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By Jay Cost

HorseRaceBlog Home Page --> March 2009

The President Blames Republicans for the Partisan Blame Game

John Dickerson had an interesting column in Slate today, reviewing the Obama administration's commitment to bipartisanship. He writes:

[A]fter party-line votes in the House and Senate and minimum flexibility from GOP leaders, Obama aides say that Republicans are not "acting in good faith." Which leads them to two conclusions: One, their acts of conciliation buy them nothing in negotiations with the GOP; two, and more important, they've decided they'll pay no political price for acting in a more partisan fashion.

With no penalty to be paid for dropping the pretense, Obama aides hope to push their luck by painting Republicans as either irrelevant or ridiculous. The equation is simple: The more clownish the opposition seems, the more the White House can get away with.

I have two huge problems with the White House's claim.

The first is timing. What came first: the GOP twice voting against the stimulus bill or "Obama aides...paint[ing] Republicans as either irrelevant or ridiculous?"

The answer is the Obama administration. We saw it in the President's first prime time press conference, which occurred in between the two stimulus votes. During that presser, Obama frequently mischaracterized the Republican position.

There is also the issue of the Rush Limbaugh marginalization strategy, which the White House was coordinating as part of a broader "message war." President Obama employed that strategy in his first week in office:

President Obama warned Republicans on Capitol Hill today that they need to quit listening to radio king Rush Limbaugh if they want to get along with Democrats and the new administration.

"You can't just listen to Rush Limbaugh and get things done," he told top GOP leaders, whom he had invited to the White House to discuss his nearly $1 trillion stimulus package.

This seemed like a strange, unguarded comment at the time. In light of what we have since learned, we can understand it as the opening salvo of a broader political attack on the GOP - as the Administration worked to equate congressional Republicans with Limbaugh, after the latter made controversial comments about hoping the President would fail.

Second, the argument that nay votes necessarily imply "bad faith" is untenable. It is straight out of the same ad hominem playbook the White House has been using for months: if you disagree with us, there must be something wrong with you.

Let's grant for the sake of argument that some portion of the Republican caucus voted nay because they were behaving in "bad faith."

How does this account for the fact that all Republicans but three voted nay? The nay voters included moderate Republicans in both chambers: senators like Richard Lugar, George Voinovich, Lisa Murkowski, and Charles Grassley; representatives like Chris Smith, Frank LoBiondo, Dave Reichert, and Frank Mike Castle. Also voting nay were famed bipartisan compromisers like senators Lindsey Graham, John McCain (both of whom were part of the Gang of 14), and Orrin Hatch. Judd Gregg was of sufficient good faith to be offered the Commerce Department - but not anymore, I suppose.

What has induced the White House to draw this conclusion? Apparently, it was because the Administration was rebuffed in its initial overtures. Writes Dickerson:

Two months ago, when Congress was debating the stimulus bill, presidential aides pointed to tax cuts in the legislation that Republicans had requested (even though lots of Democrats asked for the same tax cuts). They said Minority Whip Eric Cantor had given them the idea of tracking stimulus spending online (even though they were already planning to do that).

And yet they received minimal GOP support. So, Republicans must be acting in bad faith.

Hmmm...I'm suddenly reminded of a passage from the Audacity of Hope, about phony bipartisanship:

The majority party can begin every negotiation by asking for 100 percent of what it wants, go on to concede 10 percent, and then accuse any member of the minority party who fails to support this "compromise" of being "obstructionist."

This Obama has a valid point. Simply because the Democrats included measures in the bill that Republicans wanted does not morally require them to vote for it. As a former legislator, the President surely knows this.

Suppose that a Republican legislator is solely interested in policy outcomes, and plans to vote in good faith. The Democrats propose an initial stimulus bill, which includes a mix of tax cuts and spending increases, and an alternative that includes a few, modest concessions to the GOP. She's asked to arbitrate between the two Democratic alternatives and the status quo. Which will she choose?

We might graphically represent her decision calculus this way:

Hypothetical Stimulus Vote.jpg

The legislator's goal here is to select the option (bill 1, bill 2, or the status quo) that minimizes the distance from her ideal point, which is not a practical option now that she is in the minority. What's her rational choice? The status quo. It's the shortest distance from her ideal.

None of this is to say that Republicans don't have a hand in the early, ugly death of Obama's post-partisan world. They certainly do. Yet in my assignment of blame, I'm handing out the lion's share to the President. He is the one who - despite having the fewest credentials of any President in the modern era - decided he should be the next Commander-in-Chief. His core justification for running despite having such little relevant experience was that he had diagnosed the country's real problem - our petty, polarized politics - and that he could move us beyond it. Far from transcending it, as he promised, he has simply inverted it. It's politics as usual - only now with a Democratic aggressor who rams through highly partisan legislation and then castigates the Republican minority as disingenuous hacks.

I agree with Dickerson that the President won't pay a political price, at least for now. But Republicans are going to remember the President's approach. Right now, they are not a force to be reckoned with. However, if history is any guide, the current lopsided Democratic majorities are outliers that will be "corrected" sooner or later. That's not to say that Republicans are destined to reclaim the majority anytime soon, but only that their numbers will increase, and they'll again have a greater hand in legislative negotiations.

In the short term, the President might score some political points by doing what he once decried while claiming it is the Republicans who are the "same old same old." But in the long run? This kind of sharp elbows approach is how grudges are formed. That can be a problem if your vision of a permanent majority is fleeting, and you someday find yourself surrounded by your suddenly numerous political rivals, who resent you because you kicked them when they were down.

Just ask George W. Bush.

-Jay Cost

Public Financing Is Dead

In a recent interview with the Washington Times, John McCain made the following point:

Sen. John McCain, an architect of sweeping campaign-finance reform who got walloped by a presidential candidate armed with more than $750 million, predicts that no one will ever again accept federal matching funds to run for the nation's highest office.

"No Republican in his or her right mind is going to agree to public financing. I mean, that's dead. That is over. The last candidate for president of the United States from a major party that will take public financing was me," the Arizona Republican told The Washington Times.

The subtext of McCain's comment is a criticism of the Obama campaign. Much of this is valid, as the President explicitly promised to negotiate a deal with Senator McCain on public financing, but never did. However, the death of public financing cannot be pinned solely, or even mostly, on President Obama. It was a long time coming. In fact, I'd wager that some of the other '08 Republican contenders would have refused public financing if they had won the GOP nomination.

Ultimately, the big trouble with public financing is that it is not keeping up with the realities of electoral politics. There are two specific problems.

The first problem is timing. Senator McCain does not mention it (at least in the clip provided by the Washington Times), but one half of public financing has been finished for eight years. Presidential candidates are entitled to public financing in the primaries in the form of "matching funds." However, there is a catch. The government matches a portion of the money you receive from individual donors, but it also places a spending cap on you for the primary seasion, which does not technically end until the conventions.

This greatly damaged Bob Dole in 1996. Dole was stuck in a tough primary battle against Pat Buchanan, Steve Forbes, and Lamar Alexander - and to win, he had to spend through most of his primary funds. This left him running on a bare-bones budget for months. Meanwhile, President Clinton was flush with cash, thanks to the fact that he was unopposed in his primary. The DNC, labor groups, and the Clinton campaign spent the spring and summer blasting Dole, who was unable to offer a response.

The primary financing system fails to account for the fact that the general election campaign now begins well before the conventions. After Dole was shellacked because of the system's antiquated notion of the general campaign, it was only a matter of time until the serious contenders balked at primary funds. George W. Bush refused them in 2000 and 2004 - as did John Kerry.

The second problem is quantity. John McCain - who also declined financing for the primaries - received $84 million in public money at the beginning of September. This is a paltry sum compared to how much a presidential candidate can potentially raise. To appreciate this, consider the following chart, which tracks fundraising by the national party committees back to 1988.

Fundraising by National Party Committees.jpg

What is really amazing about this chart is that eliminationg soft money in 2004 did not reduce party fundraising. It slowed down its rate of growth, for sure, but in 2004 both parties raised more than they did in the last presidential cycle where soft money was allowed (2000).

You can chalk this growth up to increased party capacity to raise cash. The parties have become much more professional over the last twenty years, and thus more able to raise dollars. They also have access to new communications technology like the Internet. Another factor is likely the polarization of the electorate, especially among political elites who have the money to donate to politics. Now more than any time since the Great Depression, there are clear ideological differences between the parties. This distinctiveness gives people a greater stake in the outcome of the election - and possibly an enhanced incentive to contribute to the cause.

I'd also note that this chart only captures a fraction of the total federal dollars raised. Factor in the hundreds of millions of dollars raised by candidates for the House and Senate - which have also been on the rise over the years - and we can appreciate just how many potential dollars are out there. Above all, consider that Obama and Senator Clinton raised a combined $880 million during the 2008 campaign, and yet that did not stop the Democratic Party from smashing its previous fundraising records. Bottom line: the parties have found many new sources of money over the years, and the evidence implies that there are sources yet to be found.

So, why would a presidential candidate accept $85 million when s/he instead has the opportunity to raise hundreds of millions? Only a guy like John McCain - who had a hand in creating the current finance regime and who was honor bound to participate - was so obliged.

Ultimately, these two problems point to the same malady: the public financing system is outdated. It has not kept up with the evolving dynamics of the electoral campaign. The basics of public financing were created during a different era of presidential campaigning (via the 1974 amendments to the Federal Elections Campaign Act). The electoral campaign has changed drastically since then, but the financing system remains essentially the same. Its inability to fit the times has been evident for the last fifteen years or so - thus, it was only a matter of time before it would finally be discarded.

Until Congress updates the basic structure of public financing and/or the system is made mandatory, presidential candidates will skip it. It is so antiquated that it no longer serves their needs. A candidate who follows it will surely be made worse off if his opponent does not.

