Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Facts not in evidence

There has been, over the past several years, a lot of praise for the 2008 Obama campaign, for being effective and efficient and well-managed. Well, in his always excellent "Best of the Web" article today, James Taranto makes a point that I've made before. Or at least comes close to it - we concur in part and disagree in part.
When Stephanie Cutter accuses the Times of bias because its poll delivers some hard truths, one assumes it is because the campaign is accustomed to media flattery of the sort that Brooks and National Journal are dishing out. It seems to us that flattery is actually running counter to Obama's goal of being re-elected, because it masks his weaknesses. True, he had fawning media coverage in 2008 and won the election. But to think the former caused the latter is a classic example of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy.

Similarly, John Podhoretz of the New York Post is astonished that re-election effort has stumbled so badly, "given how astonishingly competent the Obama 2008 campaign was." But was the '08 campaign really all that competent? Or was it successful because he was lucky enough to have incompetent opponents?
We are in complete agreement that his election victory is not proof of "astonishing competen[ce]" from his 2008 campaign. Where we disagree is in whether or not the media coverage was responsible. He thinks not. I think so. I'm not certain that the McCain campaign was incompetent. Less than perfect, of course, because we all are, but incompetent? I don't think so. I think that they were up against a set of facts that were, politically, insurmountable at that time, and every one of which was spun by the ostensibly objective media in a way which benefited Obama.

I noted several years ago that
The premise that's wrong is that the Obama campaign was "so good at campaigning." The fact is that he gaffed and blundered all over the campaign trail, all over God's creation, and was dragged across the finish line by the most biased mainstream press operation in history. A press corps that was enamored of every move he made.
There was no background checking, no pushback on the things he said that were clearly false, no attempt whatsoever to "vet" him as a potential chief executive. It was obvious from day one that he had done absolutely nothing in his life to qualify him for the position that he now holds, but the people who present the campaign story to the country weren't interested in that, either. The inability to speak off the cuff - ignored. The vacuousness of the rhetoric - ignored. The hard left voting record - ignored. The radical friends - ignored. The lack of any kind of managerial experience - ignored. The corrupt bargains for his housing and Michelle's job - ignored. The press had room in their dispatches for one Hero - Barack, the ONE - and one villain - Sarah Palin. And that was the storyline. He won the election not because he ran a great campaign, but because his campaign was, and was going to be, called great no matter what he did. He was the "Great Black Hope," and once he became a viable candidate, he was going to win regardless of what happened.
Post hoc ergo propter hoc is a fallacy, because many things do not have dispositive influence, or even influence at all, on events which follow them. But that doesn't mean that all cases in which one attributes the outcome of an election to the effects of an earlier event, or events, is fallacious. Yes, the media was in the bag for Obama. Yes, Obama won the election. No, that does not prove that the favorable coverage caused him to win the election. But it doesn't disprove it, either. Since we cannot examine it in lab conditions, this is a case where people need to make their own judgements.

I don't disagree with anything I wrote earlier. Was the media coverage solely responsible for Obama's election? Probably not - the situation was a difficult one for any Republican candidate. But did the coverage make his campaign look a lot more impressive, a lot more competent than it actually was? Oh, yeah. Is there any evidence, other than the fact that he won (and you want to talk about post hoc fallacies, there's a good one) that he ran a great campaign? I didn't see it then and I don't see it now.

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