About this Blog

RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

HorseRaceBlog Home Page --> July 2009

Obama's Tactical Mistake

Since the time of FDR, Democratic Presidents have often had trouble with their congressional committee chairs. Prior to the Great Depression, the Democratic Party did not extend far beyond the South and New York. What this meant was that the senior Democrats in the chamber were mostly from Dixie. So, when the Democrats came to control the Congress in 1930, southerners ascended to the committee chairmanships. This frequently created tensions with New Deal liberals, especially regarding civil rights.

The Democratic Party changed in the decades after the Great Depression - and the relationship of the committee chairs to the broader party changed as well. We can quantify these changes via a few simple steps:

-We will measure the ideology of the median House legislator from 1948 onwards. This legislator has half of the House to his or her left and half to the right. On ideologically divisive issues, he or she can be thought of as the pivotal vote in the House.

-We will measure the ideology of the median House committee chair from 1948 onwards. This is the chairman who has half of all chairmen to his or her left and half to the right.

-We will measure the ideology of the median House prestige committee chair from 1948 onwards. The prestige committees are defined by Davidson, Oleszek and Lee (2008). These are: Appropriations, Budget, Commerce, Financial Services, Rules, and Ways & Means.

-We will look only at the House, more specifically at years when the Democrats control the House. That way, the median legislator is a Democrat.

-We will use DW-Nominate scores to measure the ideology of these House members. They generally run from -1 (liberal) to 1 (conservative).

These steps produce the following chart:

Alternative Legislators, Chairs, and Prestige Chairs 2.jpg

From 1954 to 1970, there was generally a tight correspondence between the committee chairs and the median legislator, with each being pretty moderate. In the mid-70s, they all tacked to the left - but whereas the median legislator quickly swung back to the right, the chairs kept trending leftward. By the 103rd Congress (1993-94), the differences had become quite substantial - with committee chairs being well to the left of the median legislator. After 12 years of Republican rule, the Democrats returned to power - and their chairs had moved farther leftward while the median voter was basically unchanged. The 110th Congress (2006-07) exhibits the largest divergence between the chairs and the median legislator since World War II. We don't yet have ideological scores for the current Congress, but I am sure there is still a great deal of space between these groups.

Much of this deviation can be explained by the system of seniority that governs chairmanships. It's not a formal rule among House Democrats, but nevertheless:

[Nancy] Pelosi, unlike her GOP predecessors, chose to follow seniority in designating committee chairs. As a result, many of the Democratic chairs are liberal "old bulls" who either headed or were senior members of several of the most influential committees prior to the GOP takeover in 1995. [Davidson, Oleszek, and Lee (2008), 213.]

I mentioned last week that Bush's median share of the 2004 vote in the districts of current chairmen was just 36%. Democrats in liberal districts are less likely to be defeated, meaning that they are around long enough to ascend to chairmanships, and more likely to be liberal.

Meanwhile, thanks to majority-minority districting, as well as the party's overwhelming strength in densely populated urban areas, Democrats win 80-90% of the presidential vote in many congressional districts, which means they are quite safe. But it also means that to find 218 seats, they have to carry districts where their presidential candidates win less than 50%. Thus, you get a phenomenon like the current one: Heath Shuler (D-NC) and Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-SD) make the difference between majority and minority status, but Charlie Rangel (D-NY) and Barney Frank (D-MA) gavel the key committees once the majority has been achieved.

So, given all this, should we be surprised that House leaders produced a health care bill that is too liberal for the swing Democrats?

Ideally speaking, we might expect these leaders to craft a bill with their marginal members in mind - ensuring that it has enough votes for passage. We might also expect the leadership to put pressure on the chairmen and bill writers so that few (if any) members have to vote against their districts in order to get the bill through. However, when we move away from the clean results of assumption-driven rational choice theory into the real world - it is inevitable that practical problems will creep into situations like this. Namely, can we really expect Henry Waxman (D-CA) to have a good sense of what moderates like Mike Ross (D-AR) can support and what they cannot?

I'd say no. We shouldn't be surprised that the Congressman from Beverly Hills and the Congressman from Hot Springs haven't been able to see eye-to-eye on this one. Generally speaking, the ideological divergence between the liberal party leaders and the moderate swing Democrats is so large that this was bound to be a danger; there was always a chance the liberals would push for a bill beyond what their pivotal moderates could support.

I'd ask: where was the White House on this one?

The President is the country's only nationally elected official - so he should have the kind of broad perspective necessary to spot a liberal committee chair who is producing a bill too far to the left of the pivotal legislator. Unlike representatives who are electorally bound to serve a tiny sliver of the nation, the President has an interest in a consensus that unites the diverse segments of the country he had to woo to become President. That goes double for this President, who campaigned on a pledge to build such a consensus. Above all, the President is the one with the prestige needed to muscle intransigent leaders into drafting a broader bill. Again, that goes double for President Obama - the first president in 20 years to come into office with a majority of the popular vote and an enormous bank of good will upon which to draw.

President Obama has the perspective, incentive, and prestige to push Congress to produce policy reforms that can win a broad consensus. But apparently he did not do that. If anything, the President's insistence on such a speedy timeline probably increased the likelihood that such a problem would emerge. Bridging the divide between the liberals and moderates was going to take more time than what the President was allowing. This is quite clear when we consider the bipartisan snail's pace in the Senate Finance Committee; committees that met Obama's deadline have all produced bills that appear far too narrow for passage.

