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By Jay Cost

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Climate Bill Faces Long Odds in Senate

On Friday the House narrowly passed the Waxman-Markey climate bill, by a vote of 219 to 212. The conventional wisdom now is that the bill will have a difficult time passing the Senate. This is from the Wall Street Journal:

[I[t isn't clear how much of the sprawling House bill will survive in the Senate, where moderate Democrats and Republicans could form a majority that backs less ambitious action. Among the potential problem areas: the House bill has a provision that would impose tariffs on goods imported from countries that don't match U.S. carbon dioxide restrictions -- a slap at China and India that some business interests fear could provoke a trade war.

Despite the narrow victory, the distribution of the House vote actually suggests that the climate bill will have a tough road ahead in the Senate, as the following analysis will show. To start, let's break down the House vote by state caucuses. The following map does this. If a state's House caucus voted in favor of the bill on Friday (i.e. a majority of House members in the state voted yea), it is shaded green. If its caucus voted against (i.e. a majority voted nay), it is shaded red.

House Climate Vote.gif

If the vote in the House on this bill had been calculated like the vote for President in the case of no majority winner in the Electoral College - where each state gets one vote - the climate bill would not have passed. Twenty-two state caucuses voted in favor of it while twenty-eight voted against. The bill passed in large part because of strong support from California and New York, which accounted for more than 26% of the total votes in favor of the bill.

This is a tipoff that the bill might run afoul of the Connecticut Compromise, for the Senate is not apportioned by population. California and New York only control 4% of the votes in the Senate, as opposed to 19% in the House. On the other hand, extrapolating directly from House caucus votes to Senate votes could induce an inferential fallacy. For instance, simply because Missouri's House caucus voted against Waxman-Markey does not mean Claire McCaskill would vote similarly. All of Missouri's Democratic House members voted in favor of the bill. The caucus overall swung against it because every Republican was opposed, and the state has one more Republican than Democrat in the House.

Where we can get some real analytical purchase is by looking at not only how state caucuses voted, but how partisans within those caucuses voted as well. In particular, what can the forty-four House Democrats who voted against Waxman-Markey tell us about the Senate? The following chart helps us answer this question by organizing Senate Democrats into four categories, depending on the "pressure" they face to vote against the party. Pressure is defined by the House vote, and the categories are developed thusly:

-Senators who face "no pressure" come from states that voted in favor of the bill, and where there were no Democratic defectors.

-Senators who face "slight pressure" either come from states that voted against it but with no Democratic defectors, or states that voted in favor but with at least one Democratic defector.

- Senators who face "moderate pressure" come from states that voted against it, and with at least one Democratic defector.

-Senators who face "significant pressure" come from states that voted against it and where most (or all) Democrats defected.

Senate Democrats Pressure on Climate Bill.jpg

As we can see, many Senate Democrats face "pressure" to vote against the party. Nine face "significant pressure," and another six face "moderate pressure." A lot of these members might ultimately vote yea - but many of them might not. Of the fourteen Democrats under "significant" or "moderate pressure" who were in the last Congress - twelve either voted against cloture on the Lieberman-Warner climate bill, did not vote, or voted in favor but indicated to Harry Reid and Barbara Boxer that they opposed "final passage of the [bill] in its current form." Thus, even with 59 Democrats (or 60 if/when Franken is admitted), passage could be difficult.

Additionally, I'd note the senators with the asterisks next to their names under the "slight" heading. These are Democrats who come from states where all the House members are Republican. So, this chart might understate the pressure they face. Of course, the "slight" category also has a few senators whose pressure is probably overstated. There were a handful of defecting Democrats in California, Illinois, and New York - even though each state's delegation voted heavily for the bill. Accordingly, Boxer, Burris, Durbin, Feinstein, Gillibrand, and Schumer are placed here, even though they probably face little-to-no pressure to vote against the party. There were even Republican yea votes in Illinois and New York.

If this bill comes up for a vote in the Senate - it will be interesting to watch Arlen Specter. Two House Democrats from Western Pennsylvania - Altmire and Dahlkemper - voted against this bill. Historically, Specter has been very weak in that part of the state - and one of his big concerns has to be greater Pittsburgh Democrats. On the other hand, most Philadelphia area Democrats (including his prospective primary opponent, Joe Sestak) voted in favor of the bill. Specter being the "unprincipled hack" that he is, we should expect him to come down on the side that maximizes his likelihood of electoral success - but which side is that?

Now, what about the Republicans?

Senate Republicans Pressure on Climate Bill.jpg

This implies much more party unity on the GOP side, with no Republicans facing "significant" or even "moderate pressure" and just a handful facing "slight pressure." Democrats might be hard-pressed to win any Republican votes, although as usual it will be interesting to see what Collins and Snowe do.

It's important to stress the limitations of this analysis. Senators face different electoral calculations than House members - being up for a vote once every six years rather than once every two, being more high-profile, typically facing better opponents, and so on. Additionally, simply because an aggregation of House members voted one way or another does not mean we should expect a senator from the same state to vote similarly. That's a fallacy of composition. So, we have to be careful not to make too much of the preceding.

Still, it's fair to say that the House vote is a helpful gauge on the pulse of the Senate. And while the bill passed the House, the way the vote was distributed in the lower chamber suggests that it will encounter significant challenges in the Senate.

-Jay Cost

Is Sarah Palin Running for President?

She might be. She's doing the same "will she/ won't she" dance with reelection that Tim Pawlenty was doing just a few months ago - and we all know how that ended with T-Paw. This is from Politico:

Top Republicans and Democrats across Alaska are quietly lining up to run for governor amid growing speculation that Sarah Palin will not seek reelection in 2010.

No candidate, including Palin, has yet filed papers with the Alaska Public Offices Commission. Palin's office declined an opportunity to explain her thinking on the 2010 race, and the Republican Governors Association said it would not comment on discussions it has had with the governor.

But a number of Democrats and Republicans in Alaska and Washington who spoke to POLITICO believe her silence is a sign she will not pursue a second term as governor so that she can play a larger role on the national political stage.

A "larger role on the national political stage?" Hmmm...

Why would reelection as governor interfere with playing "a larger role?" If she was simply looking to be a more prominent spokeswoman for the Republican party, being a sitting governor would be an asset. However, it would probably interfere with a presidential run. For starters, the logistics of balancing the jobs of Alaska governor and presidential candidate would be burdensome, to say the least. Juneau is nearly a two day, 2000-mile drive from Seattle. Having Alaska as a home base while traveling around the country would be extremely expensive and time-consuming. McCain, Clinton, and Obama demonstrated that ambitious pols can still technically serve in the Senate while campaigning for President in the age of the permanent campaign - but it's another story when contemplating a run for the presidency from a position in Alaska.

