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RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

HorseRaceBlog Home Page --> February 2009

Should The GOP Be The Party of No?

Over at Politico, Charles Mathesian and Patrick O'Connor don't exactly answer the title question, but they offer an extended meditation on it.

After near-unanimous Republican congressional opposition to President Barack Obama's stimulus package and a week dominated by headlines of GOP governors poised to reject stimulus funding, House Republicans followed up with another resounding "no" on the $410 billion omnibus spending package Wednesday.

This time, though, 16 members broke from the party line on a vote Minority Whip Eric Cantor had urged his colleagues to reject. And the cracks in the facade appear to be the first public signal of Republican rank-and-file squeamishness with a remarkably high-risk strategy that promises an uncertain return.

For Republicans, a central question looms: Is saying no to Obama's agenda the way to get voters to say yes to an already beleaguered GOP brand?

I'm not sure how they infer that 16 defections is a sign of "squeamishness" with the party's "remarkably high-risk strategy." This seems more like a literary device to push the thesis of the story, but let's finish their summary of the Republican situation.

Despite two consecutive election thrashings, and despite Obama's high approval ratings and their own low standing, Republicans have wagered that the return to the majority is paved by unwavering opposition to further spending, an audacious bet that won't pay out for another 21 months.

If Republicans are right, the economy will remain in tatters and voters will recognize in 2010 that the recovery was delayed by profligate Democrats and their president.

If the GOP is wrong, however, and the economy begins to show signs of life, the resistance will be easily framed as reflexive obstructionism, the last gasp of an intellectually bankrupt party.

There are a couple points I'd like to make. Mathesian and O'Connor are discussing an interesting subject - what's a party in the minority to do - but they overlook the core dilemma the Republicans face.

First of all, they have not framed the topic appropriately. While it is true that the party leadership has some influence over members of Congress - the authors implicitly overstate the power of the congressional party leadership. Ultimately, members are concerned with their own reelection before they are concerned with winning a majority. They have to be. If the party wins a majority next Congress, but they are defeated, what good does the majority do them?

So, when we are looking at these kinds of votes, we need to place the individual legislator at the forefront. I'd suggest that unanimity in the Republican caucus does not necessarily imply partisan coercion or servile adherence to the leadership's strategy. We can explain these no votes based on the individual incentives of Republican legislators. Consider:

(1) This House Republican caucus is about 50 members smaller than it was in the 109th. This means that its members are, on average, in safer districts. They can oppose Democratic-sponsored measures without as much fear of political payback. Indeed, supporting them might get these members in more trouble.

(2) If the economy improves, will individual legislators be seen as "reflexive obstructionists?" I'm not sure. Again, these members are in some of the most Republican places in the country. But, more than that, they have not really obstructed anything - the legislative measures are still going through.

(3) Additionally, it's easy for individual legislators to claim credit for good times. Few people understand how the House really works, which makes it easy to take responsibility for the good and shirk it for the bad. This is one reason popular Presidents do not to make major gains in midterm elections. When times are good, people have a "status quo" sentiment - and everybody in office can benefit from that.

(4) Suppose that some members are indeed voting based on a bet about the economy. That bet is going to be made in part on whether they think these bills are going to do much good. Republican partisans tend not to think that they will. We should expect Republicans legislators to think similarly - and thus be inclined to vote nay.

Let's turn to a discussion of what's good for the GOP as a whole. What should they be doing? Mathesian and O'Connor suggest that voting no is not necessarily the optimal strategy because it might make them seem "reflexively obstructionist." I would argue that voting no is the optimal strategy, but that does not mean it is a particularly good one. Instead, it's the best among a set of lousy options Republicans have.

I have written before on this site of the value of distinct party labels. I think that is what the GOP needs to develop. The only way the Republicans return to power is if the public becomes dissatisfied with Democrats and sees the Republicans as offering a satisfactory alternative. The assumption there is that the public has a clear view of where both parties stand - in other words, distinct party identities. They're not a sufficient condition of a Republican return, but I'd suggest they are a necessary condition.

These labels are maintained via a two step process: (a) pretty much everybody on one side agrees with each other and (b) disagrees with pretty much everybody on the other side. This is what congressional Republicans are doing with these no votes. They are generating clear distinctions with the other side.

The problem is that they are doing this by voting no. Why can't they do it by voting yes? Well, if the voted yes - they wouldn't be distinguishing themselves from Democrats!

This is the biggest reason why the minority is such a lousy place to be: you have no control over the agenda. This is the case for the House, where Nancy Pelosi and Democratic committee chairs are in charge of what get's voted on and what doesn't. It's also the case for the national debate. The stimulus bill was a case in point. House Republicans shocked pretty much everybody by voting unanimously in the negative. Suddenly, the national "agenda" shifted to talk about what was wrong the bill. What happened next? The President went on the road to pitch the necessity of the bill, then he held a primetime press conference to pitch the necessity of the bill, and the national agenda shifted to talk about why the bill was so necessary. That's the bully pulpit at work.

This is what happens when you're a unified minority facing a unified majority. You're left voting no - and journalists like Mathesian and O'Connor suggest that you look reflexively obstructionist. It stinks, but it is still the best option available. Republicans are not going to get back to power by being indistinguishable from the party in power. "An echo, not a choice" is a losing strategy.

More broadly, the party needs to find a way to inject its affirmative ideas into the national discussion. According to Byron York, Republican leaders recognize the need for this:

"You're seeing a major doctrinal shift in how Republicans are going to focus all these debates," the strategist told me [York]. "The key is to focus on winning the issue as opposed to winning the political moment. If you win the issue, people will think you are ready to govern."

I asked him to elaborate a little. "With the political moment, it's how can you find the one thing that gives you the momentary upper hand in terms of the coverage for the next six hours -- as opposed to engaging the electorate in creating a structural change in their opinion on which party is better able to handle an issue."

This is easier said than done. A President with an approval rating in the 60s can suck the oxygen out of the room pretty quickly, and that's what happened with the GOP's alternative stimulus plan. Nevertheless, that does not mean Republicans should not try to inject their ideas. Even if they fail more often than they succeed - and so long as the President is this popular, they will - at least they will be ready for when opportunities present themselves.

This, I'd suggest, is the core dilemma that faces the Republican Party, just as it does any party in the minority: they do not control the political agenda in any way, shape, manner or form. This is how President Obama and Speaker Pelosi can make them appear to be the party of nothing but no, even if they actually do have affirmative ideas. Facing a unified Democratic Party with a popular president and large majorities in government - Republicans are shut out, and not just of crafting legislation. They're also effectively shut out of the public discussion. All they can do is vote on Democratic bills - and wait patiently for the right moment to assert themselves again.

-Jay Cost

Michael Steele's Empty Threat

I have been talking over the last few weeks about the impotence of the national party units - particularly the national committees (see previous posts here and here).

Yesterday provided a great example of what I've been talking about. On his Fox News show, Neil Cavuto asked RNC Chairman what "retribution" the RNC would "exact" on the Republicans who defected on the stimulus bill.

This is an excellent test of party power. Here we have an important vote where nearly 99% of the Republican congressional caucus was in agreement. Does the national party possess the power to hold the defectors to account?

