Monthly Archives: February 2009

The Times, They Aren’t A-Changing: The Stimulus Bill, Part II

If, as news reports suggest, a Senate “compromise” economic/stimulus bill has been forged by a coalition of about 20 moderate Democrats and three Republicans, it is compelling evidence that we have not entered a new, bipartisan era.  Indeed, as I suggested in part I to these posts analyzing the stimulus bill, the historical parallel that most comes to mind is Clinton, 1993. And it raises the question: why? Why didn’t a president who took office ostensibly committed to radically transforming the nation’s politics carry through on that promise?  The short answer is that he can’t – his rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding, Obama simply is not powerful enough to overcome the fundamentals that determine presidential-congressional relations.  The roots of polarization in Congress run deep, and Obama’s 2008 election barely touched them.  Consider even this mild nod toward bipartisanship in the Senate.  By lopping off some $40 billion in state aid, Obama’s allies in the Senate were able to attract three – count ‘em three! – Republican votes.   And how did House Speaker Pelosi react?  By promising to contest those concessions in the House-Senate conference proceedings! At the same time, powerful Democratic lobbies, such as the NEA, have sprung into action to pressure Democrats to reject the Senate compromise.   Clearly, Obama went as far as he could go in reaching out to Republicans.  He should feel blessed – he attracted three more Republican votes than Clinton did in 1993.

It is tempting to accept the punditocracy’s interpretation that Republican intransigence on the stimulus bill is a politically motivated strategy designed to derail the Obama presidency.  But this ignores two important facts: as Pelosi’s actions indicate, Democrats have been no less unified against finding a bipartisan solution than have Republicans. And the type of straight party-line voting we are observing here predates the Obama presidency.  As my previous post indicates, it dates back to the Clinton presidency – even before, as I hope to show in a later post.

And so I return to the previous question:  why?  Why no bipartisanship on ostensibly the biggest issue to face this country since the stagflation of the 1970’s?  Let’s be clear: Obama can’t be faulted for anything here except maybe embracing a rather naïve view of presidential power, captured in his highly-publicized response to efforts by Republicans to eliminate tax credits for people who don’t pay taxes. In rejecting the Republican proposal, Obama reminded them that, “I won” (story here). Except, as I will show in a later post, from the perspective of most members of Congress, he didn’t win, at least not among their voters.

If Obama’s not to blame, then who, or what, is?   There are two explanations for the persistence of party polarization.  First, the division between Republicans and Democrats is based on fundamentally different views regarding the role of government in the economy.  It has always been thus – indeed, it is that primary issue that led to the creation of a two-party system in our nation.  And that disagreement is bolstered by a system of elections and representation that makes it almost impossible for presidents to forge consensus where none exists.

For reasons that I will expand upon in a later post, however, these differences have become magnified since the Reagan era.  Consider the following figure, based on voting records in Congress analyzed by Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal. (I will discuss these statistics more fully in a later post, but you can go to Poole’s website here for a detailed explanation.)  By looking at each vote on legislation cast by members of Congress in each session, Poole and Rosenthal are are able to locate the Representatives’ position in “ideological” space.  The graph below shows the ideological distance between the “center” of the Republican and Democratic parties dating back to the 1870’s.  As you can see, the lines in both the Senate and the House trend up beginning in the Reagan presidency, indicating a steady increase in the ideological distance between the two parties.

There is no evidence that the 2008 congressional elections halted this trend. If anything the defeat of Republican moderates likely widened the gulf between the two parties.

So you can see why, in the debate over the Obama stimulus plan, we are seeing almost a carbon copy of the polarized politics that engulfed Clinton’s first term budget proposal.  The causes run deeper than any desire by Republicans or Democrats to screw the opposition.  Instead, they reflect deep-rooted fundamentals that have governed presidential-congressional relations since early in Reagan’s term.  In my next post I’ll explore why partisanship is on the rise.

For now, however, the important point is that Obama’s election did nothing to alter this underlying reality.  And it is unfair to expect him to overcome these differences.  The simple fact is that in our system of shared powers, he lacks the capability to do so.

P.S. I know you may think I was joking, but I’m really going to give away a very cool “It’s the Fundamentals, Stupid,” T-shirt to the winner of the “When Will Hillary Clinton Resign” contest.  At this point, I have exactly 6 entries.  Jack Goodman is already measuring his size.  This is unacceptable, given the number of people who are logging into this blog.  There are very few free things in life.  Take advantage of this one.  At some point the t-shirt will likely be worth several thousand dollars on e-bay.  I promise.  So send those entries in either to my email or to the blog.

Is It Deja Vu All Over Again?

