Author Archive | David Karol

Knowing When to Take off the Robe: Who Should Decide?

July the 4th weekend is always a good time to think about political power wielded arbitrarily by unelected, berobed rulers who may serve until their death.

In that light,this Reuters interview with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in which the octogenarian vows to stay on the high court “several more years” raises the issue of whether the U.S. is best served by retaining the system of life tenure for Supreme Court Justices.

In fairness, unlike George III, Justice Ginsburg is of humble origins,earned her credentials and was appointed and confirmed in her post by elected officials, albeit twenty years ago. So far there is no sign that she is losing her faculties the way he eventually did. Her robes are also significantly less flashy than the monarch’s or even Justice Rehnquist’s. Still, she, like all of her colleagues, exercises a great deal of arbitrary, unaccountable power and may do so for life. It’s much more in keeping with monarchical tradition than the Spirit of ‘76.

There was already discussion by liberal legal scholars about the desirability of Ginsburg retiring before the 2012 election and her recent comments are likely to spark further discussion and perhaps some agita on the part of liberal court-watchers.

We don’t know how seriously to take Justice Ginsburg’s claim that Justice John Paul Stevens, who served until he was 90, is her “new model.” No one wants to be a lame duck and Ginsburg also might not want to admit that political considerations would guide her retirement decision, although she has hinted as much before and legal journalist Jeffrey Toobin, who also recently interviewed the Justice, said that “she would like to retire while a Democrat is in the White House.”

Right now this is a concern for liberals (as should be the continued tenure of 75 year-old Justice Breyer, given the shorter lifespan of men compared to women), but the shoe has been on the other foot often enough. By refusing to step down before the very close 2004 election despite his own advanced age and, eventually, terminal illness, Chief Justice Rehnquist, who died at 80 in 2005 without retiring,despite missing many oral arguments, ran the risk of having his successor be named by the President Kerry who nearly was.

The broader point is that the whims of one unaccountable person, whatever their age, abilities or ideology should NOT matter so much in a democracy. Term limits for the Supreme Court would address the much discussed possibility of strategic retirement, in which a Justice chooses to leave the bench at a time when there is a President likely to appoint a replacement with similar views, reduce the variation in the number of appointments each President gets, reduce the likelihood of Justices serving into their dotage and keep the Court from becoming too out of touch with society. This is an issue that Monkey Cagers have addressed in the past, without reaching consensus, but it is again timely.

Such a reform could be structured in various ways, but if, for example, Justices knew that if they retired during the term of a President with similar views he or she would only be able to appoint someone to serve out the remainder of their term, their incentive to retire strategically would disappear. At the same time the term limit would keep Justices from staying on the Court beyond the time when they could serve effectively, as Justice Thurgood Marshall and others did, in hopes of waiting out a Chief Executive they disliked.

Life tenure for a Supreme Court is an anomaly among democratic political systems at home and abroad. Other democratic countries with judiciaries ranked as equally independent as the American courts and 49 out of the 50 American states do not use life tenure. (Rhode Island is the exception.) Some nations and states have mandatory retirement, others have fixed terms. Some have both. (In some states a judge can serve for an indefinite period at any age, but is subject to periodic reappointment or re-election.) When this system was instituted in the late 18th century Alexander Hamilton argued that there were very few men qualified to serve and that they would be unwilling to give up their lucrative law practices without the prospect of life tenure. Does anyone believe that is still true?

A mandatory retirement age would be an improvement on the status quo, but would still encourage Presidents to nominate young Justices, to maximize their long-term impact ,e.g. Clarence Thomas. An 18 year term would greatly reduce that incentive. Our system is backward. We limit the terms of the elected President, but not those of the unelected Judges.

There was a flurry of interest in this idea circa 2005 among law professors before Justice O’Connor retired because there had been so little turnover on the Court for so long. I wrote an essay in this 2013 volume aimed at undergrads edited by Richard Ellis and Michael Nelson.

George III stayed on his throne for life, although he was unable to really rule due his insanity in later years. By contrast, this year we’ve already seen two monarchs who exercise less power than he did choose to abdicate at the ages of 75 and 80, respectively. Some Justices, including Scalia and Ginsburg, have children who are attorneys. Maybe they would retire if they, like Beatrix, Queen of the Netherlands or Albert, King of the Belgians, knew their children would inherit their positions? Or maybe we as a country could revisit an 18th century political arrangement that has outlived whatever usefulness it may have once had.

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The Pathologies of Politico

Politico produces much valuable reporting. Yet it is also frequently problematic. As John Sides and Ezra Klein have long noted, and as its editors admit in a recent interview, Politico is resistant to analyses that Nate Silver and many scholars on and off the Monkey Cage offer. For Silver, “’it’s not that they are too ‘insidery’ per se, but that the perceptions of Beltway insiders, which Politico echoes and embraces, are not always very insightful or accurate.” This criticism is valid, but the limitations of Politico’s politics as game approach go beyond a resistance to insights drawn from political science.

