Cato Institute made flesh. Nobody thinks any of these people are especially alike in terms of their policy preferences. Nor does anyone think that any of them have much in common policy-wise with a liberal Democrat like Obama.  Gobry's example of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama is much more plausible an argument for him because they were much closer to each other on policy than are the remaining candidates in the GOP primaries. Thus my confusion about the usefulness of this particular example at this moment in politics.

Gobry also allows that it matters significantly what kind of coalition these people will put in charge of the executive branch. Yes, that's true. But that's why looking at a candidate's policy proposals matters tremendously. Does anyone really think that there would be much overlap between the likely appointees of a Romney vs. a Santorum vs. a Paul vs. an Obama administration?

Third, it might be instructive to look for buyer's remorse in people who have championed a candidate in the past on "character" rather than policy grounds. Take, for example, conservative pundit David Brooks, who supported Barack Obama the last time around. Yet one finds Brooks voicing discomfort with his choice years after his preferred candidate won.

Finally, Gobry suggests shortcuts that voters can use instead of policy proposals to evaluate candidates. See Part 3 of this Cato Analysis from Pnin for a detailed explanation of why most of those shortcuts don't work very well. 

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