The Malaysian Shootdown: What Would Reagan Have Done?

Last Thursday’s apparently deliberate shoot down of a Malaysian civilian airliner by Ukrainian separatists using Russian weaponry inevitably brought back memories of the Soviet’s shooting down of Korean Airlines 007 in August, 1983. And, not surprisingly, conservative and liberal pundits have drawn different lessons from President Reagan’s response to that earlier tragedy. Conservatives have cited with approval the national address Reagan made in which he condemned the attack as a moral outrage, and have openly wondered why President Obama has not made a similar speech to a national audience. Liberals, in contrast, have focused on Reagan’s initial reluctance to leave his California ranch when first notified of the KAL shootdown, a decision that attracted a fair share of media criticism at the time. Ultimately, Reagan did come back to Washington to give a nationwide address.

Both perspectives, I think, miss the important lesson from Reagan’s handling of the KAL007 incident.  Before developing that point, however, it’s worth listening to Reagan’s speech.

It appears that President Obama will shortly provide his own brief statement regarding the Malaysian Airlines tragedy. I’ll be on with comments and some context regarding the KAL007 comparison shortly after.

11:30 a.m. President Obama has just completed his brief statement re: the Malaysian airline shootdown.  His primary message was to push Russian leader Vladimir Putin to cooperate in the investigation of the Malaysian jetliner tragedy. Beyond that, however, he offered very little in the way of concrete steps, although it is likely additional punitive options, such as stronger sanctions, are being debated.  In short, the statement was vintage President Obama – cautious, pragmatic, devoid of rhetorical excesses and designed to buy time while keeping public pressure on Putin.  As such it almost surely will be condemned by conservative pundits as more talk, with little action.  It bears remembering, however, that Reagan received similar pushback from conservatives for not acting more strongly in the aftermath of the KAL007 shootdown in 1983.  That incident occurred during a period of heightened tension between the U.S. and the Soviet Union – tension that had been exacerbated in part by Reagan’s previous words.  In June, 1982, Reagan gave a speech to British members of Parliament, in which he proclaimed that the “Soviet Union…runs against the tide of human history.”  The following March, in a speech to evangelicals, he famously called the Soviet Union “the focus of evil in the modern world.”  Also that month he unveiled the Strategic Defense Initiative, dubbed “Star Wars”, against the backdrop of a rapid increase in U.S. defense spending.  In October, after the KAL007 incident, Reagan sent troops into the Caribbean island of Grenada to overthrow the Cuban-backed government there.  The next month West Germany agreed to accept U.S. Pershing II and cruise missiles, prompting the Soviets to walk out of arms control talks in Geneva.

In retrospect, the KAL007 shootdown marked the low point of U.S.-Soviet relations during the Reagan presidency. By the end of 1983, even Reagan was acknowledging the necessity to dial back the harsh rhetoric, in order not to further inflame an already tense situation.  That deescalation was helped when Soviet leader Yuri Andropov died in February, 1984, and was replaced with Konstantin Chernenko.  Although Chernenko lived for little more than a year after assuming power, he recognized that the Soviets were in no position to win an arms race with the U.S. and, shortly after Reagan’s reelection in 1984, the Soviets agreed to restart arms negotiations without preconditions.  Chernenko’s softening position laid the foundation for his successor’s Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost at home and more conciliatory, albeit still contentious, relations with Reagan and the U.S.

At this time, of course, it is impossible to tell whether the Malaysian shootdown represents a turning point in U.S.-Russian relations, and if so, whether that means a resumption of a Cold War-like standoff or a realization from both sides that it is time to step back from the brink and engage in more constructive diplomacy.  And that uncertainty is exactly my point. There is a tendency for pundits, with the benefit of hindsight, to simplify their read of history in ways that accord with their own ideological preferences.  Whether liberal or conservative, however, the “lessons” pundits derive often overstate the degree to which presidents felt free to act at the time these incidents are occurring.  While Reagan’s nationwide address did evoke a moral clarity, and on a more visible platform, that perhaps was a bit less evident in Obama’s just-concluded statement, Reagan’s actual response to the KAL007 shootdown stopped short of actions that might escalate an already tense situation. In part, this reflected Reagan’s uncertainty over Andropov’s motives, or even the circumstances behind the shootdown.  It also reflected the limited range of possible responses available to Reagan, many of which had the potential to exacerbate an already tense situation.