Here is a quintessential Politico piece on the “Clueless Caucus” of conservatives who are complicating the “messaging” efforts of GOP leaders. The reporters uncritically reproduce the spin of the GOP establishment elites. Their identification with these sources appears total. Except for a defensive Trent Franks, the “Clueless Caucus” are voiceless objects of disdain dismissed as “doofuses.” There is no discussion of the possibility that any of these politicians are sincere in their views and little indication that they represent a real segment of the Republican Party. Those possibilities might explain why such inconvenient views somehow keep cropping up, despite the best efforts of GOP message mavens, but they are not investigated here. Readers are offered no explanation of the resulting GOP messaging problem beyond the random idiocy of a few reverberating in the controversy-loving media. No attempt is made to explain how the non-clueless quote-worthy GOP differs from their clueless co-partisans on policy either. Is the divide between the clued-in and the clueless opposition to allowing abortion in cases of rape, or just mentioning this position? Politico scribes do not say.

The Politico writers are not willing to openly state that some restrictions on abortion are wrong, for example, or that immigration reform is a good thing. They only offer a claim that some people are “stupid,” which is a way of taking a value position without owning up to it as a “non-partisan” “objective” journalist. In this form of journalism if people are disdained by the leaders of both parties it’s all right to mock them, even though you can’t acknowledge having any policy preferences yourself.

Relatedly, the article includes the inevitable false equivalence required in a story that is critical of some Republicans. Without a balancing dig at Democrats Politico reporters could be accused of partisanship, a sin much worse than inaccuracy, apparently.

So where is the Democratic Clueless Caucus? Who is the Democratic Todd Akin or Richard Mourdock? Politico offers us Howard Dean and Ashley Judd. Leaving aside whether what Dean and Judd said was really equivalent to what “The Clueless Caucus” has, Dean has not run for office since 2004 and has had no official role in his party for several years. Judd did not even end up running for the Senate, let alone become a Democratic nominee. The Politico reporters say message control is harder for the out party, but even when Bush was President did the Democrats nominate Dennis Kucinich or Barbara Lee for a competitive Senate seat? The asymmetric nature of polarization has been repeatedly documented by political scientists of widely differing approaches, something reporters have noted, but it is very hard for journalists working in the Politico mode to acknowledge.

Unacknowledged normative preferences, total identification with sources and no analysis of the asymmetric polarization that is one of the central features of contemporary American politics—that’s a lot of badness that goes beyond disdain for social science! Not every story needs to be accompanied by a bar chart or a reference to an academic study. There is a place for horse-race coverage and personality profiles. Reproducing the self-serving spin of political elites is much less helpful, however. Politico would serve readers much better by acknowledging the sources of divisions within and between parties that complicate the messaging efforts of the pols they like to quote.

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Why Do Gun Rights Advocates Have More Political Firepower? Intensity or Efficacy and Social Networks?

Now that the manhunt in Boston has ended, observers are taking one last look at the failure of gun control proposals in the Senate. I will not linger on dubious claims by Stuart Stevens, Maureen Dowd and others that President Obama should have been able to win 60 votes via more adept arm-twisting, deal-making and speechifying. Pundits’ abiding belief in Presidential omnipotence seems immune to the evidence assembled by scholars like George Edwards and Frances Lee that Chief Executives’ ability to affect the votes cast by Members of Congress is limited and that Presidents’ embrace of a policy may repel legislators as much as it attracts them.

More interesting is commentators’ explanation of the defeat of a proposal 90% of Americans favored by noting the greater “intensity” on the gun rights side. Perhaps ,”intensity trumps popularity”. Maybe gun control is “an idiosyncratic issue in which the intensity is all on the side of the opponents”, as the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza suggests. The strong position of the NRA in this case does require some explanation, since beyond the factors unique to the Senate that impeded passage of gun control including the filibuster and the extreme overrepresentation of small,rural states, reports suggested that the House was even less supportive of efforts to control firearms.

Certainly, elected officials hear far more from the gun rights side of the debate, even when it is badly outnumbered. There may well be more passion on the pro-gun side. Yet in politics it is a mistake to simply infer greater intensity of concern from greater mobilization. Two additional factors should be examined that may help explain why pro-gun advocates are so much better able to mobilize supporters and win the day on Capitol Hill: the demographic characteristics of those on each side of the debate and differences in the extent to which their social networks and activities facilitate their collective action.

Polls tell us something about the characteristics of gun rights supporters and gun owners specifically. If we look at these categories, we see that they are disproportionately white, male and old. Disproportionately white, male and old is a description that fits the Senate and,to a lesser degree, most other American political elites quite well. For example campaign contributors are disproportionately white male, and old too. Gun rights supporters are also more likely to be registered to vote than gun control advocates. So from this standpoint the cause of gun rights gets more of a hearing because it appeals to the kind of citizens who are already comfortable and used to participating in politics.

On the other hand, gun owners are concentrated in rural areas and socially peripheral in that respect. They do not differ greatly in income or level of education from gun control supporters. So while there is some reason to view gun rights supporters and gun owners as a group with demographic attributes that increase their political efficacy, that may not be the whole story.

