Sunday, January 13, 2008

Thompson Unbracketed! (and a review and ranking of all the viable candidates)


If you’re sick of reading about the primaries and your motto is “Wake me in November,” I understand (indeed, I was starting to think that was Fred Thompson’s motto). Otherwise, you may enjoy watching me struggle to come up with a new favorite candidate in the presidential primaries.

First of all, I am familiar with both the practical arguments and moral arguments against voting (respectively, they come down to “Your one vote is not going to make the difference” and “Voting for politicians only encourages them”). Somewhat ironically, I think the “practical” argument is trumped by quasi-Kantian reasoning (you should behave as if others might follow your example, as with littering — and if you’re a media person or just outspoken, some people actually may follow your example and end up being numerous enough to make a difference) and the “moral” argument is trumped by utilitarian reasoning (you are not in a position, either by voting or refraining from voting, to send a message so clear that it is now inscribed on the hearts of men or written into the metaphysical heavens, so there’s little point in sending some “absolutist” message as opposed to worrying about the more practical question of how to steer the least-bad viable candidate into the White House, making the world slightly better off than it otherwise would have been, since perfection is unattainable).

I should add that neither the Kantian nor utilitarian argument seems to me to create a strong duty to vote — I’m merely saying voting shouldn’t be ruled out of bounds as either irrational or immoral, if some of my readers are inclined to think that (you know who you are, you filthy anarchists and statisticians). The Kantian argument can plausibly be trumped by, say, being really busy that day, and the utilitarian argument can be trumped by a year when all of the candidates are so monstrous that, merely as a practical matter, the message “None of the above” must be sent. If you don’t want to vote, in short, I don’t blame you, but I vote.

It’s also interesting, just as an intellectual exercise, keeping track of what you’d like to see happen (sort of like sports, which Josh the bartender at Merchants NY was stunned to discover I don’t care about). And this year is a mighty interesting intellectual exercise. (I’m so tired…help me…)

Third Parties

OK, here we go. First of all: “third parties.”

Well, since I think government is a counterproductive, systematic threat of violence — obey or go to jail — I can’t support any party that wants (on balance, deliberately, and in principle) to increase the power of government, so I’d say that rules out the Green Party and the Prohibition Party right off the bat (yes, there’s a Prohibition Party candidate running this year — if Progressives want to remain true to their historic roots, they may want to consider him). The Constitution Party is better but is essentially sort of a theocratic version of the Libertarian Party, so why not just vote for the Libertarian Party instead?

And the Libertarian Party, obviously, embodies my philosophy in a way that neither the Democrats or Republicans even come close to doing. However, as a utilitarian (a position I hope to explain at greater length tomorrow), I have little patience for the view, which to me seems naive, that a vote is supposed to be some profound expression of exactly what I believe. Philosophy is a profound expression of exactly what I believe. Blogging is at least a shallow expression of what I believe. Voting is tactical — I want (to the extent I am, in principle, setting an example for like-minded people) to foster the least-bad outcome, where “outcome” means all the foreseeable fallout for the rest of time, not just the election itself.

So, just as a lot of people on the left decided after 2000 not to vote for Ralph Nader again, I am within my rights to refrain from voting Libertarian — when voting Libertarian is likely, as a practical matter, to split the less-statist vote and help put the more-statist candidate (and the more-statist party, which has to be factored into the calculus) in power. And let’s not rehash the Bush experience now. It has at least historically been the case that the Republicans have shown greater potential to behave as government-shrinkers (or at least slower-government-growers) than the Democrats, though I’m well aware that’s no iron law of history and that both parties are, post-Bush, de facto socialist.

I think there may just be the tiniest hope of redeeming one of those two major parties, though, since it has at least a minority of pro-free-market, government-shrinking members, while the other party has essentially none. On to the two major parties, then (but don’t despair altogether, LP — I’ll be back in nine months if my major-party options are grim enough).

