January 16, 2014

Political locution of the week: "continuity election."

NYT columnist Charles M. Blow uses the term "continuity election" 3 times in his new column, which I've discussed at length in the previous post. On first use, he says:
There are two kinds of presidential elections: change elections and continuity elections. For many of those who see 2016 as a change election, finding an anti-Obama may seem quite appealing, and Christie fits that bill in style and tone.
Obama is "polished and professorial," while Christie is "brash and blunt." Blow doesn't mention it, but Obama's key word in 2008 was "change" (along with "hope") and a lot of people who thought George W. Bush was brash and blunt felt good about the idea of undoing the Bushiness with Obama-style politesse. Enough yang. We need yin. For 2016, do we need yang again? Do we want another "change election"? Or is more yin the thing? That would be a "continuity election."

Speaking of polish and professorishness, there's a hell of a lot of bullshittery in purveying the abstract change-versus-continuity model for the election — as if that's deep — and steering us into the shallows of style and tone... etiquette and rhetoric.

Anyway, will we be hearing this term "continuity election"? I hadn't noticed it before, and Blow may have come up with it himself, but I do see some other instances of it on the web, notably this canada.com article from last week about another Christie/Christy, Canada's Christy Clark:
Premier Christy Clark faces a wide range of woes at the dawn of a new year, but one of the biggest may be the power of a single word: change.

The power of the change concept was famously harnessed by Barack Obama during his breakthrough 2008 U.S. presidential election victory.

"Change We Can believe In" became a campaign slogan, as well as a book title for Obama....
What? Obama has another book? "Change We Can Believe In"? Yes!
"Every election comes down to a couple of major questions," observes pollster Darrell Bricker, CEO of Ipsos Public Affairs. "Is this a change or continuity election? It can define and drive any campaign."
Here's a story from June 2012, quoting Stu Rothenberg, editor and publisher of The Rothenberg Political Report, talking about the 2016 presidential election:
"I continue to think the race is going to be a close one.... With past elections, if you had a 'D' behind your name and barely a pulse, you had a good chance of winning. Most elections are either based on continuity, where the majority want to keep things going as they are, or based on change. We had three change elections in a row. Is this a change or a continuity election now?"

How do we know? Rothenberg says it’s simple — just look at the polls.... For some time now, these polls have shown that a majority of Americans are unsatisfied with the current state of the nation. This in itself would presumably signal an upcoming change election....
Going all the way back to 1996, I see Mark Shields — of Shields & Gigot on PBS — using the term. Right after the November elections, Shields was asked (by Jim Lehrer) if we are, in fact, "a deeply divided nation":
Deeply divided, ambivalent, Jim. I mean, any time you send a mixed message, as we did, Democratic President overwhelmingly re-elected, and a Republican Congress kept -- it was a continuity election...  I don't think it is deeply [divided]. I think the action in the--in the foreseeable future is not on either the left of the Democratic Party or the right of the Republican Party.... The Republican Congress was saved and salvaged by the perception that they were working and cooperating and being productive and non-extremist...  Bob Dole wanted to run on change, had to change the presidency, and Democratic challengers in the Congress who wanted to change the Congress, the continuity accommodation consensus folks prevailed and did pretty well at the polls.
Even though this term "continuity election" has rarely appeared, it seems as though the concept of change or continuity elections is well entrenched, and I suspect it's used by pollsters and the consulters of pollsters behind the scenes. What's interesting to me, reading the Blow column, is the open effort to appeal to those who would benefit from continuity to polarize the debate in terms of change and continuity, with tips on how to portray change — Obama's buzzword — as bad.

ADDED: The low incidence of the phrase "continuity election" is the only reason Google took me back to 1996, but how lucky! It's fascinating to see that talk of a Republican Congress "saved and salvaged by the perception that they were working and cooperating and being productive and non-extremist." That's exactly what some people today say the Republicans in Congress need to do.