-Jay Cost

The Fight Over the Economy Is Just Beginning

In my recent discussion with Ruy Teixeira, I argued that true ideologues constitute a relatively small percentage of the public. But that is not to say that the broad middle of the nation does not have a core set of values that guides its political decisions. Among other things, it believes firmly in the idea of economic growth, and it isn't hesitant to punish politicians for weak economies.

The relationship between the electorate and the politicians is akin to Darth Vader and his lieutenants in The Empire Strikes Back. When the underlings failed Vader, he impatiently struck them down without a second thought, moving on to the next in command. Similarly, when politicians fail to deliver growth, the judgment of the electorate is just as swift and almost as brutal.

A Gallup poll conducted in 1999 found that 71% of the country approved of George H.W. Bush's job as president. Yet Mr. Bush had the misfortune of presiding over a downswing in the business cycle. Though the economy had been growing for six straight quarters by Election Day, unemployment was above 7%. He won just 37% of the vote. That 1990/91 recession also hurt his successor. In the early Clinton years, the economy grew and unemployment fell, but growth in real per capita income was slow to rebound. By the midterm, just 43% of voters approved of Clinton's handling of the economy, and the Democrats lost 52 House seats.

How's that for brutality? One (relatively mild) recession, and the public delivers harsh punishments to both parties years after growth returned. "Apology accepted, Captain Needa."

There are three lessons for today's politics. First, the country is impatient about growth. Recessions are virtually immoral in this country - and if growth is slow to return, or if its effects are slow to be felt by the average voter, the public will not take it lightly. The top line GDP number is not enough. If other indicators - like unemployment and real income, metrics that speak to how people are experiencing the economy - are still weak, the public's response can be just as wrathful.

Second, the public's diagnosis of the economic problem need not be enlightened. Imagine you lost your keys on a dark street. You'll look for them under the nearest streetlight - not because that's where they are, but because that's where you can see. That's how the electorate makes judgments about complicated subjects like the economy. It focuses on what it understands, whether or not that gets to the real issues. Recall the political damage George H.W. Bush suffered because he hadn't seen a price scanner before. Somehow, this meant he was out of touch, and thus not suited to bring the economy to recovery.

Third, Walter Shaprio recently suggested that Republicans will not gain from any populist backlash. I wouldn't be so sure. Out parties can make substantial, recession-related midterm gains despite having been led by unpopular presidents. Perhaps the best example is 1938. Amidst the "Roosevelt Recession," the country turned to the party of the reviled Herbert Hoover, who still had a negative rating in 1944. FDR's majority in the subsequent Congress depended entirely upon the old Confederacy - meaning that the GOP was the country's first choice outside the one-party South.

This links into the second point. The public lacks economic expertise, yet it must still assign blame for the struggling economy. It is unsurprising that - regardless of whether he deserves it - the President is often the recipient. After all, he is the most visible politician in the country. Additionally, Presidents are quick to accept credit for a flourishing economy, so inevitably they take the blame for when it languishes. When you blame the President and want a change, the opposition party is the only viable option.

While the current focus on Timothy Geithner, the Treasury, and the financial markets is understandable - this will probably not be the script of the broader political battle over the next 20 months. Assuming that the financial system is brought under control, the political debate will focus relentlessly on recession and recovery. Though the Administration, the CBO and the Blue Chip forecasters project modest growth in 2010 (ranging from 1.9% to 3.0%), all of them expect high unemployment (7.9% to 9.1%) and an economy performing below peak capacity. If these predictions are true - the corresponding public dissatisfaction will define the campaign of 2010, and the legislative battles that precede it.

Both sides will struggle to pin blame for the weak economy on the other. Republicans will indict President Obama, arguing that his policies failed to improve things. President Obama will remind voters of the previous administration, arguing that congressional Republicans advocate the same policies that brought about the recession. The public lacks the technical expertise to arbitrate based on the merits - so the outcome will depend in part on how bad the economy actually is (the worse it is, the worse for President Obama), and which side shows the greatest political acumen.

If you find this to be a dispiriting commentary on democratic accountability, think of it this way. Electoral justice might be rough, but it's also consistent: bad economies mean electoral defeat for somebody. Thus, those who are still in office when the dust settles learn a valuable lesson: grow the economy, or next time it could be you. In the long run, the public gets what it wants - a government dedicated first and foremost to growth.

-Jay Cost

Obama's Liberal Moment

Last week, the Washington Post ran a front page story on the Obama administration's legislative strategy.

Senior members of the Obama administration are pressing lawmakers to use a shortcut to drive the president's signature initiatives on health care and energy through Congress without Republican votes...

The shortcut, known as "budget reconciliation," would allow Obama's health and energy proposals to be rolled into a bill that cannot be filibustered, meaning Democrats could push it through the Senate with 51 votes, instead of the usual 60. Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton both used the tactic to win deficit-reduction packages, while George W. Bush used it to push through his signature tax cuts.

Yet Senator Obama writes this in The Audacity of Hope:

There's an instructive story about the negotiations surrounding the first round of Bush tax cuts, when Karl Rove invited a Democratic senator over to the White House to discuss the senator's potential support for the President's package...[The senator] suggested a few changes that would moderate the package's impact.

"Make these changes," the senator told Rove, "and not only will I vote for the bill, but I guarantee you'll get seventy votes out of the Senate."

"We don't want seventy votes," Rove reportedly replied. "We want fifty-one."

Recently, I noted my concern that the President is willing to engage in tactics he made a name opposing. This Washington Post story indicates this is not limited to rhetoric, but extends to legislative maneuvers as well.

Why has the President adopted such a highly partisan posture, one he was decrying just three years ago?

The following graph might help answer this question. It outlines the median ideological scores of the House and Senate from 1932 to 2008 (-1 is liberal, 1 is conservative). It runs from FDR to George W. Bush. It shades periods blue for liberal government (both chambers have a liberal tilt and there is a Democratic President), red for conservative government (both chambers have a conservative tilt and there is a Republican President), and purple for an ideological mix (one chamber or the President is of a different ideological bent than the others).

Ideological Scores.jpg

This graph likely understates the extent of ideologically mixed government. The median senator is not the critical vote in the upper chamber. Instead, the 60th (filibuster) senator is. Thus, practically speaking, the Senate has been more moderate than pictured here.

Notice the historical power of Southern Democrats. Though Democrats held the House from 1954 to 1994, an alliance between Republicans and Southern Democrats could often check liberals.

Clearly, "realignment" has some explanatory power, but it oversimplifies a great deal. Overall, there are not really extended spans of liberal or conservative government; instead they are more like moments, lasting a few cycles until they are "corrected" by the other side.

Scanning to the present day, we can appreciate why Senator Obama would plead for bipartisanship in The Audacity of Hope. That book was written during the most conservative government in more than 75 years. Additionally, the GOP seemed by then to have over-reached. Preaching the virtues of bipartisanship was smart politics for an ambitious Democratic pol in 2006.

But notice the leftward swing in that year's midterm, which was extended in the current Congress (not pictured in the graph). Add in a new Democratic President, and the country is now in another liberal moment.

Three observations about these moments are relevant.

They have been short. FDR's moment basically lasted six years - the longest of all. Johnson and Clinton's were extremely brief, followed by conservative "corrections."

They have not necessarily yielded policy innovations. FDR won major programmatic changes, as did Johnson. However, Carter had nothing to show for his moment, and Clinton had little.

They have been rare. Not reducible to the grand ideological march of history - they have been partially contingent on historical events, like the Great Depression and Watergate.

So, President Obama has a unique opportunity. He cannot presume that it will last long, that it will assuredly yield significant changes in policy, or that he'll have another chance.

Thus, bipartisanship is of little political use to him now. As a rallying cry against the Bush administration, which pulled the policy needle to the right, it was extremely helpful. However, not any more. When the "old categories" suddenly give you an opening, why "transcend" them? Why court the other side, which will only slow you down and moderate your programs? Instead, the politically savvy move is to do exactly what Obama has done: stuff bipartisanship, see how much you can squeeze out of Congress before the next "correction," and get your name into the history books.

I expect politicians of both parties to do this. Their commitment to bipartisanship is typically situational: they praise it when they're in the minority, then forget it when they're in the majority. Of course, Obama promised to be above politics as usual. That's why he pursued his party's nomination against Hillary Clinton, whose experience was greater but who had the "taint" of politics on her. Obama didn't have the taint, and assured us he never would.

So much for that.

-Jay Cost

Ross Douthat Weighs In

Ross Douthat blogged on my recent discussion with Ruy Teixeira, falling roughly between the two of us. He writes:

I'm on Teixeira's side insofar as it's possible to make predictions about the political future; I'm on Cost's insofar as it isn't...I think probabilities matter a little bit more than Cost allows. Even allowing for his caveats, if you were asked to pick which coalitions you'd rather have at the moment, based on demographic strength alone, you'd choose the Democratic coalition in a heartbeat. Not because we know what's going to happen, but because we don't - and a bet based on probabilities is better than a shot in the dark.

This is not precisely what my point is. I actually do have a prediction based on probabilities: continued two-party competition and roughly divided government over time. That's not a specific prediction for the next cycle - but it is not a "shot in the dark." That phrase implies that I don't have a sense of what to expect, which I do. It just happens to fall in the middle.

My argument is narrowly negative in that I have most recently been arguing against Teixeira's thesis. However, it is broadly positive in that I have written quite a bit about what to expect in the long run and have offered alternative ideas in contrast to "realignment" or "enduring majorities" (or whatever term one might prefer). This negative argument fits into the positive one. See here and here for my most recent assertions.

Sean Trende notes to me the difficulty in using demographic results to predict subsequent elections. "Demographics always look good when you are winning. What could possibly have been the demographic bright spot for Democrats in 1988? Yet they were just four years from renaissance." Sean also asks, what if one were to follow Douthat and predict the next winner based on the current winner? Since 1948, you'd go 7 for 15. Since 1968, you'd go 5 for 10. That's about how well you could expect to do via random, "shot in the dark" guessing.

