Monthly Archives: March 2010

Skittles, Trolls, the Census and Congressional Representation: A True Story

Many of you have recently filled out, or will soon fill out, the 2010 Census form.  Under Article I, Section 2, of the Constitution, Congress is empowered to carry out the census. According to the Constitution, “The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct.”  The primary goal in counting every living person in the newly created United States of America was to determine representation in the Congress.   For that reason alone, the census serves a crucial political purpose.  In recent years the country has seen a population shift from the “rust-belt” in the Northeast and Midwest toward the Southwest – a shift that has tended to favor the Republican Party.  It is likely that this trend will continue as a result of the current census. But the census does more than simply measure population shifts for the purpose of reapportioning representation in Congress.  It is also a tool by which officials can measure changing demographic trends, and use that data to, among other purposes, determine the allocation of government grants-in-aid programs.  So it is important that everyone fill out the census form.

Thirty years ago, in one of the many jobs I held before stumbling into political science, I worked for the Census Bureau as an “enumerator” charged with going door-to-door to determine the population in my assigned areas.  As an enumerator, I had many adventures including being chased off a property by a gun-toting “survivalist” who refused to provide any information to the “guvment”.  But I never had the following experience, which I now relate to you in the hope that you will appreciate the job done by enumerators everywhere.  As you will see, it is not always an easy task.  I hope, after reading this, that you will fill out your census form promptly and mail it in and that you will respond courteously to any enumerator who shows up at your door.

A woman lived alone with her mentally-challenged son, who was a teenager.  She normally did not leave him alone, but one day was forced to do so.  She went off to work, but promised her son she would call throughout the day to make sure he was alright.

A few hours into her workday, she called home to see how he was doing.  He replied that he was fine, now that “the troll was in the closet.”   She thought about this for a bit, and decided that he was probably watching a television show about mythical creatures, and therefore did not press him on the topic.   A few hours later, she called again.  He replied that all was well, and noted that he was feeding “the troll Skittles” which the troll seemed to appreciate.    Once again she dismissed the comment as the product of an overactive imagination linked to a television program.   When work ended, she returned home.  Upon entering her house, she asked her son how the day had gone.  He immediately took her to the living room closet, within which she found a Little Person – (what some used to called a dwarf), with Skittles dispersed around him.  This Little Person was an enumerator, working for the Census, who had knocked on the door of the mentally-challenged teenager’s house to ask the few questions required as part of his census duties.  When the mentally-challenged teenager opened the door and saw the Little Person enumerator, he had immediately assumed he was a troll.   Before the Little Person enumerator could react, the mentally-challenged teenager grabbed him and locked him in the closet, where he remained until Mother came home to free him. I do not know if the Little Person continued as an enumerator, or decided instead to move on to a safer job.  But I hope you will appreciate the difficulties faced by enumerators everywhere, and treat them with respect.  After all, they are fulfilling a constitutional mandate.

I know tomorrow is April 1st.  But this is an actual event.   My students will confirm that everything I say is true.

Please, fill out your census form.  And remember to stock up on Skittles.

*The original version of this event said the enumerator was “tied up”  – according to my source for this story, this was incorrect. The enumerator was locked in a closet, but not tied up.

Health Care, Baby Killers and the President: A Few Brief Comments from the Road

I’m on the road, sans computer, and so have limited email access, but did want to comment briefly on yesterday’s votes which I managed to watch in a hotel lobby.   Let me make a few brief points, keeping in mind that this is all based on what I saw on the cable last night, and without reading any news coverage today.

1.  Passing a health care bill is a significant accomplishment, one that is hard to overestimate.  By “significant” I refer not so much to the substantive implications of the bill (much of which remain uncertain), as to what it says about the American political system.  It is a reminder that, contrary to what many say, the legislative system is not “gridlocked” or “broken”.  Significant laws continue to be passed, albeit after lengthy and often acrimonious debate.   Whether this is a “good” bill is another matter, one I hope to address more fully when I get back online regularly.   But the key point to take home is that even if Republicans regain control of both congressional chambers in November, they cannot repeal this legislation as long as a Democrat sits in the White House. 

2.  This is a stark reminder of the limits of presidential power.  Simply put, without the concession to Stupak by the President, this legislation doesn’t pass.  Again and again, President Obama has shown the willingness to compromise when necessary to get that last vote, even at the risk of offending liberals in his party.  The reason he did so is because he has no choice if he wanted some version of health care to pass.  Presidents are weak, and Obama is no exception to this rule. 

