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By Jay Cost

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Is the Economy Obama's Only Problem?

There is a theory among some liberal commentators that figures that Obama's political position is due not to his own mistakes, but rather to macropolitical forces that are outside his control. Recently, my colleague Sean Trende argued that the political choices Obama has made have contributed to his poor poll position, and I am partial to this point of view.

Yesterday, Ezra Klein offered the contrary position. Here is Klein:

See if this structure seems familiar to you: Over the past two years, Barack Obama has done X. Now, his poll numbers have slipped to 44 percent. His party is slated to lose a lot of seats in the 2010 midterms. Obama's decision to do X is to blame.

"X" can be a lot of things. Maybe it's the decision to attempt health-care reform. Or his socialist tendencies. Or his cool, professorial demeanor. In Matt Bai's latest article, John Podesta says it's Obama's pursuit of an ambitious legislative agenda. If he'd spent less time passing legislation, he could've spent more time developing and selling popular themes. In John Judis's latest article, it's the absence of populism in Obama's speeches and policies.

The problem with the essays is that they don't consider the counterfactual. What if Obama had done not-X? Would things really be better for him? How do we know they wouldn't be worse?

Klein then goes on to compare President Obama's current standing in the Gallup poll to Presidents Carter, Clinton, and Reagan - arguing that, in fact, Obama is in a slightly better position. Klein chose this trio because they are "the last three presidents who entered office amid a recession and didn't have a country-unifying terrorist attack in their first year."

For starters, a point of clarification. None of these Presidents entered office "amid a recession," at least not if we take the National Bureau of Economic Research as the authority on the beginning and end of recessions. The recession of the mid-70s began in late 1973 and ended in early 1975, during President Ford's administration. The economy was still weak when Carter took office, but the next recession did not begin until January, 1980. It ended in July, 1980, meaning that Ronald Reagan also took office when the economy was in recovery, although it was again weak. The recession of the early 1990s had been over for nearly two years prior to the time that Bill Clinton took office.

These past Presidents at least partially "earned" their poor poll positions by the summer of their second year. Clinton's early term was marred by scandal and highly unpopular legislation. Reagan had pushed for an enormous tax cut that seemed to have the opposite effect of what was promised by the Summer of 1982. And Jimmy Carter was a poor chief executive who did not really have the trust of his party when he was nominated; he had to assure the convention in his nomination speech that he was indeed a bona fide Democrat. He did not have the confidence of the voters when he was elected; he won just 50% of the vote despite all the macro forces in his favor, and even then he had to rely heavily on his native South for most of his electoral power. And he never really enjoyed the confidence of the American public when he was President; by the end of 1977, he was struggling to stay above 50%. When I look at the Carter, Clinton, and Reagan numbers, I see in part a weak economy, but I also see these three suffering the consequences of their political decisions.

Check out Klein's graph of presidential midterm losses over time.

first-term_presidential_midterms_since_1900-thumb-454x274-23964.png

Are there structural things going on here? Yes, of course. But there is also more to it than that. Most of the Presidents who lost substantial numbers of seats - Taft in 1910, Harding in 1922, Hoover in 1930, Truman in 1946, Johnson in 1966, Clinton in 1994 - had not handled their political situations very well. The only exception in the above graph is probably Wilson, who achieved a great deal of success in the 63rd Congress, but whose party suffered big losses because of the return of the Progressives to the Republican fold.

Does the economy matter? Yes, of course. But does political management and facility matter, too? Yes, of course.

Unfortunately, it is hard to capture "facility" quantitatively. If you want to graph the President's job approval against GDP or unemployment, that's easy to do. But what about graphing it against competence or ambition or boldness? That's not as easy, which means that quantitative analysis is usually going to de-emphasize these features, not because they are unimportant but because they can't be measured very well. Another important issue with quantitative analysis of the President's situation is the "small n" problem that confronts anybody who wants to compare different Presidents. Stated in intuitive terms, it basically means that the smaller number of observations you have, the harder it is to control for the different contingencies of each observation to get down to the essential features that connect them all together. There have only been 17 Presidents in the last 100 years. That makes it hard to identify the grand laws of presidential political economy. As I mentioned, Obama's situation vis-à-vis the economy was not really similar to Carter, Clinton, or Reagan. He inherited a recession in a way that these three didn't. In fact, the only two Presidents in the last 80 years who inherited a recession were FDR, who took office just when the Great Depression hit its trough, and Truman, who had to deal with the economic slowdown that came with the end of World War II. Neither offers a very clean comparison to Obama's situation, which means that there really is no great historical comparison for President Obama. This, in turn, implies that a straightforward quantitative analysis is not going to be sufficient, that instead a more "qualitative" or interpretive approach, ala Judis or Bai, has to be in the mix if we want to have the best understanding.

A final point. Even if we cede that it is simply a matter of the gods of the economy smiling or frowning upon a President, we have really just begged the question. After all, President Obama and his Democratic allies in Congress passed a massive stimulus bill that was supposed to get the economy going again. It did not perform up to expectations, which means that the effect of the economy on the President's poll numbers is mediated by his own actions last winter. Could the stimulus have done a better job in jump starting the economy? There is no authoritative answer to that question.

Here's my position on the President's poll numbers. They are in decline partly for forces beyond his control. [You'll see me shed no tears, however, for President Obama or any modern chief executive who is stuck in this situation. Call it karma. The economy is largely outside the President's control, but that did not stop then-candidate Obama from blasting then-President Bush. Said blasting helped get him elected even though it was "unfair." Now that President Obama has the job, he has to suffer the same sort of criticism that his predecessor had to take from him.] Yet these macro trends do not explain the whole of the President's decline. Something else is going on - and analysts like Bai and Judis are trying to figure out what that something else really is. Whatever one might think of their answers, their projects are legitimate. "It's just the economy" is overly reductionist, suggesting that the whole of presidential history should be reduced to a simple line graph comparing job approval to GDP, and leaving us unable to make distinctions between Warren G. Harding and Franklin Roosevelt. As we all know, there is more to the story than that - the difference between those two Presidents is not simply the economic inflection points during their tenures!

-Jay Cost

What Went Wrong with Obama?

Robert Reich had a thought-provoking piece in the Wall Street Journal yesterday. Unfortunately, his argument begins to fall apart two thirds of the way through.

Reich argues:

A stimulus too small to significantly reduce unemployment, a TARP that didn't trickle down to Main Street, financial reform that doesn't fundamentally restructure Wall Street, and health-care reforms that don't promise to bring down health-care costs have all created an enthusiasm gap. They've fired up the right, demoralized the left, and generated unease among the general population...

The administration deserves enormous credit. It accomplished as much as it possibly could with a fragile 60 votes in the Senate, a skittish Democratic majority in the House, and a highly-disciplined Republican opposition in both chambers. Yet Bismarck's dictum about politics as the art of the possible is not altogether correct.

The real choice is between achieving what's possible within the limits of politics as given, or changing that politics to extend those limits and thereby more assuredly achieve intended goals. The latter course is riskier but its consequences can be more enduring and its mandate more powerful, as both Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan demonstrated.

So far, Barack Obama has chosen the former course. Despite the remarkable capacities he displayed during the 2008 campaign to inspire and rally Americans behind him, as president he has for the most part opted for an inside game.

Reich's column is in line with other liberal output that has argued that Obama did not go liberal enough. He "opted for an inside game," rather than "extend(ing) those limits" to achieve big, i.e. liberal, goals. If he had done the latter, middle class Americans would have felt the positive benefits already and his poll numbers would not be sliding.

I disagree with this line of thinking. I doubt very much that Obama could have used "the remarkable capacities he displayed during the 2008 campaign" to "inspire and rally Americans," thus "changing that politics." All Presidents face real constraints, and Obama is no different. Acknowledging and identifying them can help us understand where the President has gone wrong.

On the stimulus, he certainly could have gone no bigger than what he did. Reich fails to acknowledge the political fallout from an even larger stimulus package. Deficit spending is a major political issue that has dominated public discussion since the battle between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Reich and Paul Krugman might fault Obama for not spending more, but their preferred level of deficit spending is politically untenable. It always has been. Even FDR was consistently worried about deficits. Granted that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was not enough economic boost for the price tag, but that does not meant that the price tag could have or should have been higher. Not in this country. See: Perot, H. Ross, peculiar appeal of.

As for health care, Obama's goal was an FDR- or LBJ-style comprehensive, systematic reform of the system. It was to be his Social Security, his Medicare. But Obama simply lacked a sufficiently broad mandate to pull off such a feat. If the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act seems less august than Social Security and Medicare, that's because Obama's political position upon assuming the office was not as strong as FDR or LBJ's.

To appreciate what I'm talking about, consider the following picture. It compares Obama's election in 2008 (by county) to previous landslides - Roosevelt in 1932 and 1936, Eisenhower in 1952, Johnson in 1964, and Reagan in 1980. These maps come from an excellent French cartographer named Frédéric Salmon, whose work can be accessed here. They follow a different color scheme than the red-blue divide we are used to. In the following maps, Republican counties are in blue - and they become darker blue as the county votes more heavily Republican. Meanwhile, Democratic counties are in yellow - and they move to brown as the county votes more heavily Democratic.

Presidential Maps 1932-2008.jpg

As should be clear, Obama's victory was geographically narrower than Reagan's, LBJ's, Ike's or FDR's. Substantially so. Obama did much more poorly in rural and small town locales. They have a history of progressive/liberal support, but Obama was unable to place himself in the rural progressive tradition of William Jennings Bryan. This makes his coalition the most one-sided of any on the above maps. Most of his political support comes from the big cities and the inner suburbs. The exurbs, small towns, and rural areas generally voted Republican (with notable exceptions in the Upper Midwest).

In fact, if you look at presidential elections going back 100 years, Obama's is the most geographically narrow of any victors except Carter, Kennedy, and Truman - none of whom had transformative presidencies. Even Bill Clinton in 1996, whose share of the two-party vote was comparable to Obama's, still had a geographically broader voting coalition. Ditto George H.W. Bush in 1988.

Voting input inevitably determines policy output, and these maps hold the key to Reich's disappointment with the President. In our system, it's not just the number of votes that matter, but - thanks to Roger Sherman - how they are distributed across the several states. Obama's urban support base was sufficient for political success in the House, which passed a very liberal health care bill last November. But rural places have greater sway in the Senate - and Obama's weakness in rural America made for a half-dozen skittish Democrats who represent strong McCain states. The evolving thinking on the left - "Obama should have used his campaign-trail magic to change the political dynamic" - is thus totally misguided. The "remarkable capacities he displayed during the 2008 campaign" never persuaded the constituents of the red state Democrats he had to win over. Why should they suddenly start doing so now?

Obama simply lacked the broad appeal to guide the House's liberal proposal through the Senate. So, the result of "going big" was an initially liberal House product that then had to be watered down to win over red state Senators like Landrieu, Lincoln, Nelson, and Pryor. The end result was a compromise bill that, frankly, nobody really liked. Liberals were disappointed, tantalized as they were by the initial House product. Conservatives were wholly turned off, recognizing as they did that the guts of the bill were still liberal. And Independents and soft partisans were disgusted by congressional sausage-making and wary of the bill's provisions.

Was there an alternative approach the President could have taken? I think so. Such a tactic would have acknowledged the sizeable McCain bloc. McCain won 22 states, making his coalition a politically potent minority. Obama should have governed in light of this. I don't mean in hock to it. He didn't have to make Sarah Palin his domestic policy advisor, but he should have ignored the hagiographers who were quick to declare him the next FDR. These flatterers always manifest themselves anytime a new Democrat comes to the White House, and they are of very little help for Democratic Presidents who actually want to be great.

What he should have done instead was disarm his opponents. If he had built initial policy proposals from the middle, he could have wooed the moderate flank of the Republican party, marginalized the conservatives, and alleviated the concerns of those gettable voters in the South and the Midwest. This is precisely what Bill Clinton did between 1995 and 2000, and it is what the President's promises of "post-partisanship" suggested.

Our system of government can only produce policy when geographically broad coalitions favor it. The Senate, more than any other institution, forces such breadth. Obama created breadth the wrong way. He watered down initially liberal legislation to prompt just enough moderate Democrats to sign on. Instead, he should have built policy from the center, then worked to pick up enough votes on either side. The left would have been disappointed, but the right would have been marginalized and, most importantly, Independent voters - who have abandoned the President in droves - might still be on board.

A revolutionary idea in our polarized political climate, I know. Still: ask your average swing voter what he or she thinks of such an approach, and watch them nod in agreement.

-Jay Cost

Obama's Vanity is a Liability for Democrats

When Barack Obama burst onto the national scene in early 2007, I was fascinated by his public relations strategy. As a candidate, his facility with the arts of public communication vastly outstripped John McCain's (and Hillary Clinton's, for that matter), and frankly has few rivals in the history of electioneering.

Yet my fascination turned to consternation some time after Mr. Obama's inauguration. I had expected him to modify substantially his strategy in light of the august office he now inhabits. As early as February, 2009 - I fretted about the President's continued courting of celebrity. Since those early days, it has become frustratingly apparent that his Administration's way of dealing with the public is largely an extension of his campaign's.

Neither of them is wholly "rational." You cannot explain how Obama the candidate or Obama the President communicates with the public by assuming that it is all a product of strategic thinking. A strategy implies a goal and a credible explanation as to why a particular action will help accomplish that goal. Too many of his activities are inexplicable by this language of strategic rationality. Recall the Summer of 2008 when candidate Obama seemed particularly weightless: the "Seal of Obama," his European tour, his grandiose convention stage. There was something more to each of these than the simple determination that they were the best ways to spread his message to the masses.

Ditto his choice to appear on The View. Celebrities go on The View. Movie stars and rock stars. Not sitting Presidents of the United States. You cannot explain his decision to appear there without acknowledging that it was, at least in part, about the thrill he gets from being treated like a movie star. This is not merely about public communication. This is also about vanity.

Presidents occasionally make appearances on airy shows - George W. Bush, for instance, had a brief video spot on Deal or No Deal during which he thanked a contestant for his service as a soldier in Iraq. And of course candidates for the Presidency often make appearances on lighter programs like Oprah or The Tonight Show. Yet there are obviously big differences between President Obama and his predecessors, and it cannot be chalked up entirely to getting the message out.

Excessive vanity is common among Presidents. You must be vain to presume that you, and nobody else, should be the next President of the United States. Some Presidents are able to manage their vanity so that it is an asset. For other Presidents, vanity is a severe political handicap. Obama is falling into the latter category, which is somewhat of a surprise. His vanity surely helped generate the "audacity" he needed to snatch the Democratic party nomination from Hillary Clinton. Yet since he accomplished that amazing feat, his vanity has gone from a plus to a minus, creating two political problems for him that can be seen in the above clip.

First, it induces him to do silly things like appear on The View. Such behavior does not help advance his message at all. The audience for this trite program is far too small to induce opinion changes in the mass public. And more importantly, it diminishes the President's stature. His office is so important that he should not be appearing on programs such as this.

Second, it strips him of a sense of self-awareness. This President, who was recently ranked as the eighth most intelligent President of all time (just behind of John Adams, co-author of the Declaration of Independence, and four spots ahead of George Washington, who successfully repelled an invasion by the greatest military power the world had ever seen to that point), seems unaware of the concept of irony. There is no other way to explain why he would say this after having become the first President to engage in a permanent electoral campaign:

We shouldn't be campaigning all the time. There is a time to campaign and there is a time to govern. What we've tried to do over the last 20 months is to govern. On health care or financial reform, right now we have a big debate about how to get small businesses more credit because they generate the jobs. When you feel as if every single initiative that we're doing is subject to Washington politics instead of is this good for the country, that can be frustrating.

The fact that he uttered these words on The View, a show politicians only frequent when they are desperately trolling for votes, makes it all the more remarkable.

President Obama's vanity is fast becoming a problem for the Democratic Party. Messages cannot be delivered without messengers. Ideas require expounders. Even if the former are sound, the latter can make them sound foolish. Obama ran for and won that party's nomination based upon the claim that he could sell the party's ideas to Americans who regularly hesitate to pull the lever for Democrats. He is failing to do that, and his vanity is one reason why.

Democrats have reasons for great anxiety as we approach the 112th Congress and the next presidential campaign. The Republicans, sent packing after the 2006 and 2008 elections, are set to return to the District of Columbia in force next January. On top of that, unemployment is supposed to remain stubborningly high and the deficit will surely remain at unsustainable levels. All of this will make for difficult waters for Democratic party leaders to navigate. The party is going to need crafty, deft leadership if it hopes to avoid ceding further ground to the Republicans. I have my doubts that this President - overcome as he seems to be with self-adoration - can supply it. I'm guessing that many Democrats are starting to have similar worries.

The Pulpit of a Bully

Mike Allen broke this astounding bit of news yesterday:

Phil Schiliro, the White House congressional liaison, has told the Senate to aim to take up an energy bill the week of July 12, after the July 4 break (and after the scheduled final passage of Wall Street reform). Kagan confirmation will follow, ahead of the summer break, scheduled to begin Aug. 9. The plan is to conference the new Senate bill with the already-passed House bill IN A LAME-DUCK SESSION AFTER THE ELECTION, so House members don't have to take another tough vote ahead of midterms.

A White House aide has the official word: "President Obama reiterated his call for comprehensive energy and climate legislation to break our dependence on oil and fossil fuels. In the coming weeks he will be reaching out to Senators on both sides of the aisle to chart a path forward. A number of proposals have been put forward from Members on both sides of the aisle. We're open to good ideas from all sources, and will be working with Senators on a comprehensive proposal. The tragedy in the Gulf underscores the need to move quickly, and the President is committed to finding the votes for comprehensive energy legislation this year."

The 51st Congress (1889-91) was tagged as the Billion Dollar Congress, a profligate Republican-run legislature that raided the Treasury in an effort to pay off all its supporters. The 111th should go down in history as the Trillion Dollar Congress. An enormous energy package passed during a lame duck session would be a fitting epilogue for the Trillion Dollar Congress, which has been consistently out of step with the public mood.

The only reason to pass such a major piece of legislation during a lame duck session is because the proposal is unpopular. If Democrats could sell the bill to their constituents, they would pass it before the November elections then campaign on it. Party leaders must also expect that the political will for this bill will not exist in the 112th Congress after the voters have spoken in November. In other words, the new representatives coming in are not going to vote for it - so Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and Barack Obama had better get the representatives who were just fired to support it before they're forced into early retirement.

This strategy has the same odor that stank up the final stages of health care reform. After the voters of Massachusetts elected Scott Brown to fill Ted Kennedy's seat, the President refused to take the hint. Instead, he employed budgetary reconciliation - a technically legal legislative parlor trick that, had the shoe been on the other foot, would have provoked howls of outrage from the left and especially from our holier-than-thou President - to jam through a bill that the public had expressed sustained and significant opposition to.

For somebody who seems detached from the details of policy and largely uninterested in legislative wrangling, Barack Obama sure does come across sometimes like a political bully. But this is not bullying some obstinate backbench legislator. Instead, this is bullying the American people. With health care reform, he basically told the country that he didn't care what it thought. The fact that people opposed the bill was proof they didn't know what they were talking about. Now, apparently, the evolving strategy on energy is the same. Don't like cap-and-trade? That's your problem, not his. Plan to vote out Democrats in favor of the idea? Like he cares. He'll pass it anyway.

The President had better tread carefully here. There are political issues that divide the parties, then there are "valence" issues that cut across party lines. Bill Clinton's sexual indiscretions became a valence issue in 2000, sufficient to prompt Al Gore to nominate Joe Lieberman for the vice-presidency. It didn't matter what party you belonged to, what Clinton had done was wrong and gross. Ditto Republican chicanery with Jack Abramoff. It didn't matter what your politics were, you thought that had to stop. The Foley scandal went hand-in-glove with Abramoff. It crystalized the sense back in 2006 that there was something deeply dysfunctional about the Republican caucus.

Passing health care reform over howls of popular protest then jamming energy reform through a lame duck Congress might solidify the impression that this President is a bully who doesn't care what the people think. That would hand the Republicans a great valence issue for 2012. Nobody likes a bully, after all. And just as the Democrats worked hard to connect Abramoff and Foley to enhance the impression of a broken GOP, Republicans will try to make these connections for the voters, too.

Instead of passing unpopular bills through questionable methods over the opposition of the people, maybe the President should get behind proposals that can actually sustain popular support. There's a difference between bullying and leading, after all.

-Jay Cost

Obama Gives New Meaning to "Big Government"

Barack Obama has been compared to a lot of Presidents. Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, even George W. Bush. But no intrepid analyst has ever - so far as I know - dared to compare the 44th President to the 22nd (and 24th), Mr. Grover Cleveland.

And for good reason.

Rotund, stern, and mustachioed when the style was a full beard - the Democrat Cleveland was not well loved, but he was well liked. He won the popular vote for President three times in a row, and is the only man to serve non-continuous terms in the White House. Cleveland was a "Bourbon Democrat." He hated the business trusts and he felt that the nation's protectionist tariff policies had given rise to them. He stood for small and frugal government, lower taxes, and sound money - making him a tough fit with Barack Obama's Democratic Party.

Cleveland and Obama also had different views on the role of the President. In his brief biography of Cleveland, historian Henry Graff writes:

Once, in his first year in office, when the Chicago White Stockings were in town for a game, (Cleveland) invited the team to the White House. He took the occasion to ask Cap Anson, the player-manager: "How's my old friend 'Pud' Galvin [once the star pitcher for the Buffalo Bisons and now a Hall of Famer]? You know he and I were good friends when I was sheriff and mayor of Buffalo." But when Anson invited the president to the ballpark, Cleveland felt he had to say "no thank you." "What do you think the American people would think of me if I wasted my time going to a ball game?"

How times have changed:

President Barack Obama says the blown umpire's call that cost a young Detroit Tigers' pitcher a perfect game dramatizes the need for Major League Baseball to "take a look" at more instant replay.

Obama was asked in an NBC interview to comment on the incident involving umpire Jim Joyce and Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga. Joyce mistakenly called Cleveland's Jason Donald safe at first base on what would've been the final out. While many Tigers argued, Galarraga merely smiled at his misfortune and went back to the mound.

In the interview broadcast Tuesday, Obama said he wouldn't prejudge a review by MLB of the replay policy. And he said he thought Commissioner Bud Selig "made the right call" in not awarding a perfect game after the fact.

Oh good. I for one am glad to know what Mr. Obama thinks about instant replay in baseball. Such executive opinions are not mandated by Article II of the Constitution, but by gum they should be.

By virtue of his omnipresence, this President has given new meaning to the phrase "big government." He is everywhere. Try as you might, you cannot escape him. Mr. Obama has expanded the concept of the bully pulpit in ways we have never before seen. It is worth asking: in a country founded on the idea of limited government, is it good to have a President who appears to see no limits to what he can involve himself in?

Some of this must be political strategy. Barack Obama is the first President in American history who is primarily after the same precious 18-to-35 year olds that Madison Avenue covets. He won about 2/3rds of this age group in the 2008 election, and he needs them to vote Democrat this November. Talking sports and culture and "kicking ass" is a way to stay in touch with them. I half expect him to start driving around in a Scion xB.

But some of this must be narcissism. This is, after all, the President who got up on stage to sing "Hey Jude" with Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, and Jerry Seinfeld. There is no electoral utility to this sort of spectacle. Obama clearly enjoys the attention that comes with being a super cool Commander in Chief.

One wonders what Cleveland would have to say about this. Actually, the above anecdote gives a hint. Cleveland declined the invitation to the ball field because he worried what the public would think. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the economy was just working its way out of a three-year recession when Cleveland started his first term. Perhaps the 22nd President recognized that the American people did not hire him to make appearances at baseball games - let alone opine on what rulings the commissioner should make. He had much bigger fish to fry.

With two wars, a sagging economy, and the worst enviornmental disaster in American history unfolding in the Gulf - Mr. Obama does, too. If he is not too modest to pontificate publicly on such trivial matters, he should at least be too busy.

And anyway, Mr. Obama is a very young man. He will have years of a post-presidency to enjoy his status as a cultural icon slash pundit-at-large. But I doubt ESPN or Beatle Paul will be as interested in hanging out with him if he's a one termer. So maybe Mr. Obama should learn a lesson from old Grover Cleveland.

-Jay Cost

Obama the Polarizer

In January, 2007 Barack Obama declared his candidacy for the presidency with these words:

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

Today, Gallup reports:

(Obama's) first-year ratings were the most polarized for a president in Gallup history, with an average 65-point gap between Republicans and Democrats. Obama's approval ratings have become slightly more polarized thus far in his second year in office, with an average 69-point gap between Democrats (83%) and Republicans (14%) since late January.

This is a big deal. The first quote is the principal reason Barack Obama ran for President. At a minimum, it was his first public argument for why he thought the country should elect him, as opposed to the dozen or so other candidates who would enter the race. It remained a critically important idea throughout his candidacy. Remember, the Obama campaign was an "audacious" act of line-jumping within the Democratic Party. His justification was that the country couldn't afford to keep playing the same old political games. The hook of his candidacy was: America, do you really want to do Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton?

Yet here we are, breaking records for polarization. How did that happen? Why has Obama failed to do what he promised?

I think there are two big reasons.

First, Obama's implicit claim throughout his candidacy was that public divisiveness was somehow a failure of leadership. This was mostly nonsense. This country has been divided over cultural issues since at least 1973 and Roe v. Wade. It has been divided on fiscal issues since Reagan cut taxes in 1981; this ended the hidden tax of bracket creep, but meant that legislators had to make hard choices between more spending and lower taxes. It has been divided on foreign policy issues since the Bush Administration's response to 9/11.

These are all real things. They are not rhetorical wrinkles that a Jon Favreau speech can iron out. Obama's choices have mostly been liberal (with the notable exceptions of dealing with Iraq and Afghanistan). His speechwriters have endeavored to present his choices as win-wins, but their words have failed to persuade because the President's choices are rarely in fact win-wins. They usually favor one worldview or set of interests over others. Favor one side enough times and the losers will start to see what's going on, "eloquent" speeches aside.

Second, insofar as leadership could bridge the many divides in this country, this President has never been in a good position to exercise it. He owes too much to others. You don't win a nomination battle like the Clinton-Obama smackdown without making a bunch of promises. Remember that neither Clinton nor Obama secured enough delegates through the primaries and caucuses; Obama needed the superdelegates, chief among them being Speaker Nancy Pelosi (easily the most powerful Democrat in the country prior to the President's inauguration). There is a long line of constituent groups in the Democratic Party who certainly needed assurances about what an Obama presidency would look like. So long as reelection remains to be secured, these groups at least have to be monitored if not placated. And so, in a time of great divisiveness, the people with the closest connection to the 44th President are consistently on one side of the aisle. The left side.

This feature of the Obama presidency came through most clearly on health care. Obama talked a good game about bipartisan compromise, but at no point did I get the impression that he was willing to ditch a guy like George Miller (a far left liberal in the House) to pick up a moderate Republican like Delaware's Mike Castle. Indeed, George Miller was one of the key authors of the health care bill in the House! There's no practical way you can get George Miller and Mike Castle to work together on a comprehensive overhaul of the American health care system. They are just too far apart ideologically. So, the question is: whose vote do you value more? Obama's answer has been crystal clear in his deeds, if not his words.

Of course, presidents have to tend to their party coalitions. That's the way its been since the 1790s; John Adams did a lousy job of dealing with the arch-Federalists, and Alexander Hamilton eventually stabbed him in the back. Ever since then, the role of the President as manager of his party has been pretty straightforward. It's hard to begrudge Obama for trying to manage his party. What's more, politicians hate to assign losers, so they try to convince us that everybody's a winner. It's predictable that Obama would try his hand at this as well. Sure, he promised during the campaign that he'd talk clearly about the hard choices - but anybody who believed that, at least after he ditched public financing of his campaign for nakedly political purposes, was simply looking for a reason to vote for him.

But why won't he simply own his polarizing presidency? He made the choices he has made, and the consequences have been predictable, so he should own them. But no. As far as he's concerned, he is the bipartisan bridge builder he promised to be. It's those damned lying liars on the other side who have distorted his record!

As Matt Welch noted over at Reason, he's "working the refs."

[Obama's] message...is clear, clever, and wrong. The boom in opinionated, interconnected media is a challenge to our very democracy (it isn't). News needs to be hermetically sealed from opinion (it doesn't). The primary purpose of media consumption should be empowerment (if there was a primary purpose for media consumption, I sure as hell wouldn't trust a president to identify it). And the most dangerous purveyor of untruths is the 24/7 echo chamber...

While hypocritical (given the president's own slippery relationship with the truth) this critique is strategically clever. For those still inclined to believe it, the message reinforces Obama's fading image as a truth-telling, above-it-all academic (see the Michigan speech in particular for a bunch of we need to get beyond the tired debate about big-vs.-small-government claptrap). And for the straight-journalism types this is a soothing tongue-bath from the Sensible Centrist in Chief that reinforces their own self-pity/importance and gives them even more motivation to go after the real lying liars: The ones who noisily and hyperbolically oppose the policies of the most powerful man on earth.

I think this is dead on, and it fits into the point I'm making here. The President could acknowledge that his policies are truly divisive. He could claim that while he respects the objections of the opposition, he believes that in the long run his way of thinking will be vindicated. That would be the grown-up thing to do. That would be real leadership. Instead, he implies that if only we got rid of the right wing talk machine, the public would see that every last one of his policies has been a win-win.

Enough is enough, Mr. President. You're a polarizing leader in a polarized age. Own it.

-Jay Cost

ObamaCare is Politically Vulnerable

Liberal commentators are comparing the passage of ObamaCare to other landmark pieces of legislation - like Social Security and Medicare. I agree that in the provision of social welfare, this bill ranks nearly as high. But when you examine how the welfare is provided - it is strikingly inferior. Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson made use of an ingenious social insurance system - promoting the idea that we all pay in today to take out tomorrow. It was consistent with American individualism. It was simple. It was intuitive. It was bipartisan.

Obama's new system has none of those virtues. It's an impenetrable labyrinth of new taxes, benefits, and regulations, passed on the narrowest of possible majorities with more than 10% of the Democratic caucus joining every Republican. Even Wile E. Coyote would be embarrassed by its inefficiencies.

Still, the thought among its proponents at the moment is that the legislation, once enacted, cannot be repealed. It will have the benefit of our system's strong "status quo bias." Accordingly, expect yesterday's critics of the filibuster to become its valiant defenders should push come to shove.

The status quo bias is a very real thing, and it makes the Republican efforts to modify or repeal challenging. The GOP must control the entire government by January, 2013 to enact major changes to the legislation. By then, the thinking goes among proponents, those with a personal stake in preserving the legislation will be in place to protect it, just as seniors have been on guard against raids on Social Security.