-Jay Cost

A Note on the "New Progressive America"

My thanks to Ruy Teixeira for commenting on my response to his report. Seeing as how he has put up the overwhelming share of the effort here, it is appropriate to allow him the last word on the substance of our debate.

I do want to offer a clarification on my broader position, which was outlined in detail with Sean Trende here. Teixeira writes:

Cost may choose to believe it's of no real significance that growing demographic groups and areas of the country are strengthening progressives, while conservatives are holding their own only where America is stagnant and declining. He may even be able to convince conservatives that he is right. In doing so, however, is he doing them a disservice? The longer conservatives believe nothing has really changed, the longer they will resist doing what they need to do: change their positions, soften their ideology and move toward the new progressive center of American politics. After all, it may be a progressive center, but it's still the center. And eventually conservatives are going to have to deal with that.

My position is not that "nothing has really changed," and by implication that the country is still a center-right country. Similarly, I would not counsel conservatives to do nothing.

Instead, my position is this: American electoral politics is full of change. That is the principal reason I am generally skeptical of arguments about enduring majorities - left or right. There's just so much change in our electoral politics that an enduring majority is a highly problematic category.

I draw this conclusion based on five observations about the last forty years:

(1) The parties typically share control of the institutions of government.

(2) The longest time any party has held the presidency and the Congress together was four years. In both instances, subsequent electoral defeats were decisive and humiliating.

(3) Voters typically have low levels of political information, which makes it difficult to develop genuine ideology.

(4) The electorate as a whole is known to vary its preference on non-ideological factors, like the performance of the economy and the President's management of the government.

(5) The purpose of the political party is to acquire the majority. Historically, this has meant that the parties respond to setbacks, often by redrafting elements of their message.

I would not argue that there are not stable features in our electoral politics. Most of the electorate is partisan, so it stays put from cycle to cycle. This also does not mean that there have not been realigning features - as one group switches from one side to the other and stays there. Urban ethnics did in 1928/32 and Southern whites have been moving since 1948. My initial response noted the shift of white Catholics and the white working class. So, long term forces matter.

The conclusion I draw from these observations is that while there is stability and realignment, we need to remember that non-realigning features account for much of the cycle-to-cycle swings in the balance of power, which never take us very far from 50/50 for very long. Too many analysts forget that, and explain the most recent electoral results via realignment. That is why, for most elections in the past, you can find somebody somewhere who claimed it was somehow realigning.

Generally, I think realignment is one of those concepts that over-promises and under-delivers. It might account for the political dynamics from the Civil War to the Great Depression, but I do not think it explains nearly as much about the contemporary scene. So, I do not buy Teixeira's "new progressive America" - but for the same reasons I didn't buy the arguments for a "new conservative America" four years ago. If some conservatives find solace in my argument today, it is accidental. Four years ago, progressives might have found it comforting.

Similarly, these observations imply a clear suggestion to Republicans: innovate, innovate, innovate! Conservatives who presumed that previous victories implied a long-term majority were simply wrong. Political fortunes have swung back and forth over the years in part because political parties, once removed from office, work hard to get back into the majority. This is what Democrats were busy doing while some Republicans were celebrating their "enduring majority" (How many times did they trumpet their victories in 97 of the 100 fastest-growing counties?). Now, it's time for Republicans to get to work.

What should they do? That's outside my area of expertise. I do know - and Sean Trende and I pointed out here and here - that, as Teixeira said, Hispanics moved to the Democratic Party between 2004 and 2008, and this was a contributing factor to the party's losses in several states. Far from asserting that this is of "no real significance," I would suggest that this is a great place to start.

-Jay Cost

Our Partisan President

In The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama writes:

[G]enuine bipartisanship...assumes an honest process of give-and-take, and that the quality of the compromise is measured by how well it serves some agreed-upon goal, whether better schools or lower deficits. This in turn assumes that the majority party will be constrained - by an exacting press corps and ultimately an informed electorate - to negotiate in good faith.

This argument, especially the notion of promoting good faith, was central to his star turn at the 2004 DNC, as well his presidential campaign.

Contrast this with the recent comment of press secretary Robert Gibbs, who dismissed the criticisms of former Vice-President Dick Cheney thusly: "I guess Rush Limbaugh was busy, so they trotted out the next most popular member of the Republican cabal."

The term "cabal" was popularized as an acronym for the members of Charles II's Committee for Foreign Affairs, who were said to be running the state. Today, the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as, "a secret or private intrigue of a sinister character formed by a small body of persons; 'something less than conspiracy.'"

So, gone are the days of the vast right wing conspiracy. Presumably, electoral defeat has depleted its ranks - now, it is a mere cabal. Still, it is comforting to know that, though smaller in size, its aims are as sinister as ever.

Later in the presser, Mr. Gibbs conceded that his answer had been sarcastic. We might write this off if it were an isolated incident, but it is not. The White House is openly working to delegitimize Republican challenges to the President's proposals, effectively to argue that the GOP is not a loyal opposition. Recall that the White House endeavored to label Rush Limbaugh the leader of the Republican Party; that this "message war" to paint Republicans as "reflexively political" continues; that one of the first White House officials to mention Limbaugh was the President himself; and that the President has also misrepresented the Republican position on big issues like the stimulus.

So much for promoting good faith. Instead, the White House has fallen into the kinds of partisan habits the President once decried: overwrought rhetoric, misrepresentation of the other side, and ad hominem attack.

I am not the first to point this out. Most recently, the Washington Post ran a front page story on the tension between Obama's governance and his inaugural address, which disavowed, "the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics." When asked to comment on this, the President's Chief of Staff resorted to recriminations: "The truth is that 98 percent of [Obama's] speeches are about the future, and 2 percent are about inheritance, whereas I think for Republicans it's 2 percent about the future, and 98 percent hope that the people have amnesia."

Bipartisanship is easier said than done. Ultimately, partisan rivalry is generated by competing visions of the public good. Sometimes, the competition is more intense than other times. For whatever reason, this is a fiercely partisan era.

Of course, it's been worse. Harry Truman was a good man who today is admired by historians and beloved by the public. But his tenure was marked by heated partisanship, in part for reasons beyond his control. Demobilization after World War II created problems on the home front. The dropping of the Iron Curtain meant trouble overseas and suspicion at home. Republicans - shut out of power for Roosevelt's tenure - were anxious to assert themselves.

But that does not mean we're victims of fate. Truman's rancorous tenure was followed by Dwight Eisenhower's. Ike enjoyed 60%+ approval for his term. Partisan tensions eased. Forty years ago, historians wrote him off as a lightweight who let his advisers make the decisions - but since then they have revised their views, and Eisenhower is now thought to have had a deft hand in managing the government. So, the President can make a difference.

Many thought Barack Obama would at least try. His writing reflects an understanding of "genuine bipartisanship." His campaign implied he wanted to give it a go. Yet his press secretary suggests that his opponents are in a shadowy cabal. This is right out of Hillary Clinton's playbook, the candidate who was offering "more of the same," which we could "no longer afford."

I am worried. Not because I am enamored of bipartisanship. I like Ike - but I like "Give 'em Hell" Harry, too. I have no problem with the sharp elbows approach, even coming from the White House. I am worried because I thought partisan reconciliation was an animating force of Obama's candidacy, a big reason why he thought he - rather than one of the 306 million other Americans - should be President. I am worried that, amidst a credit crisis, two wars, and a lack of confidence in our nation's institutions, we have installed as President a man apparently willing to abandon a foundational premise of his candidacy not three months into his tenure.

-Jay Cost

Biden's Absurd Presentism

Joe Biden last night:

"This president has inherited the most difficult first 100 days of any president, I would argue, including Franklin Roosevelt.

"Let me explain what I mean by that. It was clear the problem Roosevelt inherited. This is a more complicated economic [problem]. We've never, ever been here before - here or in the world. Never, ever been here before."

Hardest first 100 days ever? I disagree on FDR, but there is certainly no contest between Obama and Honest Abe.

Abraham Lincoln took office on March 4, 1861. By that point - South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas had seceded from the Union. Additionally, Jefferson Davis had already been named President of the Confederacy. About a month after Lincoln was inaugurated, the Confederacy attacked Fort Sumter, ultimately prompting Virginia to secede. By early June (still within Lincoln's first 100 days) - Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee had also seceded.

Unlike Obama, President Lincoln had little help during the much longer transition (not shortened until after the 20th Amendment was ratified in 1933). From Morison, Commager, and Leuchtenburg:

During the awkward four months' interval between Lincoln's election in November 1860 and his inauguration on 4 March, a period in which Southern states seceded and the Confederacy was formed, the timid Buchanan was President. His cabinet included three secessionists, and only one strong nationalist, Jeremiah Black, after Cass resigned in disgust (12 December). Buchanan had the same power to defend property and collect federal taxes within states that obstructed federal law as President Jackson possessed in 1832, but the President did nothing. [Emphasis mine]

Additionally, there was a conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln in Baltimore prior to his Inauguration. Unlike President Obama, who was able to enjoy great pomp and circumstance at the Lincoln Memorial prior to his Inauguration, the 16th President had to sneak into DC, "like a thief in the night" (his words), to the embarrassment of himself and his supporters - and to the joy of his political opponents.*

That is the "most difficult first 100 days of any president, including Roosevelt."

* - FDR came closer to being assassinated. After the election but prior to the Inauguration, he was traveling with Chicago Mayor Antoin Cermak, who took a bullet and died a few weeks later. This is one of many reasons I would place Obama's 100 days behind FDR's. I would also place Obama far behind Truman, who was left badly unprepared by FDR (he didn't even know about the Manhattan Project). Though the following occurred just outside his first 100 Days, Truman had to stare down Joseph Stalin at Potsdam and make a final decision to drop the Bomb, all before Labor Day (he was sworn in on April 12).