The Democrats

By my count, there are three viable Democratic candidates (my condolences to Gravel and Kucinich) and five viable Republican candidates (my condolences to the candidate I wrote about yesterday, as well as to Keyes and Hunter, the last of whom I admit I didn’t examine as closely as perhaps I should have, but it’s far too late for that now). For the most part, much as we ideologues and intellectuals might whine, America does a pretty good job of avoiding the extremists in favor of the more palatable candidates, so let’s forget about the fantasy scenarios and just look at what we have left.

By my standards, all three of the viable Democrats are arguably worse than any of the five viable Republicans — with the intriguing exception of Huckabee, but I’ll get back to him later. For now, let me rank the Democrats, even though there is not a chance that I will be voting for any of them.

The worst of the three: Edwards. I’m glad the Democrats seem to agree, though their reasons are probably very different from my own. They may just consider Obama and Clinton more exciting, but my dislike of Edwards is driven by the belief that a man who rails against the rich might actually do something about it, most likely something involving higher taxes and additional regulations that will weaken the economy, fostering more poverty, and leading to still more idiots like Edwards calling for still more taxes and regulation — the all-too-likely downward-spiral path into national oblivion that keeps me awake at night and rambling about libertarianism by day.

I hope Edwards will not even get a v.p. candidate slot — which means I’m basically rooting for a Clinton/Obama or an Obama/Clinton ticket on the Democrat side, and not because I think a woman and black man (in either order) will be easier to beat in the general election due to lingering racist and sexist sentiment among voters or anything like that. I really think Clinton and Obama are better.

Then again: sometimes politicians (like all of us) are shaped more by their habits than by their conscious pronouncements, and perhaps Edwards would govern for the most part like a typical corporate lawyer rather than a rebel and rabblerouser, which wouldn’t be so terrible — bad, but not apocalyptic.

Ranking Clinton vs. Obama is tricky (as Democrats have noticed). In subtly different ways, they both want to be perceived as moderates while harboring lefty principles and ambitions, so from my perspective, figuring out which one is preferable becomes a game of trying to figure out which one is least likely to act on principle. Given that unresolvable ambiguity, though, I’m inclined to say punish Clinton for past misdeeds and give the new guy (who brings less of a machine with him) a shot. Thus: Obama-Clinton ’08 (if I had to pick the Dems’ ticket for them, which, thank goodness, I don’t — because there’s still that maybe-potentially-redeemable other major party I mentioned earlier). Would Clinton go for that, though? Would either of them work with the other at this point? Or is Edwards in the v.p. slot almost inevitable?

The Republican Worst-Case Scenario: Huckabee

For twelve years, from 1994-2006, Republicans dominated government and accomplished little (by which I mean government grew and grew, not “I think they should have created more programs and passed more bills”). One of the healthiest things about American politics right now is the widespread agreement, particularly among Republicans, that the Republicans failed and can no longer be given the benefit of the doubt even by their natural constituencies. For their shame to be translated into any sort of improvement in their behavior, though, they really need a tough, driven president who will keep fighting to get the Republicans to behave like Republicans even when it is unpopular and they are feeling lazy. Can any of the viable five (Giuliani, Romney, McCain, Thompson, and Huckabee) be that president?

Huckabee, far from showing any interest in restoring the forgotten government-shrinking principles of 1994, has campaigned as an economic populist not so different from Edwards — and a Jesus freak to boot, making him by some measures a worst-case combo from my perspective, though as a practical matter there are plenty of secularists on the left doing far worse cultural damage, something that some of my fellow fiscal conservative/social liberal types forget to factor into the equation sometimes. As with my cynical calculations about Obama and Clinton, my fondest hope if we ended up with a President Huckabee is that he would completely abandon his religious and economic-populist principles and that the only thing he would stick to is his promise to abolish the IRS and the tax code (an admirable but oddball plan made implausible by his record as a taxer in Arkansas — he seems to grab the closest snake oil at hand and tout it with eloquence, humor, and vigor).

If he gets elected, I just hope everyone — everyone — will devote their political energies to holding him to that IRS-abolishing pledge above all else (and, crucially, before the institution of a national sales tax). I don’t think Huckabee will be the top of the ticket, but we need to think about how he’d behave because he may still have a shot at being the v.p. candidate (helps motivate the South) and thus becoming president sometime after this election cycle.