Yet it's not that simple. The Democrats crammed a $2 trillion bill into a $1 trillion package by delaying the distribution of most benefits for four years, until 2014. This creates two major political vulnerabilities for ObamaCare.

The first is an imbalance between winners and losers through the next two elections. Harold Lasswell defined politics as who gets what, when, and how. By this metric, ObamaCare is bad politics for the foreseeable future. Like any major piece of legislation, this bill assigns winners and losers. The winners will be those who today are uninsured, but who will (eventually) acquire insurance. But there will not be a major reduction in the uninsured until 2014. So, the actual winners are going to be pretty few in number for some time.

Meanwhile, the losers begin to feel the effects immediately. Between now and the next presidential election, ObamaCare is going to pay out virtually zero dollars in benefits, but it will take billions out of Medicare. This is bad for seniors. They have an incentive to oppose portions of this bill (while supporting others, like the closing of the "Doughnut Hole," which Republicans will never repeal). While the Democrats will claim that this reduction in benefits will have no effect on the quality of their care, CBO is much less certain:

Under the legislation, CBO expects that Medicare spending would increase significantly more slowly during the next two decades than it has increased during the past decades (per beneficiary, after adjusting for inflation). It is unclear whether such a reduction in the growth rate of spending could be achieved, and if so, whether it would be accomplished through greater efficiencies in the delivery of health care or through reductions in access to care or the quality of care. (Emphasis mine)

The italicized sentence is an enormous political problem for the Democratic Party. After decades of developing a reputation for defending the interests of senior citizens, the Democrats have put it in serious jeopardy with this legislation. And they've done so right at the moment when demographic shifts are making the senior population more powerful than ever.

Why create such an imbalance between winners and losers? The Democrats are not fools. Why would they do this?

The answer is pretty simple: to hide the true cost of the bill. They don't want to push a $2 trillion program now because this country is facing the greatest deficit crisis it's seen in decades - and such a price tag does not make for good politics these days.

These budgetary gimmicks enabled them to pass the bill, winning over enough self-described "deficit hawks" in the Blue Dog wing of the party to limp to 219 in the House last night. Yet their smoke and mirrors can only mask, not alter the reality, which is this: at a time when the country is facing an enormous deficit problem, the Democrats have created another significant financial obligation for Uncle Sam. This is the second major political vulnerability of ObamaCare.

It's easy to forget these days, seeing as how we've been on a 15-year break from the politics of deficit reduction, just how brutal it tends to be. If you want to know why the parties have become so polarized in the last 30 years, the deficit is a big part of the answer. When Reagan indexed the tax code and stopped runaway inflation, governmental bean counters couldn't depend on bracket creep to solve future imbalances between taxes and spending - and so the lines between the two parties were drawn starkly and clearly.

Deficit reducers always have to choose between two undesirable alternatives: cut spending or raise taxes. The problem with both tactics is that somebody loses while nobody really wins. The benefits of a reduced deficit are diffused across the population and are but weakly felt. Tax increases or spending cuts are felt directly and intensely. Typically, to balance the budget, somebody has to be made worse off tomorrow than they are today.

But not when it comes to ObamaCare, at least not prior to 2014. The benefits could be altered to ease the deficit burden without making anybody worse off tomorrow than they are today. Of course, the beneficiaries of the subsidies would not be as well off tomorrow as they expect to be, but that's different from being made worse off. That could be an important distinction if the politics of deficit reduction are as fiercely zero-sum as they have been in decades past. If it comes down to a choice between a new tax on the middle class or scaling back the unimplemented provisions of ObamaCare, guess what the policymakers in Washington, D.C. will choose.

We're definitely heading toward some kind of hard choice about the deficit. If we weren't, the Democrats wouldn't have employed all those gimmicks to claim that the bill costs less than $1 trillion. They know people are worried about this issue.

Last week, President Obama said again and again that the time for talk is over. Yet this week he's going on the road to defend his new bill. This is why. ObamaCare is politically vulnerable. It lacks the bipartisan support that created and protected new entitlements in decades past. The public does not have confidence in it. Worst of all, it creates an imbalance between winners and losers for four years, and it amounts to a staggeringly expensive new entitlement at a time when the country has to think hard about how to trim its sails.

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-Jay Cost

The Return of ObamaCare, Part II: The Political Context

In the last essay, I argued that the legislative process is going to complicate the passage of Obama's health care reform proposal. Just how complicated it will be is too early to say.

The politics are at least as complicated, if not more so. The biggest trouble will be in the House, not in the Senate. Consider:

-The vote on final passage of the Affordable Health Care for America Act was 220 to 215, with 38 Democrats voting with Republicans.

-John Murtha has since passed away.

-Robert Wexler has since resigned, and Florida's 19th Congressional District will not elect a replacement until early April.

-Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii's 1st Congressional District will resign at the end of this month. The special election to replace him will be held May 22. Thanks to the peculiar election rules, Republicans actually stand a chance of replacing him.

-Reports indicate that Joseph Cao, the sole Republican to support the reform efforts in November, will not do so this time around.

-That puts the number at 216-216, which is insufficient for passage.

Additionally, striking the Stupak abortion language from the bill will satisfy the left flank of the House caucus, but it will scare off pro-life Democrats who voted with the Speaker in November. There are 15 Democrats who voted for the Stupak amendment and for final passage with a lifetime National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) score of 70% or higher. 6 have a score higher than 90%.

For any votes held between the time that Abercrombie resigns and Wexler's replacement is seated, the Speaker will need to flip at least one Democratic vote to get the bill to pass. Factor in the Stupak Democrats, and the real number is probably between 5 and 20. That is, she'll have to convince between 5 and 20 Democratic House members who voted nay in November to vote yea this time around.

Next question: who are these House Democrats that voted nay in November? Here are some relevant details on them:

-Obama's median share of the presidential vote in their districts was just 45%.

-22 of them voted in favor of the Stupak amendment. 12 have lifetime NRLC scores greater than 70%.

-13 are freshmen members. 24 are Blue Dogs. 3 have stated plans to retire.

-On four divisive roll calls this year - cap-and-trade, financial reform, raising the debt limit, and the jobs bill - 34 voted against the leadership at least once; 21 at least twice; 12 at least three times.

-Update, 1:30 PM. Charlie Cook rates 31 of these 38 seats as competitive. 2 are likely Republican; 9 are toss-up; 9 are lean Democratic; 11 are likely democratic.

Nothing conveys a political problem quite like a map. Here is how their districts are distributed geographically.

District Location of Nay Voters - Google Maps.jpg

Put simply, these will be some tough nuts to crack.

It's important to note that whatever changes the reconciliation bill ultimately embodies are not really being done for the sake of these 38 members. They are instead meant to bring on board the House liberals. So, getting 50 votes in the Senate for a reconciliation bill is not directly related to securing any of these 38 defectors.

It's far too early to put any probability numbers on anything occurring. Instead, I think it's more worthwhile to highlight some salient political themes. There are a few that help the Democrats in their efforts to flip some of these members, and a few that hurt them.

Themes That Help

1. Pocket Votes? Among scholars of Congress, relatively few think that legislative parties operate primarily by influencing their members directly on roll call votes. That's not to say that the parties in the House are powerless. The most compelling work on party power in recent years has suggested that the party organizations are set up as agenda-setting cartels, making sure that items that would split the majority in half do not get brought for a vote on the House floor. Simply put, the leadership's job is to make sure that the floor vote always goes with a "majority of the majority."

Still, there has been research suggesting that "pocket votes" are indeed an important factor at the margins. An example of such a pocket vote, or option, is offered by David King and Richard Zeckhauser of Harvard in Legislative Studies Quarterly.

Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky (D-PA)...cast the deciding vote on President Clinton's 1993 budget-reconciliation bill. As the last legislator to vote on August 5, 1993, the outcome was hers to determine, and most observers expected a "no" vote. Margolies-Mezvinsky voted "yes" instead. Congressional Quarterly tells the story: "She had pledged during her campaign and even the day before the vote that she would vote against a bill that increased taxes. But Democratic leaders extracted a private promise from her to support the deficit-reduction package if her vote proved necessary to pass it" (CQ Almanac 1993, C39). This was a classic "if you need me" pledge, which we shall label an "option." Although it was widely predicted that the tax package would be handily defeated, President Clinton and House leaders got matters close enough that calling in the option on Margolies- Mezvinsky's vote was worthwhile; the bill triumphed by a single vote.

How many such "options" does Nancy Pelosi have among these 38 nay voters? That's the big question, and it is impossible to pin down a precise answer. However, it's important to note that the Stupak amendment is precisely the kind of bill that the party leadership does not allow onto the floor - it passed, but with a majority of the majority voting against it. That Pelosi allowed this to happen suggests that she needed the Stupak voters, which in turn suggests that they are (or at least, were) more numerous than however many pocket votes she had.

I would suggest, then, that Pelosi's pocket votes are probably not enough to get the bill to passage absent the Stupak language. Still, her pocket votes could cut down on the number of Democrats she has to flip. In particular, I'd look at the announced three retirees who voted against the bill in November - Brian Baird of Washington, and Bart Gordon and John Tanner of Tennessee - as the most likely pocket votes for the Speaker.

2. Lieberman Over Waxman. The Senate bill will inevitably form the bulk of the final product. Now that Scott Brown is the junior senator from Massachusetts, the Democrats can only hope to make modest changes to it. This means that the nominal price tag - as assigned by CBO - should be lower than what the House passed. It also means that the public option is gone. Lefty number crunchers want us to believe that this is in fact a bad thing for moderate Democrats because the public option is the biggest hit since Saturday Night Fever - but the data buttressing this argument lacks external validity. Oh sure, have the pollsters at ABC News/WaPo define the public option for people, and it does pretty well. But these moderate members didn't get to Congress by relying on the ABC News/WaPo poll. They know better than that. They understand that a public option opens the door for a full-blown GOP campaign about a "government takeover of health care." Take another look at that map, and ask yourself if the moderates who are scared of the public option are acting as irrationally as the polls and their diviners on the left have suggested. No way. The reality is that the public option is a political nightmare for many of these members - and it's a blessing for them that it has been removed.

So, having a bill whose guts are more like the Senate bill, i.e. more moderate, might make it easier to flip a few of these members.

Themes That Hurt

1. Reconciliation. In the last column, I identified myself as a procedural Hobbesian. I don't think "right" and "wrong" enter into considerations on procedural matters. That does not mean, however, that reconciliation is not going to give the GOP another political angle. It is. Scott Brown's office offers a sneak peak (h/t NRO's Critical Condition):

"If the Democrats try to ram their health-care bill through Congress using reconciliation, they are sending a dangerous signal to the American people that they will stop at nothing to raise our taxes, increase premiums and slash Medicare...Using the nuclear option damages the concept of representative leadership and represents more of the politics-as-usual that voters have repeatedly rejected."

The Democrats will push back, but (again) look at that map and consider the audience. Is the GOP argument going to have traction in these districts? I'd say yes.

2. Who Goes First? Somebody has to. Either the Senate passes the reconciliation fix first or the House passes the Senate bill first. House liberals will want the Senate to act first. They do not want to pass the Senate bill, then have the GOP use the Byrd rule to gut the major compromises in the reconciliation bill. That would be as bad as passing the original Senate bill all by itself, which they just cannot do.

Unfortunately for them, a key Senate Democrat is suggesting that the House has to go first.

(Kent) Conrad (Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee) threw some doubt Wednesday on the plan that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been pushing, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has indicated he could accept -- to pass the sidecar reconciliation bill with the fixes before the House takes up the Senate bill, as a way to mollify House members who strongly oppose the more conservative Senate measure.

Conrad, who has been open to reconciliation as long as the fixes are limited, said the order must be reversed. The House must pass the Senate bill first -- before either chamber considers the reconciliation package, he said.

"I don't know of any way, I don't know of any way where you can have a reconciliation bill pass before the bill that it is meant to reconcile passes," said Conrad, who would be a central figure on the Senate floor if Democrats embark on the complicated process. "I don't know how you would deal with the scoring. I don't know how I could look you in the eye and say this package reduces the deficit. It's kind of got the cart before the horse."

The rules of the reconciliation procedure indicate that when multiple committees report bills for reconciliation, they all go to the Senate Budget Committee, and thus to Conrad. His opinion matters.

3. Declining Support. In November, CNN had net support for the bill at -3. Now, it is at -20. If you're a Senate Democrat who isn't up for reelection until 2012 or 2014, this is not a huge concern. But if you're a House Democrat, you have to stand before the voters in less than nine months. This is a major problem.

Similarly, President Obama's net job approval was +7.7 in the RCP average on the day the health care bill passed the House. Today it is at +1.6. You can imagine where it is in those 38 districts.

4. It's a Scott Brown World. We're Just Living In It. The Democrats might be able to sidestep the legislative effect that Scott Brown's election has had - but what about the political effect? A heretofore unheard of Republican state senator won a Senate seat in Massachusetts by explicitly running against this bill. Politically speaking, this was a major event. It raises an important question: if the GOP can win in Massachusetts by running against ObamaCare, where can't it win? Toss in some other big-ticket political events - Evan Bayh's resignation, Byron Dorgan's resignation, and Charlie Cook now suggesting that a GOP takeover of the House could very well happen - and there is a growing sense among House Democrats that this is going to be a tough election year. Not a good political context for a nay-to-yea flip-flop.

5. "We got something done..." Or "I stood up to my own party..."? Suppose you are one of those 38 nay voters, and you flip your vote. What's your argument to your constituents? It would probably be something like this: "Obviously, this bill was not my ideal - that's why I voted nay in November. But it was so important that we Democrats get something done, that we proved we were capable of governing - that I had no choice but to change my vote." Granted that could be an effective argument for reelection in Manhattan or San Francisco - but these 38 Democrats don't come from there. They hail from Alabama, North Carolina, Tennessee, and so on. Big difference.

Politically speaking, they would be much better off voting against the bill again, going back to their constituents, and saying something like this: "You voted for me because I promised to be an independent voice in Washington, D.C. That's exactly what I have been. The leadership and the President pushed me hard to change my vote, but I know how strongly opposed you are to this bill - and so I resisted them."

Final Thoughts

I've been thinking hard about this subject for a couple days. I tried my best to come up with as many political pro's and con's for passing the health care bill - and you can see that the final count is 5-2, con.

Again, I'm not willing to put odds on anything, but this should make clear that there are major political hurdles left to jump, even if they can get a reconciliation bill through the Senate. Ultimately, the best news for reform advocates is that they only need maybe 15% to 50% of these previous defectors to come on board. In other words, most of them can continue to defy the President, and the bill can still pass.

Still, it will be no little feat to get any of those who voted against the bill in the fall to support it in the spring. A lot of the political problems have to do with the decaying political environment Democrats face. House members are inherently more sensitive to politics. This is as it was designed to be all the way back in 1787. Forcing Representatives to stand for reelection every two years makes them more responsive to the desires of their constituents, i.e. to politics. It's one thing to pass a bill through the House in November, 2009. It's another thing entirely to try it in April, 2010.

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-Jay Cost

The Return of ObamaCare, Part 1: The Legislative Context

With the Lazarus-like return of ObamaCare, liberal pundits are again touting budget reconciliation as a viable way forward. Blogger Ezra Klein offers an over-simple description of the process.

This is actually the sort of situation reconciliation was designed to address... Budget reconciliation is called "reconciliation" because it's supposed to speed the, well, reconciliation of the differences between two budget bills. That's exactly what's left to do with the health-care reform bills, which were indeed part of the 2010 budget and whose passage is expected in the 2011 budget.

It's more complicated than this, and in important ways. Here's some background on budget reconciliation.

It's a product of the 1974 Budget Act, which in turn was a product of presidential-congressional battles over fiscal responsibility. President Nixon had impounded funds to protest congressional profligacy. The courts ruled against him, but the court of public opinion ruled in favor of him. So, Congress reformed its ways by doing only what Congress can: adding another layer of complications to an already too-complicated process.

It goes like this. Early in the year, Congress passes a budget resolution that sets revenue and spending targets that instructed committees are supposed to meet. The House and Senate Budget Committees can then compile the committee-drafted products into a reconciliation bill. Reconciliation is optional, though in recent years it has become pretty regular.

Reconciliation bills have a privileged status on the Senate floor. There is no debate on whether to begin consideration of a reconciliation bill. Proposed amendments must be germane to the bill. Debate on the bill and any amendments to it is limited to 20 hours. If you've ever heard the phrase "vote-a-rama," this is where it comes from: when the time limit for debate on a reconciliation bill has been reached, remaining amendments are voted on in quick succession.

All of this is designed to facilitate Congress in making a budget plan, then actually sticking to it. Of course, determined congressional majorities, especially when given clear guidance by a determined President, have used reconciliations rules for purposes beyond the original intent. The first notable event in this history occurred in 1981 when President Reagan and the GOP Senate majority used it to cut spending and taxes by a significant amount. As legislative expert Walter Oleszek has written, "Never before had reconciliation been employed on such a grand scale."

Liberals like Klein will suggest that this justifies, in some ethical sense, the use that Harry Reid is now apparently planning for budget reconciliation. Conservatives will use words like "jam" and "ram" and phrases like "the nuclear option" to argue that there is no such justification.

When it comes to legislative procedure, I am a strict Hobbesian. There is what a Senate majority can do, and what it can't do. "Appropriate" or "inappropriate" are not applicable phrases. Congress is sovereign over its own procedures, which are the product of self-interested members working to secure reelection and/or policy goals. Morality doesn't enter into it. (See the note at the bottom of this post for another thought on this topic.)

I'll go a step further to suggest that people with strong policy preferences should rarely be listened to in a debate about appropriate procedure. People who care intensely about the final vote tally often don't care how the votes are counted, so long as they get their preferred outcome. This is why there was no hue and cry coming from most of these born-again majoritarians on the left when the Democrats were looking to filibuster judicial nominees in 2005. It is easy to find numerous examples of conservative hypocrisy on this subject, too.

The better question, then, is whether the Democrats can use reconciliation to get their health care bill through the Senate.

Can they?

Absent a filibuster-proof majority, the Democrats still have a handful of legislative options to pass the bill. They can:

(a) Negotiate with Scott Brown, Susan Collins, and/or Olympia Snowe to find a 60th vote.

(b) Prevail upon the House to agree to the Senate bill without amendment.

(c) Prevail upon the House to pass the original Senate bill, with both chambers passing a reconciliation bill resolving inter-chamber differences.

Let's think about each of these options.

Many liberals suggest that (a) is off the table because Olympia Snowe has magically become indistinguishable from Jim DeMint. I think this is a facile and self-serving argument, designed to pin the blame on polarization exclusively on increased conservatism on the GOP side. No doubt the GOP has moved rightward, but the Democratic Party has also moved leftward - so far to the left, in fact, that a true moderate like Olympia Snowe cannot cooperate with them. And, I hasten to add, ditto 38 House Democrats who defected from the party line in November. Are they part and parcel of Republican extremism?

The fact that (b) is off the table is a signal that the public is not wrong to dislike the proposal as broadly as it apparently does. From what I have gathered from media reports, House liberals are willing to sign on to the Senate bill only if their favored interest groups - labor unions - get special exemptions.

So, the preferred strategy is (c). Ezra Klein wants you to think that this is in keeping with the grandest traditions of the government's estimable budget process (stop laughing!), but that's a stretch. The "original intent" of reconciliation was to help Congress stick to its outlined budget plan, not to aid majorities in resolving inter-chamber differences on divisive, comprehensive reform of 1/6th of the United States economy.

Again, this is not to argue that the Democratic leaders are acting unethically here. The point is that, legislatively speaking, they are looking to put a square peg through a round hole.

Can they? Maybe, but it could be difficult.

I don't know how difficult it will be, and I'll suggest that in fact nobody really knows just yet. For starters, the ease or difficulty will depend on what the compromise between House and Senate Democrats actually entails, including what the House absolutely, positively must get for it to be willing to pass the Senate bill. Nobody yet knows the contents of said compromise because it hasn't been reached yet.

Assuming there is some compromise, the success or failure of the process in the Senate will come down to a simple question: how well can the Republicans use the "Byrd rule?"

The Byrd rule, named after Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV), was implemented in the 1980s because the Senate had used reconciliation to pass items that were not related to the budget. In other words, Senators were getting around the filibuster, that ancient device which is either the final protection against an extreme majority or the last recourse of a discredited minority (depending upon which side one finds oneself!). The Byrd rule puts limits on what reconciliation can be used for. Extraneous provisions are stricken from reconciliation bills, and have to be passed through the typical procedure. Here are several relevant definitions of "extraneous" (quoting a report from the Congressional Research Service by Robert Keith and Bill Heniff, Jr.):

A provision is considered to be extraneous if it fails under one or more of the following six definitions:
(1) It does not produce a change in outlays or revenues...

(4) It produces a change in outlays or revenues which is merely incidental to the non-budgetary components of the provision.

(5) It would increase the deficit for a fiscal year beyond those covered by the reconciliation measure...

This suggests why smart Democrats never seriously discussed using reconciliation to pass an entire health care bill. If a provision does not alter spending or tax revenues, does so only "incidentally" (an unimportantly ambiguous word!), or adds to the deficit - it can be stricken.

The Byrd rule will set the parameters of the legislative battle, should the Democrats take this path. In that case, the Democrats will write a reconciliation bill that resolves the differences between the two chambers and, so they hope, does not include extraneous measures, as defined by the Byrd rule. The Republicans will test how well the Democrats have drafted their legislation - raising points of order in the hopes of striking provisions that they argue are extraneous.

Remember, this reconciliation bill is serving as the substitute for the amendment that would have resolved House/Senate differences had Scott Brown lost to Martha Coakley. The House needs the reconciliation bill to fix certain problems in the Senate bill, or else it will fail in the lower chamber. Mitch McConnell's goal will be to use the Byrd rule to blow a hole through the House/Senate compromise that the reconciliation bill embodies - thus creating a final product that the House cannot pass.

It's hard for me to compare this reconciliation attempt with previous ones because I am not an expert on the budget process, but I can say this. This strategy comes across as ironic when one reads the Audacity of Hope. In it, one finds then-Senator Obama preening about the horrors of Bush 43 legislative strong-arming and the assault on minority rights. Typical politicians tend to be hypocrites when it comes to the legislative process. Yet it is appropriate to hold the President to a higher standard, especially one who spent two years on the campaign trail hawking his moral superiority as a sure-fire tonic that can cure partisan division. His explanations for the lack of bipartisanship in his first 13 months are noteworthy examples of presidential sophistry. If history is any guide, expect the 44th President to earnestly explain that he really, really wanted to be bipartisan on health care - but sadly he could not find a single Republican in the United States Senate willing to negotiate in good faith. That's what this summit is all about, isn't it?

Budget reconciliation is a risky legislative strategy with much uncertainty. The Democrats are looking to use decades-old rules to do something the rule makers never envisioned. I don't know whether they can succeed - and I don't think anybody does yet, either.

As difficult as the legislative path is, the political path is much harder for Democrats. We'll discuss the politics tomorrow.

***Note***
While I don't think right versus wrong properly enter into considerations of reconciliation, I have noticed one particularly ridiculous moral argument in favor of reconciliation making the rounds. We are told that it promotes the ideal of a simple majority, which most people believe is normatively appropriate. Indeed, that is the common opinion - but the Senate is not a majoritarian institution! You could have a super-majority of 82 senators whose constituents still don't amount to a majority of the United States population. So, what is the normative value of half-plus-one votes in an institution where votes are not pegged on population?

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-Jay Cost

Remembering President Washington

Today is President's Day, which is also the day we celebrate the birth of George Washington. It's appropriate, on this day, to make note of the important contributions he made to founding this great nation.

His military heroism and skill is well known, so also is his establishing many beneficial precedents that survive to this day. What is less commented upon, however, is Washington's strong nationalism, and his work to bring about the United States as it is known today.

Washington had experienced firsthand the ineptness of confederated government during the American Revolution, most notably in its inability to pay soldiers in a regular and fair way. After the war, he retired to Mount Vernon, but stayed interested in politics. He was greatly concerned about the nation's disarray. The Confederation was unable to attend to basic governmental matters - and it appeared to Washington that things were spiraling out of control. In 1785, he wrote the following to James Warren, former Paymaster General of the Continental Army:

Illiberality, Jealousy, and local policy mix too much in all our public councils for the good government of the Union. In a word, the confederation appears to me to be little more than a shadow without the substance; and Congress a nugatory body, their ordinances being little attended to...

That we have it in our power to become one of the most respectable Nations upon Earth, admits, in my humble opinion, of no doubt; if we would but pursue a wise, just, and liberal policy towards one another, and would keep good faith with the rest of the World: that our resources are ample and encreasing, none can deny; but while they are grudgingly applyed, or not applyed at all, we give a vital stab to public faith, and shall sink, in the eyes of Europe, into contempt.

Not content to sit on the sidelines, Washington was one of the key nationalists who worked behind the scenes - with men like John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison - to bring about the Constitutional Convention. In fact, one of the first preparatory meetings in advance of the Convention was held at Washington's estate in 1785. The so-called Mount Vernon Conference was a good first step in fostering good interstate relations independent of the measly Articles of Confederation. Because of its success, nationalists like James Madison sought to extend this basic idea, ultimately resulting in the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia two years later.

Washington did more than this, though. He lent his nationwide credibility to the Convention by agreeing to be its President. This was an extraordinary gesture. It's easy for us to think nowadays that the Constitutional debate was fought over abstract principles and the highest notions of the public good - but, like everything else in America, politics mattered a great deal. That George Washington was willing to lend his good name to the Convention was a truly selfless act of statesmanship. His signature on the final document - the first of 39 - might very well have made the difference in the Virginia ratifying convention, where the Constitution passed by a hair's breadth. Surely, if Washington had refused to support the Constitution, it would have failed.

This country has had many heroic war time leaders, and she has almost always honored them with her never-ending gratitude, respect, and trust. The fact that George Washington would use that this adoration not to his own benefit, but to help bind the thirteen diverse states into a single Union testifies to the greatness of the nation's First President. Through the Revolutionary War, the tumultuous years of the Confederation, and the early years of the Republic - George Washington is rightly remembered as the father of his country.

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-Jay Cost

The Blair House Stunt

The bipartisan health care summit is either:

(a) An honest endeavor to build a bipartisan coalition in support of health care reform.

(b) A political stunt intended to win the White House a news cycle or two.

My instant reaction when I heard about the meeting was that it is a stunt, that the White House felt that they had "won" the battle with the GOP at the House Republican retreat, and so why not do a sequel? The public loves sequels! Transformers 2, The Dark Knight, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, Led Zeppelin II, and so on. Plus, it's not as if an obvious legislative strategy for passing health care has presented itself. As Hollywood has clearly demonstrated, the sequel is the best way to grab attention when you're genuinely out of good ideas!

There are three notable facts about this meeting at Blair House that indicate that it's a stunt:

(1) It's televised. The White House was dinged by the press corps for breaking the campaign promise of televising every meeting on C-SPAN, but the reason the White House broke that promise was because it was a stupid one that had to be broken. C'mon - you can't get stuff done when the cameras are rolling! The cameras completely alter the incentive structures for the attendees. Thanks to the cameras, the participants won't be worried about finding common ground on a bill, or debating the merits of this idea or that idea. Instead, they'll be thinking about their constituents back home, or undecided voters across the country who may swing in November, or whomever. They transform from legislators hammering out a deal to politicians preening for the "benefit" of the voters. Televising these proceedings means that we'll get little more than recitation of talking points, which is what we see every Sunday on the news shows. "Meet the Republicans. With your host, Barack Obama."

(2) The invitation was extended to the party leaders. Just as strong an indication that this is a stunt. If I were a Democrat looking to build a bipartisan coalition, there are about 15 or so Senate Republicans I'd look to before Mitch McConnell. In fact, the whole idea of bipartisanship - at least on a controversial issue like health care reform - is one where the President should not be looking to win over a majority of the opposition. I do not think there is any comprehensive health care reform bill that President Obama could sign and Mitch McConnell could vote for. So why is he coming the meeting? A truly bipartisan legislative strategy would be one where you separate the moderates like Olympia Snowe from the party leadership. So, it's a less-than-great idea to invite the leadership to the bipartisanship meeting! Unless, of course, your goal is to make yourself look good and the congressional GOP leadership look bad. In that case, you'd want McConnell there.

(3) It's in February, 2010. This is just nine months from a midterm election where the GOP is expected to do well. Why in the world would the Republican leadership want to risk that by helping the President bail out his massively unpopular health care reform initiative? The time for bipartisanship was last year, and (as I noted in a previous article) the legislative scope where bipartisanship is possible is much smaller than comprehensive reform of 1/6th of the United States economy. No matter how nice Blair House is, it won't be enough to get Eric Cantor and Barack Obama to agree on such a sweeping legislative program.

This is a PR stunt from a West Wing staff whose major experience prior to entering the White House was the electoral campaign, which is really just an accumulation of PR stunts. They're going with what they know. The White House believes that the President bested the congressional Republicans at the retreat, and they want to try the same thing again.

I think the White House did best the GOP at the retreat, that Obama did get some nice press, and that the Republicans were made to look weaker. So, from a certain perspective, I understand the logic here. But, from another perspective, it is mind-numbingly ridiculous. What is the ultimate purpose of this? Memo to the West Wing: your guy is the President now. It doesn't matter whether he can out-debate the congressional GOP. He gets the credit or the blame for policy output. That is all that matters. This Blair House meeting is just noise that Politico, The Hill and Roll Call will write about for a few days - and that's all it is. This President will be judged on whether the government under his tenure has solved problems, not whether he can out-talk the congressional GOP in some silly debate. In a word, it's not about campaigning - it's about governing.

You'd think that they would have figured that out by now!

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-Jay Cost

America is Not Ungovernable

Recently, some analysts have suggested that the lack of major policy breakthroughs in the last year is due to the fact that America has become ungovernable. Ezra Klein argued that it was time to reform the filibuster because the government cannot function with it intact anymore. Tom Friedman suggested that America's "political instability" was making people abroad nervous. And Michael Cohen of Newsweek blamed "obstructionist Republicans," "spineless Democrats," and an "incoherent public" for the problem.

Nonsense. America is not ungovernable. Her President has simply not been up to the job.

Let's acknowledge that governing the United States of America is an extremely difficult task. Intentionally so. When designing our system, the Founders were faced with a dilemma. How to empower a vigorous government without endangering liberty or true republicanism? On the one hand, George III's government was effective at satisfying the will of the sovereign, but that will had become tyrannical. On the other hand, the Articles of Confederation acknowledged the rights of the states, but so much so that the federal government was incapable of solving basic problems.