Why did the White House allow these committees to draft bills that would upset so many moderates? Did they think the Blue Dogs would simply fall in line, just weeks after they had to make a difficult choice on cap-and-trade? Did they forget that there are 49 Democrats who come from districts that voted for John McCain - or did they think these members would have no problem getting behind a bill produced by coastal liberals like Waxman, Rangel and George Miller (D-CA)?

I can appreciate why the Obama White House wanted to take a more hands-off approach on health care reform than what President Clinton tried in 1993. At its core, the reasoning is sound: if the critical task is for Congress to reach a consensus, it makes sense to have the Congress find the consensus itself. But I think the reasoning was taken too far; the White House has been too hands off. It should have stepped in earlier, playing go-between for the leadership and those crucial moderates to make sure the bill was still on track to get to half-plus-one votes (or, hopefully, many more). It should have understood that the ideological distance between the leaders and the median legislator in this Congress could threaten reform efforts.

Bill Clinton made a mistake in 1993 by having the executive branch draft the reform proposal. Barack Obama was right to want to correct this, but he over-corrected. If Clinton left too little to Congress, Obama left too much. This was a tactical mistake.

This does not necessarily mean that health care reform is doomed. There is still a good chance that the liberals and the moderates will find common ground. But this was a needless setback - one that has made President Obama, the House leadership, and the Democratic Party look bad. It has given the GOP an opening to lobby against the proposed reforms. The Democrats in Congress cannot respond with a single voice, and the President is too busy softening all his firm deadlines. It's no surprise that Obama's poll numbers are dropping, and the public has grown skeptical of the proposals on the table.

It didn't have to happen this way. The White House could have found some middle ground between Clinton's approach and the approach it chose. It could have still left the design of the reform to Congress, but made sure that the liberal leaders did not overreach. It could have seen to it that the moderate Democrats who are decisive on the House floor were brought into the negotiations earlier. This intra-party battle may have been inevitable, but it could have been waged in private rather than in public.

Committee assignment data:

Garrison Nelson. Committees in the U.S. Congress, 1947-1992: House of Representatives/81st through 103rd Congresses, Accessed 7-23-09.

Charles Stewart III and Jonathan Woon. Congressional Committee Assignments, 103rd to 110th Congresses, 1993--2007: House of Representatives/110th Congress, Accessed 7-23-09.

Publicly available here, courtesy of Professor Charles Stewart III.

-Jay Cost

It's Not Just About Winning Elections...

Bill Greener has an article at Salon trumpeting the new enduring Democratic majority. We can now count him as yet another Republican to make this point. Greener has a reasonable conclusion, suggesting that the GOP needs to find a way to appeal to Hispanics without sacrificing its core principles. However, to make this argument he tells a tale about impending GOP doom that ultimately rests on some weak reasoning, most of which we have seen before. This point in particular struck me as especially flimsy:

In 1976, 90 percent of the votes cast in the presidential election came from non-Hispanic whites. In 2008, John McCain won this vote by a 56-43 margin. Had John McCain run in 1976 instead of 2008, not only would he have won, but he would have won the popular vote before a single non-white vote was cast.

What's the analytical purchase from re-running the 2008 vote with the 1976 demographics? How can you hold one constant and let the other vary? It seems to me that they are related - so if one changes, the other does, too. In particular, the Democrats have moved away from the South since Jimmy Carter ran in 1976; instead, they have looked to the West, the historical domain of the GOP. Isn't this at least in part due to the rise of Hispanics, especially in California? If so, how can you plug the new numbers into the old demographics? That will ultimately generate a bizarre result, like John McCain decisively winning an election that Jerry Ford couldn't. Er?

Also, this is just strange to me:

To make matters even worse, our weakness among minority voters is somewhat masked when it comes to elections that are not national. How can that be? Thanks to redistricting, and the legal imperative to give emphasis to "community of interests," these minority voters tend to be jammed into congressional districts where they are the overwhelming majority. That means the other districts tend to be more white in nature, and thus more friendly territory for Republicans. Then, at the level of the Senate, the reality is that Utah and Wyoming get the same number of senators as do California and New York.

What this means is that when it comes to an issue like immigration reform, the pressure on Republicans who actually have been elected to office is more often to favor a position that is unattractive to minority voters. If they were to take a different position, they might find themselves facing a primary challenger supported by the party's activist base. So, at the expense of any long-term perspective, the Republican Party is likely to be responsive to the sentiment of the people responsible for them serving at this very moment.

I'll grant that the racial distribution across congressional districts *might* "skew" legislative preferences on immigration (but see the footnote below for pushback on this point!) - although given the geographical concentration of Hispanics in just a handful of states, and then in discrete areas within many of those states, redistricting is not so much the problem as geographical-based single-member districts are. Still, this is actually a net electoral advantage for Republicans. Assume a 50-50 split among the parties, something akin to 2004. That year, George W. Bush won 255 congressional districts to Kerry's 180. Why the disparity? The Republican vote was distributed more evenly, while the Democratic vote was concentrated in urban and minority-majority districts. This is a distinct advantage that Republicans enjoy. To win the House, Democrats have had to win districts that Republican presidential candidates carry in 50-50 years. This is not inconsequential for public policy. As UCSD's Gary Jacobson noted in the Spring, 2009 issue of Political Science Quarterly, "Republicans hold a significant structural advantage in the competition for House seats," and:

This circumstance will have the effect of moderating the Democratic caucus, because Democrats representing such districts are, of political necessity, considerably more moderate than other Democrats. Similarly, more than half of the Democratic senators who replaced Republicans in 2006 and 2008 are from states in the South or the Mountain West, and they, too, will have to compile moderate records or risk defeat.