-Jay Cost

Obama Signs Omnibus, Blasts AIG

An interesting contrast. The President was choked with anger over the fact that AIG has distributed $165 million in bonuses.

But I have to ask: how much money was "wasted" in the recent omnibus spending bill? That's an impossible figure to pin down, as waste is in the eye of the beholder, but there was $7.7 billion spread across 8,570 earmarks. So, I'm guessing we could find $165 mil that's pretty suspect. We might start by searching through the millions that administration officials sponsored when they were still in Congress.

Yet, the President signed the omnibus, anyway. And this is what he said during the presidential debate in Oxford, Mississippi:

John, nobody is denying that $18 billion [in earmarks] is important. And, absolutely, we need earmark reform. And when I'm president, I will go line by line to make sure that we are not spending money unwisely.

But the fact is that eliminating earmarks alone is not a recipe for how we're going to get the middle class back on track.

Mr. Obama's was a breezily dismissive tone: small potatoes, not worth all the commotion. Calm down, John.

Now he's worked up about AIG? Pardon my skepticism.

Don't get me wrong, I am no fan of businesses wasting taxpaying money on things that do not benefit the public good. But this is a trifle compared to the indefensible waste that members of Congress appropriate every year to secure reelection.

This looked like a stunt: political theater designed to reinforce the idea that corporate irresponsibility is to blame for the economic meltdown, keep from losing a few news cycles, and hopefully inoculate the President in case the public turns its angry gaze to his administration.

Let's just hope that the President did not actually do this:

Then he announced that he had instructed his Treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, to seek "every single legal avenue available to block" $165 million in bonuses that were awarded last week to the very same traders at AIG's Financial Products division who made the bad bets in the first place.

I think Mr. Geithner has too much actual work to do - like salvaging the banking system - to be a prop in Mr. Obama's campaign.

-Jay Cost

New Progressive America? A Response to Ruy Teixeira

Ruy Teixeira has published a new report at the Center for American Progress (CAP), entitled "New Progressive America: Twenty Years of Demographic, Geographic, and Attitudinal Changes Across the Country Herald a New Progressive Majority."

Here is the gist of Teixeira's argument:

Obama's 53 percent of the popular vote is the largest share...received by any presidential candidate...[since] George H.W. Bush...So, separated by 20 years, we have two elections that are practically mirror images of one another...

How did conservatives do so well in one election but progressives so well in the other? The answer: In those intervening 20 years, a new progressive America has emerged with a new demography, a new geography, and a new agenda.

Let me say at the outset that I will not argue that Teixeira's thesis is wrong. Instead, my position is that it is underdetermined: the facts support alternative conclusions not consistent with his assertion.

Generally, I approach arguments like Teixeria's with a high burden of proof. Electoral history over the last forty years indicates a norm of divided government in which both parties share control. Furthermore, for the years when there was unified party government - the majority party lost power relatively quickly in a decisive, broad-based defeat.

Thus, even well constructed arguments about enduring majorities are going to have a tough time convincing me. Unfortunately, Teixeira's argument has problems in its execution. I count three, significant difficulties.

First. Teixeira makes use of long-term estimates of population change to argue for a "new demography" that will "reshape our country in a fundamentally progressive direction." He cites projections in growth among Hispanics, Asians, and African Americans so that by 2050, "the country will be 54 percent minority." It is outside my technical expertise to dispute those estimates - though I am generally skeptical of predictions about anything that is such a long way off.

I would dispute the political implications of these demographic projections. Teixiera's argument about future political demography assumes a static quality to American politics that is ahistorical.

For instance, consider that while John McCain lost the nationwide popular vote by seven points, he won the white Catholic vote by five points. From a historical perspective, this is remarkable. John Kennedy won 81% of non-Hispanic white Catholics, Lyndon Johnson 79%, and Hubert Humphrey (who lost in a three-way race) still won 55%. Forty years ago, any liberal analyst would have concluded that the white Catholic vote belongs to the Democrats. Yet today, we see the GOP holding white Catholics amidst a popular vote wipe out.

Similarly, who would have ever thought that the "white working class" - the backbone of the New Deal coalition for decades - would support the Republicans by 18-points as the nation supported the Democrats by 7? That is the most dramatic proof that voting coalitions are not static - and that we cannot extrapolate future alignments from current ones.

Electoral politics is not akin to Newtonian physics, where you derive your equations and then predict everything from here to eternity. Instead it's unpredictable. Why? One reason is the parties. They select issue positions and emphases to steal the other side's wavering voters and undermine its voting coalition. Again, recent electoral history has demonstrated that both parties are quite adept at this game. In light of that, how can we know whom Hispanics, Asians, "professionals," young voters, or anybody will support in 2048? I'd suggest we cannot. Using demographic estimates to predict long-range political preferences is an impossibly difficult task.

Second. Teixeira cites election data from the last 20 years without introducing the appropriate context. For instance, he writes:

[P]rogressives have been gaining strength among white college graduates. In 2008, Obama only lost white college graduates by four points, compared to an 11-point deficit for Kerry in 2004 and a 20-point deficit for Dukakis in 1988.

I do not dispute these numbers, but I disagree that this is evidence of a "new progressive America." There are many reasons voting results change from cycle to cycle. Though the concept has been vastly overworked, some of that change is due to "realignment." However, much of it is clearly not - and if the appropriate electoral context is excluded, you're bound to overestimate the extent to which realignment is a factor.

Return to the previous quotation. Democrats have gained 16 points in 20 years among white college graduates. Is this realignment, or the ebb and flow of non-realigning factors? I'd suggest the latter explains much of the difference. Consider the following chart. It tracks the average growth in the economy in the third and fourth quarters, the incumbent president's job approval in the pre-election Gallup poll, and the incumbent party's share of the presidential vote.

National Conditions and Incumbent Party Performance in Presidential Elections.jpg

Clearly, non-realigning factors play an extremely powerful role. This is why political scientists can build accurate predictive models of presidential elections based on a few simple variables.

Without this context, it is prohibitively difficult to tease out realigning factors between 1988 and 2008. The former is a year in which the economy was growing and the Republican President was popular. 2008 reflects the inverse. This makes it hard to conclude that realignment is accounting for the change among college educated voters, or any subgroup. I'm open to the idea that realignment is at work, because I think to an extent it is - but that means you must control for the non-realignment factors known to influence presidential elections. Teixeira does not do that, which means his statistics do not support his conclusion.

We can see this problem again when Teixeira argues about the increasing liberal tilt of the "growing areas of the country." He writes:

By and large, progressives received their strongest increases in support in the fast-growing, dynamic metropolitan areas of states, particularly the largest ones...The result is a political map with a distinct lean toward progressives, a lean that should increase in coming years.

Again, maybe. But is it not also plausible that the growing areas of the country were especially affected by the sudden, dramatic contraction in the economy that was occurring on Election Day, and that they responded (as the country as a whole typically has since 1840) by swinging to the out party in especially large numbers?

In other words, without the necessary context, every increase in the Democratic Party's share of the vote last cycle becomes a sign of growing liberal strength. This is an underdetermined inference.

Third. Teixeira argues that "the American people's views on what government can and should do" are changing. Again, I am not going to disagree with this per se. Instead, I'll suggest that the evidence Teixeira cites is unpersuasive.

Specifically, he references a series of polling questions (many done by CAP) whose wording is so vague it is impossible to infer any political implications. Here is a sample:

(1) "Religious faith should focus more on promoting tolerance, social justice, and peace in society, and less on opposing abortion or gay rights."

(2) "A positive image of America around the world is necessary to achieve our national security goals."

(3) "It is the responsibility of the government to take care of people who can't take care of themselves."

(4) "Government regulations are necessary to keep businesses in check and protect workers and consumers."

(5) The government should "invest in alternative energy like wind, solar and bio-fuels to create jobs, and reduce dependence on foreign oil."

Unsurprisingly, these questions elicited a high degree of public support, sometimes up to 75% in the CAP survey.

These sorts of questions would indeed damage the Republican Party...if it were a silly, oversimplified caricature of what it actually is. The problem is that these questions present a false choice, implying that one side is in favor of these items, and the other side opposed. Not really true - the actual political divides are much more subtle. The fact of the matter is that many Republicans are at least partially sympathetic to all of these assertions. Certainly, no mainstream Republican politician would suggest, for instance, that Social Security disability payments should be eliminated, or that workplace safety regulations should be done away with. I recall that John McCain talked frequently about biofuels on the campaign trail last cycle, and one major goal of the surge was to gain the trust of local Iraqi populations.

These questions do not directly capture the salient political cleavages in the country. Thus, they cannot be taken as evidence of a "new progressive America." Certainly, they hint at such cleavages, but they are worded in such a non-specific, general way that they do not reflect the actual debate, which is why they can garner such broad support.

Of course, there are answers to several questions that Teixeira cites that genuinely show liberal leanings on actual policy matters (like universal health care). Then again, as Teixeira notes, the CAP Study also found decidedly conservative responses to questions like this:

(1) "Limited government is always better than big government." (55% agree)

(2) "Free market solutions are better than government at creating jobs and economic growth." (57% agree)

(3) "Government spending is almost always wasteful and inefficient." (61% agree)

(4) "Government programs for the poor undermine individual initiative and responsibility." (48% agree, 21% neutral)

(5) "Social Security should be reformed to allow workers to invest some of their contributions in individual accounts." (57% agree)

Liberals can argue that there is an incipient liberalism in the data, and conservatives can argue that there is an incipient conservatism. However, I'd suggest another idea: the country is in many respects non-ideological.

One characteristic of ideology is issue constraint. An ideological thinker decides his positions based upon abstract principles, which therefore constrain the policy options he can endorse. For instance, an ideologue who thinks that the free market is better than the government would be constrained on his views of health care. To be ideological, he must oppose government managed care.