The solution the country ultimately settled on had five important features: checks and balances so that the branches would police one another; a large republic so that majority sentiment was fleeting and not intensely felt; a Senate where the states would be equal; enumerated congressional powers to limit the scope of governmental authority; and the Bill of Rights to offer extra protection against the government.

The end result was a government that is powerful, but not infinitely so. Additionally, it is schizophrenic. It can do great things when it is of a single mind - but quite often it is not of one mind. So, to govern, our leaders need to build a broad consensus. When there is no such consensus, the most likely outcome is that the government will do nothing.

The President's two major initiatives - cap-and-trade and health care - have failed because there was not a broad consensus to enact them. Our system is heavily biased against such proposals. That's a good thing.

It's not accurate to blame this on the Republicans. From Arlen Specter's defection to Scott Brown's swearing in, Democrats had total control over the policy-making process. The only recourse the Republicans had was the First Amendment. They used it well, but don't let it be said that the President lacked access to it. Given Mr. Obama's bully pulpit and his omnipresence on the national stage, his voice has been louder than anybody's. If Mr. Obama has lost the public debate to the beleaguered rump that is the congressional GOP, he has nobody to blame but himself.

It's not accurate to blame this on "spineless Democrats," i.e. rank-and-file legislators who balked at the various solutions offered by Mr. Obama. Moderate Democrats might have defected because they were worried about their jobs - but the point of popular elections is to link the personal interests of legislators with the interests of their constituents. It often fails to work - but in a situation where "spineless Democrats" clearly voted with their districts, it seems to have been working pretty well. One might argue that they should have shown some leadership - voted for unpopular bills because they were good for the country. But ask those thirty to forty House Democratic defectors on the health care, cap-and-trade, and jobs bills whether they thought the bills were good for the country, and you'll hear a different answer than the one Newsweek is quick to give.

It's not accurate to blame this on the people. This country is most certainly divided, but not deeply so. Consider, for instance, the enormous goodwill that greeted Mr. Obama upon his inauguration. It is not tenable to suggest that there was no way to turn that into a broad consensus for policy solutions.

The responsibility for the government's failure in the last year rests with President Obama. Two significant blunders stand out.

First, President Obama has installed Nancy Pelosi as de facto Prime Minister - giving her leave to dominate not only the House, but also the entire domestic policy agenda. The indefatigable Speaker Pelosi has taken advantage of the President's laissez-faire attitude by governing from the left.

That's not to say that the left has been happy with the domestic proposals that have come up for a vote. Instead, the point is that policy has consistently been built from the left - thanks in no small part to the very liberal chairs of key committees - with compromises made to win just enough centrist votes to get passage. On the jobs bill, the health care bill, and the cap-and-trade bill, the Democrats won only narrow victories due to mass defections on their own side. Almost all of these defections were from the center. Faced with a choice between losing a moderate or a liberal, the Speaker has consistently chosen to sacrifice the moderate.

It's easy to blame the Senate for inactivity - but the problem is the House. It has consistently passed legislation that is too far to the left for the Senate and the country. Ultimate responsibility rests with the President, whose expressed indifference toward policy details has allowed the more vigorous House Democrats, led by an extraordinarily vigorous Speaker, to dominate. That the President consistently praised the House and blamed the Senate in his State of the Union address suggests that he remains unaware of this problem.

The President's second major failing has been his stubborn insistence on comprehensive reforms. Perhaps this is due to his inexperience in the federal lawmaking process, or his extraordinary vanity, or both. Still, this has been a grave mistake. If the truly great Henry Clay could not pass the Compromise of 1850 through the Congress in a single package, what made Barack Obama think he could sign comprehensive energy and health care reforms?

President Obama's desire for comprehensive legislation seriously damaged the chances for bipartisanship, given his decision to let Nancy Pelosi and her allies write the bills. Republican "extremism" is an easy rhetorical foil - but when we're talking about Mike Castle and Olympia Snowe voting against the President, it fails to explain the full story. Bipartisanship implies legislators with different world views working together. The larger a bill's scope, the more likely it favors one worldview over another, and the less likely it will attract bipartisan support. With an extremely liberal Speaker and a supporting cast of left wing committee chairs running the process, comprehensive legislation was bound to favor heavily the liberal worldview. Even the most moderate of Republicans would always have trouble with that. In fact, thirty to forty House Democrats have defected on the President's key items, meaning that the bipartisan position has been opposition to President Obama. This has made it difficult for a centrist public to support reforms. With very limited information on specifics, the public took unanimous Republican and substantial moderate Democratic opposition as cues about the merits of the bills. Public opposition is what ultimately ended the Democratic supermajority - in Massachusetts, of all places.

Both of these failures get back to the idea that this country can only be led effectively when there is a broad coalition supporting her leaders. That requires those leaders to have a breadth of vision that this President has so far lacked. He has allowed a very liberal Speaker to lead the House too far to the left, and he has demanded comprehensive reforms that were destined to alienate a significant portion of the country.

He has been narrow, not broad. He has been partial, not post-partisan. He has been ideological, not pragmatic. No number of "eloquent" speeches can alter these facts. This is why his major initiatives have failed, why his net job approval has dropped 50 points in 12 months, and why he is substantially weaker now than he was a year ago.

This strategy might have made sense if the country was really in the midst of a "liberal moment." But it is not. While the President won a decisive victory in 2008, his congressional majority in both chambers depends entirely upon members whose constituents voted for John McCain. In fact, the President's election 16 months ago was one of the most polarizing in recent history. This remains a divided country, which creates complications in a system such as ours. The President should have recognized this, and governed with a view to building a broad coalition. But he has not.

America is not ungovernable. Barack Obama has so far failed to govern it.

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-Jay Cost

Understanding President Obama's Partisanship

As I wrote last week, a political party is an extra-governmental conspiracy to control the government. Partisans coordinate their efforts across branches to centralize power in a system that otherwise disperses it far and wide.

Partisanship is simply partiality to one conspiracy over another. It's a bias or an inclination. Partisans are more receptive to arguments from their own side than those proffered by the opposition. They are more apt to notice the malfeasances of those on the other side, while often ignoring the sins on their own side. They're willing to give their side credit, but are stingy when it comes to praising the other side. And so on.

For as much as partisan Democrats and Republicans disagree on policy - their views of the political process are often mirror images of one another. This is especially true when it comes to attitudes about the public discourse.

The public discourse is simply the national political conversation. Dominated by the two parties, it consists of partisan arguers who make partisan arguments. Partisan Democrats and Republicans often hold exactly opposite views on both. Let's examine each in turn.

First, regarding the arguers, what motivates them to be partisan?

There are two basic motivations. The first is a commitment to the party's public policy goals. This is the belief that one's own side has correct solutions to public problems, and the opposition has wrong ones. The other motivation is not as noble. To get people to sacrifice private profit, society has made work in representative government prestigious. This breeds private reasons for partisanship - something to the effect of, "I want to keep my awesome job. Those guys are trying to take it from me. So, to hell with them!"

It's fair to say that public and private interests have motivated officials on both sides in roughly equal measure. Yet Republicans and Democrats often act as though their side is vastly superior to the other. Republicans often see their members as representing their views fairly and accurately, but Democrats accuse Republicans of being pawns of the business interests. Democrats see their members as public-spirited; Republicans paint them as the tools of the labor unions.

Second, what kind of arguments are the partisans making?

Arguments can be rationally developed in an attempt to persuade a thoughtful public. On the other hand, they can make recourse to propaganda - one-sided, tendentious appeals, often to the passions rather than reason.

Reason and propaganda have comingled throughout the history of the American political debate. For instance, Federalist #10 is James Madison's reasoned disquisition on the value of a large republic. But in Federalists #6, 7, and 8 Alexander Hamilton sets the gold standard for partisan fear-mongering - warning that if the states do not unite under the Constitution, war will be followed by plunder, permanent armies, and even monarchy. Partisan discourse today often follows the example set by the Federalist Papers: a mix of cool rationality with heated propaganda as partisans try to persuade an undecided, uninformed, and indifferent public.

Yet here again, Democrats and Republicans often have exactly opposite views of who is using what type of argument. Partisan Republicans are inclined to dismiss Democratic assertions as the product of faulty data, specious reasoning, and an appeal to some set of base emotions. Meanwhile, they view their own arguments as derived from self-evident principles and grounded in the finest traditions of American history. Partisan Democrats, of course, see themselves as the keepers of the American faith, and the Republicans as the purveyors of propaganda.

So, on both fronts - arguers and arguments - I would suggest that partisans have exactly opposite views. This enables us to generalize the partisan view of the public discourse into a simple chart:

Partisan View of the Public Discourse.jpg

Importantly, not all Republicans are "partisan Republicans" in this sense, nor are all Democrats "partisan Democrats." One can, at least in theory, hold Republican policy preferences without having these views about the two sides. Ditto if one is a Democrat. In practice, I think it is more accurate to say that at least some partisan bias is inevitable for those who pay close attention to or participate in politics, and that some subscribe less fully to the partisan worldview than others.

President Obama's introductory remarks to the House Republican caucus suggest that he holds a partisan Democrat's view of the public discourse. In that address he regularly cites his desire to turn down the partisan dials and the value of a robust debate, but he couches those gestures to bipartisanship in a very negative view of how the opposition has actually behaved.

The President begins with a broad, philosophical affirmation of the value of the partisan debate:

I'm a big believer not just in the value of a loyal opposition, but in its necessity. Having differences of opinion, having a real debate about matters of domestic policy and national security -- and that's not something that's only good for our country, it's absolutely essential. It's only through the process of disagreement and debate that bad ideas get tossed out and good ideas get refined and made better. And that kind of vigorous back and forth -- that imperfect but well-founded process, messy as it often is -- is at the heart of our democracy. That's what makes us the greatest nation in the world.

This is a heartening statement to hear from any President. Party politics is messy and unpleasant, but ultimately necessary for the good functioning of our democracy. The Election of 1800, for instance, was one of the ugliest in American history. Still, big ideas were discussed, and the country made an important decision. To borrow the title of a recent book on that election, American democracy is a "magnificent catastrophe."

During the subsequent question-and-answer session, the President returns to the value of spirited debate and indicates a hope that the two sides could have a productive dialogue.

But the President starts to lose me shortly thereafter. He says:

I want you to stand up for your beliefs, and knowing this caucus, I have no doubt that you will. I want us to have a constructive debate. The only thing I don't want -- and here I am listening to the American people, and I think they don't want either -- is for Washington to continue being so Washington-like. I know folks, when we're in town there, spend a lot of time reading the polls and looking at focus groups and interpreting which party has the upper hand in November and in 2012...

I'm still technically on board here. I agree that politicians are often out there playing "politics," working for their own self-interest rather than the public good. Yet he soon pivots from trumpeting the virtues of bipartisanship to initiating a partisan attack:

[W]e have a track record of working together. It is possible. But, as John, you mentioned, on some very big things, we've seen party-line votes that, I'm just going to be honest, were disappointing. Let's start with our efforts to jumpstart the economy last winter, when we were losing 700,000 jobs a month. Our financial system teetered on the brink of collapse and the threat of a second Great Depression loomed large. I didn't understand then, and I still don't understand, why we got opposition in this caucus for almost $300 billion in badly needed tax cuts for the American people, or COBRA coverage to help Americans who've lost jobs in this recession to keep the health insurance that they desperately needed, or opposition to putting Americans to work laying broadband and rebuilding roads and bridges and breaking ground on new construction projects.

That's a Democratic view of the public discourse. The President "honest(ly)" expresses "disappointment" at a lack of bipartisanship, which was absent because of inexplicable opposition from the Republican Party. In other words, the Republicans did not offer and have not yet offered valid reasons to oppose the stimulus bill.

Why did they oppose it? The temptation for self-interested political calculation was too great:

And let's face it, some of you have been at the ribbon-cuttings for some of these important projects in your communities. Now, I understand some of you had some philosophical differences perhaps on the just the concept of government spending, but, as I recall, opposition was declared before we had a chance to actually meet and exchange ideas.

The President makes a rhetorical nod to "some philosophical differences perhaps on the concept of government spending" (emphases mine) - but his point here is that bipartisanship has been absent because the Republican caucus has largely been acting out of its own political self-interest.

Interestingly, throughout the session, the President frequently makes use of a form of propaganda to justify this position. His reasoning often goes something like this: you Republicans supported particular items within these bills, so you should have supported the bills; that you did not is a sign that you've been playing politics, and your objections were not tenable. This is a fallacy of composition.

This is how he concludes his introductory remarks:

Bipartisanship -- not for its own sake but to solve problems -- that's what our constituents, the American people, need from us right now. All of us then have a choice to make. We have to choose whether we're going to be politicians first or partners for progress; whether we're going to put success at the polls ahead of the lasting success we can achieve together for America. Just think about it for a while. We don't have to put it up for a vote today.

Let me close by saying this. I was not elected by Democrats or Republicans, but by the American people. That's especially true because the fastest growing group of Americans are independents. That should tell us both something. I'm ready and eager to work with anyone who is willing to proceed in a spirit of goodwill. But understand, if we can't break free from partisan gridlock, if we can't move past a politics of "no," if resistance supplants constructive debate, I still have to meet my responsibilities as President. I've got to act for the greater good -- because that, too, is a commitment that I have made. And that's -- that, too, is what the American people sent me to Washington to do.

His question-and-answer session basically follows the same script. He combines broad appeals for rigorous debate and cooperation with not-so-subtle attacks on Republicans for not participating in a serious manner. It seems that the President's view is that the Republicans are putting "success at the polls ahead of the lasting success we can achieve together for America" and offering irrational arguments that the President "(didn't) understand then, and...still (doesn't) understand" today.

To return to the previous chart, his introductory remarks suggest that this is how the President views the public discourse:

Obama's View of the Public Discourse.jpg

Since he was inaugurated, I have been critical of President Obama's failure to live up to his pledge of bipartisanship. But maybe he has lived up to it, at least on his own terms.

After all, the line of reasoning in this essay suggests a partisan view of bipartisanship, which would go something like this:

We're the ones who are (mostly) public-spirited and rational; they're the ones who are (mostly) self-interested and using propaganda. Thus, bipartisanship will come when they mend their ways.

In so doing, they will start to agree with us. While there may be some lingering divisions, many will disappear. After all, if both sides are motivated by the public interest and making recourse only to rational argument - how much divergence can there possibly be?

This could reconcile Obama's complaints about what he saw as mere gestures from the previous administration with his belief that congressional Republicans should have been happy with the gestures he made to them. This partisan view of bipartisanship doesn't suggest a meeting at the halfway point. The meeting point depends on which party is more virtuous and more reasonable. If the President thinks he has the market cornered on both assets, then the idea that Bush should have given more is quite compatible with the thought that he has given enough.

What to make of this view of the political world? For starters, I do not think it is very peculiar or unique. Most strong partisans, I think, have a partisan view of the public discourse. Plenty of members of Congress do, too. That goes for the whole of American history. So, I don't think there is anything wrong with a President who thinks the other side is full of you-know-what.

What's peculiar and unique is the President's consistent pretensions toward bipartisanship. I'm not sure what to make of the fact that he consistently joins a partisan attack with an appeal to bipartisanship. I do think the political benefits of this are questionable. If this is the President's view of the public discourse - he should not hold his breath for Republican cooperation. It will not be forthcoming. To keep suggesting that it might be forthcoming puts him in danger of being held responsible for its absence.

After all, Republicans do not hold a Democratic view of the public discourse. Most of the congressional caucus probably holds the Republican view. Some - like Susan Collins, Judd Gregg, Lindsay Graham, and Olympia Snowe - have less partisan views and would be willing to meet President Obama halfway. But is Obama prepared to meet them there? His remarks to House Republicans suggest that the answer - despite all his pretensions - is actually no.

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-Jay Cost

Obama Versus Alito

What to make of the mini-controversy arising over Justice Alito's apparent "not true" retort to Obama's comment about the Court during the State of the Union address? I have a few thoughts.

The political context is important. The Supreme Court is the weakest branch in our system. There are a few reasons for that.

(1) The Supreme Court is the only court created by the Constitution. The rest are the creation of Congress. The Congress also posseses the power to regulate the Supreme Court's appellate jurisdiction.

(2) The Judicial Branch is the only one that lacks a kind of republican legitimacy. It's purely appointive. That matters in a society where all power flows from the people. To appreciate the implications of this, think of how powerful a President is when he is new in office. This is thanks in large part to the fact that he was just elected, i.e. the people have recently spoken. There's a freshness that he possesses. But after a few years when the public mood changes, yet he's still in office because of that old election, his mandate seems a little stale. The Court is perpetually in an extreme version of the latter case, never having to stand before the people.

(3) The Judicial Branch lacks the power to enforce its rulings. At least on a federal level, it requires the President to execute its rulings, and it requires the Congress to foot the bill. Historically, this has hindered its capacity to make policy. As Andrew Jackson once famously said, "Mr. Marshall has made his ruling. Now let him enforce it!"

The political weakness of the Court leaves me thinking that both Obama and Alito behaved inappropriately. My attitude is that it's like the big kid picking on the little kid in the schoolyard. The big kid should leave the little kid alone. Should the big one decide to take on the weakling, anyway - the little kid should just keep his mouth shut because there's nothing he can do about it.

First, Obama. Granted that he disagrees with the Court's decision, and this disagreement stems from legitimate differences of opinion, the fact remains that it is a good thing for the country that the Supreme Court is so well-regarded. Obama of all people should know this. He talked about the "trust deficit" the country has in its public institutions. There is no trust deficit as regards the Supreme Court. People trust it!

Yet this good reputation is not a guarantee. It could be damaged; indeed, considering the Court's dependence on Congress and the President, as well as its separation from the people and its inability to see its pronouncements through to their intended effect, its public standing is quite vulnerable.

Thus, I think it was inappropriate for the President to take a shot at the Court in the way he did. The Court's solid reputation is a public good for the country, and it should not be tampered with, especially over a case such as the one in question. It seems to me that if the Court had rendered a judgment that was truly beyond the pale - akin to Dred Scott - I wouldn't mind if the President took a shot at the Court. But on a campaign finance ruling? That strikes me as irresponsible and short-sighted on the part of a President who wants people to trust their government. It becomes even more irresponsible when one recalls that he blasted the Court right to its face. That particular level of disrespect sends a message that is not conducive to keeping the Court's good reputation intact.

Second, Alito. I'm sure he regrets what was an impetuous response. Obama should not have been so critical because the Court's reputation is important yet fragile. For the same reason, Alito should have kept his counsel. Obama has a republican legitimacy that Alito lacks - and it is politically not smart for a Supreme Court justice to disagree openly with an elected official such as Obama. This is the political equivalent of David going up against Goliath, and this time there is no guarantee that the Lord is on the side of the little guy! Politically, it would be advisable for the whole Court to show up at the next State of the Union address, to listen attentively without any reaction, and to make sure that this mini controversy becomes nothing more than a footnote in the annals of history.

Now, to be clear, I don't think that this whole dust-up is going to affect the Court's reputation. Still, these are the kinds of actions that could affect the Court, especially if they happen again. From my perspective, the best way to secure the good reputation of the Court is for it never to happen even once. So, shame on Obama for picking on the Court, and shame on Alito for not just taking it in stride. Both of them should have recognized that the Court's reputation is tremendously more important than the particular case in question.

Altogether, I'm much more troubled by Obama's comment than Alito's response because Obama is so much more powerful than Alito. I wish the President would appreciate the effect his words can have, and the possible negative consequences that come from attacking the Court in such pointed language (and right to its face!). It is a very positive thing that the Court has a good public reputation. It's due in part to the hard, smart work of many people who have served on the Court over the decades, but it also depends upon the Congress and the President allowing it to remain outside the political battlefield. The Supreme Court is not the Republican House caucus. It should be left alone, unless of course it clearly behaves inappropriately, which it obviously has not in this case.

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-Jay Cost

Obama's Strange State of the Union

Was last night's State of the Union address the sort we'd expect to be delivered by a President:

-whose job approval is under 50%,

-whose party is historically overexposed in the upcoming congressional elections,

-whose party was unable to hold a Senate seat in one of the bluest states, previously held by the party's most iconic post-war leaders,

-whose major domestic initiative has just crashed-and-burned as a consequence of that failure,

-and who heads into a midterm election with unemployment close to 10%?

I'd say not.

Implication: either this White House knows more than the rest of us, or it knows less.

Any takers for the "more" side of the ledger?

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-Jay Cost

What Does Obama Do Now?

Presidents make political mistakes. Every last one of them. This is an inevitability. It is a rule of political life in the United States of America.

Barack Obama has made some mistakes in the last year. He misjudged the mood of the country. He misjudged the capacity of Congress to legislate with a decent respect for the national interest. He misjudged the extent of the recession - how it would affect unemployment and ultimately the public consciousness.

Tonight's result in Massachusetts is the first price he pays for his political mistakes. It will not be the last. Republicans may or may not take back the House of Representatives next year, but they are set to make big gains in the lower chamber. Only the hardiest of Democratic partisans doubt this, and even they are starting to come around.

No President is beyond making such miscalculations. Many great men have made substantially worse judgments. Thomas Jefferson pursued a short-sighted foreign policy that damaged American interests in a futile attempt to punish Britain and France. James Madison - the father of the Constitution - put the nation into the War of 1812, something for which it was grossly underprepared. Abraham Lincoln tolerated incompetent generals for too long, doubting his instincts and giving only meek exhortations to confront the enemy more aggressively. Franklin Roosevelt thought his landslide reelection in 1936 gave him leave to reshape the Supreme Court and purge his party of dissenters. These were great men to whom we have rightly built stately and impressive monuments. But they were still men, and they made big mistakes.

The real test of a President's mettle is not whether he makes mistakes, or falls into traps of his own making. Again, that's inevitable. Instead, the test of a President is how he handles the jam once he has gotten himself into it. Does he continue to do the same thing, hoping against hope that somehow, someway doing the same-old same-old will yield a different result? Or does he recognize that he has made mistakes, try to learn from them, and ultimately make adaptations? That's the mark of a superior political talent.

Frankly, I don't know what Obama will do next. His political biography is so slender that none of us really do. Looking back on Bill Clinton's remarkable comeback in 1995-96, none of us should have been very surprised. He pulled off exactly the same feat several times before - bouncing back from losing his reelection bid for Arkansas governor in 1980, then bouncing back after scandal during the 1992 primary. But Obama is a mystery, though he has written two autobiographies about himself.

Democrats should hope that he makes adjustments, that the latest bluster from the White House is just that. Politico reports one senior advisor as saying, "This is not a moment that causes the president or anybody who works for him to express any doubt. It more reinforces the conviction to fight hard." Democrats should hope that this is just aggressive talk designed to buy the White House time to figure out what to do next. If the President really thinks this, they are going to be in a mess of trouble for the rest of his term, for it would mean that he's too stubborn or arrogant to make needed adjustments. It would mean that a comparison to Jimmy Carter is more apt than a comparison to Franklin Roosevelt.

Frankly, all of us should hope that this is just bluster from a typically blustery White House. Barack Obama is going to hold his office for the next three years regardless of whatever happens in congressional elections in November, regardless of how well he governs, regardless of where his job approval numbers go. Let's hope that this untested, young, inexperienced fellow the country elevated to the highest office in the land has the good sense to recognize the message the Bay State sent last night, to understand that messages of similar intensity will be sent in November, and to direct his staff to make necessary changes.

Watch Obama carefully for the next few weeks. How does he react to this Senate defeat? What does he do about health care? Does his message shop change its typically aggressive posture? Answers to these questions are going to teach us a lot about the still-mysterious person who currently holds the office of President of the United States.

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-Jay Cost

The Political Blunders of the Obama White House

If Scott Brown should defeat Martha Coakley in the Massachusetts special election tomorrow, it will be a fitting metaphor for the political trajectory of President Obama's first year in office. A year ago Democrats were talking about Obama as the next Franklin Roosevelt, and suggesting that they were on the cusp of an enduring majority. Today, they are struggling to hold Ted Kennedy's old Senate seat.

Coakley will rightly get most of the blame should Brown actually pull off what once seemed to be an impossible victory. Yet much of the responsibility will have to rest with Barack Obama, who has guided his party so poorly that it is having trouble making an appeal to voters in Massachusetts.

To put it bluntly, the Obama White House has been politically inept in the last year. It has made serious miscalculations, and today it is paying a price.

Ultimately, the reason for these errors goes back to the greenness of the Commander-in-Chief himself, who lacked executive experience and had little first-hand knowledge of the way Washington functions. He put together a team too full of Chicago strongmen, campaign hacks, and sympathetic "Friends of Barack." Accordingly, he and his executive staff were ill prepared for managing the government. This led to three significant political blunders.

***

#1. A Lack of Bipartisanship. Nobody (except perhaps Obama's spinmeisters in the White House) would deny that the President has not been post-partisan. The typical response from the left has been: (a) the Republicans are too crassly political to compromise with; and/or (b) the two parties are now so far apart that there is no middle ground. The problem with this argument is that it fails to account for the near total absence of bipartisanship. Granted that polarization has reduced the number of gettable Republican votes - it surely has not reduced it to zero. Republican legislators like Mike Castle and Susan Collins are fewer in number now than in years past - but such members are still there, and Obama has been hard-pressed to win them over on anything of significance.

An absence of bipartisanship has created two serious problems for the Obama White House. First, it has left the Democratic Party solely responsible for all major legislation - which in turn means that the Democrats have taken on a greater share of the political responsibility for the state of the union. Bipartisanship would have brought Republicans into the governing process, and thus given Obama and his Democratic allies some cover.

Second, it has led to a predictable rise in partisan bickering, which Independent voters hate. If public opinion polling on the Massachusetts Senate race is correct, it will be Independents who swing to Brown in big numbers, which means they'll join Independents in Virginia and New Jersey in voting Republican. If Democrats cannot win back at least some of them, they will suffer major losses in November, 2010.

#2. Installing Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid as de facto prime ministers. A common hobby of political commentators over the last year has been to compare Barack Obama to past presidents. At this point, it's pretty clear who he isn't like - and that's Woodrow Wilson (ironic, considering his background is so similar to Wilson's). During his first year in office, Wilson took an active role in managing the government. He reinstated the practice of delivering the State of the Union in person. He also was a frequent visitor on Capitol Hill, especially when he fought to keep the Senate from gutting his tariff reform.

Obama, on the other hand, has been content to let Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid handle the difficult task of legislating while he hangs back. His lack of involvement in the process has prompted many cries from Democratic legislators that he engage more fully.

His congressional allies are right. Obama has not been involved enough. Congress is not well suited to the task that Obama gave it. It is not a national legislature. Instead, it's a legislature where representatives from the various parts of the country convene. That's a crucial distinction, for it means that there is nobody in Congress who is ultimately responsible to the whole people. Congress has governed in a predictable way - handing out far too many special favors to wavering legislators and privileged interest groups. Congress often resorts to this tactic to stitch together a winnable coalition, but the process makes a mockery of the national interest.

Only the President can claim to represent the national interest, and it's his responsibility to guide Congress in a way that reflects it. Obama has failed to do that. He's let Congress legislate by its own lights, and the process has not been pretty. We talk about legislative "sausage making," but this has been sausage making akin to The Jungle. Accordingly, the public has lost confidence in the government to handle the many problems facing the country.

#3 Pursuing an agenda that doesn't fit the times. I'm talking about health care reform here. For decades, Democratic Presidents have dreamed of comprehensive reform of the nation's health care system. So, it's no surprise that President Obama wanted to try his hand at this, especially considering the outsized majorities his party has in Congress. In itself, this was not a mistake.

The mistake comes when we view this pursuit in context. Namely, 2009 was not a good year to focus the government so intently on health care reform. The public wanted a greater focus on the recession, but it didn't really get one. All it got was a hastily constructed, wasteful stimulus bill that was built on the assumption that unemployment would top out at 8%. As unemployment skyrocketed and the recession dragged on, watching the Senate Finance Committee debate insurance co-operatives and Cadillac taxes made it appear that the government was out of touch.

Additionally, the pursuit of health care reform was difficult to square with a public that has become increasingly deficit conscious. Very few people believe that these reforms will be "deficit neutral," and for good reason. This is a massive new entitlement program the Democrats are proposing, and our existing entitlements cost way more than initial projections, and more than we can today afford. One need not be a policy wonk to suspect that the Democrats' math is more than a little "fuzzy." This would likely not be a concern if the government were running a surplus or just a small deficit. But the 2009 deficit topped out in the trillions. That is bound to make voters wary of new, expensive entitlement programs.

***

These mistakes are all problematic by themselves, but take them together and they become much more powerful: the White House has pursued a partisan agenda and condoned congressional cronyism while ignoring the demands of the public. Martha Coakley's lousy campaign is a big reason why Ted Kennedy's seat is in peril. So is the high unemployment rate. But so also is this. Combined, these mistakes have created a very bad impression.

White Houses make mistakes. Presidents are often inexperienced when they come into the job. They often appoint high-level staffers who are ill prepared to guide the President to success. Corresponding political failures like these are fairly common.

The important questions moving forward are: how will the President respond? Will he acknowledge that his team has made mistakes? Will he correct the way his White House does business? Or will he continue to plunge ahead without recognizing his own faults?

It's inevitable that Presidents run into political trouble - and the kind Obama faces today is not terribly unique in the history of the executive branch. The real test of a President's mettle is not whether he encounters problems, but how reacts to them. As we move forward, I will be watching the President's response to political setbacks just as closely as I'll be watching the unemployment numbers. I think both will determine the course of our politics for the next several years.

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-Jay Cost

The Real Barack Obama

When President Obama indicated that he had no problem with secretive House-Senate negotiations on health care - there was outrage from several quarters. Rich Lowry wrote that it's a sign that Obama is "insincere to the point of cynicism." Peter Wehner suggested that this broken pledge "annihilates...the belief that he embodied a new, uplifting kind of politics." Outrage was not confined to the right. CNN's Jack Cafferty ripped Obama's openness pledge as a "lie," and the whole affair pushed C-SPAN from its usual role as sideline observer to active participant.

Outrage aside, was anybody surprised by this broken pledge? After all, this is the President who promised to find a campaign finance agreement with John McCain, then never tried. This is the President who said that the old ways wouldn't do, then staffed his new administration with Clinton era retreads. This is the President who promised a post-partisan era, but waited less than a week into his new term to initiate a "message war" against his political opponents.

Politicians break their campaign promises all the time. It's part of an age-old electoral strategy: promise everything to the voters during the campaign, and leave the worry about breaking them for the next election.

