pageok
pageok
pageok
Assessing Presidential Candidates:

Like David Bernstein, I doubt I will pick a particular presidential candidate to support. In my view, assessing candidates is a far more difficult business than many people seem to suppose. In looking over the candidate's record, it's necessary to separate out those positions that he or she took because of genuine commitment from those adopted because of the political constraints the candidate was under at the time. Consider Mitt Romney's socially liberal/pro big government (on economic issues) record as governor of Massachusetts. How much of this represented Romney's true convictions, and how much was the liberal Massachusetts political environment? It's very difficult to tell. If Romney's past positions were primarily a product of the political environment he was in, they may be poor guides to how he will perform as president in a very different setting.

Like co-blogger Jonathan Adler, I'm impressed with some of Fred Thompson's statements on federalism. However, I wonder how much of it he really means and how much represents the fact that he spent his political career as a senator from a conservative state and then as a Republican presidential candidate (settings where supporting federalism - especially in a vague general way - carries few risks, and at least some political benefits). Back in 2000, candidate George W. Bush also made positive noises about federalism, only to support massive expansions of federal power once he got into office. Thompson is probably better in this respect than Bush (I suspect); but it's hard to tell by how much. In any event, being better than Bush on federalism is a very low standard of comparison.

Ultimately, however, the key lesson of libertarianism is that we don't want a system where we have to place heavy reliance on the good intentions of individual politicians. Such reliance is all too likely to be misplaced. Instead, our ultimate objective must be to reimpose strong limits on government power so as to minimize the harm that politicians of any stripe can cause.

As I see it, my main comparative advantage as a blogger is not to tell you to support candidate X vs. candidate Y, but rather to help promote and develop libertarian ideas as thoughtfully and effectively as I can. If those ideas become widely enough accepted, even the most unprincipled of politicians will have to reckon with them out of self-interest. If they don't, even candidates personally sympathetic to liberty will have to support big government to a large extent in order to get themselves elected. The world I hope one day to live in is one where the outcome of presidential elections matters a lot less than it does now because government - especially the federal government - doesn't wield so much power.

None of this means that we should be completely indifferent to electoral outcomes. Some candidates are indeed a lesser evil than others. However, I prefer to focus most of my energy on analyzing broader systemic issues rather than on the immediate electoral politics of the moment. In the long run, the tide of opinion on the former is likely to be far more important than the latter.

kdonovan:
However Presidents do a lot to favor one set of ideas over another. Probably one of the most effective ways to promote a political idea is to elect a President who will advocate it and work effectively to implement it.

Kevin
11.19.2007 5:07pm
Paul Allen:
I've liked Thompson's positions too; unfortunately I find him painful to listen to at times. When I hear him talking in interviews, he consistently starts off weak. Late in the interview, he appears to perk-up. I wonder what's going on, and I can think of three possibilities:

1) He's actually a bit shy and eventually relaxes
2) The interviews start with no-win questions, which he doesn't engage. Once the interviewer hits a subject he actually cares about, he opens up.
3) He's not good at discussing subjects on the fly, but does well when he's prepared.

Despite the pro-life endorsement he got, Thompson actually seems quite moderate on the issue. Witness the 'scandal' about him making a point of saying that we shouldn't make criminals out of people who get abortions or force abortions into back-alleys and shady doctors.
11.19.2007 5:11pm
Steve:
Most Republican politicians are going to be pro-federalism when the Democrats control Congress, and anti-federalism when their own party controls Congress. Just the opposite for the Democrats, of course.

Thompson may have cast a few protest votes here and there on the basis of federalism during his time in Congress, but would a President Thompson really have vetoed a legislative enactment from a Republican Congress on the theory that it ought to be left to the states? I'll believe that sort of thing when I see it, from any politician.
11.19.2007 5:15pm
Jonathan H. Adler (mail) (www):
Ilya --

Do you really think that taking pro-federalism positions on abortion, gay marriage and tort reform "carries few risks" for a Republican presidential candidate?

JHA
11.19.2007 5:39pm
Thorley Winston (mail) (www):
Do you really think that taking pro-federalism positions on abortion, gay marriage and tort reform "carries few risks" for a Republican presidential candidate?


Generally yes.

1) Regarding abortion, even Pat Robertson warmed up to Rudy Giuliani because he like most social conservatives get that until Roe is overturned, it's the judges that matter. When the choice is between appointing more judges like Scalia, Thomas, Alito, or Roberts versus the kind of nominees we'd see from the major Democrat candidates adopting a pro-Roe litmus test, it's all the difference in the world.

2) Regarding "SSM," constitutional amendments like the FMA are voted on by the House and the Senate, so whether a presidential candidate favors or opposes a constitutional amendment on any issue doesn't really matter. If any of the aforementioned presidential candidates decided to make a run for Congress, then it would be more of an issue.