Instead of viewing gun owners and advocates simply as individuals with some characteristics that predispose them to political action, we should take account of their position in social networks that facilitate collective action in favor of gun rights . I am not talking about Facebook and Twitter either, but actual face-to-face interaction. People often go hunting and target-shooting in groups. Gun enthusiasts assemble at gun shows. There are businesses that cater to gun owners; firearms and ammunition manufacturers and the operators of target ranges and gun shows. It is well-known that firms find it easier to build effective lobbies than do large groups of citizens, but beyond that gun owners’ social activities facilitate organizing. They are embedded in social networks of people with similar views and simply by socializing, engaging in recreational activities or reading publications devoted to their hobbies, they may learn about political efforts that at least some of them are predisposed to support. It’s not an accident that many of the most successful social movements in American history from abolition to Prohibition and the Civil Rights Movement were based in churches. These campaigns piggy-backed on pre-existing social organizations and communities rather than building connections from scratch. Women’s suffrage activists and LGBT rights supporters also could take advantage of the fact that their constituencies spent time together. Union organizers face obstacles, but those they hope to organize work together.

By contrast, gun control supporters have no shared social activities, no common identity and no companies that cater to them. Their jobs don’t bring them together. Unlike gun rights advocates’ they don’t find and stay in touch with each other without a conscious and sustained effort to do so. Under these conditions, it is not surprising to find far more effective mobilization of sentiment on the gun rights side. So even if there was significant intensity of feeling on the part of a sizable minority of gun control advocates,(say 10% of the 90% favoring background checks) we should expect them to have greater difficulty in channeling those feelings and building durable political organizations.

This does not mean gun control advocates can never prevail. The last time gun control advocates won the day on Capitol Hill, the 103rd Congress (1993-1994) which saw the passage of the Brady Bill and the Assault Weapons Ban, there was unified Democratic government and crime rates were far higher than they are today. Perhaps if those conditions recur gun control advocates will make gains, despite their disadvantages in mobilizing. The slow decline in gun ownership may one day weaken the NRA’s hand as well.

Yet all in all, the structural and sociological factors working in favor of the gun rights side seem fairly durable, while the memories of the horrific Newtown shooting will continue to fade. In the short and medium term, claims that the NRA overreached and gained a Phyrric victory seem wishful in the extreme.

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The House GOP and the Fiscal Cliff: Position-taking vs. Policy-making

This post is co-authored with my colleague, Frances Lee, a veteran Congress-watcher making her Monkey Cage debut.

Some recent stories in the New York Times and Politico suggest that the reason House Republicans were reluctant to vote for the deal the Senate struck to avert the fiscal cliff was because they were concerned that it contained no provisions to reduce spending. As the Times’ Jonathan Weisman put it:

It was further proof that House Republicans are a new breed, less enamored of tax cuts per se than they are driven to shrink government through steep spending cuts. Protecting nearly 99 percent of the nation’s households from an income tax increase was not enough if taxes rose on some and government spending was untouched.

What Weisman and other accounts along these lines miss is that the House GOP nearly unanimously supported the Senate deal by making it possible for Congress to pass the legislation on such short notice. GOP Representatives overwhelmingly voted in favor of the procedural rule to permit an up-or-down vote on the Senate deal. Republicans knew that the Senate deal would pass (largely on the strength of Democratic support) if it was permitted to come to a vote. Yet nearly every House Republican voted in favor of bringing it up. After that, most GOP Representatives then voted against final passage. But the final passage vote was, at that point, largely symbolic. When it really counted, the Senate package, which contained no spending cuts, had already been sufficient to win House Republican support.

Meanwhile, if spending cuts were a top priority for the House GOP, they might have won more concessions had they not undercut Speaker John Boehner’s bargaining leverage by refusing to support his proposed “Plan B.” Boehner’s plan, which everyone knew had no chance of becoming law, would have preserved all the Bush tax cuts on incomes below $1 million. Boehner wanted the House to support this plan as a bargaining chip to strengthen his position against the president. Yet even when Boehner paired his plan with a bill containing many spending reductions Republicans favored, he still could not get them to support his proposal, a proposal that was far more favorable in policy terms than the one that eventually became law. GOP Representatives’ refusal to support Boehner’s plan sidelined their own leader from negotiations with the White House and required the Senate to take the lead.

The Senate deal itself was arrived at as the parties exchanged concessions to one another. Democratic concessions were primarily about exempting high-income individuals from tax increases (raising the threshold of those affected to $400,000 or more in taxable income, reducing the estate tax). Republican concessions were on increased spending, such as extending unemployment benefits, and on tax credits important to low-income groups. The structure of the negotiations indicates that the key sticking point was the tax increases on high-income taxpayers, not decisions about spending. When Democrats had given way sufficiently on that point, Republicans could accept the deal. Spending cuts were not necessary to get most Republicans to sign off and permit the bill to pass.

Under such circumstances, what does it mean that so many House Republicans voted against the Senate deal on passage while also casting the necessary procedural votes to allow the deal to pass? Why did they undercut their own leader’s efforts to bargain for spending cuts along the way? Why did they relinquish negotiation to the Senate, permit the Senate bill to pass, and then denounce it for not containing spending cuts?

