Monthly Archives: June 2012

The Post-Mortem on Gingrich: Why The Fat Man Sang

It has been a little more than a month since Newt Gingrich formally ended his improbable and wildly entertaining bid for the Republican nomination.   The Newtster, whose campaign had been on life support for several weeks, finally bowed to reality shortly after Mitt Romney crushed him in the winner-take-all Delaware primary on April 24, one of several victories for the Mittster that same night that made it clear Newt had used up all of his nine political lives, and then some.   A subdued Newt formally gave up the ghost a week later, but not before reiterating his belief that his grandchildren would likely be able to visit a moon colony in their lifetime.  The moon colony, of course, had long become the symbol of Newt’s candidacy: big on ideas, short on practicality.   But that caricature both oversimplifies and underestimates Newt’s impact on this race.  For, despite a rather inauspicious start that had the media declaring his candidacy over before it began, Newt parlayed a series a scintillating debate performances (who can forget Newt taking on John King over media coverage of his first wife’s allegations that Newt sought an open marriage?) and the support of Sugar Daddy Sheldon Adelson into what is essentially a distant third-place finish, as measured by popular votes, in the Republican nomination. In so doing, Newt outperformed a number of other candidates, including Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Jon Huntsman and Tim Pawlenty.

Here’s Newt at his media bashing best, taking on CNN’s King regarding the Newt’s First Wife’s Club:

This was probably the high point of Newt’s campaign. In a reminder that those who live by the sword often die by it, Newt’s longshot campaign probably ended shortly after with his poor debate performance prior to the Florida primary, when Mitt’s superior opposition research gave him the material to flummox the Newtster during an exchange over investment portfolios.  Of course, Newt was already facing a huge financial deficit as Romney was pummeling him in the ad wars.  But after Florida Newt’s support in the polls dwindled as the Tea Party and conservative evangelical vote switched to Santorum.

To me, one of the distinguishing features of Newt’s candidacy was just how hated he was by both the media punditocracy and by my colleagues in political science.  I was reminded of this when I looked at the recent Pew report documenting the tone of media coverage of the various Republican candidates during the nomination fight.   As you can see in this chart put together by Peter Cahill based on the Pew Report of media coverage, except for a brief period heading into and just after Newt’s victory in the South Carolina primary, his media coverage was uniformly negative.  Indeed, it started out negative, and largely remained that way through most of his candidacy.

.Compare this to Mitt Romney’s coverage, against based on the Pew Report. Although Mitt had his share of negative coverage, it was much more evenly balanced, for the most part, between negative and positive tone through much of his campaign.

 

Now, let me make clear that I am not necessarily asserting that Newt’s predominantly negative coverage reflected reporters’ animosity toward him.  Instead it may have been driven more by media perceptions that his campaign was poorly run and that he never had much chance of winning the nomination.   Still, I can’t discount the possibility that the two are at least distantly linked. Combined with the spending gap, the disparity in media tone in campaign coverage may lead some of Newt’s supporters to cry foul; clearly the odds were stacked – unfairly – against their man in this primary fight.  I don’t blame them for thinking so.  But I don’t think Newt lost because he was outspent, or because of predominantly negative news coverage. Ultimately, what doomed Gingrich was his record in several areas that, when publicized, caused an erosion of support among the Tea Party faction.  Perhaps none was more damning than Newt’s consulting work for Fannie Mae, which many Floridians blamed in part for the collapse of the housing market. Newt’s claim that he was merely a historian who gave impartial advice to Fannie Mae never really passed the smell test.  Throw in his ill-fated dalliance with Nancy Pelosi on behalf of combatting climate change, and you can understand why conservatives ultimately defaulted to Rick Santorum as the Mitt alternative.

Why did the Fat Man sing?  Not because of negative media coverage, or an inability to raise money, or because my political science colleagues positively despised the man. (For the record, I found him thoroughly entertaining!) Those were merely symptoms of a deeper malady: Gingrich was running in a Republican nomination race with a record that a good many Republican voters viewed as insufficiently conservative.