When we get beyond the pundits’ take on the KAL007 shootdown, it appears that Reagan’s response then isn’t much different than Obama’s reaction to the Malaysian jetliner incident, at least to this point.  And it is a reminder that the powers of the presidency seem much more limited, and the repercussions of acting rashly much more consequential, when you are sitting in the Oval Office than when you are critiquing the president’s actions from afar.  This is not to say that history will judge Obama’s foreign policy, taken as a whole, as better, or worse than Reagan’s.  But in contrast to what pundits are currently suggesting, that comparison is not likely to turn on Reagan and Obama’s respective handling of these two tragic shootdowns which, so far, seem remarkably similar.

Sunday Shorts: Burns and Garner, Orszag and Fiorina

A mixed bag in today’s Sunday Shorts – we mourn the passing of two public figures, and note their presidential ties. And we (gently) take issue with a recent column by Peter Orszag who waded publicly into the political polarization debate.

Let me begin with the passing of the great presidential scholar James MacGregor Burns who taught for so many years at Williams College, one of our fellow NESCAC institutions. The New York Times obituary does a decent job (as much as any obituary can) capturing the important details of Burns’ life professional life. My students will be familiar with him through two excerpts, one dealing with FDR’s nomination in 1932 and the second about FDR’s ill-fated 1937 court-packing scheme, that I assign from the first volume of Burn’s wonderful study of Roosevelt, The Lion and the Fox. Others will know him for his pioneering study of leadership, particular his juxtaposition of transactional vs. transformational modes of leading.  But in 1964 Burns published another important book titled The Deadlock of Democracy: Four Party Politics in America, in which he argued that the American political system was stymied by the lack of unified political parties and weak presidential leadership. Because each party was internally divided, Congress lacked a working majority which prevented action on important national problems. Burns proposed a number of potential solutions, such as coterminous four-year terms for the President and members of the House. But the basic thrust of his argument is that to break the deadlock, we need strong, internally unified parties controlling both branches of government. Alas, Burns’ dream has come true in part – at least the strong party portion – but against the recurring backdrop of divided government. It is a reminder to be careful what we wish for.

I never met Burns. But when I contemplated jumping from a major research university to a smaller liberal arts college, I looked around to see whether there were any presidential scholars still publishing regularly in a small college environment. Happily, Burns came immediately to mind. When I found out that he never left Williams during blueberry picking season, I knew I had found a kindred spirit. May you rest in peace, Professor Burns.

In the same week that Burns died, Peter Orszag, the former director of the Congressional Budget Office and later Obama’s first OMB director, published this Bloomberg column arguing that part of the blame for the political division in our nation’s Capitol lies with us, the voters. I don’t have the time (nor space) in the Sunday shorts section to give Orszag’s argument its due, but I do want to take time to clarify two potentially misleading points he makes. First, as evidence of growing polarization, he cites (as does everyone!) the recent Pew survey finding that partisans’ views of the opposing party are growing increasingly negative. But, of course, that finding is consistent with party sorting, rather than ideological polarization. If the opposing party is increasingly dominated by a more ideologically uniform view, it makes sense that it will be viewed with more suspicion by those in the opposing party – even if there has been no real aggregate increase in ideological polarization. It is just that the Democratic party has become more uniformly liberal, and the Republican’s more uniformly conservative – the definition of party sorting. If I lean slightly liberal, I would grow increasingly skeptical of a Republican party that has shed its more liberal members. But as I’ve noted before, there’s been no overall increase in the number of liberals (or Democrats) or conservatives (or Republicans) in the last two decades.

Second, Orszag takes Morris Fiorina to task for suggesting that “politicians are disconnected from the people.” In fact, Orszag argues, the evidence is that increasingly Republican representatives are catering to the needs of Republican voters in their district, and Democrats are responding likewise to their Democratic constituents. Rather than a disconnect, then, as Fiorina argues in his book by that name, Orszag believes the link between elected officials and partisans is growing stronger. But this is a misreading of Fiorina’s argument. What Orszag describes is in fact entirely consistent with Fiorina’s description of party sorting – as parties become more ideologically homogenous, it stands to reason that you nominate and elect more liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans.