The answer from Steele...not really. Plenty of bluster, but nothing to worry any of the defectors (H/T Ben Smith):

So much for the RNC exercising political power on this one. Steele will do what the state parties will do. My hunch is that, at most, the state party would be neutral in the primaries.

But let's look at this from a worst-case scenario for a guy like Arlen Specter. Suppose the state party says, "Forget it! We're not with you!" The RNC follows suit. How much cash will Specter be missing out on?

We can answer this by looking at Specter's fundraising balance sheet from 2004. This will give us a sense of just how much the senior senator from Pennsylvania stands to lose, should the state party and the RNC bail on him.

In the 2004 cycle, Arlen Specter raised $14,953,355 in direct contributions. Of that, zero dollars came directly from the RNC. The state party made a $4,500 in-kind contribution. Additionally, a handful of Republican-sympathetic PACs* tossed in $5,000 apiece. There was nearly half a million dollars in coordinated contributions that the Republican Party as a whole spent - these are dollars that the Specter campaign and the party unit making the donation have a say in how they are spent. The RNC was responsible for about $38,000 of this and the state party was responsible for nothing.

Most of the party's effort came via the National Republican Senatorial Committee - the party's arm in the upper chamber. It spearheads the campaign for the Senate while the National Republican Congressional Committee does the same with the House. The RNC and the state parties usually play second fiddle - though in some years, like 1994, there has been a good bit of coordination.

Don't expect the NRSC to balk this cycle at helping Specter, who made a point (as most safe incumbents do) to help his fellow Senate Republicans in 2004. He gave tens of thousands of dollars to Ben Campbell, Jim Bunning, Charles Grassley, Bob Bennett, Don Nickles, Mike Crapo, Kit Bond, and Sam Brownback. He can expect to receive in return, should he need it this cycle. That's how it works.

Suppose, however, that the whole party apparatus gets behind Michael Steele and the Pennsylvania Republican Party to boycott Specter. What then? Even with all of these party dollars withheld, there is a simple, stark fact: an overwhelming majority of Specter's resources came from non-party sources in 2004, and the same will assuredly hold this cycle. He raised nearly $12 million from individuals and $3 million from PACs in 2004. By the end of 2008, he already had $5.8 million banked. Party dollars are barely a drop in Specter's bucket.

Bottom line: Arlen Specter does not need the Republican Party organizations - not the state party, not the RNC, and not even the NRSC. If anything, they need him. Michael Steele might be "open to everything," but the fact of the matter is that he's a paper tiger on this one. If Republicans are sick and tired of this, they need to focus on reshaping the rules that govern the relationship between party and candidates. Right now, they are geared almost exclusively for the benefit of candidates at the expense of the party.

* - Update, 6:30 PM - An earlier draft of this post erroneously stated that the Republican Issues Campaign PAC received $5,000 from the Republican National Committee in 2004. I regret the error.

-Jay Cost

Stay Classy, Jim Bunning! (or, Why I Hate the Party Primary)

Josh Kraushaar of Politico noted the following this morning (h/t Hot Air):

Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), already in political trouble for 2010, didn't help matters any over the weekend.

At a Lincoln Day Dinner speech over the weekend, Bunning predicted that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg would likely be dead from pancreatic cancer in nine months, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal.

The paper reports that Bunning reiterated his support of conservative judges, saying "that's going to be in place very shortly because Ruth Bader Ginsburg...has cancer."

"Bad cancer. The kind you don't get better from," Bunning went on. "Even though she was operated on, usually nine months is the longest that anybody would live after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer."

This item must have Republicans everywhere groaning. After all, the Senate landscape is not too favorable to the GOP in 2010. Because 2004 was a good year for them, they have to play a lot of defense in 2010. Kentucky was one of the most Republican-leaning states in 2008, but Republicans are worried about holding Bunning's seat because this kind of stuff is par for the course with him.

In fact, Republican leaders are so concerned about Bunning that they are actually thinking about sponsoring a primary run against him. Krashaar continues:

News of his comments comes as Bunning continues to take fire from the very Senate campaign committee tasked to help his re-election. PolitickerKY, a Kentucky-based political website, reported that state Senate President David Williams met with officials at the National Republican Senatorial Committee to explore a primary campaign against Bunning.

The report suggested that operatives of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell were working to assist Williams in a potential primary campaign -- and that McConnell's pollster is commissioning a survey to assess Williams' viability against Bunning.

This might not be an easy feat. Primary campaigns like this are typically expensive, and they often fail to oust the incumbent. See, for instance, Don Young's victory in his primary battle last cycle. What's more, if the Kentucky GOP cannot induce Williams to jump into the fight - or find somebody else who could raise the cash and seem like a viable alternative - Bunning might waltz through his primary, just as Ted Stevens did that year.

This is one big reason I do not understand why partisans on both sides suffer the primary process. It has become one of many mechanisms that effectively guarantee incumbents will be on the general election ballot. What this means, in turn, is that the party usually has to tolerate guys like Don Sherwood, Stevens, and Bunning. There is no "low cost" way for Republicans to hold their incumbents accountable, which means only the Democrats do. And the same goes with Democrats when their incumbents behave badly.

Simply put, primaries are good for politicians, bad for the parties, and therefore bad for the tens of millions of people who sympathize with one party or the other. For all the talk that I hear from partisans about keeping their leaders accountable, I hardly hear any discussion about the primaries - and how inefficient they are at keeping them in line. Once a politician wins election, it becomes much more difficult for the party to make him responsible to the party. And in the case of a guy like Bunning, most Republicans have probably been reduced to praying that he'll just drop out - that's how little power they have over their elected officials.

It wasn't always like this. The parties used to control nominations via the convention process. This was one innovation of the Jacksonian party system. The problem, of course, was that the nomination process was captured, then corrupted, by oligarchic "machines." As the late, great V.O. Key once put it:

The convention system was susceptible to control and management [by small cliques of men working in concert toward a common end], and party organizations and factions soon set about to determine the outcome of the representative process within the party.

The solution, instituted starting around the turn of the last century, was the primary system. Progressive reformers believed that more democracy was the cure to this corruption. The problem, in my opinion, is that the progressive reformers didn't just kill the disease plaguing the party organizations. They killed the party organizations, too. And indeed, Key himself found evidence of this. In districts with primaries where one party had a modest, but not overwhelming advantage, Key noticed that the out-party had a tendency to wither and die, so that it couldn't provide a serious challenge when it had a real chance. The reason? Eliminating the convention process eliminated a big reason for the party to exist and maintain itself in the district. So, it fizzled.

And, of course, changes in the way campaigns work created a problem with the primaries that nobody could have seen coming. The move to a mass media campaign meant that the race for office was largely determined by the race for dollars. Combine that with the Federal Elections Campaign Act and the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (aka McCain-Feingold), and you get the following, perverse result. To defeat a pantload like Bunning in the primary, you have to raise an ungodly sum of cash, but you have to find many sources of money because of the extreme restrictions placed on campaign donations. These restrictions inherently favor incumbents who, being in Washington and knowing lots of the "right" people, can cobble together millions of dollars based upon modest $5,000 contributions. This is Congress' idea of campaign "reform," which always seems to favor congressional incumbents! A strange coincidence, isn't it?