This data - as well as many surveys - suggests that a large segment of the country does not have such constraints on their views. The CAP study finds 55% of the public advocating limited government, and 65% advocating that the "government guarantee affordable health coverage for every American." There is substantial overlap here, which indicates that some subset of the population is answering in inconsistent ways, which implies non-ideological thinking.

In conclusion, I'll recapitulate my main points. Generally speaking, I am skeptical of arguments like this - even those that are well executed. Unfortunately, Teixeira's argument has problems in its execution. He uses oversimple assumptions about the links between future demographics and politics; he fails to separate realigning forces from the normal back-and-forth of electoral politics; and he relies on inconclusive polling data to argue that there has been an ideological shift in public opinion.

This is not to say that Teixeira is wrong. He may be right, and we may be entering 10, 20, even 40 years of a "new progressive America." My point is that he fails to make the case. Other theories - such as one that predicts continued, heated party competition amidst a substantially non-ideological public - are just as consistent with the evidence he cites.

-Jay Cost

Should Steele Stay or Go?

Boy oh boy, Michael Steele just cannot seem to stay out of the headlines. No sooner had the controversy about Rush Limbaugh died down did another begin - this time with Steele suggesting that he was in favor of "choice" on abortion.

Republicans are now having a conversation among themselves about whether Steele should stay or go. I'd like to offer my two cents on that, drawing upon what I have already said about the RNC chairmanship (see here, here, here, and here).

Politico's "Arena" has a discussion this morning around the question: "Is there room for Michael Steele in the GOP tent? How small can a tent get anyway?" This question is entirely misphrased, and Republicans should generally avoid thinking about Steele from this perspective. Steele is not a legislator whose "heterodoxical" views Republicans should "tolerate." Similarly, he is not a voter who agrees with the party more-often-than-not, but who has serious disagreements, and who the party should try to court, even if it means diminishing its ideological "purity" a little bit. If he were either of those things, we could reasonably talk about whether or not tolerance and "big tentism" is called for here.

Instead, Steele is a party employee with a job to do. Namely, he's tasked with helping the party win as many elections as possible. And while I agree that broadening the GOP's reach is an important goal for Republicans - it is simply not the principal goal of the RNC Chairman. It's one goal, but it is not his principal goal. The reason is that this is such an enormous task that the chairman of the RNC simply lacks the capacity to do it. We're talking about average voters here - not cable news junkies. For instance, we're talking about voters who recently voted Republican but have since switched to the Democratic Party. I guarantee you that if Michael Steele collected all of them in a room for an hour to preach to them the virtues of big tent Republicanism, the first thought 99.9% of them would have is, "Who the hell is Michael Steele and why should we listen to him for an hour?" In the grand process of party communication, the RNC Chairman is small potatoes. That's not to say he does not have a communicative role, but it is just not his chief job.

His chief job is to raise oodles of cash. And let's just be clear about how much money he has to put together:

-In 2004, the RNC raised $746 per minute.

-In 2006, it raised $462 per minute.

-In 2008, it raised $813 per minute.

That is the principal job of the RNC Chairman. It's not to hold hip hop outreach summits, praise P Diddy and the Pack Rats, or anything like that. It's about the money - first and foremost.

Bottom line: if Michael Steele cannot keep pace with - nay, exceed - past RNC fundraising hauls, the party as a whole will suffer, and it will be less able to take advantage of any opportunities it will have. Thus, if Republicans believe that he cannot keep pace, they should dump him as soon as possible and find somebody who can. And put aside the big tentism. That's just a red herring that is entirely inapplicable to the job of RNC Chairman.

I'd take this a step further: Republicans should be very concerned that Steele will be unable to raise the money. Again, we can talk about big tentism all we like, but to raise these funds, Steele is going to have to court Republican donors. These people, I'm just guessing, are pro-life and generally have warm feelings about either Rush Limbaugh or Snowe, Specter, and Collins. They are more inclined to pay attention than average voters - and they probably know at least a thing or two about what he has said. I'm guessing they were none too thrilled with him allowing DL Hughley to trash the RNC Convention as a Naziesque rally. And so on.

In other words, the GOP should be concerned that Steele is burning bridges between the RNC and the donating portion of the GOP base. This cannot be allowed to happen.

More broadly, Republicans need to get beyond the idea that losing in 2006 and 2008 requires 40 years in the wilderness and 40 lashes with a wet noodle. The party lost. It happens to every party sooner or later - especially when a war is mismanaged (by a President, not a party) and it gets bit by the bottom end of the business cycle. Even with all that, the GOP nominee still pulled in more than 45% of the vote. Yes, reforms in the party are needed - but for goodness sake, Republicans are members of a party that has been around for more than 150 years! A little confidence, and some Burkean perspective on the big picture, is called for. There is no need for a radical rebranding of the party, and there is certainly no need to tolerate a chairman who seems serially intent on alienating the donor base by dumping on the individuals and positions of his side, and playing into the hands of a White House working actively to keep the GOP on the outs for eight more years. This is not a prerequisite for victory. Money is, and if Steele can't bring it in - he needs to go. Period.

-Jay Cost

A Response to Steny Hoyer on Earmarking

USA Today ran an editorial this morning advocating earmark reform and decrying the large number of earmarks in the $410 billion omnibus appropriations bill the President intends to sign (without ceremony). As customary, the newspaper invited somebody with an opposing view to defend the process.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer answered the call, and proceeded to offer a series of non-sequiturs in defense of earmarking. I counted four distinct points in his response:

(1) It's critical to maintain the balance of power between the branches.
(2) Earmarking makes up a small share of the budget - the issue is largely symbolic and distracts the country from bigger problems.
(3) Republicans earmarked, too.
(4) Democrats have cut down on the number of earmarks, and have reformed aspects of the process.

I'd suggest that (1) and (3) are entirely irrelevant as a defense of the earmarking process. If anything, earmarks interfere with the executive branch as much as eliminating them would interfere with the legislative branch. The Office of Management and Budget defines earmarks as:

[F]unds provided by the Congress for projects or programs where the congressional direction (in bill or report language) circumvents Executive Branch merit-based or competitive allocation processes, or specifies the location or recipient, or otherwise curtails the ability of the Executive Branch to manage critical aspects of the funds allocation process.
So, the practice of earmarking is one where Congress plays the role not only of appropriator, but executor. As for (3), you betcha Republicans earmarked. And look where they landed: the 110th Congress sports the tiniest GOP caucus in 16 years.

Meanwhile, (2) and (4) actually conflict with each other. If this is a meaningless issue, then why have Democrats gone to such efforts to trim back earmarks?

It's easy to be critical of Mr. Hoyer here - for he is tasked with trying to defend what is essentially an indefensible process, at least from a national perspective. Earmarking is a perfect example of congressional particularism, which I discussed yesterday. Quite often, it is Congress spending money not for the sake of the public good, but for the good of particular constituents in the 435 districts or 50 states. If your perspective on public affairs is national - that is, you think that federal money should be spent according to national priorities - then the process is indefensible, as it allocates dollars not where they are most needed, but on the basis of the congressional log roll. You can only defend it on a local level. For instance, you can defend earmarks if your top concern is the good folks of Walla Walla, Washington and you want to make sure they get as much as possible (in a way with sufficient visibility that you can claim credit for district improvements and thereby enhance your reelection prospects!).

That, of course, is exactly the perspective of individual members of Congress. They are elected by local constituencies and tasked with advancing their interests in the legislature. As there is nobody elected to Congress by the country as a whole - the appropriate way to look at Congress is not as a national body, but as the meeting place of representatives from all the locales. It's a subtle distinction, but it's a crucial one - as it accounts for practices like earmarks.

Actually, I do agree with Hoyer on one point - earmarks are largely symbolic. However, I'd suggest that they symbolize something extremely important - congressional irresponsibility, which is broad-based and a genuine problem in our constitutional system. I'd define congressional irresponsibility as anything Congress does that favors a legislator's particular client group at the expense of the national interest. That doesn't just include earmarks. It can also include, for instance, Congress' habit of overfunding executive agencies beyond what the President requests. It includes the inefficiencies in the tax code, which legislators have created in part to help favored constituent groups. It includes the interest on the federal debt - which can be seen as the price we pay for past Congresses that refused to make tough choices like spending cuts or tax increases. It includes long festering issues - like entitlement reform - that Congress refuses to tackle because of the short-term electoral risk involved.

Yes, earmarks are small and insignificant in the grand scheme of things. They receive the focus they do not because they are of critical import - but because of all the irresponsible things Congress does every session, earmarking is probably the most ridiculous. It's congressional irresponsibility "jumping the shark," which means crusaders can use it to grab the public's attention. But the public knows something bigger is wrong with the Congress. After all, just one in three Americans approve of the job it's doing, and that is a dramatic improvement in its public standing.

-Jay Cost

Congress Asserts Itself

One of the most interesting features of the new Obama administration, I think, is how assertive Congress has been. While Obama is, of course, the public face of the Democratic Party, and seen to be in charge of the government - it is undeniable that Congress has taken on a central role in running the country.

We saw our first glimpse of congressional power in the Obama years when the President allowed congressional Democrats to write the stimulus bill.

Today, two stories come out that show Congress plans to put its stamp on the Obama budget, too. First from the Washington Post about uneasy backbenchers:

Democratic leaders in Congress did not expect much Republican support as they pressed President Obama's ambitious legislative agenda. But the pushback they are receiving from some of their own has come as an unwelcome surprise.

As the Senate inches closer to approving a $410 billion spending bill, the internal revolt has served as a warning to party leaders pursuing Obama's far-reaching plans for health-care, energy and education reform.

Those goals, spelled out in Obama's 2010 budget blueprint, continue to enjoy broad Democratic support. But as the ideas develop into detailed legislation, they will transform from abstract objectives into a tangle of difficult trade-offs.

The next comes from the New York Times on the authority committee chairs intend to exert on the Obama budget:

What the Democratic barons of Congress liked best about President Obama's audacious budget was his invitation to fill in the details. They have started by erasing some of his.

