Friday, November 19, 2010

The Difference Between 1994 and 2010? Democrats Saw the Wave

An interesting piece on the 2010 midterms from MSNBC today on the debt Democrats took on to prevent even larger losses in the House. Some key points to consider:

In 1994, The Democrats were caught unawares when the GOP tidal wave hit. Now, because of the proliferation of polling, the Democrats not only knew they were in trouble, they had a good idea where and could shift resources appropriately. The same thing happened in 2006 when the Republicans lost their majority. In both cases, it seems the losses could have been much worse. Because of the ability to use polls to target with sophistication and partisan-motivated redistricting, large wave elections like '94 and '10 are much rarer today.

Second, the large debt combined with the loss of the House majority weakens considerable the Democrats going into the 2012 congressional election cycle. It's much hard to raise money when you aren't in the majority. Add to this the monumental drubbing the Democrats took in state gubernatorial and legislative races--which give the GOP a big leg up in redistricting, and forget about the Democrats winning back the House. Indeed, we'll probably see Republican gains in 2012.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Political Theory Consortium Rocks the House

The Political Theory Consortium (PTC) gathered last week for our second to last meeting of the semester. This group of theory-lovin’ students is awesome! So far this semester we’ve read selections from John Dewey’s The Quest for Certainty, Gandhi’s Non-violent Resistance, Jose Miranda’s Marx Against the Marxists, and Rousseau’s “Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality” paired with a contemporary work-in-progress by two friends of mine (David Gutterman and Keally McBride), using Rousseau to analyze the Tea Party movement as a manifestation of deep status anxiety.

The meeting last week was the one on Rousseau and the Tea Party, and it was HEATED! I could hear people up and down the halls of Wilson closing their office doors, as Jordan and David (a.k.a. Karl Marx Jr. and Milton Friedman Jr.) went head to head on the question of what economic system was more likely to improve humankind’s lot. I’m not going to lie to you, the term “Keynesian monetarism” was used more than once. And there was radical disagreement over whether Rousseau’s insights about what he saw as the foundational “swindle” capture our contemporary predicament.

Rousseau writes,

“Lacking reasons valid enough to justify himself and strength sufficient enough to defend himself, easily able to overwhelm an individual but overwhelmed himself by bandits, alone against all, and, on account of mutual jealousies, unable to join forces with his equals against enemies united by the common hope of plunder, the rich man, pressed on by necessity, finally conceived the most carefully thought out plan that ever entered the human mind; this was to use in his favor the very forces of those who were attacking him, to make his adversaries into his defenders, to inspire them with other maxims and to give them other institutions, which were as favorable to him as natural law was opposed.”

And if you’ve ever read the text, you know what happened next! The “easily seduced,”

“ran headlong into their chains, hoping to ensure their liberty, for, along with enough reason to be conscious of the advantages of political institutions, they did not have enough experience to foresee their dangers; those most capable of anticipating the abuses were precisely those who counted on profiting from them….”

According to Rousseau, this was the very origin of society. Ouch! And so here we are, centuries later, trying to figure out whether there is some masterful, Rovian (as in Karl) deception that has duped the not-rich into voting against their economic self-interest in order to protect their self-conception. Gutterman and McBride call this a “therapeutic” mode of politics – acting out our psychic worries, or angst, or fear of degeneration, if not our rationally considered interests. Fascinating stuff! Was the foundation of modern society the enlightenment insight that “all men are created equal” or was it actually the recognition of inequality (and the desire by some to preserve their comparative advantage) that inaugurated civil society in the first place? Discuss.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The 2012 Montana Senate Election: It's ON.

Attended Steve Daines' announcement for the U.S. Senate today to help the local television with commentary. Daines is a native Montanan, and co-founder of RightNow technologies--one of Bozeman's major employers. In reviewing Daines' materials, it's the standard "I'm an outsider, government is too big, and I've created jobs" that one might expect, especially after the success of this type of message in the 2010 midterm elections. In many ways, I suspect the campaign will be similar to Ron Johnson's successful campaign in Wisconsin. Johnson ran against, and defeated, three-term incumbent Russ Feingold.

I was asked if Daines has a chance. Well, of course he does--the question is whether that chance is substantial. In political science, we term challengers as quality or not. Quality is generally defined as having experience in elected office. These candidates generally have the best chance of beating an incumbent--which is a tall order indeed. However, some candidates without elected office experience are classified as "ambitious amateurs" (see Canon 1990). These candidates may not have elected office experience, but they behave strategically like experienced candidates. They generally have decent name recognition and financial resources, and they make the decision to run strategically.