Long ago David Mayhew told us that much of what Members of Congress do is “position-taking.” Their votes, like their speeches, are largely for public consumption. Collectively, their votes shape public policy. Yet an individual legislator knows that her vote will seldom decide the fate of a given bill. It will however contribute to the shaping of her image. Given that the individual Member of Congress controls his vote but does not control the outcome of legislative battles, he often has reason to vote based on how he would like to be seen. Often the positions a legislator wants to be seen to support and the policy outcomes he favors are closely aligned. Yet when the two diverge he has political reason to vote for what he wants to be seen to favor, rather than the legislative outcome actually he favors. This is especially so, Mayhew argues, because legislators are usually judged on the basis of the positions they take, not on policy outcomes.

The behavior of GOP legislators in the cliff episode is much more understandable as an exercise in position-taking, which laypersons might call “posturing.” The overwhelming GOP vote for the rule suggests that Republican legislators were reconciling conflicting goals. In this case Republican Representatives did want to avoid a certain policy outcome. They wanted to prevent the fiscal cliff, but they still did not want to be associated with voting for a tax increase. The way to achieve this was to keep their hands clean of the negotiation, even at the cost of greatly reduced influence over the deal, and then to allow the bill to pass largely on Democratic votes.

The alternatives open to House Republicans, backing Plan B or amending the Senate bill, would have required far more of them to go on record voting in favor of tax hikes. Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) explained the dilemma to David Weigel, “More members want this to pass than want to vote for it.” The National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru noted similarly, in explaining both the failure of both Boehner’s Plan B and the GOP’s later failure to amend the Biden-McConnell Senate bill, “a lot of Republicans didn’t want to appear to be endorsing tax increases for anyone…A lot of Republicans wished the deal included more spending cuts without being willing to vote for a deal with more spending cuts. That’s why this effort failed.”

The evidence suggests that, contrary to some media reports, House Republicans cared far more about limiting tax increases than about limiting spending. After all, it was limits on tax increases, not concessions on spending, that sealed the deal—a deal that nearly all House Republicans accepted, their votes on final passage notwithstanding. Yet the key factor in explaining their behavior was not a policy preference, but a position preference. Many House Republicans were more focused on avoiding being seen to vote for any tax increase than on minimizing the actual tax increases that were destined to occur. The result of their individual position-taking choices led to higher taxes without spending reductions.

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Is Our Parties Learning?

In a recent post,the estimable Jon Bernstein of A Plain Blog about Politics considers the question of whether Republicans would blame a Romney loss on Hurricane Sandy. He concludes that this would be a good outcome, because the alternative is Republicans blaming the media and increasing toxic polarization and mistrust in the polity. For Bernstein the key point is this: “We can guarantee one thing: Republicans will not interpret it as confirmation that the American people prefer the Democrats’ ideas to their ideas (for which they would be correct, by the way; that’s not how elections work).”

Jon really is one of the most astute analysts out there, but I have to take issue with the “soft bigotry of low expectations” he exhibits vis-a-vis the GOP, to quote his fellow Texan. Jon may be right that next week Republicans would not interpret a Romney loss, (or a worse than expected performance in Congressional races) as a confirmation that their ideas (or some of their ideas) are unpopular, but parties have repeatedly drawn such conclusions in the past and with some reason. Even if most scholars think that party identification plus “valence “ issues like the state of the economy and war and peace explain most voters’ choices, there is still some increment parties may hope to influence. In this respect parties do “learn”, even if not all of what they learn is correct.

In a classic article Marjorie Hershey shows that the dominant narrative emerging from Mondale’s 49 state loss, following on Carter’s almost equally poor showing four years earlier was that the Democratic Party needed to move to the center. Mondale was said to have alienated voters by promising to raise taxes and being too close to “special interests” i.e. Democratic constituencies such as unions, feminists, racial minorities and gays and lesbians.

Hershey goes on to note that this interpretation of the election was not necessarily valid and that much of it was spun by the media and not political scientists. Reagan benefited from an enormous election year economic recovery, so the result may have had little to do with Mondale’s positioning or associations.

Yet Democrats did “learn a lesson”, correct or otherwise, from their loss. The Democratic Leadership Council was founded in an effort to move the party back to “the center.” This did not happen overnight or without intra-party conflict, but it happened. Four years later Michael Dukakis, unlike Mondale, picked a running-mate who was clearly to his right, Senator Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, did not pledge to raise taxes and protested that the election was “not about ideology, but about competence.” Dukakis lost badly as well, albeit not as overwhelmingly as Mondale or Carter. In 1992 the DLC finally got its candidate in Bill Clinton. He ran as a “New Democrat”, one who would “end welfare as we know it” and who, unlike Mondale or Dukakis, supported the death penalty in an era when crime rates were higher than they are today. He was also a southern white male, i.e. a member of the demographic in which Democrats’ fortunes had declined most greatly.