The apparent first casualty is a big one: a proposal to limit tax deductions for the wealthiest 1.2 percent of taxpayers. Mr. Obama says the plan would produce $318 billion over the next decade as a down payment for overhauling health care.

But the chairmen of the House and Senate tax-writing committees, Senator Max Baucus of Montana and Representative Charles B. Rangel of New York, have objected to the proposal, citing a potential drop in tax-deductible gifts to charities. [snip]

Mr. Obama is taking a gamble in outsourcing the drafting of his agenda's details to these five veteran lawmakers and others in Congress, each with his own political and parochial calculations.

It's easy to forget when there is a presidential election followed by a new President, but Congress is Article One of the Constitution, and (to borrow a phrase) it is the "keystone of the Washington establishment." We look to the President for leadership, but we should never forget the vast powers that the Constitution has granted to the Congress.

The problem with Congress is that it is not actually a national body. Instead, it is the meeting place of representatives from the various, diverse locales that make up the nation. There is nobody in Congress who is actually responsible to the nation as a whole. This means that Congress cannot necessarily be counted upon to craft truly public policy. A given piece of legislation might benefit the 435 districts and the 50 states, but it's a fallacy of composition to suppose that it benefits the nation as a whole. That's how we account for all of this earmarking, which is quintessential congressional particularlism: legislating for the benefit for 435 districts and 50 states, but at the expense of the nation at large.

Additionally, Congress is an institution that prizes the rights of individual legislators - that's not just because of the filibuster, but also committee chairmen and now even subcommittee chairmen. There are a lot of critical legislators who have to sign off on a bill for it to become law. With so many "vetoes" in the body, there emerges another problem: the inclination for Congress to do nothing, to let problems persist. This is often an easier alternative than inducing a powerful committee chair to alter his position.

Ultimately, it is the job of the modern President to guide Congress toward a coherent outcome that benefits the whole country. The Presidency is the only elected office for which all of us vote - and so the President is the one who is responsible for the national interest. It's his job to see to it that Congress does not devolve into particularism, or gets mired in gridlock - but instead works for the public good. This is an exceedingly difficult task. After all, the Presidency is outlined in Article II. The power of the President has grown over the years, but that is because of growth in his informal powers, not the powers granted to him by the Constitution. Beyond vetoes, there is not a heck of a lot the Constitution empowers him to do. Everything beyond that requires the adroit use of the presidential mystique.

So, at the end of the day, the President's success in managing Congress comes down to political acumen. We'll soon see whether President Obama has it. Having the Congress be of the same party as the President helps - but as I have noted time and again on this page, and as these articles should make clear, there are limits to the bonds of partisanship. The parties are a modestly centripetal force in what is an essentially centrifugal system - and it is simply not enough to say that because the President and the congressional majority are Democrats, the President will get his way. Just ask Jimmy Carter.

-Jay Cost

RNC Drama Continues

Yesterday I noted Chris Cillizza's report that the RNC had sent $1 million to the NRCC and the NRSC, calling that a good sign that Republicans are beginning to coordinate this cycle.

That conclusion might have been a little hasty. Over at The Hill, Reid Wilson has an interesting scoop:

Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Michael Steele sought to placate critics by giving $1 million to each of his party's debt-ridden campaign committees -- a move that follows a month of bad reviews, national slip-ups and a high-profile fight with one of the country's most famous conservatives

ut sources told The Hill that Robert "Mike" Duncan, the former chairman, had written checks three times that size -- for $3 million to each committee -- before he left, and that Steele slashed them to the smaller number.

That is a "lie," says the RNC -- and so another round of recrimination begins.

Duncan wrote $3 million checks to both the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) and the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) to help them pay down their debt, sources told The Hill.

But Duncan, out of deference to whoever became the next chairman, decided not to deliver the checks. To do so in advance of the January race for RNC chairman, the sources said, would have appeared self-serving. Duncan did not return a call seeking comment.

You never want to see party committees fight like this (unless, of course, you're on the other side!). If the report is accurate, that's a really bad sign. If it isn't, somebody on the inside is sniping at Steele. Also not a good sign. Internal squabbling won't necessarily prevent the party from winning - recall the tiff between Howard Dean and Rahm Emanuel in 2006 - but party coordination is optimal. This is not coordination!

Meanwhile, Fivethirthyeight.com is reporting that Michael Steele will be booted if the GOP fails to win the NY-20 special election. Jim Geraghty is skeptical, and so am I. Four problems: (a) this is a House seat, and so the NRCC is the party committee principally in charge; (b) Michael Steele has only been at the RNC for a month - seems a little early to judge his politicking capacities; (c) this is a seat the Democrats currently control - seems a little harsh to boot an RNC chairman for failing to pick up a House seat when the President's job approval is above 60%; (d) if Jim Tedisco loses, the first Republican to blame would be...Jim Tedisco, not Michael Steele.

This report - which cites "multiple former high-level RNC staffers" - might be true, but if it is that tells me that the RNC is just looking for an excuse to boot him.

But perhaps the worst sign for Steele - Joe the Plumber is going after him now!

-Jay Cost

Obama Courts the Pundits

David Brooks' recent column had a lot of people talking - as it was surprising to learn that four Obama administration officials contacted him after the criticisms of the President in his previous essay.

Michael Calderone has an interesting piece up at Politico that follows up on this, reporting that this is part of a broader White House strategy:

When New York Times columnist David Brooks accused the White House last week of "shaking confidence with its hyperactivity," no fewer than four senior administration officials reached out to explain -- ever so politely -- how he was wrong.

Overkill? Maybe. But it's what journalists have come to expect from an administration that's trying much harder than its predecessor did to influence inside-the-Beltway opinion makers. [snip]

Andrew Rosenthal, The Times' editorial page editor, says the Obama White House has been more "proactive" than the Bush White House was, offering up policy thinkers to more fully explain the administration's positions -- both before and after columns and editorials run.

"I've had more unsolicited offers for participation from the Obama people in 45 days than in the last eight years from Bush," said Rosenthal.

This is a smart approach. Generally, I am wary about overemphasizing the importance of the punditocracy in the formulation of public opinion. That being said, the inside-the-Beltway crowd can affect public opinion in lasting, significant ways - if, for instance, its members agree with one another and publish those opinions again and again and again. Something like this happened to George W. Bush's presidency, I think. He lost elite opinion before he lost popular opinion - and the former helped the latter along. So, it is good for President Obama to learn from his predecessor's mistakes.

Additionally, this courtship of pundits could supplement what might ultimately be a minimal relationship with reporters. I'm reminded, for instance, of his tough Q&A session with reporters last March about Tony Rezko, when he famously said, "Come on guys; I answered like eight questions." In October, CBS News' Dean Reynolds openly complained about the treatment journalists received aboard the Obama campaign plane. In November, Candidate Obama would not answer questions until his press conference after the election, prompting some pushback from ABC's Jake Tapper. And then of course, President Obama - like his predecessor - did not allow follow-up questions at his first prime time press conference, prompting Craig Crawford to encourage journalists to coordinate:

If he intends to maintain this Bush policy, reporters must work together and agree to ask the obvious follow-up to the previous question as they take their turns. Otherwise, these press conferences are nothing but one-sided speeches.

It's too early to say, but I wonder if the Obama White House's strategy is to court the pundits, but not the journalists. That would be an interesting approach.

-Jay Cost

Tracking Michael Steele

I spent a good part of last week analyzing Michael Steele's brief tenure of the Republican National Committee (see here, here, and here). There have been a few small news items on this front since then that I wanted to catch readers up on.

First, Mike Allen at Politico has this report:

EXCLUSIVE -- MICHAEL STEELE IN THE GARAGE: Look for the embattled RNC chairman to stay off TV this week, declining interviews while he picks a senior staff ahead of his March 31 target. His terrible week culminated with a "Saturday Night Live" portrayal of him wearing an electrode "that the Limbaugh people put in."

This is good news for Republicans - when you're digging yourself a hole, the best thing to do is stop digging.

Unfortunately, some damage might already be done. Last week, I wrote that Republicans should be worried that Steele's antics will turn off Republican donors. From NRO's Jim Geraghty, we learn that GOP leaders are indeed worried:

[A state party chairman who preferred another candidate in the RNC Chair race] was worried about long-term fallout from Steele's tiff with Rush Limbaugh.

"A tremendous number of Rush's listeners are GOP donors, and they're fragile donors. Will they come back? The worst thing Rush did is speculate that his listeners wouldn't donate. That was a huge signal [to listeners]. That was damaging to us, and that's the real carnage from that fight, not Michael Steele's reputation."

That chairman must not have loved Steele's interview with the New York Times where he again ripped his own party:

"I'm trying to move an elephant that's become mired in its own muck," Mr. Steele said in an interview last week in his sunlit Capitol Hill office, pausing whenever he appeared on the giant television close by his desk.

"You can say, 'He's crazy, he's running off at the mouth,' " he said. "Or you can say, 'It kind of makes sense, and I get it.' "

Lovely imagery - but still I'm left wondering, how is this consistent with his principal job, and exactly what does he think that job is? It's to raise cash and help his candidates, not to reform the party's image (whatever that means!).

Of course, the previous RNC Chairman - Mike Duncan - raised a boatload of cash ($428 million, a record in hard money donations for a party committee), and the GOP threw him out of office. Duncan left office with $22 million in the bank (a rare feat), and Steele is spreading that money around. This is from Chris Cillizza:

The Republican National Committee is donating $1 million each to the party's House and Senate campaign arms, a sign of Chairman Michael Steele's commitment to down ballot races, according to those familiar with the move.

"The Republican National Committee stands by our outstanding leaders in both houses of Congress," said Steele, adding that it was an "investment in Republican strong principled leadership."

The money will come in handy for the National Republican Congressional Committee as it seeks to claim a special election victory in New York's 20th district at the end of the month. On Wednesday, the NRCC made its first independent expenditure in that race, dropping nearly $50,000 on media and polling in the contest.

