It’s not whether the Medals matter or not


Today’s New York Times has an OpEd titled “The Medals Don’t Matter.” It’s by Jake Tapper, who is a well regarded ABC News Correspondent (formerly of Salon). The article reaches the conclusion that voters do not care about the military service of their Presidential candidates.

To reach this feat of logical deduction, Jake focused primarily on the 1992, 1996 and 2000 Presidential elections (and the 2000 GOP primary), and the Military Service of each candidate.

There are many, many analytical errors in his approach, sample size being the most obvious. But let’s focus instead on a very common logic error which seems to catch most people unaware:

Controlling for a single variable instead of many when analyzing complex systems.

I would be oversimplifying the situation were I to call this error, well, a mere oversimplification. But that’s what lay at the heart of this fallacy: Taking an extremely complex and dynamic issue — who won the Presidency and why — and then boiling it down to a single, and in this small sample, mostly minor issue. The author might as well have based it upon how many letters were in the men’s first and last names.

Presidential victories are the result of a far more nuanced and multi-faceted set of factors. This issue deserves to be examined in far greater depth . . .

Dualities are easy, multi-variates are hard
People habitually reduce intricate, multifarious issues to simple black and white. It’s most often made within the context of complex, chaotic systems which are in constant flux. Take the stock market as an example. It is a nonlinear, multivariate, dynamic system highly sensitive to initial conditions. Controlling for a single variable is an invitation for trouble.

And yet, this does not stop people from trying. I cannot tell you how many times I am asked “What’s causing the market to _____ today?” — as if there is always a single factor which resolves that issue.

All too many people try to “predict” the markets via a single factor, whether based upon the outcome of the Superbowl or relying upon which party is in the White House. None of these people are ever consistently successful with their market predictions. None! That’s proof positive of a suspect methodology.

Indeed, no single component or event is going to be determinative of any market’s run. Even 9/11 led to a one week sell off, which then reversed course and led to a 50% Nasdaq rally over the next 4 months. That rally eventually petered out, and was followed by new market lows.

What then, was the effect of the first foreign attack on U.S. soil in over half a century? So much for relying upon a single variable.

Now let’s try to apply a multivariate analysis to the past few Presidential elections to see if we can possibly explain the outcome, despite the lack of service by each of the victors. Within the larger context, were there more compelling factors which contributed to the final electoral results? When are Presidential military records significant, if ever?

Let’s start by stating the obvious: Selecting a candidate is a function of many, many factors: Party Affiliation, Personal Charisma, Issues, Character, Record, Trust, Honesty, Likability. Sure, you can throw Military Service in there also.

Consider all these factors carefully . . . Then toss ’em away. This entire list probably amounts to less 10% of what people actually base their vote for a Presidential candidate upon. Oh, they will consider all of these factors. But in the end, it mostly boils down to the Economy and National Security. “Guns and Butter.” Sometimes, the order of importance gets reversed. But Political Scientists have long determined that those are the big two.

In the 1992 race, what was of greatest significance was not Clinton’s ducking service in Viet Nam by taking a deferral in Oxford, nor was President Bush Sr.’s heroism in WWII a real factor. A sitting President was fighting the perception of a weak economy. Add to that President Bush’s apparent disconnect to voter’s experiences with this economic softness. That was his undoing — His war record was irrelevant.

Ironically, the economy was actually on the mend for several months prior to November 1992. The visible effects of that recovery came too late to do any good for Bush. In a three way race, Clinton beat him.

Oh yeah, Tapper forgot to mention that there was a 3rd party running — Ross Perot — who siphoned off votes from George H. W. Bush and helped Clinton win. Do you remember what the 3rd party’s candidate military background was? (I don’t). Perot was a rich Texan (and more conservative in many ways than Bush) who won 19% of the popular vote.

Next up: 1996
When he was up for re-election, President Clinton ran against another WWII hero, Bob Dole. Only this time, the economy was doing as well as it had been in a decade. The PC revolution was in full swing, and the internet was ramping up.

In the face of this, Dole — a man with an absolutely wonderful sense of humor — campaigned like a crotchety geezer. His negative cry of “Where’s the outrage, people?” gained zero traction. Dole came across as old and tired, with little resonance with the electorate. It was as if his time for leading had simply passed.

More Irony: Dole is a charming and witty person. After the election, he was a terribly amusing guest on both Late Night with David Letterman and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Dole has an utterly dry wit that can disarm even the most hostile questioner. He was charming and self depricating. None of this was ever put on display during the race. Letterman or Stewart even mentioned that if he had been this comfortable and relaxed during the campaign, he may have even won the race.

But that wouldn’t have mattered. Even a funny and easy going Dole would have lost to a strong economy.

