Monthly Archives: April 2009

Say it ain’t so, Dr. Joe! (And More Specter fallout)

Leading the news today is Dr. Joe Biden’s medical advice, issued on the Today show, that people should avoid riding in airplanes, or taking the subway, or using other forms of mass transit.  Never mind that health officials don’t agree with Dr. Joe – he’s the vice president!  With one foot-in-mouth moment, Dr. Joe singlehandedly counteracts the impact of the $800 billion stimulus bill. We love this guy!  (So does the President, I am certain.)

Now, in response to your inquiries, more on the Specter decision. Several of you have asked why I discount the political science research showing that a switch in party labels usually leads to a switch in voting patterns.  In fact, based on that research, most political scientists that I know believe Specter’s voting pattern will now move quickly and significantly to the Left (see here, for example).

The reason why I don’t believe this is necessarily the case is because that research is based on House switchers, not Senate switchers. In addition to the differences in how the two chambers operate (the House is designed to empower the majority party as a voting bloc, the Senate operates on a more individualistic basis), House districts are almost always smaller, and more ideologically homogeneous.  Senators, on the other hand, represent typically larger and more ideologically diverse states.  As a result, House incumbents usually are less vulnerable to electoral defeat (their reelection rates hover in the mid 90% range), and find it easier to stake out a more partisan voting position congruent with the majority of voters in their district.  Not so for Senators, who typically face stronger challengers who are more effective at using their voting record against them, and who must appeal to a more diverse electorate.   That’s why I am skeptical that previous research on party switching based on the House is applicable to the Senate.

But this provides the opportunity for a natural experiment.  According to Simon Jackman (see chart below), Specter now ranks as the third most liberal Republican in the current (111th) Senate.  (These rankings are based on the Nominate scores – moving Left, along the negative numbers, means you are more liberal, right toward positive numbers is more conservative. The Senators are broken into two columns to save space.)

If I’m right, Specter’s voting record should keep him somewhere in the middle of the Senate pack, ideologically, over the course of the next two years.  If my poli sci colleagues are correct, he should move sharply left closer to the middle of the Democratic Senate voting ranks (say, into Dianne Feinstein/Harry Reid territory).   So we can revisit this issue in two years!

So, why did Specter switch parties?  Largely because of the fallout from the stimulus bill – another reminder why bipartisanship is so difficult in today’s polarized climate.  A March Quinnipiac poll of Pennsylvania voters found the following (see poll here): “Overall Pennsylvania voters have a 45 – 31 percent favorable opinion of Sen. Specter, but he gets a 47 – 29 percent unfavorable score from Republicans. The Republican gets a 60 – 16 percent thumbs up from Democrats and a 41 – 35 percent positive from independent voters.” Much of that disapproval is rooted in Specter’s support of the stimulus package. “Specter’s support of President Barack Obama’s Stimulus Package wins 87 – 6 percent support from Democrats and 56 – 38 percent support from independent voters, while Republican voters disapprove 70 – 25 percent.”  It is not a good sign when your own party’s constituents disown you. As a result, he was likely to lose if he ran in the Republican primary against the less well known Republican Congressman Pat Toomey.  The Quinnipiac poll found Specter trailing Toomey 41 – 27 percent in a Republican primary for the 2010 Senate race, with 28 percent undecided.  A more recent Rasmussen poll (see here) of likely Republican primary voters has Specter getting crushed by Toomey, 51%-30%. More generally, Specter’s approval ratings began nosing downward after the stimulus vote, although he still has more favorable than unfavorable support among all voters.

There are two lessons to draw from this.  First, if Specter has negotiated an understanding with leading Democrats to clear the field of potential challengers in the Democratic Pennsylvania Senate primary (as it appears to be the case), then he has a strong shot at winning the general election for another term as Pennsylvania Senator.  But that wouldn’t happen as a Republican; he wasn’t likely to make it out of the Republican primary.

My larger point is to reiterate an earlier observation: it is often said by pundits, particularly those on the Left, that the Republicans have become the party of “NO”, unalterably opposed to anything Obama proposes.  But the reality, as Specter discovered, is that many Republicans on Capitol Hill face a potential backlash among their core Republican voters in the primary if they appear to support programs that involve increased spending and a greater government role in the economy.  From this perspective, Republican opposition to much of Obama’s program is perfectly logical (and quite predictable).  As an aside, note that Obama doesn’t seem to grasp this, at least not based on his public statements.  Last night during his press conference, he once again reiterated his reminder to Republicans that, “we won.”   Of course, as I’ve pointed out in previous posts, from the perspective of individual members of Congress, this is not the case – Obama ran behind most of them, and of course didn’t win very many Republican districts at all.