“Holier Than The Pope”: How Leaks Happen

President Obama just finished his press conference (I watched the CNN feed) and while most of the media reaction has been to his comment that “the private sector is doing fine”, I want to focus here on his push back against the charge leveled by some Republican Party leaders, including senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, that members of his White House staff are deliberately leaking classified national security information to bolster Obama’s reelection chances.  Those charges were a response to recent news stories casting a generally favorable light on Obama’s anti-terrorism efforts, including this NY Times piece by David Sanger on Obama’s use of cyber warfare against Iran and this one documenting his role in targeting terrorists for drone strikes.  Republicans found Sanger’s story particularly troubling because it was based on research for his forthcoming book Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power . In his note on sources for the book, Sanger writes:  “Following the practice of the Times in reporting on national security, I discussed with senior government officials the potential risks of publication of sensitive information that touches on ongoing intelligence operations. At the government’s request, and in consultation with editors, I withheld a limited number of details that senior government officials said could jeopardize current or planned operations.”

For Republicans, this suggests the White House cooperated with Sanger in order to burnish Obama’s national security credentials heading into the fall election. Not surprisingly, when asked about this in today’s press conference, Obama said he found the idea  that he would authorize leaking classified security information for political gain “offensive.”  Moreover, as Press Secretary Jay Carney noted in yesterday’s press gaggle, Scott Shane – one of the authors of the NY Times drone kill list story, has stated  “The notion that the White House prompted the story or controlled our reporting and writing is absurd.”

I don’t doubt that Obama does not condone national security leaks.  Nor do I believe the New York Times published two generally favorable pieces at the White House’s bidding. But that does not mean the Times reporters didn’t rely on leaked information to write their story.  The reality is that it is all too common for a president’s political aides to wade into politically controversial waters, including leaking potentially classified information, if they believe by doing so they will help the president achieve a policy objective, or gain politically – and they often do so without telling the President in order to give him “plausible deniability”.   Recall, for example, the decision by Ronald Reagan’s national security adviser John Poindexter, working with the redoubtable Oliver North, to use “residuals” from the sales of arms to Iran to fund the Nicaraguan contras in the period 1985-86.  That decision was made, based on all available evidence, without Ronald Reagan’s knowledge, but when it was disclosed, Reagan bore the full brunt of the political repercussions.  Poindexter famously proclaimed that the “buck stops here” in trying to take full responsibility for the diversion, but of course this was politically naive; whenever a White House aide or senior official acts, the repercussions always fall back on the President – whether he authorized the act or not.

In 2003, of course, State Department Deputy Secretary Richard Armitage, for reasons that are still disputed, revealed to columnist Bob Novak that Valerie Plame was a CIA officer.  Novak was trying to find out why Plame’s husband Joe Wilson, a former Clinton administration official, had been sent to Niger to investigate whether Saddam Hussein had sought to buy uranium in the form of “yellowcake” as a precursor to making a nuclear weapon. Bush had made that charge in his 2003 State of the Union address, but Wilson subsequently wrote an op-ed piece saying that is not what he learned on his trip there, and that Bush had misrepresented the intelligence findings.   Armitage’s motives in revealing Plame’s work status remains a matter of debate; while Armitage contends that he revealed the information to Novak inadvertently, Novak stated that he thought the leak was deliberate.

The key point, however, is that although President Bush denies instructing Armitage to leak Plame’s name, and in fact promised to fire anyone in his administration who broke the law by unmasking a CIA officer,  his critics argued then, (and continue to argue today) that he in fact authorized the leak as retribution for Wilson’s op-ed piece.

And this, of course, is exactly the issue Obama will confront, particularly if Congress begins an official inquiry into the matter of national security leaks.  If one of Obama’s political aides did, in fact, leak classified information regarding cyber intelligence, it will hardly matter whether Obama authorized it, or knew of it, or not.  The political and legal repercussion will fall squarely on his shoulders.

Let me be clear – the motive for these acts is usually not political venality, or criminal stupidity so much as misguided zeal to carry out the president’s mission; White House aides are particularly susceptible to being more “holy than the Pope”, as presidency scholar Richard Neustadt once put it.  When one is deeply committed to the cause, it becomes all too easy to step over a line, particularly when that line is somewhat fuzzy and indistinct.  Note that Armitage was never prosecuted for his leak, in part because of the difficulty in determining whether he had committed a crime.  However, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, an aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, was found guilty and sentenced to 30 months in prison for covering up his discussions with reporters about the Plame affair.

With these examples in mind, I find it perfectly plausible that a high-ranking Obama official, convinced the President’s action in keeping this nation safe has been underappreciated, and wanting to do everything possible to insure his reelection, may have released some classified information to a reporter in the process of providing background material to a story.  Do I know this happened?  Not at all.  But if it did, we should not be surprised.  It wouldn’t be the first time – and it likely won’t be the last.

