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Unwise Conventional Wisdom

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(credit: CBS)

(credit: CBS)

Written by Dominic Dezzutti

In a conversation on Thursday, a friend of mine asked me about what conventional wisdom had I heard lately that I believe isn’t terribly wise.

It’s a good question. Conventional wisdom, which is generally made up of beliefs that are considered to be true by the majority, is often based on assumptions that haven’t been tested against history and facts. After giving the question some thought, I arrived at a few pieces of conventional wisdom that I disagree with.

CW #1: President Obama’s approval polls show he’s a weakened president and at great risk of being a one term president.

As President Obama has struggled to find a solution to economic woes and navigate a Republican House, some pundits claim that his sinking approval ratings mean his second term is in serious jeopardy. However, while his second term is by no means guaranteed, the pundits that believe low approval numbers alone will make Obama vulnerable don’t remember their history very well.

Defeating an incumbent may not seem rare since George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter both suffered that fate in the last forty years. But both of those incumbents faced unique, iconic opponents and more importantly, other major forces.

For Jimmy Carter, the hostages in Iran did as much to defeat him as Reagan did. And for Bush, the economy was bad, but Ross Perot was the overwhelming factor in his defeat to Bill Clinton. If the eventual GOP nominee hopes to defeat Obama, he or she will need another major force in order to make that a reality. Conventional wisdom needs to take that into account before President Obama is written off as a one termer.

CW #2: The low approval rating of Congress means most voters want a new Congressperson.

Our collective opinion of Congress is a funny thing. Gridlock seems to frustrate voters, as does one party running roughshod over the other. It seems we’re rarely happy.

But voters can also have a very negative opinion of the body of Congress, and actually approve of their own Congressperson. This is why the conventional wisdom that the approval ratings of Congress matter is wrong. If the overall approval rating of Congress meant that voters wanted wholesale changes, there wouldn’t be so many Congress people who have been there for decades.

But negative approval ratings of Congress are a handy weapon when comparing them with the President, especially when the two are at odds. That’s the reason they make news. But I do not put much stock into the conventional wisdom that says that they mean much more than that.

CW #3: The only influential candidates in a primary are the frontrunners.

Elections are about finding winners. There isn’t a prize for second place, and no bronze medal for third. So it’s natural to believe the conventional wisdom that says the frontrunners in any primary are the only players that make a difference. That belief is why naming the frontrunner is so important and why we don’t hear about the others in the race.

However, Rep. Ron Paul, who is currently polling in third place, is setting that conventional wisdom on its ear. In national polls for the Republican presidential primary, Paul is solidly in third place. He’s not a frontrunner, but he’s separated himself from the single digit also-rans. He is unlikely to be able to raise the amount of money and support that it will take to win the overall primary, however, he is setting himself up to be an attractive and influential vice presidential selection.

As the darling of the Libertarian party, Paul is a good way for the eventual nominee to secure Tea Party support. And since Paul has been a vocal critic of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, he also offers a bridge to unaffiliated voters who are tired of defense spending. In a nutshell, Rep. Ron Paul is singlehandedly making conventional wisdom seem unwise.

Conventional wisdom is not always wrong, however, it is far from perfect. It’s important to remember that when wild pronouncements are made in the name of conventional wisdom, especially around elections. Listening to conventional wisdom is fine, just as long as we remember our history and take all of it with a grain of salt.

About The Blogger

- Dominic Dezzutti, producer of the Colorado Decides debate series, a co-production of CBS4 and Colorado Public Television, looks at the local and national political scene in his CBSDenver.com blog. Read new entries here every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Dezzutti writes about federal, state and local matters and how our elected leaders are handling the issues important to Colorado. Dezzutti also produces the Emmy winning Colorado Inside Out, hosted by Raj Chohan, on Colorado Public Television.

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