For the life of me, I don't know why party activists put up with this nonsense. Sure, our politics is mostly determined by the Republican-Democrat cleavage. But there are other cleavages as well, like the divide between partisans and party candidates, which has a lot in common with the principal-agent problem (or, how can the principal ensure that his agent behaves responsibly?). Partisans everywhere have an interest in exerting more control over the incumbents who have the privilege of carrying the party banner into the general election, and yet they have allowed those incumbents to establish rules that work for them. It seems to me that if the party had better mechanisms to watch its incumbents, and hold them accountable before the other side has a chance to, they'd be much better off.

Yet the public discussion is essentially bereft of talk of reforming our electoral institutions. I hear lots of people complain about guys like Bunning, but I hardly hear anybody talk about changing the rules as a way to solve the problem. I'm not saying a wide scale return to the convention process is the best idea - though frankly I think it has some merit - but I do think some changes to the process are necessary. What is needed is a way to make it less costly and less risky for the party to monitor and hold accountable its own elected representatives.

Scholars of the contemporary American party like to say that it's "in service" to its candidates, especially its incumbents. Shouldn't it be the other way around, at least for jackasses like Bunning?

-Jay Cost

Three Cheers for Partisanship!

Political polarization has been on the rise in the last few years. I recently completed an analysis of presidential elections that showed it to have bottomed out in 1988, but steadily rising in the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush years. By the metrics I used, 2008 was the most polarized presidential election in recent history.

It's also been on the rise in Congress. The following picture is from Keith Poole's excellent website on congressional ratings, and it is taken from the page that summarizes the book he co-authored with Nolan McCarthy and Howard Rosenthal, Polarized America. It shows the average ideological score for Republicans and Democrats in the House going back to the 1870s:

House Party Means.jpg

A picture tells a thousand words.

It was in this polarized political climate that Barack Obama announced his intention of running for President back in January, 2007. In his introductory video, he said the following:

But challenging as they are, it's not the magnitude of our problems that concerns me the most - it's the smallness of our politics. America's faced big problems before, but today our leaders in Washington seem incapable of working together in a practical, commonsense way. Politics has become so bitter and partisan, so gummed up by money and influence, that we can't tackle the big problems that demand solutions. And that's what we have to change first. We have to change our politics, and come together around our common interests and concerns as Americans.

At the time, I took this to be Obama's argument as to why he should be elected President as opposed to anybody else who wanted the job. He was always going to have his work cut out for him. By their methodology, Poole and Rosenthal found that the 110th Senate was the most polarized since Reconstruction.

For better or worse, Obama's promise of bipartisanship has yet to be fulfilled, as the vote on the stimulus bill demonstrates. We'll see how the 111th Congress ultimately rates, but it's off to a great start to beat the 110th as the most polarized since Reconstruction.

Last week, I argued that bipartisanship was easy to talk about, but much harder to achieve. It frequently conflicts with honest differences of opinion in visions of the public good. It can conflict with the personal goals of ambitious politicians. And, the easiest bipartisanship "compromise" - the status quo - is often unacceptable to the mass public. All of these factors seem to have conspired to divide the stimulus vote in Congress pretty neatly along party lines. With bipartisanship not dead but not at all well, I want to take an opportunity on President's Day to argue: who cares? Bipartisanship is overrated, anyway!

The first point I'd make is that bipartisanship is not the only solution for our political problems. We have other methods that have served us well in the past. Typically, one of the reasons people extol the virtues of bipartisanship is that it is a way to break up gridlock. The same old, same old crowd in Washington isn't getting stuff done, and we need both sides to put down their petty differences and just do it. But we have other ways to get Washingtonians moving in the direction we want. We call them elections. In fact, just 22 months after the House of Representatives is seated, every member of that body will stand for reelection. This can be a very effective way to get things done. Just compare the 103rd Congress to the 104th, and now the 109th to the 111th.

Elections can break up gridlock, but that doesn't mean that they all do. Most of them don't. But is that a bad thing? I've argued many times on this page that gridlock is a predictable result, given our constitutional system. The Framers were very concerned about one faction rolling another faction in our country, thus destroying true republican government. The solution they settled upon was to pit power against power in a divided system. The idea behind it was that, when there is a broad coalition that favored a change in the status quo, our system would allow that change to go through. Otherwise, expect there to be gridlock, which is really just a signal that some faction has used its power to thwart another faction. If the Framers had employed slogan writers, they might have called it, "Pluralism we can believe in!"

Second point. Ideally speaking, bipartisanship has some real benefits. But when we view it in practical terms - above all with an eye toward the way the average voter actually behaves - we see some serious drawbacks. Political scientists have discovered at least one consistent theme about the American voter in the sixty or so years they have been using the scientific survey: he doesn't know terribly much about politics. Think of all those surveys you hear of where the average respondent can't name a single Supreme Court Justice, and you'll know exactly what I'm talking about.

We can bemoan the state of the average American's political knowledge all we want, but that doesn't mean we can do much about it. This is America, after all. If Joe doesn't want to know anything about politics, it's his right. The more interesting question is this: given his ignorance, how does the average voter nevertheless make a decision about whom to support? Answer: political parties! Think of it this way. Joe can't name a single member of Congress (beyond perhaps his own), doesn't know a single Supreme Court Justice, and needs a minute or two to remember the Vice President's name. But he knows that the Democratic Party is generally for expanding government and the Republican Party is generally for shrinking it. Does he have enough information to make a reasonably informed choice? I'd say yes - that more often than not he'll pick the party that corresponds with his own interests that cycle. In other words, the party label is a heuristic device, a mental shortcut that helps low information voters make a reasonably informed choice.

So, here's the next question: what would happen if our politicians were suddenly afflicted with severe bipartisanship? We might achieve some happy, short term political benefits, as everybody makes nice with everybody else, but over time we might be hurt. If the party label is a heuristic device that low info voters use to guide their decisions, it has to be maintained. You do that in two ways: everybody on your side (a) agrees with each other, and (b) disagrees with everybody on the other side. If this happens both on the campaign trail and in government, low info voters will be able to intuit clear differences between the parties, and thus be able to make a more informed choice. Bipartisanship means that the two sides are agreeing more often with each other (and there's probably more disagreement within each side, too). After a while, low info voters might not be able to tease out any differences between the parties, and then it'll be just as Ralph Nader (and Bob Dylan) said: a choice between Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum.

What if the median position on the Republican side is where Norm Coleman generally stands and the median position on the Democratic side is where Ben Nelson stands, but both sides still have diehards like Jim DeMint and Russ Feingold? Congress might be able to get a lot done in the short term, but in the long term average voters are going to have a hard time keeping them accountable, as they'd be less able to differentiate which side stands for what. Decrease democratic accountability, and you decrease the odds that Congress is working for the people.

With all of the special interests and moneyed groups trolling around the halls of Congress as I write this, we need to remember that partisanship is one of the precious few things in Congress that actually works for the people generally. It's a way for average folks to hold members of Congress accountable. Bipartisanship might be good in the short term, but in the long term it might interfere with our limited abilities to keep the legislature in line.