What's noteworthy about President Obama is that his campaign acknowledged this bad habit, then earnestly pledged that he would be so very different. The sounds and images of his campaign - from the chants of "Yes We Can" to the stage for his convention address to the artwork - suggested that the country was about to elect somebody more special than Rutherford Hayes or Hillary Clinton or Warren Harding or John McCain. Barack Obama wasn't like other politicians. He was superior.

This is what he said when he announced his presidential campaign in Springfield, Illinois in February, 2007:

I know there are those who don't believe we can do all these things. I understand the skepticism. After all, every four years, candidates from both parties make similar promises, and I expect this year will be no different...

That is why this campaign can't only be about me. It must be about us - it must be about what we can do together. This campaign must be the occasion, the vehicle, of your hopes, and your dreams...This campaign has to be about reclaiming the meaning of citizenship, restoring our sense of common purpose, and realizing that few obstacles can withstand the power of millions of voices calling for change.

By ourselves, this change will not happen. Divided, we are bound to fail.

But the life of a tall, gangly, self-made Springfield lawyer tells us that a different future is possible....

As Lincoln organized the forces arrayed against slavery, he was heard to say: "Of strange, discordant, and even hostile elements, we gathered from the four winds, and formed and fought to battle through."

That is our purpose here today.

That's why I'm in this race.

The implication of this rhetoric is clear. Most candidates overpromise then underdeliver. That's precisely why we need Barack Obama. He will be the next Abraham Lincoln, an extraordinary leader who will not only bring peace and prosperity, but will restore our sense of common purpose.

Since he burst onto the national scene years ago, people have wondered who is the real Barack Obama? What makes him tick? What's the true story?

The answer should be clear by now: he's just a politician. There's no secret, hidden mystery to the 44th President. He's not a crypto-communist nor is he the next Abraham Lincoln. He's a politician just like any other. He said what he thought he needed to say to get into office, now he's doing what he thinks he needs to be do to stay there. If that creates problems for 2012, he'll cross that bridge when he comes to it.

Hats off to him for a near-flawless execution of an audacious campaign strategy. Since nobody knew anything about him, why not claim the mantle of Lincoln? Nobody could point to a governing record to suggest that he was not in fact a leader for the ages - so why not claim to be? Other pols promise the sun, the moon, and the stars in the sky, but Barack Obama would do them one better: he'd promise the eschaton. Not only would an Obama administration grow the economy and end the war, it would reclaim the meaning of citizenship!

This strategy was either cynical or arrogant, depending upon whether the President really thought he could do all these amazing things. Let's hope he didn't. Let's hope he was being cynical, for at least it would suggest the President's sense of himself is not wildly out of proportion to reality.

To function well, this country does not require great leaders who will reclaim the meaning of citizenship, but it has use for good ones who can leave things a little better than when they found them. History has shown that good leaders are often cynical, crafty politicians who are motivated by their own ambitions. Our superior system of government expertly links their private interests to the public good, and thus can bring out the best in them.

But if this President is so vainglorious as to believe his campaign's claims about his greatness, we have reason to worry. With problem piling up on top of problem, the last thing we need is a leader so hopelessly enamored of himself that he actually presumes to be the next Lincoln.

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-Jay Cost

Could Howard Dean Primary Barack Obama?

Matt Bai recently penned a somewhat confused essay that attempts to argue that Obama is a bona fide progressive, but not really a populist (which apparently for Bai comes down to little more than differences in tone). Yet in this piece he inserts an intriguing aside.

A year into Obama's presidency, it is no longer inconceivable, if still unlikely, that he could face a challenge within his own party in 2012, especially if Democrats suffer sizable losses next November. (When Howard Dean made a point of trying to scuttle health care reform altogether, was he simply trying to get a better bill, or was he setting himself up as a populist insurgent?)

The tossaway quality of these lines makes them so interesting. It's as if this is what people are talking about. Are they? I don't really run in the same circles as writers from the New York Times Magazine, so I don't have a clue. Yet I did notice that Politico has a generally sympathetic entry on "The resurrection of Howard Dean." It also mentions a possible 2012 challenge of the President. Just as you need two data points to have a trend, you need two MSM articles to have a meme!

So, it's worth asking on this cold January day: could Howard Dean primary Barack Obama?

Of course he could, but nobody should expect him to topple the President. If Theodore Roosevelt couldn't successfully primary Howard Taft in 1912, what hope does any insurgent have, especially one who lost out to John Kerry?

Now, the nomination battle has changed quite a bit in the 98 years since Teddy took on the Big Lub, but the following is most definitely true. Incumbent presidents who were elected to office were often denied their party's re-nomination in the 19th century (the first loser being the drunk, incompetent Franklin Pierce in 1856), but it is a very rare occurrence these days. And by rare I mean it hasn't happened in over a century.

The power of selecting the next nominee has generally fallen to the people - via the primaries and caucuses - but make no mistake: the party establishment still has a dominant role, and an incumbent President almost always has the establishment on his side. That makes him near impossible to defeat - you have to go back to the corruption of the Gilded Age or the political breakdown of the antebellum years to find incumbents who couldn't secure the support of the insiders whose jobs depend on the incumbent's continued success.

That's not to say Dean (or somebody) wouldn't try. It's just to say that if he has any sense in his head, his goal wouldn't be to become the 45th President. When Pat Buchanan took on George H.W. Bush in 1992, I doubt his purpose was actually to become the next President. More likely, it was about making public the dissatisfaction a faction within the Republican Party was feeling by 1992.

That points to what makes these primary contests so noteworthy: they are more a symptom of failure than a cause. If a President cannot lock down all the major parts of his own party, and instead must slug it out in a primary - it's a sign that he's going to have trouble building a majority coalition in the fall. Taft, Carter, and Bush all lost their general election contests after beating back big time challenges for the nomination. So did Hubert Humphrey, LBJ's stand-in in 1968, after Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy launched insurgent candidacies for the White House.

This is probably why we're seeing talk about Dean about the moment: many progressives are frustrated with the course of the Obama administration to date. There are hairline fractures in the Obama coalition. It's improbable that progressives would ever seriously challenge its structural foundations. They are also the most partisan Democrats, and thus would never aid the Republicans. But if Obama should find his job approval ratings in Carter or Bush territory come mid-2011, i.e. he's doomed anyway, a progressive candidate like Dean could conceivably challenge him.

I'd say the probability of Obama having to face a serious challenge from Howard Dean or anybody in 2012 are about as good as the probability that the Pittsburgh Pirates will have a winning season by then. Put it in the 5-10% range.

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-Jay Cost

Why Does the Public Oppose ObamaCare?

As the Senate debate drags on, public support for the Democratic health care reforms remains very weak. The latest RealClearPolitics average shows just 40% in favor with nearly 49% opposed.

These figures remain a bit puzzling because individual items within the bills still poll strongly. Even if the question wording of the public option tilts the playing field, the fact remains that proposals like guaranteed issue are popular.

How to explain the divergence? Why does the public oppose ObamaCare overall while supporting items within it? Let's approach it by imagining how a (stylized) voter would make up his mind. We'll assume that he is not a strong partisan, and so does not simply accept the rhetoric of one side over the other. This is the sort of middle-of-the-road person who is going to swing a poll such as this one way or another. We'll also assume that this voter is rational. He intends to add up all the expected benefits and the costs. If the sum is positive, the voter supports. If negative, the voter opposes.

First, we must recognize that public knowledge about these bills is very minimal. From the perspective of an average voter, these bills are hopelessly indecipherable. They are so complicated that the experts literally need weeks to figure out what they'll mean for the country. And even then, they cannot give certain answers to the big questions. For instance, many of the Medicare savings in the House bill come from "productivity improvements." Richard Foster, Chief Actuary of Medicare and Medicaid Services, said that these could make it difficult for providers "to remain profitable and end their participation in the program." He suggests that this could "possibly jeopardiz[e] access to care for beneficiaries)." [Emphasis Mine]

Sometimes, the experts offer more confident claims about what these bills will mean, but those clarifications are still terribly complicated. Consider, for instance, the recent scoring from the Congressional Budget Office on how the Senate bill will affect insurance premiums. Question: will premiums go up, down, or stay the same? Answer: yes, yes, and yes! It all depends on where you fit into the scheme. But unless you are a policy wonk, it is extremely difficult to know how it all applies to you.

The impenetrability of these hyper-technical bills is a very important factor for this analysis. It means that voters must weigh their perceived costs and benefits under conditions of severe uncertainty. This point is going to affect every calculation they make.

With this in mind, let's begin the analysis by talking about the potential benefits. The main focus of the bills is expanding coverage to those who lack it. If somebody does not have health insurance, that's a big expected benefit, which should be pretty obvious even with little information. Of course, most people already have health insurance, so they will not enjoy this benefit. Still, they will gain something because the bills make it easier to acquire insurance. Everybody has a non-zero probability of losing coverage in the future, so expanding access to coverage gives everybody at least a little more security.

Another important benefit: insurance premiums are expected to go down for those who buy a policy on the exchanges and who qualify for federal subsidies. For lower income individuals who already have insurance, this is a major benefit.

Yet here the uncertainty kicks in. Some people currently without insurance will still be unable to afford it, and will pay a tax penalty for their lack of coverage. Can average voters evaluate whether they will wind up in this group? Probably not, which means that this has to factor negatively into the analysis. Another item to consider: do average voters know whether they will qualify for a subsidy? If they do not, their premiums could go up. Once again, that's a difficult piece of information to acquire, so this has to enter the equation as potential cost, too.

Uncertainty is a key factor in tallying up the other costs, most notably potential reductions in Medicare benefits, tax increases, and ballooning deficits. If any of these things occur, they would be bad for average voters. But will they actually happen? The Democrats say they won't. The Republicans say they will. That puts moderates, Independents, and soft partisans in a difficult position. Staunch Republicans wholly accept the GOP argument. So, they price in bigger deficits with almost 100% certainty. Staunch Democrats do the opposite. President Obama says no deficits; they say no deficits. But people in the middle without strong partisan affiliations have to acknowledge both arguments. They need to assign each claim a probability of accuracy between 0% and 100%. Thus, GOP warnings about Medicare cuts, tax increases, and out-of-control deficits should thus be priced in as expected costs - perhaps not to the same extent that staunch Republicans are factoring them in, but they are still included.

Another problem for the bills is the Congress. It's heavy involvement has to be acknowledged as a cost, again because of the uncertainty inherent to the bills. RealClearPolitics currently shows congressional job approval at just 27%. That matters for these bills. If voters cannot evaluate the bills for themselves, they have to trust that Congress has written them well. Polls indicate clearly that most people do not trust Congress to do that. If they suspect that the bills are tailored to the special interests rather than their own, they have to factor congressional authorship into the analysis.

The final factor is risk aversion. Recent polling has shown that most people are satisfied with the health care system. Rasmussen recently found that 49% rate it as "good or excellent" while just 27% rate it as "poor." Gallup's numbers are not as positive, but still suggest that most Americans are generally all right with the system as it is.

This might make them especially nervous about the risks inherent to the reforms. If somebody has a 50-50 shot at winning $5,000 or can take $2,500 for certain, what will he do? A risk neutral person will be indifferent between the options. But a risk averse person is acutely uncomfortable with the uncertainty, so will instead take the sure thing. A similar psychological phenomenon might be in place here. If somebody really abhors the uncertainty inherent to a comprehensive overhaul of a system that he thinks is generally all right - he might count it as one of the costs.

Importantly, risk aversion can vary according to the stakes. If somebody has a 50/50 shot at winning $1 million or can take $500,000 for certain, what will he do? A risk neutral person would be indifferent. But most people's risk aversion will make them eager to take the sure thing. People are extremely risk averse when it comes to health care precisely because the stakes are so high. This might make them especially squeamish about the possibility that the bills will have negative side effects.

All in all, this is how I see a rough support/oppose calculation for a middle-of-the-road voter who already has health insurance:

Possible Benefits
(1) Reduction in premiums.
(2) More security in retaining health coverage.

Possible Costs
(1) Increase in premiums.
(2) Medicare cuts.
(3) Tax increases.
(4) Deficit increases.
(5) Congressional particularism.
(6) Intolerable risk.

I think this takes us a long way in explaining the opposition to these bills, even if people support particular items within them. On balance, many people who already have health insurance are going to feel skittish, given the large number of possible costs and their potential severity. They might be all right with provisions that help others acquire insurance - and thus give them a little more security - but their holistic evaluation has to take into account every relevant factor. According to many polls, the bills do badly with Independents and soft partisans, suggesting that this cost-benefit analysis is typically yielding a negative result.

And note that we have not discussed the public option. The more I reflect on it, the more I think it is a red herring - at least as far as public opinion is concerned. It is an issue that has activated the party bases because it signifies a major expansion of social welfare. Americans who are deeply invested in a vision of the proper role of government have focused intensely on it. But what about middle-of-the-road people who do not have such strong feelings? My guess is that it doesn't register nearly as much.

If I'm correct about this, it would mean that the health care debate is perhaps similar to the dynamic laid out by Morris Fiorina in Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America. Political elites and party activists have focused relentlessly on the public option because it is part of a symbolic battle over the appropriate scope of federal power. Yet the vast, moderate middle is not invested in such symbolism. They don't like the bills because of old standbys like Medicare, taxes, and deficits - not the public option.

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-Jay Cost

How Far Will Democratic Leaders Go?

The two American political parties are great institutions with long, rich histories that stretch from the 1800s all the way to the present day. Today's parties are deeply connected to their past incarnations. Abraham Lincoln "belongs to the ages," as Edwin Stanton said, but the Republican Party of today has a special bond with the 16th President. The same goes for the Democrats and Franklin Roosevelt. All Americans can be proud that this country produced such a great leader. Yet he was a Democratic leader, which gives today's Democratic Party a special linkage to him. These connections are not merely nominal. Rather, there is a real intellectual tradition in both parties that unites past, present, and future.

This is why I have been frankly surprised by some of the concessions the Democratic Party's leaders have been willing to make in pursuit of a comprehensive health care reform bill. Each party has short term policy goals - in this case, the Democrats want to expand coverage. Yet these short term goals fit into a bigger philosophical framework. Some of these compromises seem to challenge that framework.

A big issue I have already discussed is their planned $491 billion reduction in Medicare over the next ten years. Medicare is the most significant fiscal policy achievement of the Democratic Party in the last seventy years. Protecting it from Republican cuts was a major reason Bill Clinton won reelection. To say the least, it is surprising that today's Democratic leaders are willing to make reductions in Medicare. What's especially surprising is that the cuts are coming not as an end in themselves (i.e. the party is finally focusing on stabilizing the system for future generations), but to find spare cash to finance another entitlement. Medicare has been lost in the shuffle of public options, abortion restrictions, taxes, regulations, and mandates - none of which has anything to do with it.

This lack of consideration is apparent in another aspect of the Senate bill. Keith Hennessey points out that it includes a Medicare payroll tax increase on those making more than $200,000 a year. He speculates that Senator Harry Reid chose this as a way to make up revenue lost by limiting the tax on "Cadillac" insurance plans. Hennessey rightly notes the significance of this policy:

With this proposal, Senator Reid is leading Democrats across a major philosophical threshold. Since Social Security was created in the 30's and Medicare in 1965, payroll tax revenues have been "dedicated" to financing these programs. While not all funding to finance Medicare comes from payroll taxes, all funding from the Medicare payroll tax finances Medicare. In other words, the 2.9% Hospital Insurance payroll tax that you and your employer pay on your wages is all supposed to offset Medicare spending. That is part of the social insurance model, in which everyone pays in a fraction of their wages, and everyone receives benefits later...

Leader Reid's bill would use new Medicare payroll taxes to finance a new health entitlement outside of Medicare. His bill would turn Medicare payroll taxes into a general financing mechanism like the income tax. There is a slippery-slope argument against this that I would normally expect from the Left. If Republicans (or my former boss) had proposed this, I would expect AARP to come unglued and raise fears among seniors that, if this proposal becomes law, future Congresses might take payroll tax revenues and use them for highways or defense or other non-social insurance spending.

This expansion of the payroll tax is indeed a major shift. The social insurance model was a political innovation that sold Americans on the idea of Social Security. It was a way to provide for seniors without making anybody feel as if they were on the dole. This is not something that you would expect the Democrats to alter without serious deliberation - but they apparently are. Plus, as Hennessey notes, it potentially threatens the system in the future. If some Medicare dollars can be used to finance an expansion of welfare rather than the social insurance system, who's to say that more dollars from the system couldn't be used to finance capital gains tax cuts or missile defense?

Both of these policy innovations seem inconsistent with the grand traditions of the Democratic Party. I would expect its leaders to treat Medicare a little more reverently. And there might be one more innovation in the offing: the elimination of the public option. This would produce an extraordinary policy, one you would not expect to come from the Party of Jackson.

Why? Because there will presumably still be an individual mandate in the bill. Keeping the individual mandate but dropping the public option means that the Democratic Party will force many individuals to engage in commerce with private businesses that would intend to make a profit from such interactions. That is unbelievable! The Democratic Party was founded as an opposition group to the established economic and political orders. That opposition connects party leaders across the ages: Jackson's destruction of the Bank of the United States, Bryan's "Cross of Gold," FDR's New Deal, LBJ's Great Society. These leaders pursued different means, but ultimately for the same end: protect the little guy from the powers that be. If the Democrats pass a health care bill with an individual mandate but without a public option - they'll be forcing the little guy to contract with those powers. And remember, the government is going to be imposing more regulations on these companies, and providing subsidies to them (by covering at least some of the costs of those deemed eligible). So, expect the insurance companies to quadruple the number of lobbyists they have stationed inside the Beltway, whispering in the ears of legislators about what sort of changes should be made to the system. Yet the little guy doesn't have any K Street lobbyists, and he won't be sending any in the future. That's what makes him the little guy.

Franklin Roosevelt did not go against the core principles of the Democratic Party to achieve his policy goals. Instead, he re-imagined those principles with his ingenious social insurance model. That's how he could provide assistance to the elderly without the label of "welfare." It was an important distinction for Americans, whose individualism is unmatched throughout the entire world. This social insurance model was such a durable framework that Lyndon Johnson could expand it to include Medicare for seniors. The Democrats want to expand health care further. A noble goal - but their challenge is to do it in a way that the public accepts and that is true to their history. It seems less and less likely that the final bill will fit these requirements.

As I have noted on my "About the Author" page, I am not a Democrat. Yet I respect the Democratic Party, not only because of its important contributions to the nation's history, but also because America needs the Democratic Party, just as it needs the Republican Party. The evolving health care proposal does not feel like something I'd expect the Democratic Party to produce. Instead, it is starting to seem like something drafted by a bizarre hybrid of the old Federalist Party and the British Labor Party.

I think it's time for Democrats to return to their Rooseveltian roots: find a commonsensical solution to the health care problem that the country can embrace, and one that is more consistent with the party's history and core beliefs.

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-Jay Cost

Have Democratic Leaders Gone Mad?

With the introduction of Harry Reid's health care bill - talk will inevitably focus on whether the public option or the Stupak amendment will undermine the legislation. Yet, if the bill dies, I do not think either of these will be the primary cause of death.

I think this will be the culprit:

Reid_letter_11_18_09-5.jpg

This is the CBO's analysis of how the Reid bill will cut Medicare. The total reductions come out to $491 billion over 10 years when everything is factored in.

The following has been said by other commentators, but I have to add my voice to the chorus: This is insanity, Democratic leaders. Why are you doing this?

Getting AARP's support might give you cover among the Washington crowd, but let's inject some common sense here. Lots of people are members of AARP, but that does not mean they are intensely committed to it, and will therefore follow its lead on such an important issue. AARP is not like the unions in that regard. Lots of people join to get discounts on auto insurance and movie tickets, meaning that affiliation with the organization is broader than it is deep.

Obama's current numbers among senior citizens demonstrate the validity of this point, not to mention the concern that Democrats should have heading into 2010. Gallup has him at 45% among those over 65, and at 49% among those between 50 and 64. Hint. Quinnipiac has him at 42% with those over 55. Hint hint. Rasmussen currently shows Democrats losing the generic ballot among seniors by 15 points; in 2008, Democrats split the senior vote with the GOP. Hint hint hint.

Let's review the political power that American seniors wield. In the Virginia gubernatorial election, people over 65 accounted for 18% of all voters. In New Jersey it was 19%. People over 65 accounted for 19% of all voters in the 2006 House midterm. And even in the "Yes We Can!" presidential election of 2008, when college kids supposedly overwhelmed the normal electoral process, the 65 and over crowd still accounted for 16% of the electorate (unchanged relative to 2004).

The 2006 House exit poll showed the Democrats winning the national vote by a margin of 54 to 46. If, however, we plug in Rasmussen's current generic ballot number among seniors in place of what the Democrats actually won from that cohort in 2006, their lead falls to 52-48. Note that this assumes no change among younger cohorts. That's seniors alone cutting the Democratic margin in half. This also assumes that seniors do not come out in greater numbers in 2010 to defend against perceived assaults on their Medicare benefits.

Blanche Lincoln knows what I'm talking about. When she won reelection in 2004, seniors made up 16% of the electorate and went 59-41 for her. In the 1998 midterm, seniors made up 26% of the electorate and went 60-37 for her. In both contests, they were her strongest supporters. I wonder what she thinks of Table 2 in the CBO's analysis of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Bob Dole knows what I'm talking about, too. From January through September of 1995, Bill Clinton's job approval numbers were tepid, with a typical net approval rating of about +2.5. Things turned around for him in late 1995 when the budget battle heated up and Clinton took a stand against...GOP reductions in projected Medicare spending! I'll let Michael Barone finish the story. This is from the 1998 Almanac of American Politics:

[I]n August 1995 [Clinton] started running political ads against the Republicans' Medicare plan. All this was part of a strategy pollster Dick Morris called "triangulation," taking positions between liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans so as to elevate the president's stature above both...In November and December he negotiated on the budget with Speaker Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, promising them agreement at times, but he ultimately vetoed most of their appropriations bills. That technically shut down non-emergency functions of the federal government, a step which many Republicans initially welcomed and thought would be popular. This was a stunning miscalculation, as was their lack of a strategy to deal with Clinton's vetoes...By the time Republicans backtracked and agreed to Clinton's terms, their ratings were down and they were running behind Democrats in the polls.

The President declared at the time the deal was struck that his proposal was a "sensible solution" that showed "you can balance the budget in 7 years, and protect Medicare and Medicaid, education and the environment and provide tax relief to working families." He cruised to reelection.

Not coincidentally, Dick Morris was the first to suggest that mucking around with Medicare would mean trouble for the Democrats. He knows what he's talking about, and in September he wrote:

The Democratic Party, led by Obama, is systematically converting the elderly vote into a Republican bastion. The work of FDR in passing Social Security in 1937 and of LBJ in enacting Medicare in 1965 is being undone by the president's healthcare program. The elderly see [Obama's] proposals for what they are: a massive redistribution of healthcare away from the elderly and toward a population that is younger, healthier and richer but happens, at the moment, to lack insurance. (Remember that the uninsured are, by definition, not elderly, not young and not in poverty - and if they are, they are currently eligible for Medicare, Medicaid or SCHIP and do not need the Obama program.) The elderly see the $500 billion projected cut in Medicare through the same lens as they viewed Gingrich's efforts to slice the growth in the program in the mid-1990s. [Emphasis Mine]

Why are Obama, Pelosi, and Reid doing this? How could they be so foolish as to repeat the most egregious mistake of the Republicans of the 104th Congress? Why are they forcing their vulnerable members to vote on a bill that would cut Medicare in this fashion? Do they dislike their moderate colleagues? Do they find the chore of being the majority party too burdensome? Have they simply gone mad?

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-Jay Cost

Pinochle and the Politics of Health Care

This weekend my wife and I went to my in-laws to play pinochle. I play on my mother-in-law's team, and after she pulled double aces, we decided to call it a night. As it usually does, the conversation turned to politics, and then to the health care debate.

Both of my in-laws are swing voters. They were skeptical of Obama last year, but finally voted for him after the financial collapse in September, 2008. "Time for a change," they explained to my wife. So, I was interested in their views. They expressed great skepticism of the reform efforts, and freely admitted that they don't know what's in these bills. "Nobody knows what's in them!" my father-in-law said emphatically at one point. Health care is a major issue for them, but neither of them seemed to have faith that the Democratic offerings would solve any of the nation's health care problems, about which they know a great deal.

This got me thinking, not only about the health care debate - but also the ebbs-and-flow of electoral politics. Partisans on both sides like to make much of the last election that favored them, while ignoring the others that didn't favor them. For many Democrats, 2008 was the definitive election. 2004? An outlier, an aberration, something to be cast aside in the Age of Obama. Just as many Republicans made the same mistake in 2004, happily overlooking returns from 1992 through 2000 when the Democratic presidential candidates won more votes than the Republicans.

But if we take all of those results seriously, how can we make sense of them? Part of it, surely, is that the electorate favors the incumbent party when times are good, and punishes it when times are bad. But I don't think that accounts for everything. Both parties offer a whole menu of policy proposals, and only some of them relate to the management of the economy or issues of war and peace. The country swings back and forth because there are a host of voters - folks like my in-laws - who can at least tolerate the policies of both sides. Why?

The following hypothesis is just that, a hypothesis. But I'll offer it because I think it is intuitively plausible, and hopefully it can generate some good discussion. The Republican Party has historically been, and remains today, the party of business. The Democratic Party has long been the party of those whose interests are not aligned with business - poor farmers in the 19th century, labor unions in the 20th, immigrants, and so on. Today the Democratic Party is aligned with an expansive government, and the Republican Party is not. These attitudes toward government have not been written in stone - instead they have varied according to the needs of the parties' core constituencies. In the 19th century, business generally wanted tariffs - expansive, taxing government! - so the GOP pushed for steep tariffs. Today, business generally likes low taxes, and so the GOP is a low tax party. A similar transformation happened with the Democrats. In his 1832 campaign against Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, the first Democratic President, demagogued the Bank of the United States, the symbol of intrusive federal government in the early Republic. Yet after the Democrats embraced the idea that the government could be mobilized to support social welfare, it began to advocate a more expansive role for the feds.

This has resulted in the fundamental political divide of the day: business or government. This is an oversimplification in some respects, but I would maintain that a choice between the two parties is often a choice between which entity you distrust more at the time of the election: big business or big government. Perhaps this helps explain the peculiar American tradition of swing voting.

My in-laws are a good case in point. They don't like big business. They think big business is happy to sacrifice a fair wage for profit, and that the government needs to do what it takes to rein it in. They often remark negatively upon the massive bonuses the Wall Street execs have pulled in while average Americans have taken it on the chin. They often criticize Wal-Mart for its failure to provide health care for many of their employees. But they also don't care much for big government, either! They don't view the government as being particularly effective or efficient, and they do not want its role in their health care to increase. They don't see the Congress or the President representing the interests of the people very well, so they aren't terribly thrilled with the big government proposals that these branches have produced.

The Democrats are stuck in a rut because of this health care debate, even after the back-to-back thumpings they delivered to the GOP. Maybe this is why. After all, a vote against the business party is not necessarily a vote for the policies of the government party. The public can want the government to stop letting business interfere in their affairs without wanting the government to start interfering! They can - and do - distrust both big business and big government. I don't think the Democrats - or at least a lot of their leaders who run the show in Washington, D.C. these days - really thought of it that way when they were formulating their legislative agenda last winter. Maybe that is what has caused them to lose so much political momentum so quickly.

Maybe not. I'll say this, though: if the Democrats keep on the path they're on, I expect my in-laws to swing back the other way next time around.

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-Jay Cost

How To Divide a Party, In Three Easy Steps!

So, you've decided to become the leader of a big political party. Only one problem: it's too big! What to do?

Well, you've come to the right place. Here at the Horse Race Blog, we've developed a three-step guide to making that broad party a little more...narrow. Just follow these simple instructions and your majority party will be smaller and a little easier to handle in no time!

***

Step 1: Participate in a bitterly divisive nomination battle against a prominent opponent, making sure that you only win certain factions within the party. Leave your opponent to win other factions, even down to the very last contest. If possible, make condescending remarks about how bitter, clingy, and xenophobic some of those other factions in your own party are. This will ensure that they remain perpetually skeptical of your administration.

Having won the nomination, make no serious effort to unite this divided and fractured party. Do not nominate for vice-president somebody who is a prominent member of the opposing faction. For instance, if you're a Northern/urban candidate looking to alienate Southern/rural members of your party - make sure that the well-regarded governor of Tennessee does not find his way onto the ticket. Also, no unity tickets. Make your primary opponent swallow hard and endorse you, then give the veep nomination to somebody else.

If you complete Step 1 perfectly, you should see early signs of success. Namely, lifelong members of your party will vote for the opposition, perhaps for the first time ever. If they do this in an election that you win decisively anyway, all the better. That's how you know you're off to a good start.

Step 2: Design your cabinet so that there are few (if any) prominent members of the opposing faction installed in any important posts. If you followed Step 1 perfectly, it means your primary opponent is still out in the cold. You might have to nominate her to a prominent spot. That's less than ideal, but it is understandable. However, make no additional gestures to those other factions in the party.

That popular governor from Tennessee? He should be nowhere to be found. That senior statesmen from Georgia? Again, nowhere. How about that bipartisan bridge-builder from Louisiana? I don't know where he is, but he better not be at your cabinet meetings. After all, what you don't want are those hard feelings being softened because of the composition of your government.

Also, think big. It's important to be as broadly dismissive as possible. For instance, your cabinet should not only sample almost exclusively from the North, it should also draw heavily from urban areas. Bottom line: don't think one-dimensionally about your cabinet. It can be used to disgruntle multiple factions in your party at once!

Finally, it's smart to staff your West Wing with as many "hacks" from your campaign as possible. After all, these are the people who helped you split your party into two pieces in your quest to win the nomination. It's a good idea to keep them around, for there is a lot more work on that front left to do!

Step 3: These opposing factions in your party will now be thoroughly frustrated. Good work! It's time to kick it up a notch - by aggressively, relentlessly pursuing a legislative agenda that they obviously can't support.

Ideally, you'll want the leadership in the Congress to be chock full of fellow Northern/urban members. You can't control that yourself, but if you're so lucky as to have leaders equally committed to shrinking the size of your party - you can let them do most of the work. Take a back seat and just exhort them to follow their instincts. They'll know what to do!

Again, think multi-dimensionally. For instance, if the focus is on health care, encourage them to push through a massive expansion of government. That's bound to aggravate the South, which has never been too thrilled about the idea of a big federal government. But also, do not try to stop your urban allies if they push for a "robust" public option, which would be a particularly tough pill for rural members of Congress to swallow.

