Political Benchmarks

One problem with political campaigns is a lot like a problem with mutual-fund performance measurement: it’s common practice only to compare candidates against the competition rather than versus absolute standards. So a mutual fund that loses money for customers may be called good if it loses less money than other funds do, or less than do market indices like the S&P 500.

Similarly, journalists often seem more interested in the competitive aspects of campaigns than they do in substantial questions about candidates’ characters and ideas.

I can understand this selective performance-framing when it’s done by fund companies, because they want to show their products in the best light possible. I can even understand why some financial journalists follow the same line to avoid discussing funds’ absolute rates of return or alternative investments. The publications these journos work for usually accept fund advertising, after all.

But why do political journalists who are unaffiliated with the campaigns they cover do it? Why do they so often ask Candidate X only about how his positions compare to those of Candidate Y, and not about the intellectual and moral justifications for those positions? A good example of this was the treatment that journos, even some politically conservative op-ed writers, gave to Senator Lieberman. They tended to treat him as an honorable conservative because he supports the war and has reasonable (as they see it) positions on a number of issues.

But Lieberman is also the guy who, as Al Gore’s VP candidate in 2000, repudiated his earlier conservative positions (on school choice, racial preferences, etc.) and began parroting the Demo Left’s party line. His doing so clearly had nothing to do with principle and everything to do with opportunism.

And now that the national mood, particularly on defense, has shifted in a more conservative direction, Lieberman (before he dropped out of the race) was again sounding like one of the most conservative Democrats. Yet journalists by and large ignored his troubling inconsistency — that’s the nicest term for it — and concentrated instead on his standing in the horse race.

I don’t mean to single out Lieberman; most of the other presidential candidates are worse (I rate Bush higher because of his competent war leadership — an empirical fact, IMO — as well as his relative consistency and more libertarian orientation). My question is why we should take seriously evaluations of presidential candidates that are typically framed exclusively in terms of other candidates. To be blunt about it, by any normal standard most of these guys are liars and phonies. But it’s one thing to say that X is less bad than A, B and C (which is how most voters probably think about it), and quite another to pretend, as the press so often does, that candidates like Sharpton and Dean, much less Lieberman, can be taken seriously on their personal and intellectual merits.

(Robert Samuelson’s discussion of press complicity in dishonest political arguments is worth reading in this regard.)

Just The Usual Slander

Chicago boy Scott Burgess alerts us to some remarkably dishonest anti-American commentary in a Brit tabloid. The columnist asserts falsely that the U.S. forbids Red Cross visits to Guantanamo prisoners. (Lest we miss the point, the headline reads: “Even the Nazis let the Red Cross visit POWs. Why won’t Mr Bush?”)

Scott’s blog is reliably a good read.

Greedy Prosecutors

A typical middle-aged guy with no criminal record, who started taking prescription meds for back pain, became addicted, and got caught, would be treated leniently if he agreed to seek treatment for his addiction. But if you’re famous, perhaps a famous Republican in a pivotal Democratic jurisdiction, they try to nail you.

Limbaugh can afford good legal representation and will probably come out OK. But what does this episode say about the local prosecutors? Maybe there’s so little crime in Palm Beach that they have nothing better to do than pursue this marginal case.

Or maybe the prosecutors’ proposed plea deal was so harsh because it was designed to be rejected (as Limbaugh’s attorney did). The obvious implication is that the prosecutors are either 1) Democratic hacks out for revenge for the 2000 election (or simply against a prominent Republican), 2) trying to prolong resolution of this otherwise minor case in order to advance their own careers, 3) trying to force Limbaugh to go to trial, which would be extremely costly in foregone income to him, even if he were not convicted, or 4) all of the above.

UPDATE: The Florida Attorney General isn’t playing along with the prosecutors, and the prosecutors are backpedaling:

Limbaugh’s attorney, Roy Black, questioned [Palm Beach County State Attorney] Krischer’s motives and said the release was part of a smear campaign. Prosecutors said they believed they were doing the right thing after consulting the law, the attorney general and the Florida Bar. But there was nothing in writing to support or refute their claim that they were following legal advice from the attorney general.

That changed Wednesday with the release of a letter to Palm Beach County prosecutors from Patricia Gleason, general counsel for the attorney general. The letter lent credence to Limbaugh’s claim that the release of the records was improper.

”In this case,” Gleason wrote, “… it seems to me that the purpose in contacting me about this issue may not have been to obtain impartial advice on an open government issue, but rather to use a part of our conversation to justify your office’s decision that the documents should be released. This is disappointing to me personally and professionally.”

Prosecutors dispatched a written reply to Gleason Wednesday stating that they were confident in their decision and consulted her only ”to see if there was anything we may have missed” while researching the issue.

That last quoted paragraph is a doozy. So the prosecutors already knew the answer with confidence but asked the AG anyway? Yeah, right. I’m sure that if the attorney general, a conservative Republican, had agreed with them they would have used his opinion as cover for their treatment of Limbaugh. That would have helped them, and hurt him with Florida Republicans. But he was smart enough not to let the prosecutors use him, so now they are claiming he’s irrelevant. What a bunch of jackasses. It’s too bad they can’t be impeached. (Or can they — does anybody know?)

Dean got smoked

Wow, Howard Dean really got his head handed to him on a platter in Iowa

“With 87 percent of the precincts reporting, Kerry had 37.9 percent, Edwards 32.1 percent, Dean 18 percent and Gephardt 10.6 percent.”

Update: Man, this guy is losing it. Pretty funny!

Update2: The hits just keep on coming… “Dean breaks out into spontaneous Star Spangled Banner after being heckled…”

Talk about the epitome of pandering. He needed the conservative vote, so he wanted “the guys with the Confederate Flags”… he needed the Christian vote, so he found Jesus all of a sudden… About as low as it gets eh?