But is that what she's up to? I'm not entirely convinced. Obviously, if she ran, she would be a fundraising dynamo. She would probably be quite strong in the southern primaries and midwestern caucuses. However, she has two big obstacles that stand in her way.

First, her negatives are very high. Pew recently found her net favorability at just +1, with 44% of Americans having an unfavorable view. Other polls have shown similar results. This is actually an improvement for her relative to the Pew poll from October, 2008 when her net favorability was negative. For whatever reason, Palin seemed to have been a proxy battle in the ongoing culture war last cycle, which was otherwise on hold because the two top contenders didn't want to engage in it. This is not a good position from which to launch a presidential candidacy. Ideally, you want a very high net favorability - or, barring that, a large percentage of people who have no opinion of you either way. My hunch is that Republican primary voters in many blue states will be less enamored of her - and their votes, while irrelevant in the general election, really count in party primaries.

Second, she's the governor of Alaska. There's an informal hierarchy for political jobs in this country. It's such that only a few positions have been stepping stones to the presidency: general, vice-president, senator, secretary of state, and governor. That pretty much covers it. As chief executive of Alaska, Palin technically fits the bill. However, Alaska is a thinly populated state. It has fewer people than every state but Vermont, North Dakota, and Wyoming. In fact, the mayor of Indianapolis is responsible for more people than Sarah Palin. Will the public think a single term as governor of Alaska is sufficient preparation for the presidency? I have my doubts. I'm reminded of Dennis Miller's crack about Howard Dean's candidacy in 2004: "What did you ever do in your life except be the head guy in a state where your main job was to come out once a year, pound a nail into a tree and hang a bucket off it?"

I think Palin's best bet is to win election to the Senate. That would be a way to burnish her credentials. It might also give her an opportunity to improve her public image. She might follow in the footsteps of Harry Truman - who was thought to be the "Senator from Pendergast" until he made a name for himself going after wartime waste and corruption from his perch as the chairman of the Special Committee Investigating National Defense. The problem for Palin, of course, is that her first shot at that job is not until 2014. She won't challenge Lisa Murkowski, which means that a run against Mark Begich in five years would be her first opportunity.

We'll see what she does, but I think it would be a real stretch for her to run for the presidency in 2012. I think she has enormous political talent, and that she was treated unfairly last cycle (though that's the breaks in politics!) - but I just don't think she's well-positioned for a run next cycle.

-Jay Cost

Reagan, Obama, and Presidential Teflon

Steve Kornacki recently suggested that President Obama's job approval rating might be resistant to public uncertainty over his policies. He might be the "New Teflon President." He writes:

Popular discontent also seems to be mounting over Obama's approach to government spending and budget deficits, areas where Republicans have aggressively targeted the president for criticism...

You might think this would all be enough to inflict some serious wear-and-tear on Obama's popularity. After all, remember how little it took for Bill Clinton's numbers to deteriorate in the first months of his presidency?

So far, though, it's not happening...

Kornacki goes on to suggest that part of this immunity is probably because Obama inherited an economic mess - but he thinks there's more to it than that. In particular, he believes Obama might have a bit of Reagan's Teflon quality:

Democrats flogged Reagan relentlessly for his fiscal recklessness, and when he ran against Reagan in '84, Walter Mondale made the soaring debt his centerpiece issue. In one way, their effort succeeded: In an August 1984 poll, voters ranked the budget deficit as their top economic concern--tied with unemployment. And yet, the same poll found that voters who ranked deficits as their top concern preferred Reagan by a 64 to 25 percent margin. And overall, Reagan's approval rating stood at 55 percent--foreshadowing his 49-state landslide a few months later.

The explanation was simple: Americans largely viewed Reagan and his grandfatherly warmth with affection. They liked him personally and wanted him to succeed. And by '84, there were clear signs--deficits notwithstanding--that the country's economic heath had improved over the previous four years. So, they were happy to give Reagan the credit--and to accept his excuses for the runaway deficits and his promises to address them in his second term (which, of course, he didn't do).

Kornacki acknowledges that Reagan's job approval took a hit in the early 1980s with the economic recession - but nevertheless suggests that Reagan was able to stay above the fray. He was relatively unsullied by the rough-and-tumble of politics, which managed to tarnish his predecessors and successors.

I'm not a big believer in the concept of presidential Teflon. It probably exists, to an extent, but too much is made of it. I think it's one way that pundits misunderstand the electorate. In some ways, they assume too much of voters - like how much attention they pay to politics (much less than assumed) or how they evaluate political arguments (they rely much more heavily on partisanship). In other ways, though, they assume too little. During the horse race phase of the electoral campaign, pundits tease out electoral implications from the day's news. This activity implicitly assumes that voters care enough about the day's irrelevant minutiae, and that yesterday's minutiae no longer affect their thinking. So, they're narrow-minded, obsessive amnesiacs? I don't think so.

I think Teflon is one way to assume too little about voters. In this case, they were bewitched by Reagan's avuncular style, and evaluated him less harshly than they would another president. That does not say good things about the public, or the prospects for democratic accountability, which leaves me wondering: if people are susceptible to this kind of manipulation, wouldn't democracy have gone off the rails a long time ago? Since 1796, the out-party has always complained about how the demagogic witchcraft of the incumbent is bringing us to ruin - but lo and behold the Republic still thrives. At some point, we have to give the voters credit for this.

The alternative hypothesis about Reagan is that most people thought he did a good job on the big stuff, which is why Democrats were never able to sink his popularity. Right off the bat, this idea has two items to recommend it. First, it implies an electorate that's doing it's job - evaluating the President based on big issues like the performance of the economy. It also accounts for Reagan's rough sledding early in his term. Otherwise, we have to generate an ad hoc addenda to the Teflon hypothesis: somehow he developed it later on (after Pat Schroeder coined the phrase in August, 1983 when his net approval was around -1!).

In support of the alternative, I'd offer the following graph - which tracks Reagan's month-by-month job approval against the seasonally adjusted monthly unemployment rate. It also includes a marker for when the Iran-Contra story first broke.

Reagan Job Approval.jpg

From mid-1978 to mid-1980, unemployment was somewhere between 5% and 6.5%. However, it jumped up to about 7.5% during the brief recession of 1980. This slowdown helped Reagan in his bid to oust Jimmy Carter. It also explains why the electorate gave him high marks early on, despite the weak job market he inherited. But in late 1981, the economy slowed again, and the unemployment rate started climbing. That's when Reagan's approval numbers plummeted. What ultimately saved him was the quick turnaround of the economy: his job approval numbers have the same V-shape as the growth rate in GDP. After peaking in June of 1983, unemployment would continue to fall on his watch, ultimately down to 5.4% when he handed the reigns over to George H.W. Bush in January, 1989.