Next up: 2000
First came the primaries, where decorated Viet Nam Vet John McCain surprised many by winning New Hampshire. But it was not remotely an even financial match up. Bush outspent McCain handily. And, W. had Karl Rove, who got incredibly vicious on McCain, stunning him with a ferocious onslaught. McCain was a deer frozen in headlights, unable to respond to the attacks. By the time the South Carolina primary rolled around, the Straight Talk Express had gone off its rails, war hero or not.

Then came the Presidential election. Following the impeachment of Clinton, Gore “ran away” from the White House. Abandoning his greatest strength, Gore was a terrible campaigner, stiff and unapproachable. During the debates, he appeared condescending and arrogant.

And, the economy was already showing signs of distress — the bear market had begun 5 months earlier in March 2000. By the time the election rolled around in November, the wealth effect from rising equity prices was already fading. Even now, President Bush’s Economic Advisors are trying to persuade the NBER to move the date of the last recession backwards, so it officially started during Clinton’s term.

The economic issue created a vulnerability for Gore, skillfully exploited by the Bush camp.

Gore had a number of things working against him. The press did not care for him. Gore got defined as a liar early on in the campaign, which in the context of Clinton’s big Monica lie, was a problem for the V.P. Meanwhile, they found W to be affable and charming. To see exactly how much the Press was taken by Bush’s personality, watch the documentary “Journeys with George.” You will get a sense of how captivating W actually is; Oh, and the director was Alexandra Pelosi — Democratic House Leader Nancy Pelosi’s daughter . . . And Bush still is utterly charming in the film.

Versus Gore’s early charges of beign a liar, Bush came across as a likable, honest, trustworthy person. No one ever thought he was ever the brightest guy in the room, but he was sincere. That was part of the reason the media went so easy on him. His intellectual laziness let him off the hook for a number of gaffes that would have (and indeed did) stuck to Gore. Even Bush’s very conservative track record in Texas was way out of sync with most Americans — but it was mostly overlooked by the Press and the voters.

Bush just seemed like a nice guy.

Despite this — and 3rd party candidate Ralph Nader — Gore won the popular vote. There is evidence of many dirty tricks occurring in Florida, via George Bush’s brother, Governor Jeb Bush. Blacks were illegally stricken from voter registration roles, police set up intimidating blockades, etc. — and Gore still would have won the State, if not for Nader.

Now, amongst all this, how significant was Gore’s veteran status versus Bush’s National Guard history? Answer: Not significant at all.

An Election Where Military Service Might Matter: 2004
We have demonstrated that each election is unique. The factors that matter are many and varied from year to year.

Which brings us to 2004. Our last irony is that this is the year where military service might actually be of significance: There has been a foreign strike on U.S. soil, the first such attack in over 60 years. We are involved in a hot war overseas, with U.S. Soldiers dying at about one per day. The war was started based upon an “imminent threat of weapons of mass destruction” — now shown to be at best, based upon over-hyped or cherry picked intel, and at worst, knowingly false statements.

Place that within the context of an economy which is improving, but still anemic. There’s not much in the way of new job creation (yet).

The veteran issue would have found some resonance following 9/11, but only so much. Perhaps a different President might have responded in a way that left him less vulnerable to the issue.

Then comes the Iraq war, and its “questionable” justification. I actually advocated invading Iraq for other reasons (non WMD), as you can read here.

Within this larger framework, the issue of the President’s military service is now front and center. If President Bush lied about his National Guard history, if his record was “scrubbed” while he was governor, that may have some resonance in this election cycle. And if, as appears, he also lied about the reasons for going to war in Iraq, the President may face two problems with the electorate. The first is a credibility issue. This is particularly damaging for a guy who’s likability played such a large part in helping him get elected in the first place.

President Bush did very well amongst veterans as a voting block in 2000. They chose him over Gore in overwhelming numbers. Today, Kerry is polling well amongst the group. (See “Kerry’s War-Hero Image Attracts Veterans“). In a close election in an evenly divided nation, every demographic matters — alot.

There are also signs that the national media has awakened from its multi-year slumber. W got a free pass last time around, and it appears that the media are none too happy for being played the fool. No one likes to be made a patsy, and I can not forsee the same kid glove treatment Bush got last time out repeating in ’04.

The second issue is National Security. We are in a war which apears to have been predicated upon false pretenses. Additionally, we see signs that we have diverted attention away from Afghanistan and the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and overlooked some aspects of homeland defense to fight this war. (U.S. Seaports, Chemical plants, and Nuclear Reactors remain very vulnerable).

These are very powerful issues which could possibly dominate the discussion leading up until November.

Of course, that’s still a long way off. And the economy could accelerate its modest improvement, creating Jobs. Any number of things can — and likely will — come into play between now and November. But do not expect a single variable to be outcome determinative.

It’s not whether the Medals mattered or not in the past. What is of significance is whether they will matter in the future, in this campaign.

They probably will. And so will 100s of other things.

The Medals Don’t Matter
(Correspondent for ABC News)
NYT OpEd, February 16, 2004

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