Meanwhile, our own Danny Zhang was at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas campus yesterday (Danny’s working on a campaign out there) and caught the President up close and personal, working the rope line.   There’s no truth to the rumor that Danny took the opportunity to advise Obama to read the Presidential Power blog, but Danny did remind me that “It’s great to study American Politics in America!”

Why Walker Won, and What It Means For Obama

It should not surprise those who participated in last night’s live blog of the Scott Walker recall election  to hear me say that, contrary to what much (most?) of the pundits are saying today, I believe Walker’s victory has very little national implications.  In fact, I believe his victory was rooted almost entirely in local factors pertaining to Wisconsin that will have little bearing on the 2012 presidential election.  I’ve discussed some of these points in the latest professor pundits’ video with my colleague Bert Johnson, but I want to develop them here.

The most important point to realize about yesterday’s election is that it was, in essence, a replay of Walker’s 2010 victory over Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. As this chart shows, the breakdown of voters indicate that Walker depended on almost exactly the same coalition that voted him into office 19 months ago.  The only significant change was an increase in turnout – about 2.4 million people voted in yesterday’s election – a shade under 60% of eligible voters –  easily besting turnout in 2010, but coming nowhere close to turnout in presidential election years.   In short, this was a hotly contested election, but despite the influx of outside money, the role of issue activists, and the extensive media coverage, the underlying fundamentals did not change appreciably from 2010.  Despite all the hype, Wisconsin voters proved relatively immune to outside influences.  In short, this was deja vu all over again.

Note that the media made much of the increase in turnout among those whose family included a union member from 2010, but what they failed to recognize is that Walker won the vote of more than a third of union households.  One reason he did so, I believe, is because most Wisconsin voters did not see the recall movement as an appropriate mechanism for responding to what was essentially a political dispute. Fully 60% of Wisconsin voters, according to exit polls, believe recall votes are only appropriate for reasons related to misconduct in office.  Walker had pushed precisely this point during the recall campaign, and evidently it resonated with most Wisconsin voters.

The second factor in Walker’s favor is that during the last year, Wisconsin’s unemployment rate – already below the national average – had actually dropped from 7.5% to 6.7%.  So he had a strong economic record on which to run – a record that looks even better compared to the national unemployment record.  We can debate how much of the reduction in unemployment is attributable to Walker, but the bottom line is that most Wisconsin voters felt they were better off, economically, under his stewardship.

Finally, Walker benefitted by who he was running against: public sector labor unions.  The plain fact is that labor unions – never as strong in the United States as in other nations – have been steadily losing members and political clout for decades.  In this respect, Walker chose his enemy well.  Only 17% of those who voted in the recall election were union members.  While it is true that, based on exit polls, 51% of Wisconsin voters have a favorable opinion of unions for government workers, 52% of voters approved of how Walker “handled collective bargaining”.   Similarly, 52% of voters approved of “limiting collective bargaining for government workers.”   That issue was the heart of the recall campaign, and in the end Walker was on the right side of the issue, politically speaking.

But, you ask, what about the influx of outside money?   Didn’t the fact that Walker’s supporters outspent Barrett by about 8-1 indicate that outside money made the difference here?  I don’t think so.  Consider that fully 86% of Wisconsin voters had made up their minds regarding their vote prior to May 1.  That means the huge influx of money, and the massive advertising campaigns during the last month had almost no persuasive effect, although they may have influenced turnout.  In the end, however, despite the huge influx of money, and the spending disparity, this election was almost an identical reprise of the 2010 contest.   Progressives may comfort themselves by saying they lost because they were outspent.  But the evidence, in my view, does not support that assertion.

Let me be clear – I am not saying that yesterday’s results have no national implications. I suspect they send a clear signal to governors in other states who are grappling with budget deficits that attacking collective bargaining rights may not be as politically costly as they once thought.  It is also probably the case that Romney made decide that Wisconsin – which Obama won easily in 2008 – is now a potential battleground state worth investing time and money in.  But keep in mind that yesterday’s exit polls showed Obama besting Romney by 51%-44%.  That suggests that while Republicans may have made inroads in Wisconsin, this is still a state that leans Democratic in presidential elections.  It is not even clear to me that we can classify this as a battleground state as yet.