In any case: Huckabee, worst of the five viable Republicans, may be just as bad as the Democrats — maybe sufficient reason to vote Libertarian this year, if the differential consequences between a Huckabee victory and a Dem victory are small enough (and if there is the added danger of Huckabee’s anti-capitalist, anti-corporate views becoming dominant in the Republican Party, with all the tragic long-term consequences that could have).

A sidenote: My very rough perusal of state polls suggests that states where Huckabee has (at some points in time) been favored also like Obama — suggesting, in my opinion, not that those states are schizophrenically right-left polarized — nor that they’re moderate/vertical/purple, as the two candidates themselves might claim — but that those states are religious (as Iowa and South Carolina are).

Obama and Huckabee may not seem all that similar, but each is considered the most religion-friendly candidate within his own party. Obama called for an end to red state/blue state divisions, and in so doing (like my friend Mark Stricherz) also called upon his fellow Democrats to become more comfortable with “the language of faith.” And Huckabee, of course, wants us to be Christian soldiers, though I think he’s too bland and moderate to do much about it, thank the void.

A Consensus Candidate from Among the Other Republicans

With Giuliani having been way up in polls nationally (mostly in later-voting states) and more fiscal conservative/social liberal than the other four viable Republicans, he’d seem my natural choice at this point — but, since I acknowledged my willingness to pick candidates for strategic reasons rather than simply philosophical compatibility, I have to acknowledge that a lot of religious Republicans, who will be needed in the general election, have serious reservations about Giuliani (I know one die-hard Republican who has already sworn she would never vote for him, the poor guy).

That means that to some extent I become willing to sit back and see who the Republicans are capable of coalescing around and, as long as it’s not Huckabee, reluctantly yet decisively rooting for that candidate over the Democrat. So pick one, GOP, and if it must be someone more pro-life or socially conservative than Giuliani, let it not be Huckabee but rather: McCain, Romney, or Thompson (all of whom are pro-life enough to get by but — to whip out my cynical calculus again — have been sufficiently waffling and uninterested in those sorts of topics over the years that they don’t scare me).

Now, admittedly, as of about six months ago, I was thinking of Giuliani as my fallback choice if there wasn’t a viable libertarian in the GOP race at this point (and there isn’t) — and I was “bracketing” Thompson, who I would have picked as the fallback if he weren’t dithering and being mindbogglingly boring and thus dooming himself to the single digits in the polls. But today, six days from the big South Carolina primary, I think the situation may be reversed: Giuliani seems to be sinking and looking less plausible as a consensus candidate (though I still sort of like him, for all his flaws), while Thompson apparently drank some much-needed coffee or something before the most recent debate, dominated it, and has shown a tiny hint of having new life in South Carolina polls.

So — with the same ruthlessness that I showed in giving an earlier candidate until New Hampshire to prove himself and then bidding him farewell — I am now rooting for Fred Thompson to emerge with astonishing new strength in South Carolina and go on to become our next president (and as a pro-life Southerner himself, he sure as hell has no need to add the dreaded Huckabee to the ticket).

Realistically, McCain will probably win South Carolina, though, and if he does, it may be just as well, since (a) he may be the only GOP candidate with a chance against the Dems in the general election, based on recent national polls (moderates like him, but for all his weird pet liberal issues he also suffices as a budget-cutting, pro-life, hawk candidate who can appeal to those three GOP factions), and (b) he might even give us a way of salvaging Giuliani, since they’re friendly (Giuliani has pretty openly said he’d like McCain as his v.p., and perhaps McCain would return the compliment). That could lead to a Giuliani presidency after a McCain one, making McCain a slow off-ramp to an eventual restoration of secularism in the GOP.