Aside to Jack, Vijay and Marty:  I don’t have polling data on Tom Ridge versus Specter, but I think Ridge is precisely the kind of Republican who would make it difficult for Specter to win in the general election. However, (for reasons Vijay alludes to in his comment on my earlier post) Ridge would also have to get through the Republican primary – not a sure thing, although he doesn’t have the baggage of a stimulus vote to defend.  Also, I don’t think he has lived in Pennsylvania in some time, although given his history there that may not make a difference to voters.  For what it is worth, here’s Ridge’s statement on Specter’s defection:

“I’ve known Arlen Specter for many years. In no way does his departure from the Republican Party diminish his long record of service to his country and to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

“As Arlen will understand, my support is with my Party and with the people of my home state, whom I believe can best be served in the Senate by the GOP.

“So let’s begin the discussion of ideas with a respectful contest as Pennsylvania and the nation continue to work collectively through these challenging times.”

Does that mean Ridge is jumping into the race?  I have no idea.  As for the “Club for Growth” and PAC’s more generally, as my colleague Bert Johnson’s research reminds us, the power of PACs to shape elections appears to have diminished a bit compared to the relative impact of campaign contributions from strongly partisan individuals.  I hope to post on this more extensively.  In any case, I wouldn’t suggest that Specter is the victim of an orchestrated party purge, so much as he fell prey to diminishing enthusiasm among likely Republican voters.  There is a fascinating story here on why politics is increasingly polarized and I hope to discuss it more fully in later posts.

Parsing the Press Conference (Abbreviated Version)

I was not able to live blog Obama’s third press conference because my son’s track meet ran long (he ran fast, however!).  I’m hoping many of you saw it, and can pass along your reactions in the comments section.  I listened to the first 10 minutes on radio, and saw the remainder on the NBC feed.  I thought it was his best performance to date (ok the handwashing advice was a bit much), in part because the reporters (for the most part – what was Jeff Zeleney thinking?) asked substantive questions.   Obama handled them deftly – his responses were substantively on target, and when he had to dance – as with the “did the previous administration sanction torture?” question – he did so in a way that did not cause a huge controversy but made it clear where he stood.  I thought both questions on the torture memoranda issue were spot on, and that Obama gave the best answers he possibly could without creating more controversy and without revealing classified information. Obviously he can’t know – nor can we – if he was in a similar position as Bush whether he would sanction the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques/torture” – no one can unless they are in that position.  But he went as far as he could in making the case for why he didn’t think these techniques were necessary, and for defending the decision to release some but not all of the relevant memoranda.  Will it satisfy those on the Right and the Left?  Probably not. But I think middle American will accept his answers for now.

In what seems to be a recurring pattern, Chuck Todd again asked the most useless question, since it practically guaranteed the answer that Obama gave regarding control of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, which is, “I’m not going to speculate.”  At some point Chuck needs to go back to polling and leave the journalism to someone else.

Obama did well in nonanswering the Iraq timetable question (“steady as she goes – I’ll listen to my commanders, etc”).   He also was spot on, I thought, in dealing with abortion, immigration and bipartisanship and the Republican party – all potential landmines that he skirted in reasonable, if somewhat, longwinded fashion.

Under the current press conference format, once the president makes his opening statement, his goal is to get through the rest of the conference without setting off any landmines or creating controversy.  That’s about all one can hope for, and I thought Obama did it well, in his best performance in one of these exercises to date.

I’m interested in your reactions, if you get the chance to add some comments.

Meanwhile, I’ll try to respond to some of your queries regarding Specter, and clarify my reasoning why I don’t think his voting record will markedly change, in tomorrow’s blog.