In the end, what I am cautioning against is the type of reaction typified by this article claiming that Walker’s win reshaped the presidential electoral map, or Romney’s claim that the Wisconsin results will reverberate outside the state.  Despite the extensive media coverage, I think that the recall election in Wisconsin is primarily a local affair with predominantly local implications, and that efforts to paint it otherwise are ignoring the evidence.

So, who is the big loser in yesterday’s recall election? In my view, it is the pundits who persist in drawing national lessons from what was essentially a local affair.

Live Blogging the Celtic…er….Walker Recall

Like most of you, I’ll be watching the big event tonight to see whether the forces of Good can pull off an upset and triumph over the Evil One and his Dastardly Minions. That’s right – I’ll be watching the Celtics-Heat game which has developed into one of the most unexpected and enjoyable series I’ve seen in a long time.

Of course, there is that other contest going on, so periodically – if the Celtics game allows – I’ll try to post as the returns in the Scott Walker Wisconsin recall vote come in tonight.  If polls are accurate, this may be a somewhat long night, particularly since even if Walker finishes ahead, Democrats are likely to contest the count.  Polls close at 9 p.m. eastern time (8 p.m. in Wisconsin.)  Fortunately, there will be exit polls tonight, so we will have something to talk about while waiting for the final results.

Until then, however,  you will undoubtedly be inundated with media chatter from pundits who, in the absence of hard news, have to say or write something.   Here are some things to keep in mind to help keep some perspective on things as you wade through the blather.

1. There’s been a great deal of speculation that turnout will be massive, breaking all sorts of records.  While I’m confident it will break the 49.7% who voted in the 2010 gubernatorial election in which Walker beat his current opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, by 5%, I would be surprised if it was more than a typical presidential election year turnout.  In 2008, about 69.2% of eligible Wisconsin voters cast ballots.  But recall elections are unusual enough that I don’t feel particularly confident in projecting a vote.  Nonetheless, I am skeptical that turnout will hit the 119% of eligible voters that was projected earlier today for Madison. (With same-day registration, I suppose it is possible, but… .)

2. What are the implications of all this?  In my view, they are not nearly as big as most of the pundits will have you believe.  I think the results will say almost nothing about the 2012 presidential election nationwide.  That will be about two candidates, and the economy, not union rights, will be the determining factors.  Nor, for that matter, will it be a very good indicator of the presidential race in Wisconsin.  Walker has outspent Barrett by some 7-1 – that’s not going to happen to Obama come November. This will not stop breathless reporters from claiming that this is a referendum on something, of course.  But I just don’t see it.  I suppose it may say something about how elected officials in other states will deal with collective bargaining issues in the months ahead.  But this is really a local recall election that centers on Walker’s handling of collective bargaining rights, and not much more than that.

Of course, the local implications are significant, but even here they can be overstated.  Keep in mind that it’s not just Walker’s future that is at stake; Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, along with  four Republican state senators, is also facing a recall today. Although Republicans control the Wisconsin State Assembly, the Senate is currently evenly divided between the two parties. But even if Democrats win some of these Senate seats, half of the Senate and all the Assembly seats are up for grab again in the regular November elections, and under district lines recently draw by the Republican-controlled legislature. So a Democratic Senate majority could be short-lived.

3. Exit polls.  Already pundits are trying to parse the exit polls that have been released.   Pay no attention!  Given the uncertain turnout projections, the early leaked numbers are undoubtedly going to be tweaked as turnout estimates are revised.

Just to make it interesting, my sense is that Walker will win this, but I say this without really having any feel for the Wisconsin political landscape.  But for those keeping track at home, I’ll say Walker takes this.

I’ll be on periodically through the night as returns filter in.  As always, feel free to drop me a line in the comments section .

And now: Go Celtics!

More in a bit…..

8:46  well, the Heat have come out energized and Bosh is active for the game.  I think this is going to be more exciting than the Wisconsin results.

8:50  Celtics are weathering the initial onslaught.  Which raises the question: why didn’t Obama campaign in Wisconsin for Barrett?  My guess is that, having been burned when he intervened in the Ted Kennedy replacement race only to see Scott Brown pull an upset, Obama doesn’t want to end up on the losing side again.  It’s not like he was going to polarize an already incredibly polarized race.

We’ll be watching the returns on CNN.  It will be worth it to see Wolf hyperventilate.

Meanwhile – and I caution that these are preliminary exit polls – it looks like the ideological makeup of the Wisconsin electorate today is very similar to what we saw in 2010 there, when conservative turnout was up.