Hence Blue Dog resistance to health care reform. This also suggests that the Democrats might have the same problem in advancing immigration reform, given the large number of members who come from mostly white, conservative-tilting districts. You can stick either a Democrat or a Republican in districts like PA-12, MS-1 or CO-4. Those reps will be hard-pressed to vote yea. Perhaps this is why the issue has been tabled this year?

More broadly, assume that the distribution of GOP voters interferes with its ability to win Hispanics. Might not the Democrats have a similar problem? The chairmen of key House committees and other leaders - Frank, Rangel, Waxman, Conyers, Pelosi, etc - often come from districts that have little in common with swing districts. In fact, Bush's median share of the vote in 2004 in the districts of committee chairmen and leadership in the 111th Congress was just 36%. Can these Democrats be expected to have the individual incentives to craft policy designed to help the Democrats maintain a national majority?

This enduring majority argument also has some serious meta-level difficulties, too. Namely:

-You can't draw an inference about a trend (in this case, Hispanics, who looked to be shifting rightward in 2004) from a single data point.

-You can technically do this with two data points (in this case, young voters), but it can easily yield inferential errors. The Baby Boom generation was McGovern's biggest backer but ultimately voted for Reagan.

-You have to find a way to control for the fact that the economy was shrinking at a 6.1% annualized rate by Election Day; otherwise, movement that was induced by the economy (and other non-realigning factors) gets jumbled up with movement induced by realignment. I haven't seen any proponent of this hypothesis take a serious stab at controlling for the economy, as Sean Trende and I tried to do in our election reviews last winter.

-You can't lump African-Americans and Hispanics into a "non-white" group without ignoring the 3.67 million Hispanics who behaved contrary to the theory by...voting for John McCain! This lumping together of non-whites also ignores the volatility of Hispanic voters, who, as Greener does note, gave George W. Bush about 40% of the vote in 2004.

-You can't lump all Hispanics together as a single voting bloc - just as you can't do that for white voters, either! Some are more partial to the GOP than others. George W. Bush did relatively well with Hispanics in New Mexico (44%) and Nevada (39%), but poorly with Hispanics in New York (24%) and Illinois (23%). Additionally, the exit poll suggests that McCain actually did better with Hispanics in Colorado than George W. Bush.

The biggest problem of all is that the analysis is static. It fails to take into account whether and how the Democrats can hold their voting coalition together. It's not just about winning elections, it's about governance. The "realignment" of 1894/1986 was dependent not just on the shocks brought on by the harsh recession of those years, but also by the fact that the Republicans could govern to the satisfaction of the country, thus prohibiting Bryan and the Democrats from picking off enough voters from the Republican coalition in 1900. Today's arguments about a new, enduring Democratic majority are necessarily static because...the Democrats have not really governed yet! The age of Obama has just begun, seeing as we are only 12.5% of the way through his term.

An enduring majority requires victory across many elections, which in turn requires keeping enough of your voters happy. This is easier said than done - and Democrats have a challenge on their hands. The evidence of this is everywhere these days, and the highly astute Michael Barone connects a particular policy problem to the recent election:

Last Friday in the Beltway Confidential blog I called attention to the letter signed by Democratic Congressman Jared Polis and 20 other Democrats, 19 freshmen and one sophomore, opposing the $554 billion supertax on high earners included in the House Democrats' health care bill...

According to the Edison-Mitofsky exit poll, Obama carried voters with incomes under $50,000 and over $200,000. He lost among voters with incomes between $50,000 and $200,000. There's obviously a certain tension between high-income and low-income voters.

Incidentally, in Colorado, Congressman Polis's home state, the exit poll shows Obama getting a higher percentage (56%) among those earning more than $100,000 than among those earning less (53%). It shows Obama getting 53% from those between $100,000 and $150,000, so by interpolation those with incomes over $150,000 (who are the same percentage of the electorate as those in the $100,000-$150,000 bracket) cast 59% of their votes for Obama. Congressman Polis, who thanks to his success as an entrepreneur is among that high-income group, has evidently been paying attention. [Emphasis Mine]

There is a real tension here. Can the Democratic Party achieve its policy goals of improving the living standard of its lower-income voters without alienating its higher-income voters? I'm not so sure. Piling tax increase upon tax increase on the top earners could push them back to the GOP. Alternatively, avoiding tax increases yet running up larger and larger deficits might hurt the Democrats with middle income voters, whose budgets are such that they have to make the kinds of tough choices that (in this scenario) the Democratic-run government won't.

I'm not saying that there is no answer to this puzzle. It could be that the Democrats find a way to handle this tension, or calculate that they can side with one group over the other without losing their majority, or whatever. The point is that this is exactly the kind of balancing act majority parties must do, and that the challenge for the Democrats of actually governing should not be understated or ignored - which it inevitably is in these demographics-are-destiny arguments. As our President is now learning - railing against an unacceptable status quo on the campaign trail is substantially easier than altering it to the satisfaction of the electorate once in government.

The Democrats' majority will be enduring if and only if they can consistently satisfy enough of their voters amidst all of these challenges. Can they? We just don't know yet - and no amount of wishing by hopeful Democrats or fretting by hand-wringing Republicans can possibly change that fact.

* - Too much is made of the effects of gerrymandering on issue positions, and I am hesitant about going along with any conclusions like the one Greener makes connecting immigration to the gerrymander. Just the other day, I received the latest edition of the American Journal of Political Science, which contains an article written by Nolan McCarty, Keith Poole, and Howard Rosenthal. In it, they ask: "Does Gerrymandering Cause Polarization?" They answer: no! "[C]ongressional polarization is primarily a function of the differences in how Democrats and Republicans represent the same districts rather than a function of which districts each party represents or the distribution of constituency preferences." They "conduct simulations to gauge the level of polarization under various "neutral" districting procedures...[and] find that the actual levels of polarization are not much higher than those produced by the simulations." They conclude: "There are many reasons to do something about gerrymandering. But reducing polarization is not one of them."