3) As far as tort reform goes, it depends on the specifics of the reforms and what one's views of federalism are in this area. I tend to favor federal tort reform under the commerce clause largely because of the effect that lawsuits have not only on interstate commerce (in terms of the economic burden) but because under our modern tort system, we have seen the plaintiff's bar attempt to enact what amounts to national regulation of unpopular industries (e.g. guns, tobacco, etc.) in sympathetic State courts. That doesn't mean that States shouldn't be able to adopt their own tort reform legislation, just that there is nothing about the Constitution that prevents the federal government from doing the same under the Commerce Clause.
11.19.2007 6:31pm
another commenter:
it's necessary to separate out those positions that he or she took because of genuine commitment from those adopted because of the political constraints the candidate was under at the time

Why does this matter? If the candidate will represent your views while in office, why does it matter if he is sincere about those views? Is sincerity just a proxy for how likely the candidate will keep his stated views once in office?
11.19.2007 6:55pm
MichaelB (mail):
Ilya,

What are your views on Dr. Paul (not his supporters)?

He has a very consistent record on federalism.
11.19.2007 7:06pm
KeithK (mail):

Why does this matter? If the candidate will represent your views while in office, why does it matter if he is sincere about those views? Is sincerity just a proxy for how likely the candidate will keep his stated views once in office?

You are right in saying that sincerity matters because of how likely a politician is to keep his views when in office. But it's not just a matter of "keeping". A politican who sincerely believes in an issue is more likely to fight for that issue, to expend political capital on it, when in office.
11.19.2007 7:14pm
Zacharias (mail):
It seems that every libertarian would do well to support gridlock, since every time a bill is passed and signed into law, we're much worse off. In the coming election, since it's likely that the Democrats will win Congress, a libertarian should vote for a Republican.
11.19.2007 7:38pm
taxman10m (mail):
What stronger limit on government power is there than giving Dr. No the power to veto?
11.19.2007 8:00pm
Regina Srout (mail):
They Said It: Thompson Social Security Plan Applauded as 'Courageous,' 'Honest,' and 'Substantive'

Courage &Honesty

Republican presidential contender Fred Thompson's plan to save Social Security and protect seniors, which he introduced Friday afternoon in a Washington, D.C., hotel, differs starkly from standard election year pablum on the subject in one key way: He's actually treating voters like adults. (ABC, 11/9)

Thompson...is seeking to show he is willing to take on tough issues if elected in November 2008, telling a news conference in Washington he was the only candidate to offer an extensive Social Security plan. (Reuters, 11/10)

"You certainly have to admire his courage for putting this out," said Alan Viard with the American Enterprise Institute. (Tennessean, 11/10)

Supporters contend that Thompson's willingness to take on the so-called third rail of politics will impress voters. (Bloomberg, 11/10)

Conservative economic experts applauded Thompson for offering specifics on an issue considered to be politically dangerous. (Tennessean, 11/10)

"He's not afraid to be brutally honest with the American people about the challenges that lie ahead," said Representative Zach Wamp, a Tennessee Republican who is working to recruit supporters for Thompson. "People can tell the difference between a strong leader telling the truth and a weak leader talking politics." (Bloomberg, 11/10)

Substance

[Thompson is] the first candidate of either party to offer a detailed proposal to fix the nation's retirement system. (WP, 11/10)

The Republican candidate laid out a detailed, four-page proposal (WSJ, 11/10)

Mr. Thompson's plan...was more specific than what the Bush White House put on the table when it sought to overhaul the system. It also varied substantially from the traditional conservative approach of focusing primarily on personal investment accounts. (NYT, 11/10)

Economist Jason Furman said Thompson deserves credit for offering a detailed plan to address the projected Social Security shortfall...(Bloomberg, 11/10)

In discussing policy, Thompson was in his element. (Politico, 11/9)

He'd prefer to talk about substance. (Politico, 11/9)

Thompson's plan draws on ideas favored by conservatives: a reduction in benefits, rather than an increase in payroll taxes; and a shift toward private accounts, rather than government-provided payments. (WP, 11/10)

Rivals

[Thompson] ventured Friday into an area few rivals have tread: advocacy of a fundamental overhaul of Social Security. (WSJ, 11/10)

Although all of the presidential candidates have spoken, when asked, about the need to fix the Social Security system, none has offered such a detailed plan nor talked so eagerly and often about the issue. (WSJ, 11/10)

Among Republicans, former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney have talked in general terms ... but none has offered a specific plan. (WP, 11/10)

Mr. Thompson is the only one of the Republicans running for the White House who has made Social Security a central theme of his campaign. (NYT, 11/10)

He is the only presidential candidate so far to make Social Security an anchor of his campaign. (WSJ, 11/10)

But with less than two months before the 2008 voting begins, candidates have generally been reluctant to confront the Social Security issue. (WP, 11/10)
11.19.2007 8:13pm
Frater Plotter:
I think it's interesting that the Giuliani campaign has not issued a statement repudiating support for their candidate by the Evil Empire:

http://tinyurl.com/2fun3s
11.19.2007 9:56pm
Mark Bahner (www):
What stronger limit on government power is there than giving Dr. No the power to veto?