Other things like a massive government bureaucracy for "cap-and-trade," subsidization of the auto industries, and retaining your predecessor's bailout of (mostly Northern!) banks are all excellent ways to tweak those pesky Jacksonian "friends" of yours! Also, encourage those congressional leaders to help you blow a huge hole in the deficit, so that those Southern deficit hawks know that there's a new sheriff in town.

Ultimately, what you want are not simply defections for the major bills, but also defections on small ball procedural matters. That's a sign that your rank-and-file "allies" have realized that your legislative program is so unpopular in their districts that they must oppose you on every vote. Voting against the rule is halfway to joining the opposition, which means you're halfway to your goal!

***

Following these steps to the letter will ensure a nicely divided party heading into the midterm elections. Of course, the mainstream media will not notice this, as they will be obsessing over the comparatively insignificant divisions in the opposition. But take heart! You have now finished the hard work necessary for long term success: a smaller political party that is less able to build a majority coalition in years to come. Congratulations!

That's what you wanted, right?

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-Jay Cost

Why Is the White House Courting Olympia Snowe?

Howard Fineman is perplexed:

[T]the pursuit of Snowe is pretty close to obsessive, which is not a good thing either for Democrats or for the prospects of health-care reform worthy of the name. First, Snowe's exaggerated prominence is both the result and symbol of Obama's quixotic and ultimately time--wasting pursuit of "bipartisanship." In case the White House hasn't noticed, Republicans in Congress are engaged in what amounts to a sitdown strike. They don't like anything about Obama or his policies; they have no interest in seeing him succeed. Despite the occasional protestation to the contrary, the GOP has no intention of helping him pass any legislation. Snowe may very well end up voting for whatever she and Democrats craft, but that won't make the outcome bipartisan any more than dancing shoes made Tom DeLay Fred Astaire.

First of all, let's clear away some of the underbrush - namely the prickly things Fineman has to say about Republicans. If a health care bill contains: (a) an individual mandate; (b) an employer mandate; (c) plenty of new tax increases; (d) no tort reform; (e) few of the substantive ideas Republicans have been pushing for a while; (f) potentially a government-run insurance program - is it any surprise that almost all Republicans are opposed to it? Isn't that what makes a Republican a Republican? This reads to me like another critique blasting Republicans for not being...Democrats.

Anyway, I have some thoughts on what might account for the White House's "obsessive" pursuit of Snowe. Last week I posited that perhaps it was because Lieberman has already signaled his intention to vote nay, but the latest news on the "Independent Democrat" from Connecticut is that he might vote for cloture then against the bill. If that's true, then Snowe would not be the 60th vote.

Here's an alternative explanation. Below is a look at the ideological scores of key Senate moderates, by two different metrics: their DW-Nominate scores from the 110th Congress and their National Journal "Percent Conservative on Economic Policy" scores on economic policy from the 110th Congress.

Ideological Scores of Senate Moderates.jpg

The DW-Nominate scores typically run from -1 (liberal) to 1 (conservative). The NJ scores are pretty self-explanatory. You can really appreciate the ideological polarization inherent to Congress here by looking at the DW-Nominate gap between, say, Lisa Murkowski and Evan Bayh. There is a big gulf here, which helps explain that - contrary to Mr. Fineman's analysis - the GOP is in opposition not because they "have no interest in seeing him succeed," but because there is a huge ideological divide between Democratic party leadership, and even the most moderate members of the GOP caucus. If the lack of bipartisanship is due to the fact that Republicans have become more conservative, it's also due to the fact that Democrats have become more liberal.

But notice those peculiar members right smack dab in the center: Collins, Snowe, and Nelson. In actuality, each of them is closer to one another than they are to their fellow partisans. Collins, Snowe, Nelson, and Specter (before he jumped ship) are almost like a third party in Congress: the hyper-moderate party.

So, here's a two-part explanation for why Snowe is being wooed so aggressively. One: Collins, Snowe, Nelson are essentially identical on the ideological scale; accordingly, if one of them supports the bill, the others might follow suit. Two: Snowe voted for the bill in the Senate Finance Committee; if she eventually bails, that could be sufficient to scare Nelson off.

My intuition is that if a final reform bill can get 60 votes, it should actually get 62 votes because of these three hyper-moderates. However, if Snowe switches from a yay to a nay, that could be sufficient to ward the other two off.

Bottom line: on an ideological level, it might be fair to say that there are three factions in the Senate: liberals, conservatives, and this small group of moderates. It's not enough for Democrats simply to unite the liberals. They also have to find a way to include at least one of these moderates. On the stimulus bill, these moderates were a package deal. They might be again, in which case it makes sense to court Olympia Snowe, the one moderate of the three who participated in the committee process.

-Jay Cost

How Is This a "Farce?"

People are worked up that Barack Obama has won the Nobel Peace Prize, but isn't the Nobel Committee just following the lead of the United States on this one?

Let's look at the top-line qualification of the men this country has elected to be President:

(1) George Washington: General
(2) John Adams: Vice-President
(3) Thomas Jefferson: Vice-President
(4) James Madison: Secretary of State
(5) James Monroe: Secretary of State
(6) John Quincy Adams: Secretary of State
(7) Andrew Jackson: General
(8) Martin van Buren: Vice-President
(9) William Henry Harrison: General
(10) James K. Polk: Speaker of the House
(12) Zachary Taylor: General
(14) Franklin Pierce: Congressman / Senator (10 years)
(15) James Buchanan: Secretary of State
(16) Abraham Lincoln: Congressman (2 years)
(18) Ulysses S. Grant: General
(19) Rutherford Hayes: Congressman (2 years) / Governor of Ohio (5 years)
(20) James Garfield: Congressman (18 years)
(22) Grover Cleveland: Governor of New York (2 years)
(23) Benjamin Harrison: Senator (6 years)
(25) William McKinley: Congressman (12 years) / Governor of Ohio (4 years)
(26) Theodore Roosevelt: President
(27) William Howard Taft: Secretary of War
(28) Woodrow Wilson: Governor of New Jersey (2 years)
(29) Warren G. Harding: Senator (6 years)
(30) Calvin Coolidge: President
(31) Herbert Hoover: Secretary of Commerce
(32) Franklin Roosevelt: Assistant Secretary of the Navy / Governor of New York (4 years)
(33) Harry Truman: President
(34) Dwight Eisenhower: General
(35) John F. Kennedy: Congressman / Senator (14 years)
(36) Lyndon Johnson: President
(37) Richard Nixon: Vice-President
(39) Jimmy Carter: Governor of Georgia (4 years)
(40) Ronald Reagan: Governor of California (8 years)
(41) George H.W. Bush: Vice-President
(42) Bill Clinton: Governor of Arkansas (12 years)
(43) George W. Bush: Governor of Texas (6 years)
(44) Barack Obama: Senator (4 years)

Barack Obama might not be the least-credentialed person ever to win election as President, but he is pretty darned close. This is a highly subjective process, so I'll just give you my personal opinion. When it comes to qualifications, I would rank Barack Obama in a three-way tie for last place with Woodrow Wilson and Grover Cleveland. Obama technically served four years in the United States Senate, but the nature of our permanent campaign means that he was only around for two of them. Lincoln's time in government was as limited as the other three, but I'd place him a notch higher because he put his reputation on the line in opposition to the Mexican War (the country's original "war of choice!").

The Democrats chose Obama to be their nominee over Hillary Clinton, who was clearly more qualified. Next, the whole country elected him over John McCain, who has been in the Congress for over 20 years. Both times, the man with the half-page résumé and inspiring rhetoric was selected over opponents who could point to tangible, if less grandiose, contributions they had actually made.

This is why I am perplexed. The Democratic Party, then the entire country, elevated Barack Obama to the presidency not based on any actual accomplishments or manifest experience in handling the affairs of state, but rather his extravagant promises of change. Hasn't the Nobel Committee done the same thing here? If you were fine with the former, how is the latter "farcical?"

-Jay Cost

The Olympics, Obama, and the Permanent Campaign

Chicago has lost its Olympics bid, despite Obama's insertion into the process. People are shocked because they figured that Obama would fly in if and only if the deal was done.

But why? That assumes a typical allocation of the presidential prestige. President Obama has been anything but typical in the use of that asset. Let's remember that this is the President who in the last nine months has appeared on both 11:30 PM talk shows. This is the President who can be seen on TBS in a spot advertising the upcoming George Lopez Show. This is the President who has had more primetime news conferences and more joint addresses to Congress than any president up to this point in his campaign tenure. This is the only President to pull a "Ginsberg" (and my guess is that he'll set the record for that when it's all said and done). This is the President who has gone out on the campaign trail again and again and again, even though the election is long since passed. This is the President who puts himself - and his family - on the cover of all sorts of supermarket and newsstand magazines month after month. This is the President who never hesitates to inject himself into the public consciousness for any little reason he likes.

This is the permanent campiagn. We have talked about its imminence for years. Well, now it's here and this is what it looks like. This is what a President does in it. Previous Presidents would only put themselves out there in this kind of diplomatic situation if there was no more campaigning, lobbying, and cajoling to be done. But this President sees himself above all as the chief campaigner, lobbyist, and cajoler. That explains so many of the ways in which the Obama Presidency differs from previous administrations (Democratic and Republican alike), and it also explains why we should not be so shocked by this result. This particular campaign failed.

I, for one, am exhausted by our new permanent campaign. That might sound strange coming from somebody who runs the Horse Race Blog, but it is true. The ominpresence of the Obama campaign apparatus is, frankly, wearing me down. I can't get away from him or it, even in my down times. Watching the Office on TBS used to be a real pleasure for me and the missus, but now we must be interrupted by the President of the United States cracking lame jokes at us in the promotion of a second-rate comedian. There is no escape.

It's not simply because enough is enough, though that is part of it. It's also because he is different now. He holds the executive authority of the United States within his person at this moment, and it is sobering to see the holder of such vast power on the cover of a magazine urging us to follow his fitness regime. By continuing the permanent campaign into his tenure so thoroughly, he has given new meaning to the phrase "big government." When he is on the cover of Men's Health telling us how to work out, in a certain sense, the federal government's executive authority is on the cover of Men's Health telling us how to work out.

And so it continues today. What should have been a story about Chicago - or better yet, Rio (good for you, Rio!) - is now a story about...Obama. Of course. Because just about everything in the public sphere must, must become a story about Obama. Because Obama injects himself and his campaign appartus/mindset/worldview into everything. And so, in this case, what would otherwise have been a "mere" rejection of Chicago and Mayor Daley has now become a rejection of the entire country. Why? Because of his decision to perpetuate the permanent campaign while holding the power of the executive.

I was hesitant to place a bet on the outcome of the health care debates, but I'll place one here. Sooner or later, the American people are going to say, "Enough is enough" with this constant, incessant politicking that is inevitably built around the specialness of Barack Obama. This is not the way past presidents have behaved, and I believe for good reason: the old way is the way the people like it. If this President continues to inject himself into every little thing - such as he did with this Olympian blunder - at some point he is going to exhaust the country, thereby losing the goodwill of his fellow citizens that he still enjoys today.

Mr. Obama: please remember that you're just the President. It's a big deal, but it's not that big of a deal. Chester Arthur was President. For goodness sake, Warren Harding was President, and his share of the vote was much larger than yours. Thomas Jefferson's tombstone doesn't even mention his eight years as President. Your current office isn't discussed until Article TWO of the Constitution. Take the hint, and tone it down!

-Jay Cost

Does Obama Have a Republican Problem?

We all know that President Obama has a Republican problem, namely the 200 or so Republican members of Congress who refuse to go along with his health care reform plans. However, I think he might also be developing a republican problem. Namely, I think he is having trouble keeping his ego within the boundaries of an office that fundamentally reflects the republican quality of this country.

It is difficult to nail down precisely what "republicanism" means. It has had different meanings in different places at different times. In the United States, it conjures up the notion of self-government: the people are capable of ruling themselves, and the authority of the leaders derives from the consent of the governed, rather than some aristocratic pedigree or superior position in life.

The evidence of American republicanism is all around us. Consider, for instance, the title of address for the President of the United States. Originally, Federalists like John Adams desired a grand title, something like "His Highness." However, the simple phrase "Mr. President" was ultimately adopted.

Anybody who walks down the 1600 Block of Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. will notice that the house of the most powerful person on the planet lacks the grandiosity that one might otherwise expect.

White House.jpg

Compare this residence to the head of the House of Windsor.

buckingham_palace_london_uk_photo_gov.jpg

Or how about the old home of the French House of Bourbon.

Versailles.jpg

The first home is the residence of a republican leader. It is formal and respectable, but not grandiose. In square footage terms, your place might be larger than the President's. You might also make more money than the President. Lots of people do, seeing as how we do not pay him that much. George Washington wanted to turn down the princely sum that the First Congress was prepared to pay him for his tenure. Generally, Washington's modesty and self-restraint helped establish the republican quality the office retains to this day.

Ironically, the sense that the President is no better than any of us is a major reason why the office is so powerful, or at least why it can be. A President who appears to be of the people, rather than above them, can more easily rally them to his cause, thereby forcing the Congress to do as he likes. It is not coincidental that the first stirrings of the modern, powerful presidency can be seen in the administration of Andrew Jackson, who was thought by his opponents to be the leader of a mob.

Since he emerged on the national stage, Barack Obama has not been the model of American republicanism. This was the case during the campaign, and it continues today. Juxtapose the simple respectability of the White House with these images taken from the Obama-Biden campaign website.

Creepy Obama Imagery.jpg

This is why I was not surprised to see that video of schoolchildren being taught to praise President Obama like he is a deity. Ultimately, the campaign that President Obama waged hinted at such ideas. Is it a shock that a few, overly enthusiastic supporters thought it appropriate to proselytize in such a fashion?

That "Progress" picture is easily the most non-republican of the bunch. The image suggests that Obama's campaign is somehow a source of goodness for the people. From a republican standpoint, the imagery in the picture should be reversed, with the people being the source of goodness from which the candidate benefits.

I had hoped that the President would find his inner republican upon ascension to the office. I have been disappointed. His speeches are too full of references to himself. His omnipresence suggests a disregard for the people's tolerance levels, as well as for the idea that ours is a limited government and we are entitled to enjoy our lives without these constant executive impositions. Additionally, I share Michael Gerson's sentiments regarding his address to the U.N., which was typical of other speeches he has given to the international community:

Obama's rhetorical method in international contexts -- given supreme expression at the United Nations this week -- is a moral dialectic. The thesis: pre-Obama America is a nation of many flaws and failures. The antithesis: The world responds with understandable but misguided prejudice. The synthesis: Me. Me, at all costs; me, in spite of all terrors; me, however long and hard the road may be. How great a world we all should see, if only all were more like...me.

On several occasions, Obama attacked American conduct in simplistic caricatures a European diplomat might employ or applaud. He accused America of acing "unilaterally, without regard for the interests of others" -- a slander against every American ally who has made sacrifices in Iraq and Afghanistan. He argued that, "America has too often been selective in its promotion of democracy" -- which is hardly a challenge for the Obama administration, which has yet to make a priority of promoting democracy or human rights anywhere in the world.

There are two problems with the attitude that Gerson has correctly identified. First, it's fair to criticize the actions of the previous administration to a point, but speeches like his U.N. address often move beyond that to suggest a broader failure, one that implicates the mass public. For instance, the best rejoinder he has to those who question the "character" of his country is: "look at the concrete actions we have taken in just nine months," which he suggests are "just a beginning." This rhetoric does not befit the leader of a democratic republic, especially one as great as the United States of America. The President should be willing and able to defend the "character" of his country beyond his own, inconsequential-to-date actions.

Second, the implication here is that his administration has sanctified our character. No administration can do that in a republic because no administration possesses the moral standing to offer such a blessing. He is the equal of the people in every measure. He temporarily holds an office whose magnificence is dependent upon the goodness of the people he represents. Yet this President implies a claim to such moral superiority - in the above quoted sentence, then later on when he says: "The test of our leadership will not be the degree to which we feed the fears and old hatreds of our people." No President should suggest that his people would fall prey to fear and hatred were it not for his leadership - even if he thought this were true. And he surely should not air such "dirty laundry" to an international audience that does not understand how this country actually functions. Instead, he should claim that he leads a great people who have the wisdom and equanimity not to fall prey to such fears, and it is his hope that he can emulate them.

Ultimately, this President stands a better chance of success if he embraces the republican character of the people who imbue his temporary position with its power and majesty. The fact is that we are a republican people who tend not to think that anybody is better than we. If we begin to intuit that the President thinks he is better, it could impede his efforts to rally us to his side.

It is also a fact that staunch republicans created the presidency, and the office reflects their preferences even after 220 years of intervening history. By explicit design, the President is not a leader-for-life. Instead, he must face the judgment of his peers just 48 months after he wins the office. The Constitution endorses the view of the supremacy of the people because it delineates a timeline for when the executive power leaves the President and returns to the people (originally, as represented by the state governments). As if that were not enough, the 22nd Amendment forbids a President from seeking a third term, meaning that the people of this democratic republic will be around long after the Obama Administration has come to an end.

-Jay Cost

The President's Choice

Poll after poll shows the public has real concerns about the health care proposals working their way through the Congress, as well as the President's handling of the issue. Even the latest CBS News/New York Times poll - whose 22/37 Republican/Democrat split has probably not been seen in an actual election since 1936 - shows a confused and divided public.

In this country, it is highly inadvisable for political leaders to pass such sweeping reforms absent a consensus that is both broad and deep. Such a consensus simply does not exist on this issue. If the President and Democratic leaders move forward with their plans anyway - despite these plainly and clearly expressed doubts - they risk reaping the whirlwind.

The Framers of the Constitution learned the lessons of the 17th century well, when the Stuart monarchs claimed Divine Authority and persistently harassed and undermined the English Parliament. The men who designed our system had the good sense to mandate regularly scheduled, frequently occurring elections to the House of Representatives. In most instances, the public does not feel compelled to use this opportunity to impose drastic changes on Washington, D.C. In 2006 and 2008, it did feel so compelled, and the political implications of its actions were far-reaching.

If the Obama Administration and congressional Democrats continue putting forward reforms that (at best) divide and confuse the public (and depending on the poll, unify the public in opposition) - they risk the wrath of the electorate in just 14 months time. Per the Constitution, "all bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives." If it is the case that the Republicans take a House majority - or win enough seats to form a practical center-right coalition with Blue Dogs - the House's power of the purse will be sufficient to halt the President's domestic policy agenda in its tracks. I suspect that Republican leaders would take a cue from Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats circa 2007: they would intuit that their best bet was to grind the government to a halt by not working with President Obama, and force him to defend a "broken" system come 2012.

It does not have to be this way. If the President would narrow the scope of these overly ambitious reforms, it is likely that he could formulate a broad legislative consensus on changes to the health care system. He would not win the more conservative legislators, of course, but he would win moderate and moderately conservative Republicans, and by extension enjoy broader public support. This would help minimize his party's losses come next November, and put him in better shape for reelection.

This is the President's choice. By all indications, he is choosing the ambitious reform package that the country is wary of. If he ultimately does select this option, my prediction is that the next few years in politics will be unpleasant for just about everybody.

-Jay Cost

How Close are the Democrats on Health Care Reform?

Some commentators have suggested that the Democrats are pretty close to finalizing a comprehensive bill on health care. But like Mickey Kaus, I am not as certain. Last week, I listed several questions I had about the bill's progress. Here's an update on that post, plus a few extra considerations.

What Happens When an Unstoppable Force Meets an Immovable Object?

I saw this in the Huffington Post today:

The Blue Dog Coalition is engaged in a member-to-member whip operation in the House, beginning with a survey of its 52 lawmakers, to find out where they stand on critical health care issues. The principal focus is the public insurance option, but the canvass also touches on various tax and revenue increase proposals to pay for reform.

The pressure is being mounted after three House committees already passed reform bills and House Democratic leaders are working to merge them into a final floor package.

For the first time since they formed in 1995, the Blue Dogs have been out-organized by their liberal counterparts. The Congressional Progressive Caucus completed its first survey and began whipping back in the spring. They launched a final whip count last week that will be finished by Wednesday evening.

This does not seem like a beneficial development for reform efforts, in my opinion. You have one faction within the Democratic Party whipping in one direction, another whipping in the opposite direction. And we're supposed to be just six weeks out from a final bill? Importantly, I've not yet seen evidence that one side or the other is prepared to buckle. Until I do, I have to conclude that serious hurdles remain.

Relatedly, there are reports that Pelosi intends to push the House bill to the left. Is this a sign that the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) holds the most sway in the chamber? Or is it a reflection of her policy preferences? Either way, what happens during the conference process if the CPC remains staunch in its support of a robust public option?

Also, I have seen a lot of Baucus-blasting on the progressive blogs over the last few weeks. There has also been fighting between DailyKos and FireDogLake, on the one hand, and Blue Dog leader Jim Cooper on the other. That is not a positive sign. If Democrats are prepared to come together around a single measure, I have not seen a heck of a lot of evidence of it. It is quite possible that not just Republicans - but some faction of the Democratic Party - is going to be on the outside looking in if a bill is passed.

Is There a Compromise Position?

I do not know of one yet. I've heard a lot of talk about "triggers" for a public option. This seems to work for approximately two people: Rahm Emanuel and Olympia Snow. That's not enough to pass a bill through the Congress! Nancy Pelosi sure does not like the trigger idea. Leaders might find common ground - heck, they might have found it just now, as I am writing this! - the point is that I have not seen anything yet that can unite these factions.

The public option is not the only thorny issue. Another one is whether they can produce a bill that does what the progressives want without alienating the budget hawks who will be needed for passage. This is also going to be a factor in any reconciliation process. Reconciliation bills that increase the budget deficit by even a small amount cannot get through.

What about time frames?

The Senate Finance Committee has blown deadline after deadline, and with more than 500 amendments on its table - it looks as though it is going to blow yet another one. Democrats are talking about a 6-week window for getting a bill through the process, and Mickey Kaus has a reasonable explanation for why:

"Orszag Sees Health Law in Six Weeks" (Bloomberg): OMB Director Peter Orszag didn't really predict a health care law in six weeks--he said "The goal would be, yes, over the next six weeks or so, maybe sooner,." We know all about "goals." But the 6-week frame is not an accident, because something happens in 6 weeks: elections. If Democrats lose big gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia, that could produce a new wave of jitters among already skittish Congressional swing Democrats.

More delays will push the bills past these off-off-year elections, and Kaus is right. Bad results in those elections could make nervous Democrats all the more nervous.

Like Kaus, I am suspicious of these time estimates. The fact that Democratic leaders have still not made clear whether they are planning to use reconciliation or the normal legislative process suggests that (a) they still do not know who will support what and/or (b) they still do not know what will actually be in the bill. How then can they give us precise estimates?

What about seniors?

Last week I questioned how the public will react to these proposals, and what that will mean to the legislative process. Gallup has produced some data that helps us specify this question: what does it mean that senior citizens are opposed to this bill? As I have written before, seniors are a significant force in midterm elections. What happens if senior opposition stiffens?

Do we really know anything?

One of the problems with writing about Congressional policymaking as it happens is that a lot of the real meaty stuff happens behind closed doors, and leaders who give "progress reports" do not have an incentive to offer accurate assessments. Instead, they are better off giving overly bullish reports, i.e. spin. So, here is the trouble I find myself in. I suspect that most of the members who speak to the press are trying to spin me. I also do not trust the journalists producing the news stories that serve as my primary data set. I do not think they can differentiate the spin from the reality - and in fairness to them, I do not see how they could. So, like Descartes, I am in quite the epistemological quandary here. But unlike old René, I do not have an insightful axiom like "I think therefore I am" to build knowledge upon.

In other words, the conditions of uncertainty are severe, to say the least. That's why I still have nothing but questions. And as for my prediction for a comprehensive bill passing...how about this: I'll put it at 50% with a standard deviation of 25%, for a practical range of 25% to 75%.

That's what you might call a punt!

-Jay Cost

Five Questions on Health Care

The Democrats in Congress have reconvened to continue work on health care. Their ultimate success or failure will hinge on how several questions are answered. Here are five that I'll be asking.

1. How will the legislative math work? I have yet to see a proposal that unites the various factions of the Democratic Party in the Congress, so the question becomes how can party leaders get the 218 votes in the House then 60 in the Senate? The fact that there is still no clear signal on reconciliation, the principal benefit of which would be to reduce the burden from 60 to 51, is an indication that the leadership itself does not quite know how the votes will line up.

As of now, the conventional wisdom among the punditocracy is that the public option will be dropped as a way to pick up party moderates, under the assumption that the progressive caucus will go along for the ride. But will they? It is highly unlikely that all of them will. Most of them would presumably be willing to grant at least some small concessions to add votes - but how far are they willing to go? That depends upon individual legislators themselves, which means that - until you get to 218 in the House and 60/51 in the Senate - every concession the leadership makes had better add more moderates than it loses progressives. This is when legislative calculus begins to look like actual calculus!

There are indications that a compromise will be a hard pill for many progressives to swallow. This is Representative Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), co-chair of the House Progressive Caucus, on the compromise coming out of the Senate Finance Committee:

I think the product that has come out from [Max Baucus's] committee and himself, I really believe that it has no legitimacy in this debate. It's an insider product. It's there to protect the industry. It is not there to try to look for that middle ground. He is key in holding up deliberations, has been key in trying to work on a consensus, but everything you see in his legislation had to be approved by the industry before it became part of the plan...I consider Senator Baucus's proposal to be essentially an insider trader move to protect an industry and really doesn't have validity at all, both political validity or content validity.[Emphasis Mine]

This is not the first time I have seen a progressive House member blast Baucus. John Conyers took a shot at him a few months ago, and Baucus does not appear to be terribly popular on the progressive sites.

The progressive caucus is going to do a head count this week to find out how many members agree with Grijalva on the following point:

And, you know, this political line in the sand that we have drawn is not a gimmick. We feel very strongly about it. We believe that it's not only good public policy that we're advocating, it's good political policy, because our base really needs to see its party and its leadership come through with a commitment that was made in this era of change. And this is one of them. Health reform is the biggie. And I think the progressives, while there will be an effort to label us, I think we're going to work hard these next two weeks to build not only the internal support that we need for the public plan, but, more importantly, the external support to also put pressure on our colleagues. [Emphasis Mine]

The House leadership can afford to lose about 40 of their members before a bill fails in the lower chamber, assuming no Republican votes (which at this point seems reasonable). Recently, 57 members of the House Progressive Caucus indicated that they would not vote for a bill that lacks "a robust public option". The big question is: how many of those members are making a credible threat? That the White House is sending the President out to campaign strongly for the public option just this weekend is a sign that the answer to this question is not as obvious as it might seem.

2. What's the common ground on the public option? Like the last query, I do not think the answer to this question is as obvious as it first appears. We might initially think it is something like Baucus's Senate Finance plan, but I would refer again to the progressive reaction to the Baucus plan. Grijalva goes out of his way there to suggest that the Baucus plan is not common ground.

In general I am not sure how progressives are going to view any kind of compromise bill that attracts the moderates. Their attitude seems to be one of deep suspicion of the for-profit health industry. Take away the public option, but retain employer and/or individual mandates, and that looks like a big boon to the insurance companies. They might consider that an outright defeat. In that case, the normal calculations of compromise - you get half a loaf versus a whole loaf, but you're still better off - would not apply. Progressives might think they have not gotten even half a loaf at all!

This points to one big problem with doing comprehensive reforms like this. Different factions have different diagnoses for what ails the system - and when a comprehensive bill is introduced, it inevitably favors one view over another. If the progressives' view is on the losing end, they might think the bill does not do much of anything. And remember: the President wants to be the "last" to tackle this issue - meaning that the stakes are very high. So, if the progressives think the bill will further solidify the insurance industry's hold over health care, they might bolt.

3. Can the party come together around a cost estimate? Obama's speech last week helped to unite the party, but it was a campaign style speech that did not even try to resolve the issues that have actually divided it (and forced the President to make the speech in the first place!). The public option is such an issue, but it is just one part of a broader divide among the various factions in the caucus.

Another issue is the price tag, and relateldy how it is funded. Can the leadership put together a bill that accomplishes policy goals to the progressives' satisfaction without exploding the deficit, which will drive away moderates? The first attempts at this - the House tri-committee bill and the Senate HELP committee bill - were unsuccessful. Again, progressives seem not to like the Senate Finance Committee outline, either. So, the search for a Goldilocks-style compromise - neither too hot nor too cold, but just right - continues.

4. How much work is left to be done? Last week, the President repeated the oft-quoted notion that there is agreement on 80% of an overhaul. That may be so, but it does not really answer the question. Historically speaking, the Democrats can always agree on the initial 80%; it's that final 20% that tends to trip them up!

Intra-party disagreements almost always happen behind closed doors; their public pronouncements tend to be little more than spin, so I don't even have a sense on this one. Here are things I am wondering. What items do they need to find agreement on? Do they at least have basic ideas about how to get to an agreement? How much from the original bills can be salvaged? Have they made positive progress on that 20%, or have they spent the last few months merely learning what will not work? Above all, can they get it done "in time?"

"In time" is in scare quotes because it's a purely political concept, which means the leadership might redefine it as it sees fit. Indeed, the timeline has already been altered once - there were no votes taken in July, as was initially demanded. The new deadline is Thanksgiving. There might be too much work left to do to meet that deadline, which in turn would suggest it might have to be pushed back again. Can it be? That would put the vote for passage in the second session of the 111th Congress, during the midterm election year. That could be dicey, which means the answer to this question is a politically consequential one.

5. How will the public react, and how will legislators react to that reaction? Clearly, the public response to the House tri-committee bill and the Senate HELP committee bill was less than positive. The town hall protests reflected the strong opposition of the right, and the President's sagging poll numbers indicated that the broad middle had its doubts, too. How will the public react to the new proposal, once it is actually produced? That's uncertain, to say the least. Few people expected the reaction we saw this summer, so who knows what will come next. Additionally, will moderate legislators want an opportunity to take the new bill back to their districts to gauge public reaction? Will the leadership give them an opportunity?

Relatedly, how will the right respond? It has essentially been shut out of this process - that agreement on 80% is agreement among Democrats to the exclusion of Republicans - but conservatives have nevertheless found ways back into the public debate. This weekend's "tea party" protest in Washington indicates at the least that the right is worked up enough to take to the streets - something that historically is a hallmark of leftwing activism. So, it will be interesting to see how the right attempts to inject its views into the process, and what result that will produce.