A less dramatic response to repeated defeat was the rise of “compassionate conservatism” in the GOP. Republicans lost two Presidential elections to Bill Clinton in the 1990s. After that their attempt to remove him from office was followed by the first midterm election since 1934 in which the party not controlling the White House lost seats in the House. This paved the way for George W. Bush’s shift from the policies associated with Gingrich and Dole. Gone was the pledge to abolish the Department of Education, instead Bush promoted “No Child Left Behind.” Gone were the attacks on Medicare. Instead, Bush created a prescription drug entitlement for Medicare recipients. Other aspects of compassionate conservatism included a decreased use of racial issues. The 1990s GOP had supported attacks on affirmative action such as Proposition 209 in California. The Bush White House did not continue this. When a similar initiative was on the ballot in Michigan Bush did not support it.

There are many other examples of parties moderating after repeated defeat. Republicans nominated moderate candidates who accepted the New Deal as a fait accompli from 1940 to 1960 after losing badly twice to FDR. Tony Blair’s ”New Labour”, established after four defeats and influenced by Bill Clinton’s example is one case. David Cameron’s more moderate Tories, who only emerged after three defeats by Blair, is another.

There are many “lessons” out there that parties may learn. Some may have little basis, as Hershey notes. There are also different ways to adapt. Republicans could revisit their position on immigration (something elite opinion would like them to do) or they could reconsider the Ryan Plan (which elite opinion finds much more congenial). In this case a narrow loss might be initially blamed on Romney’s failings. There is also never a shortage of ideologues ready to say that insufficient fidelity to the party’s principles was the real problem. These explanations, a poor spokesman and insufficient conviction, are naturally palatable to ideologues so they are only cast aside with reluctance and following repeated losses. Yet in the end parties want to win and they do learn and adapt. If today’s GOP is an exception that is a very big deal because what parties take away from their defeats influences they way they position themselves in the future. It matters not just for 2016 but for the behavior of elected officials during the next four years.

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Emoter-in-Chief?

One of the most striking aspects of Mitt Romney’s acceptance speech yesterday was his extended discussion of his family life and upbringing. Romney’s inability to connect has been widely discussed, so this emphasis was no surprise. Yet he was far from the only speaker who talked at length about his personal background. References to parents, children, spouses, grandchildren and growing up are now standard for candidates and even other convention speakers.

What many viewers may not realize is that this “share-y” rhetorical approach is recent. Now the Presidential nominee’s acceptance speech is the highlight of the Convention. Yet as scholars including Gil Troy and Richard Ellis have noted, until FDR Presidential nominees DID NOT EVEN SPEAK at the Conventions that nominated them. Given that one would have had to travel to the convention in advance of the nomination vote in those pre-air travel days, such a speech would signal that one sought the honor of the nomination. Such naked ambition was considered unseemly. This taboo was so strong that even nominees whom everyone knew had the nomination well in hand before the convention opened, e.g. Al Smith and Herbert Hoover in 1928, did not speak at their conventions. Instead, candidates issued a letter of acceptance well after the convention or, by the time of Hoover and Smith, an acceptance speech in their hometown after a delegation from the party had formally notified them of their nomination.FDR flew to the 1932 convention that nominated him, (and returned in 1936 and 1940), but this was a break from tradition, and despite the rise of air travel Republicans did not follow Roosevelt’s example until 1944.

When it finally became accepted for candidates to speak at the conventions that nominated them, they were all business. One can read Franklin Roosevelt’s speeches from 1932 and 1936 or Thomas Dewey’s from 1944 and 1948 without getting any hint that FDR or Dewey had parents, siblings, a childhood, a spouse or children. FDR at least projected warmth, but Dewey was exactly the kind of aloof character whom handlers would seek to humanize today. Yet at that time a tear-jerking speech or even extended discussion of personal matters would have been seen as highly inappropriate. In 1940 FDR claimed to speak in “very personal and informal way”, but he merely included the phrase “my good wife” (referring to Eleanor’s earlier speech) and his reasons for seeking an unprecedented third term despite his alleged wish to retire. The speeches of Eisenhower and Stevenson in the 1950s and Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey and Barry Goldwater in the 1960s were similarly impersonal. The idea that Eisenhower would salute his running-mate’s love of his mother, as Romney did last night, is laughable. In 1960 JFK DID talk at length about his Catholicism , but this was a defensive move and he made no mention of his experience on PT-109 in World War Two or his ancestors fleeing the potato famine.

So this change didn’t follow instantly from the rise of television either. In 1968 Nixon did engage in a bit of this rhetoric, no doubt b/c his advisors felt he needed to be “humanized”, but it was mild by current standards and, again, it didn’t start a trend. Ronald Reagan, often seen as THE television candidate par excellence, DIDN’T speak about himself or his family at all. Mondale and Ford did just a little.

By 1988 though this rhetoric was far more prominent in both Bush’s and Dukakis’s speeches, perhaps because both candidates were seen as somewhat aloof or hard to relate to and, importantly, the culture had changed. I also remember Bush the Elder talking in a debate about losing his daughter to Leukemia (in a debate?!) and Dukakis countering with mention of his wife Kitty’s miscarriage. Both candidates seemed uneasy about this. The media reflected some of these changes. As awkward as Bernard Shaw’s death penalty question to Dukakis about what he would do if his wife had been raped and murdered was, it is impossible to imagine such a question being formulated, let alone asked by a reporter at the Kennedy-Nixon debates.