And if you don't much care for the party line vote on H.R. 1 we witnessed last week, you might appreciate it come November, 2010. After all, it is crystal clear who supported what measures to adopt in pursuit of recovery. In 21 months, if the economy has recovered to our satisfaction - swing voters will know to credit the Democrats. If it hasn't, they'll know to blame them. Their vote choices will be reasonably informed, even if they spend more time reading Us Weekly than US News.

-Jay Cost

The Plusses and Minuses of Campaigning

Earlier this week, I argued that the President was taking a bit of a risk by heading out on the campaign trail in support of the bill. It might enable him to get in front of his political opponents - making full use of the bully pulpit - but it might also be difficult to reconcile the image of the President to the campaigner-in-chief.

So, some upsides and some downsides. After a week of campaigning for the bill, we've seen a bit of both from the President.

First, huge upside - there's evidence that it helped the stimulus bill. From Rasmussen Reports:

The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 44% of U.S. voters now support the plan while 40% are opposed. A week ago, just 37% favored the legislation, and 43% were opposed.

House and Senate negotiators are putting the final touches on a plan now expected to cost $789 billion and hope to have the president sign it into law on Monday.

The latest data shows that support for the president is closely linked to support for the stimulus plan. Among those who Strongly Approve of Obama's job performance, 84% favor the stimulus plan, and four percent (4%) are opposed. Among those who Somewhat Approve of the president's performance, 39% favor the stimulus plan, while 30% are opposed.

It's unclear whether the stumping brought the President any more votes in Congress - but I'm not sure that matters. The President doesn't want the country souring on his first major legislative measure, which is what appeared to have been happening. By stumping for it this week, it looks like he boosted its numbers at least for a few days, which is all that matters. The bill will pass today and public debate on it will effectively end with the country being in favor of it.

The downside I suggested this week is one that would only come (assuming it ever does) after a while. How will the country react to a President who persistently hits the campaign trail? We don't know yet. But of course one of the problems with the campaign trail is that the chances for gaffes increases, and the President had a non-trivial one:

President Obama today repeated the claim we asked about yesterday at the press briefing that Jim Owens, the CEO of Caterpillar, Inc., "said that if Congress passes our plan, this company will be able to rehire some of the folks who were just laid off."

Caterpillar announced 22,000 layoffs last month.

But after the president left the event, Owens said the exact opposite.

Asked if the stimulus package would be able to stop the 22,000 layoffs or not, Owens said, "I think realistically no. The truth is we're going to have more layoffs before we start hiring again"

"It is going to take some time before that stimulus bill" means re-hiring, he said.

Whoops. And the mix-up concerns jobs as opposed to daises or bunnyrabbits - so it's one of those mistakes that people will notice. That's the sort of thing that is bound to happen on the campaign trail, even if you're the President.

This week, I'd say, definite net plus for the President on the campaign trail. Whether or not we'll be able to say that about every week he's stumping for his legislative program remains to be seen. And I'd note that the White House sees more campaigning in the near future:

Obama plans to travel more and campaign more in an effort to pressure lawmakers with public support, rather than worrying about whether he can win over Republican votes in Congress. Officials suggested that the new, more partisan tone Obama embraced last week in his speech before House Democrats at their retreat and continued at his news conference Monday was what he should have been doing all along.

Welcome to the permanent campaign!

-Jay Cost

Follow Up To Yesterday's Post

Over at the Washington Monthly, Steve Benen raises a fair objection to my post from yesterday. He notes that amendments to the stimulus bills in both chambers that would have replaced the bill with tax cuts received broad support from the Republican caucus - and argues that this is pushback to the following point I made:

Who's arguing that "tax cuts alone" will solve this problem? Even if some are, is this the median position on the Republican side? Is this the position of the more moderate members of the GOP Senate caucus like Lugar, Voinovich, and Murkowski? How about moderate House Republicans like Kirk, LoBiondo, and Castle? We might count it as bipartisanship if Obama had picked up a few of them, but he didn't.

Benen's criticism has merit. I should have been more careful in my word choice, particularly in the use of the phrase "median position." That suggests the ideal policy outcome preferred above all others by the median Republican legislator. I think the President mischaracterized the median Republican's preference in several instances during the course of his presser - but that might not be the case here, as evidenced by the roll call Benen cites.

A handful of votes is thin gruel when trying to identify legislators' ideal points, which is what Benen attempts in his response. After all, on any given roll call vote legislators with preferences on a continuum of alternatives must make a binary choice (yes or no) between just two options (the status quo and the alternative in question). This makes it difficult to estimate what legislators ideally prefer. So, the roll call vote Benen cites might indicate that the ideal position of the median Republican legislator is indeed "tax cutes alone." But maybe not. All it means is that legislators preferred the bill as amended to the unamended version. And even this assumes that these legislators were not voting strategically, e.g. they were not posturing to say that they supported an alternative knowing full well it would fail.

Allow me to rephrase my objection by returning to the President's opening remarks. I think that what he tries to do is box the opposition into oversimplified categories that he then dismisses. He outlines three options: "government alone," "tax cuts alone," and his middle-of-the-road alternative as the manifestly superior course of action. However, that's not the full set of options. In fact, there could be many proposals that, like his, fall between the poles. Even if we do not know what the median Republican legislator ideally prefers, it is quite likely that many Republicans (Lugar, Kirk, etc.) could have been brought aboard some other compromise in the middle.

A good example is what happened in the Senate on debate over this bill. The Democrats picked up a few Republicans by small alternations to the House bill. What's to say more alterations could not have picked up even more? Another good example is last year's stimulus bill, which offered rebates to taxpayers, as well as $300 to "[p]eople who paid no income taxes but earned at least $3,000 -- including through Social Security or veterans' disability benefits." That bill received broad support from both parties. So, even in "the last eight years," Republicans have supported more than "tax cuts alone" to address economic problems.

-Jay Cost

The President Attacks a Republican Straw Man

President Obama, as we all know, made bipartisanship a central theme of his campaign last year. Yet he was unable to pull in many Republicans on the stimulus bill. In the wake of this, some have suggested that the President's bipartisan success will be in changing the tone. This is what Alex MacGillis and Paul Kane wrote last week on the front page of the Washington Post:

But the White House did not view the rejection of Obama's initial bid at fostering bipartisanship as a stinging disappointment. Even as Obama was unable to pick up their votes, he was left with many Republicans praising his outreach. And judging by Obama's record, it is this tone of mutual respect that -- at least for now -- he may be after as much as actual votes on bills he could pass without significant GOP backing. [Snip]

When Obama called for an end to "broken and divided politics," his Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), and others contended that there were few instances in Obama's career when he had made major concessions that upset fellow Democrats to reach agreement with Republicans.

But this, said some who have worked with Obama, overlooked his intent. To Obama, they said, fixing "broken politics" is less about making concessions just for the sake of finding common ground and more about elevating the debate -- replacing cynical gamesmanship and immature name-calling with intellectually honest arguments and respect for the other side's motives. In his book "The Audacity of Hope," Obama waxes nostalgic about the fellowship and vigorous debate of Congress's halcyon days in the mid-20th century more than about the centrist deals the era produced.

