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Populist talk from Arugula-land

September 18th, 2008, 1:40pm by Sam Wang

Last night I hosted Marcia Angell, advocate of health system reform and former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine. The talk was stimulating. But dinner beforehand was even more fun. It even made me look at the history graph slightly differently.

Batted around the table was the idea that until this week, Obama had failed to take up economic issues prominently (or health care for that matter – we’ll get back to that). Leading the charge was a distinguished colleague in Economics who writes a newspaper column.

Obama inspires his followers in large part because of his appeals to their higher nature. The route he took (Harvard Law) is a story of merit rising from humble origins – but also of intellectualism. A comparison was made at dinner to Adlai Stevenson, an Illinoisan who knew his own limitations as a candidate. In one of his ill-fated runs against Dwight Eisenhower, a supporter once said, “Governor Stevenson, all thinking Americans support you!” He shot back, “That’s not enough – I need a majority.”

I’ll join the chorus of commentators who wonder why the Democratic candidate isn’t ahead by 5 points or more. It could happen yet. Current problems suggest excellent conditions for a change in the party controlling the White House. For a view of what’s happened so far, let’s look at the history graph.
History of electoral votes for Obama since April 1
What is shared among the events that moved opinion? Since June, they were: 1) the ad campaign that accused Obama of being a celebrity, 2) McCain being unable to state how many houses he owns (and thus how rich he is), and 3) the vice-presidential nomination of caribou-shooting mother of five and governor, Sarah Palin. It occurred to me that each of these events appealed to us-versus-them populist sentiment. Celebrities: them. Rich people: them. A mother of five: us. I categorize these as appeals to emotions, ones that move opinion, at least for a while.

As a counterexample, consider an event that caused no shift in opinion: Obama’s trip to Asia and Europe. This trip was notably unsuccessful in moving the EV estimator – you can’t even see it on the graph. It was well received by people who already liked him, yet it evidently did nothing to move people who didn’t already support him.

In any event, it’s becoming clear that the continuing financial implosion has forced both candidates to say much more about economic issues, including regulation and oversight (update: for an example see this speech). These issues favor Democrats. Combine this with the fact that Palin’s favorable/unfavorable numbers have basically cratered, and we see that the game has changed once again.

Here are some more numbers to chew on. Obama loses 15% of Democrats to McCain, while McCain only loses 7% of Republicans. There is still potential for shifts caused by partisans coming home (or defecting, I guess). For Obama, one question is whether it’s because Democrats haven’t seen enough of their favorite issues – or whether it’s something else, like race. In the latter case his numbers would be harder to shift.

Speaking of bread-and-butter issues, Angell’s talk was interesting. She is critical of both candidates’ campaign proposals for health care. She pointed out that McCain’s plan (which gives modest tax credits smaller than the cost of insurance) won’t cover more people, and Obama’s plan (which retains the current system but adds on patches of new coverage) won’t control costs. The answer? Large-scale health system reform such as single-payer care and altering or removing market-based incentives. One route involves extending Medicare-type insurance to all. A starting point would be to lower the eligibility age, or to start covering children. To read more about the candidates’ plans for health care, see this analysis. To see a webcast of Angell’s talk, see the Princeton Public Lectures site.

Finally – why the title of the post? Most of you know that the lettuce with the funny name has been held up as an example of liberal elitism. It’s also what the economist was having.

Tags: 2008 Election

One Comment so far ↓

  • Vik N

    Obama’s health care plan does include children – children require mandatory coverage and those who can’t afford it are subsidized.

    Complaining that he isn’t offering single payer health insurance when it won’t fly politically is a silly and substance-less complaint.

    He has to start at the point where America is and move from it to adjacent scenarios and to an ideal state.

    I always shake my head at the criticisms of the “Obama is not a perfect progressive” crowd. The fact of the matter is that Obama needs to win and that radical change proposals before he is even elected guarantees a loss.

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