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Sympathy For The Limbaugh

Rush Limbaugh is drawing some ridicule for saying, "One thing we can all do is stop assuming that the way to beat [the Democrats] is with better policy ideas." But I think he's basically right. Good ideas are meritorious. But being meritorious isn't what wins elections. Most voters have only the faintest idea what policy ideas candidates advocate when running or implement when in office. External conditions (such as the economy, but war and scandal matter also) have much more influence over which party wins.

A few years ago I made a more extensive argument against the idea that "new ideas" were the key to a Democratic resurgence. It was written in the wake of the 2004 election, when there was near-total agreement on right, left and center that Democratic Party's electoral defeat was a result of its intellectual defeat. My argument drew a lot of ridicule, mostly from people who didn't understand the distinction between the public value of good ideas (high) and the political value of good ideas (low)--see Jonah Goldberg and Kenneth Baer and Andrei Cherny. Baer and Cherny wrote:

Now, it is progressives that have a choice. Most of the voices inside Washington believe that conservative errors and overreaching--along with more effective voter targeting and door-knocking by Democrats, more compelling TV ads and new "frames" for old policies--will yield enough votes so that in a closely divided nation, Democrats might eke out a victory and regain power.

We disagree.

I think it's pretty clear that the Democratic comeback since then has had next-to-nothing to with developing "new ideas" and almost everything to do with Republican failure, the state of the economy, and a really effective presidential nominee. yes, Democratic ideas proved more popular, but they really were the same basic ideas the party had advocated for years.

Limbaugh, then, is narrowly right. The GOP's fortunes are essentially an inverse function of the Obama administration's fortunes, which is turn depends almost entirely on the state of the world economy.

Where Limbaugh is wrong is that he thinks Americans inherently approve of the conservative agenda, and that Republican defeats can only be explained by deviation from the true faith. I think the public mostly disapproves of the right-wing agenda. If the economy is still terrible in 2012, Republicans will probably win, and if they do, they'll convince themselves they won because the public wants to cut taxes for the rich and privatize Social Security. They'll be wrong (see 2005)--but we're getting ahead of ourselves.

--Jonathan Chait