Interestingly, in the period just before it became standard to speak at the convention when candidates gave acceptance speeches days later in their hometown they talked a bit more about themselves, perhaps because this was seen as acceptable in this more personal setting.

Relatedly, the candidates’ wives did NOT speak at the convention until recently, Eleanor Roosevelt excepted. Betty Ford may have been the next spouse to speak in 1976 and even after her it didn’t become routine. In those days there was at most the briefest mention of the spouse. Eisenhower referred to “Mrs. Eisenhower” (!) in passing.

These changes are linked to larger shifts in the culture including a trend toward informality and the decline of traditional notions of privacy. We now live in the age of “reality” TV in which the entire family runs for office.

Is this progress? It would be wrong to say that candidates were nobler in one era than another. The old style of presentation of self, rooted in the fiction of the reluctant and selfless candidate, was deeply dishonest. Candidates are human beings and their backgrounds are relevant. Yet this modern ritual in which Gore or Romney is forced to show at great length that he is a human and loves his family (does anyone doubt this?) is repellent. In this way however, while treacly rhetoric does not tell us much about candidates’ plans, it reveals much about our culture and its changing norms and values.

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Who’s the Party? Episode XXXIII

Here is an interesting Politico article about Paul Ryan’s rise to prominence in the GOP. The article is much stronger on reporting than analysis, unfortunately. The journalists who wrote it declare that “the establishment has withered and power has flowed away from party bosses to new media forces.” These “new media forces” turn out to be leading figures at The Wall Street Journal editorial page,the Weekly Standard, the National Review and the Heritage Foundation. Inevitably, William Kristol is mentioned and quoted several times.

Are any of these people “new media”, new to the GOP or really new anything? More broadly, since when are these guys NOT part of the Republican establishment? Twenty years ago the Wall Street journal editorial page, the National Review and the Heritage Foundation were already quite prominent in the GOP and had been for many years. Twenty years ago the Weekly Standard did not yet exist, but William Kristol was already Dan Quayle’s chief of staff. At one time William F. Buckley’s National Review was an insurgent anti-establishment force in the GOP, but that was quite a long time ago.

Some political scientists have been trying to promote a broader understanding of party elites , but evidently we still have some work to do. If we accept the Politico reporters’ claims that these actors played more of a role in Ryan’s ascension than e.g. GOP fundraisers or Governors, then the most we could say is that they were the element of the Republican establishment that did the most for him.

It’s nothing new for political players to combine journalism with kingmaking. The party press of the 19th Century is well-known. Slightly more recently, William Randolph Hearst had more than a little to do with Alf Landon’s nomination by the Republican National Convention in 1936, and he was a recent convert to the GOP at the time, unlike the players mentioned in the Politico article. Henry Luce’s Time was, along with the New York Herald Tribune, an important factor in Wendell Willkie’s nomination by the GOP in 1940. Let’s not even talk about the role of the Chicago Tribune in Illinois Republican politics during the time of Col. McCormick. This is all as American as apple pie. Party “establishments” are not comprised of just Governors, state chairman and people who have the word “party” on their business cards AND NEVER HAVE BEEN. Political reporters, of all people, should know that.

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The Myth of “The Social Issues”: The Politics of Abortion and the Politics of Gay Rights are Different

In today’s New York Times Susan Saulny’s article “Young in G.O.P. Erase the Lines on Social Issues” appears. Change in party positioning on issues is a very important topic. I wouldn’t have written a book about it if I didn’t think so. Unfortunately, this is a misleading article that demonstrates that the term “social issues”, much like “weapons of mass destruction”, is so broad that it may obscure more than it reveals. The article’s thesis is that younger Republicans are becoming more liberal on “the social issues”, defined as same-sex marriage and abortion. Saulny cites polling data showing that a growing minority of Republicans under 30 support same-sex marriage. This is true enough. Study after study shows that younger voters in almost all categories are more supportive of gay rights, although much change is also visible in the views of their elders.

Where the article goes off the rails is the claim that what is true of same-sex marriage is true of abortion. It isn’t. Tellingly, Saulny does not cite any actual polling data on abortion. Instead, Saulny interviewed young GOP activists and found some who are pro-marriage equality and pro-choice and want their party to focus on the economy and downplay “the social issues.” Of course attitudes on abortion and gay rights are correlated and it’s not surprising that activists who are willing to loudly buck their party on one of these topics may also break from it on another. Moreover, there remain many pro-choice Republican (and pro-life Democratic) voters. Beyond that Republicans from Mitt Romney on down understand the value of focusing on the economy, given the slow recovery Americans are experiencing this year.

Yet the larger story of survey after survey is one of change on same-sex marriage and LGBT rights generally as contrasted with great stability on the question of abortion rights. There is even some evidence that younger voters are more on the pro-life side of the debate. A 2011 Gallup Poll found that while 69% of Republicans over 55 called themselves “pro-life” 73% of those under 35 did so. In general differences between the generations on abortions are quite small whether we are looking at Republicans or the broader public. Readers of the article would never know this is the case.