The search by pundits for historical analogies to the Obama presidency has ranged far and wide, from Lincoln to FDR to Reagan.  But when it comes to Obama’s efforts to persuade Congress to pass an economic stimulus/recovery bill, we need look back no further than the two most recent presidents for historical precedents. Both Bill Clinton in 1993 and George Bush in 2001 took office with the nation facing an economic downturn, and each initially staked their presidency on the passage of an economic recovery package containing a mix of tax cuts and spending adjustments. In doing so, however, each confronted a highly polarized Congress. How they dealt with that polarization offers important lessons for the Obama presidency.  In this post, I want to focus on Clinton’s effort in 1993 to pass his economic recovery package.  The decisions he made in that initial period indelibly shaped his relations with Congress, and ultimately contributed to the loss of Democratic control of Congress for the next decade. Is Obama about to make the same mistake?

As Table I indicates below, Clinton took office possessing about the same amount of political capital with which to bargain with Congress as Obama has today.

President Pct. 2-party popular vote won* Electoral College Senate seats president’s party controls House seats president’s party controls
Clinton 53.5-46.5% 370-168 57 (D) 43 (R) 258 (D) 176 (R)
Obama 53.4-46.6%. 365-173 58 (D) 41 (R)** 256 (D) 178 (R)

*This is the two-party split; it ignores third-party candidates (including Ross Perot).

**Pending the resolution of the Minnesota Senate race

As with Obama, Clinton took office promising to end the bitter partisan strife that had characterized presidential-congressional relations under the previous 12 years of Republican presidential leadership. In putting together his initial budget, he hoped to capitalize on broad public support for his economic plan, as embodied in his campaign mantra, “It’s the economy, stupid”. On closer inspection, however, Clinton’s economic-related campaign promises contained a number of incompatible elements: he promised to halve the federal deficit in four years, increase spending on “human capital” investment programs, enact a middle-class tax cut, raise taxes on the rich, pass a BTU tax designed to stimulate energy conservation, and pass a jobs-stimulus bill.  Within Clinton’s administration, his key economic advisers were split between those who wanted to focus on deficit reduction, and those who wanted to increase governing spending on investment. Ultimately a combination of worsening deficit projections and opposition among moderate Democrats and Republicans forced Clinton to back away from many of campaign pledges. The first casualty was a short-term $16 billion jobs-stimulus bill. Although it passed the House, Senate Republicans opposed it as “wasteful pork” that would worsen the budget deficit.  Rather than compromise with Republicans, Senate Democrats, at Clinton’s urging, refused to negotiate a reduction in spending in the stimulus bill. In response, 43 Republicans filibustered the legislation and Clinton was forced to concede defeat. In the end, only a $4 billion unemployment assistance package passed. Clinton’s senior aide George Stephanopoulos later recalled, “The defeat of our economic stimulus was the price we paid for legislative arrogance. Thinking we could roll right over the Republicans in the Senate, we rejected a moderate compromise…and lost everything.”

The emasculation of the stimulus bill set the state for a showdown on Clinton’s budget plan which, after ongoing negotiations in the House and Senate, had morphed into a deficit reduction plan that actually raised taxes on the wealthy and no longer included a middle-class tax cut or the BTU tax. The conference bill containing the final legislation passed the House by only 2 votes: 218-216.  In the Senate, Vice President Al Gore cast the tie-breaking vote in favor of the President’s budget, 51-50.  In order to get the necessary votes from moderate Democrats, Clinton agreed to reduce government spending on job training and other human capital programs, and dropped the BTU tax in favor of a smaller gasoline tax to win support from representatives of gas and oil producing and farm states.  To appease liberal Democrats, it included the Earned Income Tax credit, a provision designed to help the working poor, and raised the marginal tax rates for high income earners. Significantly, not a single Senate or House Republican voted for the Clinton economic recovery plan as laid out in the budget.  They argued that the bill would not help the economy because it raised taxes and didn’t address spiraling costs on entitlement programs.

By passing his budget plan, Clinton had won an important legislative victory, but barely. In the long run, there is much that was positive about Clinton’s budget. Most significantly, the combination of tax increases and spending cuts more than halved the federal budget deficit over his first term, and sent positive signals to the bond market which was crucial to gaining market support and keeping interest rates down, thus spurring economic growth.  In the short run, it saved his presidency by giving him a much needed victory on his first legislative priority. However, Clinton’s failure to make good on his promise of a middle-class tax cut, and the lack of bipartisan support for the bill allowed Republicans to portray Clinton as a tax-and-spend liberal Democrat, and helped contribute to the Democratic loss of Congress in 1994.