Thank God for Arlen Specter

Senator Arlen Specter’s decision to caucus with the Democrats has, temporarily, pushed the “100 days” storyline into the background, and for that we should all be grateful. (For my sole media effort to correct the  misperception that 100 days matter, see my brief comments with a Canadian journalist here.)  In addition to the blow it inflicts on the Republican Party, at least symbolically, Specter’s defection is another reminder of how difficult it is for moderates to exist in a deeply polarized Senate.  I went back and calculated Specter’s rank, using a generally accepted measure of voting-based ideology (Poole-Rosenthal scores) in each Senate session in which he served dating back to his first in 1981-83 (the 97th Congress).  When it comes to voting, Specter consistently falls in the middle of the pack, with an overall average ranking across 15 congressional sessions as the 52nd most liberal Senator (standard deviation of 4.3).  (Note that I include the President’s rank score in the data used to calculate Specter’s standing).

When the Senate is under Democratic control, the overall mean voting score shifts left, which tends to make Specter more conservative relative to his colleagues; his average rank under Democratic control is 57. Conversely, under Republican control, he ranks slightly more liberal, typically landing right in the middle as the 50th most liberal Senator. On the whole, then, we see that he’s a consistent middle-of-the-road Senator.

So, is his voting record likely to significantly change now that he’s a Democrat?  At first glance, one might think yes.  Indeed, several pundits have suggested as much based in part on political science research on previous party switchers. This research suggests that a switch in party leads to a switch in voting patterns.  But caution is in order; most of this research finds significant changes only in the House.  In the Senate, because of the small sample size, detecting historical trends is much more difficult.

For comparison purposes, I looked up the rankings of four other Senators who switched party affiliation in the modern era to see if it affected their overall Senate ranking.

Senator Years (Year Switch) Pre-Switch Rank Post-Switch
Richard Shelby 1987-2008 (1995) 61st most liberal 77th most liberal
Ben Campbell 1993-2004 (1995) 51 56th most liberal
Jim Jeffords 1989-2002 (2001) 52 52
Joe Lieberman 1989-2008 (2007) 37 34.5

Keep in mind that both Shelby and Campbell switched from Democrat to Republican, while Lieberman ran as an independent after losing the Democratic primary in 2006 but did not join the Republican Party.  After years as a Republican, Jeffords caucused with the Democrats in 2001 but called himself an independent.  So these aren’t strictly comparable to the Specter case.  (The other significant difference, as I discuss below, is that Specter’s switch is motivated by electoral reasons more than ideological ones.)

So based on this limited sample, and subject to all the caveats associated with nominate scores and using ranking, as opposed to absolute voting data (and the different time periods being compared), it appears that Shelby’s voting rank changed significantly, but the other three demonstrate less movement. When we think about the issue a bit more, it’s not surprising that this admittedly limited sample reveals no clear trend in voting patterns after a change in party affiliation among Senators, in contrast to Representatives in the House.

Remember that the House operates under rules designed to empower the majority party, so in periods of high polarization, a switch in parties should tend to lead to a switch in voting (much as political science research has found.) However, this is not necessarily the case in the Senate, where voting is less beholden to party, and much more driven by individual ideology conditioned by constituency and reelection.  In other words, the Senate is not strictly comparable to a parliamentary system, where party leaders often have the means to punish those who cross party lines by, for example, removing them from party lists at election time.  In the U.S. Senate, senators are largely beholden to no one except voters.  Note that based on Poole-Rosenthal scores from the last (110th) Senate, Specter is the third most liberal Republican Senator, topped only by the two Maine Senators Collins and Snowe.  Not surprisingly, all three Republican Senators already voted with the Democrats to pass Obama’s stimulus bill, and there wasn’t a darn thing the Republican Senate leadership could do about it.

All this is a long way of saying that I don’t expect Specter’s rather moderate voting patterns to change very much as a result of the change in party label, since he’s already signaled his willingness to cross parties and vote with the Democrats during the current session if it serves his electoral needs.  Indeed that is what this switch is about – Specter’s 2010 reelection bid.  By switching labels, he can run in the Democratic primary where he (so far) has at least a chance of reelection.  If he stayed a Republican, he was going to get trounced in the primary (the most recent poll had him down 21% among likely Republican voters to the more conservative Pat Toomey).  For Specter, becoming a Democrat was a matter of political survival – not a change in ideology. By negotiating a deal with the Democrats (including Obama’s implicit promise to back him in the Senate race), he’s hoping to avoid a challenge from the Left in the Democratic primary in two years.  If so, I expect him to continue to position himself as a swing voter in a state that is trending Democratic, with his vote determined by his calculations on its likely impact on his Senate reelection chances than on party loyalty.  Note also that he negotiated an agreement to retain his seniority, so the switch doesn’t cost him anything in that regard.