AND: Some of those cooperating, productive, non-extremist Republicans went on to impeach Bill Clinton, but none of the congressional action got under way until after the next mid-term election. Clinton didn't say "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky" until January 1998. The Independent Counsel investigation (with Ken Starr), not Congress, was the center of action, and it had been going on since 1994, begun over Whitewater, which had nothing to do with sex.

Do you even remember what that was all about? Your answer might be something like: Um… real estate? It's no more memorable than that real estate thing of Obama's, about which you probably remember nothing more than um… Rezko?

Fortunately for Obama, he hasn't had to operate within the risks of the old Independent Counsel law, or who knows what one thing might have let to another?Poor Bill Clinton had to be pestered by Ken Starr moving on to things like Travelgate, Filegate, and the death of Vince Foster.


Matthew Sablan said...

Wait a second -- Obama, of get in their face, bring a gun to a knife fight, "The election is over," "I'm looking for an ass to kick," is not brash and blunt?

Do these writers even THINK about what they say?

tim maguire said...

Why all the ink for Charles Blow today? He's the same guy he's always been--the weakest member of a crappy NYT Op Ed stable. He trades in cheap shots and ignorant hate-filled, fact-bereft rants.

Always has, and probably always will. So why the interest, not just here, but around the blogs I read?

Matthew Sablan said...

To focus on the change/continuity election, this is a theme, just not usually called that. You know how incumbents talk about not changing horses mid-stream? That's just a direct appeal to continuity.

Elections, generally, come down to: "Am I happy with what we have?" If yes, you never have to get to the next step. It is in the reigning party's interest to make every election a continuity election (it is one of the many good moves Bush did against Kerry, for example.)

John Lynch said...

Partisan hacks are partisan hacks. A hack's job is to prevent their audience from changing their minds when confronted with new information. Since the audience doesn't want to change their beliefs, anyone who can give them reasons not to will be well rewarded.

It's a service. Everyone wins.

John Lynch said...

I prefer the term "status quo election."

They aren't using that term because the status quo sucks.

Ignorance is Bliss said...

While I understand the concept of a change election, I hate the idea. Don't get me wrong, I very much dislike the way things are. But it's important to specify what you are changing to.

I'd bet Robert Cook would like this to be a change election just as much as I would. But we would absolutely disagree on which direction we should go from here.

Ignorance is Bliss said...

For those of us who think in terms of physics, change is a vector, not scalar, quantity.

MadisonMan said...

If change is normal in an election cycle, wouldn't a 'Continuity Election' be, in fact, a change? I hope?

Why would anyone want to elect incumbents, year in and year out?

Matthew Sablan said...

"Why would anyone want to elect incumbents, year in and year out?"

-- The same reason no one claims to want to watch reality television, yet it gets all the ratings.

People lie to themselves.

Dr Weevil said...

How about a 'reboot' election? Here's my suggestion:

1. Boot out 90% of incumbents.

2. Reverse every single executive order issued by Obama.

3. Pass a law that executive orders can only apply to members of the executive branch and that the rest of us can ignore any government order not passed as a law by both houses of Congress and signed by the President. The only executive orders left would cover things like when and for whom to fly flags at half-staff over federal buildings.

4. Repeal every single law passed since Obama was inaugurated and about the half the ones passed before that.

5. Do something similar about regulations.

Chuck said...

Every time I read Charles Blow, or listen to Michael Eric Dyson or Cornel West, I think of Damon Wayans' "In Living Color" character, "Oswald Bates":


Ann Althouse said...

"So why the interest, not just here, but around the blogs I read?"

My posts reveal exactly what I think is interesting.

I haven't read what other people are saying, so I can't discuss their interest. Are they just "retweeting," i.e., amplifying, what Blow said because they want to boost it or have they found actual interesting stuff worth exploring with independent discussion, as I have.

Henry said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Henry said...

The way Blow uses "continuity election" reminds me of the way the folks on the left came up with "super precedent." It's a ratchet mechanism.

Alex said...

Blow me Charles.

Ann Althouse said...

"Why would anyone want to elect incumbents, year in and year out?"