The politics of abortion and gay rights look very different at both the mass and elite levels. The main change on the abortion issue is the greater extent to which the conflict has become partisan since it reached the national agenda in the early 1970s. That change has occurred via shifts in both parties. Initially many prominent Democrats including Ted Kennedy, Joe Biden, Jesse Jackson, Dick Gephardt and Tip O’Neill were pro-life while well-known Republicans including Ronald Reagan and both Presidents Bush took more liberal stands. Republican voters were more pro-choice than Democrats until the mid-1980s. With the incorporation of feminists in the Democratic coalition and the religious right in the GOP many politicians changed their stands. Among voters the alignment between party identification and abortion views has gradually increased as well. Yet while abortion has become an increasingly partisan issue, overall attitudes regarding the topic and public policy have been quite stable.

In contrast, gay rights was a fringe issue in the 1970s. It was not until 1980 that the Democratic Platform mentioned sexual orientation in the long list of categories regarding which Democrats opposed discrimination. It wasn’t until the 1990s that a majority of Democratic Members of Congress would co-sponsor a bill banning discrimination against gays and lesbians.

Since then some support for gay rights has become standard among Democratic politicians, many of whom have changed their stands on the issue over the course of their careers. Since Republican elites have barely moved the issue has become more partisan largely due to changes in the Democratic Party. Republican voters and Republican politicians remain largely opposed to same sex-marriage. On other gay rights issues Republican politicians are more conservative than their supporters overall; even majorities of GOP voters supported ending “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” and a ban on employment discrimination while few Congressional Republicans supported these changes. These are not high priorities for many voters however, so it was easy for Republican politicians to side with social conservatives in their coalition who do care about these issues.

Same-sex marriage remains far more controversial than these other gay rights issues, so there is reason to expect Republican political elites to maintain their opposition for several years, despite increasing voter support for marriage equality. Judging by GOP elites’ resistance even to more popular policies like repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” change may be slow. Still, no electorate is immortal and in the long run GOP elites politicians will probably moderate their positions on gay rights. There is much less evidence that they will have any reason to do so on abortion in the foreseeable future.

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A Foolish Consistency?

Prominent journalist Marc Ambinder is leaving Washington for Los Angeles. In a recent farewell post on the GQ website Ambinder lists the “Ten Things I Learned During a Decade in D.C.” The first thing Ambinder learned is this:

Consistency is not a terribly interesting or useful proxy for effectiveness in a politician, and yet it seems to be the value held most high—or the value that, because someone is most easily able to convince you that someone else lacks it, becomes important. Politicians and the media haven’t developed the vocabulary to explain how positions evolve.

Of course the big political story of early 2012 is that Mitt Romney captured the Republican Presidential Nomination. As John Sides notes, The Monkey Cage “strives to be non-partisan.” Well, I think Democrats and Republicans can agree that the “foolish consistency” that Emerson called “the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines” has never plagued Governor Romney.

Ambinder is talking about what “Washington”, i.e journalists and politicos, purportedly values. Yet if “Washington” really valued consistency that highly then Romney’s success would suggest that “this town’s” preferences matter little where presidential nominations are concerned. If so, maybe we shouldn’t care much if Washingtonians overvalue consistency.

Yet Romney clearly was the favorite of the GOP political establishment. From early on the former Massachusetts Governor led his rivals on metrics of elite support such as endorsements (including those from Members of Congress, even though Romney has never served on Capitol Hill) and in fundraising. Evidently the GOP political elite in Washington AND the voters do not value consistency all that highly.

It is not just that Mitt Romney has changed his stands on many issues and somehow still became the Republican Presidential candidate. Romney’s very inconsistency was a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for his success in capturing his party’s presidential nomination this year. To believe otherwise one would have to find it a reasonable counterfactual that a candidate who was pro-choice, pro-gay rights, not a fan of the NRA, not a fan of Ronald Reagan and one who believed that an individual mandate for health insurance should be the foundation of health care reform at the national level could be nominated by the Republican Party for President in 2012.

Of course one counter-example, even a prominent one, only goes so far. We know that the political parties have changed positions on many issues. Recently the Democrats have drawn away from Republicans on LGBT rights as support for gays in the military and, increasingly, marriage rights become mainstream stands among Democratic officials. Beyond this Republicans were once the party of civil rights for African-Americans and women, of protectionism, of balancing budgets over cutting taxes and of limited defense spending. Both parties were once very divided on questions of abortion and gun control. None of this is true anymore.

If consistency were really highly valued in Washington these important changes in parties’ positioning on these issues would have to stem from old Members of Congress being gradually replaced by new candidates with new positions. Is that process of elite replacement how the Democrats and Republicans traded sides on these and other issues?

Not really. Instead on all of these issues individual elected officials changed their stands in large numbers, helping to alter their parties’ images on the issues in the process. We can see this playing out on gay rights as Democrats from President Obama on down “evolve” on the issue.