If this is the bipartisan direction the President intends to head in, I think that could be a good thing - and, in the long run, it could produce policy compromises as both sides begin to believe that the other is treating them in good faith.

Unfortunately, I do not think last night's press conference was helpful in achieving this goal. Time and again, I noted that the President engaged in a rhetorical maneuver commonly called "attacking a straw man." That's what you do when you mischaracterize your opponent's position, and you refute the mischaracterization rather than what your opponent really thinks.

Ed Morrissey and Mary Katharine Ham noted the same trend during the presser, and I want to take some time to amplify this point. The first instance came in his introductory remarks:

But as we've learned very clearly and conclusively over the last eight years, tax cuts alone can't solve all of our economic problems, especially tax cuts that are targeted to the wealthiest few Americans. We have tried that strategy time and time again, and it's only helped lead us to the crisis we face right now.

Who's arguing that "tax cuts alone" will solve this problem? Even if some are, is this the median position on the Republican side? Is this the position of the more moderate members of the GOP Senate caucus like Lugar, Voinovich, and Murkowski? How about moderate House Republicans like Kirk, LoBiondo, and Castle? We might count it as bipartisanship if Obama had picked up a few of them, but he didn't. Is it because this is their position? I don't think so.

The following came in his answer to AP's Jennifer Loven:

Some of the criticisms really are with the basic idea that government should intervene at all in this moment of crisis. Now, you have some people, very sincere, who philosophically just think the government has no business interfering in the marketplace. And, in fact, there are several who've suggested that FDR was wrong to interfere back in the New Deal. They're fighting battles that I thought were resolved a pretty long time ago.

Again, this characterization might be valid for a minority on the Republican side - but I have not heard anybody serious criticize the idea that the government should not intervene. George W. Bush's tax cuts early in this decade were sold in part as government intervention to ameliorate recession - and Republicans loved that. The difference between the sides is in the strategy for intervention, not the principle that the government has the authority to intervene, or that intervention is imprudent. The real debate is not whether intervention should happen, but how it should happen.

He made a similar comment in response to Chip Reid:

As I said, the one concern I've got on the stimulus package, in terms of the debate and listening to some of what's been said in Congress, is that there seems to be a set of folks who -- I don't doubt their sincerity -- who just believe that we should do nothing.

Now, if that's their opening position or their closing position in negotiations, then we're probably not going to make much progress, because I don't think that's economically sound and I don't think what -- that's what the American people expect, is for us to stand by and do nothing.

Again, who is seriously arguing that nothing should be done?

The President then said this:

There are others who recognize that we've got to do a significant recovery package, but they're concerned about the mix of what's in there. And if they're sincere about it, then I'm happy to have conversations about this tax cut versus that -- that tax cut or this infrastructure project versus that infrastructure project.

If they are sincere? This fits back into a previous comment he made (not quoted here) about "the usual political games." The implication seems to be that there is some subset of members in opposition who are insincere, who are playing the usual political games and not genuinely interested in the best bill possible. Who fits this profile?

This is not really attacking a straw man, but it is a related rhetorical maneuver called ad hominem attack, wherein you go after personal qualities of your opponent rather than the argument s/he is making. Additionally, the attack is so vague that it is essentially unfalsifiable. He's not singling out anybody in particular, so it is impossible to refute the charge.

He then said this:

This is another concern that I've had in some of the arguments that I'm hearing. When people suggest that, "What a waste of money to make federal buildings more energy-efficient." Why would that be a waste of money?

We're creating jobs immediately by retrofitting these buildings or weatherizing 2 million Americans' homes, as was called for in the package, so that right there creates economic stimulus.

And we are saving taxpayers when it comes to federal buildings potentially $2 billion. In the case of homeowners, they will see more money in their pockets. And we're reducing our dependence on foreign oil in the Middle East. Why wouldn't we want to make that kind of investment?

Now, maybe philosophically you just don't think that the federal government should be involved in energy policy. I happen to disagree with that; I think that's the reason why we find ourselves importing more foreign oil now than we did back in the early '70s when OPEC first formed.

Is this really the opposition's argument? To my ears, they're asserting that things like this, while they might be worthy, are not stimulative - and they should be implemented via the normal legislative process.

And who thinks the federal government should not be involved in energy policy? And even if somebody did think that, how does that relate to energy efficiency in government buildings? Is there anybody arguing that because the government should not meddle in the economy to secure greater energy efficiency, they shouldn't put new windows in the J. Edgar Hoover Building? That makes no sense at all.

Finally, in his response to Mara Liasson, the President again questioned the intentions of his opposition:

Well, as I said before, Mara, I think that old habits are hard to break. And we're coming off an election, and I think people want to sort of test the limits of -- of what they can get. You know, there's a lot of jockeying in this town, and a lot of "who's up and who's down," and positioning for the next election. [Snip]

One thing that I think is important is to recognize that, because all these -- all these items that you listed are hard, that people have to break out of some of the ideological rigidity and gridlock that we've been carrying around for too long. [Snip]

I think there are a lot of Republicans who are sincere in recognizing that, unless we deal with entitlements in a serious way, the problems we have with this year's deficit and next year's deficit pale in comparison to what we're going to be seeing 10 or 15 years or 20 years down the road.

And so when I hear people just saying, "Ah, we don't need to do anything," "This is a spending bill, not a stimulus bill," without acknowledging that, by definition, part of any stimulus package would include spending -- that's the point -- then what I get a sense of is, is that there's some ideological blockage there that needs to be cleared up.

Note the first line of the third paragraph: "a lot of Republicans" are sincere. Implication: plenty of them aren't, too. They are testing the limits, trying to get everything they can as a prelude to the next election.

The final paragraph actually links the two rhetorical maneuvers I've indicated. He mischaracterizes the Republican position, then dismisses it by saying that they are ideologically blocked (whatever that means).

So, time and again in this press conference, we saw the President mischaracterize the Republican position. That's not to say that no Republicans (or conservatives) hold the views that the President claimed they do (though I don't think anybody is opposed to modernizing government buildings!). The point is that none of these views reflect the median Republican position, let alone the "left-leaning" position of the kinds of Republicans who could be brought into a Democrat-led initiative like this stimulus bill.

Now, I've singled the President out not because he is the only politician who engages in this kind of maneuvering. Far from it! In fact, these rhetorical maneuvers are the stock in trade of debate in Washington. Politicos "win" arguments by mischaracterizing their opponents' positions and/or attacking their personal motivations. That's just how the game is played.

The problem is that - as MacGillis and Kane argue - Obama's objective is to change the tone, making it more civil. If he wants to see that happen, he needs to stop making such assertions, for all they will do is annoy the opposition. This is why I've singled the President out today - because elevating the tone means fairly (and sometimes even charitably) characterizing your opposition. That is a necessary condition for a civilized debate.

That's something I would like to see happen more often in our political debate, and the President's press conference genuinely disappointed me in that regard.

-Jay Cost

Obama and the Permanent Campaign

Today, Barack Obama has returned to the campaign trail. He is in Elkhart, Indiana. Tomorrow he will be in Fort Meyers, Florida. Two swing states. Meanwhile, he has launched "Organizing for America," run through the Democratic National Committee, and he has mobilized it on this stimulus bill.