3.  Contrary to what you may read, this vote did not “save” Obama’s presidency.  In fact, my guess is it will have almost no impact on his ability to govern or to get other significant legislation through a deeply polarized Congress.  There is no evidence that I know of suggesting that votes like these provide “momentum” on other legislation. This is one victory on one piece of legislation – and that’s it.

4. The Congress remains deeply polarized, as the “baby killer” comments indicates.  At this point, I expect legislative productivity to pretty much end as members go into full campaign mode.

5.  The health care debate is not over.  I’ll have much more to say about this when I have time, but key votes remain – votes that could be even more contentious than last night’s.

I’ll try, if I can get a reasonable chunk of time to actually peruse the papers, to get back on line in the next several days and post some extended thoughts.  Since several of you emailed me asking for comments, let me remind you that you are free to post here to get the debate going.

More in a bit, I hope…

Who Will Be the Democrats’ Mezvinsky on Health Care?

The just-released Congressional Budget Office projection that, if passed,  the Senate health care bill will reduce the deficit over a 10-year period promises to provide some political cover for “Blue Dog” Democrats who worry about the fiscal implications of another hugely expensive government program. If media reports are to be believed, Democrats – buoyed in part by the CBO projections – are now poised to pass the Senate health care legislation, although the latest whip count suggests they have almost no votes to spare.

The blue dogs’ worry about supporting the health care bill even with the CBO projection is understandable considering that public opposition to the health care bills being discussed in Congress has remained quite stable over the past few months. According to the Pew survey center, “As has been the case since last July, there is more opposition than support for these proposals. Currently, 48% say they generally oppose the health care bills in Congress while 38% say they generally favor them. That is almost identical to the balance of opinion in February and January.  Moreover, a plurality of those polled would prefer that Congress start over”:

Democrats’ uncertainty regarding the final vote will inevitably mean that some of the undecideds will leverage their position to extract concessions from the House leadership.  The latest effort to do so centers on regional disparities in Medicare payments.  But the flip side of this is the fear by many Democrats that they will be “Mevinskied”,  a reference to the Pennsylvania Representative, Marjorie Margolies Mezvinsky, who lost her seat 18 years ago as a result of casting one of the deciding votes that pushed Bill Clinton’s first budget over the bar. Clinton had been elected in part on his promise not to raise taxes on the middle class. Once in office, however, he inherited a growing budget deficit that was much larger than he anticipated.  He also  faced a Congress composed of almost an identical partisan composition as the Congress that Obama confronts today.  Reversing his campaign pledge, his first budget included a tax hike designed to cut into the burgeoning budget deficit, but many Democrats, including Mezvinsky, were leery of signing on to it.  In the end, with no Republican support at all, passage of Clinton’s budget came down to a handful of Democratic votes in both the House and Senate.  Much like the current health care debate, Clinton supporters portrayed the budget vote as a referendum on his presidency; if it failed to pass, his political capital would be severely damaged, jeopardizing his entire legislative program – including health care reform. In the end, he was able to attract just enough votes to pass the budget, in large part because Mezvinsky, the freshman Pennsylvania Representative, voted for the President’s budget. In a recent op ed piece,  Margolies defended her budget vote, and urged Democrats to emulate her by voting their conscience regarding the current health bill. Eighteen years ago, however, she was expressing a different emotion, begging the White House not to press her to support the President’s budget because she feared it would likely cost her seat in the House. A tearful President, feeling her pain, promised he would campaign for her reelection if she voted for his budget.  She did – and he did,  but to no avail.  Mezvinsky’s vote was one of two that put the President’s budget over the top by a final vote of 218-216.  Republicans chanted “bye-bye Marjorie” as her vote was recorded – and they were right. Despite Clinton’s efforts, she was was defeated for reelection in 1994, largely on the basis of that single vote.  Writing 18 years later, Margolies says she doesn’t regret the vote,and she urges Democrats to follow her lead: “I urge you simply to cast the vote you can be proud of next week, next year and for years to come. Given the opportunity, I wouldn’t change my vote.”  In the next breath, however, she admits: “Then again, what do I know? I was a lousy politician.”

Will Obama need another Mezvinsky to step forward to save health care?  And if he does, will it be “a lousy politician” who loses her seat in order to save the President?

What Will Happen to the Obama Presidency if Health Care Doesn’t Pass?