So, we see Reagan's job approval and the unemployment rate moving in tandem. Interestingly, we also see that Iran-Contra substantially affected his standing. The numbers are pretty stark. Reagan had a net approval rating of 36 in October, 1986. Two months later - after the scandal broke - it was down to just 4. By February of 1987, Gallup would find more Americans disapproving than approving. Ultimately, his numbers climbed back - probably because he was never accused of any wrongdoing.

All of this should serve as a qualification to the concept of Teflon. It might be that a less avuncular, colder chief executive would have suffered more than Reagan. Maybe he would have lost more seats in the 1982 midterm (though the GOP still lost 14% of its caucus, compared to 13% in 2006). Maybe Iran-Contra would have been such that his successor would have lost the 1988 election. It's impossible to say. Even if that is the case, this picture indicates that - while he might have had an elevated baseline to work with - Reagan's numbers still rose and fell with the economy and scandal. In fact, 77% of the changes in Reagan's job approval can be explained by two factors: variation in the unemployment rate and whether the poll was taken before or after Iran-Contra broke. That looks a lot like a presidency that's contingent upon the performance of the economy and the government. That's a good thing.

Even Eisenhower - the original Teflon President - was not immune to these ups-and-downs. The following graph has the story.

Eisenhower Job Approval.jpg

Eisenhower's popularity did not suffer much with the first recession on his watch. The economy contracted by 0.7% in 1953, and you can see the corresponding rise in unemployment - but his popularity only suffered modestly. However, in 1958 the economy again contracted - this time by 1.0% - and his approval rating took a bigger hit. In March of that year, Gallup found just 47% of Americans approving of his performance. Ike probably had a Teflon-coating, so that he did not suffer as much as other chief executives would have. For instance, Republicans in Congress suffered greatly from both economic slow-downs. But still: changes in the unemployment rate account for 58% of changes in his job approval.

The lesson from all this is pretty simple: there are limits to Teflon. At best, it gives some incumbents a cushion in their numbers, so that they do not suffer as much as others would. Frankly, I'm skeptical of even this. I think Ike definitely had a Teflon quality - probably because he won a war, probably because he was studiously non-divisive - but Reagan not so much. Ultimately, if the recovery from the '82-'83 recession had been less V-shaped, I think voters would have mercilessly booted him from office. If there had been more to Iran-Contra, I think the elder Bush would have lost in 1988. Reagan's approval numbers for the final five years of his term look exactly what you'd expect anybody's to look like when the economy is humming along as it was.

Sure, the Democrats complained about the deficits in the '80s; voters claimed to care, but didn't act on it. But deficits are a secondary issue. They're also symbolic: it's hard to identify a direct, personal effect from high deficits. Unemployment, wages, productivity, and the general state of the economy are, on the other hand, primary and concrete. So, it's not a huge surprise that Mondale got little traction on the deficit issue in 1984 - even though voters expressed concern. In fact, that concern about deficits was a sign of Reagan's strength. He probably won so many voters who named the deficit as their number one concern because a few months ago, they had been principally concerned about unemployment - but not anymore. After all, the economy grew at 7.4% in 1984 and unemployment was falling quickly by Election Day. The bigger shock would have been if people had voted Reagan out despite the growth.

What does this suggest for President Obama? I think Ike and Reagan's presidencies indicate that he has a grace period. Early economic troubles did not gravely affect either man's approval ratings. But sooner or later, voters are going to expect some results. I don't know when that will be. But I do know that, if the economy isn't delivering by then, they'll blame President Obama, Teflon or not.

-Jay Cost

Republicans Would Do Well To Consider Pawlenty

This week, the Minnesota Post reported that Tim Pawlenty is laying the foundation for a run at the Presidency:

Since at least April -- well before he announced his decision not to run for a third term -- Gov. Pawlenty has been laying the organizational and financial groundwork for a potential run for president.

Fund-raising is under way for an organization that would allow Pawlenty to travel around the country, showing his face, developing his message and forming alliances with like-minded Republicans. Professional political fund-raisers are working on this.

Pawlenty has directly addressed groups of potential donors, and checks have been written.

Republicans would be well advised to give Pawlenty some serious consideration. I can think of two reasons.

First, his home state. The following chart tracks the Democratic "tilt" of Minnesota from 1968 through 2008:

Minnesota Tilt.jpg

From the Civil War to the Great Depression, Minnesota was a reliably Republican state - only defecting in 1912, and even then it supported Teddy Roosevelt. Then came the Great Depression - and ever since Minnesota has been solidly Democratic. While Eisenhower carried it twice at about the same level he won the nationwide vote, it has been a tough nut for the GOP to crack. The size of the Democratic tilt was once such that only Nixon - with his landslide victory in 1972 - could carry it. Not coincidentally, the state has provided Democrats with two of the nine presidential candidates from that chart.

But George W. Bush came close to winning the state in 2000 and 2004. Though Obama's victory was decisive last year - it was not far off from his nationwide share of the two-party vote. Thirty years ago, a Democrat who won 54% of the nationwide two-party popular vote would probably have won upwards of 60% in Minnesota.

The bottom line is that, for Republicans, running a candidate from Minnesota implies a very strong chance of picking up its 10 electoral votes, something the party has not done since 1972.

Second, Pawlenty could provide a nice tonal contrast to Barack Obama. He was, of course, a contender for McCain's vice-presidential slot - but the rap on him at the time was that he was not exciting enough. That was probably a fair criticism last year. Given the macro forces working against the GOP - McCain was smart to think he needed a veep candidate to shake things up.

But matters could be different in 2012. Generally speaking, reelection campaigns are all about the incumbent. If the public approves of Obama's performance - he'll be reelected regardless of what the Republican party does. So, when the GOP is mulling which contender to nominate, the best approach is not to ask which one can make the race close, but rather which one can best capitalize if the race is close. And in this way, Pawlenty could be a good candidate precisely because he is a bit on the boring side.

President Obama is regularly credited with being an electrifying speaker with a charismatic presence. If, however, the public comes to sour on his job performance by the next election, it might be drawn to the opposite qualities. This has happened several times in the last 20 years. George H.W. Bush was seen as non-empathetic. Bill Clinton was full of empathy, and could capitalize on the contrast. Clinton came to be seen as lacking moral rectitude. George W. Bush seemed upright, and could again capitalize. Finally, the younger Bush came to be seen as overly certain. Obama took advantage by emphasizing his ability to see shades of gray.

In other words, when incumbent presidents lose their luster, those with qualities opposite theirs can stand to gain. If the public sours on Obama, his pizzazz and speechifying abilities could be rebranded as a negative - "all sizzle and no steak." In that situation, the GOP might do well to have somebody who can't make a political rally look like a Beatles concert. Boring could be pitched as competent, sensible, and able to get the job done.