-Jay Cost

Southern Democrats Feel Pressure from Obama Agenda

Representative Dan Boren [D-OK] recently sat down for an interview with the Oklahoma Gazette's Will Holland, and had some harsh words for the leader of his own party. The following is an excerpt from that report:

Boren has just come inside to this air-conditioned oasis after making a speech to commemorate the opening of a new Democratic headquarters in Durant, a community deep in the heart of Southeast Oklahoma. He braved the 100-degree, blast-furnace heat to speak to a gathering of local Democrats, many clad in boots and cowboy hats, because these supporters make up the base of the state's Democratic Party. And make no mistake about it: The Democratic Party is strong here. This is not, however, President Barack Obama's Democratic Party.

Ten feet from the desk, in the main hallway of Boren's new Durant headquarters, the congressman beams from a portrait, his arm draped around President George W. Bush. A photo with the current president is nowhere to be found.

"Barack Obama is very unpopular," said Boren, who represents Oklahoma's 2nd Congressional District. "He got 34 percent of the vote statewide, and less in our district. If he were to run for re-election today, I bet it would be even worse."

Boren points out that he does support some of Obama's initiatives, like the economic stimulus package. He has voted for Obama-supported bills 81 percent of the time, according to a recent Congressional Quarterly study. But despite this, he said the president is too liberal.

"It would be a lot nicer if we had someone who was in the middle," he said. "Bill Clinton won our district. A lot of people don't remember that, but he, in 1996, carried this district. I think if you have someone who governs from the middle, who's pragmatic, who works with both parties. President Obama talks a lot about bipartisanship. If you look at some of the legislation, he may have one or two Republicans." [Emphasis Mine]

There has been a lot of talk in recent months about how the shifting sands of northeastern politics has undermined the position of Republicans in that region. This shift was a long time in the making; as the public standing of George W. Bush declined from 2006 to 2008, it was not a great surprise the GOP shed seats in Connecticut, New York, and eastern Pennsylvania - all of which are places where they have exhibited weakness for some time. These seats were the "low-hanging fruit" of the Republican House caucus.

But the Democrats have a similar problem, albeit in a different part of the country. They have not suffered any significant congressional losses since 1994, so there is no story to tell of the party being wiped out in any area. Still, Democratic gains in the Northeast and West have corresponded with a decline in Southern and rural areas on the presidential level, leaving members like Dan Boren more vulnerable. We can appreciate this change by looking at the following map. It displays the countywide vote in the South Central divisions (Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas) in 1996 and 2008.

South Central Divisions, 1996-2008.jpg

As we can see, Clinton was very successful in this part of the country. He won Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Louisiana by putting together a coalition of African-Americans and lower-income, rural whites. Obama, meanwhile, failed to win those lower-income whites - who swung heavily to McCain. The blue-shaded counties in the 2008 map tend to have large percentages of either African Americans (especially in Alabama's "Black Belt" and the Mississippi Delta) or Hispanics (in southern Texas). That's why Obama carried them. Importantly for Boren, the President lost every single county in Oklahoma.

There is a similar story to tell in the South Atlantic division of the country:

South Atlantic 1996 and 2008.jpg

As Sean Trende and I argued earlier in the year, Obama did about as well as Clinton did division-wide, but for different reasons. Obama polled substantially worse than Clinton in many rural and small town areas, but slightly better in many larger metropolitan areas, which have been gaining population. We can see this in particular in Virginia. Note Obama's poor performance in the southwestern part of the state. He more than made up for this difference in Northern Virginia, which is why he won the state while Clinton lost it. Notice also that Obama won fewer counties than Clinton in North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, but he was about as strong (if not a bit stronger) in the larger metropolitan areas.

Obama's strong performance in large metropolitan areas has been trumpeted by proponents of the "emerging Democratic majority," but it must be a source of concern to House members like Dan Boren, whose district is 64.4% rural and whose constituents haven't voted Democrat in 12 years. Historically speaking, Democratic strength in the South was based on the rural vote. That's the heart of the party going back to Andrew Jackson and the response to the "Corrupt Bargain" of 1825. Many of these rural voters, though conservative in outlook, still send Democrats to Congress, who now are under pressure because of the President's liberal agenda and decidedly urban coalition.

In other words, Dan Boren is probably not alone among Democrats wishing the President was more "bipartisan." The following chart lists Southern House Democrats whose districts voted more Republican than the rest of the country last year, and the extent to which there was a Republican "swing."

Southern House Democrats in Republican-Leaning Districts.jpg

To this list we might also add seven members whose districts are a stone's throw from the Ohio River: Jason Altmire (PA-4), Kathy Dahlkemper (PA-3), Brad Ellsworth (IN-8), Baron Hill (IN-9), Jack Murtha (PA-12), Zack Space (OH-18), and Charlie Wilson (OH-6). All of these districts voted for McCain over Obama. Though they were drawn differently in the 1990s, Clinton defeated Bob Dole in all of the older versions.

Most of these Southern and Ohio River Democrats voted against the Waxman-Markey climate bill. Most are also members of the House Blue Dog Coalition, which has signaled concern with the leadership's version of health care reform, and whose members actually intend to block it when it comes up for a vote in the Energy and Commerce Committee. These members come from districts that stopped voting Democratic on the presidential level some time ago, but continue to send Democrats to the House. It's not a surprise that they would be more resistant to Obama and Pelosi's agenda than Eastern and Western Democrats.