Final point on this. When gauging the legislative reaction, it's important not to commit a fallacy of division. For instance, if support for the bill is split 50-50 in a national poll - then you can probably expect that more Louisianans oppose it than favor it. This will affect the political calculations of Senator Landrieu and Representative Melancon, inclining them against the bill. Generally, the strong Democratic presence in red state Senate seats means that 50-50 might actually mean something less when it comes time to tally up the votes in the upper chamber.

-Jay Cost

Obama Votes "Present"

In my judgment President Obama's address last night was little more than a campaign speech with the Congress as the set piece. Evaluated from that perspective, it was a success. But from the perspective of finding a policy solution - i.e. actual governance - it contributed nothing to health care reform.

The President had to give yesterday's speech for a simple, straightforward reason: his party is divided on a few key issues, above all the public option. This is what forced the delay through August, at which point the opposition was able to seize the microphone from government leaders and drive their poll numbers down.

To ameliorate this dilemma, the President chose to give last night's speech. In it, he:

(1) Focused on items that unite the Democrats.
(2) Blasted Republicans while praising bipartisanship.
(3) Indulged in rhetorical flights of fancy that have become his stock in trade.

Each of these items contributed some aspect to the ostensible goal of rallying the Democrats and Democratic-leaning Independents. It probably did that, at least to an extent.

However, it failed to address the reason for their doldrums. Democrats need rallying because of internal divisions over actual policy disagreements. President Obama did not deal with those divisions. When you strip away the setting, the soaring rhetoric, the poetic cadences, and all the rest, you're left with the criticism that both Hillary Clinton and John McCain leveled at him through all of last year: he voted present.

The following is the bottom line on health care, as best I can tell. The progressives are deeply skeptical of the insurance companies, the drug companies, and all for-profit entities that provide health care. They believe that any reforms lacking a "robust" public option will enable them to continue to place profitability over care. Many progressives consider the public option to be a compromise from the single-payer system that they prefer.

This idea is a non-starter to those who are deeply skeptical of increased government activity. There are a lot of these people in the Blue Dog districts, which tend to be in the South, the Border States along the Ohio River, and the Great Plains. So, anything approaching a "robust public option" is simply too much for them. Their representatives are rightly concerned that a yea vote on a public option will cost them their jobs.

Meanwhile, Republicans have already been forced to walk away from the table because of all sorts of other items. As a rhetorical point, it is all well and good for Democrats to blast Republicans for not cooperating in the process, but that is tantamount to criticizing them for not being Democrats. Let's be serious: does anybody really think the bulk of the GOP - the party of William McKinley, Calvin Coolidge, and Ronald Reagan - will sign on to such a massive increase in governmental regulation of private activity? This is what makes most Republicans who they are. You can add goodies like tort reform trial programs, but that is like putting chocolate frosting on chopped liver as far as most Republicans are concerned.

So, where does that leave the Democrats? To get the requisite number of votes, the leaders have to cobble together a majority coalition in which some party moderates and liberals likely do not participate. This is an extremely tricky procedure. It's not as straightforward as saying something like, "Kathy Dahlkemper (D - Erie, PA) is the median voter. So, let's write the bill for her." Doing that might lose the left flank, so the leaders have to watch them as well to make sure they are still on board. They have to do this individually in both chambers, then all at once after the conference bill is produced. Additionally, there might be no second chances here. If they invest their efforts in a bill that ultimately falls short - there might not be sufficient willpower among the rank-and-file to start again.

As I said, the key issue appears to be the public option. This is why triggers and co-ops are being discussed. Leaders are looking to water down the public option enough so that the requisite number of moderates can be brought on board, but not so much that the left flank leaves the coalition. If they cannot find some middle ground, they are not going to get a comprehensive reform package - seeing as how they have already lost almost all of the Republican Party.

With this in mind, here's the question: what did last night's speech contribute to finding a solution? I'd say that the answer is nothing. The President (once again) refused to get his hands dirty on this issue. He praised the public option to the hilt, rhetoric intended for the progressives, then he hinted that it could be ditched, rhetoric intended for the moderates. At some point in the policymaking process, a choice will have to be made. It was not made last night, which means that this was a governing opportunity lost.

President Obama clearly aspires to be a great president, like FDR and Lincoln. Last night he framed the health care debate by confidently placing himself at the end of a list of Presidents that begins with a leader so consequential his visage is on Mount Rushmore. Here's something he should know about the great ones, who have a few key features in common: they know their political parties like the backs of their hands, and they know how to guide them to policy success, much as a good business executive guides her employees to profitability. If this President does not learn how to manage the factions within his own party - he will not be remembered as a great President. "Rah-rah" speeches such as last night's are sure to be part of any good management strategy, but they are far from sufficient. The President is going to have to do more.

-Jay Cost

Obama To Give Historic Speech...Again

Another historic, monumental speech from the 44th President of the United States. He's averaging about one of these every three weeks now, isn't he?

To say that this President is overexposed is an understatement. He was overexposed six months ago when he let his kids appear on the cover of Jann Wenner's trashy supermarket celeb mag. I'm not sure what prefix to use, but "over-" does not sufficiently describe a President who is now doing 30-second spots for George Lopez's new late night show on TBS. Seriously.

What exactly is this speech supposed to do? Let's ditch the metaphors - "game changer," "ninth inning" - and use words that point to actual things: health care reform is in trouble because of differences among factions of the Democratic Party. The compromises that moderates like Ben Nelson require are apparently too much for liberals like Anthony Weiner to accept. How is a speech supposed to overcome this? It would either have to: (a) propose a third-way solution that both sides can agree to, or (b) convince one side or the other that it needs to adjust its stance.

Should we really expect a speech to do that, considering all the other things the President intends to do in it?

I'd say no. I think this will be little more than a change in tone - perhaps from cool/slightly mocking Obama to angry/forceful Obama. From the looks of it, the President is still planning to make all the same points he's been hammering for months. He'll ask for bipartisan cooperation while remaining cagey on the public option (a deal breaker for 99% of the Republican caucus). He will again insist the time for debate is over and the time for action is now. He'll make a not-terribly-compelling case about how this somehow relates to the current economic morass, even though the benefits do not kick in for years. He'll fearlessly stand up to Republican straw men, who never offer anything except disingenuous attacks.

Why is the White House doing this? I think there are two answers that kind of relate to each other.

First, it has begun to believe its own spin that the President is good at giving game changing speeches. But he isn't really. Nobody is. If the game could change because of a speech, the game would constantly be changing because lots of people can give a decent speech, especially when they have a TelePrompTer. President Obama is a compelling speaker to a relatively narrow segment of the country - namely, African Americans and white social liberals. He inspired them to support his primary campaign against Hillary Clinton - but other voters (including many in his own party) were harder to win over. His Philadelphia speech on race was no Cooper Union; it merely distracted attention from the main question of why he spent so many years in that church. His numbers still fell, and he struggled through the rest of the primaries, even losing South Dakota on the day he declared victory. He then gave big speeches in Europe and Denver, but it was only thanks to the financial panic of last September that he had a breakthrough.

Still, his speechifying seems to give some people a thrill up the leg - and the idea that he's not just a good speaker, but a game changing speaker, has become conventional wisdom. I think the White House believes that this is actually true.

Second, it does not know what else to do. It looks like Congress is at something less than square one. There is no passable compromise that has been proposed - nothing that can win enough votes in the center without losing the left flank. But now the "Gang of Six" has basically broken up, public approval has tanked, moderates are scared, and if there isn't bad blood on the Democratic side of the aisle there is at least a lot of finger pointing. If Humpty Dumpty breaks and you don't know how to put him back together - why not give a speech and boldly proclaim how important it is to put him back together?

As I wrote last week, I think he has to scale this proposal back. Rome was not built in a day, after all. I think he should propose some insurance reforms that can garner the level of support needed in the Senate - winning over Republicans like Grassley, Voinovich, Collins but losing DeMint, Coburn, and Inhofe. If he would just lower his sights a bit, stop grasping for that once-in-a-lifetime overhaul of 1/7th of the United States economy - he could win the kind of big bipartisan victory he had talked about during the campaign.

One thing this might do is end the internal battle in his own party. By demanding comprehensive reform, the President has raised the stakes, perhaps too high. The liberal intractability on the public option is completely understandable. If this is "the moment" for health care reform, then it is imperative that they get their key policy goals accomplished. If that doesn't happen now, they cannot expect that to happen anytime soon (if ever). But what they require is simply too much for moderate Democrats, especially those in McCain- and Bush-voting districts. If the President scaled back his ambitions, the final bill would not be as far to the left as the liberals like, but since it is not comprehensive they could at least plan to fight for the public option another day. Then, Obama could pick up enough moderates to pass it, and he could declare victory.

Incidentally, this is how most legislation gets passed in the Congress.

-Jay Cost

It's Time for Obama To Change Course

As we all know, President Obama's poll position has been sliding for some time. In the last two months, his net approval rating has gone from +25.5 to +11.1 in the RealClearPolitics average.

Contrary to the suggestions of some, the President should be worried about this. There are three reasons why.

First, the President's approval on key issues is lower than his overall job approval rating. This suggests that he might not yet have hit an approval floor.

Second, the President's formal powers are exceedingly narrow when it comes to pushing a domestic reform agenda. A quick perusal of Article II of the Constitution will confirm this. The powers that the Framers formally granted to the President are actually few and far between, at least as regards the home front. The growth of the bureaucratic state has expanded the President's power, as there are more governmental activities for him to manage. Also, Congress has ceded some legislative powers to executive agencies that report to the President.

However, none of this relates to advancing new reforms through the legislature. On this front, the President is not a prime minister. His power is largely informal. Richard Neustadt called it the power to persuade, to influence others to do what they would not otherwise do. A President whose job approval rating is low or quickly falling is less persuasive, and thus less powerful. So, while it is important not to obsess over every tiny ebb and flow of his job approval - it behooves the President to consider a course correction when there is a drop, which there clearly has been.

Third, if the President's job approval rating drops much more, the Republicans could score big gains in next year's House elections. This is quickly becoming conventional wisdom. But something else has gone less commented upon: there are different types of Republicans who are known to populate Congress.

There were the Republicans of the 109th Congress - largely inert, happy to keep things the way they were, pleased as punch just to be in power. They're the sort that Thomas Nast would have caricatured 125 years ago, and why Republican voters today still have so little faith in congressional Republicans.

These will probably not be the new Republicans on Capitol Hill in 2011 if there is a GOP surge. Instead, we're more likely to see Republicans who consider themselves "citizen legislators," the kind who take the 10th Amendment seriously, who plan to term limit themselves, who walk around the Capitol with a copy of the Constitution in their breast pocket, and so on. Enough of these true believing legislators could make life unpleasant for President Obama, who need only consider the experiences of Presidents Truman and Clinton if he has any doubts about this.

Such a Congress would force the White House to change course, which is why I would suggest that the President consider revising his strategy now. It is more convenient to change on your own terms rather than the terms set by your political opposition.

To that end, I have five suggestions for the President to consider. Three of them are general, two are specific.

***

(1) "The Cheese Stands Alone."

The Presidency is a lonely job. There is nobody else in the world with a position like the President's, and - even worse - everybody around him wants something from him. It might be electoral support. It might be policy support. It might be plain old access, i.e. his willingness to listen to what an advisor has to say. His advisors only have power, prestige and influence so long as he allows them to have it. He's the sun. They're moons, bright because of his reflected light.

This suggests that when changes must be made regarding the course that a Presidency is taking - the President alone must make the call. He has to recognize the problem himself, then he has to make the decisions about what to do. This simply cannot be left up to aides. Fundamental shakeups mean that their power might be degraded, which means he cannot count on them to give the best advice about course corrections.

(2) Get back to the ideas of his early campaign.

The idea of a President who changes the tone and searches for a broad consensus on public policy is a good one. It fits the character of the office itself.

Suppose you're a member of Congress from Wyoming. You might find it in your interests to run against the member from San Francisco. After all, your constituency and her constituency don't overlap, they have very little in common with each other (at least in the political realm), and they might not even like each other that much. In other words, the relative narrowness of your district might give you an incentive to be divisive.

The President does not have that kind of electoral incentive because everybody is in his constituency. He maximizes his chance of reelection by bringing more and more people together around his policy initiatives. It's worth noting that no president in the last hundred years has won election to a second term with a smaller share of the vote than what he received for the first. Many of them added substantially to their share of popular support.

Unlike the 535 members of Congress - the President has a clear electoral incentive to unify the country as much as possible. President Bush failed to do that, and he paid the consequences in his second term. As a candidate, Barack Obama sensed the importance of a President who brings people together. He should try to get back to that. That's not to say that unity should be his principal goal, but this President needs to value it more highly than he has so far in his brief tenure.

(3) Stop aggravating the opposition.

By definition, the opposition will always be opposed to the President. Plus, as a practical matter, there is almost always some opposition. Only George Washington and James Monroe enjoyed complete sweeps. However, it is not a good thing for a President to have his opposition hopping mad, which is currently the case.

Rasmussen's daily tracking poll has the President's current "strong disapprove" number 12 points higher than his "strong approve" number. This is not a good thing for President Obama. Let's think about those people willing to use an adjective like "strong" when describing their feelings about the President. They include those who go out there and make the case - for or against Mr. Obama - to others whose feelings are lukewarm. They are the proselytizers. At this very moment, they are out there talking to friends, family, neighbors, whoever will listen, about this President, trying to convince them that either he's great or he stinks.

Right now, the people who are arguing that he stinks are likely more numerous than those who still think he is great. This is not a good thing, considering that the middle of the country is squishy. The middle can see the same issue from multiple perspectives, which is why it swings back and forth. In the last twenty years, we have had three Democratic terms and three Republican terms because of the middle. A President needs the middle to stay with him, which means he does not want his opposition to be so aggravated that it is passionately working on convincing the middle to abandon the President.

Again, President Bush's experience serves as a cautionary tale. The left had tagged him as stubborn and unwilling to revisit his decisions once new facts prevented themselves. The public resisted this view at first - but eventually, the criticism took hold. His presidency suffered as a consequence.

(4) End Nancy Pelosi's tenure as de facto Prime Minister.

The White House's decision to permit Congress to do the bulk of the policymaking - while the President stays on the sidelines, enunciating broad principles - has basically allowed Nancy Pelosi to determine the character of the government's domestic agenda. She has had a very strong hand in the creation of the stimulus bill, the cap-and-trade bill, and now the health care bill.

This is a mistake that needs to be rectified as soon as possible. First of all, I have to question Nancy Pelosi's political instincts. She has to answer for the disaster that is the current House health bill. How could she have let the three House committees write it without proper consultation from the 40+ moderates on her own side whose support would be critical?

Second, put aside Pelosi's instincts and just consider her interests. The President needs to recognize that his interests and hers do not perfectly correspond. Take a simple, stylized example meant to illustrate this point. The Democratic caucus elects the Speaker of the House, so long as it controls a majority of seats. Let's suppose that there is a left-right battle for the Speakership, with 258 Democrat House members voting, and Pelosi is the liberal candidate whose strategy is to win the left-hand side of the caucus. Who are these members?

Vote View gives us some basic answers on this. Obama's average share of the vote in their districts was 69%. This indicates that these members come from places that are, on average, 16 points to the left of the country at large. Additionally, 43 of these members come from either New York or California!

Obviously, this is an over simple, stylized understanding of Pelosi's political position. It's merely intended to illustrate a point: her role in the government is maintained by a coalition that is more narrow than the President's electoral coalition. If President Obama continues to allow her to determine the course of domestic policy - he should expect that, by the end of his term, his coalition will be no larger than hers. That's not enough to win reelection.

(5) Keep an eye on Rahm Emanuel.

It's probably too early to fire somebody as important as the Chief of Staff, but I see Emanuel as a potential problem for Obama's presidency.

Personally, I was flabbergasted when I first heard the President was tapping "Rahmbo" to be his Chief of Staff. Of all the President's West Wing staffers, I'm hard pressed to think of anybody who is less representative of his professed desire to change the tone and find common ground. Emanuel has a reputation as a bare-knuckled partisan brawler, and the President made him his right-hand man...?! If Barack Obama gets back to the vision of his Presidency that he articulated during the campaign - it's hard to see how Emanuel fits in the scheme.

On top of this, somebody in the West Wing should answer for the lousy idea of outsourcing policy formation to Congress, and therefore to Nancy Pelosi. Something tells me that Emanuel - a former House leader - had a big hand in that strategy.

What's Sam Nunn up to these days?

***

I suspect that many of these suggestions will not sit well with Obama's liberal base, which might complicate any course corrections he takes. Still, I think changes like these are necessary. His base simply does not constitute a majority coalition in this country, which means the President has to hold the center. The left complained about Bush governing for his base over the last eight years. They were on to something, and look where he ended up at the conclusion of his term.

-Jay Cost

Amateur Hour at the White House

I just about fell out of my chair yesterday when I read this in the Washington Post.

President Obama's advisers acknowledged Tuesday that they were unprepared for the intraparty rift that occurred over the fate of a proposed public health insurance program, a firestorm that has left the White House searching for a way to reclaim the initiative on the president's top legislative priority.

This confirms a suspicion I have had for some time, and made clear a few weeks ago: Democratic leaders in the White House and on Capitol Hill have only recently begun to take seriously the internal divisions within their own party.

Frankly, I am stunned that they would be caught off guard by this. How could they not have anticipated this? How could they possibly have been surprised that the left and right flanks of the party would not see eye to eye?

To explain my utter, complete astonishment at this bone-headed mistake, I need a visual aid. The following is courtesy of Google Maps. It marks the district offices of four types of congressmen:

(1) Democratic House committee chairmen are marked with blue pinpoints.
(2) House leaders and chairmen closely involved with health care are marked with red crosses.
(3) The top 40 Democratic House members in McCain-voting districts are marked with yellow bubbles.
(4) Committee chairmen from the McCain-voting districts are marked with yellow pinpoints.

Here's the map:

Leaders Versus Marginals.jpg

As you can see, coastal liberals dominate the leadership positions. California has six of the 24 leadership positions I have delineated. Another seven are located roughly within the megapolis that stretches from Washington, D.C. to Boston. Meanwhile, those marginal members are clustered in the South and the Border States, with a few sprinkled across the Great Plains and then into Arizona.

This is a stark visual representation of the divide within the Democratic Party. We can clearly see the source of the problem. Liberal leaders from the coasts were given wide latitude by the White House to write these bills - and, unsurprisingly, they delivered products their fellow liberals love (or at least like). But the moderate and conservative Democrats - whose votes are needed for passage yet who run the risk of defeat next fall should the broad middle of the country sour on the reform efforts - weren't fully consulted, and don't like the bills. Hence, the internal friction - which corresponds pretty well with age-old sectional divisions in the party (more on that in a moment).

It was always going to be a challenge to find something that the moderates could stomach yet the liberals don't think is too watered down. That, more than anything else, was destined to be the highest hurdle for health care reform to jump. Amazingly, the White House waited until after the liberal House bills were published - and all the attending fallout - to take this challenge seriously, or even notice it! Because of this error, it is now in a substantially weaker position to find that middle ground. The liberals already have their bills on the table, so they are at least somewhat committed to them (as the Progressive Caucus has been saying for weeks, and as the WaPo article suggests). The moderates and conservatives are at home getting yelled at by angry constituents, rather than in D.C. searching for that common ground. The acrimony has forced Obama out onto the campaign trail, where he is making mistakes (e.g. the Post Office comment, the Cambridge police comment, and the AARP comment - all a consequence of the White House's desire to get back in front of the health care story). All of this has driven his poll numbers downward, leaving him less able to persuade the marginal members in the caucus, who must get getting nervous about November, 2010.

I can think of five very good reasons why the White House's lack of foresight on the potential for the intraparty squabble is absolutely inexcusable:

(1) For the months between November and January, we were treated to endless comparisons of Obama to the great presidents of the days of yore. One of them was Franklin Roosevelt. Question: who stopped the New Deal dead in its tracks after 1938? It wasn't the Republicans alone. It was Southern Democrats working in alliance with the Republicans. Who are the marginal members standing between Obama and a health care bill...Southern Democrats! Generally speaking, the internal cleavage within the Democratic Party (North v. South; left v. right) is really one of the most significant features of the political landscape since at least the Great Depression. After eighty some years and dozens of failed attempts at liberal reforms, there is no excuse for a President not to anticipate it rearing its head again.

(2) Much of last year was dominated by that famous primary brawl between Obama and Hillary - and all through these states (Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, etc.) the former First Lady made mincemeat of the junior Senator from Illinois. Then, when the general election rolled around, these states voted against him again. Historically speaking, these states usually vote for a winning Democrat. Obama should be very familiar with his struggles in this region, and not terribly surprised that the large number of Democratic members from it could create such problems for bills drafted by coastal liberals.

(3) How many of these members did Rahm Emanuel recruit? Fourteen of these seats changed hands in either 2006 or 2008 when Emanuel was in a leadership position in the House. Is this not a sufficiently representative sample to know that there could be trouble?

(4) Congress usually fails to find compromises on big solutions to big problems - exactly like what is being debated now - regardless of whether the legislature is under control of a single party or if it is split. This means that internal cleavages can do just as much damage to reform efforts as the partisan divide. This should be especially evident for an item like health care reform: Presidents Truman, Kennedy, Carter, and Clinton failed to deliver anything approaching the scope Obama is envisioning, even though the Democratic Party had complete control of Congress for at least parts of their terms.

(5) As stark as this map looks, the landscape in the Senate is even starker. Thirteen Democratic senators come from McCain states.

It's almost as if the President has absolutely no experience in dealing with the United States Congress whatsoever.

That's so puzzling, considering how Democrats turned down the fresh-faced newcomer who could turn a good phrase on the campaign trail for the old-hand who had been in Washington for 15 years by the time of the nomination battle. Oh wait...

-Jay Cost

Obama Misread His Mandate

After a rough week for health care reform, Democratic leaders appear to be pulling back on their demand for a public option. It remains to be seen whether liberal Democrats, especially in the House where they are more numerous, will go along with this. But this is still a step in the right direction to get something passed this year.

The public option was an overreach. The White House's erroneous belief that it could get it through the legislature - or at least that it could let four out of five congressional committees push it - was a misinterpretation of last year's election results. It has already made a similar mistake with cap-and-trade, backing a House bill that appears to have no chance of success in the Senate.

Bismarck once commented that politics is the art of the possible. So far, the White House has not exhibited a good understanding of exactly what is possible in this political climate. It has been acting as though the President's election was a major change in the ideological orientation of the country.

A lot of liberals certainly saw it as such. All the strained comparisons of Obama to Franklin Roosevelt were a tipoff that many were talking themselves into the idea that the 2008 election created an opportunity for a substantial, leftward shift in policy. Yet the election of 2008 was not like the 1932 contest. It wasn't like 1952, 1956, 1964, 1972, 1980, 1984, or even 1988, either. Obama's election was narrower than all of these. FDR won 42 of 48 states. Eisenhower won 39, then 41. Johnson won 44 of 50. Nixon won 49. Reagan won 44, then 49. George H.W. Bush won 40. Obama won 28, three fewer than George W. Bush in his narrow 2004 reelection.

This makes a crucial difference when it comes to implementing policy. Our system of government depends not only on how many votes you win, but how broadly distributed those votes are. This prevents one section or faction from railroading another. It is evident in the Electoral College and the House, but above all in the Senate, where 44 senators come from states that voted against Obama last year. That's a consequence of the fact that Obama's election - while historic in many respects, and the largest we have seen in 20 years - was still not as broad-based as many would like to believe. Bully for Obama and the Democrats that they have 60 Senators, but the fact remains that thirteen of them come from McCain states, indicating that the liberals don't get the full run of the show.

For whatever reason, the Obama administration has acted as if those hagiographical comparisons to FDR were apt. It let its liberal allies from the coasts drive the agenda and write the key bills, and it's played straw man semantic games to marginalize the opposition. For all the President's moaning in The Audacity of Hope about how the Bush administration was railroading the minority into accepting far right proposals - he was prepared to let his Northeastern and Pacific Western liberal allies do exactly the same thing: write bills that excite the left, infuriate the right, and scare the center; insist on speedy passage through the Congress; and use budget reconciliation to ram it through in case the expected super majority did not emerge.

This might have flown during FDR's 100 Days. But this is not 1933 and Barack Obama is no Franklin Roosevelt.

Now that his legislative agenda is stalling, we're seeing the predictable critiques about the outdated United States Senate, which is the real source of the bottleneck: the Connecticut Compromise was meant to protect the interests of small states, but not states that are this small. Rhode Island, yes. Wyoming, no! These arguments will be conveniently tabled whenever the Democrats return to minority status, so I won't bother to address their merits. The bigger question is: what did they think was going to happen? It's one thing to bemoan the fundamental unfairness of the Senate; it's another thing to overlook it when you're formulating your legislative program. The map is what it is: that big swath of red that runs through the middle of the country then swings right through the South should have been a tipoff that the stage was not set for coastal governance.

The President should have realized what was possible and what wasn't, and he should have used his substantial influence to push the House toward the kind of centrist compromise the Senate will ultimately require. That's called building a consensus - something he promised he'd do but has not yet made a serious effort at.

-Jay Cost

Health Care: Five Political Blunders

As Congress heads into recess, it is a good time to evaluate its efforts in enacting health care reform. My opinion is that the leadership and the President have committed some significant blunders. While a bill is still quite possible, they have to stop making unforced errors. Here are five big mistakes they have made.

No Consistent Message. Will there be a public option, or health care cooperatives? Will there be a tax on gold-plated insurance policies, or the companies that offer them? Will there be a tax just on millionaires, or the middle class? Will there be an employer mandate, an individual mandate, both, or neither? This is just a sampling of the questions people are asking about health care reform. There are not yet any answers because no final bills have been produced - and will not be for some time.

This makes it quite easy to attack reform efforts. All the opponents have to do is pick the most unpalatable of all the options on the table, and go after them. But what about defending them? That's a lot trickier because you have to parse: "Well...I favor this item but not that one," and so on. Ultimately, your defense of the bill has to be contingent upon what's eventually included. That's a weaker rhetorical position.

Divided Messengers. Who said this: "[W]hen you have a Senator like Max Baucus helping us make the decisions on a reform health care bill, you're in trouble." It wasn't Jim DeMint. It wasn't John Boehner. It was...John Conyers, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee!

Ideally speaking, a political party wants to push an issue that unites its side and divides the other side. For some reason, after fifteen years out of power, the Democrats have chosen as their first major legislative push an issue that does exactly the opposite. So it is that the leader of a prominent House committee criticizes the leader of a prominent Senate committee. So it is that liberal groups attack Ben Nelson, who might ultimately be the pivotal vote in the Senate. So it is that after weeks of arm-twisting and deal-making on Energy and Commerce, Henry Waxman still lost five Democrats on his committee (and not all of them were Blue Dogs). The latter implies a not insubstantial number of defections on the House floor. Some of them will be moderate - but there may be liberals voting nay as well. Late last week 57 progressives signed a tartly worded letter to Nancy Pelosi, Henry Waxman, Charlie Rangel and George Miller protesting the deal with the Blue Dogs and concluding: "We simply cannot vote for such a proposal." And this is just in the House.

As if the dry economics of public plans and surtaxes were not enough to divide members - there now is a question over whether the House bill subsidizes abortion. Good - as we all know, no issue bridges the political divide quite like abortion!

We'll see if the Dems' foray into the abortion controversy winds up any better than Jerry's.

Bad Timing. The timing of this push is horrible - of all the unforced errors on the part of Obama and the congressional leadership, this one is the worst. They are debating health care at a time when people are cheering that the economy is only shrinking by 1%, so relieved they are that the "free fall" is over! This Congress and President are simply not focusing on what is worrying the voters. Instead, they're too busy chasing FDR's ghost. Every Democratic leader wants to be the one to expand the New Deal/Great Society social welfare state - and Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid plan to be the ones to do it.

The political problem with this is twofold. First, the electoral risks associated with not staying focused on job one - fixing the economy - are too obvious to bother enumerating. Second, the government has already emptied the Treasury with TARP, the auto bailout, and the stimulus bill. The country is now feeling particularly averse to deficit spending, which makes the current political environment quite different from 1964/65, the last time such an expansion of social welfare was achieved. Back then, the country had been enjoying a five-year economic boom, and times were so good that LBJ could offer Kennedy's tax cut, the Great Society, and an amping up of the U.S. presence in Vietnam. That's not the way it is now. As the AP reports, tax receipts have declined 18% this year - the worst drop since the Great Depression - and President Obama's second choice for Commerce Secretary can now suggest on national television that we're on our way to being a Banana Republic...without anybody laughing him off the tube.

No Clear Legislative Strategy. What's the game plan to get a bill through the whole Congress? I'm not sure anybody has one. I once thought the President did - but after the legislature blew past his deadlines, I'm now quite skeptical. I do not think those deadlines were realistic, which makes me wonder what other unrealistic expectations his team has.

Here is the trillion-dollar question: can the legislature produce a bill that picks up enough moderates without alienating the left flank? I do not know the answer to this question - and frankly I don't think the Democratic leadership in Congress knows, either. I do not think they were even taking the question seriously until recently. How else to explain the pressure that has been exerted on Max Baucus, whose committee remains the best chance for a passable compromise? How else to explain why House Democratic leaders would think they could unveil a bill that made 40+ Blue Dogs choke? How about the objections by the progressives after the deal was reached? The compromise in Energy and Commerce was not so much a solution to the larger problem, but a way to kick the can down the road.

Charles Krauthammer suggested recently that the Democrats would pass something this year, though it would be much less than what has been offered to date. Maybe so - but is that realistic? Keith Hennessey doesn't seem to think so:

Some in Washington think the White House/Pelosi messaging shift is a strategic retreat, laying the groundwork for a fallback position in which the President could declare victory by enacting just the insurance reforms. As a matter of abstract legislative strategy this is a reasonable supposition. The health care reform legislative effort is going poorly for the President, and now is a logical time to make an initial shift to position for a partial win later.

But I don't see it. The health insurance reforms cannot be separated from the rest of the bill for substantive and procedural reasons. While the spending numbers could obviously be dialed way down, I don't see how one would substantively separate the health insurance reforms from the rest of the bill and have it still work. Even if you could, I don't see how you could procedurally get this done given the likely vote situation. Even if the abstract legislative strategy is correct that it's time for the Administration to cut their losses and prepare for a partial victory, I cannot figure out how they could execute such a strategic shift and deliver the desired result. They may be stuck with something close to an all-or-nothing choice.

Too Much At Once? The scope of this bill might simply be too great. Congress is not well-suited for tackling omnibus issues such as "health care reform." The larger the issue a bill deals with, the more likely a member will find some provision in it that he or she just cannot stomach, and the less likely the bill will pass. Congress is much better at passing bills whose scope is more narrow. In the sixteen years since Bill Clinton's efforts for a major overhaul crashed and burned, Congress has not been inactive on the health care front. Far from it. It passed and expanded SCHIP. It also approved a Medicare prescription drug bill. Those are the sorts of bills that, because their scope is more narrow, have an easier time getting to the President's desk.