But the incumbent is unable to run for reelection. "Continuity election" refers to the party's continuing to hold power, not that the party's next nominee needs to run on continuity. She could present herself as the change person.

Remember how Al Gore distanced himself from Clinton? And McCain wasn't going on our desire for more Bush.

Ann Althouse said...

Obama himself often acts like he's an outsider trying to change things. If the guy in his second term doesn't even use the continuity theme, why should Hillary (or whoever) want to use it?

alan markus said...

If you want continuity in your healthcare plan, you can have continuity in your healthcare plan

TosaGuy said...

To paraphrase and build on a link by someone on a previous post.

We are a "divided nation" because a group of people with oversized public voices think I am an extremist because I value low taxes and the second amendment.

Larry J said...

Ignorance is Bliss said...

While I understand the concept of a change election, I hate the idea. Don't get me wrong, I very much dislike the way things are. But it's important to specify what you are changing to.

That was my response to the "hope and change" bilge during the 2008 election. Change isn't always for the better, such as going from employed to unemployed or grom living to dead.

"Where ignorance is bliss, tis folly to be wise."
- Thomas Gray

Michael K said...

I think I have it figured out. Could this have anything to do with all the interest in what he says?

Michael K said...


tim in vermont said...

"For those of us who think in terms of physics, change is a vector, not scalar, quantity."

Which is why physicists don't usually get elected. Much better to promise an amount of change with letting the voter fantasize about what the direction would be. Probably a lot of them thought they were voting to "change" the surveillance state.

mccullough said...

Obama's 2008 campaign was focused on running against W., even though he couldn't run for re-election.

I think H.W.'s run in 1988 was very much a "continuity election." It's the only successful one I can think of. Despite Eisenhower's and Clinton's relatively popularity, their VPs were unable to win.

Biden can try and run on the continuity theme. I don't see how Hillary can. She can't run as a continuation or as an outsider.

So H.W. is the only continuation election in a long time.

Bob Ellison said...

I kinda like the concept of the distinction between "continuity elections" and "change elections". Continuity would be 1998, and change would be 1992, for example. Change was definitely 2008. I'm not sure what the hell 2012 was.

The notion that "continuity" or "change" is the desired outcome betrays the myth of democracy: that the will of the people, and perhaps the best path forward for them, can at large can be discerned by a count of votes.

They might just be stupid. They might be ignorant, or they might like mob rule. They might want to kill the rich, or kill the poor, or kill some ethnic group.

So "continuity" v. "change" is a useful distinction. It passes no moral judgement on the election. It merely observes that the people were kinda disposed this way, rather than that. That's what 1996 seemed like to me.

Bob Ellison said...

Uh, *1988 (Bush Elder) election in my previous post, as a continuity example-- not 1998, a boring, non-POTUS year.

sunsong said...

I think it's too soon to determine what direction we will want to go in 2016. Change is happening so quickly and almost continuously in this decade I don't know if anyone can predict the outcome of the 2014 elections let alone where we'll be in 2016.

Bob R said...

I think I've read about the "change election" vs. "continuity election" using different language. Something about there being a small number of possible political campaigns. I think three were, "stay the course," "throw the bums out," and "a fresh new face." Obama's "change" campaign was a combination of the latter two.

Blow's use of "continuity election" seems aimed at giving NYT readers (a dwindling breed) the feeling of being "insiders." But I'm interested in the substance. Which Democrats could offer themselves as a "continuation" of the Obama administration? Is any likely to do so? Maybe Warren? I don't see Hillary doing it. I think either of those two will lean heavily on the "more X chromosomes" theme. I don't see either of them running a GHW Bush style campaign. Who else?

Bob Ellison said...

Bob R, what Charles Blow is hinting at is the difference between a "re-alignment" election and a normal one. The past sixteen years have been interesting. 2000 was no re-alignment. 2004 wasn't either, and it didn't really seem like a toast to the incumbent.

I think Obama and his minions think that 2008 was a re-alignment. The really big election then, though, was in 2006, when the Democrats re-took Congress. But then, in 2010, the GOP surged back.