Miami’s energy level is way up this game, and Bosh is in.  But the Celtics haven’t folded yet.

Interesting that a strong majority of voters made up their mind before May.  Is this going to be a reprise of 2010, with Walker eking out a victory?

And here’s Wolf!  Breaking News!

It’s too close to call!  I’m shocked, shocked I tell you.   Wolf tells us that at 50/50, “it doesn’t get much closer than this.”  You think?

Both teams are really sloppy tonight. Bosh looks loose, however.  Damn.

Note that exit polls do not include absentee ballots which made up some 12% of the total vote tonight, if I’m not mistaken.  In other words, exit polls aren’t going to tell us much more than we already know, which is that this is close.

What – Piers is on CNN and they are talking about the Queen’s jubilee!  By the way, apropos of my earlier post, Pete Cahill tells me there’s move coming out in which Bill Murray plays FDR during King George’s 1939 visit.  I’ve seen the trailer – it looks great!  They even have the hotdog story right….

Meanwhile, the die is cast: whoever loses tonight will call for a recount, so this means tonight is not going to determine anything.  Which gives us all another excuse to watch the Celtics.

This is where my ignorance of the Wisconsin local landscape is going to handicap my analysis – it’s going to be a lost of guessestimating projections as returns roll in.

Ah, Huffington Post to the rescue. Go to: http://elections.huffingtonpost.com/2012/wisconsin-recall-results#graph to see a comparison of 2010 results with the vote coming in now. Early returns show Walker doing better in those counties he won in 2010.

Let’s keep in mind that exit polls have a margin of error – a 50/50 result could mean Walker is actually up 4% – or down.

Meanwhile, the Celtics are just climbing back in through sheer effort.  Garnett is The Man.

So, let’s while away the time by comparing 2010 and 2012 exit polls, keeping in mind margin of errors.  First independents are up from 27% in 2010 to 31% of the electorate today, while Democrats remains essentially flat and Republicans drop 3% from 36% to 33%. Conservatives are down 3% from 37% to 34%, while moderates are up slightly from 42% to 44%. Really not much change in terms of the ideological makeup from 2010.

All this makes me think the exit polls are underestimating Walker’s support just a bit.  Remember, this guy beat Barrett head to head less than two years ago.  And 88% of voters made up their mind before May – how much volatility is there, really?

More 2010-2012 comparisons:  those earning more than $100,0o0 up from 16% to 20% of electorate.  Low income earners, meanwhile (under 50,000) drop from 42% to 39%.  A good sign for Walker?

Celtics finish strong at the half! 42-40!

Ok, they adjusted the exit polls.  Remember I warned you about this- with turnout projections difficult to make, my sense was the early exit polls were less reliable than we might think.  They now have Walter winning by 4% – almost precisely mimicking his 2010 victory.  Is it deja vu all over again?   Remember, if he wins by a big enough margin, there’s no recall.

And now NBC is projecting a Walker victory! (thanks Jeff for the news….)  And now Fox News is piling on….looks like Obama made the right choice…

Ok, let’s wait for the overreaction to set in, particularly if Walker pulls away.  Although as Jeff notes, we are still waiting on Madison, where turnout was projected at 119%!  Stuff that ballot box!

Meanwhile, the Celtic-heat contest is proving far more competitive. By rights the Celtics should be dead.

First overreaction courtesy of Howard Fineman who tweets “bad news for Dems, unions and Obama”.  Here we go….

Look, this is what this election was about:  unemployment in Wisconsin has dropped since Walker took office,  support for labor unions is generally dropping, and Walker was on the right side, politically speaking, of the collective bargaining issue.  That’s what this election was about – nothing more.   This says almost nothing about what is going to happen in 2012.

Meanwhile, the Celtics are doing a good job of keeping the crowd out of the game.

Look, a lot of people are pissing on the exit polls, but as I warned earlier tonight, they have to be adjusted as turnout figures are firmed up.  There’s nothing wrong with the exit polls – the fault is with those who rely on them without noting that they will be adjusted to compensate for changing turnout figures. keep in mind that turnout in recall elections is very hard to predict.

Miami is on a mini-run – up 7.

The White House is tweeting Wisconsin exit poll numbers showing Obama beating Romney by 12%, but that margin will need to be adjusted as well.  I wouldn’t be using exit poll results to claim victory when your guy is getting trounced.

Same for Romney – his campaign is tweeting that Walker results will reverberate beyond Wisconsin.  sigh.

