Yesterday I argued that certain highly criticized Republican personnel decisions (particularly those involving Trent Lott and Mel Martinez), though not necessarily correct, are not unreasonable and do not signify that the party has become stupid. Hugh Hewitt not only agrees but goes further, stating that “both [Martinez and Lott] have the potential to be huge wins for the GOP, especially given Lott’s command of Senate procedure.”
However, another very perceptive conservative, Jim Geraghty, strongly disagrees. In the case of Martinez, he accuses me of “putting words in people’s mouths.” Specifically, he thinks I said that critics of the Martinez decision believe it’s unreasonable to have an Hispanic Senator as a public face of the party.
Jim didn’t read what I wrote carefully enough. My point with respect to the Martinez critics was not that they think appointing a Hispanic is unreasonable, but that, in attacking the appointment, they haven’t acknowledged the reasonableness (i.e. the upside) of having a Hispanic in that position. Martinez’s national origin is, I think Jim agrees, at least one of the reasons why he got the job. Therefore, it ought to be engaged. One can criticize on principle making a decision for that reason; one can point to the pragmatic downside — you may not get one of the party’s best substantive spokespersons. But before one concludes that the decision is terrible, one should at least acknowledge the potential advantages of having Martinez in the job, and show either that you could get the same advantage with a different Hispanic or that any advantage is clearly outweighed by the other concerns. Jim does neither.
The same with the Lott decision. Jim thinks that Lott’s old comment about Thurmond will cost Republicans dearly over the next two years. I don’t. To my knowledge, the past (or even present) utterances of a minority whip have never appreciably set back a political party. If the party in power this year couldn’t get mileage out of the comments of the better known John Kerry and Nancy Pelosi, I don’t see how the new party in power will get mileage out of stale comments by Lott. Jim points to the impact of “macaca.” That comment hurt the candidate who made it in his particular race. That doesn’t mean that Lott’s old remark will hurt other candidates.
But even I’m wrong about this, or (more plausibly) it turns out that Lott’s fondness for pork is a substantial negative, one should still weigh the rationale for (and the upside of) selecting Lott — his apparent back room skill. Jim doesn’t do this.
My broader point was that bloggers should pause before concluding that previously successful politicians and operatives have become stupid. Jim doesn’t agree with this either:
[W]hen you lose about 30 House seats and six Senate seats, people start wondering how smart you really are. If the Senate Caucus had a better record in recent years, and Rove hadn’t failed to pull a rabbit out of a hat this year, conservative bloggers would have a lot more faith in their judgment.
But failure to pull a rabbit out a hat isn’t grounds for major disparagement. And Jim doesn’t show that the thumpin’ was the fault of the Senators who voted for Lott, who range from Snowe to McCain to Thune. Most people attribute it to the six-year itch, or the war in Iraq, or corruption on the part of certain members, none of which has much to do with the judgment of incumbent Republican Senators.
On my bookshelf, I see Jim’s book, Voting To Kill: How 9/11 Launched the Era of Republican Leadership. It argues, in the words of the publisher, that because Americans will continue to trust the GOP as the only party committed to taking the fight against terrorism to the enemy, “American voters will cast their ballots for the Republicans in 2006 and 2008.” It didn’t work out that way this year, but this doesn’t mean that Jim has gone from hero (brilliant critic of John Kerry and his campaign) to zero. It just means that there are ups and downs in politics and that one can’t always foresee, much less prevent, them.
Politics, in sum, is an uncertain business, and it would be good if conservative bloggers kept this in mind.