The bottom line is that Obama's voting coalition is substantially less rural, less white, and less Southern than Clinton's - leaving many House members in a difficult position vis-à-vis the party's legislative agenda. Members like Boren now must choose between their party and their constituents. Few face as much pressure as Dan Boren surely does, but most of them face at least some, especially on the controversial bills. The more they choose to side with their constituents, the smaller the margin the Democrats have for getting Obama's agenda through Congress.

Maps Courtesy of Sean Trende

-Jay Cost

The Penny Ante Stakes of the Sotomayor Nomination

On Monday in the Washington Post, Bill Kristol suggested that the political impact of the Sotomayor nomination would be slight: "Obviously, the debate over Sotomayor is important in its own right. And obviously there could be surprises over the next week. But I think the political impact of what we're seeing is likely to be minimal."

I agree entirely with this. I have a few points of my own I'd like to add. First, Sotomayor is not expected to shift the balance of power on the Court, at least for major issues like abortion. So, we should not expect many big policy chances as a consequence of this nomination.

Second, I don't think much of the argument that this nomination solidifies Obama's standing with Hispanics. Ronald Reagan's nomination of Sandra Day O'Connor did not stop Bill Clinton from opening a huge gender gap in 1992 and 1996. A Court nomination that targets a particular group may be a political payoff, but it is merely a symbolic one. It's not a material benefit, which suggests it is not as powerful. It reminds me of an old tactic employed by some urban machines when their resources were running low and groups still had to be appeased: they would do something like throw an ethnic pride parade. Nobody was made materially better off by such an event. It just made people feel good, and hopefully more inclined to support the machine at the ballot box. This was a weak benefit, a poor way to win votes, and it is not a huge surprise that most of these machines have since been toppled. Similarly, the nomination of Sotomayor might be a symbolic benefit to the Hispanic community, but it does not look like the White House can deliver the more substantial benefit of immigration reform this year.

Third, if this is meant to be a symbolic benefit, it's not a great one. The Court is the most private branch of the federal government. Sotomayor will be confirmed, then effectively disappear from the public radar. Ideally, you'd want a symbolic payoff to be highly visible and salient - something like a parade - so that people feel the emotions of the symbolism very strongly when it comes time to vote. The Supreme Court is not the venue for such a payoff! It is hard to imagine Sotomayor having any kind of long-term effect on voters, at least those who might otherwise be inclined to vote Republican.

My guess is that Sotomayor will be confirmed with relatively few Republican votes. The cry will go up once again about the GOP and Hispanics, that the party is further alienating itself from this crucial voting bloc, and so on. Sooner rather than later, all of this will be forgotten. The GOP will continue to have a problem with Hispanic voters, but this nomination will have no appreciable effect on it either way.

-Jay Cost

Is Obama Spread Too Thin?

On Friday, Mike Memoli at Politics Nation reported on this interesting comment from President Obama while overseas:

During a press conference at the conclusion of the G-8 Summit in L'Aquila, Obama was asked about the future of these international bodies. He said leaders should consider refreshing and renewing institutions like the G8 and even the United Nations. "A lot of energy is going into these various summits and organizations in part because there's a sense that when it comes to big, tough problems, the UN General Assembly is not always working as effectively and rapidly as it needs to," he said.

The President went on to say this:

The one thing I will be looking forward to is fewer summit meetings, because, as you said, I've only been in office six months now and there have been a lot of these. And I think that there's a possibility of streamlining them and making them more effective. The United States obviously is a absolutely committed partner to concerted international action, but we need to I think make sure that they're as productive as possible.

This comment reads a bit prickly to me. It's not the greatest of form to complain about summits while you're finishing up a summit! It makes me wonder if the President has been spread a wee bit too thin. Early in his term, when the White House indicated that it had no intentions of paring back its agenda for this year, despite the recession and the wars - many commentators suggested that this was simply too much for any one Administration to do. Yet the White House pressed forward with it, anyway. Obama inherited a banking system that - even if the worst of the crisis was over - still needed some long-term reforms. He also inherited the worst recession since the Great Depression. Additionally, there were unresolved issues with the Big Three auto manufacturers. And then of course there was the military effort in Iraq and Afghanistan, neither of which the Commander-in-Chief can put on the back burner, even if the the public has. Plus, any new administration has to put in significant efforts at staffing, and making the international rounds. On top of all this, the President added a push for major overhauls of health care, energy, and education.

That's a lot to handle.

The modern presidency has expanded over the last eighty years. This is one reason why I'm slightly bemused by historians who rank the Presidents - as if you could do an apples-to-apples comparision of Chester A. Arthur's administration to George H.W. Bush's! The role of the presidency has ballooned for many reasons, including: (a) the United States' role in foreign affairs has expanded, and the Constitution invests the President with great power on that front; (b) the power of the federal level of government has expanded, and the executive branch is charged with carrying out all federal dictates; (c) Congress has ceded more and more policymaking power to the executive branch over the years.

It's a substantially different job now than it was in the last century. But one thing has remained constant: the person who holds the office is just a person, with all the limitations that entails. The biggest one is probably time. Though the office has grown by leaps and bounds, the President's time in the day for work has remained stubbornly constant at 24 hours, not including sleeping and eating!

I wonder if we are seeing the consequences of this. Despite what was implied by some of the President's campaign imagery, he is still just a man. Has the White House overloaded his plate? If so, what might the consequences of this be? A recent report from Bloomberg implies one possibility:

President Barack Obama, after a week of diplomacy abroad, now faces the possible derailment of his top priority at home, the overhaul of the health-care system.