When you aim for an omnibus health care overhaul, the potential payoffs are greater: you add yourself to the pantheon of great Democratic presidents if you succeed. But the risks are greater still: you increase your odds that something, somewhere in your 1,000+ page bill pisses off the pivotal legislator. To put it simply, there is a reason why no President since Harry Truman has succeeded at what Barack Obama intends here.

-Jay Cost

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

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

39%

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

$267 B

34%

Tax cuts

$212 B

27%

Total

$787 B

100%

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

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

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.

Reconciliation

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.

Conclusion

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

Obama Needs a New Speechwriter

There has been a tension in the rhetoric of President Obama since he was inaugurated. He wants to be a post-partisan President, assuming that the opposition is well-intentioned and in honest disagreement with him. Yet he frequently implies that they are motivated by political calculation of narrow interests. Either of these is a perfectly serviceable rhetorical strategy - the problem is that he often takes both tacks in the same speech.

If we take a closer look at his speech yesterday, we'll see that it manifested itself once again. This is from early on:

Unfortunately, faced with an uncertain threat, our government made a series of hasty decisions. And I believe that those decisions were motivated by a sincere desire to protect the American people. But I also believe that - too often - our government made decisions based upon fear rather than foresight, and all too often trimmed facts and evidence to fit ideological predispositions. Instead of strategically applying our power and our principles, we too often set those principles aside as luxuries that we could no longer afford. And in this season of fear, too many of us - Democrats and Republicans; politicians, journalists and citizens - fell silent.

It's not impossible to reconcile these two statements, but it is pretty damn hard. The fact that they come in the same paragraph is just plain sloppy.

He says later on:

And even under President Bush, there was recognition among members of his Administration - including a Secretary of State, other senior officials, and many in the military and intelligence community - that those who argued for these tactics were on the wrong side of the debate, and the wrong side of history. We must leave these methods where they belong - in the past. They are not who we are. They are not America.
The President is skirting the shoals of ad hominem here. I suppose that you could say that those who advocated these policies were simply delusional or fundamentally misguided about what is and what is not appropriate in this country - that way, you don't have to suggest that they are, in some sense, un-American. But that certainly weakens his initial declaration of good faith: they meant well, they just don't understand what America is all about? Talk about your back-handed compliment!

This tension increases dramatically by the end:

And we will be ill-served by some of the fear-mongering that emerges whenever we discuss this issue. Listening to the recent debate, I've heard words that are calculated to scare people rather than educate them; words that have more to do with politics than protecting our country. So I want to take this opportunity to lay out what we are doing, and how we intend to resolve these outstanding issues. I will explain how each action that we are taking will help build a framework that protects both the American people and the values that we hold dear. And I will focus on two broad areas: first, issues relating to Guantanamo and our detention policy; second, issues relating to security and transparency.

How can he reconcile this with the assumption of good faith? If you're fear-mongering for calculated, political reasons - how can you be "motivated by a sincere desire to protect the American people?" In theory, he could separate the implementers of the policies from those who defend them now - but those are the same people. Was Dick Cheney motivated by good faith then, but political calculation now? How does that work, considering that he was shortly to stand for reelection then, but not now? This all seems like an enormous stretch - which makes it a stretch upon a stretch upon a stretch...

If he hasn't already by now, he pushes the good faith assumption past the breaking point by offering another straw-man attack, which regrettably is becoming one of his stand-bys.

We see that, above all, in how the recent debate has been obscured by two opposite and absolutist ends. On one side of the spectrum, there are those who make little allowance for the unique challenges posed by terrorism, and who would almost never put national security over transparency. On the other end of the spectrum, there are those who embrace a view that can be summarized in two words: "anything goes." Their arguments suggest that the ends of fighting terrorism can be used to justify any means, and that the President should have blanket authority to do whatever he wants - provided that it is a President with whom they agree.

Tom Maguire pwns this claim:

Obama characterizes the national debate as having divided us into two poles - the left believes that almost no national security issue takes precedence over transparency and the right has a view that can be summed as "Anything Goes".

Really? "Anything goes"? Did he actually read the OLC enhanced interrogation memos, which made it clear that lots of things wouldn't go?

This pretty well obliterates any notion that the President is treating his interlocutors with the presumption of good faith. He says he is, but the rest of his speech doesn't follow through - which makes the initial assertion sound like haughty, hypocritical moralizing.

He pulled a similar trick during the stimulus debate, which makes me think that it's time the President get a new speechwriter, or at least an editor - especially for topics where public debate is intense. Having it both ways like this just seems intellectually lazy, and it makes for a weaker argument. Either treat your opponents with the good faith assumption, or don't. You can't do both, especially in the same paragraph! No number of baroque flourishes about keeping the faith during the Revolution can change that.

And those flights of fancy are sure getting old, aren't they? They were great and all on the night of the Iowa Caucus, but it's been years of the same tune again and again. The Beatles had a string of big hits from 1963-65 that all sounded the same - but by '66 George was playing the sitar and bitching about taxes. That was a change for the better, and a lesson for the President.

How many more times in the next four years do we have to hear this kind of shopworn sermonizing:

I stand here today as someone whose own life was made possible by these documents. My father came to our shores in search of the promise that they offered. My mother made me rise before dawn to learn of their truth when I lived as a child in a foreign land. My own American journey was paved by generations of citizens who gave meaning to those simple words - "to form a more perfect union." I have studied the Constitution as a student; I have taught it as a teacher; I have been bound by it as a lawyer and legislator. I took an oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution as Commander-in-Chief, and as a citizen, I know that we must never - ever - turn our back on its enduring principles for expedience sake.

I make this claim not simply as a matter of idealism. We uphold our most cherished values not only because doing so is right, but because it strengthens our country and keeps us safe. Time and again, our values have been our best national security asset - in war and peace; in times of ease and in eras of upheaval.

Fidelity to our values is the reason why the United States of America grew from a small string of colonies under the writ of an empire to the strongest nation in the world.

It is the reason why enemy soldiers have surrendered to us in battle, knowing they'd receive better treatment from America's armed forces than from their own government.

It is the reason why America has benefited from strong alliances that amplified our power, and drawn a sharp and moral contrast with our adversaries.

It is the reason why we've been able to overpower the iron fist of fascism, outlast the iron curtain of communism, and enlist free nations and free people everywhere in common cause and common effort.

Yada yada yada. I've heard all this before - many times, in fact. He goes over his biography, connects it in "dramatic" fashion to the American story, then links it to whatever policy he's pushing. This was powerful stuff...two years ago. Now, it's the paint by numbers version of the Obama Speech.

The Beatles were inspired to change their schtick after they met Bob Dylan, which prompts the following thought. The irrepressible Mr. Zimmerman is on tour this summer, as per usual. Maybe the President should swing by his Baltimore show at the end of July to see if His Bobness can inspire him, too.

-Jay Cost

Obama's $17 Billion: Important or Really Important?

It was interesting to watch the President insist that $17 billion in spending cuts is significant. The press was not really buying the spin:

[T]he news that the cuts totaled $17 billion "landed with a bit of a thud" in the media. Reporters stressed that the cuts made up "a tiny fraction" of the total budget and that they would be hard to push through; USA Today noted that the "proposed cuts are about one-fiftieth the size of this year's $787 billion economic stimulus package -- all of which was added to the deficit."

I don't blame them. I was reminded of the Presidents first debate with Senator McCain. After the latter once again spoke about earmarks, then-Senator Obama was breezily dismissive, saying:

Well, Senator McCain is absolutely right that the earmarks process has been abused, which is why I suspended any requests for my home state, whether it was for senior centers or what have you, until we cleaned it up.

And he's also right that oftentimes lobbyists and special interests are the ones that are introducing these kinds of requests, although that wasn't the case with me.

But let's be clear: Earmarks account for $18 billion in last year's budget. Senator McCain is proposing -- and this is a fundamental difference between us -- $300 billion in tax cuts to some of the wealthiest corporations and individuals in the country, $300 billion.

Now, $18 billion is important; $300 billion is really important.

And in his tax plan, you would have CEOs of Fortune 500 companies getting an average of $700,000 in reduced taxes, while leaving 100 million Americans out.

So my attitude is, we've got to grow the economy from the bottom up. What I've called for is a tax cut for 95 percent of working families, 95 percent.

And that means that the ordinary American out there who's collecting a paycheck every day, they've got a little extra money to be able to buy a computer for their kid, to fill up on this gas that is killing them.

And over time, that, I think, is going to be a better recipe for economic growth than the -- the policies of President Bush that John McCain wants to -- wants to follow. [Emphasis Mine]

Obama would take basically the same posture in the next two debates - that McCain is talking about something that is not really as important as he makes it out to be.

Today, you could say to the President what he said to Senator McCain last fall: sure, your spending cuts are "important" - but your spending increases are "really important." It's not surprising that journalists weren't buying it.

From the looks of it, Congress is not going to be receptive to these cuts:

President Obama's modest proposal to slice $17 billion from 121 government programs quickly ran into a buzz saw of opposition on Capitol Hill yesterday, as an array of Democratic lawmakers vowed to fight White House efforts to deprive their favorite initiatives of federal funds.

One member objects here. Another objects there. Next thing you know, the cuts start disappearing. That's the big problem with Congress - it's hard to get individual legislators, who are responsible to their particular constituents, to be responsible to the nation as a whole. That's where the President comes in - at least in theory. In practice, it is damned hard to get Congress to behave itself. From the perspective of an individual member, it's hard to be critical. They are responsible to their districts - and if they perceive, as the press seems to, that these spending cuts are just symbolic, why should they go along with them? Symbolic good for the President versus real harm to their states or districts. It'd be tough to side with the White House on that one.

The real question is: will the Obama administration fight to keep these cuts in, or give them up to smooth passage for its bigger initiatives? That will tell us whether it is serious about cutting needless spending, or whether this is just a PR gimmick designed to counter the sticker shock the public will feel for the few days after the budget is released. My guess is that the White House will let most of it go, that this is mostly PR, and that everybody's skepticism about touting $17 billion in cuts amidst a $1.75 trillion deficit is well placed.

-Jay Cost

Obama the Sophist

This is from the President's remarks at the National Academy of Science:

At such a difficult moment, there are those who say we cannot afford to invest in science. That support for research is somehow a luxury at a moment defined by necessities. I fundamentally disagree. Science is more essential for our prosperity, our security, our health, our environment, and our quality of life than it has ever been.

Who the hell is saying we cannot afford to invest in science? Isn't the real argument about whether we can spend so much more (fully 3% of GDP) on science, and revitalize the economy, and save the banks, and save the Big Three, and spend more on education, and reform health care, and revolutionize the energy sector all at the same time?

I have heard "there are those who say..." from this President quite a bit in the last three months. I think it's time he start naming names. Who are these people who hold such backward-looking, unacceptable positions? If they are elected members of the government, shouldn't the President tell us who they are so we can vote them out? If they are unelected, how is it they have such power?

Or maybe there are no such people, at least not of such relevance they deserve specific mention by the President. Maybe this is just a rhetorical trick designed to make Mr. Obama's position seem like the only one allowed by common sense.

Also, the following seems a bit demagogic, doesn't it?

And if there was ever a day that reminded us of our shared stake in science and research, it's today.

We are closely monitoring the emerging cases of swine flu in the United States. This is obviously a cause for concern and requires a heightened state of alert. But it is not a cause for alarm... But one thing is clear - our capacity to deal with a public health challenge of this sort rests heavily on the work of our scientific and medical community. And this is one more example of why we cannot allow our nation to fall behind.

The swine flu outbreak is a reason to amp up funding for the sciences? This is playing on public fears to advance a political agenda that's only tangentially related to said fears.

And, of course, no presidential address would be complete without a gratuitous shot at his predecessor. Even a speech on science.

And we have watched as scientific integrity has been undermined and scientific research politicized in an effort to advance predetermined ideological agendas.

We know that our country is better than this....

On March 9th, I signed an executive memorandum with a clear message: Under my administration, the days of science taking a back seat to ideology are over. Our progress as a nation - and our values as a nation - are rooted in free and open inquiry. To undermine scientific integrity is to undermine our democracy.

He doesn't come right out and say it - but he is talking about stem cell research here. Personally, I'm pretty ambivalent on the issue of stem cell research. I view it as a minor skirmish in the broader war on abortion. However, I think this is a gross mischaracterization of the position of those who are opposed to federal funding of stem cell research. Given that this is coming from a President who, as a candidate, campaigned on ending the pattern of gross mischaracterizations in Washington, D.C. - I find this really aggravating.

What is especially annoying to me is that - to win what amounts to a few quick, short-term political points - the President is really hitting below the belt. Those who are opposed to federal funding of stem cell research are somehow un-American: they are against "free and open inquiry," and are willing to undermine "scientific integrity" and "our democracy." Why? In service to "a pre-determined ideological agenda."

Science cannot be separated from "ideology." In fact, the idea that science must be free of ideology is itself an ideological position. That's just simply a matter of definitions. "Ideology," as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary:

The science of ideas; that department of philosophy or psychology which deals with the origin and nature of ideas.

Additionally, science is inseparable from politics or political ideology. Science is often a tool of politics - for instance, when the government directs money to certain scientific endeavors over others for political purposes. Why is it that "we can put a man on the moon, but we can't..."? Ultimately, one reason is that the federal government in the 1960s set about putting a man on the moon for Cold War purposes. What is funded and what is not funded is frequently political. Additionally, science inevitably challenges the core, shared values of a society. When that happens - it becomes a political question of what to do next. See for instance, human cloning. Simply because science can make it happen does not mean that it should. Instead, the political process has intervened to outlaw the development of that line of scientific research. Why? It conflicts with our values.

Like any political question, the role of science in society is complicated, and ironically does not admit of any straightforward, scientific answers. Most all of us oppose human cloning - but there will be other issues (like stem cell research) where the lines are not drawn so lopsidedly. In those instances, it becomes a political issue - and it is very unfortunate that the President has once again chosen to promote his own, valid opinion by arguing that the opinions of those who disagree are somehow invalid.

One reason that I was so interested in candidate Obama in 2007 was that he seemed to have the same broad orientation to politics as I do. The world is a harsh, complicated place in which to live. Ultimately, we're going to have different views on what to do. But politics isn't like math, where there is some unequivocal answer waiting at the bottom of a proof. It's hazy and uncertain. Our policy proposals are more like stabs in the dark than geometric theorems. So ultimately, we should accept as fact that others will disagree - and we should respect those who disagree with us, above all assuming that they're acting in good faith.

In 2007, I thought this is how the President thought about things, too. It has become increasingly clear to me, however, that either he doesn't, or his inner circle doesn't. This speech - as well as many before it - is simply inconsistent with that view of the world.

Consistent with my view on matters: I respect that now is the time for the Democrats to implement policy. I do not share many of their policy preferences - and were I given a vote on them, I would vote no more often than yes. However, they have decisively won two elections, they are honest in their intentions, and they might ultimately be proven to be correct. So, I wish them well.

Yet I am sick and tired of the President's rhetorical sophistry - and if Frank Newport called me up today, I would say that I disapprove of the job he is doing. If Scott Rasmussen's computer called me, I'd say that I strongly disapprove. A President should not be mischaracterizing, and working actively to alienate, as much as 40% of his constituency - especially after he promised he wouldn't.

-Jay Cost

Chasing Down the Kennedy Cool

Stu Rothenberg's column today was an interesting one. He notes:

For the national media, Barack Obama isn't merely the president of the United States. He's so much more than that.

Obama is a celebrity, and he and his family are covered that way. That means there is a heavy focus on the personal, making Obama the first "Entertainment Tonight president."

Rothenberg goes on to compare the White House operation to the HBO show Entourage, even likening Robert Gibbs to Turtle. Ouch.

He notes correctly that the White House is cultivating this celebrity image.

In encouraging all of the celebrity coverage (journalists don't need much encouragement given the public's apparent unquenchable need for gossip), the White House surely is trying to keep Obama's appeal high among those Americans who really don't care a great deal about politics.

Being celebrities gives the Obamas a bigger audience, and probably deeper emotional commitments, than many politicians receive. Even if the economy doesn't recover completely and Obama's policy proposals stir up opposition, he could retain his popularity - and, with it, political clout on Capitol Hill - because of his (and his family's) celebrity coverage and appeal.

Like the title indicates, I think the Obama White House is looking to chase down that elusive Kennedy Cool. For some reason, Democrats can't seem to resist this - despite the fact that Kennedy's domestic agenda was stalled in Congress. Nevertheless, both Bill Clinton and John Kerry actively worked to be Kennedyesque.

Obama has been more successful at it. Whether or not this is a good thing is an open question - one which I am inclined to answer in the negative. I think Rothenberg is stretching when he says that Obama's celebrity marketing could help him retain his popularity if the economy stays in the tank. (More broadly, this shouldn't be taken as a good thing, should it? If he does a bad job, but remains popular because of his many covers on Rolling Stone, isn't that bad for democratic accountability?) I also do not think this marketing strategy is going to generate "deeper emotional commitments." After all, the celebrity culture is fundamentally shallow. Actors, musicians and the miscellaneous "hot messes" who are the focus of it are treated like disposable commodities - the public pays attention until they get bored, then they unsympathetically move on to the next hot mess.

What inclines me to fall on the negative side of the ledger is not the Kennedy mystique/celebrity image per se. It's a political marketing strategy that is as good (and phony) as any other. My objection is that times have changed - and not even somebody as powerful as the President can change it back. There is now a mass market for all things celebrity, which means the President has to inhabit the Cool Space with things that are, I think, a bit beneath the office. See the following picture, which I saw while shopping last night:

Obama In Touch.jpg

The President and the First Lady are sharing cover space with: (a) Brangelina; (b) irresponsible dieting and unattainable body images; (c) Britney. To me, this is at least a few degrees off the Kennedy Cool. Kennedy got the cover of Life magazine. Obama gets to share InTouch with a lady in a bikini. Not as awesome.

Call it the nature of the age. Everybody loved the Kennedy Cool, and the Hollywood Cool, and the Rock 'n' Roll Cool. So it was mass marketed, and the strategic reps of ambitious celebrities intentionally manipulate it, working in collusion with big media corporations looking to maximize circulation and/or viewership. And then you see Mario Lopez on Extra! and you realize...cool jumped the shark a long time ago. These days, Bob Dylan - one of the original cool guys - is wearing a pork pie hat and singing in a bluesy rasp about the great beyond. That should tell us something.

When a President's job approval is well above 50%, as Obama's currently is, he can do no wrong. Every move he makes is brilliant. Every word he utters is genius. But when that number trends toward 50% or lower - as it inevitably does for every President who serves a full term (unless you're Dwight Eisenhower and won a war!) - the knives come out, as your political opponents, who have not disappeared but are lying in wait, sense an opening. And it seems to me that this is one area where Obama could be vulnerable.

Remember this?

Simply because Obama won the election does not mean that this line of attack is buried forever. Republicans believe - correctly, I think - that this spot damaged the President last summer. A variant of this could be resurrected next cycle. Imagine an ad that blasts the President for posing for his buddy Jann Wenner's Us Weekly instead of working to create jobs. Unfair? Yes. Manipulative? Sure...but more, less, or as manipulative as the Obamas talking "pregnancy news" to a $2.99 grocery store celeb rag?

-Jay Cost

It's better to give than to receive!

Obama Taxes.jpg

-Jay Cost

Should Obama Be Faulted for the Lack of Bipartisanship?

I have written quite a bit about polarization in the early Obama presidency. Each time I do, I receive a few emails similar to this one:

[Y]ou maintain that Obama's governing style has been highly partisan. That's simplistic: it takes two to tango and the Republicans have valued total opposition over reasonable compromise. I don't care if Obama rolled the Republicans in the public perception game or not: they're playing in the big leagues and they've been there a long time. They should know how to win that game.

This is a version of a general argument - "The Republicans have been doing it, too" - that merits a response.

To start, I agree with the reader that Republicans do it, too. I've written before on this page that politicians' commitment to bipartisanship is usually situational. They support it when they are in the minority because they want to move the policy needle in their direction. They oppose it when they are in the majority because it would push that needle in the other direction. So, yes - Republican politicians are now talking up bipartisanship in a way that is not necessarily consistent with how they governed. That's not a Republican thing, it's a politician thing.

Additionally, I don't think polarization is necessarily a bad thing. Polarization - as I see it - is where you have small differences within each party, but big differences between the parties. One beneficial consequence of such a situation is that the public, which is not really paying careful attention, stands a better chance of perceiving real differences between the two sides. Ultimately, that can make electoral results more meaningful - as a vote for a party can be better identified with a vote for a governing philosophy.

My gripe with the President is not due to the fact that I endorse bipartisanship, my gripe is that he did. I watched his candidacy very closely, from the moment he declared his campaign in Springfield to the moment he declared victory in Chicago. "Change" was his top-line slogan, and the fine print was change from the same-old, same-old partisan hackery of the past.

I think this was the foundational logic of his candidacy. There were five reasonably qualified Democrats running for the nomination: Clinton, Biden, Richardson, Edwards, and Dodd. All of them had at least as much experience as Jimmy Carter, the least experienced Chief Executive in the modern era. Obama had less experience than all of these competitors, and even less than Carter. So why was he running? The answer was that the old rules no longer applied, that experience was now a liability, and that we need a fresh face to change the way politics works.

So, now Obama is in charge, and as the Python boys might say: bipartisanship is not quite dead, but it's not at all well. The reader has a point, "It takes two to tango." Indeed, it does. Even if we assume that all politicians would be well off with bipartisanship, we're still faced with something like the prisoners' dilemma: if one guy is bipartisan and the other is partisan, the bipartisan guy gets screwed. And actually, I'd argue that, given the ideological bases of both parties, the partisan position is the ideal spot for many members of Congress, which is where all the action is on the domestic front.

My criticism of the President is not that he shares most of the blame. Instead, we should spread the blame for partisan polarization around. Obama gets some. So do Bush, Clinton, the other Bush, Reagan, Carter, and all the way back to John Adams. Pelosi and Reid get their fair share. And of course McConnell, Boehner, and congressional Republicans get just as much. Ultimately, everybody gets some of the blame because heated partisanship is in part a consequence of our electoral system, which only few of us wish to change.

Instead, my criticism of the President is that he promised to be above this. He made that the core pledge of his candidacy, the principal reason he should receive the nomination and ultimately the presidency over the dozen or so other contenders across both parties who had better résumés but had been part of the partisan hackery. It was always going to be damned near impossible to move beyond heated partisanship - given all the structural forces that have been at work since the founding, and the ones that have been increasing in the last half century or so. In my opinion, that excuses President Obama for not moving us beyond it - but it does not excuse candidate Obama from promising that he could. Either he knew better and should not have made that promise (and, by extension, should not have run, given the centrality of this promise) - or he didn't know better and was just naïve. Either way, it is appropriate to hold him to account.

We have since learned that the economy was in deep recession on Election Day. It was contracting in dramatic fashion - with the financial meltdown that began in the Fall. Factor that in with President Bush's job dismal job approval numbers, and it was simply too much for the incumbent party to overcome. With that kind of macro environment, a Democrat was all but destined to win the White House. The question was: which Democrat? Obama clearly lacked something we value - relevant experience - but promised he would make up for it by changing the way politics works. If we had known that he would not or could not, wouldn't we have preferred a "same old, same old" Democrat who had more experience in governing? I surely would have.

-Jay Cost

Obama's Polarized America

The recent Pew poll has found that President Obama's job approval is the most polarized for any new President in forty years:

Pew Poll Data.gif

I have been critical of the President on this page for failing (so far) to live up to his promise of bipartisanship (see here, here, here, here, and here). It might be that Republicans have also noted this disconnection, and are disapproving accordingly.

However, this highly polarized evaluation of the President has deep roots. Pew notes:

The growing partisan divide in presidential approval ratings is part of a long-term trend. Going back in time, partisanship was far less evident in the early job approval ratings for both Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon. In fact, a majority of Republicans (56%) approved of Carter's job performance in late March 1977, and a majority of Democrats (55%) approved of Nixon's performance at a comparable point in his first term.

Polarization has been on the rise in other ways as well. For instance, in my first post-election wrap-up, I noted that statewide voting for president was becoming more polarized:

Polarized States.jpg

This polarization has also manifested itself in individual-level survey data. The following chart tracks the number of Democrat and Republican defectors in presidential elections.

Partisan Defectors.jpg

As we can see, Republican defectors have held roughly constant over the years - the only exceptions occurring in 1964 and 1992 (when most of the defectors went for Perot). Meanwhile, the number of Democratic defectors has declined over the last forty years, hitting its lowest point in 2004. It ticked back up in 2008, in large measure because of Obama's weakness among white Southern Democrats.

Generally, the same trend has been evident in congressional elections. In 1988, 17% of voters who backed their Republican candidate for Congress supported Michael Dukakis in the presidential election. In 2008, just 9% of those who voted GOP for Congress supported Obama. In other words, partisanship is not only doing a better job of predicting one's presidential vote, it's doing better with the congressional vote, too.

Meanwhile, there has been a rise in negative feelings toward the opposition. The following chart tracks how Republicans feel about the Democratic Party and Democrats feel about the Republican Party. A score of 100 implies completely positive feelings; 0 implies completely negative feelings; 50 implies neutrality.

Partisan Feelings.jpg

Partisans generally had negative feelings about the opposition in 1978, but since then they have become more so.

Unsurprisingly, this enhanced partisanship has manifested itself in the Congress, too. There has been increased ideological polarization, especially in the House - which the following graph tracks.

Ideology in the House.jpg

Much of the movement on the Democratic side has been due to the leftward shift of Southern Democrats, who are now almost as liberal as their Northern colleagues.

So, the bottom line is that party polarization has been on the rise - since before this President was even born. Of course, these Pew numbers show the greatest degree of polarization yet, which might be an indication that Republicans have noted the President's highly partisan approach, either his hard-knuckle tactics in dealing with the opposition or his policy proposals which have attracted precious few Republicans.

This governing style has drawbacks - not necessarily in the short-term, but over the long course of a presidency. From an institutional perspective, polarization can be a political winner for members of Congress - but it is often a loser for the President. After all, he is the one whose constitutional role is to represent all the people. This is a very difficult job because it is often the case that the people disagree with one another so deeply that the President cannot reflect their views and promote a policy agenda at the same time. Nevertheless, alienating a large faction of his constituency can eventually mean political trouble. A conservative congressman from Kansas can rail against big city liberals without fear of losing his job because he has no big city liberals in his district. But everybody is in the President's district, which means that highly partisan presidents can upset a sizable minority or their constituents, who might eventually create greater political trouble for him.

Polarization was quite high during the Clinton and Bush 43 years - and both of these men had very contentious tenures. President Clinton had to deal with a resurgent Republican Party that wanted significant changes in government, especially with the 1995 budget. Congressional Republicans eventually impeached him. President Bush alienated Democrats relatively early in his tenure, and by the end of his time in government he was isolated and ineffective. Ultimately, both men paid a political price for contributing to the rancor.

President Obama is also running this risk - not simply because his governing style has been highly partisan to date, but also because he explicitly promised during the campaign that it would not be. These Pew numbers are an early warning of his slide among Republicans. Obama is losing them now, just as Bush lost the Democrats early in his term. But Bush didn't just lose the Democrats - he alienated and even enraged them. Eventually, the political winds shifted against him, the permanent Republican majority turned out to be temporary, and resurgent Democrats backed him into a corner for the remainder of his term.

-Jay Cost

The President Blames Republicans for the Partisan Blame Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We might graphically represent her decision calculus this way:

Hypothetical Stimulus Vote.jpg

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

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

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

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

Just ask George W. Bush.

-Jay Cost

Public Financing Is Dead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fundraising by National Party Committees.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Jay Cost

Obama's Liberal Moment

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

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

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

Yet Senator Obama writes this in The Audacity of Hope:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ideological Scores.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

Three observations about these moments are relevant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

So much for that.

-Jay Cost

Our Partisan President

In The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Jay Cost

Obama Signs Omnibus, Blasts AIG

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Jay Cost

Congress Asserts Itself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Jay Cost

Obama Courts the Pundits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Jay Cost

The Immature White House

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Jay Cost

The Plusses and Minuses of Campaigning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caterpillar announced 22,000 layoffs last month.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome to the permanent campaign!

-Jay Cost

Follow Up To Yesterday's Post

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Jay Cost

The President Attacks a Republican Straw Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He made a similar comment in response to Chip Reid:

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

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

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

The President then said this:

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

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

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

He then said this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Jay Cost

Obama and the Permanent Campaign

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Jay Cost

Why Are Senate Republicans "Scared To Death?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Jay Cost

The Celebrity-in-Chief?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

US Weekly Cover.jpg

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

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

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

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

-Jay Cost

Obama and the Celebrity Culture

A few people around the blogosphere have noted this, but I thought I would toss in my two cents. This is from People magazine's online site, dated Sunday:

Imitation may be the highest form of flattery, but Michelle Obama is none too happy about a toy-maker ripping off the likenesses of her young daughters for profit.

Ty Inc., the company that makes Beanie Babies, has released a pair of new dolls named Sweet Sasha and Marvelous Malia, both with brown skin and brown eyes, according to the New York Times.

But what seems like a sound business decision - the president's daughters, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, nearly stole the show at the Inaugural celebrations - has clearly miffed the Mom-in-Chief.

"We feel it is inappropriate to use young, private citizens for marketing purposes," Mrs. Obama's press secretary, Katie McCormick Lelyveld, said in a statement.

The Obama girls are in good company: dolls in the TyGirlz Collection include Jammin' Jenna, Happy Hillary, Precious Paris and Bubbly Britney, according to the Times.

Here's a picture of the toys.

Sasha and Malia Dolls.jpg

I could see why Mrs. Obama would be miffed, although I am not terribly surprised by these toys. Obama enjoys a celebrity status that no president in my lifetime - not even BIll Clinton - has ever enjoyed. The Obamas are in those celebrity mags - like People and InTouch - all the time, with glossy photos and happy headlines like, "He's a normal dad!" or "His new house is soooo different!"

I think his campaign has cultivated this celebrity image as part of a broader political strategy. A smart one. Afterall, Obama first had to go up against Hillary Clinton, who is a larger-than-life celebrity figure. Obama needed some sparkle to match hers. But as so many other celebrities have found, it is often taken too far - this time by a private firm cashing in on the insatiable market for all things Obama.