What are the lessons for Obama? First, there are fundamental differences between Republicans and Democrats when it comes to government economic policy. Obama cannot hope to bridge these differences by arguing that he “won” the election, or that Americans want change in the form of bipartisanship. As I will show in a later post, partisan differences on the economy have always existed, but those differences have crystallized since the Reagan presidency and lie at the root of the partisan divide in Congress today.  No amount of rhetoric can bridge this divide: only policy concessions will.  If Obama truly wants to be a bipartisan presidency, he must pay for it by making significant policy concessions, in the form of reduced spending on state aid, fewer infrastructure investments and cutting other programs that Republicans do not believe will stimulate the economy and create jobs in the immediate future.

To be sure, Obama can probably ram through the Senate a version of the legislation that passed the House by relying on full Democratic support and picking off a few moderate Republican Senators by cutting side deals with them in the form of targeted spending programs.  But there is a real risk to passing a bill that lacks broader Republican support.  If the economy fails to recover against the backdrop of a spiraling budget deficit, Republicans will use that against Obama and the Democrats two years down the road in the midterm elections.

The problem, of course, is that at a certain point, too many concessions in the form of reduced spending and deeper tax cuts will cost  Obama Democratic support, particularly in the House. What does this mean?  Obama faces a choice between two roads to legislative victory. He can emulate Clinton’s strategy in 1993 and try to cobble together a predominantly Democratic coalition, cutting Republicans out of the legislative game except for what is needed to get legislation through the Senate. Or he can move to the center, reaching out more broadly to Republicans in the name of bipartisanship, but at the risk of alienating his own party.   However, Obama has one advantage that Clinton lacked: because of the severity of the economic crisis today, there is less concern than in 1993 with passing legislation that does not increase the federal deficit. This means Obama has more flexibility to offer both tax cuts and increased spending in order to cobble together a centrist coalition of Democrats and Republicans.

The key point here is that it is the composition of Congress that will largely dictate the substance of the final stimulus legislation, no matter what Obama initially prefers. The final bill will undoubtedly contain a mishmash of contradictory elements that will likely exhibit little in the way of homage to any overarching economic theory and which will be roundly criticized.   Rather than fidelity to an economic principle, however, the overriding objective for Obama must be to win a legislative victory.  Clinton’s example, I would argue, suggests that Obama would do well to move to the center to draw moderate Republicans into the fold.

A final thought. For all the talk about a new political era, what is remarkable here is how similar the current debate over the Obama stimulus bill is to the 1993 congressional debate regarding the Clinton budget. Indeed, as I will endeavor to show in the next several posts, the underlying dynamics of Obama’s election did almost nothing to alter the root cause of the polarization in Congress that dates back more than 15 years to the 103rd Congress, and which shows no signs of abating.  Rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding, when it comes to the Obama and the 111th Congress, it’s déjà vu all over again. But Obama should take comfort in this. By avoiding Clinton’s mistakes in legislative strategy, he may yet usher in an era of Democratic dominance.

When Will Clinton Resign? Place Your Bets, Please.

When will Hillary Clinton resign as Secretary of State?  The question is prompted by yesterday’s exchange with my colleague Bert Johnson re: the difference between nomination and “resignation” politics (and I apologize to Bert for being unnecessarily argumentative in response to his typically astute insights).  Some of you may recall that on Jan. 19, during an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show, Jill Biden blurted out that her husband Joe was given the choice of being either Vice President or the Secretary of State in the Obama administration (see video here).  According to Jill, Joe Biden took the Vice Presidency not because it was his preferred choice, but in deference to his wife who did not want Joe spending the next four years away from his family while globetrotting as the nation’s chief diplomat. Joe Biden, who was sitting next to Jill, laughed good-naturedly but did not deny the story. Almost immediately, however, the Obama team released a statement denying that the Secretary of State position was ever formally offered to Biden.

What is going on here?  One explanation is that after years of living together, Jill has absorbed Joe’s foot-in-mouth disease and that, as with her husband, every thought that enters her mind exits her mouth.  But I suspect she’s smarter than that. My guess (and it is only a guess) is that she knew exactly what she was doing in releasing this information one day before the inauguration.  The statement was the first salvo in the inevitable jockeying for position that takes place at the start of every administration. In one respect, Vice Presidents are at a distinct disadvantage in this battle because they have no constitutional or statutory-based portfolio (other than breaking ties in the Senate); their entire influence is predicated on perceptions regarding the strength of their relationship with the President, and his willingness to delegate responsibilities to the Vice President. Secretaries of State, on the other hand, sit astride key action-forcing channels – particularly the daily flow of messages to and from overseas embassies – that necessitate their involvement, at least nominally, in some aspects of the foreign policy process. Certainly it guarantees them media coverage. This struggle is particularly pronounced in the Obama administration, however, because Biden’s perceived strength is foreign policy – the same portfolio Clinton claims as Secretary of State. Jill’s public statement, then, can be viewed as a not-so-veiled assertion that her husband’s personal ties to Obama trump Clinton’s claim as Secretary of State to run foreign policy; it was Biden, not Clinton, who was Obama’s first choice to be Secretary of State.

