Friday, October 19, 2018

Orman Pre-Mortem

The election is in 3 weeks, and I think it's safe to assume that Greg Orman will not be elected the next governor of Kansas. I'm in a bit of a bubble, but from my vantage point I haven't seen him catch any kind of fire, either in terms of endorsements or voter energy. He's polling 10-12%, and I suspect that when the dust settles he'll get between 7-8% of the vote. (I have friendly wager going that he won't break 10.)

Ever since there has been talk of him running, there have been Democrats (and poli sci professors) warning that his votes will come from the Democratic candidate, and that it would be impossible for a Dem to win if Orman was in the race. This is usually accompanied with either pleading or angry demanding that he drop out, which he has not done. I have never made this argument and am agnostic on it, and in fact am usually skeptical of the claim that third party candidates are what defeats major party candidates. Jill Stein didn't make Hillary Clinton lose, for instance. (Ross Perot might be the exception that proves the rule.) The argument assumes that every vote, or the vast majority of votes, that someone like Orman would get would come from (in this case) Laura Kelly, and I don't think that's a fair assumption.

Nevertheless, I think Orman is on a fool's errand, and I want to explain why.

Philosophically I agree with him that there are vast swaths of the voting public who are not served adequately by what the major parties have to offer, and that they have rigged the game in their favor.  I think this is self-evident. One only has to look at the strange creature of the moderate Republican, steadfastly determined to remain a member of a club that doesn't want him as a member. Or, to take my case, a progressive Democrat, watching in dismay as (to use only one recent example) the likes of Chuck Schumer rolls over and gives Trump another 15 federal judgeships with nary a whisper. Or votes for an increase in the defense budget, as almost every congressional Democrat did. (That's 2 examples, but grrr.) I absolutely agree that there are many more gradations of political identity that are not represented in the two-party paradigm, and I would be happy (thrilled, even) if there were viable Green Party or Socialist Party or Labor Party options available. I would also support measures, such as ranked-choice voting, that would make this more possible.

However, wishing doesn't make it so. American history is piled high with the carcasses of independent candidates and third party movements that seemed like a good idea at the time, or that had a brief constituency and then fell away. The system is just not set up to accommodate it. To me that makes the project rather a waste of time. You have to spend so much extra effort to be viable as an independent or third-party candidate that it's virtually impossible (not absolutely impossible, but really really rare) to be successful by that route. Today's crop of Democratic Socialists seem to have learned this lesson, as they have attempted to gain access to the Democratic Party ballot line, as opposed to reinventing a wheel that has failed so many times before.

A local example is a fellow in Manhattan named Aaron Estabrook, a political activist type who has been executive director of an organization (a Pac, mostly) called Save Kansas for the past several years. He has run for office himself several times, as an independent, and lost (badly) a state BOE race in 2016 this way. This year he wanted to run for Riley County commissioner, and had to gather 500 signatures to get on the ballot. He gathered more than that but had many of them thrown out for various reason and lo and behold, he's not on the ballot. If he had run as a Democrat he wouldn't have had that extra, onerous procedural step. The question is, what's your goal? If your goal is to prove the viability of independence, that's fine (not that Estabrook has done that, of course, since he's not on the ballot), but if your goal is to be an elected official, then why would you give yourself the extra hassle of just getting on the ballot, which takes a lot of energy but in and of itself doesn't give you any power? Running as an independent unquestionably detracts from your ability to win elected office. Whether it "should" or not doesn't enter into it. It does. 

And that brings us back to Orman, who does want to prove that independence is a viable political strategy. Orman's argument in the election is based on 2 factors: first, that he's an independent and thus is free of the vicissitudes of partisan politics, and second, that as a business owner he's uniquely qualified to run the multi-million dollar “business” that is the Kansas state government. Everybody who runs for office says they're the most qualified, so I'll leave that one to the side for the moment, and focus instead on argument 1.