Republicans should be genuinely cheered by this. I've noted on this page before that coordination between party committees is ad hoc, dependent upon the individuals running the committees rather than on a set of party rules or expectations that party committees will actually work together. If 2010 turns out to be a year when Republicans can make gains, then coordination between the committees will be critical for making the most of it (and 1994 was a cycle in which there was a great deal of interaction between the NRCC, NRSC, and the RNC).

-Jay Cost

Should Republicans Be Worried about Michael Steele?

At this point, I'd say yes. I think Steele has an inflated idea of what his role as RNC Chairman is - and this misconception might interfere with his true task.

What's the purpose of the RNC? Is it to lead the Republican Party? No. The national committees are not leadership committees. Historically, they never have been - and today they possess none of the coercive power needed to lead an American political party. For instance, they have absolutely no power to influence members of Congress to vote contrary to their own preferences. The RNC is in service to its candidates, not vice versa.

Is it to be the public face of the party? Again, no. The voting public is now larger than 130 million people. The RNC simply lacks the resources to communicate to a public this large. The chairman can appear on cable news talkers from here to eternity, but he'll only ever reach a thin slice of the electorate. That's not to say that the RNC does not have a public relations role - but it is secondary. By the same token, it is out of the committee's scope to enlarge the party's voting coalition.

The purpose of the RNC is to assist Republican candidates in their quests for electoral victories. This includes candidate recruitment and training, as well as strategic advice during the campaign. However, the principal way it does this is through financial assistance. Campaigning is expensive, and campaign finance rules limit how much money candidates can collect from any one source. The principal job of the RNC is to circumvent these limitations, thereby supplying candidates with scarce electoral resources.

So, I would suggest that the RNC Chairman's primary job is to raise and distribute cash. This puts a particular burden on the current chairman - for the Democrats have eliminated the GOP's historic fundraising advantage, and actually raised more in 2008. Republicans need a chairman who can reinvigorate the party's fundraising apparatus.

Michael Steele has been talking quite a lot lately. However, I have not heard much from him about how he plans to match the Democrats dollar for dollar. Instead, I hear talk of how the GOP needs to expand its coalition, how it needs to undergo a "twelve step program," how moderate senators might be punished by the RNC, and so on. In other words, I hear a lot of talk from Steele that implies he thinks he is a party leader in a broad sense, tasked with bringing Republican legislators into line, and expanding the party coalition through massive outreach.

But he isn't.

The concern for Republicans is that he thinks it is. If he does, fundraising might suffer. First, he might be distracted by these secondary concerns. The party cannot afford a chairman who spends his time holding hip-hop outreach summits instead of fundraising. Second, his rhetoric might be counter-productive. Do moderate Republican donors want to hear talk of punishing Collins, Specter, and Snowe? Do conservative donors want to hear Steele call Rush Limbaugh "incendiary?" Do Republican donors of any stripe want to hear talk about putting the GOP through a "twelve step program," as if it's addicted to drugs? No, no, no. These are not the sorts of things you say to Republican loyalists as a prelude to asking them for their hard earned dollars.

Steele has an additional problem: he now looks like a nincompoop. Suppose that you're a marginal Republican donor - the guy who is on the fence about donating to the party. Are you going to trust Michael Steele to spend your cash wisely? Maybe not. So, what are you going to do instead? Well, the concern for the GOP is that you don't contribute to anybody, or you give it to your local Republican incumbent who has a safe reelection next cycle.

So, I think Republicans should be worried about Michael Steele. Fortunately for Republicans, the Federal Elections Commission requires monthly reports on fundraising and expenditures. So, if Steele is indeed underperforming, they will know soon enough.

-Jay Cost

The Immature White House

Barack Obama's campaign was launched in January, 2007 with an appeal to change the tone of our political discussion. In fact, Obama identified that as the principal problem with our politics, saying:

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.

I thought there was some real merit to this claim, which is a big reason I found his candidacy so intriguing at the time.

But, when the first major political battle of his administration came, the President tossed "change the tone" out the window. Sure, he was willing to ply his Republican opponents with some cocktails at the White House - but when that didn't do the trick, he resorted to attacking a straw man, falsely implying that his opponents preferred to do nothing at all.

Now, we have come to the second major political battle of his administration, and - whaddaya know! - his team is attacking a straw man once again. This time, they are doing so by pushing the patently absurd claim that Rush Limbaugh is the leader of the Republican Party. Democrats have been batting this one back and forth for a few weeks, but now we know that the White House has been intimately involved in the strategy:

By February, Carville and Begala were pounding on Limbaugh frequently in their appearances on CNN.

Neither Democrat would say so, but a third source said the two also began pushing the idea of targeting Limbaugh in their daily phone conversations with Emanuel.

Conversations and email exchanges began taking place in and out of the White House not only between the old pals from the Clinton era but also including White House senior adviser David Axelrod, Deputy Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and Woodhouse.

The White House needed no more convincing after Limbaugh's hour-plus performance Saturday, celebrated on the right and mocked on the left, at the Conservative Political Action Conference, where he re-stated his hope Obama fails.

"He kicked this into full-gear at CPAC by reiterating it," said a senior White House official of Limbaugh.

By Sunday morning, Emanuel elevated the strategy by bringing up the conservative talker, unprompted, on CBS's "Face the Nation" and calling him the "the voice and the intellectual force and energy behind the Republican Party." [SNIP]

Democrats can barely suppress their smiles these days, overjoyed at the instant-ad imagery of Limbaugh clad in Johnny Cash-black at CPAC and, more broadly, at what they see as their success in managing to further marginalize a party already on the outs.

What's the political payoff here? It's simple. By assigning Limbaugh - who "wants the President to fail" - as the leader of the Republican Party, the White House can make it look like congressional Republicans hope the President fails, and that their opposition to his budget is rooted in this sinister desire. It's an easy way to misrepresent Republican opposition to the President. Just as his Republican opponents wanted to do nothing in the face of economic collapse, they oppose the budget because they want the President to fail.

I understand why Democrats in Congress, the media, and the DNC are doing this. Frankly, that doesn't bother me at all. That's the way political games are played, and GOP politicos have certainly done their fair share of this over the years to deserve all that they get. But I am deeply disappointed that the President himself is playing this game - not just because he is the President and this kind of nonsense should be beneath him. It's also because he is the President in part because he promised he wouldn't do this stuff! And yet, we've seen this kind of immature nonsense quite a bit from an administration that has only been in place for a month.

The White House can play these idle political games if it wants. It can stay in permanent campaign mode and work to impeach the credibility of those who question its policies - congressional Republicans, Rick Santelli, Jim Cramer, and anybody else who voices opposition. However, none of that will alter two simple facts: (a) there is an election coming in 20 months; (b) the public will vote based upon its evaluation of President Obama's performance, not Rush Limbaugh. To that end, I'd suggest that the Chief of Staff spend more time ensuring that...oh, I don't know...the British aren't offended for no good reason than whether Limbaugh finds his way to the top of another news cycle.

It's been twenty six months since Barack Obama delivered that web announcement proclaiming his concern for the tone - but it feels like it has been much, much longer. Lately, I've been thinking about that historic primary battle - when Democrats chose "change the tone" over "ready on day one." If Democrats had chosen Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama - we would probably still be seeing this kind of political hardball, but would it come with this sort of useless, thoughtless, clueless snubbing of our closest ally? I doubt it.

-Jay Cost

Who's the Leader of the GOP?

That's a question lots of people are asking today, especially with the White House and the DNC suggesting that it's actually Rush Limbaugh who is in charge. Indeed, this claim might actually stick now that some Republican politicos are defending Rush in his dustup with Michael Steele, who has apologized to the radio talker.

Per my column yesterday, I'd argue that Rush Limbaugh is not the "leader" of the Republican Party. Limbaugh is a radio talk show host - a very important one who has 15 million listeners a week. But we're talking about a political party, and therefore electoral politics, which is a mass phenomenon. Limbaugh has influence in the party - that's for sure - but he is not the leader. Contrary to Reihan Salam's suggestion, he cannot remake the "Party of Lincoln" into the "Party of Limbaugh," nor does he have the power to define the image of the party for the mass public.

What about RNC Chairman Michael Steele? After all, he claimed to be the leader of the party in the same show that he called Limbaugh's program "incendiary" and "ugly." Bluster aside, he is not - and for proof of that all we need do is look at the prominent position the former "leader" of the Democratic Party, Howard Dean, now has in the Obama Administration. Oh...never mind!

Michael Steele's purpose as RNC Chairman is quite simple: to raise gobs of money to help candidates circumvent the Federal Elections Campaign Act and the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (aka McCain-Feingold). His committee is the largest part of the legal money laundering machine of the Republican Party. It's his job to fly the party standard to attract donors who either don't know which candidates to contribute to, have maxed out to their preferred candidates and want to give more, or would just rather have the party decide how to spend the money. [And - by insulting Rush Limbaugh - he's doing a bang up job so far. Limbaugh is not the leader of the party, but I'll bet dollars to donuts that he has a boatload of party contributors (or could-be contributors) in his audience who are pissed off right about now.]

So, who's in charge of the Republican Party? Let's answer this by reviewing a topic discussed here last week - namely whether Steele has the power to punish Arlen Specter for voting for the stimulus bill. My answer was: no, he is powerless.

Since then, I have noted two items that relate to that story. The first is from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:

A new statewide poll shows 53 percent of Pennsylvanians -- and 66 percent of Republicans -- want someone to replace Sen. Arlen Specter.

Asked whether they think Specter, a Philadelphia Republican, has done his job well enough to win re-election or whether they'd prefer a "new person" in that job, registered voters by a 53-38 percent margin said it's time to give someone else a chance, according to the poll by Susquehanna Polling and Research. Eight percent were undecided.