Of course, it's still very early. My point is simply that the contrast between Obama and Pawlenty might be a beneficial one for the GOP to offer if the public has soured on the incumbent. If it hasn't - it really does not matter what the party does. Popular incumbents never lose.

-Jay Cost

Realignments: Here, There, and Everywhere

A few years back I attended a conference on the 2004 presidential election. After my presentation, the panel and the audience engaged in a discussion on the implications of the Bush-Kerry contest. Inevitably, the conversation turned to whether or not 2004 was a realigning election. That was when the conversation devolved - as people debated exactly what a realignment was, which previous elections were realignments, what factors were indicative of realignment, and so on. Nobody really got anywhere, nobody really learned anything. It was just kind of a waste of time. Since then, I've come to believe that realignment is not a very helpful category for understanding American elections.

As problematic as realignment theory is, there is a continuous stream of literature coming out of (mostly) non-scholarly circles following every election that argues that the recent election was - you guessed it! - a realigning one. There's a market for this kind of stuff, I suppose, so it gets produced after almost every presidential election.

This cycle, the literature is pointing to the new Democratic majority. But it wasn't so long ago that Democrats were worrying about the new Republican majority. Here, Ron Brownstein reviews five popular consumption books about the would-have-been realignment of 2004. Their predictions were, of course, wrong - and Brownstein is interested in why.

To reread the major political books from the years around Bush's reelection is to be plunged, as if into a cold pool, back into a world of Democratic gloom and anxiety. Those books were linked by the common belief that Republicans had established a thin but durable electoral advantage that threatened to exile Democrats from power for years, if not decades. Many books from that time assumed Democrats could avoid that eclipse only by adopting the tactics used by Republicans in general and Rove in particular. Liberal activists and thinkers all exhorted Democrats to attack Republicans in vitriolic terms, to find liberal "wedge issues" that could divide the electorate as sharply as the conservative stand-bys of abortion, gun control, and gay marriage, and most important to emulate Rove's approach of seeking to win elections more by mobilizing the party's base with an uncompromising message than by persuading swing voters with a more centrist appeal. "Liberals who regard Bush's political strategist as Satan scan the Democratic Party and ask plaintively, 'Where is our Karl Rove?'" write journalists Mark Halperin and John Harris in their 2006 book, The Way to Win.

Brownstein goes on to ask why all these analysts got their predictions wrong. But I think he misses the bigger picture. There are two salient points I'd make on why these theories were off.

First, it's really hard to predict realignments. If we were to graph the history of the balance of power in this country, we'd see lots of change. Sometimes, the needle moves dramatically in one direction, then dramatically in another. Other times, the needle stays on one side for a lasting period - but more often than not one swing is followed by a swing in the other direction. In light of this volatility, how could we ever know that the recent swing is not going to be countered by another one? I say that we cannot. Of course, realignment advocates have all sorts of reasons to expect the latest swing to be more lasting. Yet none of those reasons ever rely on the data we all agree is necessary to establish a theory of realignment: election results! After all, the future elections haven't happened yet. So, other data is substituted where election results should go; this data is inevitably inferior, and the possibility of error creeps in.

Second, realignment is a highly problematic category. I think it is quite useful to capture the electoral behavior of this group or that - but when it's used as a catch-all for a period of the whole country's history, problems emerge. It has never really captured the "story" of a period in history terribly well. So, anytime an analyst uses it to make an argument - they run the risk of trouble. For instance, 1980 is often taken to be a realigning election. Yet why did the House become increasingly liberal over the next decade? That's quite a problem - which is why these days you'll see people use qualifiers "mini realignment" or "semi realignment" or "partial realignment." That's a sure sign a theory is in trouble.

Brownstein never touches on the bigger problems with realignment theory. Instead, he focuses on why these individual arguments were in error. Brownstein himself has really overworked the realignment concept in recent years. As Sean Trende has observed - Brownstein argued for the Republican realignment in 2004 and for the Democratic realignment this year.

Still, his review of these old books is illustrative. Just four years ago, Democrats were fretting and Republicans celebrating the emergence of a permanent Republican majority. Today, Republicans are fretting and Democrats are celebrating. Isn't that peculiar? I think so. I think it's a sign that all this talk about enduring majorities is kind of an exercise in futility.

I'll put this another way. Brownstein writes:

Ten or even five years ago, few Democrats envisioned that their party would attract the coalition of voters that actually elected Barack Obama and the Democratic House and Senate majorities last year. Even now, many Democrats still don't acknowledge how much their modern coalition differs from their historic image of the party.

I'll do that one better. "Ten or even five years" before Bush's reelection in 2004 - few analysts would have predicted that the Republican party's voting coalition would look amazingly like Bill Clinton's, sampling heavily from rural Southern whites and Hispanics. And then, who would have ever thought that many of those marginal Clinton-Bush voters would actually stick with the GOP in a year of a Democratic blowout like 2008? In light of all the recent changes in the parties' coalitions - how on earth can anybody know what the political world will like like in "ten or even five years?"

Update: Ron Brownstein emails to object to Sean's and my characterization of his argument from 2004. He writes:

[M]y argument was that Bush's consolidation of the red places gave Republicans a thumb-on-the-scale advantage over Democrats, but I was always conscious of Bush's failure even at his apex to meaningfully broaden his party's base. In parallel, I did argue that Democrats had to reach beyond their traditional blue enclaves. But it seems to me exactly what they have done, both at the Congressional and presidential level, while the Republican reach, both demographically and geographically, has narrowed in a way that seems evidence of more than just a short-term backlash against Bush.

-Jay Cost

Why Can't Obama Stop "Renegade" Democrats?

That question informs this recent story in Politico, which opens:

He's riding high in the polls among his fellow Democrats, but President Barack Obama's political sway within his own party is about to be tested.

Two House Democrats, Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania and Carolyn Maloney of New York, are poised to defy the unambiguous wishes of Obama and challenge incumbent senators of their own party.

Both indicated to POLITICO that they were likely to run -- and would do so regardless of what Obama said...

Asked directly if a plea from Obama would make any difference, Sestak shook his head and said: "No."...

The two races illustrate the risks for Obama, or any president, in trying to play local kingmaker -- namely, the very real possibility that no matter how popular he is, he may not be able bend every contest to his wishes and that by trying to do so, he risks being defied by his own party.

So, let's answer that title question.

At first blush, it seems pretty tricky. The President's popularity is still 60+. Democrats in Congress follow his lead. And so on. He should be able to stop them, right?

That view depends, I think, on an erroneous understanding of the contemporary American political party. If we were to sketch it, it might look like this:

CW Party.jpg

I've labeled this the "CW" Party because I think this is the implicit view contained in the conventional wisdom. It's seen as a straightforward hierarchy, running from the President and his national committee at the top, down to the local parties and candidates. By this schema, Obama should be able to stop Sestak and Maloney, as he sits above them in the hierarchy.