Instead, the real “disconnect” Fiorina writes about is between what elected officials produce acting collectively – say, legislation coming from Congress or, more accurately, NOT coming (cue Burns!)  – and what the general public wants. But don’t take my word for it – here’s what Fiorina wrote in Disconnect: “As the parties have become more internally homogenous and more distinct from each other (Democrats more liberal, Republicans more conservative), it is probable that dyadic or microrepresentation – the correspondence between the positions and actions of an elected official and the legal jurisdiction that elects him or her – has become easier and more accurate, whereas collective or macrorepresentation – the correspondence between what representative institutions produce and the entire public wants – has deteriorated.” In short, the evidence Orszag cites exactly supports Fiorina’s argument about a strengthening of partisan-oriented dyadic representation at the microlevel. The real disconnect that worries Fiorina is between what those officials do collectively in Congress and what the general public wants. Nothing Orszag cites contradicts Fiorina’s main point.

And finally, I note with sadness the passing of the legendary James Garner whose movie and television credits are too numerous to cite here. Garner, as you know, played a range of memorable characters (cue Rockford Files theme song.) But one of his more forgettable roles came in this 1996 film My Fellow Americans, in which Garner played an ex-president, along with his fellow ex-president Jack Lemmon. Here they reminisce about what they miss most about being president:

Have a great Sunday!

The President Is Dead. Long Live the President.

It’s Saturday – time for another trip to the presidential archives.  To understand the significance of today’s archival document, you need first to look at the document’s date: November 23, 1963. It is, of course, the day after President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas by Lee Harvey Oswald. The memorandum from Kermit Gordon, the Bureau of the Budget director, to the new President is a reminder that even as the nation struggled to cope with this enormous tragedy, the wheels of government continued to turn despite the suddenness of the transition in power. (The BoB is the forerunner of today’s Office of Management and Budget). In the memo, Gordon tries to accomplish two objectives. First, he assures Johnson of his, and the BoB’s fealty to the new administration. In the very first section, Gordon describes the BoB’s central mission as follows, “The BoB is a staff agency to the President which, by tradition and in fact, has no constituency other than the Presidency and no obligations which complicate its allegiance to the President.” I think Gordon’s interchanging the words President and Presidency is significant – it shows his understanding that the BoB is in service to the Presidency as an institution as much as it is to the President as an individual politician. (Elsewhere Andy Rudalevige and I have written about the BoB’s commitment to protecting the interests of the presidency as an institution.

Gordon then moves to the topic of immediate interest: putting together the 1965 budget. He writes, “Despite the fact that the time is late, I know that you will want to make this budget your budget” (underscore in the original memo) before laying out the schedule of key dates in the budget process. Here’s the document, which came from Gordon’s file contained at the JFK Library.

 nov23, 1963

The document is an extraordinary testament to the ability of officials at the highest levels of government to continue to carry out their basic responsibilities, such as putting together the annual budget. But at the same time, these officials recognized that there was a new President, who had his own priorities. Shortly after this memo was drafted, Gordon sent in this memorandum offering his resignation. The letter begins, “Believing that a new President should have and exercise the widest freedom in the selection of the members of his official family….” and ends with Gordon’s offer to resign.

gordon resignation

Johnson did not accept the resignation and Gordon stayed on through 1965, helping LBJ craft his Great Society budgets. After his resignation Gordon became the President of the Brookings Institution where he used the think tank as a platform for both defending LBJ’s Great Society but also as a means for criticizing the Vietnam War. Meanwhile, Johnson would effectively capitalize on the need for continuity by citing JFK’s legacy as a reason to push through his Great Society program – but also to continue, and escalate, the U.S. war effort in Vietnam.

The President is dead. Long Live the President.

Who Will Win The Senate? A Primer on Midterm Forecasts

With the nominating phase of the congressional campaign just about over and the midterm elections less than four months away, you are going to see an increasing number of predictions, prognostications and more than a few statistically-driven forecast models purporting to tell us how the Republicans and Democrats are going to do in the House and Senate. Accordingly, I thought it might be useful to present a short primer on the types of forecasts you are likely to see, so that you can makes sense of the predictions.

Generally, you will encounter three types of forecasts. The first type are individual race-specific predictions made by the veteran handicappers like Charlie Cook, Stu Rothenberg and their associates. These predictions use a combination of on-the-ground reports, opinion polls and other bits of evidence to divide the field into safe, leaning and tossup (or their equivalent) races. With their descriptively detailed updates focused on the competitive races, these types of horse-race forecasts are in many respects the most interesting to follow, particular when they look at the high-profile Senate races. Right now, for example, Cook is predicting that the Republicans will gain between 4 and 6 Senate seats. Rothenberg puts the number at between 4 and 8. The Republicans, you will recall, need a minimum of 6 to regain a Senate majority so both handicappers see a Republican takeover as well within the realm of possibility. The implicit assumption in these models is that individual races can turn on factors idiosyncratic to that particular race, and thus the most accurate prediction depends on understanding these myriad influences.  In short, if we want to know which party is going to control the Senate, you need to build from the bottom up by aggregating the results of the individual races.

