Joe Klein and the fundamental attribution error

Republican Presidential candidates spew bile, not specifically because they’re bad people, but because that’s what the environment demands. Dreaming about a non-extremist GOP candidate is like dreaming about a swimming champion who stays dry.

First, Joe Klein tells a simple, straightforward truth:

This is my 10th presidential campaign, Lord help me. I have never before seen such a bunch of vile, desperate-to-please, shameless, embarrassing losers coagulated under a single party’s banner.

Then, having demonstrated that even apparently sane people like Romney and Pawlenty wind up talking like gibbering idiots when they seek the Republican Presidential nomination, Klein concludes … that someone apparently sane, such as Mitch Daniels or Jeb Bush, needs to get into the race.

This reflects what the social psychologists call the “fundamental attribution error”: attributing behavior to character rather than to situation. If Daniels or Bush got into the race, he would be forced to sound just like the rest of the lunatics. (As one cable news talking-head said about Huckabee’s rantings on Obama’s upbringing, this is what happens to a party when the fringe becomes the base.)

As Logan Pearsall Smith wrote, you can no more be rich and not behave as the rich behave than you can drink all day and not be drunk. And you can’t seek the GOP Presidential nomination without behaving like a GOP Presidential candidate. In that role, a willingness to mouth hateful nonsense isn’t a character flaw; it’s a bona fide occupational qualification. No point trying to change Republican candidates unless you can change Republican voters.

UpdateThe Indiana anti-abortion law, which Daniels apparently plans to sign even after his fellow-partisans declined to put in exceptions for rape, incest, and life-threatening pregnancies – after all, they argued, how do you know that the sluts won’t just lie and claim they were raped?– is rather badly timed with respect Klein’s assertion about Daniels’s sanity.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

6 thoughts on “Joe Klein and the fundamental attribution error”

  1. I’m not sure that Mark is correct. If the race consists of six screaming lunatics and one sane person, the sane person might make it through the early primaries (Iowa and South Carolina excepted), as the weaker lunatics drop out. Then, if the choice is between one of the genuine screaming lunatics and the sane person, the Republican poohbahs might decide to back the sane person. Of course, if the choice is between a faux screaming lunatic like Romney and the sane person, the faux loonie would win the final elimination round.

  2. The current GOP pack reminds me of the horse races where in they run all the horses who haven’t won, placed or showed in their last five races against each other. The field is ripe for a ringer, a relatively unknown who has some legs and a light record handicap.

  3. Ebenezer Scrooge – the wrench in your analysis is that that is what should have happened in Delaware’s Senate primary. The relatively sane candidate got clobbered by Christine O’Donnell.

    If they let Republicans vote in the Republican primaries, then sane, thoughtful conservatives needn’t bother running – they’ll lose huge.

  4. “even apparently sane people like Romney and Pawlenty . . . Mitch Daniels or Jeb Bush”

    There’s another kind of error involved, when we talk about the sanity of these folks, instead of their viciousness.

  5. MCD,
    You might be right. But the Senate is not the Presidency. I didn’t notice huge national money going to Mike Castle. I didn’t notice Republican election specialists disenfranchising O’Donnell voters. I think that the Republican professional apparat will care tremendously about the identity of the nominee, even if it thinks that the nominee will lose to Obama. A screaming crazy nominee will cost many Senate and House seats; a sane Republican will not.
    I’m not trying to argue that a sane-acting candidate will likely win. Victory is likely to go to a faux crazy. But I can see how a rational sane Republican might think that there is a point to acting sane in public. Especially because, if the sane Republican loses to the true crazy in the final runoff stage of the primaries, said sane Republican will be the likely nominee in 2016.

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