The American political party does not look like this today. And, for that matter, it's never looked like this.

At one point, the party resembled what political scientists have called a "truncated pyramid," something like this:

Truncated Pyramid Party.jpg

The old party system was dominated by the state parties - if we were to label it in time, we might say that this structure lasted from roughly 1828 to 1972. There was nobody above the state parties, nobody to boss them around. The national party committees merely hosted the national conventions, where the state parties came to barter and bargain about who would be the next presidential nominee. Indeed, in elections past (particularly before and after the Civil War), many incumbent presidents were not even given re-nomination from the parties!

This old system was not replaced with the "CW Party" depicted above. Instead, the current thinking on the "new" political parties looks something like this:

New American Party.jpg

Joseph Schlesinger, a political scientist from Michigan State, was the first to come up with this idea - and it's since been adopted as the theoretical foundation of the contemporary party, at least in the electoral campaign. When we start talking about the role of the party in Congress, we move away from this and toward the idea that the contemporary party is like a legislative cartel. So, we're limiting ourselves here to talk about the party in elections.

What this depicts is a series of candidate loci. In other words, the party exists around individual campaigns for office. So, within each circle would be the candidate, his donors, strategists, die-hard followers, and so on. Each candidate is in charge of his own locus - implying that, at its core, the contemporary American political party is disconnected. The lines connecting some loci to others indicate lines of coordination - the ways in which candidates of the same party work together to obtain victory. This might be the sharing of dollars or polling information, coordinating on strategy, and so on. There are lines connecting some loci but not others because coordination is not handed down from on high. Instead, coordination depends on each candidate's evaluation of his/her own interests, and how it would be useful to interact with other candidates. These days, the electoral context is such that coordination tends to be very high - and it is facilitated by the national parties (the national committees and the congressional campaign committees). However, that does not alter the fundamental feature that this picture captures: individual candidates stand largely on their own.

This helps answer the title question. The Presidency is a very powerful office - and this President, with his popularity being as great as it is, is a very powerful one. However, he is still constrained by the existing political system, which on the electoral level looks like those disconnected loci. It really does not matter how high his job approval goes, candidates still rise and fall on their own because that's the way the system is set up. The President could possibly have some sway at the margins by suggesting to other, loyal candidates that they not coordinate with the renegades, and that they instead coordinate with the loyalists. Indeed, he'll probably do this. However, that is not necessarily enough to stop the renegades. If they can can acquire sufficient resources, absent that coordination, they can still mount potent challenges.

My sense is that both Sestak and Maloney will be able to do that. They have access to sufficient dollars to build a substantial campaign organization, and they both have compelling arguments to make against the incumbents. In all likelihood, the President can help make sure that Specter and Gillibrand are sufficiently financed - but they probably would have been, anyway.

On this page, I often refer to our electoral system being "candidate centered." The above picture is a graphical depiction of my thinking on the matter, and the President's inability to stop Sestak and Maloney is a great example of the implication of the contemporary system.

-Jay Cost

Mike Murphy's Strange Math

Mike Murphy's new column in Time recycles many of the arguments proffered by Democrats who have asserted that their majority will be enduring. I've dealt with these at length, and rather than rehash them here, I'll point you in the direction of my essays on the subject. See here, here, and here.

Instead, I want to point out the peculiar argument that's contained in this snippet:

Despairing Republican friends have been asking me what I think we should do to rebuild the GOP and begin our certain and inevitable comeback. My answer disappoints them: "Build an ark."

I say this because I've made a career out of counting votes, and the numbers tell a clear story; the demographics of America are changing in a way that is deadly for the Republican Party as it exists today. A GOP ice age is on the way....

It was a huge shock to the GOP when Barack Obama won Republican Indiana last year. The bigger news was how he did it. Latino voters delivered the state. Exit polls showed that they provided Obama with a margin of more than 58,000 votes in a state he carried by a slim 26,000 votes. That's right, GOP, you've entered a brave new world ruled by Latino Hoosiers, and you're losing.

Of course, it was just four years ago that George W. Bush pulled in a historically large number of Latinos to the Republican Party. The exit poll had it at 44%. Some thought that was overestimated, and other estimates had it around 39%. Either way, a significant pull. This is something that seems to me to be worth mentioning when making an argument about the enduring Democratic majority. Yet it rarely is.

Anyway, Murphy's math is correct on Latinos in Indiana. The exit poll estimate has them giving Obama a plurality of something like 58,000 votes. However, his conclusion - "a brave new world ruled by Latino Hoosiers" - is completely overdrawn, which I think is characteristic of these demographics-mean-GOP-doom arguments.

The reason is...drumroll please...white voters. Shock of shocks! Who would have thought that white voters would make the biggest difference in Indiana? Yet, I can assure you that it's true! In 2004, John Kerry won 34% of the white vote. In 2008, Obama won 45%. That's an 11-point improvement, and it made a significant difference. McCain won about 218k more white Hoosiers than Obama did. Bush won 681k more whites than Kerry.

So, Hispanics moved. But so also did white voters, and their movement was much more substantial.

Like I said, I'm not terribly interested in rehashing all the various arguments for why the enduring Democratic majority argument is problematic. I've done it already. I'll only say that Murphy's argument is consistent with what I've seen many times. The proponents of this hypothesis end up putting forward numbers that somehow don't tell the full story. If it's allocating all non-white voters to the Democrats, doing an apples-to-oranges comparison of 1988 to 2008, ignoring recent elections that cut against the hypothesis, inventing ad hoc psychological concepts to explain falsifying evidence away, or whatever - there often seems to be something a little askew in the presentation of this argument. That's not to imply that anybody is cooking the books. Far from it! I have great respect for Murphy, as well as those with whom I've argued on this subject. And to a certain extent, I think they're on to something. Maybe the trick is how do you approach the data. Do you do so looking to test your hypothesis, or to find instances that support it? The latter is a dangerous endeavor, for in a data set as large as American national elections (!), you can always find something, somewhere that appears to support your theory. But that's not how data should be used to evaluate arguments.

For what it's worth, my take is that this theory relies far too heavily on the concept of realignment - something that political scientists have begun to move beyond, and for good reason. I think realignment is a highly problematic category. Almost inevitably, the data needs to be squeezed here and stretched there to fit into the proper form.

One final objection to Murphy's piece. He writes:

In 1980, Reagan beat Jimmy Carter by 10 points. If that contest were held again today, under the current demographics of the electorate per exit polls, the election would be much closer, with Reagan probably winning by about 3 points.