The second type of predictions are those produced by the structural forecast models developed by political scientists. In contrast to the handicappers like Cook and Rothenberg, these models eschew any interest in local detail in favor of macro-level factors, such as national economic growth, the president’s approval ratings and the number of exposed seats, to generate a prediction which is usually measured in terms of how many seats will be lost by the president’s party. The assumption built into such models is that fundamental national tides affect all races and thus all forecasters need to do is to measure those tides to generate an accurate prediction. To the best of my knowledge, Edward Tufte constructed the first such midterm House forecast model back in 1974 that was predicated on only two measures: the president’s approval and the annual growth in real disposal personal income per capita. In effect, he was modeling the outcome of the House midterm races – specifically, the share of the national popular vote the president’s party received – as referendum on the President’s performance.

Since Tufte’s pioneering effort political scientists have generated dozens of such forecast models, with most of them trying to predict the distribution of House seats between the two parties, rather than the overall vote share. Some early models focused solely on economic indicators. But most are predicated on variants of Tufte’s model, with measures for presidential approval included. More recent versions include additional variables. These might include “seat exposure” (which party has more seats on the line); a “surge and decline” variable (the idea is to capture the effect of the decline in midterm turnout based in part on how the parties did in the previous presidential election); and a time in office variable to capture the waning influence of a party that has held the presidency for a long time. The most recent innovation to these models – and one that I will discuss in a moment – is to include a generic vote variable based on national surveys that ask respondents which party’s candidate they plan to vote for in the midterm election.

In assessing these structural forecasts, you should keep two considerations in mind. First, most of the models are based on midterm elections occurring during the post-World War II era. So they are predicated on a very limited numbers of cases – 2014 is only the 17th midterm election in that period – which means that even the most accurate predictions have a very wide margin for error. In assessing the prediction of a particular model, you should always look to see if a prediction interval is provided in addition to the predicted seat outcome. Moreover, as Ben Lauderdale and Drew Linzer have cautioned in their critique of presidential forecast models, there is a tendency with a sample this small for modelers to over-fit their predictions by basing them too closely to the particular elections studied. Nonetheless these models are theoretically the most interesting because, when done well, the modelers are very explicit in explaining why midterms turn out the way they do. So we learn the most from these efforts in terms of understanding the dynamics driving election outcomes. Note that these are one-shot deals – once the numbers are plugged in, a forecast is generated and that is that. There’s no updating based on new data.

The final set of forecast are what might be called mixed models. Typically, these start out with a variant of a structural mode (a prior, to use  Bayesian terminology), but then the prediction generated by that model is updated based on race-specific polling data. By the time Election Day rolls around, most of these mixed models will be mostly poll-based, which means (as Drew Linzer demonstrated so effectively in the 2012 presidential election) they are likely to be very accurate. These are the models featured at the Washington Post’s MonkeyCage’s Election Lab or the New York Times’ Upshot site. The basic idea behind these efforts is that if you want to know how people are likely to vote in the 2014 midterm, you should probably ask them and incorporate their response into your forecast.

You might think these mixed models would all generate basically the same forecast. As of today, however, they are not. The MonkeyCage, for example, is giving Republicans an 86% chance of retaking the Senate.  The Time’s Upshot, on the other hand, gives the Republicans only about a 59% chance  of taking the Senate. Why the difference? As the MonkeyCage’s John Sides explains here,  it is partly because as of today the Upshot is likely weighting the polling data, which is a bit more favorable in some states to the Democrats, more heavily than is the MonkeyCage. So, which forecast is more accurate? I don’t know, and neither do they! But that is probably beside the point since it is likely that the two models’ predictions will converge as we get closer to Election Day.

The more important point is that this combination of structural models and polling data is likely to produce a more accurate forecast than either approach alone. (For the more technically-minded among you, Simon Jackman explains why here.)  The use of mixed forecasting is more prevalent now because of advances in computing power and the greater ease of access to polling data. Still, the forecasts are not foolproof – pay attention to that confidence interval when evaluating predictions! – which means that in a very close election cycle, as this one appears to be, none of these approaches may be precise enough to nail down who will control the Senate with perfect accuracy. (Control of the House appears not to be in play at all this cycle.)