If, in 2014, the GOP takes both houses of Congress, some folks will say it has a whiff of re-alignment. But things are changing so fast nowadays that nobody knows.

If the GOP takes both houses in 2014 and then wins the Presidency with strong coattails in 2016, then it will look like a re-alignment.

If neither happens, then whoa betide us all.

Dr Weevil said...

"I don't know if anyone can predict the outcome of the 2014 elections" seems to mean "I can't think of any way my side won't - and shouldn't - be totally crushed, but I'm hoping something will come up".

Bob Ellison said...

Oh, opps. "woe betide us". I just got off the piano; the fingers are too glib.

Ignorance is Bliss said...

I think it's too soon to determine what direction we will want to go in 2016. Change is happening so quickly and almost continuously in this decade I don't know if anyone can predict the outcome of the 2014 elections let alone where we'll be in 2016.

I predict, with great confidence, that after the 2014 elections a Democrat will be President, the House and Senate will contain too many Democrats, and too many of the Republicans that are there will be big government types.

I know which direction I want us to go in 2016.

Scott said...

Continuity election. Hah! The mendacity of hope.

In NYC, they changed the law just so that Michael Bloomberg could server a third term. I think the people of New York knew that there was no "continuity candidate" waiting in the wings -- that the city would be saddled with a Bill de Blasio and progressive decline. They wanted Bloomberg's competence for as long as it was seemly to keep him around.

So for Mr Blow* to be pothering about a "continuity election" shows how deranged he is. Does he really think that the electorate loves this abominable president so much that they want continuity in the administration? If there's that much support, then surely the country could repeal the 22nd Amendment to enable Obama to serve as long as he pleases. After all, he's Nelson Mandela's homeboy.

The NYT editorial board ought to take a sabbatical and move to Kansas City, to get a feel for what the real world is like.

*(A great name for a rapper.)

David said...

Obama is polite? Not really. There are so many little ways he shows disrespect for others.

Ask the Supreme Court justices. Or Congressman Ryan. Or the Netanyahu. Or the British Ambassador.

Ironclad said...

Charles Blow's columns are always definitely "Blow Jobs" for the latest DNC talking point. His and T, Coates columns in the Atlantic share the same "there's gotta be racism in there somewhere" perspective in everything they write.

Blow does get gushing praise in the comments though. Coates just deletes those that don't agree with him.

Scott said...

I don't think Ta-Nehisi Coates is a token in the way that Charles Blow and Ross Douthat are. But their opinions are about as predictable as the march of time, and lively as warm, flat Miller Lite.

Left Bank of the Charles said...

The plan was to embarrass and humiliate Bill Clinton into resigning so that Al Gore could take his place as President, run in 2000 as an incumbent, and serve for 2 more terms.

This little trick of state required finding a suitable young woman, putting her in the right place at the right time so as to let nature take its course, then moving her to an office with an old Bush hand.

Timing was very important. The impeachment trial had to take place after the 2 year mark in Clinton's second term, or Al Gore would be charged with that term against his 2 term limit. It had to occur early enough in the final 2 years for Al Gore to gain the mantle of incumbency before the start of the election cycle.

The Attorney General Janet Reno was likely in on the coup, which is why she authorized the expansion of the independent counsel investigation. Ken Starr was probably not in on it.

It was a vast left-wing conspiracy, design to replace the centrist Clintons with a committed socialist. Hillary substituted "right" as a way to let the conspirators publicly know they were onto them.

It almost worked. Bill Clinton's revenge was to throw the Florida vote in the 2000 election.

Left Bank of the Charles said...

You people think Charles Blow is writing about Chris Christie.

What Blowchucks is really writing about is whether his fellow socialists should challenge the nomination of Hillary Clinton.

The unironic way he says "We are working to fix a broken health care system" is laugh out loud funny.

But the real meat of it is when he says, "We are moving toward more equality for all. Income inequality has taken a proper place of prominence."

That's a dog whistle. If we start hearing that sort of thing from Hillary Clinton, we'll know she's heard it.