These activities remind me of a George Will column that ran shortly after the November election.

In a Presidential contest replete with novelties, none was more significant than this: A candidate's campaign--for his party's nomination, then for the presidency--was itself virtually the entire validation of his candidacy. Voters have endorsed Barack Obama's audacious--but not, they have said, presumptuous--proposition, which was: The skill, tenacity, strategic vision and tactical nimbleness of my campaign is proof that I am presidential timber.

Because imitation is the sincerest form of politics, the 2008 campaign will not be the last in which such a proposition is asserted. Obama's achievement represents the final repudiation of the Founders' intentions regarding the selection, and hence the role, of presidents. So Americans should understand the long evolution of the selection process.

It is strange but true: Presidential politics, although of paramount importance, is a game without settled rules. More than two centuries after ratification of the Constitution, there is no stable system for selecting presidential candidates. [snip]

The Founders' intent, [University of Virginia Professor James W.] Ceaser writes, was to prevent the selection of a president from being determined by the "popular arts" of campaigning, such as rhetoric. The Founders, Ceaser says, "were deeply fearful of leaders deploying popular oratory as the means of winning distinction." That deployment would invite demagoguery, which subverts moderation. "Brilliant appearances," wrote John Jay in The Federalist Papers 64, "... sometimes mislead as well as dazzle." By telling members of the political class how not to get considered for the presidency, the Founders hoped to (in Ceaser's words) "make virtue the ally of interest" and shape the behavior of that class.

Is today's event a sign that the presidential campaign is getting even longer? I'd say yes. Will is absolutely correct: presidential elections are games without settled rules, which means we should expect candidates (including presidents) to work to change them to their advantage. We might be seeing that today as President Obama hosts a campaign-style event on the stimulus bill.

In fact, I think President Obama is orienting the White House to a political environment that has been in place for some time. Consider that it was on December 1, 2002 that John Kerry announced the formation of his presidential exploratory committee. Barack Obama announced his exploratory committee on January 16, 2007. By my back of the envelope calculations, this means that for about 47% of the Bush presidency there was a Democratic nominee (or soon to be Democratic nominee) campaigning against him. Meanwhile, the final RealClearPolitics polling average found President Bush with just a 29% approval rating. I can't help but suspect that these two items are related, and today I'm thinking the Obama White House agrees. That would help explain why the President is hosting an event that has the look and feel of a campaign rally.

Is this smart politics? Possibly. I can certainly appreciate the impulse the White House must feel to be more aggressively campaign-like. The President is inevitably the target of this permanent campaign. Opposition candidates are the ones who need to raise money and their profiles, so they declare the candidacies early, hit the campaign trail, and go on the attack against the current occupant of the White House. Over time, that could damage the incumbent's reputation - as might have been the case with George W. Bush. Many conservatives were upset that President Bush did not "fight back" more often. So, there are reasons for the Obama White House to pivot to this kind of mode, in recognition that the campaign does not really end.

But there are risks. The executive power of the country is now invested within Barack Obama. He is no longer the same person. He never will be. Henceforth, he's Mr. President. The man in whom it is invested must careful in how he handles himself because - as I noted last week - much of this power is informal, and thus subject to dissipation. Whether active campaigning of the sort we're seeing today - assuming we see more of it, which I suspect we will - could diminish the President's profile, remains to be seen. It depends on how the public reacts to this kind of campaigning, and also how he conducts the campaign. It's one thing for senators and governors to do what Will outlined above; it's another for Presidents to do it.

So, this could be a brilliant move - where the White House gets in front of the opposition and preserves the President's reputation; or it could be a bad one - where the image of a campaigner-in-chief diminishes the President's aura. We'll see.

-Jay Cost

The Limits of the RNC

Lots of conservatives paid close attention to the recent chairmanship election at the RNC, using it as a proxy for the future direction of the party.

I did not.

I've made a careful study of the scholarly literature on the national committees, and I am left generally unimpressed by them. The scholarly consensus is that the national committees are little more than "service" organizations that work to transfer money from the national party to gubernatorial and presidential campaigns (as well as helping the state party's meet their bottom lines) - but they exercise little-to-no political power.

Chris Cillizza reports today on one good reason why they exercise no power.

One week after Michael Steele won a hotly contested race to be the chairman of the Republican National Committee, he has cleaned house and laid off almost the entire RNC staff.

Steele met with the full staff on Tuesday and word of the mass layoffs came shortly after that. According to sources familiar with the move, all of the communications and political staffers are being let go.

Some senior staff members -- in expectation of being let go -- submitted their resignations shortly after Steele won the chairmanship last Friday. Others have already found new jobs, most notably RNC political director Rich Beeson who will return to his post at FLS Direct, and Amber Wilkerson who will serve as national spokeswoman at the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Such an overhaul is not entirely unprecedented particularly given that Steele ousted incumbent RNC Chairman Mike Duncan from the job in the vote last week and his entire message during that campaign was built around the idea that change was needed after the disastrous GOP showing in the 2008 election.

This is one reason why I wouldn't put too much stock in the RNC being part of any Republican reformation. What effect can an organization have if its staff is cleaned out at least once every four years? Because remember, that'll be exactly what happens should the GOP win the presidency in 2012. The nominee-turned-President will "capture" the organization, just as President Obama has captured the DNC, and staff it with his people. If the nominee loses, expect another incumbent-ousting election at the RNC, and thus another round of house cleaning.

High staff turnover like this means an absence of institutional memory, and thus one reason among many to see the national committees as being little more than in service to candidates. Principally, what these outfits do is "fly the flag" of the party, attracting donations from far-and-wide that are then sent to gubernatorial and presidential candidates (either through direct contributions, transfers to state parties, or spent on their behalf via "independent" expenditures). But they have never been an integral part of the rebranding of a political party. Ultimately, that's going to be left up to the candidates running for office. Through their collective actions, they will set the tone for the future.

The national committees have never wielded any significant political power. This is easy to overlook because we see the national committees being in some way connected to the national party identity - and of course they exploit this in their fundraising. But the fact remains that their job is relatively narrow. Their role is basically just to by-pass the more onerous limitations of the Federal Elections Campaign Act and the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (aka McCain-Feingold): they collect the cash and distribute it to candidates who need it but who face various legal limitations. I've said it several times on this site: legal money laundering and little else. This is why the title of an old scholarly work on them still holds true today: the national committees are politics without power.

From this perspective, perhaps Mike Duncan's defeat was somewhat unfair. After all, the RNC had a good fundraising cycle, especially considering President Bush's lousy job approval numbers.

-Jay Cost

The Limits of Bipartisanship

The news reports today are full of stories about the White House going on offense to retake control of the messaging on the stimulus bill, which many believe the President is losing as the bill stalls in the Senate and its poll numbers slip.

I am certainly no expert in economic policy, so I cannot trace the bill's problems to its quality. My impression is that its political troubles really began when the House GOP caucus surprised most everybody by voting unanimously against it. That dealt a blow to the hope that the incoming administration could forge new bipartisan coalitions. Frankly, I was never a believer in that. As the White House gets back on the offense today, hopefully it has learned a valuable lesson: bipartisanship makes for a handy campaign pitch, but as a governing strategy, it has its limits. Partisanship is a real thing, and its causes are not really reducible to moral failings in our politicians, as is often supposed to be the case.