I object to this type of analysis - re-running old elections with contemporary demography to argue for some new alignment. I've seen this before. The problem is that each candidate's share per demographic group is locked in the past while the size of the group is updated for today. This is arbitrary! For instance, Reagan won about 60% of the two-party vote among whites that year. Carter won about 40%. A lot of Carter's white support came from the South - where he ran extremely close in Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee. Plus, he won Georgia and West Virginia. Since 1980, all of these states have shifted rightward. Other states in our fine Republic have shifted leftward, and the preferences of different types of voters have shifted as well. So, if we were to rerun the exact same election in 2008, the candidates' shares of each group would surely be different, in ways we cannot predict. So, maybe if we re-ran 1980, Reagan's overall lead would have dropped. Maybe it would have increased. Who knows? This is why I think this intellectual exercise has little analytical payoff.

-Jay Cost

The Pivotal Politics of Health Care Reform, Part II

Yesterday I drew on Keith Krehbiel's Pivotal Politics to outline a basic structure of the health care reform fight. Today, I want to continue this discussion by reviewing some of the specific elements of the upcoming battle. I'll still be drawing on Krehbiel's basic structure - although this will be more my interpretation of the current situation than a recitation of his work.

Ideally, I would have liked to integrate the following considerations into a single argument. As the battle lines are drawn, I think that will become possible. But we're still very early in the process - so for now, the points that follow basically stand on their own.


Krehbiel's theory highlights the importance of the "filibuster pivot," the marginal legislator in the Senate who determines whether a filibuster will be sustained. The President and congressional Democrats have indicated a willingness to use budget reconciliation, which would eliminate the filibuster pivot and allow for a much more narrow voting coalition.

In theory, this would ease passage - as it would reduce the number of pivots the overhaul has to pass through. In practice, however, this could be troublesome.

First, in The Audacity of Hope, the President blasts his predecessor for precisely the same technique. Can he legitimately engage in the same practices he opposed? Maybe. On the one hand, the public doesn't usually get worked up over process. There was no outcry last summer when he abandoned his promise to pursue public financing, for nakedly political reasons. Plus, there's a certain allowance we're all prepared to give politicians when it comes to reconciling campaign rhetoric and governing reality. On the other hand, he'd be pursuing a legislative tactic he once vociferously decried to transform a large part of the economy via a narrow majority. This could be a stretch.

Second, if budget reconciliation is used to pass health care - it will probably be due to the fact that at least some Democrats would join in a filibuster. The more Democrats who would join a filibuster, the more problematic reconciliation becomes as a strategy. If Ben Nelson and Mary Landrieu are the only Democrats on the outside looking in - then I think it would be doable. But what if it's seven or eight? That's another matter.

Third, as David Gratzer of the Manhattan Institute notes, reconciliation might be a double-edged sword. It would free congressional Democrats in the key committees to write a bill that could be quite far to the left. Will they do this? If they do, will the final product be something the public would support?

Can a Consensus Be Found?

Generally speaking, the key players recognize the need for some reform of the health care system. This is necessary, but far from sufficient for passage of the bill. Following what we reviewed yesterday - what also matters is how the alternative compares to the status quo. Historically speaking, this is what trips reformers up.

My sense of things is that there are at least three potentially nettlesome points that could preclude a consensus forming for an alternative: the scope of reform (universal or something less?), the content of reform (a public insurance option or not?) and how to pay for it.

The latter two seem at this point to be the most prominent disagreements. Mary Landrieu has already come out in opposition to a public insurance option, and many Blue Dogs in the House have expressed concern with it. If a public option is deemed unacceptable to these Democrats, but still included in the bill - they will vote in favor of the status quo, even if they disapprove of it generally. Additionally, the public financing option is starting to crack the veneer of consensus. The New York Times reports that the American Medical Association has come out against a public financing option. It agrees that reforms are necessary - just not this one. This is exactly the problem that has sunk many big reforms: everybody agrees that the status quo stinks, but not enough people or groups agree that any given alternative is an improvement.

Paying for it also appears to be a big challenge at this point. This week, Bloomberg reported that the President wants Congress to reconsider limiting tax deductions for the wealthiest as a way to pay for the bill. However, CQ reported that this option remains deeply unpopular with members of Congress. This is not a huge surprise. Playing around with tax deductions is a key way members of Congress satisfy their constituencies. Limiting deductions for the wealthy reduces their ability to satisfy certain electorates (especially the ones with money to donate to reelection efforts). Senate Democrats seem partial to a tax on health benefits, but House Democrats on the Ways and Means Committee are much less so. Will the President - for the sake of compromise - support such a tax? Maybe. Of course, he campaigned against McCain on this issue, and promised that 95% of the public would have a tax cut, not an increase, under his watch. That would give the opposition some ammunition. Plus, labor unions are opposed, as some of their benefits might be made taxable. And of course Ways and Means Democrats might not go for it.

All in all, there are a lot of potential complications - yet notice who I haven't mentioned: the Republicans! Disagreements about financing this overhaul could induce a significant inter-branch, inter-chamber conflict, one that's fought entirely on the Democratic side. That's happened before. Again, what we have to look for here is not just whether everybody dislikes the status quo - we know they do. We also have to look for whether they can find some alternative to the status quo - including how to pay for it.

Public Opinion Will Matter

On low-salience issues - congressmen typically have a freer hand to vote as they like. But on issues that capture the public's attention - their positions are constrained. This could make a difference in the search for a compromise.

The chart I presented yesterday might give the false impression that the preferences of legislators are formed via purely philosophical considerations. They are not. Instead, they depend heavily on public reaction. Legislators are strategic seekers of reelection, after all.

This adds a twist to the search for compromise. Suppose, for the sake of discussion, Ohio congressman Zack Space is believed by the bill writers to be the median legislator. If he votes yes, the bill passes. No, and it fails. So, they go to Mr. Space and ask him what he thinks of the bill.

He might have to equivocate. Space is from Ohio's 18th Congressional District - which went for Bush twice, then McCain. So, his voters might be disinclined to the bill after it gets a full airing. Plus, Space is just a sophomore legislator - meaning that he probably has not built up the kind of credibility and trust that helps create a "personal vote." In other words, Space would have to wait and see how his constituents react. There's probably little information he could provide beyond generalities about the mood of his constituents.

But there are so many polls out there - isn't it easy to gauge public opinion? No. In fact, the polls can contribute to the false sense that public opinion is firmly established. On a subject like health care - it's potentially malleable.

Recently, Rasmussen found:

Sixty-three percent (63%) of voters agree with the core objective of providing affordable health care for 'every single American'.

Overall, just 35% rate the U.S. health care system as good or excellent. That suggests plenty of room for improvement. The biggest challenge to any reform proposal, however, is that 70% of insured rate their own health insurance coverage as good or excellent. This means that any proposal that would force people to exchange their existing plan for something new is a non-starter. In fact, only 25% would support a reform proposal that required a change in their own coverage.