Yes, there's no candidate even close to Ron Paul on returning the central government to powers authorized by the Constitution.
11.19.2007 11:46pm
Respondent:
The best reason not to hype too much on elections and focus on ideas is because talking about elections as if they matter very much gives into the culture that politicians try so hard to instill in which everyone is enocuraged to vote and told that voting can make a real difference. As we all know, the vast majority of real regulations laws is passed by unelected and largely unaccountable administrative agencies, whom politicians delegate much of there authority to in order not to have to make the tough decisions where a wrong choice in a tight spot can mean a lost election soon down the road. We can't really call ourselves even a representative democracy so long as our representatives don't make most of the rules, and those rules will largely remain unchanged no matter who becomes the nest president of the United States.
11.20.2007 12:27am
Bluquark:

However Presidents do a lot to favor one set of ideas over another. Probably one of the most effective ways to promote a political idea is to elect a President who will advocate it and work effectively to implement it.


An even more effective way to promote a political idea is to elect a President who will advocate the opposite idea and make a complete fiasco of its implementation!
11.20.2007 12:32am
HappyConservative:
Hey, I hate to rain on your parade. But the economist are probably right. Both your efforts to advocate for a particular candidate and advocate for a particular ideology are likely futile and useless. The probability that your efforts on either score will bring about any substantive change on any issue is close to nil.

Granted, a few individuals do have some sort of significant ideological impact. But these individuals are far and few between. Chances are, if at your age you are not one of those individuals, you never will be.

I think deciding to talk about candidates versus deciding to talk about issues based on ideas of what is more effective is nothing more than misguided hubris. It is better to choose what to talk about based on what your own enjoyment rather than based on strategic considerations, since the probability of your views really making a difference either way are pretty close to nil. All this talk is only rational to the extent that you derive some utility from it.

On the other hand, perhaps irrational hubris is actually utility maximizing. The fantasy that our views on these issues as individuals actually matter might make such discussion more enjoyable. Who ever said it was fun to be rational?
11.20.2007 1:03am
Kazinski:
You want to make sure a candidates heart is in the right place, because not every issue that comes up in a presidents term is going to be an issue in the campaign.

When a candidate like Ron Paul comes along it is intriguing, because so much of what he says is what conservatives have been clamoring for, and not getting even a scintilla of success on since Goldwater. But Ron Paul abjectly flunks the seriousness test on national security, plus he seems more suited for tilting at windmills than actually running the country. The President needs to be able to make decisions, not be a philosopher in chief, or a waffler in chief. That was what was so absurd about the idea of John Kerry as president, even if you agreed with him on the issues, you just can't see him being able to make decisive decisions. I don't think that is a problem with the top tier of Republican candidates, or Hillary for that matter either. I don't see Obama, or Edwards as being executive material. Obama for now, Edwards ever.

But where Ilya is off base is that committing to a candidate can make a difference, maybe not a decisive difference, but more of a difference than just voting. Or sitting on the sidelines explaining why all the candidates are flawed. Of course they are.
11.20.2007 1:05am
Gil (mail) (www):
The next president may very well appoint the next two Supreme Court justices.

That could have a pretty strong impact on broad systemic issues for many years to come.
11.20.2007 2:43am
frankcross (mail):
But where Ilya is off base is that committing to a candidate can make a difference, maybe not a decisive difference, but more of a difference than just voting. Or sitting on the sidelines explaining why all the candidates are flawed.

I don't think so. I don't think committing to a candidate will make any difference in the election. Zero.
However, if you mean post-election, that might mean something. Early supporters of Thompson might get some influence or appointments in his Administration, should he win.
11.20.2007 12:56pm
Kazinski:
Frankcross,
Where committing to a candidate can make a difference is in the candidate selection process. I think you're right, once the candidates have been selected and election is nigh endorsements don't make much of a difference. But momentum and buzz can be extremely important in a cycle like 2008 (for the republicans at least) where there is no clearcut front runner, and even candidates that normally would have zero chance like Huckabee and Paul are getting enough attention to make their case. A blog like the conspiracy might make a marginal difference, mainly because it is influential with other blogs, not just its own readers. It wasn't at this site that I found the link to Lawyers for Thompson, and found out there were at least three conspirators endorsing Thompson, it was at Instapundit.
11.20.2007 2:31pm
Ilya Somin:
Do you really think that taking pro-federalism positions on abortion, gay marriage and tort reform "carries few risks" for a Republican presidential candidate?

All of these stances speak well for Thompson. But I would note that 1) the federal anti-gay marriage amendment is not a big issue this year, so opposing it right now carries few risks for Thompson, 2) federal tort reform is likewise not a big issue in the primaries, and 3) if I remember correctly (and please set me straight if I don't), Thompson did not in fact oppose the 2003 federal partial birth abortion ban. If h actually did oppose it, that would indeed be a brave stance for a Republican, given that much of the Republican base hates abortion with a passion and is not too picky about which level of government they use to restrict it.
11.20.2007 4:10pm
Mark Bahner (www):
But Ron Paul abjectly flunks the seriousness test on national security,


Because we need 100,000 troops in Europe to protect us from...?

Because we need 30,000 troops in South Korea to protect us from...?

Why do we need troops stationed around the world, to protect people here in the U.S.?
11.20.2007 5:13pm