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Jay Leno and Martha Coakley

January 24, 2010

Ridiculously, Matt Bai thinks Jay Leno is the reason for Martha Coakley’s loss in Massachusetts. He ties Coakley’s loss to the idea that 60-year majorities like FDR built are a thing of the past, and that to our increasingly frenetic way of life:

In an accelerated culture, our loyalties toward just about everything — laundry detergents, celebrities, even churches and spouses — transfer more readily than our grandparents could have imagined. Now we dispose of phone carriers and cash-back credit cards from one month to the next, forever in search of some better deal. Forget the staying power of an institution like Johnny Carson; when Jay Leno starts to feels a little stale, he is shifted to prime time, then shifted back to late night. It was probably never very realistic for modern political thinkers of either party to dream of a 50-year reign. This century’s tectonic realignment is more likely to last 50 months or maybe 50 weeks, depending on how long it takes voters to seek out the latest offer or the newest best deal.

Yes, Coakley lost and, yes, Obama’s coalition almost certainly won’t last as long as Roosevelt’s, and, yes, we suffer from cultural ADD. You can try to explain each of these, but when you try to tie them all together in a quick way, as Bai does, you end up explaining nothing. For none of them really explains any of the others.

There were plenty of reasons Coakley lost besides confidence that the Democrats had history on their side. Even if anyone seriously believed this, its effect on the campaign was probably negligible, and Bai gives no reason to think otherwise. Does Coakley’s loss show that Obama’s coalition won’t last decades? Well, it probably won’t last that long, but again, there are lots of other reasons for that. At every level, beginning with the economic, our society is much more complex than it was in the middle of the 20th century. And our fluid consumer loyalties may be a symptom of this larger change, but it’s doubtful that they’re actually driving it.

Bai’s most basic point is that politics is like the weather: constantly changing and ultimately unpredictable. That’s true, but completely trivial. No one ever went wrong emphasizing the short-term unpredictability of things: we simply can’t ever know what tomorrow will bring. But sometimes we are interested in the long-term trend, in the climate instead of the weather, and on that matter Bai’s sophomoric message is this: the only long-term trend is that there won’t be any long-term trends. We expect more from our meteorologists and climatologists, and we should expect more from our political pundits.

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