There is something to be said for changing the tone of political discussion. There is often a great deal of nasty or ill-tempered rhetoric that can be toned down. But beyond that, talk of bipartisanship sounds to me like the hazy dreams of casual observers who don't understand how American politics has practically functioned for 200+ years.

For starters, when we think about bipartisanship, we need to remember that virtually all of the Framers were opposed to partisanship when they were drafting the blueprint for the government. But when they actually got down to governing, they became the first partisans! If we want to talk partisan nastiness, we can always look back to the election of 1800, which actually pitted the authors of the Declaration of Independence against one another. If Thomas Jefferson and John Adams couldn't manage a civil discussion of the issues that divide us, what hope do the rest of us have?

Within fifty years of our decidedly anti-partisan founding, we had two robust political parties akin to what we have today. That's a tip off that partisanship is perhaps an inevitable feature of our politics - and political scientists have done good work explaining why politicians find parties and partisanship to be of so much use. I don't want to get into all the details of why parties are helpful for politicians - I'll just make three points that are relevant to the stimulus bill.

First, partisan disagreements are real. That is, they concern different conceptions of the right or the good - and they are generated in good faith. One side is not the defender of all things pure and sacred about America while the other side is dangerously working to undermine them. Instead, partisan disagreements are typically the result of honest differences about issues for which there is no obviously correct answer. These are bound to manifest themselves in politics. The chance that these differences will appear is positively related to the scope of the debate. So, if you're going to name a post office in Altoona - well, that's a small matter and it's unlikely that partisan differences are going to get in your way. But if you're handling something big, like - oh, I don't know - jump starting the American economy, expect partisan differences to make at least a cameo appearance.

Second, bipartisanship can often conflict with the personal goals of politicians. Now, I suspect that some readers are about to boil with rage at the thought of crafty politicos angling for their personal good at the expense of the public interest. And, when we're talking about things like graft, I'm right there with you. But participation in government creates a huge collective action problem. Namely, why should an individual work on behalf of the public good? It's rational to let some other fool do it while you collect all the benefits. One solution we have generated for this is to make holding political office estimable. This creates personal benefits for elected officials to enjoy while they aid the public good. If you're elected to Congress, you are called "Honorable." When you're in the majority, you enjoy more staff, better offices, more say in what happens. If you're plucky, you might someday get to be called "Mister (or Madame) Speaker." And if you're the pluckiest of them all, someday you might get to be the President, the only person in government with a theme song. So, it's good to be in politics. It has to be - if it wasn't, nobody worth a salt would bother getting into it.

Practically speaking, this can create a problem for bipartisanship. If you're in the opposite party of the President - bipartisanship is not necessarily going to help you. Oh sure, it'll help the President, who will enjoy higher job approval numbers and an easy cruise to reelection. But what about you? The higher his numbers, the less likely your side is to pick up seats in the next midterm election. And, should the Chief's numbers go high enough, you might even find yourself at risk of losing your seat, heaven forbid! So, if an opportunity presents itself to knock the POTUS down a peg, you might have an incentive to do it.

The third relevant problem with bipartisanship is that there is a bipartisan solution to most problems - it's just that the public hates it (and President Obama campaigned assiduously against it). That solution is the status quo. If one side vehemently objects to the changes that the other side wants, and vice-versa, the chances are good that they both have the same second choice: no change at all. [See, for instance, George W. Bush's belly flop on Social Security reform in 2005.] So, gridlock is actually bipartisan.

When we consider all this, we might conclude by asking whether the partisan tone is so inexplicable. Maybe it's actually inevitable. People being people, isn't partisan nastiness to be expected sooner or later? And when it comes, how can you get rid of it? In the scenario I've sketched, policy and personal interests yield political disagreements, then deadlock, then public disaffection. It seems inevitable that a vocal minority on both sides will, in frustration, shoot their mouths off, which is typically all it takes for the tone to fall into the gutter.

None of this is to say that the President isn't going to be able to pull in some Republican support on this bill. He might. Regardless, I think believe bipartisanship is of limited use in governing this country. The Presidency is a powerful office, but it isn't powerful enough to overcome partisanship.

-Jay Cost

Why Are Senate Republicans "Scared To Death?"

Yesterday on the Laura Ingraham Show (h/t Hot Air), Louisiana Senator David Vitter took a direct shot at his fellow Senate Republicans, saying:

What's been going on in a lot of these votes is that some folks are scared to death, quite frankly, of the new President and his polling numbers, and they're sort of hiding under the table.

When asked who, he said, "half my caucus, and just look at the Holder vote and that gives you a pretty good, general sense of what I'm talking about."

As Allahpundit notes at Hot Air, this is something that conservatives have been complaining about for a while. What's interesting about this is Vitter's directness, which leads me to ask, why are Republicans "scared to death?" They're the opposition...shouldn't they oppose? This question becomes especially sharp when we consider that, when President Bush was still in charge, congressional Democrats had no trouble opposing him. It's the same office, why are Senate Republicans "scared to death?"

To answer this question, I'd draw on Richard Neustadt's classic work, Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents. It's a really good, lively read - and though it is a bit older, it's still a core text for understanding today's presidency.

When you think about the formal powers of the presidency - i.e. that which is in the Constitution - you're hard pressed to come up with much. Here are the relevant sections from Article II:

Section 2. The President shall be commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the militia of the several states, when called into the actual service of the United States; he may require the opinion, in writing, of the principal officer in each of the executive departments, upon any subject relating to the duties of their respective offices, and he shall have power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment.

He shall have power, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, to make treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, shall appoint ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, judges of the Supreme Court, and all other officers of the United States, whose appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by law: but the Congress may by law vest the appointment of such inferior officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the courts of law, or in the heads of departments.

The President shall have power to fill up all vacancies that may happen during the recess of the Senate, by granting commissions which shall expire at the end of their next session.

Section 3. He shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient; he may, on extraordinary occasions, convene both Houses, or either of them, and in case of disagreement between them, with respect to the time of adjournment, he may adjourn them to such time as he shall think proper; he shall receive ambassadors and other public ministers; he shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed, and shall commission all the officers of the United States.

Considering the importance we ascribe to the office, this is a pretty paltry set of powers, especially on the domestic front. Neustadt says that these enumerated powers make the formal presidency indistinguishable from a clerkship, which is how we might characterize many of the 19th century chief executives.

What makes the office special is the informal power the President has the potential to wield. Those powers are not listed in the Constitution, but instead they come from the image of the President himself. Do people believe he is a man who gets things done, a man not to be trifled with, a man who makes his decisions felt far and wide? If the answers to those questions are yes, then the President's powers can extend well beyond the narrow scope carved out by Article II. He then becomes a man who can persuade others to do what he wants.

I suspect this is one reason why most every President enjoys a honeymoon period. There is always something humbling about being in the presence of the President, but that is especially so when he is new to the office. He is at his most prestigious and magisterial. Unsurprisingly, a new President can typically depend on strong polling numbers (a handy metric for the informal power of the President, as Vitter implies) at the start of his term. Not only do people wish him well early on, but the image that the public sees of the new President is very impressive. That's ultimately the source of his informal powers - how impressed are we with the man in the Oval Office?