In short, this is a very significant switch for Specter’s electoral chances, not quite so significant for his votes in the Senate.  Of course, if he gets a credible challenger on the Left in Pennsylvania, then all bets are off!

If I get a chance, I’ll talk a bit about the filibuster implications in another post. But my immediate reaction is that I don’t see this having as much impact on moving the Democrats closer toward a filibuster-proof Senate as many have surmised because Specter’s vote was already driven almost entirely by electoral, and not partisan, considerations.  When it serves his purpose – as it did in the stimulus bill when he was able to leverage money to his state in exchange for his support – he will vote Democratic.  But the change in party label isn’t likely to dramatically increase his propensity to do so.

How to Deal With Premature Evaluation

Perhaps inevitably, and despite my warnings (hard to believe journalists don’t listen to me!), the media is poised to inundate us with an orgy of stories regarding Obama’s first 100 Days as President. As my colleague Amy Yuen pointed out to me, CNN (among many news outlets) is heavily promoting this event, promising that their coverage will equal their election night coverage (see the article in the NY Times Arts section here)!  In anticipation of the onslaught of like-minded news stories on April 29 (the 100th day of Obama’s presidency), and because of the comments from several of you defending the media’s focus on this rubric (see, for example, Olivier Knox’s thoughtful defense in the comments section here) I want to focus on two points underlying my original objection to the use of the 100 Days as a useful metric for assessing the Obama administration’s accomplishments to date.

First, my specific objection has to do with the primary focus on legislative or policy productivity, as of 100 days, as a yardstick of accomplishment. I am not against media efforts to evaluate specific presidential actions during the first 100 days, such as Ford’s controversial pardoning of Nixon.  Nor do I necessarily object to the media evaluating a president who explicitly tries to set an overall tone for their presidency, as when LBJ appealed to Congress (“Let us continue”) when he took office to honor the slain president by implementing JFK’s legislative agenda.  It is the media’s responsibility to take presidents at their word. But this is not what the 100 days yardstick has become.   Consider the following commentary by historian Julian Zelizer (see here):

“When presidents enter the White House, they have approximately 100 days to show what they are made of… . Barack Obama [and his advisers] will have to use their hundred days to build confidence in the government and its ability to stabilize the economic system, taking advantage of the narrow window they will have to get legislation through… .Obama will have to define himself in relation to his predecessor, but in this case by demonstrating clearly to the public what he will do differently, rather than the same, as President Bush. And, finally, the new president will need to find legislation that attracts some support from the opposition to diminish the power of polarization on Capitol Hill and establish the groundwork for future compromise…The one thing that Obama must realize is that those hundred days will disappear quickly. Once they are gone, as Bill Clinton learned after delaying his push for health care reform, the political capital is hard to get back.”

With all due respect to Zelizer, this is, in my view, fundamentally misguided advice, particularly the notion that presidents have a fixed amount of political capital that must be spent within 100 days, or forever lost.  (I will spend a separate post discussing the sources and utility of various forms of presidential “capital”.) But Zelizer’s  is precisely the perspective that animates (or will animate) much of the media coverage come April 29.  How well has Obama showed what he “is made of”?

In large part, media judgments will turn on a focused assessment of legislative and policy productivity.  As I’ve noted, this metric is derived from the celebrated period of FDR’s first three months in office, when he worked with a special emergency session of Congress to pass 15 major pieces of legislation. In reaction to my previous blogs on this topic, several of you have asked – why not use 100 Days? After all, if FDR could do it, why can’t Obama? Doesn’t the nation faces a similar economic crisis as it did in 1933? (I have argued, of course, that the two economic situations are not that similar).  Weren’t both FDR and Obama voted in with strong party support in Congress, after the previous party’s president’s policies were all but repudiated, with the expectation that they would change the direction of American politics?  And didn’t’ candidate Obama all but buy into the 100 days rubric, even going so far as to lay out an informal agenda in a campaign event in May, 2008, of what he hoped to accomplish as president in this time period (see here)?