Celtics continue to hang tight.  Steimsma doing a good job but Garnett back in and …… He brings it home!  The crowd is stunned…Tie game!  Celtics ball!  They’ve never led….Dooling for three….YES!  Celtics on a 15-1 run…..who would have thunk it?

Larry Sabato is the latest to jump on the exit polls.  Let me repeat: exit polls have to be adjusted as turnout figures are recalculated.  The error here is not with the exit polls, which always have a margin of error – it’s with the pundits who don’t understand how they are developed.

Pierce hits for three!!!  Celtics by 6.

Horrible foul just called on Garnett. Huge flop by Wade, and the refs buy it.

The Washington Post’s The Fix purports to explain Walker’s victory.  Not surprisingly, they get it wrong.  Walker’s victory had little to do with the money advantage, Barrett’s primary fight, or resentment against Milwaukee.  The reality is that since Walker took office unemployment is down (albeit slightly), support for public sector unions is declining nationwide, and most voters saw this a reprise of the 2010 election.  The fundamentals favored Walker, as I noted at the start of this blog.

Pietrus!

How did Allen miss that three?

With 70% of the vote in, this isn’t even close – Walker is up by 15%.  I’m guessing this will close a bit, but it is still going to be a drubbing.

Celtics are hanging tough.  You have to love this team.  Down one with three to go….and Garnett hits!

This is probably not the time to remind readers that I called this one for Walker.  In truth, I didn’t think he’d win by this much (assuming his margin doesn’t collapse in the next two hours).

Jeff Van Gundy suggests Pietrus should be fined “a million dollars” for flopping.  This is simply a great game.

PIERCE!!!!!!!

Ok, this is clearly off Miami.  But will the zebras make the right call?   Yes, they do!

And now they miss the offensive foul on Wade  – a  clear home-court ruling.

15 seconds left.  Miami has to foul.  Here’s where it’s important to get the ball into Pierce’s hands….

They foul Allen.  Normally, I’d be confident….. but the Ankle.  Can he hit his free throws?  YES!

This one should be over…..  . I see the Fat Lady clearing her throat but….Garnett is clearly fouled.  He hits the first.  And hits the second…. this should do it…’

An it does! The Celtics Win!  Break out the single malt!   The Celtics Win!

Celtics have not lost a game 5 in the Big Three Era.  That’s the fundamentals.

Meanwhile, with 88% of the vote in, Walker is still up 9%.   This is going to be a comfortable victory.   Meanwhile, if Miami loses game 6 – what will happen to James-Wade-Bosh?

I’ll be on tomorrow with the postmortem.  But the bottom line tonight is that Walker won because of local factors – not national ones.  Don’t over interpret the results in terms of national implications – the outcome here had little to do with money or national factors.  Remember, 88% 0f voters had made up their minds before May – this suggests the onslaught of late advertising didn’t have much of an impact.  My read is that this turned on local fundamentals: the incremental improvement in employment and the opposition to public sector unions.  In many ways this was a reprise of the 2010 gubernatorial election.   With 90% of the vote in, it looks like Walker has reprised his 2010 election victory.  This suggests that the fundamentals drove this outcome.

For now, it’s time to relish the Celtic’s victory.  I’ll be on tomorrow with an update based on the final results.

Go Celtics!

 

 

God Save The President?

Part of American’s fascination with the extended and lavish celebration of Queen Elizabeth’s 60 years on the throne is rooted, I think, in the lack of any equivalent royalty in our country.  (I don’t count King [Lebron] James.  Particularly after Sunday’s dismal overtime performance and subsequent whining about the officiating. Nor the Kardashians.  Maybe Elvis but, alas, he’s left the building.)  Indeed, our Constitution explicitly prohibits the government from conferring royal status on anyone; Article I, section 9 states that “No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States.”   That prohibition reflects  a core element of the American political creed – the idea that we are all social equals.  Americans tend to believe this, at least as an aspiration.   And it’s why our political candidates spend so much time trying to convince us that they are just regular people, even when they are not.

A less well appreciated aspect of that prohibition against titles of nobility, however, is that we have no equivalent of the Queen in our country – no nonpartisan figure who can serve as a unifying symbol of the country.  The public embrace by the British of their Queen during these last few days reminds us that despite their foibles and other all-to-human qualities, the royals – particularly the Queen – embody national sovereignty.  The British don’t ask God to save the Prime Minister, after all.