This suggests public uncertainty about what to do. People want affordable care for everybody, but they don't want their plan changed. They think the whole system is bad, but they like their own place in the system. That gives both sides at least a toehold with public opinion.

The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll suggests that while the public may be more convinced that health care is a problem, they have not broken decisively toward any particular solution. In 1993, it found that 66% of the public would be willing to pay more in taxes for the sake of universal health insurance. It asked the same question this February, and found just 49% willing to sacrifice. Relatedly, in 1999 it found that 43% thought government should be primarily responsible for health care coverage, compared to 28% favoring employers, and just 17% favoring individuals. In February, those numbers shifted rightward - with 36% favoring government, 24% employers, and 31% favoring individuals.

This sort of ambivalence implies that the fate of any reform proposal will depend on how well each side argues its case. One way in which this battle is bound to occur is via euphemisms. Democrats like to call one program "a public choice option" to facilitate "universal care." Republicans call the same program "bureaucrat-run socialized medicine." My hunch is that if you offered the Democratic language to the public, it would support the bill. Offer the Republican language, it would oppose it. This suggests that the actual political fight could be determinative.

In the meantime, legislative drafters will have to engage in some guesswork on whether a given proposal can attract enough votes for passage. Nobody can be sure - as it depends on how the public eventually views the bill. So, while the pivotal politics theory is scientific - its application by legislative leaders is more artistic, depending heavily on hunches and intuitions about what can be sold and what can't.

Bringing Tactics Back In

I opened this series suggesting that while legislative tactics are important, they need to take a back seat to structure. Having now given structure its due - I want to offer some thoughts on Obama's tactical approach.

It's easy to be critical of Clinton's top-down strategy in 1993 because his bill failed. But, in light of the generally dismal track record of such reforms, we shouldn't be overcritical. In fact, I think Obama's bottom-up approach has some risks, too.

Congress is simply not well suited to designing comprehensive laws like this. As Professor Charles O. Jones once said: "Congressional decision making sometimes resembles a meat slicer, reducing public problems to a series of discrete, unrelated, and often contradictory tidbits of policy." We saw something like this with the stimulus bill. We're seeing it again with the Waxman-Markey climate bill. Each bore the stamp of congressional particularism. Rather than having been constructed to tackle the problem in the most efficient way - they appeared cobbled to together to satisfy the constituencies whose support was critical for passage.

Promoting a bottom-up health care reform runs the same risk. The big question is, what happens if this process produces a bill that reads like an endless set of unconnected rules and regulations, adding up to an unintelligible jumble? This might scare the public off.

This question becomes even more pertinent if the Obama Administration's insistence on the need for speed goes unheeded. Both Senators Grassley and Enzi have complained this week about the President's push for a quick timeline. Speed helped salvage the stimulus bill - as the vote was taken before the opposition could fully communicate the inefficiencies of the bill. However, speed was justified then because the economy was supposedly on the line: "crisis could become catastrophe," and so on. That's a much tougher case to make here. Speed is necessary only for political purposes - namely, to get the bill passed before the President's honeymoon ends and/or the opposition discovers a weakness that it can exploit. If the Obama administration cannot move this quickly through the legislature, the congressional "meat slicer" might produce a bill that the public will have time to consider, then reject. In that case, the status quo wins.


The point of these essays has not been to assign odds to the probability of health care reform passing this year. That's well outside my scope. Instead, there are two modest lessons to walk away with.

First, it's good to cruise up to 30,000 feet for a while to get a lay of the land. This is easy to miss, given that press reports provide fragmentary information focused on the day-to-day maneuvers of this committee or that interest group. What I wanted to do here is outline a basic structure for understanding the upcoming battle, as well as some very general considerations of what to look for as we move forward.

Second, it's clear that the chances of a major overhaul are at their greatest point in at least sixteen years - maybe longer. Yet we need to recognize that: our system does not often allow substantial changes to pass through; previous Democrats from Truman to Clinton have failed at precisely what President Obama intends to do; and there are potential obstacles to passage.

Regardless of what happens, this should be a fascinating process to watch - and an excellent civics lesson on how our system works. Either it will be one of those rare instances when there is a major policy breakthrough, or it will be another case of lofty ambitions being thwarted by our complicated, Madisonian system.

-Jay Cost

The Pivotal Politics of Health Care Reform, Part I

President Obama has made an overhaul of the American health care system a major domestic priority this year. He's not the first Democratic President to do this. Health care was the cornerstone of the Clinton domestic agenda during the 103rd Congress, and Democratic presidents since Truman have been looking to implement some form of universal care.

Why has such an overhaul been so difficult to implement? According to some, the problem has been tactical. Take, for instance, Matt Bai's recent explanation in the New York Times Magazine:

The plan Bill Clinton took to Congress then, running to more than 1,000 pages of impenetrable new regulations, wasn't what you'd call politically savvy, but the strategy used to sell it was even worse...His wife, the current secretary of state, developed the health care plan largely without taking House and Senate leaders into her confidence, instead dropping it at the doorstep of the Capitol as a fait accompli. Ever jealous of its prerogative, Congress took a long look, yawned and kicked the whole plan to the gutter, where it soon washed away for good -- along with much of Clinton's ambition for his presidency.

The Clinton team certainly mismanaged health care reform in 1993; however, I think there's more to it than this. It's important to talk about the players, personalities, and tactics employed to turn a bill into law - but to focus relentlessly on this means we miss the forest for the trees.

Today, I want to examine the structural features that have conditioned past policy battles, and that likely will condition this year's fight on health care. That should help us better understand why Clinton failed, and the challenges the Obama Administration will face in the months ahead.

There is a stark historical fact about attempts to restructure domestic policy in a big way: they have a horrible track record. Typically, they either fail outright - or a small, incremental bill is passed in the place of the big, comprehensive reform the President initially envisioned. Presidents usually have lofty ambitions - but they are rarely successful in implementing them on the grand scales they envision, regardless of whether their party controls Congress.

Why is this?

Stanford University's Keith Krehbiel has the best answer. His Pivotal Politics is now 11 years old, but it is as relevant as ever. Krehbiel is interested in why gridlock is the norm - but that sometimes it can be broken, typically by large, bipartisan coaliations.