Yet this is hardly unique to the case of gay rights. The same LBJ who once backed Jim Crow said We Shall Overcome. The same Ronald Reagan who aligned the GOP with the pro-life movement signed a bill liberalizing abortion law in California even before Roe v. Wade. The first President Bush was once for the Equal Rights Amendment, gun control, abortion rights and called cutting taxes at all costs “voodoo economics.” On the way to the White House Bush dropped all these stands. It’s doubtful he would have been Reagan’s successor had he stuck to his original positions on these issues. Similarly, the Al Gore who served in Congress representing rural Tennessee and who was closer to the NRA than NARAL would have had trouble being nominated for President. The Al Gore who aligned his stands with the dominant views in his party was nominated in 2000.

Consistency is one of those virtues, like balancing the budget, that people prize far more in theory than in practice. The idea of consistency is appealing, but what voters and interest groups really want is politicians who agree with them. Practical politicians from Romney to Obama to Gore and Bush all understood this. It’s time journalists did as well.

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Defining Dissidence Down

In all the coverage of Senator Richard Lugar’s crushing 20-point loss at the hands of Indiana State Treasurer Richard Mourdock in the Indiana Republican Senate primary reporters can agree on one thing. Lugar is a “moderate.” Similarly, in a recent post Nate Silver lists the many Republican Senate “moderates” who have left office, voluntarily or otherwise, in recent years. Moderation in the GOP ain’t what it used to be; one of those Silver listed was Rick Santorum.

Lugar’s career is a striking illustration of how the definition of “moderate” has changed as the GOP has marched rightward. When Lugar entered the Senate in the 95th Congress (1977-1978) his first dimension DW-NOMINATE score was .348. By this measure the Indiana Senator was to the right of center in the GOP Conference, being the 16th most conservative of the 38 Republicans in the Senate.

The freshman Lugar was to the right not only of elderly liberal Republicans who generally voted with Democrats like Jacob Javits and Clifford Case (both of whom would soon lose primaries to conservatives), but also of Republicans like Senators Bob Packwood and Mark Hatfield of Oregon. Hatfield was something of a Christian pacifist, pro-life and against wars, big Pentagon budgets and the death penalty. Packwood was strongly pro-choice. Both Oregonians had mixed records on economic issues, pleasing neither business nor labor consistently. Lugar was also to the right of both the Senate Minority Leader, Howard Baker, his whip Ted Stevens and even Bob Dole, whom President Ford had picked to replace Vice-President Nelson Rockefeller as his running-mate in the 1976 Presidential race in order to appease the conservative wing of the GOP.

Conservatives are wary of Republicans who linger in Washington,fearing they will attend one too many “Georgetown cocktail parties” and gradually sell out in order to win “strange new respect” from the pundit class. For sure, the pundits loved Lugar, but has he changed over the years? Not that much. Throughout his career Lugar has gotten very low ratings from organized labor and environmental groups and high marks from business lobbies.

Lugar has generally voted anti-abortion and, once the issue got on the agenda, anti-gay rights, opposing the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell despite polls showing the public favored that move. Lugar supported the Bush tax cuts and the Iraq War. He opposed the stimulus, the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank financial reform. He voted to put Robert Bork and Samuel Alito on the Supreme Court. Lugar voted for the Gulf War, the death penalty, oil drilling in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refugee and removing President Clinton from office.

It is true that by the same measure Lugar’s D1 NOMINATE score dropped from .348 in his first Congress, to .241 in the last one, but moving his score ten points does not change his ranking within the Republican Conference very much in either Congress. Yet because of turnover in the conference during his tenure Lugar was the seventh most liberal Republican in the last Congress. Over the years new cohorts of GOP Senators have been more conservative than their elders, so Lugar’s position in political space has changed even though his stands mostly have not.

Of course Lugar has broken with conservatives on several issues over the years from the Dream Act to the Brady Bill. He led a bipartisan move to override President Reagan’s veto of sanctions on South Africa’s apartheid regime in 1986. But Lugar was hardly alone then. It was a GOP Senate that overrode Reagan’s veto. At that time Lugar was not a fringe figure in the GOP and it took a good deal more to be pushed outside the Republican tent than it does now.

More important than any particular vote, Lugar’s interest in working across the aisle is badly out of step with the mood of today’s GOP. As that party has become more conservative smaller and smaller deviations from the party line have become dangerous. For a long time being pro-choice was a litmus test which journalists used to determine who was a “moderate” Republican. Well, Lugar is not pro-choice. But if he voted for Alito and Bork (unlike several GOP Senators including Packwood, Specter and John Warner), Lugar also voted for Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, a fact that angered some pro-life activists despite his many years of 100% National Right to Life Committee Ratings, his votes against abortion funding and support of a Constitutional Amendment overturning Roe v. Wade. Voting for a President’s Supreme Court nominees, especially those who would not radically alter the ideological balance of the Court, used to be standard practice, as Jonathan Chait notes, and Lugar’s votes for Sotomayor and Kagan reflected that custom, but those days are gone.

There are other factors that explain the wide margin of Lugar’s defeat including his advanced age, his rusty campaigning skills after decades of easy wins and his ill-advised failure to maintain a residence in the state he represented for nearly two generations. Yet more importantly, Lugar’s experience is proof that in politics you can move by standing still.

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