JONATHAN CHAIT JUNE 18, 2010
Political science is not a perfect field. But there are a few things the field has a pretty good grasp on, and one of them is that there is a strong relationship between economic conditions and presidential approval rating. Political scientist Brendan Nyhan posted a chart showing this the other day:
I mention this because of Peggy Noonan's column today. Now, political pundits tend to be fairly unaware of political science, and prefer to explain events in terms of narrative and broad assertions about the character of politicians and the public that cannot survive empirical scrutiny. Noonan is especially egregious. Today's column is fascinating because she seems to open herself to the obvious for a moment before hastily retreating:
The president is starting to look snakebit. He's starting to look unlucky, like Jimmy Carter. It wasn't Mr. Carter's fault that the American diplomats were taken hostage in Tehran, but he handled it badly, and suffered. He defied the rule of the King in "Pippin," the Broadway show of Carter's era, who spoke of "the rule that every general knows by heart, that it's smarter to be lucky than it's lucky to be smart." Mr. Carter's opposite was Bill Clinton, on whom fortune smiled with eight years of relative peace and a worldwide economic boom. What misfortune Mr. Clinton experienced he mostly created himself. History didn't impose it.
But Mr. Obama is starting to look unlucky, and–file this under Mysteries of Leadership–that is dangerous for him because Americans get nervous when they have a snakebit president. They want presidents on whom the sun shines.
Toward the end of the first paragraph, Noonan wanders toward the basic reality of the situation -- people liked Clinton because the economy was booming -- before returning to the familiar embrace of mysticism (Americans get "nervous" when the president appears "snakebit.") Rather than seeing this as demonstrating a basic correlation, she calls this the "Mysteries of Leadership."
It reminds me of a classic Saturday Night Live skit, "Theodoric of York," in which Steve Martin plays a medieval barber practicing superstitious methods like bleeding in the name of science.
After killing yet another patient, Martin's character announces:
Perhaps I've been wrong to blindly follow the medical traditions and superstitions of past centuries. Maybe we barbers should test these assumptions analytically, through experimentation and a "scientific method". Maybe this scientific method could be extended to other fields of learning: the natural sciences, art, architecture, navigation. Perhaps I could lead the way to a new age, an age of rebirth, a Renaissance! [ thinks for a moment] Naaah.