His answer is the relationship between the President and Congress, which he thinks is characterized by four "pivotal" players, whom Krehbiel arrays on a left-right dimension based on their policy preferences. These actors are the President, the median voter in Congress (i.e. the legislator who has half of Congress on his left and half on his right), the filibuster "pivot" (i.e. the legislator who has 2/5ths to his right and 3/5ths to his left), and the veto "pivot" (i.e. the legislator who has 2/3rd to his right and 1/3rd to his left). These players determine whether a bill becomes a law. They're not necessarily granted special powers or prerogatives, though they may happen to be committee chairmen or party leaders. They're important because of where their preferences sit in relation to the other legislators in Congress. If the filibuster pivot chooses to support a filibuster - it will necessarily be killed because there are enough Senators who also oppose it. He's the marginal member, which makes him the pivotal vote.

Let's take a hypothetical example. First, assume that all legislators have an ideal policy preference - and that this can be identified on a simple left-right scale. Second, assume that they're trying to legislate on some policy issue, on which there is a status quo (SQ) that an alternative bill (A) would change. These can also be put on the left-right scale.

One scenario might look like this.

Pivotal Politics in Action.jpg

How would the government resolve this issue? The median voter moves first, and supports the bill. It's not his first choice, obviously, but it's closer to his first choice than the status quo. This indicates that the bill gets the support of a center-left coalition. But then the filibuster pivot must make a choice. In this case, the bill is far from his ideal - farther than the status quo. Thus, he chooses to filibuster it - and the bill is killed by a right-leaning coalition in the Senate. The status quo wins. [Had the filibuster pivot supported the bill, it would have passed and the President would have to sign or veto it. If he had vetoed it - the veto pivot would then have to choose whether or not to override.]

Like any theoretical model, this simplifies reality a great deal. The real world is much more complex (we'll bring in some of these complexities tomorrow). Nevertheless - this model's explanatory power is quite great.

First, it helps explain why major legislative overhauls often fail. You can appreciate this yourself by playing around with different status quos and alternatives. Generally speaking, when the status quo is somewhere in the middle of the policy spectrum, it is extremely difficult to defeat it. Somebody - be it the president, the veto pivot, the median voter, or the filibuster pivot - will usually prefer the status quo to a given alternative.

Second, it helps explain why policy changes - when they happen - tend to be incremental. Again return to the above graph and play around with different scenarios. When you find an alternative that can beat the status quo, you'll probably note that it does not upend the world by that much.

Nevertheless, it does allow for major policy overhauls - like what we saw during the New Deal or the Great Society. What matters is the arrangement of the key players' preferences relative to the status quo. When preferences are relatively homogenous, and there is enough distance between those preferences and the status quo - significant changes in public policy can occur.

Third, it helps explain a peculiar finding noted by Yale's David Mayhew nearly twenty years ago (and updated just a few years back): significant legislation is approved with the same frequency, regardless of whether government is divided or united. Party control doesn't factor into legislative output. Similarly, the theory does not have much of a role for the legislative party, which doesn't coerce legislators to support bills for the sake of party unity. What matters are the preferences of the pivotal players. That, combined with the typical super-majority requirements of our system, implies that bipartisan coalitions are generally needed to get important bills passed. So, we shouldn't expect one-party control of government to make a significant difference.

The implication from this analysis is that, had Team Clinton improved their awful handling of the health care issue, they still very well could have failed. It wasn't simply a matter of tactics. The bottom line from the model is that comprehensive reforms such as the Clinton overhaul are hard to come by. Our system requires a great number of players to sign on - and that makes it difficult.

This year, a comprehensive health care overhaul is certainly possible. What matters is how the preferences of the pivotal players are arranged. I think it's fair to say that they correspond better this year than they have since at least 1993. The trick will be to find an alternative that they all prefer to the status quo. Historically speaking, that's been easier said than done.

Tomorrow, I'll continue this discussion by examining some of the features of the ongoing health care debate that I think are relevant, given today's general discussion.

-Jay Cost


As George Will astutely noted last year, the presidential election process has now been fully transformed from the original intention of the Founders. They envisioned no popular campaign for office - and indeed, early candidates for the major parties typically declined to campaign on their own behalf. Today, however, we have reached a point where the presidential campaign never ends. Potential Republican candidates are already making trips to Iowa.

Potential GOP candidates already are touching down in the Hawkeye State. There's Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who won the GOP caucuses in 2008. More politicians have trips planned, starting with Nevada Sen. John Ensign today, followed by Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and another appearance by Huckabee.

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, haven't visited Iowa yet but are expected.

And now, per Mike Memoli at Politics Nation, we might have to add Tim Pawlenty to this list:

Last week we noted that Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R-Minn.) planned to announce his future political plans "this summer." His timeframe appears to have sped up, with his office planning a press conference at 2 pm local time.

WCCO-TV reports that Pawlenty will not seek a third term. The decision is sure to trigger speculation that the "hockey dad" will focus his energies on a 2012 presidential bid. It may also ratchet up pressure on Pawlenty, who will eventually have to sign a certification of election in the contested Minnesota Senate race.

One has to wonder about the effects that this permanent presidential campaign is having on governance. Is it a good or bad thing? I can see it in both directions. On the one hand, it's a good thing to have the opposition party engaging in active opposition, which is what has happened in the last two presidential cycles. The candidates of the opposition party relentlessly criticize the incumbent party, which could ultimately have the effect of improving the latter's governance as it knows that the opposition is out there, ready to pounce on any mistakes. Relatedly, this might help unify Republicans. Even with a diverse field that will inevitably divide the loyalties of the partisan base - the fact that all the candidates basically agree on the issues and spend plenty of time criticizing the Democrats might help the party find its sea legs, now that it is wholly in the minority for the first time in fifteen years.

On the other hand, Mike's suggestion that Pawlenty is leaving the Minnesota governorship partly because of his presidential ambitions is somewhat disturbing. Choosing campaigning over governance? This is exactly what Obama, Clinton, McCain, and most of the contenders last cycle did. These are elected officials who have served with enough distinction that they are credible presidential candidate. Shouldn't we want them to continue to govern?

A related question: what effect will this permanent campaign induce in the presidency itself? I have wondered for a while if the extensive presidential campaigning during George W. Bush's candidacy hurt his political standing. For about four of his eight years in office, President Bush had high-profile Democratic candidates for president running around the country criticizing him relentlessly, with the media covering those critiques because they were related to the horse race. Did that have a negative effect on his job approval rating? Possibly.

If it did, or at least if the Obama White House thinks it did, how will it respond? George W. Bush was essentially silent for three-and-a-half of the four years that his opponents were going after him. He only responded beginning in the middle of 2004 - to the chagrin of many Republicans, who thought that the White House should have offered a more robust defense. That's a limitation of being President. It is difficult to engage your opponents before a certain date. Will the Obama White House work to change the restrictions on the President, to perhaps get Obama into the arena earlier? I'd note that this White House already has been in a bit of a campaign mode, holding town halls and the like. I wonder what its plan is to handle the early start of the Republican primary battle, and the ensuing critiques of his administration.

-Jay Cost