I’m working on a longer post on the latest developments in health care, but I wanted to post a brief comment addressing what I believe to be a fundamental misconception about the likely impact should health care legislation fail to pass. Peter Baker, in this article in the New York Times, suggests that the failure to pass health care would severely damage the Obama presidency.  In his words, “Washington is already debating how pivotal the vote will be to his presidency. Mr. Obama has devoted vast energy and political capital over the last 14 months to get to this point, the presidential equivalent of an all-in bet on the poker table. Should he fail to push his plan through a Congress with strong Democratic majorities, it would certainly damage his credibility as a leader for months, and maybe years. Already the fight has scarred Washington, leaving behind a polarized and angry political elite and questions about whether the system is broken.

If Mr. Obama falls short on health care, his hopes of passing other ambitious legislation like an overhaul of immigration and a market-based cap on carbon emissions to curb climate change would seem out of reach, at least for the rest of this year. Much of Washington would question whether he is weak, some Democratic candidates would run away from him and Mr. Obama would be forced to consider a narrower agenda like that pursued by Bill Clinton after his own health care drive collapsed.”

What’s fascinating about Baker’s assertion – one that has been echoed in several other publications – is that it appears to be based on absolutely no evidence. I know of no research that suggests that the failure to pass health care legislation will weaken the Obama presidency. Obama does not govern in a parliamentary system where the failure to pass legislation can cause a government to “fall” through a no-confidence vote. If health care doesn’t pass, I’m pretty confident that Obama will remain in office through at least January, 2013. Nor can I find any research that suggests it will adversely impact his chances of persuading Congress to pass other legislation dealing with climate change, immigration or any other policy.  I suspect that these other issues will be considered on their own policy and political merits, with the health care outcome largely irrelevant to the calculations made by members of Congress.

Let me be clear here. I don’t doubt that, if health care fails to pass, the news media will claim that the Obama presidency will be damaged, much as Baker asserts.  I just don’t have any reason to believe that these claims are anything more than punditry based on little to no evidence.

But, won’t the failure to pass health care increase the chances that Democrats will lose seats in the 2010 midterm?  Perhaps.  But it is not clear to me that the outcome of the health care vote – by itself – will have much more than a marginal impact on what is already shaping up, largely by virtue of the sluggish economy, as a very bad midterm for Democrats.

Several of you have asked me why Nancy Pelosi (and it is Pelosi and not the Rules Committee chair Louise Slaughter that is calling the shots) would risk alienating voters by proposing a rule that would, in effect, allow House Democrats to move forward on a vote on an amended Senate health care bill without first voting on the current Senate bill.  I am working on a longer post on this topic, but the short answer is that she is pursuing this rather unorthodox strategy because she is not confident she has the votes in the House to pass the current Senate health care bill. If you don’t have the votes, the best strategy is not to allow the bill to come to a vote.  Hence the decision to “pretend” the Senate bill has passed, and to move on to consider amendments to that bill.

It just gets more interesting by the day.

Is Obama Destined to Fail? The Character Question

Why is Obama headed for failure?  And what makes for a “great president”, at least during the post-World War II modern era?  According to columnist Ralph Peters, it’s primarily a question of character.  The great presidents of the modern era – and for Peters this includes Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan – all suffered adversity before reaching the White House.  By overcoming this adversity, they developed an inner strength that enabled them to reach the pinnacle of power, and to achieve greatness once there. In contrast, Peters argues, more recent presidents, including Obama, have failed (or are, in Obama’s case, on the road to failure) because they combine ambition with a “fateful sense of entitlement.” In Peters’ words: “[Y]ou don’t build character by punching your ticket at today’s Ivy-League universities, then dashing straight into politics.”

What is one to make of Peters’ assertion?  I’m in the process of writing a longer post evaluating George Bush the Younger’s presidency, but Peters’ column gives me an opportunity to begin the discussion regarding how to “rate” presidents more generally.

Let me start by accepting, for the sake of argument, Peters’ opening premise that Truman, Eisenhower and Reagan were the three “greatest” president of the post-FDR era.  This is consistent with the evaluations of most political historians, as contained in the numerous polls ranking the presidents.  I leave aside for the moment any discussion regarding the validity of these polls, whether we can trust historians with this task, or the criteria for evaluating presidential greatness more generally.

Let me also say that I’m sympathetic with portions of Peters’ argument, particularly this part:   “These profoundly different men [Truman, Eisenhower and Reagan] had two other things in common: They weren’t lawyers, and they had the courage to make tough decisions, from dropping the first atomic bombs to telling the chieftain of an evil empire to tear down a wall.”  (As the prelaw adviser, I remind my students that if Peters is right, by choosing to go to law school, you close off the road to presidential greatness. Just saying… .)