The Senate Finance Committee has failed to come up with a bill, and Chairman Max Baucus is under pressure from other Democrats to curb his efforts to reach out to Republicans. While House leaders are scheduled to unveil legislation today that will include a surtax on the wealthiest Americans, they were forced to delay a draft bill last week that drew fire from the White House and dozens of their own members.

The White House's role in the crafting of legislation is informal, which implies that the President is at his best when he uses the prestige of the office to charm (or threaten!) legislators to go the way he wants. Ultimately, this requires his time and attention. Is this something Obama has been able to give?

Dueling headlines on Drudge suggest this point as well as anything. The first is a link to a Sports Illustrated article reporting that Obama will be in the broadcast booth for the All-Star game. That sounds like a trifle, but there surely are several White House staffers working on what the President will say. And then of course, the President will need to be briefed on it, maybe a little practice, and so on. This is not an insignificant time commitment. Right next to this link is another to a Washington Post report that stops just short of calling his staff the "walking dead," but still notes:

All West Wings face fatigue at some point, but the Obama team has had a particularly frenetic start, the result of inheriting the worse economic crisis since the Great Depression and the team's own seemingly chaotic drive to push an agenda that includes the creation of a new health insurance system, auto bailouts, Middle East peace, nuclear nonproliferation, two wars and education reform...

Martin Moore-Ede, a former Harvard University professor, calls it the "iron man" syndrome and says the American political workplace is one of the few that still resists a mechanism for ensuring people get rest.

One study conducted for the British Parliament found that "mental fatigue affects cognitive performance, leading to errors of judgement, microsleeps (lasting for seconds or minutes), mood swings and poor motivation." The effect, it found, is equal to a blood alcohol level of .10 percent -- above the legal limit to drive in the United States.

Maybe it's time to ease the throttle down. A good place to start might be the unnecessary appearance in the All Star Game broadcast booth!

-Jay Cost

Obama's Strategic Mistake

Presidential mandates are inherently political, as Sean Trende and I argued in January: "Though they are cloaked in the language of democratic theory, they are more a matter of what adroit politicians can claim for themselves in the face of the opposition..."

In a few instances instances, politicians can feasibly claim a mandate to implement a particular policy. The election of 1896 revolved around a clear policy debate, thus implying a policy mandate for McKinley (at least on gold). More often, mandates cannot be linked to actual policies, but to problems like recession. The election of 1932 is an example of this. That's where politics can play a big role. Of course, many elections imply no mandate whatsoever. The election of 1988 is a good example. The vote that year was more an endorsement of the past eight than an indication of what should happen next.

Last year seems to fall into that middle range. There was no crucial policy choice made - nothing like gold over silver - but President Obama can feasibly claim some kind of mandate to get the economy out of recession. I'd base this conclusion on a few data points. The first is the trajectory of the horse race. Gallup showed a dead heat when the Democratic National Convention began - and after the Republican National Convention, McCain jumped out to a modest lead. Then the financial market began to crumble, and that was essentially the end of the campaign:

RCP Average for September.jpg

There was very little change after this. The exit poll indicated that the economy was the decisive factor. A comparison of 2004 to 2008 is instructive.

Top Issues, 2004 and 2008.gif

There was no single issue that dominated in 2004. Voter concerns were distributed evenly around Iraq, terrorism, the economy, and moral values. Additionally, those issues cut in opposite directions: two favored Kerry, two favored Bush. The election of 2008 was different. Voters' concerns centered on the economy - and they broke to Obama by the same rate as the whole country did.

The 2008 election is a typical American response to economic woes. The country has been voting for out-parties during economic slowdowns since 1840, when it tossed Martin van Buren out on his duff. The United States votes for prosperity. It always has. It always will.

That's why I have been so perplexed by the Obama administration's legislative strategy this year. The contrast between the stimulus bill and the health care debate is especially peculiar. It's a strange sight to watch continued gloomy numbers trickle out from the economic pulse-takers on the one hand, and Congress debating a "public option" and fretting over CBO scores on the other.

The following is Keith Hennessy's analysis of the stimulus bill:

The President's mistake was in largely deferring to Congress on the composition of the stimulus bill. Rather than allowing Congress to pump hundreds of billions of dollars through slow-spending and inefficient bureaucracies, the President should have insisted that Congress instead send all the funds directly to the American people and let them spend it quickly and efficiently. Given his policy preferences, he could have directed a large share of those funds to poor people who don't pay income taxes...

The final 2009 stimulus law broke down like this:

10-yr total

% of total

Discretionary spending (highways, mass transit, energy efficiency, broadband, education, state aid)

$308 B


Entitlements (food stamps, unemployment, Medicaid, refundable tax credits)

$267 B


Tax cuts

$212 B



$787 B


The problem is that only 11% of the first line (discretionary spending) will be spent by October 1 of this year. In contrast, 31-32% of the entitlement and tax cuts lines will be out the door by that time. (I have questions about the speed of the entitlement part. The bulk of that is Medicaid spending, and it's not clear to me that a Federal payment to a State means the cash is immediately flowing into the private economy.)

If we extend our window to October 1, 2010, then less than half the discretionary spending will be out the door, while almost 3/4 of the entitlement spending and all of the tax cuts will be out the door and affecting the economy. The largest part of the stimulus law is therefore also the slowest spending part. This is fine if you're trying to increase GDP growth over the next 2-4 years. If you're going for short-term GDP growth, it makes no sense.