This points to the unique transition President Obama is making. He is going from the celebrity candidate to the President. The two are not compatible. Every President has to leave his old life behind, but no previous President has had a pre-presidential life that InTouch weekly was keeping close track of. It's good that the White House spoke out against these toys, and it would be good politics, I think, if the President ditched his celebrity image altogether. The people should see him as the person in whom the power of state resides - not as a celebrity to be oogled like Brad Pitt. The celebrity image served his campaign's purpose, but it's time to set it aside. I suspect he'll do exactly that.

-Jay Cost

Obama versus Limbaugh

I've been intrigued by this story. Ed Morrissey over at Hot Air had some good thoughts on it.

One doesn't make points at all about bipartisanship by explicitly attacking another partisan voice, no matter how much one disagrees with it. By naming Rush and attempting to sideline him, Obama lifted Rush's profile and practically anointed him his opposition. It demonstrates that Obama still has no sense of his office, nor of "post-partisanship", regardless of his endlessly empty rhetoric on the subject.

George Bush never attacked Keith Olbermann, Chris Matthews, or other voices of the rabid Left by name. If he ever went on the attack against the left-wing media, he kept the attack general and broad, rather than specific. Bush may not have been the most media-savvy of our modern presidents -- in fact, he may have been the worst at it since Nixon -- but he knew enough about his office to understand that part of its strength would keep him somewhat above the partisan-pundit fray. Obama hasn't figured that much out yet.

If your stature is greater than your opponent's, it's never a good strategy to mention him by name. This is why incumbents call challengers "my opponent," and challengers mention incumbents by name. It's not in the President's interest to single out a radio host/pundit for criticism like this. I'd wager that this is a lesson learned for Obama and his administration.

After the Oklahoma City bombing, Bill Clinton said this in Ames, Iowa:

If people are encouraging conduct that will undermine the fabric of this country, it should be spoken against whether it comes from the left or the right, whether it comes on radio, television or the movies, whether it comes in the schoolyard, or, yes, even on the college campus. The answer to hateful speech is to speak out against it in the American spirit, to speak up for freedom and responsibility.

Talk radio hosts around the nation took this personally. By this point in his presidency, the opposition to the Clinton presidency had already exerted itself, taking over the House and Senate, but this further inflamed it. Coming from an average citizen, or even a congressman or senator, these words would have carried little weight - but coming from the President, they created a firestorm.

I think this was probably little more than an unfortunate slip-up by the new President, who is still learning just how special the office is. Nevertheless, it was politically unfortunate, given that he has been trying to demobilize the opposition. He had inserted some conservative remarks into his inauguration address, he attended that dinner with conservative intellectuals, and so on. Additionally, the ceremony of the inauguration - wherein the President is presented as the leader of the entire country - can demobilize the opposition, especially when they lose by seven points. A knock on Limbaugh is counter-productive. Republicans have seemed to me to have been particularly dispirited in the last few weeks, and this might give them some pep.

This little episode points to a broader issue that I've been wondering about for some time - how long Obama will be able to sustain this post-partisan idea? George W. Bush tried unsuccessfully to cultivate that notion. It's always seemed to me like a short-sighted political gambit. It sounds nice during a campaign, but the political divisions in this country are real - and when it comes time to govern, they're bound to manifest themselves. In fact, it seems to me that the post-partisan pitch could actually arouse greater partisanship in the opposition. If a candidate promises to change the tone, doesn't this give the opposition control over whether he keeps his promise, and therefore an incentive to be disagreeable? I've long thought that Bush fell into this trap, and Obama - by virtue of his post-partisan campaign rhetoric - runs the risk of doing the same.

Of course, what could explode this post-partisan idea is a party line vote on the stimulus bill, which might be the direction we're headed in.

-Jay Cost

Bush and the Status Quo

Jim VandeHei's article today in the Politico underscored a point I made a few weeks ago about President Bush. In the wake of the immigration bill's defeat, I argued that this was the end of Bush's informal presidential powers. I wrote:

The failure for Bush on the immigration issue is, I think, fairly telling. He failed not because he lacked power [to set the agenda]. He was indeed able to induce Congress to take up an issue that he wanted it to take up. His failure was really due to an inability to induce legislators to alter current policy as he wants it altered. He no longer can put the "squeeze" on legislators and directly induce them to do what they would not otherwise do, at least when it comes to changing the status quo.
I also indicated that I thought that the immigration bill's failure would be Bush's last attempt to exercise this kind of power. He lost something of his presidency in that bill's demise.

However, this does not mean that he is a lame duck. His formal powers are - thanks to today's political circumstances - still vast.

If you look at Article II of the Constitution, you will see that the formal powers of the president are actually quite few in number. The president always has those powers - but what makes him the force in American politics that he can be is his set of informal powers. Richard Neustadt once summarized these as the ability that the president has to influence people to do what they would not otherwise do. It is clear to me that President Bush has not read Neustadt's classic treatise on presidential power - for he has not done any of the tasks Neustadt thinks the modern president must do to protect his informal powers. And so, they're all gone now.

But, the president still has his set of formal powers, thanks to Article II. These essentially amount to his capacity to protect the status quo as regards current public policy, his executive authority over the military, his authority to negotiate treaties, and appoint officers of the executive and judicial branches. In certain times, these powers imply very little influence. If, for instance, the nation is in a time of peace - the president's military authority means very little. If, for instance, the president wishes to change the status quo, his veto pen means very little.

This, then, is how lame ducks are produced. Lame ducks are presidents whose formal authorities give them very little influence in light of the political circumstances of the day.

Even though his informal powers are now essentially gone, Bush is not to be counted among these lame duck presidents. Reports VandeHei:

Yet there are very good reasons to believe the prevailing conventional wisdom on Iraq might turn out to be wrong once again.

The reasons are simple: the power of the presidency, the anguished feelings of many congressional Republicans and math. In short, Bush is in no mood to yield.

House and Senate Republicans still don't appear prepared to force him to. And a loyal group of GOP senators are prepared to back a Bush veto if Democrats ever succeed in limiting or ending the U.S. mission in Iraq.

"At the end of the day, all of this hand-wringing needs to be understood (in the context) of how Congress works: There will always be 33 of us, as long as there is not a complete meltdown, to support a military strategy that is aggressive and is not based on needs of the next election," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).



This is why Bush is not to be trifled with - even if nobody outside the White House is taking his calls regarding domestic policy initiatives. As commander in chief, Bush has the power to use whatever tactics he wishes to use in Iraq. Democrats can pass legislation to change those tactics. However, they require his signature, which of course will not be forthcoming. They can then try to override his veto - but it should be clear from VandeHei's piece why legislative vetoes are so hard to override. On any controversial position, the minority-plus-the-president is usually large enough to block the majority. Bush will probably have 33% of at least one chamber on his side from now until the end of his term.

This is why I stop short of calling Bush a lame duck. The political circumstances of the day mean that his formal powers are very influential. The nation is at war, so Bush as commander in chief has final say over how that war is conducted. Meanwhile, he supports the status quo on the war while a majority in the legislature opposes it. His veto pen is what is keeping the status quo in place - it will continue to. The powers of Article II mean a great deal in today's politics - which is why Bush is still a powerful president.

-Jay Cost

On The Irrationality of the Veep Selection Process

Michael Barone made an interesting observation on his blog last Friday that I wanted to note (and, of course, toss in my two cents).

He writes:

Gerard Baker in the Times of London makes a point that I have made myself on occasion: The way we pick vice presidents is crazy. We spend lots of time and money and psychic energy on picking our presidents, with millions of people in one way or the other involved. But we let one man (or, quite possibly this time, one woman) select the vice presidential nominee. And this is considered by just about everyone as the way it should be. Yet, as Baker points out, vice presidents have a tremendous advantage when it comes to running for president. So the decision of Ronald Reagan at something like 3 in the morning in a Detroit hotel room to pick George H.W. Bush as his running mate leads directly to Bush's election as president in 1988 and his son's election as president in 2000 and 2004. Had Reagan picked someone else, it is extremely unlikely that either Bush would have been president.

This is a great point.

Why might this be the case? I can't help but think that it is due to the fact that we really do not have a maximally efficient scheme for electing vice presidents. Simply stated - the scheme is an 19th century scheme, but the office is now a 21st century office.

The 12th amendment governs the election of presidents and vice presidents. It was enacted to avoid a repetition of the election of 1800. Originally, the Constitution required electors to vote for two persons for president. The person with the greatest number of votes would become president. The person with the second greatest would be vice president. In the election of 1800, Aaron Burr - who was Thomas Jefferson's vice presidential candidate - received as many votes as Jefferson. It was up to the lame duck (and Federalist controlled) House of Representatives to settle the contest. With the institution of the 12th Amendment, electors came to cast one vote for president and one vote for vice president.

One can appreciate the intention of the original design, even though it was obviously flawed from the get-go. The candidate with the second most electoral votes would be the nation's second choice, and it stands to reason that - should the nation's first choice no longer be able to serve - the second choice should be there to fill in. However, this scheme never fulfilled this intention. In the first presidential election, in 1788, some electors voted for somebody other than John Adams so that he would not get as many votes as George Washington. So, having the unanimously preferred person become president required some strategic maneuvering on the part of the electors - already a bad sign!

By the time of the first contested presidential election - in 1796 - political parties had begun to emerge. And parties, of course, offer slates of candidates. This is what made 1800 so problematic. Republican electors voted for Jefferson and Burr. The latter, who was not even running for the office, nevertheless received as many votes as the top-of-the-ticket candidate. And the election had to be decided by Congress.

The 12th Amendment solved this problem by effectively making the vice presidency an unelected position. Electors still vote for vice president, and in theory they could vote for whomever they prefer. But in practice, the 12th Amendment has meant that whichever party wins the presidency also wins the vice presidency. So, it is effectively a nominated position.

What is interesting is that Messrs Barone and Baker are absolutely correct. It is a purely nominated position that nevertheless carries with it a great deal of importance. But this has been the case only in the age of television. The vice presidency was useless (a "bucket of warm spit" as FDR's first veep, James Garner, called it) until Richard Nixon was selected as Ike's nominee in 1952. Prior to that, the vice presidency was little more than a way for a party to mollify a regional faction relatively unhappy with the nominee for president. Television changed all of this. In the age of television, a vice president has at least four years to make himself known, and loved, by the public. Thanks to television, the office is now a great way to develop name recognition and positive feelings from the public.

Many vice presidential candidates have used the opportunity to great effect, which has increased the importance of the position. It is now much more important than it was when the Constitution and the 12th Amendment were written. The strange disconnection between the importance of the position and the manner in which it is filled is a sign that our Constitution is a document from an era long-since gone.

We have all kinds of strange, antiquated practices in this country for essentially the same reason. It is a price we pay for having a written and stable document as the basis of our government. If our goal is to write things down and make it really hard for future, crass politicians to erase them - we are going to retain some provisions that will eventually become outdated.

The selection of the vice president, then, is certainly an inefficiency. But it is not one borne for no reason. After all, if we could easily rewrite the Constitution when it comes to selecting the veep, we might also, under the spell of the kinds of bewitchments to which we as a public have occasionally fallen prey, rewrite more precious parts of our founding document!

-Jay Cost

On the Libby Commutation

The presidential power to pardon or commute is a feature of our system that rarely receives media coverage. It is now in the news, thanks to the Libby commutation. It seems to me that more than a few commentators are unaware of the function that it was intended to serve, and I think that some of their rhetoric has been a bit careless. Accordingly, I thought it might be worthwhile to outline why the Founders saw fit to include it in Article II of the Constitution.

In The Federalist #74, Alexander Hamilton writes:

[The President is] to be authorized to grant "reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, EXCEPT IN CASES OF IMPEACHMENT." Humanity and good policy conspire to dictate, that the benign prerogative of pardoning should be as little as possible fettered or embarrassed. The criminal code of every country partakes so much of necessary severity, that without an easy access to exceptions in favor of unfortunate guilt, justice would wear a countenance too sanguinary and cruel. As the sense of responsibility is always strongest, in proportion as it is undivided, it may be inferred that a single man would be most ready to attend to the force of those motives which might plead for a mitigation of the rigor of the law, and least apt to yield to considerations which were calculated to shelter a fit object of its vengeance. The reflection that the fate of a fellow-creature depended on his sole fiat, would naturally inspire scrupulousness and caution; the dread of being accused of weakness or connivance, would beget equal circumspection, though of a different kind. On the other hand, as men generally derive confidence from their numbers, they might often encourage each other in an act of obduracy, and might be less sensible to the apprehension of suspicion or censure for an injudicious or affected clemency. On these accounts, one man appears to be a more eligible dispenser of the mercy of government, than a body of men.

What is Hamilton on about here? His argument is that some entity should have the power to carve out exceptions to the rulings of the judiciary. Otherwise "justice would wear a countenance too sanguinary and cruel." The best entity for this, argues Hamilton, is a single person. A single person will be more attuned to the sympathetic concerns that the Framers want to inject into the judicial process. Furthermore, a single person will be solely responsible, and thus feel compelled to be as judicious as possible.

This is a theme that the great American jurist, Justice Joseph Story, expands upon in his Commentaries on the Constitution. He writes:

The common argument is, that where punishments are mild, they ought to be certain; and that the clemency of the chief magistrate is a tacit disapprobation of the laws. But surely no man in his senses will contend, that any system of laws can provide for every possible shade of guilt, a proportionate degree of punishment. The most, that ever has been, and ever can be done, is to provide for the punishment of crimes by some general rules, and within some general limitations. The total exclusion of all power of pardon would necessarily introduce a very dangerous power in judges and juries, of following the spirit, rather than the letter of the laws; or, out of humanity, of suffering real offenders wholly to escape punishment; or else, it must be holden, (what no man will seriously avow,) that the situation and circumstances of the offender, though they alter not the essence of the offence, ought to make no distinction in the punishment. There are...various gradations of guilt in the commission of the same crime, which are not susceptible of any previous enumeration and definition.
Story, like Hamilton, identifies an inherent limitation to the rule of law. It is necessarily a set of general maxims - but life admits of subtleties and "gradations" that the law itself cannot capture. Thus, his fear is that judges and juries will either be too harsh or too lenient. The power of the pardon is therefore necessary. Indeed, it allows the rule of law to be of maximum benefit to society.

Note the exception that the Framers inserted into the provision: "except in cases of impeachment." (The ever-so-subtle Hamilton wants you to note this - which is why he saw fit to emphasize it with capital letters) This is a sign that they were conscious of questions about the breadth of the power's scope. They intentionally chose to limit it to this extent, but no further. Indeed, in The Federalist #74, Hamilton considers, and rejects, the argument that the President should not have the power to pardon in cases of treason. In drafting the Constitution, the Framers considered, and rejected, a provision to have pardons for treasons reviewed by the Senate. [Interestingly, George Washington, on his way out of office, actually pardoned the perpetrators of the Whiskey Rebellion.] Clearly, this was not a haphazard and careless grant of executive power. They chose one - but only one - exception to it.

Without commenting on whether the Libby commutation should or should not have happened (Prior to the commutation, I had only argued that it would be bad politics, an opinion I still hold) - I will say that more than a few commentators have been a little careless with their rhetoric. A lot of people seem to me to be offering objections that, if taken to their logical conclusions, are actually objections to the power of the pardon itself.

For instance, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer opined:

President Bush's commutation of a pal's prison sentence counts as a most shocking act of disrespect for the U.S. justice system. It's the latest sign of the huge repairs to American concepts of the rule of law that await the next president.

Well - technically, all pardons could be counted as "disrespect for the U.S. justice system" and (obviously) "the rule of law." A pardon is an exception; the justice system does not allow for exceptions. The Framers thought exceptions were appropriate, and so they included the pardon provision.

Similarly, the Chicago Tribune made the following argument:

[I]n nixing the prison term, Bush sent a terrible message to citizens and to government officials who are expected to serve the public with integrity. The way for a president to discourage the breaking of federal laws is by letting fairly rendered consequences play out, however uncomfortably for everyone involved. The message to a Scooter Libby ought to be the same as it is for other convicts: You do the crime, you do the time.

This objection is an objection to the power itself. By this logic, the President should only pardon when there has been a miscarriage of justice. Note that the Framers did not carve out an exception to the power that limits its use to instances where justice has been misapplied. No - it is a wide-ranging power that allows the President to make any exception (other than impeachment) he likes, not just exceptions that involve the miscarriage of justice. The Framers thought it wise to soften the hard edges of the judicial system by giving a single human being the power to free another in almost any circumstance.

Personally, I think that Hamilton's logic is sound and his intuitions are accurate. Critics of this commutation should, I think, be more careful to distinguish between the constitutional power and this particular use of it.

Without commenting upon the validity of its critique, I think that the New York Times hits what may be called the "Hamiltonian note:"

[The demands of Bush's conservative base] put immense pressure on the president to do something before Mr. Libby went to jail. But none of it was justification for the baldly political act of commuting his sentence...

Presidents have the power to grant clemency and pardons. But in this case, Mr. Bush did not sound like a leader making tough decisions about justice. He sounded like a man worried about what a former loyalist might say when actually staring into a prison cell.

This critique is one that differentiates between the power and the act. It is surprising to me that so many other commentators have not been able to make the distinction. After all, part of Hamilton's rationale for putting the power in the hands of the President is that objectionable pardons can be directly linked to a single man. The pardoner is an easy target in our system. So, why can't the rest of the critics do as the Times has done: go after Bush, and leave the power itself alone?

-Jay Cost

The Newsweek School of Presidential Psychology

This is merely impressionistic, but it seems to me that the writers over at Newsweek really enjoy psycho-analyzing President Bush. The latest comes from Howard Fineman.

Though I've never heard him use the term, my guess is that George W. Bush sees himself as a hacendado, an estate owner in Old Mexico.

That would give him a sense of Southwestern noblesse, duty-bound not just to work "his" people, but to protect them as well.

His advisor, Carlo Rove, has explained that a system called "democracy" now gives peasants something called "the vote." It would be shrewd, Rove said, for hacendados to grant their workers' citizenship.

That's the best explanation I have for why Bush is in the midst of what may be a suicide mission on immigration policy--embarrassing for him and ruinous for his party.

This reminds me of one of my favorite scenes in Arrested Development. Lucille and Oscar are arguing over whether Buster is going to be shipped off to Iraq. Lucille shouts, "You're high!" Oscar responds, "Well - you can win every argument that way, but that doesn't make you right!"

I feel vaguely the same way about Fineman's piece. What good does this kind of armchair psychoanalysis do us? What have we learned from this, beyond what Howard Fineman thinks? Fineman is not - so far as I know - a professionally trained mental health worker. Nor, for that matter, does he have the kind of access to the President to make such psychoanalytic judgments. It makes for good rhetoric - but really, does an assertion like this explicate, clarify, or elucidate anything at all? If not, why is this worth our while?

Amateur psychoanalytical argument is, I think, the second worst explanation for human behavior. If you are a professional mental health worker, then it is a different story. But if you are not, it is just a weak basis for inference. The weakest is, of course, recourse to ill intentions. Q: Why did he do something that puzzles you? A: He is evil. That is the weakest answer I think you can give. The second weakest answer is essentially what Fineman argues. A: He is crazy.

You can win any argument by using either of these answers. But, really, how much do you actually explain?

-Jay Cost

Bush, Congress, and Political Power

Government, as we all know, is about power, which is a multi-faceted and sometimes subtle concept. I have found that many people have a working defintion of power that is not entirely sufficient to yield a full understanding of American politics. Bringing a broader definition of power to bear on recent events in Washington can help us tease out some insights about our current political environment that, I think, have gone largely unnoticed.

A good way to think about power is to imagine two politicians, Bob and Barbara, at a negotiating table. If Bob tells Barbara that she had better agree to the proposal, or else he will refuse to endorse her in the next election - Bob is exercising power over Barbara. Bob has something she wants, and for Barbara to get that, she must give him something he wants.

This is the way most people think about power. But there are other modes in which one can exercise power. For instance, what if Bob decides, before the meeting begins, that he is simply not going to bring up certain disagreements he has with Barbara, and that he is going to bring up other disagreements instead. In this case Bob would have the power to set the agenda. This is a power that is different than the power outlined in the last paragraph, where Bob flat out threatened Barbara. This is a more subtle exercise of power. If flat out threats might be understood as the "first mode" of power, the power to set the agenda might be understood as the "second mode."

Many people do not think of power being exercised in this way, though I am sure the same people - when the subject of setting the agenda is brought up - would recognize that agenda-setting is indeed a powerful activity. It is just it is not on their radars.

It's on my radar, though. As a matter of fact, the second mode of power tends to creep into my thoughts whenever I think about Bush and Congress. For instance, I looked at this immigration debate, and I asked: why was this issue brought up now? I find the answer that many might give - "Well - it is an important, pressing concern." - to be insufficient. After all, there are literally dozens of "important, pressing" concerns, all of which are just as worthy of the public's attention as others. Why this issue?

The answer is...politics! Who chooses to raise some issues and not others? Politicians! Of course, in some instances - for example, 9/11 - issues are raised for politicians, and not by them. But, in most cases, politicians choose to bring certain issues up and not to bring certain other issues up. Politicians set the agenda. Democrats and Republicans alike will know what I am talking about. In 1993, Republicans objected mightily to the "manufactured" crisis in health care that the Clintons had supposedly created. Just last fall, Democrats objected mightily to the "crass politicization" of the issue of Guantanamo that the Republicans undertook after Labor Day. Both sides were coming from the same direction at different points in time - both recognized that the other had acted to set the agenda in a way that was beneficial to the other's interests, and that they could do nothing about it but complain.

Why is the power to set the agenda so important? The parties disagree on most every issue that we discuss in politics. On some issues, the Republicans have the voters with them. On other issues, the Democrats do. The power to set the agenda gives a party the power to allow discussion only on issues that favor their side. Republicans like to talk about taxes and terrorism. Why? They know that, by and large, the public supports Republican ideas on these issues. Democrats, meanwhile, like to talk about education and health care. Why? They know that, by and large, the public supports Democratic ideas on these issues.

This is one reason why political campaigns are not so much discussions between two candidates who disagree, but rather talking-past-one-another sessions. Republicans know better than to engage Democrats on health care because the more health care is discussed, the more the party loses the support of the electorate. So, what do Republicans do? They talk about taxes. Democrats know better than to engage Republicans on taxes for the same reason. So what do they do? They talk about health care.

Ideally speaking, if you have the power to set the agenda, what kind of issue should you raise? The answer is pretty clear. The best kind of issue is one where your allies are united and your opponents are divided, and the public likes your idea and hates your opponents' idea. That makes for the best politics. You can make yourself look like the action-oriented, unified party of the people, and you can make your opponents look like the feckless, divided defenders of the special interests. It is the gift that keeps on giving: you get the policy initiative you want, and you help yourself in advance of the next election.

As evidence of the truth of what I write here, I would point to two news items that crossed through my field of vision in the last few weeks. The first is from Paul Kane and his Capitol Blog on the Washington Post's website on June 1. Kane writes:

House Democrats are voting with such unity that, if continued throughout the 110th Congress, their cohesion would be unparalleled in recent congressional history.

Through the first five months of the year, the average House Democrat has voted with a majority of his/her caucus colleagues on 94 percent of the 425 roll calls. Enjoying their honeymoon period, 110 Democrats -- nearly half of the 232 Democrats -- have sided with a majority of the caucus on at least 98 percent of the votes cast this year.

Now, consider this from the Washington Post from the same day:

On legislation, Republicans have at times shown remarkable disunity.

Last week, Boehner denounced a Democratic bill against energy price gouging as pointless political pandering, only to see it receive 56 Republican votes, including McCotter's. For months, Republican leaders had denounced Democrats for loading an Iraq war spending bill with nonmilitary spending that they called wasteful pork. Then last week, when Democrats separated that spending into another measure, 123 Republicans voted for it -- including House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who had been expected to hold his party off the bill.

Why are these levels of unity and disunity so historic? My guess is that the biggest reason is that the Democrats have been out of legislative power in the House for 12 years. As the GOP controlled the agenda-setting power, the Democrats collected a series of popular, Democrat-unifying, Republican-dividing issues over this period of time - issues that the Republican agenda-setters avoided because they were bad for the GOP. Now that the Democrats have the agenda-setting power, they can finally hold votes on these proposals. A good parallel might be made to George Harrison, whose first post-Beatles effort, All Things Must Pass, is arguably the best of any post-Beatles effort by any of them, even Ringo. George had been smothered by the group dynamic, being limited to only two songs per record. By the time the group split, George had a backlog of songs that was so great that he could fill two full records with some of the best music of the time. So it goes now with the Democrats. They have a backlog of issues that resonate with the public, unify their side, and divide the other side. With the majority in both chambers, they can now set the agenda. And they are using that power to their maximum advantage.

What about immigration reform? This is really an inefficient issue for both sides in Congress. The reason is that it divides everybody (Republicans more than Democrats), and nothing that is comprehensive seems to resonate with the public, which makes it unlikely to pass (and thus more damaging to Democrats than Republicans). If your business is politics, this kind of issue is just bad for business. Nothing gets accomplished, and pundits like Bob Franken and Dan Balz write you off as useless. Who needs that?

So, who brought immigration reform to the table? President Bush, of course. He retains some power in the second mode, even though his party's caucus really does not. It was by his encouragement that the 109th and 110th Congresses undertook this subject. He placed on the agenda an issue that relatively few desired to have placed on the agenda. This is a sign that, at least as of last week, he was not yet a lame duck. He still had some power left to wield. This was power in the second mode.

From the recent Iraq debate, we can also see that Bush still has some power in the first mode left to wield: he was able to induce the Democrats to do what they did not really want to do. Of course, his power in this mode is very limited. The reason Bush was able to wield power on the Iraq issue is because he is protecting the status quo, and our system has a strong status quo bias. We should not expect him to be able to wield such power when he seeks to change the status quo (more on this presently). So, while Bush has some power in the first mode left, it is on the wane.

So also is his power in the second mode. For the only issue that he could place on the table is one that divided his own party. It was also an issue on which there was never anything but a slim chance of legislative success. This is not the sort of issue he ideally wants to place on the table, but he had no other choice. Democrats wouldn't hear any talk of extending his tax cuts, of reforming social security, of reforming the tax code, of generally creating an ownership society. Nuts to all of that, as far as they are concerned. And rightly so, from a political perspective. Why should they allow the President to place issues on the table that might divide them and resonate with the public? The only issues on which they will indulge the President are issues that divide his own party. This is a sign that his power in the second mode, his agenda-setting power, has been on the wane for quite some time.

The failure for Bush on the immigration issue is, I think, fairly telling. He failed not because he lacked power in the second mode. He was indeed able to induce Congress to take up an issue that he wanted it to take up. His failure was really due to an inability to induce legislators to alter current policy as he wants it altered. He no longer can put the "squeeze" on legislators and directly induce them to do what they would not otherwise do, at least when it comes to changing the status quo. Indeed, this was so much the case that - so far as I know - the White House played no significant role in the kind of politicking that Senators Kennedy and Lott did. They did not even make a serious effort to arm twist. His failure on immigration indicates that whatever first mode power he has left, it is really limited to protecting the current course of government.

What's more, I would wager that this was Bush's last exercise of power in the second mode. I cannot think of another issue that he might be able to place upon the table for consideration. He and Democrats disagree too vehemently on essentially every other issue of any importance, and his standing with the public is so low that Democrats will be better off by rejecting his suggestions for the legislative agenda than accepting them.

So - where does that leave the President? Thanks to the Constitution, he still possesses some measure of power in the first mode. Indeed, I think that all the power that is left for Bush to wield is the set of formal authorities granted to him by our founding document. These powers enable him to do little more than stop Congress from altering the status quo. No longer can he use his prestige and authority to place issues on the table for consideration. No longer, further, can he induce legislators to alter the status quo as he prefers to see it altered. I think those days are finished. I think that the failure of immigration reform marks the final stop in Bush's long descent into - to borrow a phrase from presidential scholar Richard Neustadt - a "constitutional clerk." Barring some sort of phenomenal occurrence, I think that Bush is now a president who can do little more than wield the formal powers granted him by Article II to protect the choices he made when he wielded what - I think we can all admit - was a uniquely vast amount of political power. This will make him more than a lame duck, but not by much.

-Jay Cost

Will Bush Pardon Libby?

Will he? I honestly do not know. The actions of this White House are becoming increasingly difficult for me to predict.

But I would say that, as a purely political matter, Bush should not pardon Libby. The reason is that pardoning Libby would not bring Bush any benefits, and it would reinforce the perception among many that this White House is insular and inept. This could be costly for him.

If this were the end of the Bush term, a pardon would be politically costless. However, this is not the end of the term. Bush is not even a lame duck, despite his low poll numbers. He still has a major political battle forthcoming in the Fall, i.e. the issue of funding the Iraq War. Bush needs to position himself as well as he is able to induce the Congress to adopt his preferred course of action. It will not just be a matter of General Petraeus reporting good news (if he indeed reports good news). Bush will also have to sell this news. Pardoning Libby would, I think anyway, diminish his capacity to do this. After all, the Libby affair is part-and-parcel of the national Iraq debate; his political opponents argue that it is a metaphor for how this administration initiated and prosecuted this war. Pardoning Libby would give them a fresh way to rephrase their argument - just in time for the next fight over the war. Thus, it would diminish his capacity to market his policy preferences on Iraq.

Well - one might say - this does not matter. The people who are convinced that Bush is hopelessly mired in cronyism will oppose him, anyway. This is true, but it does not mean that there are not moderate Democrats and Republicans who are on the fence about Iraq, who are indeed troubled by the run-up to and the prosecution of this war, but who could be persuaded to come along in the Fall. These are the legislators who can see the difference between the war in itself and Bush's prosecution of it.

This differentiation is difficult for many to make, and so the "equlibirum" of these legislators is not incredibly stable. It seems to me that it is possible that they could become so disenchanted with Bush that they abandon the war effort altogether. This is what has happened already with a large number of legislators, mostly in the Democratic caucus. But - as we have seen in this session of Congress - there are still enough legislators left who can see a difference, and who can therefore be induced to support the President. Pardoning Libby runs the risk of alienating this group of legislators. These legislators are deeply disappointed with Bush's prosecution of the war; if he gives them more reasons to be disappointed, that may tip them to Bush's opponents, regardless of what Petraeus reports.

I am not saying that this is what will happen if Bush pardons Libby. I am not saying that pardoning Libby will dissolve Bush's coalition. I am saying that it could damage the fragile, and shrinking, congressional bloc that Bush has left. And so, my point: why risk it? Because I. Scooter Libby may have been dealt an injustice that may eventually be identified and corrected by the courts? Is that worth the risk?

-Jay Cost