Matt Bai claims political success isn't solely related to "messaging"

The New York Times political writer explains that sometimes politicians look good when the economy improves

By Alex Pareene

Published November 2, 2010 2:50PM (EDT)

New York Times political writer Matt Bai has a scoop! Politicians elected today may benefit from the improvement of the economy -- even if they themselves had nothing to do with it!

While everyone knows that elections are decided based on which party successfully "controls the narrative" and candidates win when their "messaging" appeals to "independents," Bai seems to be suggesting today that elected officials may not succeed solely through superhuman charisma and political acumen. Apparently luck, chance, historical trends and the business cycle have something to do with it?

And it’s the politicians who catch the political wave at such fortunate economic moments — particularly governors who get themselves elected during hard times and then preside over the upswing — who tend to establish themselves as folk heroes and turnaround experts, rising to national prominence not just because of their policies but also because of their timing. Which could be very good news for some Republicans like John Kasich, who may yet become Ohio’s next governor, or for an unknown like Nikki Haley, who stands to win in South Carolina.

It isn’t just governors, of course, who can benefit from good timing. Should Republicans take control of one or both chambers of Congress, an improving economy in the next several years could bolster the profiles and credibility of some of the party’s younger leaders and their more innovative ideas.

But wait. Last March, Matt Bai explained that politics had nothing to do with national trends outside the direct control of political actors! He told me that all that mattered was the policy preferences of individual voters! I mean, cool political writers like Bai have some thoughts about egghead "science":

Generally speaking, political writers don’t think so much of political scientists, either, mostly because anyone who has ever actually worked in or covered politics can tell you that, whatever else it may be, a science isn’t one of them. Politics is, after all, the business of humans attempting to triumph over their own disorder, insecurity, competitiveness, arrogance, and infidelity; make all the equations you want, but a lot of politics is simply tactile and visual, rather than empirical. My dinnertime conversation with three Iowans may not add up to a reliable portrait of the national consensus, but it’s often more illuminating than the dissertations of academics whose idea of seeing America is a trip to the local Bed, Bath & Beyond.

Did some editor force Bai to write today's repudiation of everything he knows in his reporter's gut? He does end it with a classic "to be sure" section in which he says that politicians who ride to national prominence on the backs of trends they had nothing to with are still wonderful, special people. But otherwise it really looks disturbingly like Matt Bai is attempting to help Times readers understand national politics as something other than the response of "three Iowans" to largely pointless campaign tactics. Political reporters may as well give up!

Alex Pareene

Alex Pareene writes about politics for Salon and is the author of "The Rude Guide to Mitt." Email him at and follow him on Twitter @pareene

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2010 Elections Economics The New York Times U.s. Economy War Room