Lacking royalty, we have entrusted the head of state functions to the one person that, by virtue of having a national constituency, comes closest to embodying national sovereignty: the President.   The combination of the two functions  – chief executive officer of the government and head of state – within one individual can be, under certain circumstances, a potent tool that enhances presidential power. This augmentation of presidential power is most likely to occur when the president’s political preferences align with the national interest, as defined by a vast majority of the people.  Under those circumstances, the president’s actions are perceived to be addressing broader issues than mere partisan gain – even when they also help the president politically.

A case in point is President Clinton’s nationwide speech in the aftermath of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing by Timothy McVeigh, a right-wing antigovernment extremist.   At that point in his presidency Clinton was fighting for his political life due to the historic Republican takeover of Congress in the 1994 midterm elections.  Clinton’s speech eulogizing the victims was part of the national mourning process. In his book POTUS Speaks, Clinton’s speechwriter Michael Waldman writes, “For many people, during those days, for the very first time,  [Clinton] truly became a president.”  But , as Waldman also acknowledges, the speech gave Clinton political leverage: Clinton “saw the political opening the bombing had created, for while Timothy McVeigh was planning an anti-government explosion in the heartland, the Republican in Congress were planning an anti-government “Republican Revolution” in Washington.”  For Waldman, the Oklahoma City speech was a turning point in Clinton’s presidency – the moment when he used his ceremonial duties to enhance his political prestige.  We can quibble with the relative impact of the Clinton speech versus a strengthening economy in explaining Clinton’s political resurgence (I’ll take the economy), but Waldman’s larger point remains:  presidents can gain politically when they perform the ceremonial functions associated with serving as head of state.   George W Bush found this out in the days immediately after 9-11.

But there are risks inherent to performing these ceremonial functions, as Barack Obama found out when he gave this speech in January 2011 eulogizing the victims of the Arizona shooting.

Although Obama’s  speech was generally well received, the event became caught up in a larger partisan-tinged debate regarding whether Sarah Palin’s heated rhetoric along with her infamous map putting gunsights over congressional districts she was targeting had somehow created a climate that contributed to the Arizona shootings.  Given those partisans overtones, some critics suggested that Obama’s speech was  more a political pep rally than a eulogy.  The debate diminished some of the impact of Obama’s speech by casting it in a more political light than he likely intended.

It is also the case that the President’ s head of state function can serve to further U.S. national interests abroad.  Perhaps the most famous example occurred during FDR’s presidency when, on the eve of World War II, King George VI  became the first British monarch to visit the United States.   By inviting the King, Roosevelt hoped to personalize the British monarchy, thus bolstering domestic support for stronger ties to Great Britain.   The visit was an unbridled success as crowds lined the streets of Washington DC to watch the King and Queen as they visited national landmarks including the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

The highlight of the four-day visit, however, was the picnic the President held at his home in Hyde Park, New York.  There, in a distinctly American touch that horrified some, the President – no plebian, mind you – served the Royals hot dogs while sitting on the front porch of a Roosevelt cottage.  Here’s the lunch menu, according to the FDR Library website:

 MENU FOR PICNIC AT HYDE PARK
Sunday, June 11, 1939

Virginia Ham
Hot Dogs (if weather permits)
Smoked Turkey
Cranberry Jelly
Green Salad
Rolls
Strawberry Shortcake
Coffee, Beer, Soft Drinks

To their credit, the King and Queen seemed to enjoy the fare, and the visit more generally, as this telegram indicates.

More importantly, the visit helped win over the American people so that when three months later Great Britain declared war on Germany, Roosevelt had stronger – although certainly not unlimited – domestic support for intervening on the British behalf.

By virtue of serving as head of state, then, a president can, under certain circumstances, enhance his political standing.  But there are risks to engaging in these functions if the public perceives them as primarily motivated by political interests.  Rather, they are most potent when they flow naturally from the functions we associate with being head of state, rather than as leader of a political party.

In contrast, precisely because her actions are not tinged by partisan considerations, the Queen’s ceremonial functions are both more important and more accepted by almost all of her subjects.   She truly does embody national sovereignty in a way that American presidents cannot.

Perhaps Johnny Rotten, of the Sex Pistols, put it best in their best-selling song “God Save the Queen” released during Queen Elizabeth’s silver jubilee in 1977:

“God Save the Queen.  She Ain’t No Human  Being.”

Ok, maybe not.