I believe that Orman's strategy is based on a logical fallacy, to whit: that if there are 300,000 unaffiliated voters in Kansas, they are fed up with the two party system in a relatively consistent way, and would be motivated by a viable alternative to the party system. But unaffiliated voters are a heterogeneous group: many, perhaps most, are what we're calling these days “low-propensity” voters. (When I was younger we called them “marginal” voters, which sounds pejorative now.) Most of the rest are fellow-travelers to one of the two major parties, and break that way in the elections. Some are more “extreme” versions of the parties, such as people who consider themselves more libertarian or whatever than the Republican Party. Orman positions himself as the flagbearer for this group, which isn't a group, in the way that Laura Kelly is the leader of Kansas Democrats or Kris Kobach (God help us) is for the Republicans. But – and this is key – nobody elected Orman to that position. He has no claim to the position other than his own assertion.

The codicil of this argument is that this group, which isn't a group, is looking for a rich, white, moderate business owner to lead them to the promised land. I think we'll see the flaw in that reasoning when Michael Bloomberg or John Kasich try this strategy in 2020.

Over a year ago I asked people that I know in Orman's circle to show me an actual strategy toward winning this election – where the votes had to come from, both in geography and in voter profile. They couldn't do it then and I bet they wouldn't be able to do it now. Orman isn't running a campaign so much as a crusade, the arguments for which he sees as self-evident, and that it is only fear or force of habit that prevents people from acknowledging the obvious truth of his analysis and flocking to his side. And as his message continues not to resonate, and as this flocking continues not to occur, his argument for it gets more annoyed-sounding and shrill.

And this brings me to my main objection to Orman's project: his inveterate “bothsides-ism”. He claims that the problem with our politics is partisanship between the two parties (he compares it to the Hatfields vs. McCoys) and that the choice between Democrats and Republicans is the choice between “shingles and the flu.” It's hard for me to express how tone-deaf I find this framing. I bring this fairly famous quote from Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann, from 2012:

The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.

The difference between the two parties is evidenced in the behavior of the two major party candidates in the Kansas gubernatorial election this year: Kobach is doubling down on his Trumpian message in the hopes of winning narrowly by motivating his base, while Kelly is attempting to appeal across the political spectrum, as evidenced by her recruiting of endorsements from dozens of former Republican elected officials. Even in Orman's book his examples of partisan gamesmanship are one-sided – a dozen examples from the Republicans and one or two examples from the Democrats, and that's his example of “both-sides.”

(Even Orman's argument that he would be uniquely positioned to “get things done” in Topeka ring false. Kelly has relationships with people there and will be able to leverage whatever remnants of the Dem-Mod R coalition there are to get things through. Orman, having no base in the legislature, and no one there having supported him – Doll would be lieutenant governor - means that neither party will have any reason to help him succeed.)

It needs to be stated clearly: the reason the political system isn't working is because the Republican party has been taken over by extreme conservatives who play the hardest of hardball politics and will break any norm in pursuit of their goals. Democrats still believe in bipartisanship (as evidenced by Kelly's strategy) and norms and that's one of the reasons they've been at such a disadvantage. The fact that some Democrats are moving left or are objecting loudly to Republican tactics is not evidence of both-sides-ism, and anyone – including Greg Orman – who thinks that both sides are equally at fault ("shingles vs. flu") in the current state of our politics is either willfully blind or just not a very good analyst of politics.

I told Orman a year ago that if he ran as a Dem he had a very good chance of being the next governor. I think he would have been fine in that role. He chose not to do that, and the reasons for that decision, and the arguments he makes in support of it are, in my opinion, themselves disqualifying. His political career (as a candidate) in Kansas will end in three weeks, and his campaign will go into the pile of “it seemed like a good idea at the time” - even though in this case, it didn't.


  1. Thank you for sharing, Rabbi. I think that false equivalencies are one of the most popular, and damaging, forms of illogic going around currently. The Hatfields and The McCoys, the flu versus shingles, and other comparisons imply that Republicans and Democrats are equally at fault for the current state of politics. It is convenient to lay equal blame, but it is not true.

  2. "The argument assumes that every vote, or the vast majority of votes, that someone like Orman would get would come from (in this case) Laura Kelly, and I don't think that's a fair assumption."

    Can you discuss why you don't think that assumption is fair?

    1. The main reason is that there is a not-insignificant number of Republicans who despise Kris Kobach and will vote for Orman instead. They probably, or presumably, wouldn't vote for Kelly. I think this is particularly true in the western part of the state where his running mate, John Doll, is popular.