There’s no evidence that being principled wins elections

George Packer writes:

In the fall of 1995, a year after the Democrats had lost control of both houses of Congress in a devastating midterm sweep, Bill Clinton’s advisers were so worried that he would give in to draconian Republican budget cuts that they joked about disconnecting the Oval Office phones to keep him from calling Newt Gingrich, then the Speaker of the House. . . . In the end, though, Clinton stood fast for the quartet of Medicare, Medicaid, education, and the environment. . . . Confrontation over principles sent the President’s poll numbers up, as triangulation never did, and he coasted to reëlection in 1996.

I’d put things slightly differently. Clinton won reelection even after holding fast to (some) liberal principles. That’s fine: Bill Clinton and the Democrats had policy goals, it wasn’t all about reelection. I think that Packer’s formulation is misleading in implying that Clinton’s principled stand gave him a political boost.

Just to be clear: I accept Packer’s point that Clinton demonstrated that it was not necessary for him to give in. Holding out on principles was not suicidal for Clinton in 1995 any more than it was, fifteen years later, for Congressional Republicans. I just don’t buy the argument that Clinton’s move from triangulation to confrontation helped him electorally.

4 Responses to There’s no evidence that being principled wins elections

  1. David Tomlin May 1, 2011 at 4:39 pm #

    In 1996 the economy was doing so well the election wasn’t close. Obama can’t count on that in 2012.

  2. Andrew Gelman May 1, 2011 at 6:46 pm #

    Yup.

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