That article was published on Saturday. On Monday, the Hill published the following:

After previously ruling it out, former Pennsylvania Rep. Pat Toomey (R), who ran for the Senate in 2004, said Monday that he is reconsidering challenging Sen. Arlen Specter in the 2010 GOP primary.

"As this disastrous recession worsens, I have become increasingly concerned about the future of our state and national economy," Toomey said in a statement Monday. "Unfortunately, the recent extraordinary response of the federal government - more corporate bailouts, unprecedented spending and debt, higher taxes - is likely to make things worse. I think we are on a dangerously wrong path. Pennsylvanians want a US Senator focused on real and sustainable job creation that gets our economy growing again. That is why I am considering becoming a candidate for the US Senate."

So, it is not the party that might punish Arlen Specter for his heterodoxy - it is another candidate, one who has surveyed the political landscape and surmised that it is in his interests to explore a challenge.

I would suggest that this is where the locus of power resides in the Republican Party: in their candidates for and in office. It is by their strategic actions in pursuit of electoral victory that they shape the image of the GOP and the direction it takes. The RNC is - at the end of the day - in service to the ambitions of these candidates. Rush Limbaugh has millions of radio listeners - but that's still dwarfed by the number of voters party candidates collectively mobilize every cycle.

The next question is: who is looking out for the interests of the whole party? The answer: nobody. The title is actually a trick question. American political parties do not really have leaders, except when they temporarily control the White House (and even then, the President is still looking out for his own political interests, so there still can be conflict; plus his coercive power over fellow partisans is mostly informal). There is no permanent position or organization that makes sure that candidates behave responsibly, i.e. in a way that is consistent with the overall goal of the party (which is to take control of the government).

As somebody who supports "responsible party government," I see this as a huge problem. Without a centralizing authority that can discipline candidates, you're bound to find instances of the problem of collective action: the whole party wants to win control of the government, candidates want to win their own elections - frequently these goals can conflict, yet there is no way for the party to coerce candidates to do what is good for the party. We discussed this last week when we noted what a pantload Jim Bunning is, yet the party lacks a way to deal with him effectively.

Ultimately, candidates are in control. There is no entity - be it an organization or person - that really has the power to make sure they behave in a way that is responsible to the broader agenda party. It just does not exist. The actions of the party are frequently just the sum total of these individual schemes. There is no institutionalized position of leadership, in the sense that we traditionally think of one.

Now, this does not mean the party is bound to behave in an uncoordinated, "irresponsible" way. For instance, the Republican Party was quite coordinated in 1994 when it produced the Contract with America. So, coordination between candidates - that ultimately benefits the party as a whole - is possible. The problem is that this kind of coordination is ad hoc, not systematic. Sometimes you'll see candidates coordinate. Other times - as with the Democrats in 1996 - you'll see one candidate for office (in that case, President Clinton) work independently of other candidates of the same party (House Democrats). Clinton assessed that it was in his own electoral interests to triangulate and position himself as above the congressional fracas. This assessment was probably correct, but was it beneficial to House Democrats? Not so much.

Political scientists conceive of the old political party as a "truncated pyramid" in which the state parties were actually in charge, and the national parties were essentially powerless. Over the last century, reforms of varying quality destroyed that old structure - but they did not replace it with a new system where a central agent has some control over the whole scheme. There is still no top of the pyramid. Instead, candidates are in charge, and they coordinate or don't coordinate depending upon their assessments of their own interests.

There is a leadership vacuum on the Republican side right now - but really this is because they do not have a national candidate. The Democrats have one - his name is President Obama - so they have a "leader," though individual Democratic candidates are still basically in charge of themselves. With President Bush retiring to Texas and Senator McCain returning to the Senate, the GOP has nobody like that. The White House is taking advantage of this by characterizing the party as being led by Rush Limbaugh, who is unpopular from a national perspective.

-Jay Cost

How Much Does Rush Limbaugh Matter?

With Rush Limbaugh's CPAC speech, the radio talker is back in the news - and some conservatives are wondering whether he is good for the party. Rod Dreher says that Limbaugh's speech was "political crack" and that:

Anybody who challenges Limbavian orthodoxy is, ipso facto, the Enemy. If you suggest reform, even from the Right, you are a useful idiot for the Media, which are the Enemy, and can never be anything but the Enemy. Limbaughism sounds a lot like Leninism.

Meanwhile, Reihan Salam says that Limbaugh is trying to, "remake the Party of Lincoln as the Party of Limbaugh." He goes on to suggest that Limbaugh is over-stepping his boundaries:

What Limbaugh fails to understand is that any successful political movement is built of both true believers and evangelizers. True believers, like Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, fire up the troops. They tell their followers exactly what they want to hear, and they instinctively resist any compromise of their hallowed principles. As a general rule, true believers live and work and worship among other true believers, and they like it that way. [Snip] Every week Rush Limbaugh reaches an audience of over 13 million listeners--a staggering sum by any standard. Yet 13 million listeners plus their spouses, plus the family dog, plus a few dead aunts and uncles thrown in here or there, still doesn't add up to an electoral majority.

That's where the evangelizers come in. Evangelizers are in the business of making converts, and so they are obligated to make their way among people who are opposed--sometimes bitterly opposed--to their views. To succeed, evangelizers need to recognize the other side's strengths and to use its language. Just as missionaries would occasionally "go native" in foreign lands and abandon their original creed, there is a real risk that evangelizers will lose touch with their core beliefs. Yet other missionaries learned to adapt, to take the essentials of their faith and compromise it in such a way as to make it relevant and compelling to the locals.

Are we talking about politics or religion? It sounds an awful lot like religion - and I think we need to reframe the discussion.

Political participation is a mass phenomenon in this country. Aside from going to church and watching the Super Bowl, it might just be the only other activity that commands so many participants. After all, at least 131,370,793 Americans voted in the last presidential election. In comparison to that, just about everything else is niche entertainment.

Obviously, Salam is correct that Limbaugh's audience would be insufficient for a political majority, but a political majority in 2008 required the support of nearly 66 million voters. Ultimately, that undermines his broader point - for we are dealing with a scale so massive that we have little use for "evangelizers."

There are reasons political campaigns have taken the peculiar shape they have taken - that they do not conform to the ideal of "deliberative democracy." We can appreciate just how entrenched our less-than-erudite tradition of politicking is by reviewing one of the first elections that generated high levels of participation, the election of 1840 in which William Henry Harrison squared off against Martin van Buren. From historian Paul Boller:

The log-cabin-hard-cider campaign (of the Whigs) had to be seen to be believed. There was no dearth of spectators. Estimates of crowds assembled for Whig rallies ranged from one thousand to one hundred thousand...Hard cider was plentiful...Slogans, mottoes, nicknames, and catchwords abounded: "The Farmer's President"; "The Hero of Tippecanoe"; "Harrison, Two Dollars a Day and Roast Beef"; and, best of all..."Tippecanoe and Tyler Too!" There were also scores of log-cabin newspapers, log-cabin pamphlets and leaflets; and thousands of Tippecanoe badges, Tippecanoe handkerchiefs, and Tippecanoe products (including shaving cream) of all kinds. Whig songs...were energetic, exuberant, ecstatic, and endless.

Basically, the Whigs campaigned in 1840 by plying the public with booze, music, slogans, and merchandise. Electioneering has, of course, changed over the years - but this reminds me quite a bit of Obama's acceptance speech in Denver!

This is the sort of thing you need to do to engage the mass public. There's little need for "evangelizers" in this scheme, then or now. When appealing to a political audience as broad as the voting public, you are confronting a large majority of voters who pay relatively little attention and are essentially non-ideological in their political orientation. That means the idea of converting somebody from "liberalism" to "conservatism" as a precursor to getting his vote is simply not going to yield many votes. If it did, this is what candidates - who have the greatest interest in winning votes - would try to do. Instead, they speak in sound bytes and they have Stevie Wonder or Hank Williams, Jr. open their political rallies.

You're going to win these marginal voters in part by finding issue positions that solve practical problems they face - hence the reason candidates take so many positions these days. Marketing is a factor, too. But the biggest factor is whether the winds of public opinion favor you. That should remind us of the scale we're dealing with: when we talk about public opinion, we often use nature metaphors, which imply that it affects politicians, but politicians do not really affect it. Ultimately, we can make a pretty convincing argument that campaigns do not really alter the public's thinking - that the great mass of the public has preexisting opinions on the parties and the state of the union, that these translate pretty easily into vote choices, and the hundreds of millions of dollars both sides spends do little to alter the process. That's the scale we're dealing with.

I think that generates two conclusions for the subject at hand. First, from the perspective of electoral politics, Rush Limbaugh is not much of a factor. That's not to say he is unimportant in other ways. He influences lots of people and is certainly important from a cultural perspective. But we're talking about elections - where more than a hundred million people participate. That has to change our evaluation of his influence. Additionally, he might be a hot topic for a few news cycles, but news cycles are drops in the bucket from an electoral perspective.

Second, there is value in the discussion among conservatives about the future of their movement. But that does not mean that the payoff is going to be electoral. This is a discussion by political elites for elites. Electoral politics - at least the difference between winning and losing - is inevitably non-ideological and non-elite.

Think of it this way. Suppose the Republican Party and the conservative movement fail to "reform" or "reimagine" themselves, but the country becomes highly dissatisfied with the governance of President Obama. What happens in 2010? I'll bet the farm that the GOP makes big gains in the House, ideological anemia aside. Now, suppose that the party and the movement do reinvigorate themselves, translate their principles into compelling policy solutions and generally begin an intellectual renaissance on the right - but the country is pleased with Obama and the Democrats. What happens? Again, I'll bet the farm that the Republicans make little or no gains.

When you get right down to it, elections are fought over the state of the union and the country's opinion on how the majority party has managed the government. The parties get to tinker at the margins, and ideology can be a part of this tinkering, but it's important not to make too much of it.

-Jay Cost