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December 15, 2003

Saddam and the US horserace

Fred Barnes writes that it would be "crass" to "assess the politics of the capture of Saddam Hussein." (He proceeds to do so anyway.) Meanwhile, The New York Times webpage ran a story yesterday that began: "How big a political lift will President Bush derive from the capture of Saddam Hussein? Very big indeed, said several political scientists, who used words like 'huge, 'enormous' and 'profound.' .... 'My first reaction was, you might as well call off the election,' said Prof. Allan J. Lichtman, a historian at American University." By this morning, this story had disappeared from the Times, although it's still available via the International Herald Tribune. (The story that actually appeared in today's Times is more nuanced, less prominent, and focuses mainly on the dangers for Howard Dean.)

I admit that one of my first thoughts upon hearing about Saddam's capture was: How does this affect the election? But I felt guilty about having that thought. On reflection, a number of (not entirely consistent) ideas came to mind:

1. It would be completely crass for a candidate to talk about the effects of a major military event on his or her own political prospects--that would be putting concern for self over country. If a candidate has such thoughts, he should wish that he didn't and not utter them aloud. Thus we rightly expect Democratic candidates to praise the capture of Saddam and keep any regrets strictly to themselves. Likewise, it was obnoxious for Tom DeLay to disparage the success of the Kosovo operation under President Clinton. ("For us to call this a victory and to commend the President of the United States as the Commander in Chief showing great leadership in Operation Allied Force is a farce, DeLay said on the House floor [Cong. Rec. 1999 p. H5210.)

2. If you're a citizen and not a candidate, it is reasonable to wonder how a major event will affect the next election. After all, you may think that it is very important for the challenger to win, and thus your delight at the success of the American military may be tempered by regret at the advantage given to the despised incumbent. You may reasonably weigh the benefits of any victory against the damage that the president will do if he's re-elected. Republicans thought that Bill Clinton was harming America; thus they were entitled to think that any victory achieved under his Administration was partly a bad thing. The same applies to Democrats under Bush. However, patriotism requires that you not overrate the importance of your favorite party's winning. A great achievement by the current administration may be more important than the result of the next election. Indeed, this is why we don't want politicians to consider the effects of major events on their own election: we assume that they will overestimate their own significance.

3. It is very hard to predict the effects of current events on future elections. For example, I can imagine a story appearing one month from now that begins, "The Bush Administration is no longer delighted about Saddam Hussein's capture. With Saddam out of the way and the violence continuing, it has become increasingly clear that the unrest in Iraq resulted from an extremely difficult underlying situation for which Mr. Bush was unprepared. ..." Or I can imagine that the capture and trial of Saddam will make a huge psychological difference and aid the transition to democracy. Who knows? One of the problems with speculative political press coverage is its unreliability. (Maybe the Times pulled the story that first ran on their website because they decided that political scientist Allan J. Lichtman is no expert on the Middle East.)

4. Our job as citizens is to decide who would do the best job in the future. Whether an event will cause our fellow Americans to vote one way or the other should be irrelevant to that decision. Thus we shouldn't pay attention to "horse race" stories (ones that discuss the effects of current events on candidates). I realize that it's hard to resist an occasional look at such stories, but the less horse race news, the better. We want the press to tell us what happened today, and why--not what may happen as a result in November.

5. Horse race coverage of foreign affairs generally hurts challengers. Journalists often say, "This victory in Iraq helps Bush; this disaster helps Dean," and so on. It's easy to draw the lesson that Democrats want us to fail. Democratic candidates may insist that this is not the case, but their message is overwhelmed by news stories that award them black eyes every time things go well. The same would happen to Republicans under a Democratic administration.

Posted by peterlevine at December 15, 2003 01:44 PM


Well... if this were as much of an electoral issue as some thought, we wouldn't be talking about the Hobbit formerly known as Saddam Hussein. It would have been those pesky weapons of mass destruction, which would have made everything worthwhile...

And if you think about it, WMD would have been easier to find than the Hobbit.

Posted by: Taran at December 15, 2003 06:34 PM

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