Note that this struggle transcends personalities – it is built into the institutional fabric of the modern presidency.   By most accounts, Clinton and Biden got along quite well in the Senate. No matter – the history of previous presidencies suggests they will clash repeatedly in the coming months.  Eventually, because Vice Presidents do not resign, Clinton will be forced to.  Recall the previous Vice Presidents in the modern era who were chosen by Presidents largely on the basis of their foreign policy expertise. Al Haig, the self-proclaimed “vicar” of foreign policy during the Reagan administration, resigned early in Reagan’s first term, in part because Vice President George H. W. Bush was selected over Haig to head the president’s “crisis management” team. More recently, of course, Secretary of State Colin Powell clashed repeatedly with Vice President Dick Cheney regarding foreign policy issues. Powell, too, eventually resigned, while Cheney stayed on.

In an earlier post (see here) I traced the diminishment of the Secretary of State’s position since World War II. That diminishment, I argued, is driven by the rise of competing actors, particularly the national security adviser, that have eroded the State Department’s traditional preeminence as the face of American diplomacy. But when the Vice President also claims a seat at the foreign policy table, the jockeying to sit at the president’s right hand as the primary source of foreign policy advice becomes even more intense.

So, if history repeats itself, when will Clinton resign? Let’s look at the numbers. There have been 65 previous secretaries of state who, on average, served 3.3 years before leaving office (the unit of analysis here is years, not months). Of course, this average is somewhat misleading, since it ignores the fact that the available time in office differs, depending on the length of the presidential term, date of appointment, etc.  To simplify the analysis, and to make it most relevant, let us look only at the 18 post-FDR “modern” Secretaries beginning with James Byrnes, listed in the table below.

Name (President) Dates in Office Tenure (years)
James Byrnes (Truman) 7.3.45-1.21.47 1.5
George Marshall (Truman) 1.22.47-1.20.49 2
Dean Acheson (Truman) 1.21.49-1.20-53 4
John Foster Dulles (Eisenhower) 1.20.53-4.22.59 6.25
Christian Herter (Eisenhower) 4.23.59-1.20.61 1.75
Dean Rusk (JFK-LBJ) 1.20.61-1.20.69 8
William Rogers (Nixon) 1.20.69-9.3.73 4.67
Henry Kissinger (Nixon-Ford) 9.21.73-1.20.77 3.33
Cyrus Vance (Carter) 1.20.77-4.27.80 3.33
Ed Muskie (Carter) 4.28.80-1.20.81 .67
Al Haig (Reagan) 1.22.81-7.5.82 1.5
George Schultz (Reagan) 7.16.82-1.20.89 6.5
James Baker (Bush I) 1.22.89-8.23.92 3.67
Lawrence Eagleburger (Bush I) 12.8.92-1.20.93 .33
Warren Christopher (Clinton) 1.20.93-1.17.97 4
Madeleine Albright (Clinton) 1.23.97-1.19.01 4
Colin Powell (Bush II) 1.20.01-1.26.05 4
Condi Rice (Bush II) 1.26.05-1.20.09 4

The average tenure of this group is 3.5 years. Only one – Dean Rusk – served for the entire length of the president’s time in office. (Actually, Rusk’s 8-year tenure from 1961-69 spanned two presidencies: JFK’s and LBJ’s). Nine – half of the total – served at least a full four-year presidential term, if not more.  Of the eight appointed at the start of the president’s first term (I don’t count the Truman, Johnson or Ford presidencies here), five made it through the entire first term.

This recap suggests to me that we should place the over/under for Clinton’s time in office at four years.  To make it more interesting, I’ll offer a free “It’s the Fundamentals, Stupid” t-shirt to the person who predicts to the month – without going over – Clinton’s resignation date.  The betting remains open for one week.  Even if you don’t want to predict the actual date, let me know if you take the over or the under, and why.

Who said political science can’t be fun?