For Peters, one develops the character needed to be a great president not by attending an ivy-league institution, but by experiencing hardship and overcoming failure. Rather than a life of affluence and entitlement, this typically means growing up of modest means in a rural or small-town background.  The great presidents knew what it was like “to sweat for a living.”

As someone who was raised in a hard-scrabble environment (I sweated when I wasn’t freezing in my daily walk to my high school – up hill – across the street and back, for four years) and who faced adversity (cut from my high school baseball team twice before finally making it!), I’d like to think I’ve developed character worthy of the great presidents.

Unfortunately for my presidential aspirations, Peters’ argument appears less persuasive upon closer inspection.  To see why, let’s consider the backgrounds of the modern presidents who are deemed less than great: Johnson, Nixon and Carter.  LBJ grew up in rural Texas. When he was 15 he ran off to California, and spent the next two years washing dishes, fixing cars, and surviving in part on the grapes he picked.  He later returned to Texas to attend San Marcos College, and his first job after graduation was teaching high school.   Nixon came from equally humble roots; his memoir begins, “I was born in a house my father built.”  His parents ran a “Mom and Pop” grocery store, and when Nixon was old enough he took responsibility for buying the fruits and vegetables, which required him to be at market at 5 in the morning. Medical expenses due to his brother’s illness (he had tuberculosis) stripped the family finances to the bone and as a result Nixon couldn’t afford to attend an expensive college.  At Whittier College, he played on the football team but only got into the game when it was either hopelessly won or lost.

How about Jimmy Carter?  Same story.  Carter remembers his childhood:  “We had a good life. We lived, along with everyone else, with no money and no electricity and no running water, hard work and that kind of thing.”  (A lot like my life today in Ripton.)   And, like Eisenhower, he attended a military service academy and later spent seven years as an aide to Hyman Rickover, father of the nuclear navy.  When Carter’s father died, however, he chose to resign from the Navy and take over the family peanut farm.

We see, then, that the three worst presidents in the modern era were not the product of privilege.  Instead, all three came from humble backgrounds and certainly knew what it meant to “sweat for a living.”  Moreover, if we move back chronologically by one president, Peters’ argument grows weaker still.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt is typically viewed as the first modern president – and the greatest of this era.  He certainly did not come from “modest means”, as a visit to his house (which I recommend) in Hyde Park, overlooking the Hudson River and just down from the Vanderbilt’s mansion, will confirm. As an only child, FDR had an idyllic upbringing, much of it spent traveling overseas. He attended Harvard University (living in one of the Gold Coast houses) and was also a lawyer before entering politics.   Somehow he was able to overcome these handicaps to become one of the three greatest presidents, along with Washington and Lincoln.

I don’t mean to suggest that Peters is completely wrong, and that character is unimportant.  Indeed, one of the best-known studies of presidents is James David Barber’s book Presidential Character.  But even Barber uses a rather expansive definition of character to include background and temperament in his effort to explain, and predict, presidential greatness.  More generally, Peters’ argument suffers from a very common mistake – he chooses those examples that appear to confirm his hypothesis regarding the importance of character.  To see what I mean, suppose I wanted to explain what factors contributed to “presidential failure” and I chose Nixon, Carter and LBJ as my examples.  As I hope I’ve made clear from these brief biographical glimpses, the common factor leading to failure seems to be a humble upbringing and a formative period of struggle and adversity – exactly the personal traits that Peters cites for producing greatness!

There is a larger point here. We can’t be sure that these presidents’ “greatness” is not due to other factors, such as taking office when there was simply a greater opportunity to do those things that history deems worthy of “great presidents” rather than character.  Was it Truman’s character that determined his greatness, or the fact that he became president at the start of the Cold War and the establishment of the national security state, and due to his central role in a number of momentous policy choices more generally?  Similarly, how do we know presidents failed because they lacked the requisite “character”?  Maybe they failed because they governed with a polarized Congress and faced insurmountable policy problems?   If health care goes down to defeat, is it due to Obama’s character defect?

Note that I am not trying to dismiss the importance of the presidents’ personal qualities in explaining their performance in office. Clearly they matter – but which qualities are most important? What personal characteristics position an individual to achieve presidential greatness (assuming the opportunity for greatness arises), if not humble origins and a formative period filled with suffering and adversity?  A complete answer would require a separate post, but let me suggest a key component: great presidents have a core set of beliefs, or convictions, that guides decisionmaking when the outcomes of those decisions are both momentous and uncertain.  Character may be part of this equation, but I think without the judgment, experience and core set of values by which to make the right choices, character alone is no guarantee of success – never mind greatness.