Of one thing I am sure. In the face of forecast uncertainty many of you will cherry pick the model whose outcome you like the best, while damning those you disagree with for their bad data, faulty assumptions and poor methodology. If you are one of those who believe in advocating the equivalent of “unskewing the polls”, I apologize in advance for injecting a dose of reality, no matter how unpleasant, into your political fantasy world in the coming months. I promise to do so as gently as possible.

Now let the forecasting begin!

UPDATE 5 p.m. Sam Wang has waded in with his own Senate forecast that puts the projected final Democratic seat total at either 49 or 50.  He makes the important point that a small swing in the partisan share of the vote is going to determine which party controls the Senate – it’s that close!  See his post on the topic here.

How Do Americans Like Their Policies? In Moderation, Please.

In Monday’s post I took issue with Vox founder Ezra Klein’s claim that, in his words “the idea of the moderate middle is bullsh*t.”  You will recall that Ezra argues that indexes purporting to show the existence of a moderate middle are misleading, because they are often amalgams of ideologically extreme opinions. But we don’t need to rely on indexes as evidence that many Americans have moderate policy views – we can look at their responses to specific survey questions. The American National Election Studies (ANES) researchers have been asking Americans about their opinions on issues for several decades now. Typically the question starts by giving the respondent two policy extremes and then asks her to place herself somewhere on a 7-point scale anchored at either end by the extreme responses. As an example, here is a question asking individuals their views regarding government spending on services: “Some people think the government should provide fewer services, even in areas such as health and education, in order to reduce spending. Other people feel that it is important for the government to provide many more services even if it means an increase in spending. Where would you place yourself on this scale, or haven’t you thought much about this?”

Day Robins tabulated the responses to five of those questions for which we have data across time, including the government spending/services question. In each case the moderate, or middle response (Option 4) is typically the modal response, or close to it, across the entire survey history. (Note: although researchers often group the “don’t know/haven’t thought about it” bottom response with the moderate/middle answer, Day has not done so here. So the charts below likely understate the number of respondents adopting the moderate position.)

Here’s the government spending/services time trend.

gov services.16

As you can see, even without including the “don’t knows” the most frequent response across a quarter century has been the middle, moderate choice. (The second most frequent response in recent years is 5.) For the most part, we see the same general pattern on the other four questions Day has graphed; the moderate position is typically the modal response. Here’s the graph of responses regarding whether to increase military spending.

military spending.16

Here’s one asking about government creation of jobs.

This one addresses aid to minorities. For most of the time period the moderate position holds sway, although in 2008 it is slightly eclipsed by option 7 “Help themselves”.

aid to minorities.16
Finally, here’s one measuring support for government health insurance. Here option 1 – strong support for government health insurance is marginally preferred to the moderate position in the 2008 survey. But note that support for the moderate position has actually been increasing, while option 7 – private coverage – has lost support.

health insurance.16
Now, before Max Kagan jumps all over me, these graphs are not evidence that most Americans are moderates across all issue areas. In fact, it is quite possible that their views vary depending on the issue. But the graphs do suggest that for most of the time on each of these issues, a plurality of Americans stake out a moderate position, with the exception of whether the government should provide health insurance and, in 2008, aid to minorities. And this is without including the “don’t knows/haven’t thought about it” response with the moderate answers. If we lump those in, as Abrams and Fiorina do for the 2012 responses to these questions, the moderate views appears even more popular.

Fiorina 3 moderatesMoreover, on three of these issues across most of the time period  – government services, jobs, and military spending – the responses are normally distributed, with most responses clustered around the center of the ideological spectrum, similar to what the Abrams/Fiorina graph shows for 2012. The government health insurance answers skew slightly liberal, and the aid to minorities responses are weighted more to the conservative side of the response distribution.  If Americans were becoming more polarized, we might expect to see a decrease in the number of Americans adopting a centrist position, and increases in those choosing more extreme positions, on these issues.  On the other hand, if what most pundits describe as ideological polarization is really party sorting, then I think we’d be more likely to see the graphs that Day has compiled.

Yes, at the individual level many Americans hold contradictory and sometimes extreme positions. But many hold moderate views too. And, in the aggregate, at least on these five issues, most respondents across much of the last quarter century cluster at or near the middle of the ideological spectrum. Yes there is some movement across responses categories.  But it is hardly enough to lend credence to the notion that the moderate middle is a myth.  And it is consistent with the notion that there has been no significant growth in ideological polarization.