The incumbent senator, Jon Tester, is running in his first reelection campaign. The best chance of beating an incumbent is when they run in their first reelection campaign. So, if Tester is to beaten, this is the time to do it. Daines is acting strategically by choosing to take Tester on now. And, he's acting early enough to get his name out there and to clear the field of other prospective challengers.

Daines narrative is might compelling in an environment with high unemployment and discontent with incumbents. He's certainly taps into the Tea Party skepticism of larger and bigger government. Tester, of course, can be tagged with some unpopular votes.

Tester, however, has other advantages that should not be dismissed. He is the incumbent. He is a native Montanan. He is a rancher and a farmer. He is pro-gun and a conservative Democrat. It will be hard, methinks, to paint him as an Obama/Pelosi Democrat. And the election is two years away. The economy might improve--and the electorate voting in 2012 will be very different from the one turning out in 2010. All of things bode well for Tester in defending his seat.

Nevertheless, if Daines is the nominee, we can expect a lot of money to be spent by both sides in 2012. Lots of television ads, lots of voter outreach--a rich information environment to help reduce the costs of voting and get more people involved/interested. I can't wait to watch this unfold.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Montana Politics: Divided Government Matters

Montana Politics: Divided Government Matters

Divided Government Matters

From Politico:

"California Rep. Darrell Issa is already eyeing a massive expansion of oversight for next year, including hundreds of hearings; creating new subcommittees; and launching fresh investigations into the bank bailout, the stimulus and, potentially, health care reform.
Issa told POLITICO in an interview that he wants each of his seven subcommittees to hold “one or two hearings each week.”"

David Mayhew wrote a book called Divided We Govern in 1991. In that book, he argues that Divided Government does not lead to more high profile investigations of the executive branch. My co-author Matt Dull and I took on this assertation in an article ("Divided We Quarrel") published last year in Legislative Studies Quarterly, where we find that divided government is significantly associated with an increase in the number and intensity of investigations of executive branch malfeasance conducted by the House of Representatives. Although our analysis ends in 2004, data we have collected for the 110th Congress show a spike in investigations with the return of divided government.
Here is Figure 2 from that article:

An analysis of investigations with the committee as the unit of analysis shows a similar trend: divided government is associate with more and longer investigations of the executive branch.

Is this a good thing? Not necessarily. As Matt and I conclude in a related article in progress:

"Our findings, however, do not suggest that a 'mended' Congress performing vigorous oversight is necessarily a positive development. Cartel committees in divided government pursue investigations aggressively and intensely, yes, but such activity may only serve to increase partisan rancor in Washington given such investigations are potentially driven by partisan purposes. More investigation need not imply better government. Indeed, given all the consternation expressed by some politicians and the public at large about pork barrel spending, our findings on investigation should give pause. Yes, Congress may be more willing to investigate the executive branch under divided government; however, it will not disturb the logrolling arrangements so important to the re-election prospects of individual members."

Which is why, of course, oversight was so lax when it concerned MMS.

The punch line: Divided government matters. It makes it harder to pass legislation, and increases the propensity of Congress to oversee the executive branch.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Why it is increasingly difficult to succeed as President

From Ross Douthat in today's New York Times:

At the same time, their legislative maneuverings — the buy-offs and back-room deals, the inevitable coziness with lobbyists — exposed the weakness of modern liberal governance: it tends to be stymied and corrupted by the very welfare state that it’s seeking to expand. Many of Barack Obama’s supporters expected him to be another Franklin Roosevelt, energetically experimenting with one program after another. But Roosevelt didn’t have to cope with the web of interest groups that’s gradually woven itself around the government his New Deal helped build. And while Obama twisted in these webs, the public gradually decided that it liked bigger government more in theory than in practice.

This illustrates nicely the concept of historical time. In his book, The Politics Presidents Make, discusses how the progression of historical time makes it difficult for succeeding presidents, regardless of their place in political time, to accomplish their agenda. Douthat's point, essentially, is that institutional thickening--the rise of interest groups with their own agendas--make it nearly impossible to nimbly reshape government.

The larger point is that political time itself may becoming increasingly irrelevant. As Skowronek notes, increasing institutional thickening will make it increasingly difficult for all presidents--regardless of their place in the regime or their warrants for action--to succeed. The only way for them to do so is to constantly seek third way solutions--to triangulate. The good news is presidents can still be successful. The bad news is it becomes increasingly difficult to establish an enduring legacy and institute a new, longstanding regime.

For Obama to succeed in gridlocked government, he's going to have to learn the lessons of preemption from Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon. He should play the left and the right off of each other, and strive to find middle-of-the road solutions in the next two years.