What's odd is that when the stimulus bill was under consideration, the President said there was no time for a real debate. Why the need for speed if the bill wouldn't begin to take effect for months? This seemed like a rhetorical trick designed to deflect criticism from what was a questionable bill.

Relatedly, Republican concerns were brushed aside, with the implicit claim that they were rooted in bad faith. The problem with this argument is that the Republican House caucus was unanimously opposed to the bill. Members like Bono Mack, Castle, Kirk, Lance, LoBiondo, McHugh, Reichert, and Smith all voted nay. That's significant. These members voted in favor of Waxman-Markey, so minimally we can conclude that they are open to Democratic ideas. Additionally, Obama tapped McHugh to be Secretary of the Army, so he can't be a Republican hack. There are certainly fewer moderates in the Republican House caucus now than there were in 2005 - but some are still in the lower chamber. The fact that they were unanimously opposed to the bill suggests that perhaps there was something wrong with it.

All in all, the process that produced the stimulus bill was not a good one. Rather than use his enormous political capital to construct a bill designed to confront the economic crisis head-on, the President left its construction mostly up to Congress, which is inclined to particularism and waste. It was then rushed through the legislature without a full review. The opposition to it was painted as politically motivated. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the final product was a bill that will not produce much effect until some time in the future - and now some are calling for a second stimulus.

Meanwhile, the President and Congress are moving forward carefully and deliberately on health care. There's a robust debate that includes congressional committees across both chambers, the President, members of both parties, and the public. The President has clearly indicated that this is his top legislative priority, and he intends to do what is necessary to get a good bill that he can sign into law. Over the next few months, Washington's focus will squarely be on health care, even though it sits well below the economy on lists of public concerns.

This seems backwards to me. It's as if the economy was a secondary concern that had to be dealt with quickly so attention could shift to the rest of the President's domestic agenda. Why so much focus on health care and so little focus on the economy? Perhaps it's because Obama - like many Democratic Presidents before him - wants to be the next Franklin Roosevelt. For whatever reason, they seem to dream of getting themselves into the pantheon of leaders who expand the federal government's role in the provision of social welfare. And health care is the white whale of the Democratic Party's social welfare agenda. The President who finally delivers is guaranteed the spot next to the Squire of Hyde Park.

I understand why President Obama might feel this temptation. Democrats see themselves as members of the progressive party, and their leaders are expected to make progress on issues of social welfare. Their overwhelming numbers in the legislature augur well for a bill - so shouldn't Obama and company give it a try? Yet, there are other factors to consider. FDR guided Social Security through Congress in 1935, after he had already dedicated the government to massive relief and recovery efforts, after GDP had stabilized, and after the public had validated his initial efforts in the 1934 midterm. LBJ pushed for the Great Society in the mid-60s, a time of immense prosperity. Expanding social welfare requires a meeting of the man and the moment, which helps explain why some well regarded presidents (Truman and Clinton) failed in their attempts.

This moment is calling for a focus on the economy. That's why Barack Obama has the top job. It's not because of cap-and-trade, not because of health care, not because of his magnetic presence on the campaign trail - but because the economy was shrinking at a 6.1% annualized rate by Election Day. Americans were voting against recession by voting for him. This gives him a claim to a mandate, which not every President enjoys. He now has an opportunity to put his stamp on the country's economic policy in the name of recovery. Yet he's not doing that. He encouraged the Congress to rush through a poorly designed stimulus package that he had little involvement in; now he has focused the legislature's time and attention on health care, which is a secondary concern right now.

I think this is a strategic mistake. My scan of the history of American politics does not indicate that we've been governed so much by "alignments" - the systems of 1860, 1896, 1932, 1968, and so on. Instead, I see a country that votes for growth. That's the true American ideology. Left, right, or middle - the average American wants prosperity. When the majority party fails to deliver growth after having been elected to do so - the electoral consequences can be significant.

-Jay Cost

Maybe She Doesn't Want To Be President

According to the Census Bureau, there were about 160 million people in the United States who were at least 35 years old last year. My rough count of declared presidential candidates in 2008 sits between 150 and 200. Factoring out the foreign born, and dividing the latter by the former, we can say that about 99.9999% of those constitutionally eligible for the presidency did not seek the job. Additionally, 95% of all sitting senators, 98% of all sitting governors, and 99% of all sitting representatives did not seek the presidency last year. I didn't calculate the numbers on former senators, governors, and representatives - but I am sure they would be even larger. From this, we can reasonably infer that most people don't want to be president. It's the life ambition for some - but not for most of us.

I mention this because in all the analyses of Sarah Palin's decision to resign from the governorship of Alaska - it's often been overlooked that maybe she is one of these people.

The classic treatise on political ambition was written by Joseph Schlesinger more than 40 years ago. In Ambition and Politics, he argues cogently that there is a stable "opportunity structure" to electoral politics that governs the ambitions of office-seekers. Two implications of this concept are relevant here.

First, there is a hierarchy of political jobs in this country such that serious candidates for a given office tend to hold one of several lower-order positions. As Schlesinger writes, "American political careers do not proceed chaotically. There are patterns of movement from office to office." When it comes to the presidency, credible contenders typically come from the vice-presidency, the Senate, governors' mansions, battlefields, and so on. In light of this, Palin's resignation strongly suggests that she has no intention of running in 2012. It is hypothetically possible, I suppose, that somebody could resign a governorship after only 32 months of service yet still win the presidency without having held any other immediately qualifying position. But then again, it is hypothetically possible that the Detroit Lions will have a winning season this year. I wouldn't hold my breath for either.