This is probably what has the Republican caucus so intimidated - and why we've seen reports that their strategy is to frame opposition to the stimulus bill as opposition to the unpopular Democratic caucus. President Obama is at a high point in his informal powers, and it is politically dangerous to stand in his way.

For the moment, at least. The second part of Neustadt's argument is that the informal powers of the presidency can wax and wane, depending upon the actions of the President himself. Neustadt delineates a whole list of "do's" and "don't's" for Presidents, but the bottom line is that the President must always be concerned about protecting and expanding the scope of his powers. Otherwise, he can be slowly reduced to the clerkship role delineated by Article II. And remember, the goal of the opposition party - Republican or Democrat - is to take control of the government. That includes the presidency, so a President's opponents can always be counted on doing whatever they can to sap his prestige. So, he has to retain his powers against the efforts of those who wish to diminish them.

So far, I'd give President Obama mixed marks on protecting his power. Obviously, the problems with the Commerce, Treasury, and HHS nominees do not reflect well on him. And then there was his efforts at wooing Republicans on the stimulus bill, only to have them vote nay. That's an indication that he misjudged their position. These are the sorts of things that, over time, can damage his prestige, and thus diminish his power. This is also why I've been harping on his presence in the celebrity culture, which I think doesn't help him anymore.

But it's still really early. The new President and his team are still learning the in's and out's of political life in Washington. It's easy to be critical, but at least a few mistakes like this are bound to happen early on. I wouldn't underestimate the acumen of the White House or the President - and today's focus (again) on limiting executive pay is a case in point. That's a politically popular measure, and for the President to get behind that is smart politics.

Ultimately, I think his power in the early part of the presidency is going to be conditioned by the final result on the stimulus bill: can he guide a measure through Congress that gains bipartisanship support? Can he convince both sides to put partisanship aside, come together, and take ownership of a national recovery strategy? That's what he campaigned on, and I think that is what the public expects.

-Jay Cost

The Celebrity-in-Chief?

Last week I noted that the First Lady's office spoke out against toys made in the likeness of the President's daughters. While the Obama campaign had cultivated Obama's celebrity status, it seemed as though the Obama Administration was looking to move his image beyond this, and into the more traditional view people have of the President and his family.

Now, I'm not so sure. In fact, there seems to me to be some mixed signals coming from the White House. On the one hand was this item:

Jan. 30 (Bloomberg) -- Barack Obama's popularity makes him a marketer's dream. Now, the honeymoon may be over for those trying to profit from his appeal.

White House lawyers want to control the use of the president's image, recognizing the worldwide fascination about Obama's election, First Amendment free-speech rights and easy access to videos and photos on the Web.

"Our lawyers are working on developing a policy that will protect the presidential image while being careful not to squelch the overwhelming enthusiasm that the public has for the president," White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

That's a fine line to tread, I think, but it's consistent with the letter the First Lady's office sent last week about those toys: the President is not a celebrity, he's the President, and he intends to be viewed as such.

But then I was at the grocery store, and I saw this:

US Weekly Cover.jpg

This is certainly inconsistent with getting the Obama's outside the celebrity culture. If that's the goal, you don't have the first family on the cover of Us Weekly, inevitably next to a picture of some celebrity (in this case Jessica Simpson) who looks "fat."

I'm confused. What's the White House's game here? One thing we can be sure of, Us Weekly is friendly to the Obama's. For starters, it ran many glowing covers of the President and his family during the campaign. Additionally, it's published by Jann Wenner, who also publishes Rolling Stone (another magazine that's dedicated many covers to the President), and who gave $5,300 in contributions to the President last cycle (the earliest coming in May, 2007).

So, perhaps the White House is ambivalent about Obama's participation in the celebrity culture. I first speculated that it was working to move him out of it, but maybe not. Maybe it wants to keep a presence in that world, but simply take more control over that presence. If so, I think that's a mistake. As I wrote last week, I think it is in the President's interest to appear as the President, not President/Celebrity. I think that the latter will, in the long run, only serve to diminish President Obama's image. The White House has taken some good steps in this direction - objecting to the toys, making it known that it thinks there are limits to the use of his image - but then we see the first family featured on our way through the checkout aisle. I don't think that's a good idea. The White House shouldn't want the average consumer talking about the Obama's and Jennifer Aniston's love life in the same breath.

I hope they put a stop to this kind of media exposure.

-Jay Cost

Hill Democrats Demand Committee Power Back

The Hill reports this morning that Democratic backbenchers are now demanding the House committees get their power back.

A group of more than 50 House Democrats has penned a letter to Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) imploring him to "restore this institution" and see that the House returns to a "regular order" process of legislating.

The letter, signed by a large number of the conservative Blue Dog Coalition and the centrist New Democratic Coalition, has not yet been sent. Members are still gathering signatures in an effort to send the strongest signal possible to all top House Democrats that the caucus is up in arms over the top-down method of legislating employed by Democrats since late last year. [...]

Since last year, many senior House Democrats -- many of them subcommittee chairmen -- have grown overly frustrated with how only small and select bands of legislators have been responsible for writing bills, such as the $700 billion Wall Street bailout as well as much of the $819 billion economic stimulus bill.

Democratic leaders have acknowledged that the "regular order" process of methodically developing and writing bills in subcommittees and committees has been abandoned recently. But they have defended the handling of such sensitive and important legislation by only an exclusive group of leadership and senior lawmakers as a necessary tactic during exceptional times. [...]

Now at least 50 Democrats are calling the Speaker's hand.

"Committees must function thoroughly and inclusively, and cooperation must ensue between the parties and the houses to ensure that our legislative tactics enable rather than impede progress," the members wrote. "In general, we must engender an atmosphere that allows partisan games to cease and collaboration to succeed."

The House has not always had a strong committee system. "Uncle" Joe Cannon, for instance, was Speaker of the House from 1903 until 1911. He ruled with an iron fist, using the power of appointment to dominate the committees. Finally a group of insurgent Republicans, along with Democrats, revolted in 1911, stripped the Speaker of his power, and distributed it to the committees.

Committee power has ebbed and flowed over the years, but note the mentioning of subcommittee chairmen in the Hill writeup. Subcommittees have become increasingly important in the House as a way for members to develop policy expertise as well niche power bases. These days, if you chair a House subcommittee, your legislative domain is relatively small - but within that domain you typically have a great deal of power. [Actually, a great example of this power can be seen in Charlie Wilson's War.] Contrast this situation to the Senate, where fewer senators (but a policy domain as large as the House) means that senators must be generalists.

By legislating without the committees, Pelosi is upsetting the apple cart - and their response is a great reminder that, in this country, it is not partisanship above all else. The parties serve as a centripetal force in our system, centralizing power as our Constitution disperses it. However, partisanship in the government has its limits. Democratic and Republicans members of Congress are interested in protecting their own personal power because, ultimately, they stand for reelection as individuals. These backbenchers (and note that ideologically, they seem to be to the right of Pelosi) want their power bases back, and apparently are willing to embarrass (just slightly!) their Speaker by making a public demand.

-Jay Cost