Why Daschle’s Demise is No Surprise

And so the learning process begins. The cumulative fallout from the Richardson/Daschle/Killefer nomination withdrawals is working its way through the punditocracy, with predictable media headlines.  The theme du jour seems to be that Obama pushed too many nominees too fast in disregard of his own commitment to bring new transparency and higher ethical standards to Washington. He has been hoisted on his own petard of promising to bring change to Washington – a promise he undercut by nominating experienced Washington hands to key cabinet positions. The failed nominations have led some pundits – academics included – to proclaim that the veneer is already fading from the shiny new Obama Presidency. According to Anne Kornblut and Michael Shear at the Washington Post: “Daschle’s withdrawal serves as a rebuke to Obama officials who had brushed aside tax issue concerns” (story here).   Even academics are piling on: “At first, I thought this was a vetting problem, but now I think it’s hubris – that they somehow think they’re so powerful and so popular that the normal rules don’t apply,” said Paul Light, an expert on presidential transitions and a professor at New York University’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.

Let’s be clear here: this reaction is nonsense. As I reminded a USAToday reporter (see story here), almost every president in the post-Watergate era has seen at least one cabinet-level nominee fail the confirmation process.  Here’s a quick overview:

President          Official/Cabinet Position      Charge               Disposition
Carter              Bert Lance – OMB Director     Bad loans         Confirmed but Resigned
Carter              Ted Sorensen – CIA              Policy Bias         Withdrew
Bush I              John Tower – Defense  drinking/womanizing      Voted Down
Clinton             Zoe Baird – Attorney General nanny/taxes        Withdrew
Clinton             Kimba Wood – Attorney General   nanny           Withdrew
Bush II             Linda Chavez – Labor              Immigration      Withdrew

Why would Obama be any different?  To believe all his nominees would go through unscathed is to suggest that his election has somehow rescinded the laws of normal politics.  As I’ve suggested elsewhere, I see no evidence that this is the case; the presidency under Obama still operates under the familiar institutional and political constraints affecting all modern presidents.  Do the failed nominations suggest a certain amount of hubris on the part of Obama and his senior staff?  Sure.  Did he help hoist himself on his own petard by entering office proclaiming that his administration would adhere to a higher code of ethics?  Undoubtedly.  But we need to keep this in perspective. All presidents enter office claiming that they will kick out the moneychangers occupying the political temple and operate under a more stringent code of ethical conduct. .And they all do so motivated in part by a combination of arrogance, naïveté and hopefulness. Who can blame them?  In most cases they took office having defied the conventional wisdom by winning election to the highest position in the land. It’s hard not to believe your own press clippings.

Obama is no different than previous presidents in this regard. But we need to understand that despite his claim to be an agent of change, the political fundamentals are still in play here. Obama’s arrogance didn’t cause the nomination failures – the post-Watergate era-constructed nomination process did. Simply put, it is almost impossible for any public figure active in national politics to emerge unscathed during the confirmation process today.  Tighter financial disclosure and conflict of interest laws, a more transparent nomination process and the combined scrutiny of the mainstream media and the blogosphere, all against the backdrop of an increasingly polarized Congress and an active interest group universe, means that it is unrealistic to expect all of Obama’s nominees to win confirmation from the Senate. It is the nature of the appointment process today that the president is going to lose a major cabinet nominee.

The real story here, I argue, is how well Obama responded to this incident. Clearly he has learned from the Jeremiah Wright debacle (another reminder that he benefitted from the closely contested nomination race). When scandal arises, confront it, admit your mistake, and cut your losses.  He’s done that very well in the last 24 hours. To me, the mark of an effective president is not that he doesn’t make mistakes – all of them do. It is how quickly they learn from them. On that score, Obama has, so far, demonstrated sound political judgment.

A final thought: the real impact of Daschle’s departure will be felt down the road, if and when Obama embarks on health care reform. Daschle was uniquely suited to shepherding reform legislation through Congress, and his presence will be missed. Even here, however, Obama has a chance to capitalize on Daschle’s departure. As I’ll explain in a later post, the decision to make Daschle both the head of Health and Human Services and give him a White House position as “health czar” was a mistake, since it meant that Daschle would be the sole conduit of information on health reform to the President. Obama can’t afford to have the centerpiece of his domestic legislation controlled by a single individual. As we learned from the Clinton presidency, when it comes to health care specifically (and I would argue policy in general), no president should allow himself to rely on a single policy adviser.  Instead, competition among staff and cabinet members is the key to producing better policy. Let’s hope that when he nominates Daschle’s successor that individual is NOT given a White House position as well.

The larger point of the day:  it is foolhardy to think Obama’s election somehow signifies the suspension of normal politics – that his presidency will operate under a different dynamic in which the traditional constraints on presidential leadership will be lifted. All the evidence so far suggests precisely the opposite.   The sooner Obama – and we – learn this, the better off we all will be.