Second, politicians do not advance up the ladder via some overarching strategy. Though of course many have a general desire to move upwards, they all must take opportunities as they present themselves. Assessments of risk and reward must govern their choices. This makes sense: one of the worst things that can happen to professional politicians is electoral defeat; if they don't win, they have to find another line of work! Accordingly, they need to pick their battles, which basically prohibits them from developing some grand scheme. So, for instance, I'd guess that in 2004 Barack Obama did not have designs on a presidential run in 2008. He surely wanted to be president - but he probably planned to wait until an opening presented itself, which happened to come pretty quickly for him. As regards Sarah Palin, this suggests that while she might like to run for the presidency in 2016 or 2020 - those dates are so far off that nothing she did on Friday counts as appreciable movement in that direction. Anyway, the previous point implies that she'd have to run for another office other than president between now and then - and that would have to be her principal focus.

Thus, I'd suggest that perhaps Governor Palin has no designs on the presidency. Her resignation on Friday is certainly consistent with this thesis. Perhaps she has a mind for 2016 or 2020, but that is so far away that there is little planning for it now.

I do not think this theory is all that implausible. My guess is that Palin had not seriously considered a run for the top job when McCain came calling last August. After all, the governorship of Alaska is a lousy perch from which to start a run for the White House. In fact, of the 150 governorships and Senate seats - I'd say that being governor of Alaska is the worst place to begin. It's a thinly populated state - raising inevitable questions about whether the job is sufficient preparation. Plus, it's terribly far away. The distance from Wasilla, Alaska to Ames, Iowa is 3,354 miles, suggesting that the logistics of a candidacy would be extremely burdensome.

It's important to remember that it was John McCain who invited her to the national stage. He plucked her out of obscurity because he thought Joe Lieberman was a bridge too far and Tim Pawlenty didn't have enough pizzazz. She was there by his request. Since her introduction to the nation - it hasn't gone all that well for her. Her performance generated mixed reviews. That's a bad position from which to start your own run for the White House. You don't want to have half the country disapproving of you when you begin. Worse, she and her family have become fodder for wild speculation from irresponsible bloggers, salacious stories from celebrity magazines, groundless ethics complaints from political opponents, lousy jokes from late-night comedians who should have retired a decade ago, and criticisms from former McCain flacks looking to deflect blame for the haphazard, incoherent campaign they ran. You would have to really want to be president to press forward in the face of the headwind she has faced.

It's hard to blame her for doing what she did on Friday, although many critics still managed. If I were in her shoes, having been asked by my party's nominee to accept the vice-presidential nomination, then having been put through the wringer the way she and her family have, I wouldn't want to run for the presidency. I wouldn't want to run for reelection as governor. And I too would be inclined to resign altogether. One difference between her and me: I would not have been as gracious as she was last Friday.

-Jay Cost

What Does 60 Votes Mean?

With Al Franken now installed as Minnesota's second senator - a lot has been made about the Democrats having a "filibuster-proof" majority. Perhaps too much.

A filibuster-proof majority is great for the party that has it, but it has its limits. On purely party-line votes, perhaps procedural stuff, it should make a difference. But, on the really big stuff, what will matter is the preferences of the individual legislators.

The bonds of partisanship are relatively weak in the United States Congress, and especially weak in the Senate. This limits the power that the party in the chamber has over its members. Consider:

-Candidates who declare for the Senate do so of their own volition. They might receive encouragement from the party - but it's essentially up to them.

-Candidates put together their own campaign organizations, fundraising apparatus, staff, and so on. This outfit is responsible to the candidate and the candidate alone.

-At most, the party plays only a role of facilitator - and even then, that role is typically very modest.

-Candidates who win election to the Senate develop their own electoral connections to interest groups, well connected players, and key constituents - thereby making them even more independent when time comes for reelection.

-Typically, party leaders are tolerant of defecting members, especially in the Senate. Arlen Specter is a great example. He was probably one of the most unreliable Republican votes in the Senate, but this never stopped him from (a) receiving a great deal of financial support from his fellow members come election time or (b) advancing to the chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee when it was his turn.

The implication of all this is that senators stand alone when they face the voters. The party did not get them into office, and it cannot keep them there. So, we should not expect Harry Reid and the other caucus leaders to have the ability to induce members to vote against their own preferences - at least not on the big stuff that captures public attention. This is not to say that the caucus party does not have power. It does. We just need to understand that this power is limited.

So what does 60 votes mean? Franken should be one of the most liberal members of the Senate. This helps move the chamber to the left. Additionally, when all Democratic senators are unified against all Republican senators on a particular issue - 60 votes means there is nothing the GOP can do. However, considering the moderates in both caucuses - Collins, Landrieu, Nelson, Snowe, Specter, etc. - I think the number of such cases will be relatively small. That's why I suggested procedural stuff that favors one party over the other. On climate change or health care - if they cannot write a bill that pleases Nelson and Landrieu, they'll have 58 votes, not 60. Don't expect them to toe the line, if toeing the line means voting against their constituents and putting their reelection at risk.

My intuition is that this is why Obama hypocritically put budget reconciliation on the table in the Spring. He wasn't simply worried about Republicans filibustering legislation he supported. Considering that at the time the GOP coalition included Collins, Snowe, and Specter - all of whom are quite moderate (and who joined up on the stimulus bill) - what were the chances that the President could not get at least one of these votes while still getting all of the Democrats? I'd say fairly slim, at least on the big stuff. My feeling is that budget reconciliation was put on the table to get around the effective veto of this moderate, bipartisan bloc, which used to sit in the middle of the entire chamber, but now with two big Democratic wins sits closer to the "filibuster pivot."

-Jay Cost