These are all valid points.  In order not to repeat myself, let me focus here on two additional rejoinders to these questions that I haven’t talked about previously. To begin, let me note an often underappreciated fact regarding FDR’s 100 Days – the legislation passed during that period suffered from some of the same defects that I am warning about today: it was hastily constructed and didn’t always work. Most notably, Congress enacted and FDR signed the National Industrial Recovery Act into law. It essentially sought to bolster the nation’s economy by allowing businesses to form cartels and act in somewhat monopolistic fashion (by agreeing on prices and setting wages), under government supervision.  In the historical glow associated with FDR’s 100 days, we often forget that this particular piece of legislation was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1935 in the celebrated “sick chicken” case.  Nor did it prove particularly effective in alleviating economic conditions while in place. With hindsight, FDR might have been better off to step back to consider this legislation more carefully rather than pushing it through during his first 100 days.

More generally, I would argue that presidents – and the nation – are almost always better off moving more slowly in dealing with complex policy issues, such as health care reform, or climate policy, than they are in trying to leverage momentum from their election to pressure Congress to pass landmark legislation within this artificial window.  I understand all too well that first impressions matter and that presidents invariably feel pressure to leave their mark as policy activists in this period.  But history is littered with examples of presidents who moved too quickly, too soon, to their – and the nation’s – ultimate regret. I’ve previously noted Clinton’s missteps during his first 100 days, which laid the foundation for the Republican takeover in 1994. To that I might add Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs, or Carter’s vetoing soon after taking office of several water projects near and dear to the hearts of Democratic leaders in Congress. But even those presidents who are often cited for the successful way they approached the 100 days do not always deserve these accolades. For example, Ronald Reagan used his 100 days – including public outpouring of support after the failed assassination attempt – to push through Congress a package of tax and spending cuts.  But during negotiations with Democrats to enact this legislation, Reagan was forced to make budgetary concessions that threw his deficit projections dangerously out of whack. When the bond markets reacted negatively to the budget projections, with the clear indications of deeper deficits, the nation’s economy slipped into a recession, and Reagan was forced to go back to Congress to raise revenue during the next legislative session.

My point is that legislative action for action’s sake – often under the duress imposed by the 100 Day yardstick – serves no one’s interest, not even the president’s, in the long run, particularly when dealing with complex policy areas. Why not take the time to do the job right?  And why not tell the media – and the public – exactly that?  Why not go on television and say, “These problems facing our nation are too complex, and too important, to be addressed in three months.  Instead, I am going to work with Congress to make sure we get this right.”  That, in my view, would demonstrate the true mettle of the man.

When I make this argument with journalists (and I have done it several times in the last few days!), the frequent response is: Well, if not 100 days, then when should we evaluate a president?  My answer is to cite the Constitution.  That document gives presidents four years in office before they are held accountable by the voters.  That seems a reasonable standard to me.  If the media can’t wait that long, then the first midterm election – although not really a referendum on the president so much as on the Congress’ ability to work with the president – serves as a reasonable first approximation.  That at least gives presidents and Congress a bit more breathing space to pass legislation, and to begin to sees its effects, positive or negative.  But 100 Days?  That’s a premature evaluation that serves no useful purpose.

Would You Let Your Daughter Spend a “Day” With This Man?

According to media reports (see here), the Clintons are auctioning off a “day” with Bill Clinton as a fundraising event intended to pay down Hillary’s campaign debt. Can you imagine your daughter spending a day with that man?  I imagine they’ll start with a wakeup breakfast at Denny’s – two helpings of “pigs in the blanket” – then off to the dog track.  From there, a quick flight to Vegas to spend the afternoon playing blackjack, and then some quiet time by the pool (don’t forget the sun tan oil and box of McNuggets)  before a massage back at the hotel, a late supper and an evening at the Celine Dion show (don’t forget the personal backstage tour with Celine).

How do you think that conversation began in the Clinton household?  “Honey, I’ve got a wonderful idea to raise money.  And you won’t have to do a thing!”  Cue lamp shade flying. I don’t know what’s more astonishing: that Bill had the chutzpah to raise the idea, or that Hillary agreed to it.  If this isn’t proof that he is an amazing politician nothing is.  For the perfect conclusion, we only need Monica Lewinsky to offer the opening bid.  (Fill in cigar joke here…)

In related news, Hillary has asked Bernie Madoff to invest the money Bill raises from his “date”, and tasked Michael Moore with making the accompanying publicity video.

You can’t make this stuff up.