Both McCain and Giuliani strike me as tough enough to weather criticism and dips in the polls once they’re in office and tackle tough issues like Social Security and Medicare reform, which we very desperately and urgently need — and which Huckabee would not likely handle the right way, while Romney just screams “non-boat-rocking, smiling caretaker-president” to me, meaning four (or eight) more years of letting things slide and putting a happy face on it. That beats making things worse — and the mere fact that National Review endorsed Romney actually does give him some added strategic value as a potential consensus candidate, to my mind — but we should aim higher.

So (like Karol Sheinin, who has long been rooting for Thompson) I say: please surprise us in South Carolina, Fred, or, failing that, exit the race (along with the other three even-lower-polling GOP candidates) and let the GOP consolidate at last around a McCain-Giuliani ticket, which I think can beat Obama-Clinton, once Republican voters have a clear choice to focus on instead of the current scattered field.

Thus, with the numerous caveats stated or alluded to above, as of today I rank the candidates something like this:

•whoever the Libertarian Party candidate is (it was down to a pot-grower, sportscaster, or businessman last time I checked)

At the very least, I owe you an explanation of how I weigh McCain’s pros and considerable cons, but that will have to wait a while — maybe until South Carolina primary day. Aside from that omission, though, I’m sure everyone reading this entry is in complete agreement with everything I’ve said…right?


Avery J. Knapp Jr. said...

I think I could make a strong case that Paul is at least as viable as Edwards, if there are degrees of viability, however I don’t think there are. Prediction markets such as InTrade think so, anyway. And if you were to include Edwards at the bottom, Paul should be at the top.

Perhaps the stronger argument is that Edwards should be removed as nonviable (although your viciously-true statements about him made the discrepancy of including him worth it).

I would also argue that Giuliani and Romney should be higher than McCain – as Karol says “Anybody But McCain”. McCain is responsible (along with Thompson) for the McCain-Feingold destruction of the 1st amendment and voted against Bush’s tax cuts. Also, do we really want or need troops in Iraq for 100 years? He also supports mandatory short-term slavery in mandatory national service and supports long-term economic slavery in voting against the Bush tax cuts.

If you believe that economic freedom tends to lead toward social freedom, Giuliani should be a tad higher than McCain. Giuliani gives lip service toward tax cuts and ending the death tax – even though he has violent tendencies toward the 2nd amendment.

Ken Silber said...

Avery Knapp, can you supply any quote/paper/etc that shows McCain calling for mandatory national service? I’ve seen this said about him several times, but nothing I’ve found by him suggests anything other than support for a voluntary program, such as already exist.

Todd Seavey said...

It’s complicated, I admit, but, with everyone ranked (in essence) by their _practical usefulness for staving off still-greater statism_, I’m giving McCain bonus points for his ability to keep religionists in the fold (without kowtowing to them too much) in a way that perhaps Giuliani can’t and bonus points for his ability to keep moderates in the fold in the general election (in a way that perhaps Romney can’t).

I admit there’s a thin line between pragmatism and passively endorsing the winner — but in the meantime, _Go, Fred!_

Christopher said...

I’m a little disappointed in the lack of some sort of “Right Said Fred” reference here. Or perhaps you’re too sexy for that.

Todd Seavey said...

I was worried Fred might not, in fact, be too sexy, but it appears he is bringing sexy back, which is essentially the same song.

Oh, and as for Avery’s heartbreaking, too-late suggestion that Paul is still viable: no, by viable I mean “might very well, in some likely scenario, end up somewhere on a party ticket,” and there is simply no recovery from the racist-newsletters scandal.

Paul was low in the polls even before, he ain’t goin’ any higher now, and arguably doesn’t deserve to — but even if he does arguably deserve to, he won’t, so I intend never to mention him on this site again (though after all your admirable hard work, you deserve my explicit statement of that plan at least). Turn that libertarian energy to more productive channels now, the sooner the better — and don’t think I’m not saddened and disappointed by the whole thing myself (and after my prior entry, which was lengthy enough, I’m not going to get into any further debates on whether the whole scandal is utterly apocalyptic or only mildly-devastating — either way, it’s over, over, over, over).

Todd Seavey said...

And judging by this Drudge-linked column by novelist Erica Jong, she’d better not run for president either, by the way: